While many DAWs now come equipped with their own highly-capable solutions for creating authentic-sounding acoustic drum tracks, there remains a large market for third-party products that contain high-quality, editable kits and drum grooves that can be used to trigger them.
These are the products that are often referred to as drum samplers. As their name suggests, they're powered by samples of real drum and cymbal hits, and are designed for producers, songwriters and other musicians who want the ultimate in tone-shaping flexibility.
We should reiterate that a drum sampler isn't the same as a drum machine plugin - we have a separate round-up of those - and is often (though not always) primarily designed to produce 'real' rather than electronic sounds. Of course, there are many drum kit sample libraries on the market, too, but the products we're covering here are all self-contained solutions that can operate as plugins and work straight away within your DAW (some will also work standalone).
If that sounds like the kind of thing you're after, read on.
NEXT: FXpansion BFD3
FXpansion's BFD has always been one of the finest options out there for realistic acoustic drum kit emulation - in fact, it was the first virtual instrument to even attempt to fully emulate all the depth and nuance of the real thing.
In a nutshell, the latest version, BFD3, comprises a collection of deeply configurable and virtually miked-up sampled drum kits, complete with a mixer and a vast range of effects, as well as a built-in groove sequencer that ships with a ton of fully editable prefab patterns.
With a redesigned engine, a leaner, more intuitive interface and new kits, presets and effects, BFD3 is arguably the finest software solution for creating acoustic drum parts that you can buy. It's seriously impressive.
5 out of 5
Native Instruments Battery 4
Battery fans had to wait a long time for version 4 - indeed, they might have been forgiven for wondering if NI was set to abandon it in light of the success of Maschine - but when it arrived last year, it became clear that the company's original drum sampler could still come up with the goods.
The familiar cell matrix is still here, but the interface as a whole has been redesigned to be more approachable and speed up your workflow. There are new kits - it's also far easier than it was to create your own - editing options aplenty and drag 'n' drop effects routing.
Battery may still look a bit more 'techy' than some of its rivals, but rest assured that if you want great drum sounds and plenty of tone-shaping flexibility, it won't disappoint.
4.5 out of 5
When it was launched, back in 2006, EZdrummer was designed for producers, songwriters and other musicians who wanted to create great-sounding drum tracks using a simple, no-nonsense interface and with the minimum of fuss. It delivered on this premise, and has gone on to become one of the most popular drum samplers on the market.
The drums are shown graphically, and can be clicked to be heard. You get both standard and Cocktail kits in the box (which equates to 5GB of uncompressed WAV files), and you can buy more as expansion packs. What's more, there are some 8,000 MIDI files included so that you don't even have to go to the trouble of programming your beats.
Factor in the kit piece mixer, control over the drum mics and the option to route each drum to its own channel in your DAW and it's not hard to see why EZdrummer has been such a hit. Version 2 is on the way in May, but if you buy version 2 between now and then you'll get it for free.
4.5 out of 5
Toontrack Superior Drummer 2.0
Superior Drummer is Toontrack's flagship drum sampler and, as such, not only sounds great but is highly configurable.
In terms of kit construction, S2.0 includes a few basic layouts, and beyond that you can also augment kits with so-called X-Drums. These are essentially extra instruments that you define and allocate samples and mics to - they then appear in the main kit window with a graphic.
Other features include a wells-spec'd mixer, a large library of MIDI grooves and flexible MIDI mapping options.
Although it enables you to go seriously in-depth, Superior Drummer 2 doesn't have to be difficult to use, and is particularly useful as a standalone sound source for your e-drums. It might be getting on a bit, but it still comes recommended.
4.5 out of 5
XLN Audio Addictive Drums
Addictive Drums has three main elements: a sample library, onboard processing options (accessed via the mixer and Edit/FX pages) and performance patterns. There's also support for e-drums.
Although at first glance the library might not seem to be that extensive (though add-on packs are available), the basic kit patches are complemented by about a hundred presets. These make use of the onboard processing and give you an excellent palette of sounds that goes way beyond a typical live kit. What's more, they're all fully editable.
While XLN Audio has opted not to include some of the more complex configuration options that you'll find in rival software, the upside is that using Addictive Drums is a breeze. It's definitely worth considering, and users of Cakewalk's Sonar should bear in mind that it now comes included with Sonar X3 Producer edition.
4.5 out of 5
Steven Slate Drums 4 Platinum
Previously powered by NI's Kontakt engine, Steven Slate Drums got its own bespoke player as of version 4, making an already-good drum sampler even better.
This gives you all the options you would expect: you can load preset kits, build your own, mix them, assign hits to discrete outputs, customise MIDI maps, load MIDI grooves and even load your own samples.
The mark of a great drum instrument is that it is flexible enough to fit many styles of music, simple enough to work with quickly, yet comprehensive enough that you can dive in deep and create your own sound. SSD4 fulfils all these criteria; after launching it for the first time we were programming a drum track within five minutes, having already built our own custom kit, assigned outputs and fiddled with the pitch of a few sounds.
SSD4, then, is a winner. Kits load fast, editing is very straightforward and the library sounds fantastic.
4.5 out of 5