Simmons Silicon Mallet
Striking a blow for mallet players, Tim Ponting investigates an instrument that combines the MIDI sophistication of a modern keyboard with the mallet techniques of xylophones and marimbas.
Vibes sounds seem to have become an essential part of any programmer's sound library since FM synthesis arrived in the scene, but very few people have learned how to play them convincingly - now the Mallet strikes back.
UNTIL RECENTLY, THE sophisticated vibes player has kept a lonely vigil outside his local music store. Every month, some new gadget appears in the window. It might be a percussion controller that looks like a guitar, a keyboard with built-in drum voices or a mysterious box labelled "Trigger-to-MIDI Interface". Nothing that stirs the heart.
But lo, to accompany the new generation of wind controllers, a generation of MIDI controllers designed with the mallet player in mind has arrived and threatens to change the face of tuned percussion playing. Welcome to the land of MIDI, ye xylophonists. Gird up thy loins and edit thy DX7 parameters, ye olde vibe players. From the dreamy town of St Albans comes the Silicon Mallet. No, it's not a device for helping your little sister to get to sleep, nor an obscure village down in the Cotswolds, but a MIDI tuned percussion instrument. Connect it to an amplifier, and you have up to 99 different sounds at your fingertips (or mallet heads, as the case may be).
The Silicon Mallet consists of a three-octave set of velocity-sensitive pads laid out in the same way as bars on a vibraphone, and designed to be used with either sticks or mallets. This may be expanded to four or five octaves with the two available expander units. Attached to the pad surface is the Voice Module (brain), containing the sound generation system and the trigger-to-MIDI converter. More of this later...
THE MALLET COMES in three sections. The brain is slotted onto the playing surface, which in turn is screwed onto the frame. The angle at which the playing surface sits is adjustable, as is its height. The brain is also mounted at an angle, allowing easy viewing of the patch editing controls. Once assembled, the Silicon Mallet is a somewhat unwieldy creature, particularly since it weighs in at a hefty 37 kilos. It makes you glad you're not a roadie.
The playing surface itself consists of 36 bars - the "black notes" being slightly raised, with a red rim around the edge. (Earlier models, it seems, had a blue rim: aesthetically pleasing, but not terribly practical on a dark stage.) The pads themselves are christened "FS bars" - a new system based on the American-designed Force-Sensing Resistor. The basic principle is simple. Beneath the pad surface is a resistive film. The harder the stroke, the greater the change in electrical resistance - a change that can be converted to provide a trigger signal. Neat, huh?
This new setup has a number of advantages. The bars are extremely sensitive, and equally so over the whole of their surface. Thus, there are no nodal points (live spots or dead spots to you), and accuracy of stroke is not as important as on a real vibe or marimba bar. Cross-talk between bars is also minimised (for minimised, read "zero"). The raised rims allow a realistic response from glissando strokes: as on a vibraphone, the mallet "rattles" along the playing surface triggering each pad as it passes.
The actual texture of the bars is hard to describe. Imagine a thin layer of dense rubber over an unyielding surface... (fetishists should turn to our special rubberwear section). Anyway, they have an excellent response, whether you're using soft beaters, ordinary mallets or even drumsticks. One feature of the bars that doesn't seem to be mentioned in the manual is their damping effect. If you're playing a voice with plenty of bite and attack, gently pressing the pad with one of the beaters (or a finger) dampens the sound. How this works, I don't know, but it's certainly an excellent feature and one which is bound to endear the instrument to professional players.
Supplied with the Mallet are four foot controls: switches for stepping through Program Changes and Sustain, pedals for Modulation and Pitch-Bend (are there any four legged vibes players out there?). Incidentally, the leads supplied to link pedals to brain are long enough to go twice round the room and back again. Nothing if not generous these Simmons people.
Now to the connections. The playing surface has four sockets. There are two 5-pin DIN sockets to which octave Expanders may be linked, a nine-pin System Interconnect socket which links the brain to the playing surface - and the good ol' mains socket.
The rear panel of the brain is a little bit more busy. In the way of audio outputs you find a pair of quarter-inch jack sockets labelled Mono/Voice 1-3 and Voice 4-6 (more of which later) and a headphone socket. Corresponding to the socket on the playing surface is another nine-pin multiconnector. These have locking screws to ensure that your wayward guitarist doesn't accidentally wrench out the most vital lead of 'em all. There are four sockets for the footswitches, a cassette interface socket for dumping and loading user-defined patches, and MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets.
Well, that's the hardware out of the way - now for the brain.
THE HEADPHONE VOLUME pot is straightforward enough, but all those flashing LEDs? But as soon as you start playing with the Mallet, you realise how logical it all is. And then the awesome potential the machine has as a musical tool begins to sink in and you have to think it all out again...
"If you're playing a voice with plenty of bite and attack, gently pressing the playing pads with one of the beaters, or a finger dampens the sound."
