Dedicated percussion sequencer
Now you can play your Simmons kit by hand or by machine... Chris Everard explains
Before I get into full swing and pass the point of no return, I think it is only fair to point out to any one wishing to try out the SDS6 with a view to actually purchasing such a beast that it is impossible to give every piece of information about the thing in such a limited space. Use this following article as a dipstick to see if it's indeed worth getting off your spotty behind to take a peek. Without further ado...
The SDS6 is a fully programmable 8-channel sequencer designed for use with the very popular SDS5 modular drum synthesizer kit/modules. The SDS6 has a matrix made up of LEDs which can give you information on the type of drum patterns, sequences and/or songs contained in the memory. Memory data is stored via a clever RAM card which plugs into a multi pin connector on the rear of the machine. This method eliminates the possibility of losing data due to cassette tape drop-outs etc.
Programmes are split into three main areas; patterns, sequences and songs. A sequence is a chain of patterns and a song is a chain of sequences. Below the matrix there are all the main function buttons and a keypad with a large red numerical LED display. All the important controls have a red and a green LED; the green lights up to show you what options you have, and once you have depressed a certain button a red LED lights to show you where you have been (clever innit?). Each channel has 32 steps to it, and the eight channels are positioned vertically with one at the top. Programming a pattern is simplicity itself — just follow the lights! Press 'programme', then lights will ask what you want to programme — pattern, sequence, or song? We want pattern, so when that is depressed you are ready to give the SDS6 the drum information. Any channel can control any module, for instance you can have channels one, two and three as Toms High, Mid and Low, or Bass drum, snare and cymbal etc. There is a button for each channel; hold it down while you press one of the 32 buttons spaced immediately under the matrix — each of these represents one step or one 'hit' of a drum. When you're pleased with the pattern and wish to store it in the SDS6's memory, push 'store' then 'pattern', give it a number via the 10 digit keypad and push 'enter' — your masterpiece is committed immediately into the memory, which can remember 99 patterns in all.
There is a loop facility on the SDS6 which enables you to do any time signature under the sun with the minimum of brain overload. You can also make short patterns step over in the same amount of time as longer patterns and vice versa.
Putting a snare drum into memory on successive steps tends to produce machine gun-style breaks common in a lot of 'scratch' style recordings. To get over this problem and make the snare sound as if it's being 'played' by someone who has slight variation in each hit of the skin, a programmable dynamic system can be employed on a scale of one to nine (1 = quiet, 9 = loud). This form of control is extremely effective especially when using Toms and Bass drums. Another feature makes the rhythms programmed into the SDS6 more 'human' — so it's called the 'humaniser'. When two or more Toms are entered onto the same step and the 'humaniser' is put into play it will produce 'flams'. The amount of 'humanising' is variable via a rotary control from fine to coarse. An interesting point to bear in mind about this function is that you don't get the same flam every time due to an internal circuit which produces random dynamics on each step concerned. This is the sort of design planning that other manufacturers should take note of, although it's strange to have the humaniser control on the back panel relatively out of reach.
To program into the memory sequences and songs the keypad becomes invaluable. The numerical window displays which patterns you call up — all you have to do is push 'sequence' and the appropriate memory number and the machine gobbles it all up to produce the required sequence. Each sequence can be of up to 250 patterns long and a song is produced by using the chaining method to produce lines of sequences. Continuous entering of patterns is possible, which makes the machine very handy for jamming with a band. If you haven't quite decided the order in which you're going to programme your patterns then entering the number of each bar every time you want to diversify is very straight forward. I'm glad that Simmons haven't overlooked this very useful feature, which is common on less expensive models of drum computers. 'Programme only' devices are very inflexible when it comes to 'live' work.
Not yet mentioned is a very useful 'show' function which displays all of the information stored inside the machine. This is done by utilising the LEDs and putting numbers corresponding to sequences and songs on the matrix — ones that stay unlit have nothing in the memory.
From what I've already noted, it's easy to see that the SDS6 is a powerful and flexible beast. It's a shame that the humaniser function isn't programmable and that the tempo function isn't capable of being programmed for entire sequences and songs — but put into context with the rest of the machine's functions these become minor hassles. There are trig threshold knobs on the back panel that go right to +15 volts. I see ears pricking up, all those people with sequencers! If you have a Pro One or a Roland SH101 you could use a spare channel to have synchronised note with rhythm patterns playing on the SDS5 modules. However, a pulse is sent from the machine to the sequencer on every beat of a bar, so the rests would have to be programmed on the sequencer. There is a kind of trigger splitter on the back that will send out a pulse on every 2nd/3rd/4th/5th/6th/8th/10th/12th and 16th beat. I'll leave the possibilities of interfacing to the imagination! Personally speaking, as Simmons have had the sense to supply tape sync in and outputs, I would leave any form of synth and sequencer triggering until 'playback'.
If you're not too keen on pad bashing and you're looking for a powerful drum computer, the SDS5 and SDS6 combination is hard to beat. At £2,500 (+ VAT) it doesn't turn out to be a bad deal considering the price of other machines on the market. Simmons are planning the release of a new digital handclap and new products are always being researched and developed. I can't wait!
Review by Chris Everard
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