Sycologic Percussion Signal Processor
Nigel Lord reports on a plain but ingenious percussion-to-MIDI box that could revolutionise the way drums see their instruments - and the way synth voices are triggered. Packaging can be deceptive.
From the uncharted backwaters behind Paddington Station comes another wonder of contemporary MIDI technology, the Sycologic PSP. It could shape the future of modern percussion-playing.
I have been doing a little crystal ball-gazing on your behalf, and what I have seen is this. In the not-too-distant future, all electronic drumkits, drum machines, synths, sequencers and effects units will be universally interconnectable through MIDI, now an internationally standard digital interface. Well, that isn't strictly true. Inevitably, some bright spark will one day (and that day may not be all that far off) invent some sort of replacement for MIDI; faster, easier and more versatile to use. But with luck, that replacement will retain compatibility with the present standard, so that people with MIDI-based gear need not suddenly contract that violent contemporary music disease, PODS (Planned Obsolescence Deficiency Syndrome).
The percussion world has been noticeably slow on the MIDI uptake, but now that Simmons have taken the plunge (with spectacular results) by fitting to their new SDS9 electro-kit, the dreaded interface will soon have one less area of musical instrument technology left to conquer. Further evidence that this blitzkrieg is about to take place comes in the form of the Sycologic Percussion Signal Processor (PSP for short), one of a growing number of music boxes that do an awful lot more than their mundane appearance would suggest.
The PSP's main purpose in life is to take signals derived from piezo crystal pickups in drum pads, microphones and most other low-level electrical devices, and turn them into MIDI information. That information can then be used to control all the MIDI-equipped instruments detailed above. Thus, by attaching these pickups or microphones to any object - pads, acoustic drums, paint tins or next door's cat - you can access the sounds generated by the instruments, and bring them under control of the sticks you hit the objects with.
The PSP's most obvious application is to allow the user to 'play' the voices of a MIDI-equipped drum machine from a set of pads, and when you think of some of the quite excellent sounds generated by the sampled voices of many machines these days, this in itself is a jolly handy feature to have. But the PSP also allows you to access the voices and functions of synthesisers, sequencers and effects units, all of which may be transferred across either a set of pads or a miked-up acoustic kit. Imagine a DX7 marimba sound transferred at different pitches across a set of drums, and the implications behind the PSP start to become a little clearer.
And because the PSP can take signals from a whole range of devices and turn them into MIDI information, practically anything can be miked-up or have a pickup attached to it, and be played as a percussion instrument triggering any sound generated or stored by any piece of MIDI equipment. The really attractive thing about this is that piezo crystal pickups are available for literally a few pence: add a couple of wires, and you have all you need to trigger the PSP. If you're feeling lazy, you can even buy small bugs for a few quid each which perform the same function.
As if all this wasn't enough, Sycologic have equipped the PSP with the ability to modify the signal derived from a pickup or microphone before it reaches the sound generator of the synth, drum machine or whatever. This modification is principally to do with changing the shape of the signal, so that the voices being played are subjected to different dynamics determined by the settings of the PSP. In simple terms, what this means is that the envelope of a sound can be altered by changing the signal that's triggering it.
"The PSP can also do something rather unexpected: let you take drum sounds that already exist on tape and replace them with new voices."
And as with all the PSP's variable parameters, these changes may be stored within the machine, allowing you to achieve a particular kind of control over a sound at the touch of a button. So for instance, you can generate a sound with a linear build-up, another with an exponential attack which rises more quickly at the beginning, or one which rises very slowly and then drops away-all from similar beats on a pad. In fact, the PSP offers you 12 factory preset options for shaping the trigger signals which fire the voices, so you've got plenty of forms of control over playing dynamics.
One rather fascinating option involves randomised dynamics, which vary the signal randomly as you play the pad, producing a series of drum strokes at different volume levels. A clever idea, but it's where one of my few criticisms of the unit comes in. The variation between loud and soft beats caused by this randomisation is quite marked - so marked, in fact, that it's really only useful as a special effect. Had the variation in dynamics been more limited, it could have been used as an accurate simulation of the change in playing dynamics an ordinary drummer exhibits while playing a series of consecutive beats. This would be rather neat on a sampled cymbal, for instance, where instead of an identical sample being repeated over and over again, the randomised dynamics could be used to introduce a degree of variation between beats, to simulate more closely the playing of a real cymbal. Still, I'm told the dynamic shapes are generated in software, so presumably this bit of the PSP could be reprogrammed to good effect. Let's hope it is - and fast.
The PSP can process the signals from eight separate inputs (pads or whatever), in addition to a hi-hat switch. And each input has its own set of performance controls, which include MIDI Program Change, Note (for pitch change), Duration (for adjusting the length of the note or beat), Bend (for controlling the rate of pitchbend), Feel (for the control over dynamics already mentioned), and Channel (which allows you to assign each pad to a particular MIDI channel). The last-mentioned function allows you to send trigger signals to any one of 16 different pieces of MIDI equipment, and thus combine the sounds of more than one instrument. For example, you could program a pad applied to Input 3 to trigger a sound on DX7 synthesiser, a Simmons tom, and a Roland drum machine simultaneously. Or, by applying the input signal to separate MIDI channels, trigger them individually: that's how versatile the thing is.
The entire programming section uses a pushbutton selector for each parameter, a common rotary increment control and a reasonably informative LED display. The idea is that you select the parameter you want, and then alter it individually using the control knob and display readout before entering the desired level into memory.
"Imagine a DX7 marimba sound transferred at different pitches across a set of drums, and the PSP's implications become clearer."
We haven't finished on the facilities front, though. The PSP can also do something rather unexpected, in the form of letting you replace drum sounds that already exist on tape. This is possible thanks to the unit's ability to derive a trigger pulse from a drum signal recorded on audio tape, and then use that signal to trigger a different drum sound which may itself be recorded at some later stage. This is the sort of thing even large recording studios have trouble putting into practice, so the advent of the PSP should be more than welcome in those quarters.
Thus, as simple as the front panel looks, the shared functions of many of the controls hide a wealth of other features far too numerous to mention. After all, what we have here is an extremely comprehensive controller, designed to cope with any combination of equipment, and making it possible to connect more or less anything to more or less anything else, altering a whole host of signal characteristics in the process. Yes, the PSP is expensive, but its cost has to be balanced against its vast inherent versatility, coupled with the meticulously detailed approach its designers seem to have adopted. And unlike so much home-grown hi-tech music gear, the PSP really looks the part. Its visual appeal is unlikely to be put to shame by any competing piece of rack-mounting wizardry, Japanese, American or otherwise.
Only one thing stands between the PSP and world domination: the possible inability of drummers to see the potential a machine like this is capable of putting their way. Magazines like E&MM can obviously help here, but it's also essential that the machine gets all the marketing and publicity backup it needs. Once that's happened, there should be a PSP in every decent-size studio in the land. Percussion will never be the same again.
Review by Nigel Lord
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