The people who invented the electronic drum introduce MIDI — and a decidedly acoustic sound - with the advent of a new kit, the SDS9. Nigel Lord gives his verdict.
Electronic drum technology is proceeding apace, as Simmons' new SDS9 kit aims to give drummers the hi-tech benefits keyboard players have been enjoying for years. It's guaranteed to succeed.
The unfortunate, but economically necessary, system of planned obsolescence rarely gives designers the chance to build much in the way of real innovation into each season's new products. True, the hi-tech musical instrument market is one in which R&D departments are given a freer hand than most, but that's largely because modern musicians currently possess a seemingly unquenchable thirst for the new, the revamped, and the updated. All the manufacturers are doing is responding to that thirst.
In the short history of the electronic drum, Simmons Electronics (the people that started it all, remember) have been the company responsible for most of the really significant developments. But when you've succeeded in acquiring that sort of reputation, the last thing you can afford to do is sit back and relax.
Hence the SDS9, Simmons' most recent electronic kit, and a machine that fills the gap between the budget SDS8 (now SDS800) and the complex, upmarket SDS7. Because the 9's development team knew they had a hard act to follow, the new kit has more than its fair share of technical innovations, all of which have genuinely far-reaching implications for the future of electronic drums — and the percussion world in general, for that matter.
Strangely enough, when I first clapped eyes on the kit, I wasn't particularly impressed. OK, the pads looked a little sharper, but the control unit looked like nothing more than an updated SDS8, and there was nothing visible that suggested anything revolutionary. But when I sat down at it, all that changed - very quickly.
So what am I sitting behind? Well, basically a five-piece drum kit combining analogue, digital and software-generated percussion voices, that allows you to access the sounds of up to 40 different drum-kits at the touch of a button, features playing surfaces of quite remarkable responsiveness, with a degree of dynamic control previously unheard of on electronic kits. It has a snare pad featuring rimshot and cross-stick facilities - combining three separate voices. The tom-toms are switchable to sound like either single- or double-headed drums, and the bass pad features a unique piston-loaded head assembly. The control unit is fully MIDI-compatible, and therefore allows you to transfer the sounds generated by a synthesiser to the kit, and play them as percussive instruments via the pads. Similarly, it can be connected to MIDI-equipped drum machines, rhythm programmers and sequencers acting as either the controlling or the controlled unit. It has a built-in programmable echo feature, and a headphone output for silent practice or setting-up. It even has an auto-demonstrate function to show you what it can do without anybody having to move a muscle.
Impressed? You ought to be - all I've done is scratch the surface. But a brilliantly long and useful specification isn't everything, so if the SDS9 is to impress me (and musicians in general) there's got to be some way of getting the best from all these wonderful facilities in practice. There is, and it starts where you'd expect drum innovation to start: with the pads.
Simmons have obviously gone out of their way to improve their pad design - and have gone to equal lengths letting us know how much it's all cost them. Apparently, the pads represent an investment of over £100,000, which was spent completely redesigning their pad structure, and the materials employed in their manufacture. The head playing surface has undergone a similarly radical rethink, and is now completely 'floating' as a result of the hard surface beneath the rubber sheet being fastened only to the rubber itself, not to the body of the pad. The entire head is able to move up and down a little due to the elasticity of the rubber; it's an apparently simple design concept that's proved remarkably effective in providing a drum-like playing feel.
The other major area of pad development lies in the design of the snare, or more specifically, in the inclusion of the rimshot and cross-stick facilities. This, too, has been partly responsible for the hundred-grand drain on Simmons' bank account, but the investment has been worthwhile: as far as I know, the 9's is the first electronic snare to incorporate these facilities. It's certainly the first to include a rim-derived trigger pulse, which fires a separate voice, as the snare combines three individual voices, triggered either by the pad itself, the rim (for cross-stick strokes), or the pad and the rim together (for rimshot strokes).
The tom-tom pads are identical in design to the snare pad, which is just as well, as in terms of stick response, this design is quite simply excellent. They're as close in feel to an acoustic drum as they need to be - there's really nothing more to be said. The bass pad, meanwhile, is what Simmons describe as piston-loaded, and this too results in the feel of the pad being quite indistinguishable from that of its acoustic counterpart.
All this would be of no use if the pads weren't mounted on something capable of supporting them properly, but fear not: the associated hardware is of high quality, the Pearl stands being heavy duty and extremely rigid, as are the bass spurs, which look pretty formidable creatures.
