An electrified Peter Randall looks at the Syndrums syndrome.
The traditional drum kit has not changed much over the last 30 years (with the possible exception of concert toms and heavy duty hardware) and it was not until the electronic keyboard took a firm hold on the market in the early 1970s that electronic instrument designers realised the drummer was the only member of a group not spending hard-earned money on various electronic devices to vary the sound. We have seen a few electronic or synthesised drums come and go with varying degrees of success, the most notable being the Moog percussion controller which has been used by a few players in recent years live and on record. But this was really just an accessory to the Minimoog synthesiser and as such only produced the sounds that were programmed on the Moog console. One interesting feature of the Moog percussion controller was a touch-sensitive head which reacted to hard or soft playing on the head by varying in pitch. The drum itself is made under licence by Ludwig and has an 8in diameter head. The main reason for these drums not becoming a great success among drummers was that a Moog synthesiser was needed to operate the drum.
This brings us to Syndrums, probably the most successful drum synthesisers to date. The fact that I had a basic knowledge of synthesisers and electronic instruments helped me in writing this review and I would recommend any drummer or percussionist who is thinking of playing Syndrums with any degree of expertise to get acquainted with a basic knowledge of synthesiser operation. Understanding the basic principles of electronic sound and its various forms makes for faster setting up on the gig if you know what treatment to use on the sound source, ie the different wave-forms: sine (pure tone), triangle (moderate harmonics) or square wave (rich harmonics), and treatments of these basic sounds with vibrato, sustain, sweep, tone, tune and fine tune.
The Syndrums consist of three main components, four 8in pads, a control console and a foot pedal controller. The drums and console can be mounted on popular makes of stands by Pearl, Premier, Ludwig or Tama (or, of course, the optional Syndrum stands). All four drums are identical so position is not critical and the console will fit on to a snare drum stand quite comfortably. It must be stated that Syndrums or similar percussion synthesisers do not replace the conventional drum kit but are meant to add more sound to the drummer or percussionist's creative art.
The four 8in pads are the actual drum part of Syndrums and resemble practice pads in appearance. Fitted with Evans heads they have a realistic drum feel. All heads are tuneable with a special tool supplied which is used rather like a ratchet to tension or loosen the head, accordingly. The heads can be changed using the same ratchet or dissembling tool which fits into four holes on the underside. By holding the drum with your left hand and the handle in your right, the drums can be unscrewed by turning the ratchet counter-clockwise. If you just need to tension the head, a very small turn will suffice but if you need to dissemble the drum, the ratchet should be turned until it releases the screws inside.
The drums themselves are made from a material called polycarbonate which is a very tough type of plastic and appears to be able to stand up to any reasonable amount of bashing. On the underside of each pad is a jack socket which connects to the main console via a six-pin keyed connector, each drum being individually controllable on the console and all operating totally independently of each other. As the drums are all the same size, positioning around the kit should not be too much of a problem but drummers with large kits may have to position them at the side of the kit out of the way of cymbals and tom toms for the most advantageous position. The drums can be individually adjusted for height by means of a winged eye bolt on a knurled rod at the back of the drum.
The pedal consisted of two separate foot plates each having a different function, the first being a cut-off switch which is self-explanatory and allows any sound produced to be instantly cut off by means of depressing the pedal, and the second and larger pedal is used for any of the drum channels for pitch bending or 'swooping' effects. A male stereo jack plug is needed for this pedal since a standard guitar lead will not work; the other end is connected to the console.
By far the most complex part of Syndrums, the console has four main sections — one for each drum — and has the same functions on each section, consisting of the following ten items:
1 The Volume Slider — adjusts the volume levels of Channel 1 only.
2 The Sustain Slider — adjusts the length of time (from 0-20 seconds) a tone sounds after the drum head is struck.
3 Sweep Switch and Slider — the up/down/off switch controls the direction of sweep and the Range Slider determines the tonal range. The rate of the sweep is altered by the setting of the sustain slider.
4 Vibrato Switch and Sliders — the Rate slider determines the speed of pitch variation from approximately 0.5Hz to 250Hz. The Spread Slider sets the depth of the effect (the amount of pitch deviation) set at '0' which turns off the vibrato. The switch selects the wave form used to achieve vibrato, saw-tooth, triangle or square wave.
