Company Report - Simmons
The world's very first hexagonal Simmons drum kit was sold to a man on the Isle of Wight in 1980. He returned it a week later and demanded a refund. From that moment Simmons never looked back.
Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of market research. In the last year, most container lorries leaving Japan have had a new electronic drum kit on board. Though Dave Simmons was not the first to consider driving synth electronics from drum pads, his is the instrument the world has decided to copy.
In less than five years, this one product has passed from being spurned in the Solent, to being mimicked in the Pacific. It has also, quite remarkably, swollen to a massive 'three', the number of instruments the average rock writer is able to recognise and safely use in his reviews... "he played his Gibson"... "he played his Fender"... "he played his Simmons"... Now that is a compliment.
Simmons originally grew out of a company called Musicaid which operated in the late seventies as a wholesaler dealing in straps, cheap cymbals and Ampeg gear. One of the team, David Simmons, spent part of his time working on a series of analogue synth modules each 'played' by a drum pad. The electronics were not that different from the mono keyboard synths of the time, but concentrated on the percussive side of their sound capabilities — clicks, white noise, low bass thuds. The background note would rise or fall, depending on how hard you hit the pads, which had small pickups attached.
The first commercially available device was the Simmons Drum Synth (SDS)3 with its sound circuits mounted in a small coffee table of mahogany, triggered by two pairs of shallow, 8in wide Premier shells and heads. The note from the head didn't matter, it was only the volume (how hard you hit) that the attached pickup was interested in, shoving this information out of a DIN socket mounted underneath. There was an SDS1 and 2, but they never left the R&D garage. Musicaid sold a fair few, even though people first thought they were made by Premier.
In 1980, at the Over The Road Show instrument exhibition (an outsiders' rival to the big business Olympia music fair), a strange, hexagonal apparition occupied the corner of one small room. Each pad had a hard, shiny, black polycarbonate surface, mounted on two solid slices of chipboard glued together, with a small loudspeaker in the middle to act as a pickup. It had been sprayed Ford orange by Musicaid's local car accessory shop, and made a sound that drums might make if skins exploded on impact. The SDS5.
Reactions were typical of an X-rated horror — plenty of excitement mixed with a strong dose of cautious fear. "At the time we were offering to build the SDS5 in any shape," recalls Geoff Howorth, Sales Director, "and everybody wanted them hexagonal; any colour, and everybody wanted them black, but the truth was, nobody in the trade really wanted them at all. Dealers would say 'it's the most exciting thing at the show', great, how many do you want, 'er... none'. But the musicians who got to hear it, loved it."
Unfortunately, if none of the shops took one, the drummer in the street would never get to listen. Musicaid were in the position of trying to contact drummers direct and attempting to explain the sound capabilities of the electronic drum over the phone at a time when it meant no more than 'pew... pew' on record.
They built 15 chipboard SDS5s. Farseeing purchasers included Dave Stewart and John Keeble of Spandau Ballet. (The latter's was delivered in high secrecy to a railway arch rehearsal room, once the Simmons representative had been vetted. It was when Spandau were still wearing kilts...)
It wasn't enough. Musicaid folded, and in the winter of '81, dole checks were being shared out around a gas fire while drummers, phoning to say 'they'd just heard about this amazing drum kit', were being told, sorry, we've got no way of making you one.
But over two or three months, the calls kept coming in, so in February '82, six Simmonsers reckoned if they built 10 kits a month (working out of an old mill building where the stairs were so narrow they had to humanchain components up the levels), there would be enough interest from London musicians to keep them going. By the end of '83 they were making 400 a month, half of which were going to the States. So they killed it.
In the intervening two years, music and drummers had grown out to meet Simmons. "I think we were lucky that what was happening in music at the time was happening in music at the time," says Mr Howorth, deeply, nodding thanks to the New Romantics. "Spandau Ballet and Culture Club were like our ambassadors. Wherever they toured we had a flood of mail soon after asking 'what's the drum kit?'. Dare I be so presumptuous"... dare, dare... "to say those bands were also lucky that we were doing what we were doing at the time."
In one week seven of the top ten singles had SDS5 on them — the unmistakable boomf/thwack which Americans nicknamed British Beat. So why ditch the 5 at its peak?
"One of the main worries for us was that a sound which was so incredibly successful could only be destined to become incredibly unsuccessful. Now you can hear it on T. J. Hooker on Saturday nights — that must mean the sound's had it."
