The New Simmons Kits
Simmons SDS7 and SDS8
In a special report, Ultravox drummer Warren Cann takes a look at two new electronic drum-kits from Simmons - the people who started it all. One is a straight forward 'Simmons-sound-on-a-budget' model, the other a sophisticated modular system employing both analogue and digital sound-generation, as well as versatile user-programmability.
The race to design and manufacture the most complete electronic drum kit is hotting-up, and Simmons, the people who started it all, have been making strenuous efforts to stay ahead of the field. Their endeavours have now come to fruition in the form of two new kits, the low-cost SDS8 and the modular, analogue/digital SDS7. Ultravox drummer and longtime Simmons enthusiast Warren Cann recently had the chance to sample both models, and here reports his findings.
Having never previously experienced the Frankfurt Musik Messe, I had plenty of time during my flight home to reflect upon my folly of assuming I would be able to see all there was to see in just one day. I knew it was big but I really had nothing to prepare me for just how big it really was. Three huge halls contained within just two of the many buildings sighted on a gigantic exhibition complex displayed so much in the way of musical equipment and related products that I was at a complete loss as to where to look first.
I decided that the best approach would be to establish a set of priorities and then endeavour to stick to them as closely as distractions (and there were many) would allow. The most sensible idea appeared to be to seek out the major manufacturers, the ones with the facilities and R&D budgets to develop their products to the outermost competitive edge, who have precedents to top.
I narrowed this down to a list of about a dozen companies and set out, and it'll come as no surprise to most readers that one of these manufacturers was Simmons Electronics. I had heard about their SDS7 and SDS8 systems and it was these, in particular, that I sought out on their lavish display stand. When I arrived I was informed that the SDS7 rack on show was a prototype and that they had been experiencing some difficulties with it, one of the vital chips inside having gone down and a second having to be flown out from England. That failure reminded me that the most wonderful piece of gear in the world is just so much superfluous junk if it doesn't work when you need it most. It's too easy for designers to forget the jolts, temperature shocks, and general environmental abuse that gear can be subjected to while they're in a cosy lab somewhere enthusing about a new circuit...
Wishing to judge the SDS7 in somewhat less hectic (and more representative) conditions, I made arrangements to visit their new premises in St Albans. The new plant has only been in operation for a matter of weeks, but I was given a complete tour and it certainly seemed a well set-up and efficient operation: the worldwide success of Simmons drums now demands this scale of manufacturing facility. The complex contains a fully-equipped demonstration room, and it was there that I evaluated the company's latest products and chatted to a couple of its' staff about their capabilities, design approach, and of Simmons' aims generally.
The SDS7 is the successor to the SDS5 modular electronic drum kit, which was a purely analogue system. The 7 is a hybrid of both digital and analogue technologies, and this allows the musician a far greater degree of creative control over the sounds he assembles. The two major components of the system are the pads and the rack-mountable control unit. This latter is capable of holding a maximum of 12 modules, and each module can draw on three independent sound sources: analogue, digital and noise. The analogue source is the one to turn to if you want the classic 'Simmons sound', while the digital section contains a recording of a real drum stored on a chip.
The most important control on the rack unit is a large rotary pot labelled 'incremental controller' which lets you search up and down your storage of up to one hundred different 'kits' so as to access the one you want at any particular time, the selected kit number being displayed on a familiar-looking red LED display. The controller on initial pre-production models is undetented, but I understand Simmons' designers have now found a detented pot they are happy with, and it's this that'll be incorporated into all production samples. It's also possible, by means of mode switches, to use the controller to dial in sound processing for all the SDS7's sound-generation modules.
Pitch of the sound sources can be altered up or down, modulation of variable speed and depth can be introduced, and variable levels of pitch and/or modulation can be routed through a filter with control over resonance, cut-off frequency, and sweep of cut-off frequency. You can also control the decay time for each sound and the degree of 'click' at the front of the sound.
