The Big Bang!
Simmons SDX Drum Sampler
Lurking inside this angular-looking monster is a versatile computer system that will turn what is ostensibly an electronic drum kit (albeit a state-of-the-art 16-bit sampling one) into a formidable MIDI workstation. Ed Jones test drives Simmons' powerful, new SDX system.
Are you the kind of reader who only reads the first and last paragraphs of a review? If so, then you could miss out on the real story that lies behind Simmons' new SDX, for this unique, hi-tech 'machine' is so much more than it may at first seem to be.
Lurking inside this angular-looking monster is a versatile computer system that will turn what is ostensibly an electronic drum kit (albeit a state-of-the-art 16-bit sampling one) into a formidable MIDI workstation. Already being advertised by Simmons is the SDX 'Keyboard Sampler'; a comprehensive sequencer is also well under development. SDX is a chameleon-like unit that has the ability to radically alter or simply upgrade its main function to suit its proposed musical environment, simply by 'booting up' a new set of software instructions from disk in the same way that your trusty Mac, Atari or PC can be pressed into service as a word processor as well as a MIDI sequencer.
This has to be good news for those of us fed up with investing vast amounts of money in order to keep up with the technology. It's not that Maggie changes the capital investment tax allowances or that we don't get a decent return (from our so called investment - it's just that, in this ever changing hi tech world of electronic music equipment, we barely get a chance to get the best out of an instrument before feeling compelled to trade it in for the very latest gear. I am sure we have all had great use out of our computers over the last couple of years and are now looking forward to the refinements of programs like Steinberg's Pro-24 and MOTU's Performer rather than their possible replacements.
It might be as well at this stage also to differentiate between the computer world's understanding of 'upgrades' and 'updates'. Upgrades are usually paid for by the consumer and are an actual improvement of a software program that have taken some considerable amount of R&D time and effort to produce; updates tend to be concerned with fixing bugs or compensating for hardware manufacturers' idiosyncrasies and tend not to be charged for. Simmons' SDX can be considered as a music computer that is currently optimised for control by hitting pads and the like!
Their promised sequencer (XSEQ) intends to be no slouch and is therefore termed an 'upgrade'; it should set you back a mere £150 or so. XEDIT is intended to be a very advanced sample editing upgrade package offering fast Fourier analysis and a few more tricks besides. Version 2 (I used version 1.6) of the operating system will optimise SDX for keyboard-controlled sampling and is a free update for registered owners during the warranty period of one year. After that period a small handling charge is necessary to cover disk duplication, postage, and so on.
It is not unreasonable that we, the consumers, should be asked to contribute to Simmons' R&D bill for serious software improvements. However, there is a pretty hefty price tag to pay for joining the elite club of SDX owners in the first place. Simmons have suffered some pretty hard times during the development of SDX and it is no secret that, whilst their ownership may have recently changed hands, sales of non-SDX products could certainly be better. They seem to have suffered in the studio world from the "stick the drum sounds in the S900 and we'll manipulate them later" syndrome. If Jean-Michel Jarre's drummer uses SDX in his concert in London's Docklands this September, it could possibly help promote the SDX as much as his concerts in China helped original sales of the now famous hexagonal pad-based systems.
Being manufactured by Simmons (and having taken so long to come to fruition after being announced some considerable time ago) one can reasonably assume that SDX is the ultimate electronic drum 'brain'. However, there is no onboard generation of percussion sounds in the traditional Simmons fashion, just serious 16-bit sampled sounds that are controlled by some very intelligent software. A set of hardware which includes new, zone-intelligent (ZI) pads, a new Symbal pad (yes, unfortunately, that's how they mean it to be spelt) and a new electronic hi-hat control pedal make up the complete drum kit side of things. However, as you will shortly discover, you might have no need for these bits of hardware (which do add significantly to the overall price) at all.
If you are a drummer looking for the ultimate electronic drum kit, you probably need look no further. Simmons have gone to great lengths to produce a sensational library of sounds, all of which can be controlled with more pad versatility than has ever been possible before. Other manufacturers (like Dynacord) may have come up with similar, powerful and realistic sounds but SDX really wins hands down with its musical control of the sounds. It'll cost you an arm and a leg, but what the heck - these British manufacturers are few and far between and deserve our support.
Make no mistake, SDX was well worth waiting for - it is one mighty machine! It is also great to see another innovative product coming from the stables of Dave Simmons, who deserves to be held in the same esteem as Bob Moog, Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim, Roger Linn and other mothers of invention. Let's hope that the new, trimmed-down Simmons production team can help SDX spurn a new generation of Simmons products that come to market at a more down-to-earth price.