So Simmons made two moves, they produced the budget SDS8 to forestall Japanese competition, and they created the analogue/digital-sample hybrid of the SDS7, both with softer, rubberised playing surfaces. (SDS5 — most common complaint: surfaces too hard producing the so-called 'Simmons wrist'. Most lucid response: Terry Bozio writes in Modern Drummer that ANY drum makes your hands ache if you hit it harder than you have to.)
By the time the 7 and 8 were introduced, Simmons had at least opened the world to the idea of electronic drums. Hopefully, the French PA company that had persisted in trying to mike-up the 5's bass drum pad would knock that practice on the head. And of course, they were now firmly hexagonal — no more of the kits carved like skulls by London sculptor Colman Saunders. He made 12. One's in a Parisienne disco, one in Athens, one in Australia. The other nine? Simmons would quite like to know, just for the hall of fame.
Clinic tours of America and Japan broke into the two largest export markets, greatly assisted by the presence of Bill Bruford. "In America Steve Gadd wants to know what Bruford is doing." Geoff Howorth rattled the American public during the first demos by setting up SDS5s in shops, and taping the bass drum pickup to his foot. He tapped, the bass drum went thump, everyone wanted to know where the hell it was coming from.
One of the criticisms levelled at Simmons (by other not entirely disinterested, electronic drum makers), is that they bullheadedly inflict their views about percussion synthesis on drummers, without discovering drummers opinions at the R&D stage. In a two-tone answer Howorth says they do poll opinions, pointing to the £100,000 spent on the next generation of pads to approach an ideal feel, but had they listened too closely to expert opinion at the Over The Road Show, the SDS5 would have died at birth.
"We did it, we made it hexagonal, suddenly it's a standard and 52 other companies are trying to do the same." So? "Well, be nice to do the same with cymbals..."
But in the time being, there's the SDS9. The aforementioned 100 grand has produced a floating surface to mimic the feel of a drum skin, and a triggering system read by microprocessors to expand 'intelligently' the dynamic response. Very light, subtle sticking won't be lost. The greatest effort has gone into the snare which holds three distinct sounds in memory for snare, rim shot and cross stick, all digitally recorded. The pad itself contains two pickups, one for rims shots, the second for the 'skin'. For the rest of the kit, the toms are synthesised, and the bass drum is generated in software (matches a digital recording but gives you control over the click and bass elements of the sound).
The flat control box stores 20 factory pre-set 'kits', with room to programme another 20 of your own, and step through them with a footswitch. It's MIDI-ed to drive other synths or sequencers and has a built-in, programmable echo effect to produce its own rhythms.
But above all, the SDS9 takes a different tack from previous Simmons kits. First give the acoustic drummer everything he expects from his wooden shelled set-up, then supply the malleable electronics as a bonus. Exports may even re-open with the Isle of Wight.
Dave Simmons works on a synthesiser triggered by drum pads. After two prototypes he produces the SDS3 featuring two pairs of small Premier pads, each triggering a channel of electronics in a free standing box. Sound strongly based on percussive clicks and white noise. Later in the year releases the Claptrap — synthesised handclap in a box — it sweeps the nation.
The famous SDS5 is unveiled. Three shapes are put forward — hexagonal, heart and bat wing. Hexagonal is the easiest to build so is finished first for demonstrations at a trade fair, and becomes the popular choice. Surface is Polycarbonate, incredibly tough (also used in riot shields), and helps produce a fast, sharp trigger signal, needed by the electronics. Dave Simmons also likes its shine.
Heralding a new direction, Simmons unveil the SDS6 sequencer to drive drum synth modules, and program rhythms using a massive display of 256 LEDs. Within the pattern, chain and song capabilities, each drum 'strike' can be set at one of nine dynamic levels, and the memory dumped into a RAM pack.
Simmons go digital in the Rolls-Royce SDS7. A rack takes up to 12 modules, each with an analogue section for the SDS5 sound, and a digital recording of a real drum. Later in the year, the SDS EPB arrives, a unit that lets you sample your own acoustic sounds, store them in a chip and play them through the SDS7 or the new, self-contained SDS1 battery-driven pad that holds one sample. Pads are improved with softer rubber surfaces, and concealed mountings, and the SDS8 analogue-only kit appears at a budget price.
Major investment goes into producing the best playing surface electronic drums have seen. The new SDS9 features a floating head over injection moulded pads and opts for the electronic system best suited to each sound-analogue for the toms, software generation for the bass drum and digital recordings for the snare. SDS800 brings add on Simmons units to drummers at the most competitive prices yet.
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