Percussion Voice Expander
No space left in the rack for another Simmons module? After testing their latest percussion voice unit, Nick Rowland suggests you buy another rack to make room for it.
As the traditional electronic drum sounds become hackneyed, the people who invented them have produced a rack-full more. Are they sound value?
I HAVE RAISED my eyes to the firmament and divined within its myriad of sparkling constellations the following message. "The electronic drum kit is dead. Long live the electronic drum kit."
Those less given to mystical star-gazing might interpret thus. Three years ago, electronic drum kit manufacturers claimed that their devices were everything that acoustic kits could be and more. Since then, we've had to live with the moral outrage to which this preposterous statement gave vent, during which time your average drummers have had opportunity to investigate the mysterious power of the electron for themselves. Their considered conclusion? Simply that you don't have to come down on the side of one or the other. You can quite happily keep a foot in both camps. Who said compromise had gone out of fashion?
The Age of Enlightenment has in turn given way to the Age of Expansion, in which skin, wood, LEDs, MIDI and 1U rackmounting black boxes are seen for what they truly are - amiable and highly compatible companions in the rhythmist's evergrowing toolbox. Hence, the now familiar sight of hi-tech pads nestling among the chrome and blue sparkle or, even more recently, the shift towards triggering electronic sounds from acoustic drums, thereby combining the sound and feel of both.
So make way please, ladies and gents, for the Simmons MTX9, one particular rack filler which could prove a fine supplement to those traditional acoustic sounds. It's a three-channel module which gives you a choice of 13 sampled voices (electro, latin and percussion) per channel, all of which can be altered to suit your particular tastes (the parameters include pitch, decay, echo, and more) and the resulting patches or "kits" stored in 20 user memories. There are also 20 factory-programmed kits, which make a useful starting point from which to program your own variations.
The MTX can be triggered from pads and over MIDI, broadening its appeal to such individuals as the percussionist with an existing MIDI setup, the keyboard player, or the beatbox programmer who wants to add extra sounds to a drum machine.
Interestingly enough, when Simmons originally launched this module, the advertising emphasis was very much on its use as an expander for owners of the SDS9 electronic kit, and its ability to emulate the hybrid analogue/digital capabilities of the SDS7 as well as adding Latin effects.
However, acoustic drummers and percussionists have quickly realised the usefulness of the MTX9 as a stand-alone unit. Its memories give it more flexibility than Simmons' other add-ons (SDS200 and 400), while the sampled sounds are convenient to program and give the user a wide choice of options.
Having got over their initial surprise that this should be the case, Simmons have followed with the "MTX9 System", which includes three pads, leads and the box of tricks itself. The pads are available in all Simmons' usual colours, so there are no problems with mixing and matching.
The package price is £520, with a further £48 needed for one of Simmons' excellent double-braced Pearl-type stands capable of mounting all three pads.
LETS CONCENTRATE ON the electronics first. The MTX front panel follows the by now familiar Simmons layout - function buttons and large display LED in the middle, with black knobs to the right of them, black knobs to the left. The controls are grouped into five main sections: (L-R) Input Sensitivity, Mixing, Kit Programming and Storage, Individual Sound Programming, and Delay.
We'll start by bending our ears to the sounds and the kits into which they are organised. As I've said, there are 13 voices to choose from, a list of which is given at the side of the page. I was a bit surprised by this at first, since all Simmons' pre-publicity, the manual and the unit itself list only 11 sounds, but I was assured by Simmons that at the last minute, they found there was enough room to squeeze two more onto the chip - the mega tom and snare.
Overall, the voices are extremely good, with one or two exceptions either way. I'd single out the congas, cabasa and electro toms as particularly fine, with cowbell, claps and timbale not so good. Certainly, all the sounds are highly usable, which is obviously the whole point of the exercise, and with a touch of EQ here and a hint of reverb there (something which, let's face it, applies to any sound nowadays) any deficiencies you feel there to be can be made good. What follows is a comprehensive rundown of the sounds and my subjective opinion of them.
Power Tom: Deep toms recorded with just a touch of reverb, although they are still quite dry (especially at the front end of the sample), with a short decay. Use instead of or along with the real thing.
Dry Tom: Extremely dry with a very short decay. For this reason, it's ideal for musicians with EQ and effects at their disposal. Used neat, though, it does tend to choke at higher pitches, especially if the decay is set at anything but maximum.