The library is divided into two categories of disks: those with individual sample data (both raw and processed) that can be used for building up personalised kits, and those which have been constructed for your instant playing pleasure by various people who know what they're doing!
Broad Kits: 5 kits, 31 drums and 24 samples that show real thought from Graham Broad - a drummer that has sat behind many a rock kit.
Jazz Kits: 2 kits, 13 drums and 20 samples. Good, clean kits with some great cymbals, metallic ringy snares and natural 'jazz' toms.
Ambient Kits: Steve Levine's input has produced some mega powerhouse kits with really meaty, ambient sounds.
Bruford Kits: admirers of Bill Bruford's style will enjoy working with these 4 kits, 17 drum heads and 21 samples. Log drums, rototoms, pure cymbals, temple blocks and a swell gong are included.
Produced 1: someone somewhere will find a way of working 'doing, atomic tom, squirt, nippobell and slop' into their act! Actually, they're great sounds.
Ethnic Disks 1 & 2: include great talking, bamboo, Tahitian drums, along with djemba, water and shaker samples.
TR808: where would we be without it? Thank you, Marvin Gaye, for making the classic Roland TR808 drum machine sound sempiternal.
Bestof S550: more from Roland - I wonder what Simmons will think when they find their SDX sounds on Roland's machines?
Bass Drums 1 & 2: a conglomeration of every conceivable type of thud - includes 'jab pig, rising harmonise, dead tink, princey' and 44 others!
Snares & Rims 1 & 2: similarly, a choice of 28 smacks from 3" Tama, 5" Ludwig, to ricochet and beyond...
This sound library deserves a description of its own if only to whisk you into the wonder world of DrumLand where the English dictionary has literally been ransacked for descriptions such as 'dry, low, bright, hard, dead, dull, tight, ringy, tinny, snappy, slappy, metallic, atomic, schlapzy, wazzo' and many other weird and wonderful mnemonics. My favourites must be 'son of fud', 'big mutha', 'McKick', 'hippokof' and 'tinkerbell' (which, of course, is one mother of a marching concert bass drum!).
More accurate descriptions such as 'thumpy bass with ambience and snare buzz' and 'slow rise time crash cymbal' show that considerable time and thought have gone into creating this extremely varied percussion sound library.
As readers will probably know by now, a long resonating cymbal that is sampled with ambience can easily take up 2 megabytes of memory on its own, so Simmons have thoughtfully spent some time trimming and looping some ambient sounds to fit as much into the 2 meg systems (and onto the 2 meg quad density 3.5" disks) as possible. Frustration will obviously arise when you start playing with SDX and realise its tremendous realism. Start saving - 8 megabytes and a hard disk here we come!
I've managed up to now with only 1 meg of memory and two floppy disks on my Macintosh computer, but I sure wish those royalties would start rolling in. The price:performance ratio of almost all hardware seems to be steeped in the manufacturer's favour; when guys like Alan Sugar at Amstrad and Jack Tramiel at Atari come and buck the market, it does make one think about the wisdom of Apple and the like. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and I'm happy (but poorer). I am sure that most sales of SDX will be to musicians or studios for whom the price:performance ratio isn't quite so important. I'll just have to wait for the chip off the old block...
KIT SELECT: a choice of 16 kit icons can be displayed at any one time on the SDX's screen, although the total amount of active kits is limited only by the size of internal memory.
Using the tracker ball like a mouse, you place the cursor over the required kit, click on it and it's ready to play. Alternatively, a footswitch can be used to sequentially step through the kits. When this screen is active, kits can also be selected by pressing the appropriate grey key pad - in all other screens the pads always trigger drums. Saving and loading kits to and from internal RAM and disk are done by accessing the pull-down menus called, not surprisingly, 'Memory' and 'Disk'. From the Kit Edit menu you can then access...
KIT CONFIGURATION: the heart of the matter. Here, the 16 pads (maximum) are assigned a pad type, a drum name and number of system 'voices' (max. 16). The first three pads are fixed as Bass, Snare and Rim (or Pitched) but a drum icon shows whether Toms, Symbals or Pitched drums have been selected for the other pads. One Hi-Hat can also be chosen. This choice of pad tells SDX how to interpret data that comes in from the trigger cables, whilst voice allocation allows you to choose voice output directions and prevent voice 'robbing'; voices can also be shared by different pads. Assigning more than one voice per output (eg. three as a default for the snare) prevents the artificial 'machine gunning' of sounds caused by voice re-triggering with every pad strike.
