Simmons SDS1 Drum Pad
A single electronic pad with a handful of controls and an IC socket underneath it. It doesn't look like a recipe for tremendous excitement, but Paul White finds that there's more to the SDS1 than meets the eye.
Musicians yearning for some means of triggering sampled drum sounds percussively have now had their wish granted, courtesy of the people that started it all.
I suppose it's probably stating the obvious to say that although digital percussion has been with us for a relatively short time, it's already taken for granted in most modern musical circles. And as a consequence of this, it's both refreshing and surprising to find that the SDS1 reviewed here is more than just another 'beat and repeat' machine, and that some of the niceties of analogue systems - such as pitch-bend and touch-responsiveness - have been incorporated into its design.
In terms of physical construction, the SDS1 is built into a standard Simmons pad and uses the same method of mounting. The now famous hexagonal shell is vacuum moulded from an attractive but tough plastic, and this complements the rubber playing surface, which is itself bonded to a plywood backplate. A piezo-electric transducer translates the stick impact into a trigger signal, the amplitude of which is roughly proportional to playing intensity, and this serves the dual purpose of initiating the sound and controlling its level.
As you'll no doubt infer from the accompanying photo, the simple, elegant Simmons lines are broken in this instance by the addition of a miniature control panel, and this is used both to modify the basic sound of the sample and to house the EPROM currently in use. It's to their credit that Simmons have seen fit to provide a snug-fitting and drummer-proof cover to protect this otherwise vulnerable area during playing, and another nice design touch is an additional panel overlay containing upside-down graphics, for anyone wishing to mount the pad with its controls furthest away.
The unit can be powered either by four AA-type batteries or by means of an optional AC adaptor, and it's testimony to Simmons' appreciation of the finer points of the average drummer's character that they supply a spare battery compartment cap for when said drummer loses the first one.
In the control department, we find only six knobs and one switch, the latter being to select 64K or 128K to match the EPROM in use. There is no internal sound generator as such in the SDS1 because the basic sound is stored in the EPROM, but this may be changed in pitch and given pitch-bend in either direction, which represents quite a flexible approach. Additionally, there's a 'run' function that automatically sweeps the pitch by an adjustable amount during the course of a fill or roll. The run time is fully variable, and this feature can give the impression of several differently-tuned drums being played in sequence or even rototom effects, depending on how it's set up.
All sounds played via the SDS1 are touch-responsive, so that the harder you hit the pad, the louder the sound (and the more the bend if it's being used), but an external pulse from a drum machine or sequencer may also be used to trigger the sound via a mini jack connector if required. A red LED lights up whenever the pad is struck, and this feature alone would keep some drummers I know happy for hours.
What of the EPROMs themselves? Well, Simmons can of course supply a selection of pre-programmed sound chips, and this includes some excellent acoustic and electronic drum samples. However, you can also 'blow' your own sounds using a Simmons EPB (reviewed E&MM Jan 85), and it's surely only a matter of time before many companies start offering custom samples made from your own tapes if you can't afford to buy an EPROM Blower outright.
This opens up a wide range of possibilities for creating really off-the-wall samples, such as the sound of grass growing or the subtle nuances of a tax rebate dropping through the letter box, and the maximum sample storage time is long enough to capture conventional drum sounds with their attendent ambience, be it natural or artificial.
Further evidence that the SDS1 has been designed very much with drummers in mind lies in the fact that it's incredibly easy to use: in fact, Simmons have such confidence in this that they even let me take one away without a manual. Total familiarisation takes a matter of minutes, a far cry from the same process on the company's SDS7, which demands an awful lot of your time if you ever want to stand a chance of getting the best out of it.
Anyway, I was given an acoustic tom and an electronic tom to try out for review purposes, and both sounded excellent, the electronic tom being a typical Simmons analogue sound.
The pitch control offers around an octave of useful range but if you set said control a little lower than about halfway, the sound starts to break up due to the onset of aliasing and quantisation noise. This additional and apparently unnecessary range is probably designed to accommodate other library sounds that are sampled at a faster rate, because the quality of samples played back over their natural range is very good.
Pitch-bend down adds a further hint of Simmons analogue feel to the tom sounds, whilst bending up is useful for creating tabla-like effects, in which the skin is stretched after playing a beat to produce a drum sound familiar to visitors to Indian restaurants from Delhi to Wolverhampton.
Using the SDS1 to play sampled analogue drum sounds seems a bit of a daft idea at first, as its undeniably cheaper to build an analogue unit from scratch than to follow this rather convoluted path. So it wouldn't make sense to buy an SDS1 just to gain a 'Simmons' tom, right? Wrong. Because if you intend to build up a library of sounds, then this particular sound is surely well worth including.
EPROMs can be changed in seconds, and the zero insertion force socket makes this procedure very simple, though those not familiar with ICs must take care not to bend the legs, if you see what I mean. Manufacturers are forever advising you and me to store EPROMs in conductive plastic foam to prevent static damage, and also to switch off the power when we're inserting or removing EPROMs. There's no denying these rules are well worth sticking to, but 99 times out of 100, no harm will come to your chips if you forget to take them out before powering-down, so don't panic.
For me, the blend of digitally-recorded sounds with the facility to add pitch-bend and playing dynamics really works. The 'run' feature is a useful addition for special effects and fills, though I suspect overuse of this could get well up your olfactory organ.
At under £250, the SDS1 should prove a valuable asset to the acoustic drummer who wants the occasional unusual sound but equally, it'll also be just the job for the SDS5 or 8 owner who wants to add a couple of acoustic sounds to the electronic ones. I can't help thinking that a bass drum version would be a handy addition to the range (come on, Simmons, let's have some nice punchy samples) and I can also foresee a demand for an analogue unit following the same self-contained format.
Further Information from Simmons Electronics, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul White
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