The Perfect Beat
Simmons SDS9 electronic drum kit
Simmon's new drum kit
Electronic drums? Everyone else might as well forget it. After a year which had seen the Simmon's supremacy under threat from innumerable SDS8 clones, the people who started it all have hit back.
A new 'budget' range of gear - the SDS800 series - looks set to take out all corners at the bottom end of the market. An original Simmons can now be yours for £360 (the two-tom SDS200), with a complete 4-drum kit clocking in at £630. This range, which we'll be looking at over the next couple of months, features improved circuitry and rather wonderful new pads. The arguments for copycats'll soon look shaky, so you can expect drastic price-cutting.
The new pads also feature on the ace in Simmons' pack, the SDS9. Building on the experience of the analogue/digital, modular SDS7, but a far more reasonable price, this years model gives you twenty 5-piece 'factory' kits, and 20 user-definable kits, generated through a unique combination of sampling, software and synthesis. Like the SDS800 series, the 9 has been cleverly pitched at a gap in the market - it lacks the total flexibility of the '7, but it is so far ahead of the best-selling SDS8 that it's bound to be the first choice for new entrants to electronic percussion. ('7 owners needn't feel too bad - plans for them include a new snare offering the 9's rimshot capabilities, and an improved velocity-sensitive bass drum module capable of bringing in a second sound on harder strikes.)
The new tom/snare pads mount on a pair of heavy duty Memrilok stands (currently, Pearl's 800 series, though this may change in production). Improved design ensures that both the pads travel along the shaft and the angle of tilt are remembered. (Courtesy of a tongue-and-groove arrangement on the Memrilok.) A standard drum-key operated bolt, recessed into the edge of the playing surface, clamps the pad securely to the stand; connection to the brain is via jacks, as per the SDS8.
The pads look similar to the '8's (though perhaps slightly chunkier); but looks can be deceptive.
The coloured backs clip off, so if you tired of your basic Simmons Black, you can have Simmons Red, Yellow, Blue or White! More crucially, the internal construction of the injection-moulded pads has been completely revamped - the playing surface now floats independent of the framework, resulting in a very realistic drum head feel - 'Simmons wrist' should now be a thing of the past. (The volume of stick on pad is also greatly reduced so quick headphone solos at three in the morning are a real possibility!)
The Bass drum's had a facelift too - gone is the overall sensitivity, so no more tricky pedal/stick patterns. In its place is a piston-backed center spot which again, feels and responds very like the real thing. The spurs look a little longer, too. In any event, it plays well and stays put. The snare pad, distinguished on production models by a grey playing surface, features a second pick-up in the rim (which has been raised slightly), for those all-important rimshots and crossticks. The independence of rim and snare in use is total, with no false triggering... but there I go, getting ahead of myself again. Suffice to say, a fellow reviewer put it best when he said about this (previously disappointing) aspect of the Simmons concept: 'The new pads have resulted in the first electronic kit you don't have to adapt your playing style to.'
It's still not perfect as I felt the pads were a little deader than I'd like, but for the first time in my experience, this is a matter of personal taste rather than a limitation of pad design.
The surprises don't stop there, either. The pickup in each pad no longer simply transmits a signal direct to the noise making bits, but has its 'envelope' interpreted by the '9 which then shapes the resulting sound - be it the analogue toms, the software-created bass, or the sampled snare sounds, to simulate as closely as possibly the subtle nuances of a real drum strike, from a grace-note tap to a super-heavy flam.
Sturdily constructed from black-finished pressed steel, this compact unit can be used free-standing, mounted on a snare stand, or in a standard 19" rack, using the optional 'ears'. Immediately below the white Simmon's logo on the top left of the control panel is a blue-legended thumbscrew-retained cover, concealing the three snare/rim PROMs mounted in zif (zero insertion force) sockets. At bottom left of this cavity are three microswitches (like those on the back of Roland sequencers) used to set each socket for their 8k or 16k EPROM - Simmons will be offering a library of alternate chips, including a devastating timbale (great on the rim), breaking glass, and so on. Alternatively, owners can sample and use their own sounds, using the SDSEPB EPROM blower.
