Do you turn pale at the thought of forking out for a Simmons SDS9? Do you go green with envy when friends show off brand-new Ultimate Percussion kits? Paul White's design for a build-your-unswer electronic drum hit could bring a bit of colour to your cheeks.
E&MM maintains relations with its sister magazine, 'Rhythm', long enough to bring you details of a DIY electronic drum system called the Syn-D-Kit. The designer has the details.
You've read the adverts, you've seen the drums on telly, and you've even played them down at your local High Street music shop. But each time you look at your bank statement, an electronic drum system seems further away than ever. This is not to say that the current electronic kits don't give value for money — most do. But quite simply, if you ain't got enough dosh, you ain't got enough dosh, right? Wrong.
Armed with a modicum of electronics skill (or a friend with a modicum of electronics skill), and a fair amount of enthusiasm, it should be quite possible for you to enter the world of electronic drums — even if you're stricken with chronic constriction of the wallet.
Designed here in the offices of the multi-national Music Maker publishing conglomerate, the Syn-D-Kit is an easy-to-build analogue drum kit, capable of producing all the contemporary electronic drum sounds — which means you too can play drums on the soundtrack to a TV cop show of your choice.
It has up to six fully-variable channels, with mono/stereo mixed or separate outputs, and the whole system fits neatly into a 4U x 19" rack-mountable case. It's designed in modular form, which not only makes it a doddle to build and test, but also allows you to construct one channel at a time, expanding it as and when finances allow. Additionally, you can also choose between buying commercially-made drum pads (a five-piece set of which we're running a special offer on) or building your own.
In order to keep costs to a minimum whilst retaining a high standard of performance, certain fancy items such as factory presets and programmability have been left out. Apart from that, Syn-D-Kit has everything you need to get on the road to electronic drum stardom. All you have to add is talent...
Construction is fairly straightforward and incorporates only two different types of circuit board — the 'voice' board and the 'master' board. As its name implies, the voice board generates the basic sound with one being necessary for each channel, and a maximum of six channels maybe assembled in the 19" cabinet. The master board contains a master volume control and its associated mixing circuitry, and also the power supply used to power the voice boards.
Wiring between boards is minimal, consisting as it does of a few straight wire 'bus bars'- though separate wiring with co-ax cable is required for the outputs, and there's also a little wiring to and from the transformer. As previously intimated, the Syn-D-Kit, is quite straightforward to build, but a certain amount of electronic knowledge has to be assumed, and I wouldn't recommend this as anyone's first electronic constructional project.
Basically, you'll need to be able to solder neatly, identify components, and be able to read the resistor colour code. Afterthat it should be plain sailing — providing you double-check everything thoroughly before switching on.
As far as tools go, you'll need (in addition to a soldering iron), a pair of side cutters, a pair of snipe-nosed pliers, and a drill (preferably electric). A desoldering tool would be a definite advantage, too.
There's nothing more frustrating than finding that half the items required to build a kit are unobtainable through commonly-accessible component suppliers. The best way of solving this would be for us to make available a complete kit of parts for the project, but sadly cost and logistics mean this just isn't possible. Still, we've come up with what we consider to be a very good compromise.
All the electronic components required to build the Syn-D-Kit are available from Maplin Electronic Supplies, who besides selling components by mail order, also have five branches in various parts of the country — so at least you shouldn't have to chase up and down looking for obscure ICs and the like.
The PCBs are available through E&MM, as is the 4U rack-mounting case and a self-adhesive control panel overlay, which gives the unit a very professional appearance; not only that, but all the holes are marked on it so you stand a good chance of drilling in the right places. Ordering any of these items also gets you full details on how to go about building and testing the Syn-D-Kit, plus a complete parts list — thus leaving as small a margin for error as possible.
Alright, so you've been tempted into giving it a go. What do you get for your money? Well, all the voice channels are identical and are capable of producing electronic bass drum, snare and tom-tom voicings, using the ingredients of tone, noise and stick click. Additionally, each channel has its own Sensitivity and Pan controls, but as panel space is scarce, these are preset controls mounted on the circuit board.
The panel controls themselves are Decay, Bend, Pitch, Filter, Mix, Click and Volume, the trigger input being via a quarter-inch jack socket. To the right of the front panel is the master volume control, while below this are the left and right master outputs, which provide a stereo mix of all six channels. Each channel also has its own separate output, which can be connected to a socket on the rear panel if required.
Most commercial drum pads (with the possible exception of Simmons) have a sufficiently large output to 'fire' the Syn-D-Kit modules, but the Music Maker empire, in conjunction with MPC Electronics, has arranged to supply sets of either red or chrome circular pads with a rubberised playing surface, and complete with stands and leads, at a very advantageous price to readers (see later).
