"Go back through the middle of town, take the Hatfield Road and look out for the Payless DIY warehouse on the right, you'll find them just behind it."
Here was our first shock. The Simmons SDS5 electronic drum kit had obviously been such a commercial success that its makers had been forced into virtual tax exile outside of St. Albans. They had forsaken the ivy clad tranquility of Abbey Mill Lane in favour of a brand new building, all straight lines and smoked glass: the essence of modern anonymity.
My bemused companion on this expedition was Dave Stewart. No, not the Eurythmic one. This one had helped to catapult Dave Simmons into the world of mass production and the industrial estate by purchasing his very first Claptrap and thence a set of customised, prototype wooden pads and an SDS5 module back when everyone was still laughing at the Syndrum.
We came in search of the eagerly anticipated SDS7 which although being officially unveiled at the Frankfurt Trade Fair last month, was still undergoing alterations in design and improvements in sound quality when we arrived at the factory, where Geoff Howorth ushered us into their demo room to show us a kit set up in conjunction with a Yamaha PA.
After an hour of thrashing and fiddling with the said item, even my dull wits were telling me that this new generation of Simmons drums is going to be so hugely popular that by this time next year Dave Simmons will probably be able to buy St. Albans outright and ship it to Venezuela, neatly beyond the grasp of the Inland Revenue.
The new kit retains all the best features of the SDS5 but introduces many exciting and attractive improvements. The familiar sounds are still there. So are the hexagonal pads, but the playing surface has been made more accessible by replacing the riot shield plastic of the 5 with rubber, which fits across the top and over the sides of the pad and is sculpted to provide its own, built-in rim. This affords more dynamic response (though still only about forty per cent of the response of an acoustic drum) and the feel of a practice pad. Both welcome developments.
Besides being more pleasant to play the pads are now all but indestructible. The two piece electrical sensors have no moving parts and all the soldered joints are protected by a silicone gel which never sets. Geoff told us of a pad which was still usable despite having been damaged by fire.
It's in actually synthesising its sound that the SDS7 is radically different from it's predecessor. Firstly its rack housing can accomodate 12 modules (as opposed to the seven in the SDS5), though only five are supplied with the regular kit. To generate its sound, the 7 offers much the same set of analogue oscillators as the SDS5, but now also contains a set of digitally recorded real drum sounds which can be blended or used separately, according to the taste of the user.
By the time you go to your local dealer for an explanatory bash these digital sounds will be of even better quality than those which Dave and I heard. Geoff was booked into the Townhouse in Shepherds Bush two days after our visit, where he was planning to record a new selection of real drum and cymbal samples, hoping, in particular, for a good ride cymbal (not included in the test kit), and generous use of their live room.
Such attention to quality will be welcomed by all drummers, especially since the rack's memory system is designed to encourage imaginative and subtle programming. It will store 100 different drum kit sounds and each part of each kit can be adjusted separately. But how, you're thinking.
When you get your kit, it arrives with 100 preset drum kits already stored, each kit being allocated a number from 1 to 100. Let's say that you want to improve the sound of the snare drum on kit number 25.
First you press the program button (which is the red one on the right hand end of the bottom row as you look at the front of the rack), and the kit number currently available flashes up on the numerical display. To find kit 25 you turn controller (the big black job), clockwise for higher figures, anti-clockwise for lower ones. As you do so, the numbers change accordingly. Having registered 25 you press program again and a red light flashes at the top of the first module on the left. By turning the same incremental control the light will gradually work its way across the selection of modules, indicating that this module is ready to be programmed.
Having moved the light along to the snare drum module you press program a third time and all the function lights (the group of buttons on the right of the rack) begin to flash. Now you can start to adjust any of the component parts of the snare drum sound.
To find out exactly how much of that sound is made up by its digital sample you press the level button on the digital section (the blue one on the right hand end of the second row from the top), and the numerical display now shows a number between 0 and 256. This indicates the degree of level in use. 0 will mean that none of the digital sample is in use, 256 will mean that all of it is in there somewhere.
