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UJAM Solid, Phat & Heavy Review at Sound On Sound

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Sound On Sound's Verdict: UJAM are perhaps targeting some specific types of music producer with Solid, Phat and Heavy. They may not be for everyone, but UJAM have hit their 'keep it simple' design approach to drum track production right on the head.

UJAM's Virtual Drummers may not come with their own van and annoying personal habits, but they're quick, reliable and always on time.

With a team including some of the original designers of Steinberg's Virtual Guitarist, over the last few years, UJAM have been bringing that concept up to date in the form of virtual guitarists, bassists and drummers. The latest releases bring significant updates to the three virtual drummers within their software-based session musician catalogue; Solid, Phat and Heavy. As the titles suggest, each specialises in a somewhat different range of musical styles, but they are built around the same front-end and underlying engine. So, if you are auditioning for a (virtual) session drummer, do UJAM have a suitable candidate?

Agents Of Groove?

While Steinberg's own Groove Agent has subsequently gone in a very different direction, in Solid, Phat and Heavy, UJAM are essentially reviving and updating the original GA concept, while also adding new features. That original concept was based around three key features; a solid set of sample-based drum sounds, a collection of style-based preset patterns that could easily be triggered to create a full drum performance, and a UI that emphasised efficient workflow rather than more forensic editing of the drum sounds and performances. UJAM have retained those design intentions here.

In terms of the first of these three elements, Solid, Phat and Heavy each have their own collection of five sample-based drum kits. Within a specific kit, you also get the option to swap between multiple snares, kicks, etc, allowing you to customise your drum selection. The second major element of each package is a sizeable collection of style-based pattern presets. Each of these presets contains a series of 23 related drum patterns, providing intros, patterns for verse or chorus sections, fills, breakdowns, endings, a few specials (extra groove variations) and a 'stop'.

The third element is the UI. This is straightforward, with the bulk of the controls displayed in a single screen. The top is dominated by a keyboard graphic that specifies how the sounds can be triggered. For the patterns, MIDI keys spanning C3‑B4 are used. All the patterns associated with the black keys (for example, the fills), when triggered, play back once and, if you have Latch enabled, the engine then returns to the previous main pattern. While patterns are in playback, the Mod Wheel can be used in real time to control the performance intensity. This essentially emulates a drummer playing softer or harder and, under the hood, uses MIDI velocity to trigger different velocity layers; it's a very effective tool for adding some life to the performance.

Opening the Micro Timing panel allows you to switch between normal, half-speed and double-speed tempo, adjust the push/pull feel, apply some swing and adjust the tightness (or otherwise) of the playing. This is all pretty standard stuff for a virtual drummer instrument but does, of course, both increase your performance options and allow you to dial in just how 'human' you want your virtual drummer to sound.

Keys C1‑B3 allow you to trigger the currently selected drum sounds manually, whether from a MIDI keyboard, electric kit, or your sequencer. This is great if you want to add further variations to a pattern, create your own custom fills, or simply create a performance entirely of your own. This section of the MIDI mapping also provides a very neat 'mute' option for use during pattern playback. You can, for example, use this to drop the snare or hi-hat out of a pattern for added variety in a breakdown.

In terms of user adjustments, once a kit is loaded, at a macro level, you also get six Mix Presets, each of which has its own sonic character. For example, in Solid, these are Smooth, Edge, Retro, Big, Power and Crush. Around the central logo, you also get the Amount and Slam controls. The former allows you to blend in just how much the Mix Preset settings alter the sound of the underlying kit, while Slam applies some overall compression. Things can get pretty squashed at extreme settings (if you like that kind of thing) but it's very usable at lower values.

The update to v2 provides some very useful further mix options, and I'll come back to these in a moment, but the overall control set remains compact and well-focused. If you just want to get a solid drum part together with a minimum of fuss, the workflow of Solid, Phat and Heavy will have some obvious appeal.

New For Two

So, what's new in v2? Well, perhaps the first thing to note for existing owners is that the new versions are fully backwards compatible with the originals; projects created with the originals should therefore work fine with these v2 updates. There are, however, four significant new features that will appeal to both first-time purchasers and updaters.

Top of that list is expanded collections of pattern style sets and top-level presets. Each title now contains 60 (rather than 30) pattern style presets, effectively doubling the number of included patterns. The top-level presets within each title — which pair a kit configuration with one of the 60 pattern style sets — have also been doubled from 150 to 300. For non-drummers, the pattern content of any virtual drummer is just as important as the drum sounds themselves; more pattern content to work with is therefore a very welcome addition.

Second, UJAM have added further options for tweaking the drum mix. The changes are all both useful and easy to use. The bottom-most section of the UI offers eight mixer channels, six for the instruments (drum types) — kick, snare, tom, hi-hat, ride, crash — and two ambience channels for overheads and room. As well as being able to adjust their relative balance, by selecting one of these channels you can access further controls for that channel at the very base of the display. For the instrument channels, this includes Type (choose between multiple kicks, snares, etc), Decay (for example, to tighten up the ring-out on the toms), Tune (adjust the pitch) and a Reverb send level. Solo and Mute buttons are also included. For the Ambience channels, you get a one-knob compressor and low-/high-cut controls to customise the overhead/room ambience sound. The contribution of overheads and room mics is often the gel required to glue an acoustic drum kit together so these controls are very welcome additions.