There's always the possibility I might change my mind a few months from now, but I certainly couldn't fault the SDS7 for lack of user control: the flexibility of the system is very impressive indeed. If you opt for all twelve modules and make use of all the available 'kit' memories, you'll be able to program up to 1200 different drum sounds, all of them available for instant recall. It's also possible to shift (or 'jigsaw', as Simmons call it) any sound you create to any kit memory, so if you come up with, say, a snare sound that you're particularly fond of, you can store it within any kit you choose.
There's a third item, as yet unmentioned, that completes the SDS7 system. It's called the 'selector pad' and it consists of a squarish box with sixteen Simmons-drum-shaped pads outlined on the front panel. These represent sixteen user-programmable kits, selected from the main memory by using the sound-generation switches on the rack unit's front panel (these are numbered one to sixteen for this purpose). All you have to do to go from one kit to another is to touch the pad to which your required kit is assigned. In this way you can store sixteen different kits for sixteen different songs in a set. Not bad at all.
I discovered that a moderately quick touch was more reliable than a quick tap in getting the unit to switch back and forth positively: switching is accomplished by having each selector surface scanned, and if you strike a pad with a stick too quickly, you run the risk of defeating the scan rate. Some people may find this troublesome (perhaps the unit I sampled could have done with an internal tweak or two); but only time will tell.
The Simmons pads themselves have been improved in a number of ways, and most noticeable is the new rubber playing surface. It's become fashionable in some circles for drummers to complain of 'Simmons Wrist' but, while I feel I must again mention that this can be largely attributable to the psychological effects of inadequate amplification, I will readily concede that the majority of players will find this 'softened' playing surface more pleasant to work with than the old one. Dynamic control does not seem to have been compromised: it might even be a tiny bit better.
Other improvements include XLR-type connectors for all connecting leads and a slight change in the positioning of the mounts which connect the pads to the stands - these have now been moved to the inside of each drum. This new arrangement certainly looks a lot tidier than the previous one, and the mount/clamp assembly is shock-mounted with rubber washers to eliminate transference of vibration which can lead to premature clamp failure and/or unwanted crosstalk.
On a slightly less positive note, I was assured that although the mount assembly looked slightly fragile, it was actually far more efficient than its predecessor. I'm not totally convinced about that. It seemed to me far too easy to rotate the pads about the axis of their mounting, and when you've both hands full keeping the beat going at a gig or a so-far-so-good 'take' in the studio, the last thing you want is to realise suddenly that one of the pads is turning round and round...
Drum-stand design has in the past exhibited signs of ridiculous oneupmanship now that it seems to be a big selling point to have bigger, better, even more massively-constructed stands with cantilevered arches and flying buttresses, but the trend has been easing off recently with the realisation that mechanical efficiency is more important than brutish looks. I think Simmons could profit from an investigation into the designs used by some of the top acoustic drum manufacturers: in this way a neat, unobtrusive design could be fitted - one that offered repeatability of setting and complete positional strength. Such a mutual arrangement could put Simmons in a position of vulnerability regarding assurance of guaranteed supply (at the moment their operation is almost entirely self-contained), so it would be understandable if the company chose to wait until they're in a position to design and manufacture such a fitting completely in-house. I still don't like the SDS7 fitting very much: we'll see how it stands up to the rigours of constant use soon enough.
On reflection, I don't honestly think I had enough time with the SDS7 to make any constructive or intelligent criticism of the vast degree of sound control on offer. Frankly, I didn't need to make such an in-depth appraisal: a quick go on the kit (using the selector to gain access to the various different 'kits' available) was sufficient to show me that the SDS7 is a very, very big leap forward for Simmons and that, in most modes, it sounded great. As far as I'm concerned, the controversy as to whether or not electronic drums can achieve as much power as acoustics is now totally and irrefutably settled, once and for all. Linked to a powerful PA system, the dynamics of the SDS7 should be sufficient to induce a major-degree cringe on the face of the architect of whichever building the kit is let loose in. No wonder I liked it!
