Dave Simmons, the man behind the name on the hexagonal pad, holds forth on the past, present and future of electronic percussion. Paul White listens.
Dave Simmons, inventor of the electronic drum and one of Britain's most successful music industry figures, discusses technology, drummers and promotional clothing.
E&MMM: How did all this electronic drum business start? Presumably you were in electronics of some kind before all this came along...
Dave Simmons: Electronics and music, but first of all music. I'd been playing the piano for years and years, I was playing in rock bands throughout my youth.
When I left school I went into electronics making oscilloscopes with Tektronics. I got a place in College, did an ONC in Electronics and failed it miserably, so I ended up being a fault-finder with them.
Then I left just before they were going to sack me, and joined Boosey and Hawkes' electronics division at the time that they'd just bought ARP Synthesisers. They had an old guy down there who just couldn't cope with it - he was just used to valves. The big problem in those days was that Boosey and Hawkes, a very staid brass and woodwind manufacturer, sent synths to all their staid, old-fashioned dealers, who in turn used to send them back saying they weren't working. The problem, of course, was that they didn't know how to get any sound out of them.
So I was around servicing synthesisers, as well as carrying out lots of modifications on keyboards for various groups and people. I was fitting Solina string machines with synthesisers - I used to fit a filter, an ADSR generator and a phase switch modification to those - and I did about 50 of them in all. It allowed you to get brass sounds out of the synthesiser bit. Actually, you can get some great sounds out of that: you can switch into square waves by turning off the diodes that clip the square wave and get some nice flutey sounds out of them.
So how was the transition made into percussion if you were a keyboard player originally?
I was playing with a group at the time and messing around building bits and pieces; I used to have my Hammond going through my string machine to get the phasing. A guy called Barry Watts, who used to play with Adam and the Ants and Paul Young, and who's still knocking around trying to earn a living playing drums, had me build a few bits and pieces out of tubular bells and bits of electronics. We were a bit of an avant garde band - 20 minute opuses and all that sort of crap - and it started from there. I built two different drum synthesisers for him.
After I'd done that, Boosey and Hawkes decided to concentrate on brass and closed the electronics division down, so the Sales Director and myself set up a company called Music Aid. We imported Ampeg amplifiers, Washburn guitars, guitar straps, Asba drums - that was his side of the business, and my side was carrying on the modification and servicing of synthesisers.
That little company grew for a couple of years, and then I developed the SDS3, which came out at exactly the same time as the Syndrum came out in the States. The record 'Dancing in the City' came out and everybody wanted that horrible sound, so all of a sudden I found myself having a lot of demand from UK drummers for this little box I was building. Premier made the drum part of it, basically an eight-inch skin and a lump of wood, and I built the electronics in a garden shed in Radlett.
From there we moved to Hatfield Road and introduced the SDS4 and the Clap Trap. Gradually the manufacturing side was taking over from the wholesale side, partly because we'd bought lots of things that we couldn't sell, mainly Asba drums and Ampeg amps.
We took two channels from the SDS3 and found that they made very convincing bass drum and snare sounds, so I took two of those channels and made it into a modular kit in a standard rack - that was the SDS5. I decided to get away from acoustic heads because I couldn't make the electronics work with an acoustic head and a microphone - there were crosstalk problems and noise on stage and limited sensitivity - so I decided to bury a pickup in a lump of wood and said that was what you played - the electronics would work quite well with that.
We had three shapes of kit to start off with. One was hexagonal, one was heart-shaped and the other one was a bat's wing. They all looked a bit odd, really, though I suppose the hexagon was the least odd. We made three of these prototypes for the music show in the summer of '81, but we couldn't get into Olympia because we couldn't afford it, so we had a room in one of the hotels across the road.
The first kit we managed to get finished was the hexagonal one, and we had it set up in this hotel room with amplifiers, and most people came in, bashed it and laughed. A few people came in, bashed it and loved it.
But we couldn't give them away to the music trade. They didn't want to know about electronic drums, because drum shops don't have amplifiers - half of them don't have electricity in them - and they knew they couldn't sell this stuff. During that period we had lots of debts and lots of problems with the company, so we wound it up just as we were launching the SDS5. We couldn't get finance, no one wanted to back the drums, and no one thought they were a good idea.
I suppose the breakthrough came when you got the stick-click sound. How did you come up with that?
