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Vintage View - Simmons SDX

Vintage View - Simmons SDX

Continuing our Vintage Views feature on older electronic drums in response to various requests, we’ve finally got around to the set which, if there was any justice, should have ruled the roost - Simmons SDX.

When it came out it was optimistically billed in magazines as ‘The Shape Of Things To Come’ but could perhaps be better described as the most ambitious and (certainly in my opinion) the sine-qua-non of e-drums. In 1988 ‘International Musician and Recording World’ allowed me to devote no less than five pages to it although I’d already excitedly written a certain amount about it ahead of time in ‘The Complete Simmons Drum Book’ which was published just a year earlier. [While I’m on the subject I had a hand in creating the drum samples for SDX and that Simmons book I wrote at the same time, which remains the only book on the subject, has just returned to me after the obligatory 25 years of first being published.]  

But as usual, I digress. I saw prototypes of SDX at the factory in St. Albans a couple of years before it was launched and it wasn’t supposed to be called that at all. However, its original name (which I’m afraid I’ve forgotten) turned out to mean something unsavoury in German. I’m guessing this fact was pointed out by Sibi Siebert who was a drummer and part of the German end of the Simmons Company (and also ran the German side of Arbiter AT drums). So in the nick of time the name was justifiably dropped and the product was called SDX. The S and D in the name stand for Simmons and Drum and the X at the end is the Roman numeral for 10. Not that this was the 10th product the company produced by any manner of means, it simply followed SDS9 and as far as Latin names were concerned a precedent had already been set with SDSV.

The ‘brain’ was like nothing which had gone before in the Electronic Drum World – it was more like a commercial computer terminal and was called a Computer Percussion System by Simmons. Because it measured 23” x 24” x 13” it was certainly not meant to be rack-mounted and instead was a substantial wedge shaped unit with a massive tubular, foam-covered antiroll-bar. This was there to protect the connectors but would also act as a carrying handle. The many angles on the brain had been deliberately blunted so no one would be tempted to put any beverages on it (but if you were foolish enough to try that at home, conveniently there was a ‘drip tray’ installed inside to collect the offending liquid).

This was the era of the ‘green screen'' VDU and there was a 9” version fitted to the top of the unit to show all the necessary data and enable you to edit. All this information was implemented by way of double-sided 3.5” floppy disks which fitted into an onboard Sony disk-drive.  In front of the screen were two rows of eight large rectangular and touch-sensitive buttons. These had dual functions as triggers for SDX’s drum sounds, kit-selection and to tap in programming information. Alongside these to the right was the ‘Tracker Ball’ which was a very new development but in effect was an upside down mouse held in a socket with the ball  upwards. You simply rotated the ball with your fingers to move the cursor and pointed it at anything on the screen you wanted to examine or change. Beneath the ball were a pair of select buttons for data entry. Below all this and at right-angles was a headphone-socket with a volume trimmer.

The back of SDX had 16 jack sockets for the individual pads: bass drum, snare and rim had their own inputs, while the others could go anywhere they wanted. Below these were foot pedal inputs for Hi-hat, Mod (for modulation as on a keyboard) and L/R for Simmons footswitches to allow you to ‘Step’ through kits. There were also several more sockets for SMPTE in and out (to synchronise SDX to other SMPTE equipment) and a further trio which were Sampler In (to play sounds directly into the SDX to be sampled), stereo out (strangely on a single stereo jack plug) and a single output just for the snare channel which combined all the samples and rim on a single out. Underneath all these were outputs for 16 voices, MIDI sockets for In, Out and Thru; and a video Out socket to transfer what the VDU was showing onto the big screen and a SCSI socket for further digital storage.     

Inside was the option to have a 20 megabyte hard drive to save swapping floppy disks all the time, and this would load into the sample RAM of 2 megabytes, although at vast expense it could be expanded to 8 megabytes. Back then these were cutting edge amounts of memory. Samples were 16bit, 44.1kHz (same as conventional CDs).

