More beats per pound
Chris Everard evaluates the new SDS7 and SDS8 drum systems from Simmons.
Simmons electronics are one of the very few companies who can justifiably claim that they started a revolution in musical instruments. They came to the forefront a few years back with the release of the SDS4. This was one of the very first drum synths on the market and featured four channels with drum pads that had real drumheads — made by Premier. At this time Simmons also had the Claptrap out. These two products were used mostly by the disco drummers of the time and laid the foundations of a truly outstanding kit — the Simmons SDS5, as seen on Top Of The Pops.
Since the release of the SDS5, Simmons haven't been sitting on their backsides watching the money coming in, they've brought out a suitcase controller for the SDS5, an amazing sequencer — the SDS6 eight channel — and recently entered the world of digital encoding with a cymbal pad and module for the SDS5 and a new digital version of the extremely popular Claptrap.
Recently Simmons have moved into a huge new factory and have installed lots of computer-controlled test equipment and several production lines that enable them to work at great speed — they were able to produce one drum pad every minute and one drum kit every seven minutes!
Simmons have now got two more revolutionary kits out — the SDS7 and the SDS8. The SDS7 is a digital/analogue hybrid unit incorporating real drum sounds stored on chips and an analogue section which is just as versatile (if not, more so) as the SDS5 — it's totally capable of producing the classic 'Simmons sound'. The SDS8 is a new version of the SDS5 at a drastically reduced price, but still has some very interesting features.
Both the SDS7 and 8 feature new improved pads and stand designs; the most important development being the softened playing area. The pads on the SDS5 were made out of solid wood and some sort of 'riot' plastic. Apparently, they had trouble getting the right sort of surface and opted for that design because it gave the greatest amount of trigger response. This made playing the SDS5 pads feel rather like hitting table tops, you always seem to get unwanted double triggers or flams if you hit them too hard. One result of this is that when a drummer, new to synths, gets carried away with the sounds he's producing, he turns the sensitivity controls on all the pads right up and leaves them there. When he wants more volume he hits harder — as you do on a real kit — which usually results in the pads having a very short life indeed, especially if they are being used live.
The seven and eight pad surfaces have a black coating of rubber — even the drum pad rim is rubber — and the rim and the playing surface appear to be made from a single piece. The new 'feel' is a tremendous improvement giving the stick just the right amount of bounce. It also gives the kit quite a different look from the drummer's point of view — with every rubber coated surface having the Simmons' logo emblazoned on it.
For drummers who use Simmons' tom pads (for instance), as part of their normal kit (ie, mixing old with new), this new innovation should be a godsend. The biggest problem when using SDS5 pads and real drums together was having to adjust your playing between the two. This could cause problems when doing tom fills using say, two Simmons pads and two real drums — especially if the fill had to be ultra smooth or extremely fast.
On the stand side of things a new 'hidden clamp' design has been employed. This means every pad has its own embedded metal clamp holder which the stand's arm fits into. Chrome wing nuts penetrate each pad shell to tighten the hold which results in ultra stable pads (believe me, they need to be!).
The synthesizer control unit to the SDS8 is a non-modular design, as opposed to the 5's overall design concept. Obviously the non-modular unit keeps down costs. It has five channels — one per drum voice and bass, snare and three toms — high, medium and low. Each channel contains the same controls which are: sensitivity, pitch, filter resonance, bend up and down, decay, noise/tone balance and click content. The bend gives you a drop or rise in pitch to the tone (if being used), as the sound decays. The classic Simmons sound uses just the right amount of tone and noise with a healthy dose of impact 'click'. The click provides bite and cut to any sound and enables rolls to be cleaner as every beat on the pad is easily heard.
