D16 Group PunchBOX Bass Drum Synthesizer – A Heavyweight Contender
Welcome to another Music Nation review, this week we’re looking at PunchBOX from D16 Group, a kick drum sampler and synthesizer with powerful features any respectable producer should immediately be interested in.
(Review updated June 2022) For any type of music, particularly EDM and electronic genres, the kick drum is arguably the most important element, yet one of the hardest to get sounding right. The low-end range has plenty of competition from the guitars and synths in a mix, it’s difficult to create a punch sound without dominating or overcooking the mix.
Though not the only player in the market, PunchBOX features a cool visual layout that will appeal to producers familiar with their hardware counterparts. Personally, I’ve always spent way too much time getting the right kick mix on my tracks, to varying degrees of success if I’m honest, so I’m very interested to see what this can do for me. So, let’s get PunchBOX installed and fired up.
PunchBOX is a kick drum sample player and synth with a customisable, modular-style multi-FX section built in. A simple kick can be layered with up to three samples to enhance the body, click and top end, and then processed through up to four FX processors with a final limiter on the output. The installation process is a breeze, and it shows up in your VST instruments library once you’ve entered all the correct authorisation numbers.
A single kick instrument might sound a little unusual, but there are a number of such instruments on the market such as Sonic Academy’s Kick 2, Rob Papen Punch BD, and Vengeance Sound’s Metrum – all sharing a very similar structure. For modern music, especially EDM, the kick drum holds particular importance in the mix, but whether or not there is any major advantage to using a specialised kick instrument over a more featured, yet less focused drum machine is debatable, but there are some major benefits which will interest producers, mostly being able to sculpt signature sounds easily, better control of post-processing and more focused mixing.
PunchBOXs’ cool interface greets you with what looks like a Eurorack 500 series design, but maybe one from a very poorly maintained studio, all the facias look rusted and scratched – really neat stuff. You can freely drag and drop the FX section around (except the limiter), and the centre core drum generator section is modelled visually on the device it emulates. The device features the kick element from three classic drum synths – Roland’s TR-808, TR-909 and the tiny little TR-606 Drumatrix. In addition, you have a sine wave generator and a sample player loaded with over 1100 waves to choose from.
To the left of the screen is the ‘generator’ section featuring three extra wav sample players for click, tops and tools. Click is the initial sharp transient snaps that help give the kick definition. Tops are the high-frequency accents, for instance, a syncopated hi-hat, and the oddly named Tools are body tones that help shape the mid and low range. Each sample player features a hi and low pass sweep, stereo widening, pan, decay cutoff and sample tuning. Tops and Tool have the added sample offset control for adding more attack or even bypassing the initial transient totally and enhancing the tail section for interesting FX. Finally, a send dial regulates how much to send to the FX processors. A clever ‘Mixdown After’ LED can insert the dry signal into the FX chain and any point, allowing any FX after that point to be included in the dry signal.
In the FX rack, you have EQ, two types of distortion (tube and bit crushing) plus a multimode filter with 12 or 24db slopes. Finally, a limiter for reigning in the output. Full features considering this is just a kick instrument.
Starting with some presets to get a feel for the instrument, PunchBOX’s browser is well laid out with filterable results by type, genre and device. Auditioning through the whopping 800 presets is still rather tedious (I mean, they’re kicks after all), the filter system helps you round down the selection to more relevant groups once you know what you’re looking for. It’s impressive how many variations the designers can come up with for a simple kick drum. Saving your own favourite presets is essential for curating an everyday user list.
PunchBOX’s layout is a little goofy, having the core generator in the middle surrounded by FX on the right and generator samples on the left, but from a visual standpoint, it makes total sense. Your eye is immediately drawn to the centre where you start by choosing a kick machine closest representing your goals. Largely I found it didn’t matter too much what you started with since there are so many ways to process the signal flow, but if you’re a purist and prefer to only work with, for instance, 909 kicks, well you can start with that.
Moving on to the FX section, the two distortion modules are quite sophisticated and packed with mojo. The Bitcrusher has clever quantise and frequency dials that balance between sample breakup and filtered output. Reducing the quantise nicely digitizes your signal and the frequency dial acts like a filter resonance and cutoff together, while engaging the Resampling Filter option increases the resolution significantly. This is a great FX to fine-tune the character and of course, with a little DAW automation, you can achieve some dynamic movement.
The Distortion module features 6 clip shapes, which I have no idea what look like, but each features a unique character and requires some experimentation to become familiar with their output. The proceeding dynamic compression, preamp and low cut effect signal before the clipper shape dial, so a real balancing act is required as each step affects the previous and a large amount of tonal change can be introduced messing with these controls before you even decide on a shape. Finally, tone control for balancing dark or bright characteristics.
