This Years Modules
Simmons 800 Series electronic drums
Simmons’ budget range of new electronic drums
There's no doubt about it — I've been spoilt. My recent close encounter with the truly wonderful SDS 9 (July ES&CM ) has made me view any lesser kit with something of a jaundiced eye — even when the 'lesser kit' in question is one of Simmons own... Or, to be more precise, three of Simmons own. To explain: With the 9 and 7 taking care of business at the top end of the market, Simmons are still under pressure from a million 'budget' priced copyists. The spectacular success of the competitively-priced SDS8, proved though, that people would still rather have an original — if they could afford it. Hence, the 800 series, an 'expandable electronic percussion system', either via an addition to an existing acoustic kit, or as a fully electronic, 'modular' set-up.
The 800 series consists of three, entirely independent drum systems; cheapest of the three, at £359.99 inc VAT is the two-pad, two channel SDS (wait for it) 200 — two toms, two audio outs, no bother. Next up, there's the SDS 400 £549.99) — four toms, a programmable run generator (more of that later), and a wider choice of audio outs — mono mix, stereo, or individual outs are all available.
Top of the 800 series, at the reasonable price of £629.99, the SDS800 itself — a complete 4-voice electronic drum kit, featuring dedicated Bass and Snare channels, two Toms, a run generator, and mono mix, stereo or individual voice outs. All three units feature headphone sockets for private practice, and mount on a single Pearl tom stand (additional pads being accommodated by the proven AX-3 clamp). A second stand is available as an option, if you want to spread your pads out a bit.
All the pads used on the 800 series, including the SDS800's Bass drum, are identical to those on the 9 — which is to say, the best you will find on any electronic kit, anywhere. Incorporating materials taken from the American space programme (so that's why the Shuttle keeps falling apart — Ed) the Pads reportedly cost £100,000 to develop — and it shows.
Simmons' unique 'floating head' design allows the smaller pads up to a ¼ inch 'give' on hard strikes, whilst the piston-backed center spot on the Bass drum gives an incredibly realistic feel. On the 9, this realism is complemented by 'intelligent' circuitry, which shapes a complex envelope for the basic sound, in response to the force of the initial stroke; result? Toms and snares of quite stunning dynamic range, and authentic voicings.
Unfortunately, the 800 series lack that crucial intelligence — resulting in a trigger reliability very much like that of the SDS8 — O.K., but not overly subtle: The finer points of your triple flam-paradiddle might well go unnoticed by the brain. Other minus points, as I mentioned last time round, are the lack of all-over sensitivity on the bass drum, so no more playing on its edge a la Bruford — and of course, the 800 series snare lacks the 9's second, rim-mounted pick-up. Aside from that though, you're getting, hardware-wise, precisely what the 9 give you — quality, and a great playing feel.
All three 'brains' are constructed, like the 9, in sturdy, black-finished pressed steel. The two four-voice units are identical in size to the 9, with the two-voice SDS200 coming in, logically enough, at half that. As with the 9, these units can be used free-standing, or mounted on a snare stand. Since the 800 possesses all of the features found to a greater or lesser extent on the other two models, I'll go into some detail about it.
Reading from L to R, we have Bass Drum, Snare, Tom 1 and Tom 2 channel controls, Run Generator and Master Volumes. Immediately above the Simmons logo on the right of the unit is a large white rocker switch for power on/off, and a stereo jack socket for headphones. (Somewhat awkwardly placed — far better to have had it on the front edge of the unit, surely?)
White legending marks off each channel from the next, and each parameter section from the next within each channel. Parameter control pots are blue; volume and sensitivity controls grey; and the run generator controls green. So far, so sensible.
The actual range of control you have over each channel's sound is as you would expect — all voices feature Pad Sensitivity (complete with trigger-indicating L.E.D.) Filter Pitch and Sweep, Tone Pitch and Bend, Decay, Noise/Tone Balance, the all-important Click Level, and Channel Level.
Unlike the 9, the basic (analogue) circuitry used to produce the separate voices is in fact identical in each case, though the available ranges of parameters like pitch have been tweaked internally to be appropriate to the particular drum voice being synthesised. Each channel also features additional controls specific to its role — Bass drum allows you to set the Click Pitch as well as Level, Snare offers Resonance, and Toms, 'Second Skin' — a form of fixed frequency modulation which, used subtly, allows you to mimic the effect of a double-headed, as opposed to 'open', single-headed tom. The implementation of 'Second-Skin' here, though, is much broader than on the 9, allowing you to push the toms into fairly wild metallic clangs and ring modulation effects. Small blue lines marked on each parameter mark out suggested settings — solid, rather than inspired voices result, but they make good starting points.