At the bottom of each channel is a selector button which chooses between the factory preset and the user's programmable option. On the right hand side there is the master select button which changes all five channels at once. This function can be carried out more usefully by a footswitch (provided), which is great for stage work as it enables you to change the sounds of the complete kit without missing a beat. An interesting side-effect is that the master select is of the opposite-logic type, which means that if you have (for instance) two drums using the factory presets and the other three producing sounds that you have programmed, when the footswitch is depressed you'll have the exact opposite — two sounds of your own design and three factory presets.
The five factory presets contained in the 8's brain are quite simply fantastic. The design team have obviously gone for the classic Simmons sound with guts and meat (sounds tasty — Ed) thrown in for good measure. All the sounds have lots of power and cut. The bass drum is superb as are the three toms and the snare has just the right amount of 'crack' and warmth that allows it to shine through the most complicated of patterns.
On the user programmable side, the SDS8 has a huge range of possibilities — just as enormous as the SDS5's. Just as in the case of the 5, pseudo cymbal sounds can be created by using click, noise and the filter resonance. For drummers using bass, snare and just two toms, the remaining pad can be used for cymbal sounds. Because a pitch control has been included on each channel, you can have several pads all pitched roughly the same but with different filter and decay (for instance). This gives a very strange effect when used on the toms — it's extremely effective for overdubs.
If you mount the unit near at hand, it's possible to change the pitch manually while hitting the pad at the same time. This enables you to enlarge the size of the kit. On tape it sounds as if you've got half a dozen toms at least!
The 8 has jack connections as opposed to the SDS7 and 5's XLRs. The jacks were obviously put in to keep down costs, but I'm glad to see that Simmons haven't compromised on outputs — each channel has its own and its possible to link the 8 with the SDS6 sequencer via a multiway connector. The 8 also has an on-board stereo mixer with left and right outputs. Each channel has its own pan pot. For people with limited mixing facilities, panning the bass drum and lowest tom hard left and the rest of the kit hard right, with the snare going slightly to centre will allow you to equalize the kit quite evenly, before it's sent into the stereo field on the desk.
The inclusion of an onboard mixer at this price is truly outstanding value for money, considering all the other features. When I first heard about the SDS8 and the price, the compatibility with the SDS6 was the first thing that I thought would go out the window, but that's not the case.
One of the many reasons why Simmons are a world leader in the electronic drum kit game is their attention to quality of construction. Inside the SDS8, it's more or less a one-board design with everything, including the jack sockets, as an integral part of the PCB. In the factory, the empty boards come in and the various components are added, without any soldering to individual components being done. When the boards get to the end of the line, they're shrink wrapped in Cellophane so that the components can't fall out and are protected from grit and dust. Then they're put onto a flow soldering machine which does the job all in one.
After this stage, all the boards are put through computer controlled testing equipment that searches for any flaws in the circuitry. Then, all the boards are burned-in and checked before they go through to the final construction stage, where the body shell is fitted.
The SDS8 will come in one box (not small... not light), and will be available through all the present Simmons dealers. And the price is around £776 inclusive.
The SDS7 is a digital/analogue hybrid. It is the most powerful (in all departments), of the Simmons range of products with (internal) modular design and five modules already installed — bass, snare and three toms.
The SDS7 employs the now very popular digital access control system (DACS to his friends), and also has one of those continuous incremental knobs, as found on the immortal Yamaha DX7.
Thus the number of controls on the front panel looks deceptively small. The 7 is capable of containing up to 12 separate voicings, which is enough to keep any mere mortal happy. The memory is huge, with a full complement of cards (12) it can store 1,200 sounds — or put another way, one hundred different drumkits, each with 12 separate drums. In addition to this Simmons have given you the option to dump all of the memory onto the specially designed ROM cards (it takes just over one second), and this enables you to start from scratch again. ROM packs have obvious advantages over the humble audio cassette, as they're not prone to the hassles caused by tape drop-outs and recording levels.