First things first. The Mallet has 99 patches. In this case, a Patch consists of a sound and the information that goes with it: the System, Performance and Voice data, and information relating to what you might call keyboard split. Patches 1-19 are factory presets: the basic voicings on which all others are based. These cannot themselves be altered, although they may be modified and stored elsewhere. The other 80 patches (20-99) are user-programmable. However, when the Mallet comes out of its packaging these locations aren't empty: the lads at Simmons have kindly set up 80 patches, of varying quality from excellent through to... er, not quite so excellent. Although you can construct all these patches yourself by editing the factory presets, it is worth saving them to tape immediately. Then you're free to frolic at will (provided it's legal in the country you live in) and create your own patches without losing Simmons' efforts.
Once you've filled the available memory space with sounds, the odds are they're in the wrong order for your gig - if not the first, then it's bound to be the case sooner or later. But those nice boys at Simmons have come to the rescue again with a Sequence facility, allowing you to define a patch order for the relevant footswitch. Pressing the footswitch allows you to step through the programs patch by patch, repeating them as necessary. Clearly, using the Mallet live is going to be no problem.
Switch on and the machine gives itself a quick electronic rub down, telling you when it's ready for action. Stepping through the patches is easy: using either the footswitch or up/down adjust control on the panel. As you play, six red LEDs flicker on and off in sequence. It's confusing at first, because they have nothing to do with the editing controls.
The Mallet is six-note polyphonic, and there is one LED for each note channel. Three channels are assigned to each of the two outputs; hence those labels Mono/Voice 1-3 and Voice 4-6 - let's just call them left and right respectively. If you only have the left output connected (Mono) then all notes will be sent over this, reasonably enough. But if you have both outputs in use, and you play, say, a run of eight notes, the first three will be assigned to the left output, the second three to the right, and the last two to the left. And so on ad infinitum. This gives a stereo effect, which is far more subtle than it sounds. It gives rise to a characteristic "swirling" which is one of the Mallet's most attractive features.
THE VOICES ARE all FM-generated and, on the whole, they're excellent - both the factory presets and the 80 factory-initialised patches. There's absolutely no point in going through them one by one. Suffice it to say that there are a wide variety of straight tuned percussion voices (various vibraphones, marimbas, xylophones, glockenspiels, bells, woodblocks) and some rather wackier ones (such as 'Random Harmonic Bell' and 'Ringing Boo Bam'). Most are usable and if you don't like them, you can always get editing...
Now to the programming side of things. Broadly speaking, the Mallet has two modes: Program and Play. An LED indicates which is currently selected. In Play mode, the Mallet may be tuned in steps of hundredths of a semitone. It's also the mode in which MIDI information is set up.
In Program mode, patch data may simply be edited. If you haven't gone to the pub or dozed off by now, you may have been wondering what Simmons mean by System, Performance and Voice data. Read on...
In Program mode, the Select button - wait for it - selects either System, Performance or Voice programming modes. Choose the parameters you want to edit, select one of these three modes, and twist the appropriate knob at the bottom. The function of these controls is explained briefly below.
- System Controls: Patch Volume allows you to preset the relative volumes of each patch. In Play, this also acts as a Master Volume.
"In skilled hands, the Silicon Mallet is as sophisticated and as subtle an instrument as a velocity-sensitive keyboard with aftertouch."
Dynamic Sensitivity is probably the most innovative and impressive feature of the Mallet. Set it to zero and the harmonics of the sound stay the same no matter how heavy the stroke. Set it to maximum and the harmonics generated will alter dramatically depending on the heaviness of the stroke. The result? The Silicon Mallet comes close to capturing the characteristic harmonic and dynamic properties of real mallet instruments.
The Transpose controls do just that, one by plus or minus three octaves, the other by semitones. If there is no transposition or only of whole octaves, then an LED indicates Normal.
Select Scale allows you to switch between semitone and quarter tone scales. The latter is useful for non-chromatically tuned percussion sounds. LEDs indicate which is selected.
- Performance Controls: Tremolo allows you to alter the tremolo (amplitude modulation) of the sound. The first sets the depth: zero in the centre position, increasing as the knob is turned to the left. When turned to the right the tremolo increases in stereo; that is, the effect alternates between the two outputs. This enhances the swirling effect I mentioned above. The second tremolo control simply sets the speed of the modulation.
The Vibrato controls, as you'd expect, set the frequency modulation characteristics of the voice. The Depth control has a similar purpose to its tremolo counterpart: zero vibrato in the centre position, increasing as the knob is turned to the left. If the knob is turned clockwise however, the vibrato is increased out of phase: that is, vibrato is applied to each note at a slightly different phase. This is used to provide an unusual chorus effect - another innovative feature of the Mallet.
The Modulation Pedal Route control at first seems fearsomely confusing, but in fact is quite simple. Using this feature, the pedal controlling the overall modulation (both vibrato and tremolo) may be set up in different ways. There is a choice of four programs: off; tremolo on & vibrato off; vibrato on & tremolo off; and both tremolo & vibrato on. The word "off' in this sense means that the effect will appear as programmed, that is, the pedal won t alter its characteristics. So if you use the Off program, there may be both tremolo and vibrato present but pressing the pedal won't change them. Reading back, that seems about as clear as mud. All I can say is when the pedal's under your foot, it's dead obvious.
