Worth its weight in microphones and Gaffa tape.
Perfect drum sounds every time? The Simmons SDS9 may be the answer. Just imagine; no more microphones, no more beer mats, and think how much you'll save in Gaffa tape.
Bearing in mind that a drum sound produced in a studio seldom bears any resemblance to the sound of an untreated acoustic kit, doesn't it make sense to use an electronic kit, especially one that comes up with a choice of fully produced sounds as soon as it is plugged in?
As you've probably guessed, the kit in question is the new Simmons SDS9 which combines the best of analogue and digital drum sounds whilst retaining something of the feel and response of traditional acoustic drums.
Having spent a considerable period of time in the same room as a Simmons SDS9, I am quite convinced that it (and the developments and imitations that will surely follow), represents the way ahead for drummers and percussionists, particularly when you consider the proportion of chart records that consistently use the Simmons analogue drum sound. Studio time is of course money, especially to the client with limited resources, and if you can offer the choice of acoustic or electronic drum sounds at the press of a button without all that tedious setting up, the said client is likely to be favourably impressed. So far I haven't mentioned the advantages in terms of separation but it doesn't take a lot of imagination to realise that a drum kit that makes little physical noise and is completely unsusceptible to acoustic pick up is going to be sheer luxury to record.
Well, having whetted your appetite, let's see what the SDS9 has to offer.
Strangely enough, when I first saw this kit, I didn't think that it was going to be anything out of the ordinary. After all, the pads looked typically Simmons-like and the electronics package looked far too simple to be anything special. Anyway, not being one to pre-judge things, I investigated further with surprising results.
The Simmons SDS9, is a five-piece drum kit combining both analogue and digital percussion voices. It allows you to access the sounds of up to 40 different drum kits at the touch of a button, features newly designed playing surfaces with a quite excellent response, and the circuitry allows a degree of dynamic control previously unheard of on electronic kits. The new snare pad has a separate transducer connected to the rim and this enables the drum to produce three distinctly different digitally generated sounds; snare, rimshot and cross-stick.
The tom toms use all analogue circuitry and are switchable to sound like either single or double headed drums, and the bass pad features a piston loaded head assembly to re-create the feel of an acoustic bass drum.
The control unit is fully MIDI-compatible, offering total interfacing with other MIDI-based equipment, and allowing you to control the sounds generated by a synthesiser from the kit, playing them as percussive instruments via the pads. Similarly, it may be connected to MIDI-equipped drum machines, rhythm programmers and sequencers acting as either the controlling, or the controlled unit. It has a built-in programmable echo feature, and a headphone output for silent practice, or setting-up. It even has an auto-demonstrate function to show you what it can do. This latter feature was included so that even inexperienced music shop assistants could still adequately demonstrate the kit to its advantage.
Simmons have obviously gone to great lengths to improve their pad design and the vacuum formed shell has now given way to an injection moulded version which features greater mechanical precision and presents a more clean cut appearance. Additionally, the playing surface of the head has undergone a radical re-think, and is now completely 'floating', as a result of the hard surface beneath the rubber head, being fastened only to the rubber itself, and not to the body of the pad. Consequently, the entire head is able to move up and down a little, due to the elasticity of the rubber, an apparently simple design concept which has proved remarkably effective in providing a very acoustic drum-like feel when playing.
The tomtom pads are identical in design to the snare pad, and in terms of stick response, this design is a great improvement over earlier Simmons models. Though there is still a perceptible difference between these heads and an acoustic kit, it's certainty nothing that an acoustic drummer couldn't live with. The bass pad is what Simmons describe as piston loaded (nothing to do with money or alcohol), and this again results in the pad being virtually indistinguishable from its acoustic counterpart in terms of feel.
All the hardware associated with the pads is of first rate quality, the stands being heavy duty and perfectly rigid, as are the bass spurs, which look fit to cope with any eventuality. Cosmetically, the pads look much as they always have except that they now have sharper angles and black plastic rims.
The control unit for the SDS9 is a rather innocuous looking steel box, with a few knobs, buttons and sockets, and an LED readout; evidence if it were needed, that good things do come in small packages.
Probably the first thing to strike you about the control unit however, is how few knobs there are, given the number of parameters that can be varied on the SDS9, and the fact that there are seven separate instruments (if you count three for the snare). The answer of course lies in the fact that for reasons of economy, most of the knobs have shared functions, or may be used to control the same parameter but on different channels. This is now standard practice in synthesiser design, and as it's the same sort of technology we're dealing with here, obviously the same methods have been applied.