MIDI note, in decimal  or chromatic [C3] (and range for pitched pads), MIDI channel, and program changes (for sending a different patch change number via MIDI Out) can all be accessed by clicking on 'Edit MIDI', thus changing the display.
KIT MIXER: sample playback length (no ADSR envelope here), tuning, panning, volume, mute, and solo are easily controlled with the tracker ball. Channels are automatically named from the Kit Configuration window data to prevent confusion. These controls affect the complete mix of samples on a 'drum'. A 'drum' defines the sound that is created when a pad is hit, using two main components - a 'sample' (what sounds are played) and a 'head' (how they are played).
DRUM SAMPLE ASSIGN: apart from Bass, Rim, Pitched and Hi-Hat, SDX 'drums' can have up to 9 samples en masse that are played by soft, medium and hard hits to the centre, inner or outer zones of each pad. Easy, eh? The two small arrows to the left of the screen (threshold handles) can be dragged up and down to determine the velocity crossover point between soft, medium and hard strikes - a really useful dynamic level meter shows you the strength of your hits in real time (like a fairground 'test your strength' machine but without the bell!). Similarly, a small cross appears next to the sample in the last hit zone. The box on the right offsets samples by pitch (+/-12 semitones) or level (+/-99). The Hi-Hat sample assign page has four settings: pedal trigger, h/h open, h/h sizzle and h/h closed, and each level is divided into two further inner and outer zones. This is one versatile system - imagine that lot used on just a triangle or talking drum!
DRUM HEAD: this screen decides how a 'drum' should be controlled in real time, using a number of 'surfaces'. By shaping a drum head's dynamic and position curves, the response of each drum can be adjusted to suit your own playing style. These curves control pitch, brightness, resonance, noise, level, pan, length and sample start.
If you feel that's too much to handle for each drum, you can simply copy another drum and use that as a template for a new one. Only active surfaces are displayed to enable one's brain to comprehend what on earth is going on - suffice to say that when you hear Bill Bruford play the SDX you know this is what gives him the real control. This is musically so different from just triggering samples on a keyboard sampler, I can't begin to explain the effect in words. Uniquely wonderful and all Simmons.
SAMPLING WINDOW: individual samples can be taken through the sample audio input socket at the rear, imported via MIDI's Sample Dump Standard, or loaded from disk and edited. Looping, truncating and reversing can be easily achieved using the onscreen waveform display (like the Synclavier, Fairlight, and Digidesign's Sound Designer software). Technology has moved on so that, whilst SDX samples at the same rate as the Akai S900 and Prophet 2000/2, it does so at 16-bit resolution, not 12-bit, effectively giving you real Compact Disc sound quality. I defy anyone to tell the difference - WYHIWYG (what you hear is what you get)! Naming, saving, loading and deleting of samples on disk is fast and efficient. Preview the audio input level, adjust the threshold, click the sample instruction button and, hey presto, you're done.
LOOPING OPTIONS: this window gives access to forward and backward/forward loops (up to 99 times or keyboard note-off controlled using a pitched drum). SDX will find the best loop start and end points that have zero amplitude and the same direction at the splice point; nudge boxes are also provided for your looping pleasure. For loop points that match at a zero gradient point (as opposed to a zero crossing point) there is now a loop click eliminate function on the latest software that matches DC levels of the sample's loop points. Gain adjust, crossfade looping and sample amplitude maximisation are also controllable.
There have been several important software improvements in the last month or so that deserve mentioning, as well as a few 'bug' fixes (I managed to 'lock' SDX using an external sequencer several times). For use as a keyboard-based sampler various refinements have taken place to optimise SDX for key control rather than pad control.
• There is now a Layer and Xfade window that shows how the 16 pad positions are laid out in relation to a keyboard with split points. Transposition can also be affected from this page.
• MIDI sample dump/load has already been covered.
• New Drum Modulation Surface Window gives routing of MIDI controllers to the most useful drum parameters such as pitch, filter, loudness, and pan.
• The Auto Trigger 16x17 grid facility is now expanded to include save/load from disk (ideal for demonstrating suitable musical applications for kits and for keeping often-used hi-hat or tom patterns).
• Monitoring of pads and keyboard notes can now be in some depth so that SDX feeds information back to you, thus allowing easier programming of involved functions like drum surface construction.
• The response curve, trigger thresholds and zone triggering of the keypad triggers on the front of SDX can all now be programmed from a new Key Pad Mode control window.