The Master section provides a master output level control, a drop-down Mix Preset menu (offering a small selection of different reverb styles), and a Reverb level knob. The Maximize knob provides another dollop of dynamics control, while the Saturate control does exactly what you would expect and actually sounds rather good.

The third new feature is provided by the Individual button. You can activate this for each channel (including the overhead/room channels) and, providing you also activate the appropriate extra outputs within your DAW host, you can then route individual drums to either the master stereo out or to their own stereo output. These individual channels bypass the Master section, but it does allow you to apply the full arsenal of your DAW's processing options to your drum mix should you so wish.

Fourth, and also very welcome given my comment above about the importance of the pattern collection in any virtual drummer, all three titles now support MIDI pattern drag and drop to your DAW. You can, therefore, drag any of the patterns available in Solid, Phat or Heavy to a MIDI track and edit them as with any other MIDI clip. You can then replay that MIDI either with any suitable sample-based drum instrument, including any of the other UJAM drummers.

The upper, dotted, sections of the pattern MIDI keys are where you can drag from and, rather wonderfully, the current Mod Wheel setting as you drag is used to scale the MIDI velocity data. You can therefore easily create multiple copies of a pattern with different MIDI velocities to build a more dynamic performance; very neat. Not unsurprisingly — but just to be clear — you cannot drag MIDI patterns back on to one of the pattern slots within Solid, Phat or Heavy; drag and drop only works in one direction.

Solid, Phat & Heavy?

While they obviously share a UI/engine, the three titles are different in terms of both sounds and pattern styles.

 

 

As a starting point for solid, studio-friendly drum sounds, Solid would be the obvious choice. In fact, given the five distinct kits, and the six Mix Preset starting points, sonically, Solid can easily offer you something for singer-songwriter, straight-ahead pop, funk, R&B, blues, rock and, with a suitable bit of added grit, into heavy rock. The pattern styles span various flavours of ballads, pop, reggae, funk, soul, rock with the occasional less mainstream options (for example, Soca, Train Shuffle or Country Waltz 3/4) also included.

 

 

While still based around acoustic drums, Phat is obviously targeted more at hip-hop, funk and R&B styles. As a result, the kicks are a little bigger and have more low-end boom, while the snares offer punch rather than crack. The pattern styles also reflect the greater dance/groove focus with lots of soul, funk, R&B and house-based options plus some classic rhythms within presets such as Bolero, ChaChaCha and Salsa. There are also a few presets based upon 3/4 and 5/4 meters. As a slight aside, if hip-hop, R&B and EDM are particularly your thing it's also worth noting that UJAM do have a family of three Beatmaker virtual drummers — Dope, Eden and Hustle — based upon drum machine-style sounds.

 

 

There are no prizes for guessing that Heavy has a distinctly 'rawk' flavour to both its sounds and pattern styles. I'm perhaps less convinced of it as a source for that super-tight, modern metal or progressive rock sound straight out the box, although you can get in the ballpark by making use of the new mixing/sound-tweaking features described above. In terms of style patterns, Heavy covers various types of rock including classic, blues, indie, grunge, stoner and garage.

Pass The Audition?

Could the UJAM drummers pass the audition for a role as your virtual session drummer? This is undoubtedly a case of horses for courses. If you are super-picky about your drum sounds, and the degree of control your virtual drum instrument offers, then I suspect products such as Superior Drummer 3 or BFD2 are going to be ultimately more satisfying, albeit at a higher price. Equally, if modern metal is your thing, products such as GetGoodDrums Modern & Massive might give you something more finely tuned to your sonic needs at a similar price to UJAM's Heavy.

However, that still leaves a potentially large audience of music producers who just want some solid drum sounds and performances in their projects with a minimum of fuss and a modest outlay. In that context, UJAM's Solid, Phat and Heavy are excellent contenders. The workflow is super-simple and, for non-drummers in particular, each of these products will let you create polished drum parts in less time than it takes to mic a snare. Songwriters will appreciate that simplicity and media composers facing deadlines will appreciate the speed. In that latter context, I'd happily use all three of these instruments in my own commercial work. My only other question is whether UJAM have a percussion-based title in development using the same engine? That would be a very useful addition to the series.

Pros

  • Remains super-easy to use even with the expanded feature set.
  • Good range of underlying drum sounds and expanded pattern collections.
  • New mixing, MIDI export and multiple-output features very well implemented.

Cons

  • Degree of sonic control may not suit the pickier of drum producers.
  • Heavy covers rock styles, but perhaps is not so strong for metal.
  • At this price, there's absolutely nothing else to criticise.

Original Article: Sound On Sound

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