In a sea of software and hardware, a handful of releases every year stand out. On the software side, one of the most promising is Rob Papen’s Punch. It reflects a number of trends in soft synth design – given a choice between sampling and synthesis, it choose both; 64-bit support comes standard; pattern sequencing is built in. But it’s worth examining for two reasons: one, independent soft synth designer Rob Papen has done some of the best work in recent years, and two, it appears to offer a rich set of practical features in equal measure.

The video above is quite extensive – one watch-through will likely tell you whether or not this is for you. But here are the basic features:

  • The Drums, The Drums… 2 bass + 2 open hat + 2 closed hat + 3 tom + 2 clap + 3 user.
  • Each drum can choose one of several synthesis models or samples.
  • Presets, Custom Samples. Load one of any number of presets and preset samples, or load your own sample content into the drum machine.
  • Lots of Per-Drum Control. Per-drum distortion, individual output busing, choke groups. These route together into a prerequisite Mixer.
  • Modulation. 2 envelopes, 2 LFOs, 8 modulation slots, for one of four effects units.
  • Sequencer. 16-step internal patterns, each with four tracks. Sounds useful enough, though for more complex rhythms, of course, you’ll want to turn to your host or another MIDI source.
  • “Easy” Controls. Each drum has what are in effect Macro controls, all MIDI-latchable, and various MIDI assignment options, as illustrated in the video. When you go from programming to performance mode, in other words – even as you work – you can quickly add hands-on control.

Mac + Windows, 32-bit + 64-bit, VST, AU (Mac), RTAS

Punch is not without competition. Native Instruments’ Maschine is becoming a full-fledged host and sampling workstation. Propellerhead’s built-in Kong drum machine offers a very similar brew of sampling and synthesis, multiple models, hands-on control, and routing and mixing – indeed, part of the appeal to me of Punch is that it does more of what Kong does in a plug-in form. Arturia’s Spark melds sampling, synthesis, and physical modeling, loaded up with vintage samples and models as well as newer ones. FXpansions’s GEIST is sample-based, but also worth a look. Audio Damage’s Tattoo focuses on synthesis and sequencing, at the opposite pole. Both Spark and Maschine also have their own dedicated hardware controller. That’s just a start among recent entries – I’m sure I’m forgetting half a dozen others. (Round-up candidates?)

But Punch is now shipping, and it looks like a balanced, logical approach to this. It’s also one of the more inexpensive options here – EUR149 / GBP125 / US$179.

For all the lusting after hardware drum machines, it’s tough to beat software options for flexibility, range and quality of sound, speed of editing, and cost. 2011 seems an especially good year. I think CDM will have to do a drum machine roundup soon. Tips welcome.