In the interests of keeping costs down as much as possible without sacrificing sound quality, we've omitted such niceties as preset sounds and programmability. Which means you're pretty much on your own when it comes to setting up drum voices. Not quite on your own, though, because what follows is a brief guide to getting decent sounds out of your Syn-D-Kit without bother.
If you've used an electronic drum synthesiser before, you'll know that in addition to the jolly splendid sounds that can be produced, there is also an infinite number of quite nasty ones lying in wait to assault you whenever you're caught unawares. However, to design a drum synth that produces only good sounds would seriously limit its creative use, and above all else, the Syn-D-Kit is intended to be versatile.
The first thing that most musicians want to do with any drum synth is to get it to sound like a kit containing a bass drum, a snare drum and a number of toms. Sod the imagination: that's what a drum synth is supposed to do, isn't it?
OK, let's start off with the bass drum sound, as this isn't usually too difficult to get right. You'll need to plug the Syn-D-Kit into a decent amplification system if you're going to get a convincing sound out of it. An acoustic kit can put out the equivalent of a couple of hundred watts, so piddling little practice amps or Auntie Ethel's old gramophone are out. Likewise headphones which, unless you go for very expensive ones, tend to lack the punch to do the job properly — though having said that, they are ideal for practice.
Start off by setting the Pitch control to minimum, and use the Bend control to tune the sound. The Balance control should initially be set so that the output is all tone and no noise — you add the noise later. At this point, you'll have something resembling a dull, lifeless thud. Once you've got that far, you then have to vary the Decay time so that the thud becomes short and punchy.
Unless you are easily satisfied, the sound will still be unacceptable - that's largely because it has no attack. Using the Click control, add just enough click to give a convincing impact to the sound and things should start sounding a lot better — though you may well find things are still a bit too clean even at this stage.
The Balance control allows you to blend noise with the basic tone, and this can create the illusion of a drum head flapping, or in the case of the snare drum, of the snares vibrating. Additionally, the Filter control changes the tonal structure of the noise, and in the case of the bass drum, this should be set to give it a soft character.
To set up a decent snare drum sound, proceed in much the same way as you did for the bass drum, though setting the pitch higher, obviously; this is best achieved by using more Bend and slightly increasing the setting of the Pitch control. The sound of the snares themselves can be introduced by turning the Balance control until the noise is louder than the tone, and then tuning the filter to give the required brightness of snare rattle. Re-adjusting the Balance control to the optimum tone/snare ratio should leave you with a fair imitation of an acoustic snare drum.
Tom-toms also require that you begin in the same way you did for the bass drum - though you should try to get the pitches of the various toms sorted out so that there is a sensible interval between drums. It's possible to tune the toms using only the Bend control, but if this gives too great a pitch sweep, reduce the setting and raise the pitch using the Pitch control instead. The setting of the Noise filter can play an Important part in achieving a realistic sound, but your ear will soon tell you what is right on this score.
Don't add too much noise unless you specifically want an 'electronic'sound, but remember that a little noise can often help the sound cut through the rest of the music a band makes, for instance.
Decay time is also important, because if you set it too long, the sound will again be obviously electronic. Which is fine if you like that type of sound, but not so hot if you'd like something a bit more conventional. If you fall into the latter category, keep the decay times shorter and try adding a little reverb (if available) to improve sustain. As with all drum simulations, a short decay time will give you a tight, dry result that sounds more like a damped studio kit than a synthesiser.
Outside the conventional voices of a drum-kit, the Syn-D-Kit is of course capable of a whole range of weird and wonderful sounds. You may well end up feeling this is what it is best used for. Experimentation is clearly the order of the day here, and once you've got used to the controls (and it shouldn't take too long), you'll be able to set up your own sounds quickly and instinctively. If you happen to come across a setting that's so wonderful you think we ought to know about it, tell us and we'll give it a try and pass it on.
As the output from the Syn-D-Kit is electronic, effects units can be connected directly between the output and the amplifier, making sound treatment simplicity itself. Effects such as reverb, echo and flanging can be particularly effective.
Syn-D-Kit Prices Voice and output PCBs £4.95 each (includes parts list and assembly/testing instructions); six-channel overlay panel £4.95; 19" rack-mounting cabinet £22.95; set of five MPC drum pads including stands and leads, £149.95 (please state choice of either red or chrome). All prices include VAT and postage & packing. Please make cheques/POs payable to Music Maker Publications, or ring our Mail Order Department and quote your Access/Visa number. Please allow 28 days for delivery.
Feature by Paul White
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!