Well, there's a lot more to it than that. The SDS3 had all those components in it. It had noise, it had click, it had the tone component, it had modulation. It actually had more facilities than the 5, which made it quite a versatile little synthesiser. But it became a case of taking all those parameters and asking ourselves which were the most useful, and then making that relatively accessible to the drummer. The kit had to have a factory preset that made a reasonable sound, and very limited control that really didn't produce any way-out or frightening sounds. Another thing was that the drums themselves had to be the right sort of size so you wouldn't feel too frightened to sit behind them.
"We had three shapes of kit to begin with: a hexagon, a heart, and a bat's wing. But they all looked a bit odd, really."
How did you come up with the idea of giving people less control? Was it a result of getting feedback from drummers?
Well, drummers wanted something different from normal drum sounds, but not that different, because they still had to do the job of bass drum, snare and tom-toms. They really weren't interested in all the odd sounds.
It was the enormous tom-tom sound that really cracked it, and the SDS3 made that sound by linking two of its channels together. At the end, we were selling SDS3s not as four-channel drum synthesisers but as two-channel bass and snare synthesisers. We fitted switches on the back so that you could link two channels together, and then showed people how they could get good bass and snare drum sounds - and they weren't LinnDrum sounds or anything like that.
The 5 took that sound and put it in a smaller unit, with just those variables on it so that it was restricted to drumming terms - damping the sound or not damping it, how much tone you have, how lively it is, how much attack you have. The analogue circuitry was nothing special, just very accessible so that a drummer could sit down, plug it into an amplifier, and get this great sound coming out. They were musically useful as well, because they weren't strident - they could be used in lots of different sorts of music.
How about the perennial problem of amplification? The ideal drum combo would have different specifications to the ideal guitar or keyboard combo, wouldn't it?
It's only a problem in that now you have to have an amplifier, whereas drummers haven't had to up till now - they've always been able to leave it to the PA. And actually, I'm not convinced the demands of electronic drums are that different to the requirements of a good Public Address amplifier. An amplifier that's designed for miked-up acoustic drums will obviously be able to reproduce the sort of signals that an electronic bass drum can produce.
But how do you go about getting something that's fairly small and punchy, suitable for stage monitoring or club work?
That's always been a problem. I'd say talk to bass players - they've had this problem for ages. It's a compromise between the volume you want to monitor at and how many speaker cabinets you want to move around. There are some quite compact, powerful amplifiers around, but it's just the bass end that's the problem.
We're not actually in the business of producing amplifiers as a company. What we are doing is looking at amplifiers specifically for electronic drums that we can sell. Trace Elliott have one and it's very, very good, but it's also very expensive. The problem is that when you hit an acoustic bass drum, you move an awful lot of air; in the case of the SDS9 and other drum kits that we produce, the bass drum is capable of moving even more air - if you've got the amplification. The 9 has better bass drum sounds than we've had before, and they sound better through a small combo.
Have you provided a bigger trigger pulse from the pad since the SDS5, in response to false triggering problems caused by pickup from stage lighting?
Before we were made aware of piezo crystal devices, we were actually using loudspeakers as pickups. For upward compatibility, we had to load the piezos we started using down to the same impedance, so that people could use existing 5s with old pads or new pads. Now, our new pads have a very high impedance, so we've got a lot more signal off them and we don't have that problem any more.
I know there are some SDS7 modifications on the cards, but aren't you worried that the SDS9 could render it rather obsolete?
We're very aware of our market. All I can do is bring out some more stuff which I think will help SDS7 owners, and to point out the fact that the 7 has 12 channels and that you can put any sound you want into it, and that you have far more parameters than you do on the 9, which has only five channels and is made specifically to sound like a drum kit.
It is a different instrument. Soon we'll be seeing the addition of the MIDI converter box for the 7, which'll have software transfer functions for different dynamic control. In other words, we'll be putting the computer in between the pads and the electronics. The 7 is going to be far more versatile than it is at the moment. You'll be able to take sounds off tape or acoustic drums, and trigger the SDS7 sounds cleanly and efficiently.
The 9 is aimed at a specific market - we know we can sell lots of them - and it's priced accordingly. The one thing this company cannot afford to do is to stand still, even if it means we may lose the quantity turnaround on the 7.
If you look at the history, we were selling the SDS5 at about £1500, the SDS8 came in at £700, the SDS7 was priced at £2000 and the SDS9 at £1000. As the company grows, we can make things more efficiently and more cheaply - that continual process won't change. I imagine the SDS7 price will drift down - it'll have to under normal commercial pressure. We'll control it as best we can, but it's illegal to control the retail price of an instrument - and we're not prepared to wreck our own market.