Ostensibly the pads for SDX looked pretty much the same as those for SDS 9. They still had the same sculpted ABS shells with the plywood inside and the rubber playing surface but there the similarity ended. The pads for SDX were designated ZI (Zone Intelligent) and up until they arrived on the scene it was enough to know how hard the playing surface had been struck and accordingly cause the ‘brain’ to react to that dynamic. ZI pads still did this of course but also told where the impact had occurred. This geographical information was meant to allow the pad to control much more complex functions within SDX’s six microcomputers.

The full set of Z.I pads

Inside the pads where normally you’d expect to find a Piezo transducer to transmit the vibrations, was an FSR (Force Sensing Resistor). SDX did still have Piezo triggers for its bass drum, hi hat pedal and rim since they were always hit in one place. However inside the other pads and under the surprisingly thick heavily moulded rubber playing surface, were two very sophisticated and expensive components which accomplished positional dynamic sensing and made up the FSR.

The lower component rested on the usual hexagonal ¼” thick piece of plywood which fitted neatly into the ABS bowl. It was a piece of see-through Mylar just like an acoustic drum head but printed with a circuit which was a tight hexagonal spiral with the lines 1mm apart. On top of this sat the contact sheet which was another identically sized hexagon made from a carbon compound sprayed onto plastic but with minute blobs of gel like material to keep the hexagons apart in an extremely accurate pattern on its underside. The blobs kept the hex membranes apart until the moment of contact. The stick struck the rubber playing surface and pushed the carbon film down to make contact with the Mylar spiral at a specific grid reference. Wires attached to the spiral film, and ultimately shock-mounted in Simmons famous non-setting gel took this information off to the brain. The snare pad had a corresponding voice attached to its rim and was the only Simmons pad to still be fitted with an XLR connector, the rest had stereo jack cables.

The cymbal pads were called SPS and this means Simmons Pivotal Symbals [this is not a typo]. They were constructed in the same way as the other pads except they had a small piece of shaped Perspex inside and set underneath the rubber in an accessible position. This served to ‘Stop’ or turn off the sound of the cymbal when you grabbed it with your fingers or rested your stick on it in a positive manner. These pads also had a tube inside which was allowed to rotate with a substantial spring wrapped around it and which protruded for an inch or two outside the shell to allow it to be attached to a tubular tom arm. The spring gave it some of the playing bounce of the real thing. If you didn’t want that bounce you could simply lock it off.  I found that the wobble feature made it feel like a very heavy ‘ride’ cymbal.

I’m certain that SPS could easily have been fitted to a hefty cymbal stand but at the time I expected anybody buying SDX to purchase one of Simmons’ SDR 1 racks at the same time. This would have stabilised the bass drum position too and stopped it moving. It still had the L-shaped metal piece at the bottom for the footpedal to form the three-point stand with the sharp-pointed tubular steel spurs. Because of their design  these ZI pads wouldn’t work with any other Simmons brain which was a shame because guys would have liked to have used them with SDS9 which was already proving to be a very successful product.  

Just about the only other mechanical piece to comment upon was the new electro-mechanical hi-hat which was something of a departure for the Company because before SDX they’d always used something which had more to do with a guitar/keyboard-style effect pedal to accomplish the open/close facility. The new one though was completely drum-orientated and there were no prizes for noticing it was actually an adapted Premier stand which retained the inverted ‘U-shaped’ framework and action but removed the tubing and legs. The one piece foot-plate had been retained with a moveable Piezo block below and as the plate struck it vibrations were sent to the brain.  The feel could be fine-tuned like a regular hi hat’s.