Beneath the PROMs is the key to the entire machine - an array of blue momentary-contact push buttons together with a large LED. To the right of the push buttons a vertical row of largely unlabelled pots give access to the various parameters of each sound, laid out on the chart that dominates the right-hand side of the unit. Individual pad sensitivity can be set from the five grey pots at the top of the chart, and individual output levels from the grey pots at the bottom. Pairs of Triggering/Program LEDS, together with a large white power switch at the top right of the unit complete the story.
This has (l to r) Foot select jack, for remotely stepping through kits in the currently selected bank (5 in each of A, B, C and D), or through a pre-programmed sequence of up to 96 kits; MIDI In/Tapedump load DIN, MIDI Out DIN, and Sequencer In DIN (for Simmons own SDS6, MPC's Programmers, or the new SDS64 software package for the Commodore (which we'll be covering soon); Trigger Input jacks for the five pads; individual Jack Outs for each voice, a Mix output, a Stereo Mix output (stereo jack), and a Headphone output. The snare output is mixed from a single jack, but this can be split for separate snare/rim outs, using a stereo jack.
On power up you've got 20 'factory' kits, and up to 20 user-defined kits ready for use with the presets ranging from hard rock to light jazz, taking in reggae, electro and all points between. Simply press the blue Mode button until the Play LED lights, and select a Bank. (Toggling between the 20 factory kits and your own is achieved by pressing the Bank and Kit buttons together - user defined kits are indicated by flashing LEDS on the Bank indicator.) Kit select or the light-touch, positive action remote footswitch will then step through the five kits available from the current bank (ABC or D).
Both factory and user kits can be modified and stored in the user section of the memory. Select a Bank, enter Program mode, and step through the individual voices using the top blue button, Voice Select - the Prog LEDS at the top of each instruments's parameter chart indicate the currently selected voice. Access to each parameter for that voice is by the corresponding blue pot on the left hand side of the Parameter chart - simply cross-reference the two.
Each type of voice on the '9 has a unique method of sound reproduction, reflected in the range of parameters available for it. Bass drum for example, is created from a software model of a 'perfect acoustic recording' - so you can only get to muck about with Click and Thump (!) pitch, length and level - so, no Space Invader effects, but a whole range of credible, useable and powerful synthesised and acoustic bass drums. Similarly, the sampled Snare and Rim/Crosstick (selection between the two rim-triggered EPROMs is one of that channel's options) feature a Balance control for mixing the two sounds together; and the analogue toms feature Pitchbend up/down and a unique switchable 'Second-Skin' option. (A fixed frequency modulation which changes the frighteningly realistic single-headed 'open' sound of the toms into equally frightening and powerful double-headed oomph).
As you might expect, you still have full control over things like Filter, Pitch Sweep, Resonance, Decay, and so on - a vast range of sounds, but ones that will always sound at least a little like toms, bass or snare.
Entire kits can be built from scratch in this way - but what if you liked Factory Bass A3, Snare D1, two different toms of your own creation, and a modified Factory floor tom? No problem, because while you're still in Program mode, the relevant Voice Prog LED will flash - it's 'soft' and any aspect can be changed. Press Save Voice and the LED will stay on - indicating that the voice is 'hard'. You can now change kits, picking up and changing voices from each as you go, until all six channels are 'hard'. This new kit can then be stored to any of the 20 user-definable locations, automatically overwriting anything currently stored there. (Try to Store to a Factory location, and the large LED will spell out NO!)
Simmons have thought a lot about making the programming process easier - Select Auto-trigger, and on the first press, each drum voice will sound in turn, (saving you from belting them) at a speed dictated by the relevant blue pot. Overall kit dynamics (which span an impressive range) can be similarly adjusted. Press again, and the currently selected individual voice sounds, at a fixed dynamic level, while you muck about with it. Once more, and the voice runs through its current dynamic range, from light tap to thwack. This is important, since Simmon's 'intelligent' circuitry constructs a very complex envelope within the programmed parameters - shifting tom overtones and stick decay alter drastically as the dynamics cycle round.