"The SDS9 is aimed at a specific market. We know we can sell lots of them, and it's priced accordingly."
There's a second head oscillator on the new kits. How does that work?
That's just frequency-modulation of the tone. Whereas the SDS5 had a very simple sinusoidal wave, this has the same waveform but frequency-modulated. Also, the pitch can change overtime as the harmonic structure changes, while the modulation depth remains constant. Again, it's somewhat restricted compared with what it could be, but we've chosen the frequencies and the amount of modulation to produce what we, probably arrogantly, consider to be the best amount to simulate. I think with the SDS9 we've undertaken more consultation with drummers than we ever have before.
Do you find you have a problem in that when you trigger acoustic drums, you don't know what part of the cycle the oscillator's in?
I don't think you notice it on the tomtoms, but it is a problem with the low frequencies on the bass drum. The 800 series takes this into account so that the sound is consistent. Without it, you get a different quality to the sound depending on whether or not you trigger on a rising or falling edge. None of those beats taken in isolation would be an un-bass-like sound, but in the context of the previous hit, they can sound slightly off. Cycling is how I've heard it described. On the 800 series the oscillator is reset at each hit, and there's also a different click circuit that avoids using white noise bursts because, again, they can be different each time.
The sound of a cymbal is different every time you hit it but a digital cymbal always sounds the same. Are you going to produce a new cymbal design that gets round that?
The technical problems involved in producing a cymbal are far greater than those connected with producing drums. I think the cymbals on the 7 actually work quite well, but they're certainly not what drummers would call playable. We're working hard on cymbal designs, but whatever we eventually produce, they'll have to be more complex electronically than the drums are. Multi-sampling is the area we're heading in, but it's going to take some time yet.
Isn't there a case for cymbals that do the same job as acoustic cymbals, yet have a distinctive sound of their own. That's what you did with drums, after all...
I think that you set the target of trying to get as close as you can to an acoustic cymbal. It will never be an acoustic cymbal, in the same way an electronic drum will never be an acoustic drum. I hope in the end we'll produce something that falls short of an acoustic cymbal but still knocks people out.
And don't forget that an electronic cymbal will have other advantages, especially in the area of flexibility - in the tuning, the changing, and using it to create other sounds. These will start to become more important considerations than 'I can't actually damp it the same as an acoustic cymbal'.
The important job is to define the essentials of a playable cymbal, the same way as we defined those of a playable snare with the SDS9. We didn't do it with the SDS5 because it wasn't necessary to do it, and we didn't have the skill to do it anyway. The mere fact that it was an electronic drum kit was good enough then, but now things have moved on to having a hard rimshot, cross-stick, ambient snare, and being able to tune one against the other and have it play right. Then maybe it's better than an acoustic snare - not the same.
The launch of the SDS9 sees you gunning for the acoustic drum market, in that it has more of an acoustic sound than a traditional Simmons one. Presumably this was a deliberate move - the advertising slogan 'more than a match for the acoustic drum' is certainly pretty aggressive...
I would say that we pulled a few punches in the end. You should have seen some of the things we originally sketched out for the campaign... The fact is, a lot of drummers dismissed the electronic kit when they first hit one, and may never have touched an electronic kit since - especially those that don't get into studios and spend most of their time playing in club bands. It was a conscious decision to try to get some of those people back, and maybe anger some of them. All I'm asking is that you go in and hit the latest electronic kit once a year, that's all.
So is the SDS9 intended to form the basis of an expanding system?
Yes. The big progression, of course, is MIDI. All our equipment from now on is going to be fully MIDI-equipped. The two new boxes that we've got coming up will have the facility to use acoustic triggers to fire the SDS9 voices via MIDI, so you'll be able to change existing taped sound. We also have a real-time MIDI recorder in the pipeline. And MIDI keyboards and keyboard recorders can also be used to trigger the SDS9, as can the little CBM64 Programmer we've just brought out.
Finally Dave, why is it that the Ad guys always get the freebie t-shirts and sweatshirts, while the journalists get bugger-all?
Oh, it's the free sweatshirt routine again, is it? Come with me...
See this month's Newsdesk for further details of the Simmons SDS9, SDS800 and CBM64 Programmer.
Interview by Paul White
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