The EQ features tailored 5k high, sweepable midrange and 100hz low-end bands, and is fairly usable for pre-compression filtering. If you want something more precise a 3rd party EQ should be inserted after PunchBOX and used. The filter is rather unremarkable, but again well suited for kick drum processing. Last in the chain is the output limiter, which does well to reign in the instruments potential speaker smashing output while remaining mostly transparent.
In the Generators section on the left side of the interface, in what I call the embellishments section, you can layer additional samples to further thicken the overall sound. Labelled click, tops and tools to separate them by frequency, you can browse the included samples which each add further sound characteristics to the overall timbre. When sensibly applied, you can create surprisingly full-sounding results if you’re selective and subtle with the mix – you certainly notice the difference when they’re not there.
I particularly like the randomising function. When enabled, an orange overlay indicates elements of the device available to be randomised. Simply disable anything you want to keep, then click through to get fresh ideas. Neat system.
Each of the controls is MIDI assignable, as expected, plus a full MIDI map can be saved for future loading for all your default settings.
The big party trick for me is being able to import your own samples, this opens a world of options. They don’t even need to be drum samples, try a vocal line or synth chord for some cool ideas. Equally awesome is the handy export button which allows you to create a drag and drop wav bounce. You can drop the kick master directly into your project, then close the software to save on processing power, essentially making PunchBOX zero DPS requirements.
Of course, all the fun gadgets and nifty graphics in the world won’t save a crappy-sounding instrument. Fortunately, PunchBOX delivers beyond expectations here. The factory presets get mostly crazy, over-the-top results – but shows off PucnhBOXs capabilities well. Getting down to creating usable kicks from scratch is a breeze, though the tendency is to push too hard with all the processing you have available, merely because you have them sitting there waiting to play with. Creating massive kicks with huge sub responses is the easy part, coming up with something more reserved takes restraint.
PunchBOX has loads of character, even though you’re only talking about a kick drum. Being able to rearrange the FX modules introduced huge possibilities for creative applications. With the ability to import your own samples further opens possibilities for much more than simple eight-note loops.
While there are plenty of analog-sounding patches and samples, the vast majority are EDM focused as too are the processing FX. Using PunchBOX purely for acoustic-type kicks feels very overkill. At the very least I would try layering PunchBOX synth kicks under your acoustic recordings (or perhaps EZDrummer type arrangments) as a fattener. You can easily disable the core kick generator and use the embellishments and FX modules to add some serious processing to your kits.
While PunchBOX has some classic kick emulations included, the output results are far from anything you’d consider retro by the time you finish layering and processing. You could say it has vintage foundations, but the end results tend to wind up very modern sounding.
D16 PunchBOX is a complicated instrument with an unusual signal flow, yet surprisingly easy to navigate and use. The interface looks gorgeous with its time-faded and rusting modules and Bakelite dials. I just wish it could be upscaled, on our widescreen monitor it looks pretty tiny.
I love the sample import option. I’ve been bringing in my favourites from my loop libraries, even longer string samples and vocal lines which sound amazing once mangled through PunchBOX. Since the drag-and-drop export is so very simple, there’s no reason you couldn’t re-import the exported wav for even more processing if you’re nuts.
Somewhat over the top levels of flexibility considering this is just a kick instrument, but at the same time perfect when you’re using it. I kept thinking this would make a great snare and tom synth too, but technically it already lets you do this by importing your own samples. Though the processing modules are excellent, I feel they could have included a delay and reverb tailored for the kick.
While it’s hard to be overly judgmental on such an instrument which when you strip back to the basics is the most fundamental of all instruments, what’s more on trial here is the workflow. PunchBOX for me is the most successful of the available range on the market because of the compartmentalised layout and the signal flow that works like a real studio environment. It’s why I love Propellerhead Reason so much, a rack device with modelled physical knobs I can twiddle will always be more satisfying than digital readouts and graphs.
Will PunchBOX speed up your mixing? Probably not at first, but over time you will develop a collection of go-to kicks you can call on. And since you can easily drag and drop export your kicks to wav, there’s no need to have the program permanently chewing resources in the background – for what essentially means zero DPS loss.
Plenty of scope for creating a signature sound and huge….huge sub-bass slammers. Any serious producer of electronic music should have a kick designer, PunchBOX has a straightforward workflow that makes sense, sounds great and looks pretty amazing – I would put this at the top of the list.
For full details with purchasing options and a trial check out D16 Groups’ main website www.d16.pl
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