As I said earlier, digitally generated voices are employed on the SDS9, and these are in fact found on the bass drum, which has two basic ingredients; Thump, and Click. To get the most out of these, there are five variable parameters, Click Amount, Click & Thump Pitch, and Click & Thump Length. Apparently, Simmons spent an awful long time programming the SDS9 to generate good bass drum sounds - and it shows. It's possible to achieve practically any bass drum sound from the basic program and the five controls. What's so amazing about it is that every sound is so useable. Forget the old style of drum synthesiser, where a standard module was used for all the drums, and simply tuned high for the times, and low for the bass drum, or the usual sampled bass drum sound; unvarying no matter how you play it. This is the sort of bass drum the average studio engineer or producer would give his right arm for - and it's playable: you're in control. Every time the beater hits the pad, the dynamics are there, and the expression's there. Through the use of the five controls, the sound can be adjusted to anything from tight to thunderous, according to the sort of music you're playing, and because you can program the sounds, and instantly change them it can be tight or thunderous within the same song.
One good thing about this kit is that Simmons have not decided to go totally analogue or totally digital but have combined the most favourable aspects of both technologies. Time has taught them that despite the benefits of digital electronics, the sound of toms, and in particular the sound of Simmons toms, is still best generated through analogue circuitry and consequently, this is what we find on board the SDS9. Being analogue, more control over the composition of the sound is possible, and as a result, the tom tom controls include Filter Pitch, Filter Sweep, Tone Pitch, Pitch Bend, Decay Length, Noise/Tone Balance and Click Level.
The fact that I was able to use the expression 'Simmons toms' earlier, and have you know exactly what I meant, is indicative of just how much we've become aware of electronic drums, perhaps without realising it, and this of course, has the advantage of making it much easier to describe the sound of the toms on the SDS9. Having said this however, what is noticeable about the SDS9, is that in addition to the more electronic sounds, it's probably equally adept at producing extremely convincing simulations of acoustic drums, and in this respect the toms are no exception. So whilst it is possible to create that huge Simmons tom sound, which admittedly has become rather cliched during the past few years, it's also equally easy to produce some delightfully natural sounding toms, and as I mentioned earlier, these include either single or double-headed drums.
The double headed effect is possible because of a rather nifty bit of Simmons design work. Electronically speaking, this is achieved by modulating the tone of the drum with a second unrelated tone. To all intents and purposes, this has the same aural effect as putting a bottom head on a tom tom. Of course, as with all other effects and controls on the SDS9, this facility is programmable, allowing switching from single to double headed toms instantly.
Another really excellent feature on the toms, and one which can save you an awful lot of setting-up/tuning time (and therefore an awful lot of money in the studio), is the ability of the medium and low toms to copy the sound of the high tom, but at lower pitches. In other words, after setting up the first tom for the sound you want, by simply pressing 'Copy Tom', this sound is transferred to the second and third toms with descending pitches thereby producing three instantly set up and tuned tom toms with no fuss, no Gaffa tape and no tantrums. Of course each tom can still be altered individually, if required, but having three perfectly matched toms is the sort of feature that's going to make the SDS9 very popular with working drummers, especially those who are not totally au fait with the setting up of electronic drum sounds.
The snare makes use of digital sampling techniques, and this involves the use of EPROMS within the control unit.
The three voices which comprise the snare, are in fact stored on these EPROMs, which are accessible via a small opening hatch in the top left hand corner of the control unit. But more about this in a moment. What we have here, are the sounds from as perfect a recorded snare drum as modern technology will allow. If anything, the basic snare sound itself is a little on the 'dry' side, but given the wealth of control parameters featured on the SDS9, and the outboard equipment it is likely to encounter in the studio, it's a good basic sound. The cross-stick sample is again superb, with plenty of ambience and a cutting edge, and the rimshot too is totally convincing.
The onboard controls for the snare sounds are: Filter Pitch, Filter Resonance, Filter Sweep, Snare (E)PROM Pitch, Snare Pitch Bend, Snare Decay, and Snare/Rim Balance. The rim EPROM, in fact contains two sounds, A and B, and these are selectable via the PROM Select control.
The reason for the snare EPROMs being accessible, as I previously mentioned, is to provide a small-scale version of a facility found on the earlier and more costly SDS7, namely, the interchangeability of the sampled sounds. Unlike the SDS7 however, which allows EPROM changing across all its channels, the SDS9 restricts this to just the snare EPROMS, but as there are three of these, this isn't much of a disadvantage. The EPROM chips may be replaced by any in Simmons' already extensive library of sounds (details of which I'm sure they'll be glad to send you), or for chips you can record yourself via the optional Simmons' EPROM Blower. This means that any short duration sound you can capture using a microphone, you can record onto an EPROM, drop it into the control unit, and then trigger it through the pad. There is clearly a myriad of good, useable sounds you can sample, and which can add a tremendous amount of versatility and scope to a kit, not to mention surprise value when you hit the snare rim and produce the sound of a tubular bell, or timpani, or a guitar or a...
I won't go into detailing the functions of all the control parameters, as I always think this makes a review resemble a cut-down instruction manual, and in any case, the controls are more or less self-explanatory. So that's the snare drum, a very impressive concept as it stands, but when you add to it the ability to determine your own sounds, and interchange these as and when you wish, its flexibility becomes apparent.