"Visuals: I can think of only one kit — not yet available — that will rival the SDS9 for stage presence... a strikingly aggressive appearance."
Cosmetically, the sharper (than those of older Simmons kits) angles of the new pads gives the SDS9 a strikingly aggressive appearance. I can think of only one kit (and even that isn't yet available) that will rival this one for stage presence...
Some people have taken to calling electronic percussion control units 'brains', something I refuse to do on the grounds that it implies the module is thinking for you - which plainly it is not. Instead, the job of the control unit is to house all the voicing electronics and give the user access to them in as friendly a way as possible. Which, in the majority of cases, means keeping things simple.
Thus, the SDS9's unit is a rather innocuous-looking steel box, with a few knobs, buttons and sockets, and an LED readout. But given the number of variable parameters the SDS9 has (and the fact that, trio of snare voices included, the kit has seven drum voices in all), there are surprisingly few controls on the unit's front panel. Inevitably, the reason for this doesn't lie only in a desire to keep things user-friendly; it's also been done this way for reasons of economy, as many of the knobs have shared functions, or can be used to control the same parameter on different instruments. This is now standard practice in synthesiser design, and if you can put up with it on an average polysynth, there's no reason why it should cause you any more worries in a drum context, either.
Sound verdicts? Complex but conclusive, and starting with the bass drum. This is software-generated (Simmons are being cagey when it comes to releasing precise details of precisely how), and has two basic ingredients: Thump and Click. To get the most out of these, there are five variable parameters: Click Amount, Click & Thump Pitch, and Click & Thump Length. Those parameters might sound fairly arbitrary, but they've been well chosen. I can't recall an electronic bass drum that gave the user such a wide variety of useful sounds. Forget the old style of drum synthesiser, where a standard module is used for all the voices, tuned high for the toms, and low for the bass drum. Forget even the usual sampled bass drum sound, unvarying in character no matter which way you play it. This is the sort of bass drum most studio engineers or producers would give their right arm for - and it's playable. Use the five controls carefully, and the sound can be anything from impeccably tight to over-poweringly thunderous - and because you can program sounds and change them instantly, it can even be tight and thunderous within the same song.
But as I've already implied, Simmons have done more than simply employ one design technique in the hope that it'll suit all applications. Experience and the passage of time has taught them that despite the benefits of digital electronics, the sound of tom-toms, and in particular the sound of Simmons toms, is still best generated using analogue circuitry, and as a result, this is precisely what we find onboard the SDS9. And for once in our increasingly dogmatic world, pragmatism has paid off.
With analogue voicing circuitry allowing a greater degree of control over sound parameters, you can get the SDS9 toms to sound not only like the punchy Simmons drums we all know, love and are exposed to every time we watch an American TV cop-show, but like acoustic toms as well. Programming care is essential, of course, but even among the factory voices, there are some deliciously natural tom sounds.
And as I mentioned earlier, these include either single- or double-headed drums, possible thanks to a rather nifty little bit of Simmons design work called a second-skin feature. Electronically speaking, this comprises modulating the tone of the drum with a second unrelated tone to produce a deeper sound, rich in harmonics. To all intents and purposes, this has the same aural effect as putting a bottom head on a tom-tom. And as with all the other effects and controls on the SDS9, this facility is programmable, so you can switch from single- to double-headed toms instantly - not exactly a feasible proposition on an acoustic kit, no matter how fast your roadie works.
Another clever tom-tom feature, and one that can save an awful lot of setting-up/tuning time (and a corresponding amount of dosh in the studio), is the ability of the medium and low toms to reproduce the sound of the high tom at (obviously) lower pitches. In other words, after setting up the first tom for the sound you want, you press 'copy tom', and that sound is transferred to the second and third toms at descending pitches. And voila, three instantly set-up and tuned toms.
"Sounds: Where the bass drum is software-generated and the toms are analogue, the snare sounds employ digital sampling techniques."
Moving onto the snare, it's probably fair to say that this is where the bulk of the SDS9's innovative design work lays. Where the bass drum is software-generated and the toms are analogue, the snare makes use of digital sampling techniques, something that involves the use of EPROMs within the control unit.
The three voices that comprise the snare are all stored on EPROMs, and these are accessible via a small opening hatch in the top left-hand corner of the control unit. Theoretically, using sampling should enable you to record the perfect snare drum sound and store it in memory for instant recall, but life is rarely as Utopian as that. If anything, the basic snare sound is a little on the dry side, but given the wealth of control parameters on the SDS9 (not to mention the outboard equipment it's likely to encounter in a studio, for example), having an uneffected voice to start from might not be such a bad thing in any case. And dry or not, it's still a real killer of a snare. The cross-stick sample is also superb, with plenty of ambience and a sharply cutting edge, while the rimshot too is excellent. Sorry about the superlatives, but I was impressed.