The Pitch-Bend control sets the amount of pitch-bend that the footpedal can apply, from minus to plus a fifth.
- Voice Controls: these are all fairly self-explanatory: Brightness, Harmonic Content, Bite, Attack Time, Decay Time and Gate Time. These parameters were chosen by Simmons as being the most relevant aspects of tuned percussive sound that could be varied. In practice it works well, and after fiddling with a single data slider and hundreds of parameters on other sound generators, it is a relief to use good old analogue-style pots.
DOING THE SPLITS can be a painful experience, and trying to explain the playing surface split facility on the Mallet is no exception. If you can bear with me for just a little longer... Each bar on the playing surface has a MIDI note number. In Program mode, you set up the Split Position (by defining the MIDI note number at which the split starts), the Split Patch (the patch number of the voice you want to have to the right of the split) and Split Voice Assign.
This allows you to set the number of notes you assign to the left and right side of the split. So, for example, Split Voice Assign set to "4:2" will allow four-note polyphony on the left hand side of the split, two-note on the right. In this case, three of the four notes from the left side will be sent to the left output, the fourth note and the two notes from the right split will be sent to the right output. It sounds hideously complicated but it's not, and once again an unusual stereo effect is obtained.
"Runs of notes are assigned three to the left output, three to the right... giving a 'swirling' which is one of the Mallet's most attractive features."
The options available are 6:0 and 0:6 (for MIDI applications), 5:1 and 1:5, 4:2 and 2:4, 3:3, and 1:3. When using either of the last two options, Performance Data from both patches involved is used. Thus, the modulation pedal and pitch-bend pedals have a different effect on notes coming from each side of the split. In other cases, Performance Data is drawn only from the patch in which the split has been set up.
Well, that leaves us with one last feature of the machine to examine: its MIDI implementation.
This is the point at which you begin to realise the full potential of the Mallet. First off, it can be used to control external MIDI equipment in the usual way. For example, you can play your SDS9 drum brain from the Mallet playing surface, or the Roland TR727, or a DX7, or indeed any MIDI sound generator. The fun really starts when you start setting up playing surface splits with MIDI slaved instruments.
The MIDI parameters under your control are: MIDI channel (Omni/1-16), split MIDI channel (Omni/1-16), and MIDI transmit and receive modes. Unfortunately, MIDI information is set for the machine as a whole, so if you want a variety of MIDI channels or modes in different patches, you have to change them manually each time. This is fairly easy since the MIDI functions are accessed in the Play mode, but it soon becomes rather irritating.
The eight MIDI transmit and receive modes offer you a variety of setups. On the transmit side, you can send or withhold pitch change and control change data (from the pitch and modulation pedals respectively) and program change data. This allows you to control most aspects of the slaved MIDI instrument from the Mallet. On the receive side, you can set the Mallet to ignore MIDI channel information, and respond to program change and performance data.
Split MIDI Channel allows you to set a different MIDI channel for the bars to the right of a split. Thus, you can play one MIDI instrument from the left side of the playing surface and another from the right. These MIDI splits may be combined with onboard splits so up to four voices may be controlled and mixed: one internal and one external on each side of the split. This is where Split Voice Assign comes into its own. For example, using a 6:0 split you could play an internal bass sound on the left with six-note polyphony and a DX bell sound on the right. Similarly, with a 3:3 split and appropriate MIDI information, you could play an internal vibes sound mixed with an external celeste sound on the left, and an internal marimba sound mixed with an external orchestral stab on the right. Once you've grasped the basics, the creative potential of the Mallet is limited only by your imagination - corny but true.
So there you are: a guided tour of the Silicon Mallet. Incidentally, the manual is well-written enough to make learning a pleasure. And did you know that "zusammenbau von Staender und Spielflaeche" is German for "mating playing surface to stand"?
AT JUST OVER two-and-a-half grand, the Silicon Mallet is going to be in a league beyond the reach of most of the noses flattened against the music shop window. But with the Mallet you have a whole armoury of percussion sounds at your fingertips - and access to even more over MIDI. Besides this, the Mallet could be considered a multipurpose instrument. MIDI'd to a TR727 or similar, it can be played like a Roland Octapad. In skilled hands, it is as sophisticated and as subtle an instrument as a velocity-sensitive keyboard with aftertouch. The Mallet is a sound generator, a trigger-to-MIDI interface, and a set of highly sensitive pads. I can't afford it, but I have no hesitation about recommending it to anyone who can.
The mallet player has had to wait a long time to enter the world of FM synthesis and MIDI control but the Silicon Mallet has definitely been worth waiting for.
Price £2599 including VAT
More from Simmons Electronics Ltd, (Contact Details)
Review by Tim Ponting
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