A Thousand Sounds
Simmons successor to the SDS800 combines the best of analogue and sampling technology. Nigel Lord approves.
The SDS1000 is the latest system from the company that just about invented electronic percussion. Our conclusion after playing it? The Simmons Sound is dead - long live the Simmons Sound.
Forces are at work. If you haven't come face to face with a recent Simmons product recently, you may have to rethink some of your preconceptions. You see, the original, distinctive Simmons sound - so beloved of American TV cop-show soundtrack composers - has been consigned to a cupboard marked 'good ideas at the time'. And it's been put there by Simmons themselves. You may hear it fizzing from the output jacks of a dozen rival electronic drum systems, but the old 'sheep kicked in the gut' noise traditionally associated with the British hexagon has now been replaced by a hundred others on Simmons' own machines.
The SDS1000 is a new breed of Simmons kit. In many ways, the SDS800 (which the 1000 is designed to replace) justified its existence as an updated, cheaper version of the old SDS8. But the 1000 is the SDS8's successor.
Strictly speaking, the SDS1000 is a stripped down SDS9 rather than an upgrade of anything else, which would seem to preclude any really innovative design work. But given the right price tag, this needn't mean the kit has to be deficient in any way. In fact, considering the scepticism which many players reserve for kits even as moderately complex as the SDS9, the removal of some features should make the new system more appealing to some.
The kit comprises five drums - bass, snare and three toms. The choice of stands is yours, which is another way of saying you don't get any. You can either go for Simmons' (read Pearl's) own individual stands, or, given the now standard mounting brackets supplied with the kit, stands of your own choice. Alternatively there's the Black Rack pictured here, which lends the outfit an appearance every bit as menacing as its name suggests.
Personally, I reckon the rack-mounting systems now being developed for drums - be they electronic or acoustic - are a worthy and intriguing development. They provide an open-ended system of support for a bank of percussion instruments, which may be added to, or modified, simply and quickly. It's a more flexible approach than the restricting dedication of conventional stands, and it's a damn sight more sturdy, too.
The pads are standard Simmons issue, so we needn't dwell too long on them. According to Simmons, they're the result of a £100,000 development, with floating heads, special rubber covering, piston-loading, and a whole host of other stuff. As far as I'm concerned, they're as good as they need to be.
Unlike the SDS9, the SDS1000 has no rim trigger on its snare pad, for the good and simple reason that there's no rim sound on the kit. But this does at least mean that, with the exception of the bass, all the pads are interchangeable. And though I'm in no way doubting Simmons' faith in the sturdiness of the pad design, the interchangeability does allow you to rotate the pads around the kit, so that the punishment inevitably handed out to the snare can be evenly distributed amongst the four potential candidates for the job.
Interconnection between pads and brain is provided by five jack-to-jacks, which enter the unit via sockets on the rear panel. Actually, if people are going to insist on calling the control unit a 'brain', that surely means the cabinet it's housed in should be referred to as a 'skull'. In which case, the SDS1000 comes complete with a 1U-high, 19" standard rack-mountable skull - with all the controls neatly mounted along the front panel (face?).
This represents something of a departure for Simmons, in that with the exception of the SDS7, previous housings for kit electronics have all been of the flat box, controls-on-top-panel variety. But given the position of a player behind the kit, this new format should prove popular. You can maintain access to the controls in all sorts of places you couldn't put an SDS9, for example. And being rack-mounting, the SDS1000 brain makes it much easier to position alongside effects units - most of which adopt the rack format these days.
It's good to see that separate outputs for each channel have been retained, as the facility to treat each instrument individually is essential for serious live and studio work. Restricting audio outs to a simple pair of jacks is a cost-cutting exercise which has ruined a number of otherwise excellent drum machine designs recently. But here, with the choice of individual, grouped stereo and grouped mono outputs to choose from, to say nothing of the headphone socket, I think it's safe to say Simmons have got all their exits covered.
The left-hand side of the unit is given over to the control of levels. The first five knobs are for the adjustment of pad trigger levels (ie. sensitivity), the next five for the setting of individual output levels, and the two remaining knobs for control of the grouped outputs.
The design of the sound-generating circuitry is largely derived from that of the SDS9, so it retains the same element of pragmatism which made its forebear such a classic. Simmons have wisely kept an eye on the past and the lessons it has taught them. Consequently, the SDS1000 presents the user with three types of circuitry for the generation of each of the three types of instrument - bass drum, snare and tom-toms.
As with the SDS9, the bass drum is digitally synthesised via software programming within the control unit. The snare sounds (of which there are four basic types) are samples of real drums encoded onto a chip, and replayed whenever triggered by the relevant pad. The tom-toms, always a Simmons strong point, owe their existence to good ol' analogue circuitry. This is because Simmons (and in truth, most other manufacturers) have yet to find a means of producing consistently better results, so have stuck to doing it the way they know best.
The basic sounds of all five drums are variable, the fruits of your labours being storable within five memory locations. Additionally, there are five factory preset kits permanently stored, giving you ten kit combinations, selectable either by a front-panel button marked (reasonably enough) Select, or by an optional footswitch.
Both methods of switching produce essentially the same results. The unit steps through preset kits 1 to 5, accompanied by the appropriate number making an appearance in the LED readout. Then it moves onto the five user-programmed kits, also numbered 1 to 5, but this time suffixed with a small dot to distinguish them from the factory presets. On reaching user program 5, a subsequent push on the switch brings us back round to factory preset number 1.