The reason for the snare EPROMs being accessible is to provide a small-scale version of the facility found on the earlier and more costly SDS7, namely interchangeability of digitally-sampled sounds. Unlike the SDS7, which allows EPROM-changing across all its channels, the SDS9 restricts this to just the snare EPROMs, but it's still, obviously, a useful facility to have. You're not confined to replacing the existing chips with snare sounds, of course. In fact, you can opt for any sound in Simmons' already extensive library of sounds, or go it alone and record your own samples with the Simmons EPROM Blower (see review, E&MM January '85). Imagine the hilarity as an unsuspecting friend strikes your SDS9 snare, only to be greeted with the sound of a timbale, or a broken bottle, or a gingerbread man being snapped in half, or whatever your imagination can convince your body into recording.
Are there any more significant innovations on the SDS9? Why, yes. There's the programmable echo, for a start. You can adjust the number of repeats this inbuilt device generates, from a single slapback echo to multiple and decaying repeats, and you can vary its speed, too. But what's really clever about it is the way echo only begins after the last beat on the drum being played, so it doesn't muddle up your drumming. And because it isn't actually real echo at all, merely the drum in question being retriggered at lower and lower levels, you never find yourself playing out of time with the repeats, as you could with an ordinary delay unit. It's fully programmable, can be switched in or out at any time, and can be applied to any or all of the drums; the choice is yours, and much-praise is due to Simmons for giving it to you.
On the subject of programmability, the 40 drum-kits accessible from the SDS9 control unit are made up of 20 factory-programmed kits and 20 user-programmable kits, which is where your creative genius is allowed full flight. It's worth noting that among all the 20 factory presets, there's nothing really outlandish, unexpected or risque. This I take as further evidence that Simmons are aiming this kit very much at unconverted acoustic drummers looking for improved, more consistent versions of their existing sounds. Suffice it to say this is exactly what they'll get, but to a degree most of them will scarcely be capable of anticipating.
But if the average drummer is going to get more out of the SDS9 than any previous electronic kit, the average synth player isn't going to be left out, either. We've already seen that the 9's control unit incorporates the familiar synth programming method of digital parameter access, but there's another - equally familiar - synth feature on the back panel: MIDI.
Now that a good many contemporary (and reasonably-priced) synths are capable of generating astonishingly realistic percussive noises, it makes sense to have a facility for triggering those sounds by hitting something. And that's precisely what the SDS9's implementation of MIDI allows you to do, among other things.
The system works both ways, of course, so that in addition to being able to play synth voices from the drums, you can also play SDS9 sounds from a keyboard, or use a MIDI sequencer to trigger them automatically in your own rhythm patterns. Who needs a drum machine?
"Facilities: Now that synths can produce realistic percussion sounds, it makes sense to have some means of triggering them by hitting something."
Well, the features on the SDS9 haven't been exhausted, but sadly my space has. All I can do is make brief mention of a few of the remaining ones. Like the separate output sockets for each instrument on the rear panel; the footswitch for stepping through the five kits in each bank; the Button Tap that allows you to trigger each voice from the control panel; the trigger inputs which let you use non-MIDI sequencers and programmers to play the SDS9; the tape-dump facilities; the choice of five pad colours... But like I say, space is running out, so I guess I'd better start wrapping things up.
The launch of the SDS9 sees Simmons gunning for the acoustic drum market in a big way, make no mistake. And if the SDS9 doesn't finally persuade drummers to regard electronics not only as an extremely useful tool, but as one that'll guarantee their future as creative musicians, nothing will.
Yet there's more to the new kit than a bold broadside at the traditional percussion market. There's plenty in it for non-drummers, too, as the inclusion of MIDI should show.
My only grievance with the SDS9 is that we should have had it, or something like it, 12 months ago. It's not taking anything away from Simmons to say there's nothing particularly revolutionary about the technology involved in the new kit's design; it's only the application of this technology that hasn't been seen before.
So full marks to Simmons for almost single-handedly pushing back the boundaries of electronic percussion. There's still some way to go, I feel, before drums and drummers will be able to extract the same benefit from new technology that keyboardists can gain, but the SDS9 is evidence that one company, at least, is doing its darnedest to ensure the balance is righted sooner rather than later.
Review by Nigel Lord
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