Industry Profile - Simmons Electronics
With new products flowing into the country from foreign shores at an alarming rate, it is difficult for British manufacturers to compete in, let alone dominate, their market. However, innovation in design is the answer to the Japanese threat, as demonstrated by the company featured in this month's profile, Simmons Electronics.
In just over a year the St. Albans based company has increased its production from 10 drum kits to around 200 kits a month, an increase of 2000%, and are now exporting all over the world, including Japan!
Currently, Simmons have 3 products: the ClapTrap, a handclap synthesiser; the SDS5, an electronic drum kit, which being modular, can be supplied in various formats; and the SDS6, a computer-based sequencer designed to drive the SDS5 drum voices (see E&MM February 1983).
Dave Simmons, the creative force behind the company, is also the only musician, and a keyboard player at that! He started learning piano at 7, eventually obtaining a grade 7 as well as playing church organ.
After school he joined Tektronics, where he was involved in building oscilloscopes. Four years later a move to the electronics division of Boosey and Hawkes found him servicing and modifying ARP synthesisers, Ampeg amplification and organs. During this time Dave was playing keyboards in various groups and developing his design ideas.
"I was playing in a group with a very talented drummer, Barry Watts, who was well into electronics as well. So I basically built something for him which developed into the SDS3." The SDS3 used conventionally shaped drum pads to trigger four identical synthesiser channels, and a two channel version, the SDS4, was developed later.
With the experience he had gained, Dave went on to develop a radically different drum kit, the SDS5. The SDS3 had four synthesisers which were intended to complement an existing acoustic kit whereas the SDS5 was intended as a complete replacement.
Initially, the kit met with some resistance from conventional drummers who were unwilling to adapt to the hard playing surface required to produce an acceptable dynamic range. However, those who were more forward looking and interested in electronics, such as Richard Burgess and Warren Cann, were quick to adopt the new kit.
Nowadays it is difficult to find a chart recording which does not feature the Simmons sound somewhere in the mix.
The company resides in an old mill near St. Albans Abbey, a rather quaint setting for such a high technology product.
Drum shells are constructed in an external building, a summary of their assembly follows:
Plywood, cut and shaped in the familiar Simmons hexagon with a custom nylon mount, is supplied by an external subcontractor. The nylon mount is mounted to the wood using rubber grommets which isolate the pad from the stand preventing cross-talk. A piezo pickup is then glued to the plywood, wires are soldered on and the assembly coated in silicon, to absorb vibration. Despite the fact that this area takes the most stick (!), failures are rare.
The plastic shells use come from another sub-contractor and are supplied clear. These are spray painted, on the inside to prevent damage to the coating. Custom colours can be arranged, but obviously add considerably to the final cost. Once the Cannon socket has been fitted and connected to the pickup the joint is sealed with silicon and the shell fixed to the plywood plate via 7 screws.
Sticking on the self coloured polycarbonate playing surface is next; this may seem a simple task, but it has taken about a year to find a reliable adhesive. Surfaces which retain acoustic drum 'feel', but which allow the incredible dynamic range a hard surface offers, are contemplated and are under development at the moment.
Lastly, an aluminium rim is screwed on which locks the whole assembly together.
Testing, cleaning and packing occupies a lot of time but as Mike Sear, the assembly manager, stated: "We are scrupulous about what we send out."
All the electronic work is done in the main mill building. PCBs are assembled externally by outworkers but are soldered in-house.
Each voice module in the SDS5 has two PCBs; one for the main circuitry and one to hold the Pots, LEDs and switches. When assembled the appropriate front panel is screwed on, spindles cut and knobs fitted. Circuitry for each drum voice is basically identical apart from a few component changes to limit the range.
Peter Jary, the production manager, explained how production has recently been changed to cope with 'through-hole' plated boards and flow soldering, which cuts down the failures that occur from 'pinned-through' boards and hand soldering.
A new line has also been started to cope with the new SDS6 computer-based sequencer assembly.
Moving upstairs takes us into the Testing and R&D department. A new piece of equipment which has been installed is the ATE (Automatic Test Equipment). This allows completed boards to be clamped in and put through various electrical tests within certain limits, via a menu driven system.
When complete, the boards are mounted into their enclosure and 'burned-in' for a few days. This process simply means running the equipment under extreme conditions. If a circuit is going to fail it will do so in the first few hours of operation under these conditions.
Dave Simmons is the sole designer and does most of the research and development. When we visited he was busy working on a new digitally sampled version of the Clap Trap. As a demonstration we were treated to a very realistic round of applause!
The company is only too aware of the hazards of standing still now that they have established a successful product, and plans are well under way for the SDS7.
As Jeff Howorth, the sales manager, says, 'As long as we keep developing we're going to lead the way for years to come.'