5 Snare Switch in Position '1': striking the drum produces a tight rock snare sound. Position '2' creates a loose, concert snare. 'Off' gives no snare.
6 At the left hand side of the console there are four sensitivity controls marked from 1 to 4 for each of the drums controlling the sensitivity on each drum. Full clockwise rotation is maximum sensitivity, meaning that the sound is triggered with a light touch.
7 A Master Volume Control sets the overall level on all channels but does not affect the headphone output.
8 'Amp On/Phones Only' switch — normally the switch is set to 'amp on'. In 'phones only' mode all outputs are silenced and signal is fed only to the headphone output, so 'silent' adjustments can be made.
9 Headphones Jack — for any low or high impedance stereo headphones (600ohm headphones are recommended).
10 Volume On control for headphones output only.
At the back of the console there are sockets for pedal jack, the drum connector, a six-pin screw-locking connector, and high-level output jacks. These standard phone jacks carry the unbalanced individual outputs from channels one to four. Being high-impedance, they are ideally suited for line inputs on mixing consoles, and for low-impedance inputs via di boxes. However, low-impedance mic inputs on a console will be overloaded by these outputs if connected directly without a di box. The low-level output jacks have almost identical functions, but are designed to match high-impedance, high-sensitivity inputs. In many ways, these outputs are electrically similar to the output from an electric guitar, and will drive normal instrument amps directly.
The mixed outputs, balanced and unbalanced, both carry the same sound: a straight mono mix, four to one, of the four Syndrum channels. The XLR (Cannon) connector supplies a transformer-balanced output suitable for feeding low-level, low-impedance mic inputs on a mixing console — very good for studio use, and, despite long cable-runs, no hum is detectable.
The power input on the review model had been converted to the British power supply of 240 volts from the American 110 volts, so if you purchase Syndrums direct from the States this should be checked before any mains connection.
By far the most impressive sound that I managed to coax from the Syndrums resembled a deep tom tom sound with a long delay, using the sweep switch in the down position. This type of sound is, incidentally, the most widely used in the studio and can be found on a large number of albums released over the past year or so.
A number of patch charts are supplied with every set of Syndrums along with suggested settings for various sounds. A large variety of sounds can be achieved including chimes, tubular bells, claves, wood blocks, bird calls, anvil, bass drum and, of course, more synthesiser-oriented sounds with sample and hold, repeat and some Star Wars-type space sounds.
There are, of course, instant sounds to start you off and the variation on each one is infinite, bearing in mind that all the drums can be set up for a sound individually. A different type of sound can be set on each one, for example tubular bells, tom toms or chimes, and the drums can be tuned to varying musical intervals. The range of sweep is a full two octaves and the pedal has a one octave downward sweep range. The tone wave shape is sine, triangle or square wave, common to most synthesiser consoles.
To conclude, I thought that the day or so that I had to review this instrument was not enough to fully explore the possibilities of Syndrums and the subtle differences in tone and pitch. I was generally very impressed with the layout of controls, connectors and sockets which were obviously well thought out and neatly designed. Even if you have never sat down at a synthesiser before, the console will make sense after a short while because of this. The price of the Syndrums in the UK is a bit prohibitive for a lot of people, but if you can justify the price by the amount of sessions you will get or by hiring it out, then it is a worthwhile investment.
Lastly, I would like to thank Clem Cattini of the Cliff Richard group for lending his Syndrums for this review.
The Syndrum system reviewed in this issue is the prototype model 477. Since the kit was examined the manufacturers have replaced it with the 478. This has the same basic appearance, but has an additional facility: the snare sustain switch has been replaced by a linear fader giving full control of the snare sustain time. The original snare switch now controls the type of noise source, white or pink. US rrp for the 478 is $1698. Pollard Industries Inc also produce a modular system, with the first drum at $495 and subsequent add-on units at $395. Also previewed at NAMM this year is a new addition to the range, a single snare type drum at the remarkable price of only $150, thus placing synthesised percussion within every drummer's reach.
Peter Randall is an ex-pro drummer now working as a salesman at Henrit's Drum Store in central London.
Review by Peter Randall
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!