Simple enough. But I foresee a problem. By effectively combining the two sets of kits into a 'count to ten' system, the SDS1000 forces you to run through the factory presets to get back to the user programs. Working on the principle that for a particular song, players might wish to use all their own sounds, it would be more convenient to be able to stay within the realms of user programs, rather than having to jump past the factory presets by hitting the button or footswitch five times. It could slow a fast kit change down to the point where it became impractical within a song.
As with any limitation, I suppose you'd learn to work around it, but given that changing kits instantly is one of the principal advantages of an electronic kit, this could be rather frustrating for the creative player.
Aside from this (or maybe because of it), programming the kit really couldn't be simpler, the entire process being covered by six short steps in the instruction manual - which means I'm not going to run through the process here. Let's just say this is probably the simplest programming system you're ever likely to encounter, so if this is something that's been putting you off making the move towards electronic drums, the Simmons could well be the kit for you.
The parameters that are varied to provide control over each instrument work on a system of shared, multifunction controls. This simply means that the seven knobs only vary the sound of a particular drum, if that drum is first selected. Once you get the hang of this, you'll find the whole process quite straightforward - a fact that should be confirmed by a glance at the front-panel photograph.
Looking at this panel, the only controls which may require some explanation are the tom-tom Filter control, which in fact adjusts the initial brightness rather than the entire sound (thereby more accurately simulating a real drum); the snare Sample 1234 control, which uses each quarter of its travel to switch between the four snare samples; the 2nd Skin control, which introduces a degree of modulation to mimic the effect of adding the bottom skin to a single-headed tom-tom; and the Noise control, which balances the tone and noise components of the toms. As for Click, this is simply a simulation of a stick striking the head of a drum, and is responsible for much of the attack of a drum sound.
Providing the kit has been equipped with a wide enough range of basic sounds, the limitations of the programming system and absence of certain features needn't be too much of a problem.
So how does the SDS1000 sound? We'll look at, or rather listen to, the bass drum first. This is probably the simplest of the voices in terms of controllability, there being only the Pitch and Click Level parameters to worry about. And even here, it's difficult to move away radically from the solid, workmanlike punch of the basic sound, unless you remove all the click component, in which case you're left with much less definition, and the sort of bass drum found on recordings circa 1969.
The snare is an altogether more complex beast, primarily because you're given not one, but four basic sounds - Tight Snare, Rock Snare, Huge Ambient Snare and Electric Snare. The only problem is that Simmons have used the exact words for the names of the samples as I'd have used to describe them. Essentially, they are what they say they are. But given the variable parameters on the front panel, they're also quite a bit more besides. In fact, the combination of four samples, Pitch, Bend and Decay controls, offers a startling range of snare sounds, which should provide you with at least a handful you'll like and stick with.
The analogue design of the tom-toms gives them a more recognisably 'Simmons' sound than the other drums, but again, this is only part of the story. By keeping a watchful eye on the decay control, a much more natural effect can be achieved, and unless you're into single-handedly reviving the disco boom of the early '80s, this is what I'd strongly recommend you to do. (You could always put the headphones on at three in the morning, bang the decay control up to max, and wallow in the power beneath your stick tips.) Overall, a good versatile sound, but I wish they'd retained the Copy Tom function (whereby the sound of one tom can be instantly copied onto the others at descending pitches) of the SDS9, because it really is a godsend during programming.
In terms of playability, the SDS1000 is, if anything, an improvement on the SDS9 - principally because there have been certain improvements made in the area of dynamics. Only trouble is, this is not something which is easily expressed on paper. All I can advise you to do is get down to your local music shop and check one out for yourself. If it's some time since you last played an electronic kit, I think you'll be impressed by the SDS1000.
By equipping their latest system with a fine range of basic sounds, Simmons have cleverly turned what might have been a deficiency into an advantage. That advantage is simplicity. A confident simplicity which should prove attractive to the wary convert to electronic drums. The facilities on the SDS9 stunned you into submission. The SDS1000's sheer straightforwardness entices you in quite a different way.
Ordinarily, I'd have had grave reservations about an electronic musical instrument which didn't possess a couple of the magic five-pin DIN sockets labelled 'MIDI', but given the parallel development of the TMI, a pad trigger-to-MIDI interface which can be simply added at a later date, Simmons have again pre-empted any criticism. The SDS1000's designers are effectively saying to the newcomer to electronic percussion: 'look, you're going to need to get to know and use MIDI in the future, but right now, just concentrate on learning to use what you've got'. Given the general level of understanding of things electronic, and of MIDI in particular, that's quite a convincing argument.
Similarly, the advent of the SDE expander for Simmons kits means that the onboard programming limitations needn't dog you for the rest of your (or the kit's) working life. When the time is right to increase your sonic range, the hardware is there to make it possible - with a Simmons logo on it.
It's beginning to look as though whatever you want (or are likely to want) later in the electronic percussion field, Simmons intend to supply it. That might not suit everyone - some musicians prefer to choose from the ranges of several manufacturers. But many will choose to stick with the same make - knowing that whatever they buy will work with whatever they've bought previously, and that the resulting system has all come out of the same design room.
Speaking of which, I've visited the Simmons factory on four occasions now. On every visit, as I've pulled into the car park in front of the R&D room, there, sat among the test meters and oscilloscopes, his hair seemingly some days away from its last encounter with a comb, has been Dave Simmons himself. Obviously, the years haven't dampened his enthusiasm for modern drum technology, or his eagerness to develop new generations of equipment. Personally, I can't think of a more convincing argument to stick with Simmons.
Price £650 excluding hardware
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Review by Nigel Lord
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