Moving on to some of the special features the control unit offers, there's a very useful facility called 'Auto-trigger' and this in fact is a means by which the controller triggers the drums for you, in order to assist with setting up the sounds. There are four modes of operation here, and in Mode one, all the drum voices cycle round; bass, snare, rim, and toms one, two and three - in that order, so while you're adjusting any of the drums, you can hear how it sounds, set against the others. If you wish to adjust the drum in isolation, you switch to Mode two, which then keeps triggering the drum you're working on for as long as you require. Mode three cycles through the snare drum voices - pad, cross-stick and rimshot, allowing you to adjust and balance the snare components, and Mode four cycles through the toms, to assist with their setting up. Incidentally, the speed of the cycling can be adjusted, and it's also possible to cycle through the voices with variable dynamics, so that you can compare drum sounds at higher and lower volumes.
Another important feature on the SDS9, and as far as I know, another first on any electronic kit, is the programmable echo. This is variable for the number of repeats, from a single 'slapback' echo, to multiple and decaying repeats, and also for the speed of the echo. Like all the other features on the SDS9, it is fully programmable, so it can be switched in or out at any time, and can be applied to any or all of the drums.
On the subject of programmability, the 40 drum-kits I alluded to at the beginning of the review are in fact made up of 20 pre-programmed kits (ie. factory programmed) and 20 user-programmable kits, which is where your creative genius is allowed full flight. It's interesting to note, that among all the 20 factory presets, there are no really outlandish or duff sounds and this I take as further evidence that Simmons are aiming this kit very much at the unconverted acoustic drummer, looking for improved, and more consistent versions of their existing sounds. Studios should quite like it too.
First of all, a quick definition: MIDI is as you probably know an internationally standard interface, that enables all suitably equipped instruments to be connected together. By instruments I mean drum machines, synthesisers, sequencers, effects units and of course SDS9s. In its basic form it means quite simply that any MIDI-equipped instrument will (in theory) work along side any other, so there is no problem as regards matching input and output levels or connecting leads and the like. On a much more complex level however, what it allows you to do with the SDS9, is connect the kit to a synth for example, whereupon any sound the synthesiser can create, you can play from the SDS9 via its pads, with a different pitch of the sound being triggered by each pad.
Now quite clearly, there are a lot of sounds on a synthesiser which wouldn't be suitable for playing via a drum kit, but there are an awful lot that are, especially on the new generation FM synths such as the Yamaha DX series and the cheaper sampling synths which are now making an appearance. Indeed some of the sounds modern synths are capable of generating are every bit as percussive as sounds normally played by drummers and this could well open up a whole new area.
The fact that MIDI is a two-way interface also means that the sounds generated in the SDS9 can be played through whatever MIDI instrument it is connected to, so for example if connected to a synthesiser, its voices may be played from the synth, and similarly, if connected to a MIDI-based drum machine or programmer, its voices can be triggered by them. Additionally, if you connect the SDS9 to one the new MIDI recorders currently on the market, it will record everything you play on the kit, and then replay it to order, and as most of these recorders feature extensive editing facilities, you'll be able to correct anything you do wrong, speed it up or slow it down or simply dump it all onto tape and re-load it any time you wish. Using such a system with a sync to tape facility could save an awful lot of tracks in the studio and give you full flexibility during mixdown.
In addition, because MIDI means the SDS9 can communicate with the outside world as it were, it can always be updated, and therefore shouldn't ever be rendered obsolete, as happened with so much pre-MIDI equipment.
All the information the control unit contains is down-loadable to cassette and similarly, re-loadable from cassette, so all the drum kits you program into the unit, all the parameters, the programmable echo - in fact everything - is able to be stored on cassette for future recall.
Well the features on the SDS9 haven't run out, but sadly my space has, so all I'll do is very quickly mention a few of the remaining ones such as the separate output sockets for each instrument on the rear panel, the footswitch for stepping through the five kits in each 'bank', the Button Tap which allows you to trigger each voice from the control panel, the trigger inputs which allow non-MIDI sequencers and programmers to 'play' the SDS9, the choice of five pad colours, and so on and so on...
You may have gathered by now that I was impressed by this new addition to the Simmons range, and as well as being a significant step forward for the drummer, it is also a joy to record in the studio. The fact that there are separate outputs means that drums can be given different EQ and reverb treatments and, because there is relatively little noise from the pads themselves, and recording the kit in the control room is no problem either.
This kit does not sound much like an unmiked acoustic kit by any stretch of the imagination but it does sound very like a highly produced recording - which after all is the end result you're after. Because you can store and recall as many drum kit sounds as you want (if you include the tape dump) you should be able to build up a library of drum sounds to suit most musical styles. This kit could save its weight in Gaffa tape in a matter of months, but don't worry if you think the studio engineer will be rendered obsolete, there are still acoustic cymbals to worry about.
Mostly praise then for Mr Simmons and his team, but there is one major drawback if you own a commercial studio: all this effort saved in not mucking about with tape and acoustic screens means that you will shorten each session by at least a couple of hours which basically means less money!
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