The latest example in what seems to be a new trend in miniaturised manually-operated drum kits is the Synsonics from Mattel Electronics. Although usually thought of as a toy manufacturer, Mattel have in recent years been expanding into digital electronics and computers. Despite this fact, some people are bound to see the Synsonics as a toy just as the EDP Wasp was seen as a toy on its first release.
Physically this interpretation is understandable, although in fact as was the case with the Wasp, nothing could be further from the truth. The Synsonics has a black plastic case measuring 8 inches by 9 inches by 2 inches high, with four grey 3 inch rubber pads taking up most of the top surface and a panel of 19 pushbuttons accounting for the final inch or so. A domino display of 5 LEDs occupies the centre of the playing surface and each side of the casing has a selection of controls and sockets.
On the left hand side a recess contains a minijack 9V DC power input and a 5-pin Din accessory jack, above which there is a thumbwheel tuning control for Tom Tom 1. On the right hand side a similar recess contains a stereo headphone quarter inch jack socket and two phono line out sockets marked left and right, above which is the thumbwheel On/Off volume control.
A sliding panel underneath the instrument allows installation of six HP11 batteries.
The Synsonics is specifically designed to be played using a pair of drum sticks: we used Premier military sticks which are reasonably short, to compensate for the small size of the pads, of an average weight, and lacking a plastic tip which isn't necessary for this application. That's not to say that the Synsonics has no 'feel' at all; the pads give a slight bounce-back, but not sufficient for rapid rolls or repeated flams. This deficiency is largely compensated for by the automatic controls described below.
Although the Synsonics uses standard piezo pickups beneath the pads, the construction of their mounting is much sturdier than first appearances would indicate and the whole unit can withstand very heavy treatment. This was amply demonstrated at the recent 'Hands On Show' by multikeyboardist/percussionist Patrick Moraz, who laid into the unit with a vigour which led the audience to look out for flying pieces of plastic; in fact the pads were not even marked.
Manual play is only one of several modes in which the Synsonics can operate. The four basic sounds in this mode are Tom Tom 2, a lowish pitched syndrum sound with a slight downward bend; Snare, a reasonable combination of an oscillator thump and a chiff of white noise; Cymbal, a slightly overlong burst of high-pitched pink noise; and Tom Tom 1, which is tuneable over a range of five octaves. This facility can take it through very high bird-call effects, disco drums and boobams down to an almost subsonic bass sound on which the built-in bend is less significant.
The final sound is Bass/Metronome, a fairly undistinguished thump which isn't really long enough to simulate a bass drum effectively. This can play automatically, the speed being set by two buttons which also serve to synchronise the unit to the same tempo as a piece of music. This is achieved by pushing the buttons together in time to the music; after a few repetitions the microprocessor takes an average of the times between beats and resets the clock to the appropriate speed.
While the bass drum can only play single strokes on every beat, the other sounds can be programmed to repeat two, four or eight times on any of the 16 beats in a bar. This is achieved by putting the Synsonics into record mode and using any of the three buttons assigned to each pad, which automatically produce these repetitions; if pushed in combination the buttons produce an assortment of rhythms on each sound including Rock (by pushing slow and medium) Waltz (medium and fast) Offbeat (slow and fast) and so on.
Within the limitations of the number of fingers the player can persuade to fit onto the control panel, these buttons in combination can produce some very useful patterns. The cymbal can be changed to a closed high-hat using the 'Accent' button, and this change is remembered by the microprocessor if desired. The three cymbal repetition buttons double as memory buttons, and the user can skip from one memory to another while playing; one difficulty is that no back-up is provided for the memory, whose contents are lost on switch-off.
All functions of each pad are indicated by the appropriate LED, the centre LED referring to the bass drum. If required the bass drum can be switched off during playback, and Tom Tom 1 used on a very low tuning. The bass drum can be played manually, but only with some difficulty, as the playback tempo tends to change if this is done.
After about half an hour with the Synsonics, the following modes of use become clear; Manual Play with sticks, Manual Play with Repeat Buttons, Unaccompanied Memory Play, Accompanied Memory Play with sticks or Repeat Buttons, Additive Memory Play (where the memory is left running and subsequently played strokes are added to the pattern) using sticks or Repeat Buttons, with in every case the option of using or not using the automatic Bass drum.
Clearly the possibilities are enormous. There are some problems — the cymbal sound is too long and blurs if repeated, the fastest Bass tempo is too slow for many applications, and there's no clock output for sequencers or arpeggiators. Unfortunately it's difficult to make modifications because almost all the work takes place inside what looks like a custom LSI chip, and there are no presets internally or externally to alter the sounds. However, if the basic electronic sounds, which clearly aren't intended to closely simulate an acoustic kit, appeal to you, the Synsonics gives as wide a range of operating modes as you could hope for. Whether it's interpreted as the first rhythm machine you can play along with, or the ideal aid in striking Kraftwerk-type poses, the Synsonics may be just what you've been waiting for.
The Mattel Synsonics is available from various retailers, including the London Rock Shop where it is priced at £99 inc. VAT. Contact LRS at (Contact Details).
Drum Machine Supplement