- Geist is a new drum sampler and sequencer from FXpansion, which runs as a standalone instrument or as an AU/VST/RTAS plug-in. FXpansion have been producing drum-related software since 1999, starting with DR-008, then moving on to BFD and Guru. Even at this early point, skeptics will question whether the world needs another drum sampler—most DAWs have their own take on the concept, after all, and there are plenty of established add-ons, like Native Instruments' Battery, and Spectrasonics' Stylus RMX. You therefore get the impression that this new FXpansion release will need to bring something new to the table.
Geist is structured with pads, layers, patterns, engines and songs. Mouse clicks or an external MIDI controller triggers the 16 pads, with up to 16 samples layered on each pad. Drum parts are programmed or recorded as patterns; they have 16 tracks, and can vary from 1 to 1024 steps, with step values from 1 note to 1/64th triplets. Patterns can be triggered by mouse clicks or incoming MIDI, and above those, there are engines, with up to eight of these active at any time, and each containing up to 24 patterns. Songs are the topmost level, featuring an arrangement timeline (more on that later). Geist doesn't host plug-ins, but it does have built-in audio effects, including distortion, compressor, EQ, filter and delay; these can be applied to individual layers (which is cool but potentially CPU-heavy), pads, engines and globally to the entire mix.
I ran Geist in standalone mode first so I could get a handle on setting it up and using it before complicating things with DAW integration. Geist is, basically, grey which might sound dull, but it's a lot easier to work with than the '90s-throwback-designs employed by some other plug-in producers. It supports up to 16 stereo audio channels, which is great for DJs and performers who want to cue browser content, or hear a click in their headphones. Multichannel outputs are also great for routing and processing individual Geist elements within a DAW. On the MIDI control front, a MIDI keyboard with drum pads is helpful if you want to get the most out of Geist. As well as triggering pads (and their layers) and patterns, and controlling effects parameters, MIDI can be used to navigate the browser, improving your chances of getting through a live show or studio session without reaching for a mouse or trackpad. Geist can also send MIDI notes and CCs out from the patterns to other software, in standalone mode, or if it's running in a DAW that supports VST MIDI out.
The 2 GB of library content includes celebrity presets from Goldbaby, KJ Sawka and Armin Van Buuren, amongst others. These'll give you some idea of what's possible with Geist; the library also includes very usable individual samples, kits, and patterns. Users of FXpansion's Guru (1.5 or later) can import their presets, kits and patterns, and Rex files are also supported. Separately from the Rex format, Geist has its own slicing functions, mapping slices across the 16 pads, and creating a MIDI pattern for instant playback and editing of the beat. If you want to combine elements from different kits to create customised setups, individual pads can be locked from the context menu, so they retain their current samples when a new kit is loaded—a nice way of managing this I thought.
In an attempt to force you into staying organised, a pad classification system puts kicks on 1-4, snares on 5-8, and so on, and the factory presets conform to this. When you add new samples, they're analysed and classified automatically, though this can be overridden if you prefer to do it your own way. The other way to build sample-based kits is of course to record your own, and Geist has its own recording and editing functions. It can also resample its own main mix or individual outputs for further sample bashing. I should state the obvious at this point, and mention that Geist doesn't have to be all about drums—you could transpose a bass sound across the 16 pads, for example.
Programming beats in Geist is going to be familiar to everybody, unless you've really never done any beatmaking of your own before. Select a pattern, and a number of steps and their note values, then start drawing in notes and automation (including velocity, effects and mixer control), or recording in from your MIDI controller. Once you've created a few patterns you can position them in the song timeline to build an arrangement, or use MIDI notes to trigger them and build the structure in real-time.
Alternately, if you're more the freewheeling individual off-the-cuff type, you could go to the scene page, and use the snapshot button to capture all of the currently-running patterns into one of 64 scenes; this means you can then use single buttons or MIDI notes to trigger and record combinations of patterns for spontaneous arrangement-building, giving Geist an Ableton Live-style functionality, and a further edge as a standalone production tool.
When it's running as a plug-in, you can choose to keep building beats in Geist, or send MIDI notes from the host sequencer. In Ableton Live, you can drag patterns straight into Session View slots to create MIDI clips, which allows you to really mix and match your favourite programming tools (if you want to export a pattern as a MIDI file, just drag the pattern from Geist to your computer desktop). A plug-in called Spitter is installed alongside Geist, and this can route audio from DAW tracks into Geist's sampler, so, even in plug-in mode, you can retain Geist's cool standalone sampling features.
Although, as I said at the top of this review, there's plenty of competition in the drum sampler market, Geist is a serious new contender. It has an understated, accessible interface that sits on top of deep creative editing functions. The basic concepts are probably going to be easier for beginners to grasp than those of Logic's Ultrabeat or Live's drum racks, for instance, but at the other extreme Geist comes close to being an all-in-one production tool, with its recording, editing and timeline arrangement functions. Because it can run as a plug-in or standalone you can keep a consistent interface no matter how you're working at any given time, or even if you move from one DAW to another. Folks already using a sophisticated DAW might not be sold on adding yet another content-heavy drum device, but if you're not already committed, then you should certainly download the demo and check this out.
Ease of use: 4/5