Electro Tom: This is the classic sheep-exploding-in-the-distance Simmons sound - meaty, dirty, and extremely effective. Use at low pitches to wake them up at the back of the hall.
Timbale: Not entirely convinced by this one, I'm afraid. It didn't have that metallic sharpness I usually associate with timbales. Too wooden, in all senses of the word.
Conga: Cleanly recorded, this is a pleasant voice which plays well at all pitches and seems to fit in with whatever music you're playing - which is not always the case with conga samples.
Tambourine: The "ching" would benefit from a touch of reverb, or failing that, being played in a cave. Otherwise it tends to sound a little lifeless.
Cabasa: Faultless - though it's not difficult to record a cabasa well. Season with delay and serve up in a variety of pitches.
Clap: Somewhat half-hearted, this sounds more like a quiet gunshot in the next room. Perhaps Simmons would have done better to steal Roland's drum machine claps, as they seem to have the matter in, er, hand.
Cowbell: Rather more wooden than metallic sounding and cuts off too abruptly, even for an instrument which doesn't normally have that much decay. Twiddling with the pitch control doesn't help much, either. However, being very much a neutral sort of sound, a sympathetic treatment or two could transform this into something quite special.
Clave: Extremely effective, especially when used with the delay. Works well at any pitch, though once again, as this is only a short sound, decay has to be kept turned to Max.
Sidestick: This would make a slightly better cowbell, being more tinny than woody. However, mixed with the sounds of clave and cabasa, it could be used to replace that part of the rhythm which is usually played on the hi-hat.
Mega Tom: A lot of white noise and reverb on this one. Again as effective as the electro tom, particularly at low pitch where it resembles a large sheep exploding just inside the ear drums.
Snare: Careful tuning is needed to get this sounding much like a snare - at other pitches it becomes more a special effect than a recognisable instrument.
The various sounds and the ways in which you can program them are amply shown off by running through the list of factory preset kits. As I mentioned earlier, there are 20 of these organised into four banks of five, complemented by 20 user-programmable locations when you take the plunge and decide to make up your own kits. Each kit comprises three sounds (one for each channel, obviously) and for each channel you can choose any sound.
The factory kits fall into two categories: Banks A and B, 1-5 give you three versions of the same sound, eg. power tom kit, electro tom kit, conga kit and clap kit (the mind boggles); while banks C and D 1-5 mix various sounds together, eg. two dry toms and a cabasa, a clave and two congas, a timbale, cowbell and electro tom.
All the combinations are sensible and usable - not always the case with presets. And there's a handy guide printed on top of the unit to tell you what exactly you're getting when you dial up a factory kit, along with a list of sounds (only 11, though) and a circuit diagram. Not so handy when you put anything on top (set list, beer, copy of Music Technology or, more seriously, another rack unit), but the thought's there all the same.
PLAYING ABOUT WITH the factory kits soon whets your appetite for programming your own variations on the themes, so let's move on to the fun part - individual voice programming. Here you have four knobs to play with: Decay, Pitch, Shift and Sample. The Sample control dials up the voice you want to play with, while Decay and Pitch are self-explanatory. Shift is rather more intriguing, as it allows you to change the pitch of the voice dynamically. In other words, if you hit the pad harder, the voice will play a higher or lower note according to where you set the Shift control. This is intended to simulate the natural change in the pitch of an acoustic drum when it is hit harder, but used in extreme settings, it's actually quite a handy way of doubling up the output of the MTX9, because it effectively gives you two notes per pad. And even used more sensibly, it breathes a certain life into the samples which would otherwise, simply because of the nature of the sampled beast, tend to sound a little too one-dimensional.
The fun really starts, though, when we get onto the MTX's internal delay. This can be programmed for each individual channel in each kit - in other words, you can have a different type of effect on each voice within a kit. As regards control, you've got three knobs to play with: Decay, Rate, and Number. Number controls the number of repeats you get (obvious, really), which can be anything from 0-15. The Rate control alters the time which elapses before the sound is repeated - from virtually instantaneous (for a slapback echo effect) to several seconds. The Decay knob is then used to control the rate at which the echoes fade away - this is especially useful when using multiple echoes, as it prevents them from appearing to cut off too abruptly as they reach the end.