Let's say that the reading shows 136 and you want more of this real sound. All you have to do is turn our old friend the incremental control clockwise and whack away at the snare drum pad until it sounds right to your ears. As you turn, the number on display will increase. If you want less digital sample just turn the knob the other way.
OK. Now let's say that you're not happy with the pitch of the digital part of the snare sound, it's too high. Press the pitch button on the digital level (blue, left end of second row from top), and the display now shows the level of the pitch, again somewhere between 0 and 256. By turning the control anti-clockwise the pitch will drop as you hit the pad. Having sorted that out you can check every part of the snare sound by this same, straightforward process.
Unlike the SDS5 you can completely eliminate the click at the front of a sound (white, bottom row, second from left), should you not want to use it. The disadvantage might appear to be that you can't fiddle with all of the component elements simultaneously as with the SDS5 or, say, Prophet synth. However, I reckon that with practice this method will prove to be more useful. It will encourage the user to analyse the sound very carefully and to be able to detect flaws or deficiencies by ear, rather than just fiddling aimlessly until it sounds good. By this system you can see how the sound is created and thus what might be good or bad about it. It will encourage decision making and a positive approach.
Hold up, you're thinking, what if I like the snare drum on kit 22, the toms on 4, the bass drum on 98 and the cymbals on 67? No problem. You can compile a new kit from existing elements of other kits by using the system's jigsaw facility which involves holding the desired sounds in the limbo of 0 before assigning them to a particular number.
So there you are with 100 fabulous presets ready and waiting to impress all at your next gig. Will the band have to hold everything whilst you grab the torch and furiously twirl your incremental control? Luckily, no. The SDS7 also includes a rectangular selector pad which is divided into 16 segments to each of which you can assign your choice of 16 favourite kits. So you're playing away, you want to switch to kit 9 so you simply tap segment 9 on your selector pad with your stick and bingo! You sound like Derek Guyler.
And sound like Derek Guyler you will, if such is your wish. By this Summer Simmons will be marketing a sampling device which will work in conjunction with the SDS7. You will be able to record a scrape on your washboard into it which will be stored in an E-prom chip which you can then insert into the module of your choice by whipping the front panel off, pulling out the module on its runner and swapping the chips over. All of which should be achieved in about 30 seconds, thus leaving you plenty of time to lead the inevitable Skiffle revival.
And don't worry about quality. The frequency response on the conventional kit recordings alone is as good as anything that the human ear can detect: 16K for snare, bass drum and toms, 32K for hi-hat and cymbals (which also have a two second sample time). And they reckon to be able to knock it out for a couple of hundred quid.
As if all this doesn't give the drummer enough flexibility, the SDS7 also has a memory dump system with which you can store 50 of your programs onto a ROM cartridge similar to that employed by the Yamaha DX7 keyboard. You press out D.U.M.P. (along the second from top row of blue buttons), select high or low resolution to store either kits 1 to 50 or 51 to 99, press program and 0.4 of a second later it's all over. This would seem to be a vital safeguard for any user, the possibility of an electrical surge or battery fault wiping all 100 memories can never be entirely ruled out even if there is no wish to create more than the standard number of programs.
At this early stage it's very hard to think of any obvious flaws. There may be a multicore connection on the back of the rack for connection to the Simmons sequencer, but the SDS7 will still interface with other types of rhythm machine.
What will all this cost? The regular kit will consist of a rack (£650), five modules, five pads, stands and selector pad and will retail for £1850. Each extra module will cost £135 and each pad about £50. The price of the sampling unit is, as yet, speculative, but is estimated at about £200. The ROM packs at about £30.
Will it be worth it? You bet. The Simmons SDS7 is not a substitute for an acoustic kit, it's an alternative. And what an alternative. In the same way that a synthesiser can't compete with an acoustic piano for its touch sensitivity nor tonal response on its own terms but compensates by offering characteristics which make it a valid instrument in its own right, the SDS7 is a wonderful opportunity to find new and exciting sounds which will only be limited by the imagination of the user.
By the time you read this, the kits will be in the shops, so get the next bus down there, drive the assistant barmy as you try it all for yourself, but above all go and have a listen, you're in for a shock. And remember where you heard it first.
Review by Andy Duncan
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