During my discussion with some of the Simmons staff, I gained some insight into their philosophy regarding the application of digital techniques. On encountering the unit for the first time, I asked if I could hear the digital kit samples, bare and unprocessed by any other sound source. This is not, apparently, a rarely asked question, and their subsequent explanation does, I think, bear repeating here because often a company's attitude to product design can be a good deal more significant than the actual state of their product, itself only a transient condition.
When it came to sampling acoustic drums to provide the digital sound-generation section of the SDS7, Simmons' engineers attempted to find sounds that contained within them a structure that would lend itself most readily to acting as a building-block for further experimentation on the part of the user. It's for this reason that most of the 7's digital sounds are not, perhaps, as impressive in themselves as might be expected. Instead, the samples allow greater deviation from the original recording without sounding 'tampered-with'. In a nutshell, they offer greater harmonic content (and hence more scope) for the user to juggle with. With the SDS7's digital samples, there's more information available from which the musician can pick and choose, and to my mind, this approach is streets ahead of having to depend on all sorts of outboard equipment with which to process samples which are basically good but which, unfortunately, sound exactly the same as the next guy's.
Finding drum sounds that offer the sort of scope Simmons reckon musicians want hasn't been easy. They still sample a higher-tuned tom-tom for their 'high tom' module, a lower one for the low tom, and so on, but progress is being made, and judging from what I heard, the approach is obviously working.
With the SDS7, Simmons have come up with an instrument that offers more control over the synthesis of percussion sounds than any other dedicated example in its' class (let's face it, price notwithstanding, a Fairlight CMI is a little on the overkill side for percussionists). The stance of Simmons Electronics as a company is reflected in the enormous scope of this unit, and I find their forward-thinking a breath of fresh air.
It's certainly not cheap, but I'd guess prices will begin to come down (as they inevitably do) once volume production is reached. The availability of a better instrument ultimately benefits everyone - though that's no consolation for those who'd like an SDS7 now but can't quite get the necessary cash together while it remains at its current price. But look at it this way: these days, you're looking at pretty much the same sort of money for a top-quality acoustic kit with cymbals, stands, cases and so on, and you're going to get an awful lot more in the way of versatility out of this Simmons...
Although my attention has been focused almost exclusively on the 7, I shouldn't overlook the SDS8. Simply put, this is a non-modular, all-analogue, five-channel kit consisting of bass, snare, high, mid, and low toms. Each channel has a factory preset sound which, unlike the SDS5, the user cannot alter by popping open the case and adjusting the settings on the tiny internal pots. There is, however, a user-programmable option that allows individual control over each drum's sensitivity, pitch, decay, bend, filter resonance, noise-to-tone balance, and 'click' level. You can select preset sounds via a switch at the base of each channel's module or via an overall master select, activated either by a switch on the front panel or by a remote footswitch, to change all the channel presets automatically.
Naturally, each channel has an individual output, while an internal mixer enables you to run in stereo should you so desire. There's a multi-way sequencer input that facilitates interfacing with the SDS6 programmable eight-channel sequencer (the SDS7 also incorporates a similar facility), while the pads themselves have also been subjected to some of the improvements present on the more expensive kits, including, most importantly, the new rubber playing surfaces. Unlike the SDS7, however, connection is accomplished with standard quarter-inch jacks as opposed to XLRs.
And that's it: a basic, no-nonsense, all-business kit that gives the drummer the classic 'Simmons sound' at a newly-affordable price. For the percussionist who's just starting out or who's venturing into the world of electronic drums for the first time, I can't recommend any other player-activated system as being better value for money. Obviously you're not going to get the sort of creative scope of the SDS7, but then again that's not what this kit is meant to provide...
The standard SDS7 'rack' of bass, snare, and three tom modules, plus stands and all accessories, costs £1875.00 excluding VAT. A cymbal module costs a further £196.50 (again ex. VAT), and £232.00 (ditto) is the cost of the hi-hat module.
The basic SDS8 kit described above costs £675.00 exclusive of VAT.
A combination system, entitled the SDS6.7 and consisting of both the SDS7 and the SDS6 sequencer, is also available, and further details of all the above products can be had from the manufacturers, Simmons Electronics Ltd., (Contact Details).
Review by Warren Cann
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!