• Overall pad sensitivity now has its own page for faster overall control.
• MIDI Watch displays incoming MIDI data on a graphic keyboard and in numeric and chromatic values.
• Global options include MIDI Omni On/Off and Master Tune.
• Easy MIDI note assign: connect up a drum machine, play the appropriate SDX pad, then drum machine's pad, and SDX assigns the correct MIDI receive channels and note numbers.
Version 2 Keyboard Sampling software:
• 16 programmable keyboard split points (all 16-voice polyphonic).
• 9 samples per split (3 vertically by MIDI note + 3 by dynamic).
• 144 samples per keyboard setup.
• 16 programmable tracking filters.
• Pitch bend by split.
• 32 user-definable crossfade split gradients.
• Layering of up to 16 sounds.
• 64 programmable LFOs (4 per voice) routed to pitch, amplitude, filter cutoff, pan and crossfade layer balance.
• 96 envelopes (6 per voice, each with 5 point control) controlled by dynamics and MIDI note.
• LFOs independently controlled by any MIDI controller number or aftertouch.
• 4 LFO waveforms - sine, ramp, reverse ramp, random plus fixed level offset.
The influence of the Apple Macintosh is everywhere in SDX, right from its excellent disk operating system, through to its superlative ring-bound manual - there is even a little clock that ticks away whilst waiting for the disks to finish their housekeeping. What better pedigree is there to follow than the Mac? Being a Mac keeper (they can be as expensive as pets) I can confidently say that SDX was a joy to use. It is an enormous, angular instrument (calling it a drum machine would be like calling a Psion Organiser a calculator) that hummed away annoyingly in my studio. The indomitable team at Simmons assured me that I had a rogue hard disk fan, whilst I assured them that I wouldn't even give a second thought to buying an SDX if it usually made that much noise (in the same way that I'm not too enamoured with the idea of a Mac SE or II in the studio - both of which have noisy fans).
SDX's intuitive operating interface is both stylish (windows, icons and inverted mouse - a tracker ball), and practical (disk-based operating system and pull-down menus). It's like having an Akai S900, Macintosh and Sound Designer software in just one very hi-tech box. Add the new Zone Intelligent and Symbal pads, together with the Hi-Hat pedal control system and you have one hell of a drum kit!!
Musicians have been complaining for a good few years now (probably since the introduction of the ubiquitous DX7) about the complexity of programming instruments; however the real problem has been the inaccessibility of the variable parameters that were hidden away deep in the machine's system, requiring a programmer to have the memory of an elephant and the finger dexterity of a concert pianist. One of the most important features of the Fairlight was its screen, which immediately made it more friendly; Roland addressed the problem by bringing out add-on programmers for most of their synths, though I doubt if even 20% of D50 owners have purchased a PG1000 programmer. Roland's S50 sampler was, I believe, the first commercially successful instrument to feature both an add-on screen option and serious improvements to the machine's operation by software upgrades.
Well, Simmons deserve a big round of applause for making an incredibly complex instrument so easy to programme. Not only does the SDX incorporate its own screen, but there is a BNC video socket for an extension screen and a 15,000 word Help file disk that can be accessed during the process of sampling and programming, plus the 200-odd page manual.
The SDX is a very serious production tool as well as the finest electronic drum and percussion system in the world. Its appeal is as much to the producer as it is to the drummer and is thereby just as likely to be found in MIDI pre-production suites and studios as it is on stage. The software is optimised for drum and percussion programming at the moment, although ongoing development is broadening its creative possibilities.
It is hard to describe in words how musical the SDX sounds when put in the hands of a class drummer. Its unique features such as accent protection, 9-way positional and dynamic, zone intelligent pads and drum head surface stacking should ensure that it is ranked alongside the very best studio gear. With its SCSI interface it will be interesting to see how far Simmons go along the direct-to-disk recording route. Let's just hope that their commitment to SDX is supported by market demand from the fields of the music-making industry worldwide (and not just from drummers) to enable such a phenomenal sampling system as this to develop and mature.
Prices Standard SDX console: 16-voice, 2 meg RAM: £4989.
2 meg RAM expansion £500, internal 20 meg hard disk £990.
7-piece SDX Kit with standard console, bass pad, 4 ZI tom pads, hi-hat setup, ZI symbal pad and hardware: £6227.
'Recording Package' software sequencer £150, 'Sample Analysis Package' advanced editing £150.
Contact Simmons Electronics Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Ed Jones
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