Each module contains a high quality 16K sample of the appropriate drum, ie, bass, snare, tom etc. These were recorded in some instances straight onto Sony PCM F1 (Betamax cassettes), ready to be encoded onto micro chips. The digital samples are excellent, lacking none of the depth and colour of a real drum kit. The bass is thick on impact with a nice solid attack, it wasn't 'woolly' like so many others (some on units with very high price tags). The digital cymbal and digital hi-hat are good crisp recordings, also of excellent quality. On the digital side alone, the SDS7 scores higher than all the other units I've ever heard. The samples can be treated in various ways — their pitch can be varied and bend can be applied (up or down) as on the analogue side. You can route the samples through a filter with full control over cut-off frequency, sweep of cut-off frequency (up and down) and resonance. You're also able to adjust the decay of each sound. In addition, you can modulate each sample at a variable speed and add percussive click to the start of each sound when the pad is struck. It's important to point out that all of these functions are independent of each other — not only the analogue side but also each sample.
The analogue side is very similar in relation to the control functions available on the SDS5 and 8, with the added versatility of a modulation section. As you've already heard the analogue sound generation on Simmons kits is great, and can produce a myriad of different percussion effects and sounds. Where the SDS7 really turns into a monster is when the two sides are used together.
Through an HH MOSFET amplifier and a pair of Peavey PA speakers, the sound is overwhelming. A Simmons tom and a really deeply pitched tom, with different bends (one up and one down), both being modulated at different speeds was something which is truly difficult to put into words.
The DACS makes programming/editing sounds a real doddle. All you do is push the program button when you've selected what drum kit you want to muck about with and use the incremental knob to choose which voice in that kit needs changing. This is done by a series of flashing LEDs in each of the voice display windows on the front panel. When you've decided on a sound, you push the program button again and all the LEDs above the control buttons start to flash. Now you select a parameter and then push the appropriate button — say, for instance, decay — and then using the incremental knob, change the value, either up or down until you're happy with the new sound. To complete the cycle, you push program again and it's all stored. Simmons have also included a feature called 'jigsaw' which enables you to move designated information — a particularly nice tom sound, for instance — around inside the machine (eg, you could put drum kit No 54's bass drum on to number 7 and vice versa).
Another world-beating feature on the SDS7 is the selector pad. This lets you pre-program 16 of the 100 drum kit memories into the pad, so that when you're playing and wish to change the sounds, you just give the selector pad a whack in the right place and all the sounds on each individual pad will change to the preprogrammed ones in that particular drum kit preset.
This method has distinct advantages over the use of foot pedal selection as you can hit the selector pad directly on beat and know for sure that where you position it before you start playing is where its going to stay.
The 7 has the enormous advantage of being a modular system which facilitates hardware updates. If a certain voicing goes on the blink when you've got no worries about losing the whole unit for the period of time it takes to service the card — all you do is take the offending card back to your local dealer and carry on with the rest of the voice cards in the unit.
The 7 goes through the same rigorous test procedure as the 8 and again, the quality of construction is very high, it is a very sturdily built unit and I'm sure it could survive being hauled around by the most brainless of roadies! The 7 also has the advantage of being endowed with XLR connectors for everything, separate outputs and a mix output.
For all of you who read my review of the SDS6 sequencer in the January edition of ES&CM, I suppose it's already dawned on you the power that an SDS6 and 7 offer.
On the digital side of things you can have up to 12 samples — of better quality than most of the machines on the market and also the sound generating flexibility of the analogue side. Plus you have the advantage of being able to play the pads over the top of programmed rhythms. And all for a very reasonable £1875 + VAT (the aforementioned 6.7 package selling for £2,855.50).
The SDS7 and 8 represent the best in British musical instrument design and manufacture. In fact, they represent the best in musical instrument manufacture — period! It's a good enough endorsement in itself that the Japanese have so far been unable to come up with a contender to topple the Simmons Empire. Despite their obvious supremacy, however, as was shown by the proliferation of 'other' kits at the recent Frankfurt show, Simmons would be wise not to rest on their laurels.
Review by Chris Everard
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