Overall, the quality of the sounds are very reminiscent of the SDS8 — punchy, classically electronic. But... maybe it's just nostalgia, maybe it's memories of the 9, but somehow, the 800 series, and even the SDS8 before it, never seemed to me to quite recapture the visceral kick of the SDS5 — despite, apparently, utilising the same circuitry. Snare revealed this lack best: cracking, cutting sounds were no problem — but getting a bit of body behind them was... Judge for yourself when you listen to the tape.
On the plus side, Barry Watts ex-QTips, and now Simmons new drummer and demonstrator came up with a particularly powerful bass drum setting while he was showing me round the kit; I found it easy to construct acceptable toms, and of course, Tom 1 has got another little trick up its sleeve...
A concept first encountered on Simmons SDS1 stand-alone, sample-playing pad, the run generator, (operating on Tom 1 only) by stepping the pitch of a single sound up or down over time, or according to the number of pad strikes, enables that one sound to stand in for a whole series of similar voicings — thus enabling (in theory at least!) whole multi-tom fills to be played from a single pad. In practice, things are a little more complicated, as we shall see...
The run generator section on the 800 and 400 (though not on the 200 — the one unit that could best utilise that multi-tom facility!) consists of Run Threshold — a useful function which allows you to set the level at which the run generator becomes active. (This would allow you to play Tom 1 'normally' during the verse of a song, and bring in the run effect via an extra hard strike only at the start of the chorus.)
Below Threshold is the Step Time setting, a continuously variable pot which governs the length of time Tom 1 will remain at one pitch, before stepping up or down to the next. Similarly, Run Time sets the duration of the whole run, from start to finish. A short setting here will result in limited pitch shifts, whilst a longer one will result in more dramatic pitch ranges being covered. Balance sets the balance between 'conventional' pitches and random tones — with random set at full, 'computer' effects of the R2D2 variety can be achieved. Up/Down simply selects which way you want the pitch shift to go, and On/Off switches the generator in or out. (A function duplicated by the footswitch supplied with the unit.) Needless to say, the settings for Tom 1 on the main panel 'pre-set' the range over which the effect can operate.
Whilst being a great idea in theory, the run generator in practice presents very real problems — even to a drummer as experienced as Barry Watts. As he pointed out to me: 'There's nothing more naff than having the pitch reset to the top of the cycle before you've finished your fill.'
Given practise — and a generous run time — the generator can be used — but it's a shame Simmons didn't break with tradition, and actually copy something from one of their competitors, MPC. That company's very similar Multi-Tom unit can be set to respond to the number of strikes received at each pitch setting, rather than time spent — a much more 'musical' alternative. As for the 'random' element — well, it's nice to see that Simmons haven't forgotten the days when their machines were keyboard synths you hit. I suppose somebody'll find a use for it...
Eminently straightforward: Individual jack ins from the Pads, Individual jack outs for Bass, Snare, Tom 1 and 2 (or for the 400's four toms, the 200's two...). On the 400 and 800 there are also Mix (controlled from the master volume stage) and Stereo jack outs (Fixed, conventional stereo image), a 5-pin DIN socket for connection to the SDS6 sequencer, Simmons new CBM64 drum sequencer package (which we'll be looking at shortly), or to MPC's Programmers; and a Jack In for remote operation of the Run Generator On/Off switch. The tethered mains lead at the far right of the machine completes the story.
Once again, Simmons have been very clever at spotting a gap in the increasingly crowded electronic drum market. As with the 9 though, there is nothing in the 800 series that is directly comparable to previous Simmons products (The 800's got one less drum than the 8, but it's also got a run generator...) Having set themselves — and everyone else — such high standards with the 9, the 800 series was bound to suffer a little by comparison. Purely as gadgets on their own account, the Series do present a couple of minor, but niggling flaws. But when you consider the prices that these kits are being offered at, together with the strength of sounds they can give you (still better than 99% of the opposition), then all such quibbles fade away. Simmons are still the benchmark — across the board.
For further information, contact Simmons direct on; (Contact Details).
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Review by Tony Reed
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