Additionally, Auto trigger can be set to sound Snare and Rim alternately, then together for fine-tuning of the balance between them, and a Tom Copy function allows one constructed on Tom 1 to be copied to 2 and 3 with built in pitch shifts down. This, and all other parameters may then be altered of course, but it certainly takes the dog work out of setting up three compatible toms.
Alternatively, a Tap function allows each voice to be triggered manually from the blue buttons - and if that's no good you could always try hitting the pads! All in all, a very thoughtful package of program aids. But it doesn't stop there - Store a sequence of kits in Program mode, and that sequence is remembered, allowing a mixture of up to 96 factory and user kits to be remembered by the 9, and stepped through by button or remote footswitch. If you 'overshoot' on the footswitch, you can back up via button, or step through to the beginning again - though with 96 kits available, this might take a while!
Incredibly, the SDS9 also features a form of digital delay (in fact a re-triggering of the original signal). Selectable from the Snare channel, and controlled by the top two blue pots, the effect, which is selected or not for a whole kit but which can be either on or off for each drum within that kit, offers a choice of 'slapback' (single repeat) or continuously variable repeats, with control of speed and decay length. A whole range of effects from a 'frozen' same-level snare roll triggered by a single snare strike, through 'bendy ruler' noises to classic long decay Reggae gedakadaka's can be set up, and stored along with the relevant kit. Obviously, there is no degradation of signal, and, since the effect doesn't cut in until you stop hitting the pads, there's no fear of your rhythms degenerating into mush.
All voice and program information can be tape or MIDI dumped. Holding down Save Memory (in Play Mode) generates a leader tone for you to set levels for Tape dump - release it, and the dump starts, taking a little under a second for each kit - an S on the LED confirms this and the unit starts counting on the Kit and Bank displays. Holding down Save again interrupts the Save, and generates leader tone again. Selective use of this together with the pause button on your cassette would allow selective saving of kits!
Loading is spelled out on the Kit select LED, as is Verify (with a U standing for the V) - all very straightforward. Ditto MIDI Dump/Load, except the whole procedure only takes about 5-10 seconds!
And since we're on the subject, the MIDI implementation is extensive. MIDI In of course allows triggering of the '9 from sequencers or MIDI keyboards, while MIDI Out allows the unit to be recorded in precisely the same way. (Just think - your blistering solo reduced to a series of MIDI codes). Simmons will be releasing their own recorder for just this application 'sometime in the future', but anything from an MSQ100 to a Linn 9000 could do the job.
Most fun of all, though, is triggering other MIDI instruments from the '9 - I tried it with a DX7, and the effect, on things like the Bass presets, are ridiculously good, with the '9 making the most of the DX's velocity sensitivity on accented paradiddles and rolls. Each pad can be assigned to any note you want on the keyboard, with each set of six notes stored along with the relevant kit - store a sequence of kits, each with a different set of notes and synth-patch information (yes, you can control that from the '9 too) - and you can damn near sack the rest of the band. Japan-like rhythms featuring DX bells virtually wrote themselves as I found myself exploring this wholly new, and very exciting, aspect of drumming. Unfortunately, MIDI can only be on or off for each kit but individual voices can be silenced by assigning them to a pitch outside your synths range. The only thing is, I don't know if I could afford the 9 and a DX...
So: As far as I am concerned, this is the ultimate state of the art electronic drum kit on the market. It plays, and it sounds, better than any of the competition. Its extensive external control options should make it an attractive proposition even for the computer composers out there. Simmons have listened to drummers - and given them what they asked for.
(The kit, complete with stands, footswitch and cassette lead is available for £1,199.99. Replacement Snare triple PROM pack £74.99 and a 'sixpack' of blank EPROMs for the EPB, £103.50)
Contact Simmons direct on: (Contact Details).
Review by Tony Reed
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