As you begin to familiarise yourself with the delay controls in conjunction with those for voice programming, you soon come up with the kind of interesting results that can make you look at rhythm in a fresh way. I always seem to get on to this subject when reviewing Simmons products, but in the case of the MTX, as in every other, it certainly seems to be true.
For a start, you can use the delay to create some very effective-sounding voices. The higher-pitched percussion sounds seem especially well suited to this. With a high number of echoes and a slow decay, you can create chugging effects from the cabasa, castanets from the claves, the deathwatch beetle's mating call from the sidestick, and so on. You can also use the echo to fill in rhythms which you'd otherwise need five hands to play. Program the tambourine to play a series of repeats, bring in the rest of the rhythm as it's playing, then catch it again just as it comes to the end. Simple.
Having created your sounds by pushing the various parameter values to their absolute limits, it's a simple matter of storing them for posterity in the user memory locations. (If you use up all 20 of these, you can save data to tape via a tape dump on the back of the unit.) As well as all the values associated with creating the voice for each kit, the MTX will also memorise the volume of each voice as well as the overall volume of the kit as a whole.
These values are controlled by the mixer section on the front panel. For a closer look at this, we need to cross to the left-hand side of the central LED display.
Here we find a volume pot for each MTX voice, plus three others labelled Ext 1, Ext 2 and Ext 3. A glance at the back panel reveals inputs for three external sound sources - originally intended to be the three tom outputs from the SDS9 in order to create those analogue/digital sounds I was talking about earlier. However, don't let that limit you. What we are talking about here is an incredibly useful, programmable sub-mixer, an excellent way of balancing the volume of any other electronic gear you happen to be using with the MTX and then feeding the whole lot to a PA, or to headphones if you're using them for practice/monitoring. There are three outputs for this purpose on the back panel if PA inputs are in abundance. Otherwise, if you're a drummer sharing sockets with guitar, bass, four vocalists and three keyboards (as I have to do), there's the extremely useful Mix output, the volume of which is controlled by a further knob on the mixer section on the front.
The only criticism I can make of the mixer functions is to say it's a shame you can't apply delay to the incoming external channels. This is due to the MTX's intended role as a dedicated expander for the SDS9, which itself has a built-in delay.
One other control I should also briefly mention is the one labelled Dynamic, just to the right of the three Input Sensitivity pots. This can make any softer strokes considerably louder, thereby levelling out rolls and flams. Turned to maximum, it'll produce a compression effect in which all strokes appear to be the same strength no matter how hard you hit them.
This function, of course, applies when using pads to trigger the MTX9. I did mention earlier that the voices of the MTX9 can be accessed over MIDI, for which Simmons have provided all the usual functions for MIDI percussion. You can program channel and note numbers, plus MIDI modes which allow you to access the different kits via program-change information.
The MTX is all take and no give, in the sense that it will not itself transmit MIDI information - though it is equipped with a MIDI Thru socket which allows incoming MIDI information from a controlling unit (say a trigger-to-MIDI converter) to be passed on via the MTX to another voice unit (say a drum machine).
ITS THIS CHOICE of accessing sounds which makes the MTX so versatile. If you've got a MIDI setup already, you can use a combination of triggering by pads and by MIDI to create a series of effects. If MIDI leaves you cold, you can just plug in the pads and get on with things straight away.
The MTX9 successfully combines user-friendliness and fairly complex facilities with which you may experiment (almost) to your heart's content. The factory preset kits provide a useful facility for those who don't want to dip their toes in the waters of programming (and Simmons' experience indicates that many owners don't ever get beyond this stage). Yet creating your own sounds is really where the MTX9 comes into its own, and where most of its capabilities lie. Get hooked on this side of things and you'll soon be wishing there were twice the number of user memories.
At just over £500, the MTX9 compares favourably with any other method you might choose of adding a number of electronic voices to your setup. And with the added advantage of the delay and mixing facilities, the MTX9 package actually adds up to a lot more.
The MTX9 deserves to be popular. It fills a slot in the market for a versatile peripheral unit which is simple to use, but which above all reflects the rhythmist's needs, be they acoustic skin basher, percussionist, electronics whizz-kid, or beatbox addict. Long live the electronic drum kit.
Price £520 including VAT
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Review by Nicholas Rowland
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