As far as getting to grips with the operation of SDX, it would work on several levels so it didn’t need to be daunting. At its most basic it was ostensibly a dedicated electronic drum set which you implemented by simply loading in a disk laden with drum sounds. Up to sixteen hexagonal drum depictions of these Icons at a time could be showed on the screen with a drummer sitting behind the selected set. That was it and you could now scintillate on one of Simmons’ very own drumsets sampled and created by the likes of Pete Van Hook, Steve Levine, Bill Bruford, Dave Stewart, Roly Kerridge, Nick Mason and even Dave Simmons himself who put together some Australian sounds called ‘Rolf’! (You couldn’t make it up!)

To prove that even thirty years ago I had a way with words I wrote prosaically at the time that using SDX like this was akin to buying a Ferrari and sitting in it outside your house with the engine running! All this sampling took place in recording studios including Livingston in London using a Sony F1 before being edited to SDX disks.

Anybody familiar with the old SDS7 will remember ‘Jigsaw’ mode where we took a snare drum from one set, a tom from another, bass drum from another and mixed them together. Obviously because SDX was so sophisticated it made short work of that feature too.

There wasn’t exactly an abundance of controls on top of the SDX console – not even an overall volume control. This is because all the changeable functions were taken care of by a ‘Page’ system where pictorial representations of the controls would appear on the VDU. A screen version of the 16 into 2 mixer had adjustments for: Time, Length, Pan and Volume. The first three parameters used pictures of ‘pots’ while the fourth had a digital drawing of a fader. These pots and faders had user definable ranges from fine to extremely coarse. Any changes we made to a kit could be saved by setting up a mix and saving it by a pictorial version of a QWERTY keyboard. 

But there were a great many more things you could do with SDX like sampling your own sets within the envelopes of drums or cymbals which already existed. And because of Zone Intelligence up to nine drum samples could be set up to be individually extricated from a single pad.  You could also stack sounds/samples on top of one another. Each snare drum could have at least three parameters – Level, Pitch and Sample -  but there could also be Brightness, Resonance, Noise and  Pan present. This was what Simmons called ‘Head’ which was made up of a number of ‘Surfaces’ and each surface determined how a specific parameter within the voice varied in time. So we could ‘change’ the heads selecting from eight factory-built ones which would affect the sound of SDX in much the same way as if you’d fitted a thinner more responsive or thicker head to an acoustic drum.

SDX also featured a tempo-controllable automatic trigger which allowed you to cycle through the different voices as you edited them. Besides (or should it be because of ?) all this technology SDX had a Help disk with a 15,000 word manual to answer any questions which came up as you got to grips with it.

But, the big difference between SDX and anything which had gone before could perhaps be summed-up in one word – playability. You weren’t just triggering a sample, you were playing one and any keyboard player at the time would have been highly impressed by its intelligent voice-robbing capabilities. On the other hand, a drummer at the time would marvel at the fact that he could play a very convincing double-stroke roll. Being one step ahead of many of todays electronic kits, SDX had eradicated the ‘machine gun’ affect because the snare drum had a pool of 16 voices it randomly chose from within the roll. This meant that the same sample was never played twice in succession.

At release, SDX wasn’t (intentionally?) completely finished and I was told anything new would be software implemented. For example sequencer software called XSEQ wasn’t too far down the road. All we knew was it was going to cost £150 had 32 tracks and would enable you to record complete drum tracks in real-time to be edited and played back in the studio at a later date. There was also Sample Editor software too called XEDIT, but that didn''t see the light either.

SDX wasn’t cheap by any manner of means at £5497.09 for a 5-piece set - without hardware. This was the metaphorical equivalent price of four round-the-world tickets on British Airways (which were all the rage at the time) and even that in 1988 would leave you a reasonable lump of change for duty-free purchases (which were also in demand then). If you wanted a 10-piece set with four toms, snare drum, bass drum, three Symbals, a hi hat and hardware, it would cost you another thousand pounds.

That said even though acoustic drums were allegedly making a resurgence when it was launched, something like 250 SDX units were sold even though SDS2000 came out very shortly after it burst on the scene.

As we know circumstances overtook them and the Simmons Company ‘gave up the ghost’ in 1999. 

Bob Henrit

April 2015

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