Nostalgia demo 1

Nostalgia demo 2

 

 

 

SIMMONS SDS5
VINTAGE CONTRIBUTIONS

 

The Simmons SDS5 (or SDSV as it is was officially known) was the world's first truly electronic drum kit.

Prior to the Simmons, there had been electronic drum pad synths such as the Pearl Syncussion and the Electro-Harmonix 'Space Drum' but these were pretty much nasty 'byoo byoo' gimmick boxes that were essentially a sound effect adjunct to an acoustic drum kit or percussion rig and much beloved of certain naff disco tracks

Dave Simmons had an altogether different vision... to make drum synthesis 'serious' and expressive.... a viable alternative to 'acoustic' drums.

Working with Richard Burgess (then the drummer with the jazz/pop fusion band Landscape and probably most famous for their hit single 'Einstein a go-go' and now a respected producer), Simmons devised a unique drum synthesiser that put the individual components of a drum sound under users' control.

Typically, a drum sound consists of two elements - a pitched tone and unpitched noise. Using discrete analogue circuits, Simmons devised a series of modules optimised to produce certain drum sounds such as kick, snare and toms that could be triggered from pads. Each module contained a variable triangle wave oscillator and a noise generator which could be mixed and manipulated to provide a wide range of drum and percussion sounds as well as special effects.

The thing was a hit almost as soon as it was released in 1982. It sounded great, it sounded unique and it sounded distinctive - it even came with four presets for each module so even those with no experience could coax something decent out of it.

A standard SDSV came shipped with 5 modules - kick, snare and three toms. On the surface, these looked pretty much identical with controls for noise level, tone level, bend, decay time, noise tone (a simple, static filter) and the curiously labelled 'click drum' control which added extra attack derived from pad velocity. However, despite the similarities, each module's parameter range was optimised for the sound it was designed to re-create. Simmons subsequently added hi-hat and cymbal modules but these were unconvincing and generally, most drummers still retained acoustic hats and cymbals.

It was also an altogether 'pro' unit with balanced XLRs everywhere. You could even run it from a drum machine such as the TR808 or a multi-channel sequencer such as the Roland MC4b Micro-Composer. In my experience, however, triggering the modules in this way did not produce such a good sound as much of the SDSV's sonic presence was derived from the inocuous 'click drum' control.

But Simmons had another trump up their sleeve.... their cosmetic styling.

At a time when image was everything (remember... this was the early '80s - new romantics, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, et al), the Simmons kit's striking hexagonal pads just looked fabulous on stage and in videos on the emerging MTV.

But whilst the pads looked suitably 'hi-tech' and 'space age' to casual punters, drummers were less than impressed. The 'skins' for these pads (i.e. the bits you actually hit) were made from the same (hard) material that was apparently used in shields issued to riot police! From the manufacturer's point of view, this was perfect.... a robust construction that would take a good beating.

From a drummer's point of view, however, it was a recipe for severe wrist-ache!

Subsequent variations/improvements on the SDS theme introduced rubber pads that were easier to play and kinder on drummers' wrists! However, with these new pads came revisions to the 'brain' of the system (i.e. the electronics that actually produced the sound) and many will claim that later revisions of the product lacked the true character of the original SDSV.

The first of these was the SDS7, a curious analogue/digital hybrid that also included sampled sounds on a EEPROM chip. Users could have their own chips 'blown' by sending recordings of their favourite drums to Simmons - by purchasing an EEPROM blower, they could make their own. The SDS7 was prohibitively expensive for most though and cost several thousand pounds so in an attempt to capture a larger market, Simmons released the much simpler (and more affordable) SDS8. This was superceded by the SDS800, a more expandable system with additional 2 and 4 tom expander modules. None of these quite captured the sound of the original SDSV though.

"But what of the SDS6?" I hear you ask.

Simmons did release a product called the SDS6 but this was not a drum synth - it was, in fact, a sequencer intended for use with the SDSV.

It featured a grid-style programming method not unlike the Roland TR808 but with 32 steps per pattern. Across the top of the unit was a matrix of LEDs that showed you exactly how a pattern was made up. Patterns could be chained together to create 'songs' and a whole host of options existed for programming complex compositions. On the rear panel were a multitude of trigger outputs, foot switch and sync connectors to hook the thing up to the outside world.

But the thing was horrendously expensive - several thousand UK £££ - and so was not a big success with only a few being sold. I seem to recall as well that they were unreliable and '80s popster, Howard Jones, is said to have lost his entire set just before one of his early live TV appearances due to a failure of his SDS6!

Like so many other innovators (and despite very prominent endorsements from high-calibre drummers such as Bill Bruford), Simmons could not keep ahead of the competition for long... in fact, they could barely keep up with it. They diversified with other products such as drum-trigger converters, a programmable eight-channel analogue (and very noisy) mixer, the 'Silicon Mallet' (a kind of electronic marimba) and various other curious devices but it was the SDX that was to bring the company down.

The SDX was to drummers what the Fairlight was to keyboard players - advanced and comprehensive, in theory it offered everything a drummer could ever want and with extensive sound sampling and manipulation possibilities, the futuristically styled SDX appeared to be the ultimate drum synthesiser and with its large screen and its software driven user interface, it was relatively easy to use.

The pads that accompanied the SDX had a feature known as "Zone Intelligence". Each pad had three areas (outer, inner and middle) and each of these could have up to three samples assigned to them allowing no less than nine samples per pad that could be triggered according to pad position and stick velocity. Thus, for the first time, drummers could use traditional playing techniques to coax a more 'natural' kit sound out of a box of electronics than ever before.

However... there were two problems.

Firstly (and no drummer jokes here please), few drummers were prepared to put the work into coaxing the best out of the beast and so were reliant on factory sound library. However, with much of their funds tied up in R+D and support for the thing, there were few resources available at Simmons to create the kind of sound library expected of such a product.

Secondly, it was expensive.... very expensive! In 1988 when the SDX was released, a basic system with five pads and 2Mb of RAM cost a staggering £5,645. Memory upgrades cost £500 for each 2Mb (up to a maximum of 8Mb) and £900 for a hard drive. Thus a fully loaded system could cost upwards of £8,000. In today's terms, that's about the equivalent of £13,000... for a drum synth! Hmmmm!

As such, the SDX was faced with stiff competition from the £1,800 Akai S900 which, with the £300 ASK90 drum trigger option installed, could do much of what the SDX set out to achieve - even a fully loaded S1000 with an ME30T seemed like a bargain by comparison as did the £3,000 MPC60 and with the ready availability of ever affordable digital drum machines, the SDX was ultimately doomed to commercial failure as was the company. Simmons struggled on as best they could but, sadly, the company eventually folded.

The sound of the Simmons is not to everyone's taste and many loathed it the day they first heard one. However, for devotees of the sound, the legend of the original Simmons SDSV lives on. It played a prominent part in the music of the '80s and remains popular today (the UK's leading soap opera's theme tune kicks off with a fill of Simmons toms!).