Simmons SDS.V: Groundbreaking Bonebreakers
Simmons spearheaded the electronic drum set revolution almost single-handedly. Prior to SDS.V’s release in 1981 there were American-built electro-drums from Impakt, Syndrum, and Synare, but these were weedy-looking add-ons for acoustic sets that seemed to be modeled on flying saucers. They came complete with gimmicky sounds and were light-years behind what Dave Simmons was up to in deepest Herforshire. His Musicaid company started out with relatively unsophisticated electronic percussion add-ons called SDS.3, but it wasn’t until the introduction of SDS.V that the solid-bodied drum revolution began in earnest.
In its heyday you couldn’t switch on a TV music program without seeing at least one of the sets. And a set of Simmons drums said a great deal about what sort of band you were in. They intimated you were hip, modern, and progressive – even if you were nothing of the sort!
SDS.V (which actually stood for Simmons Drum Synthesizer Five) boasted the very first hexagonal Simmons pads complete with acrylic “DR” bowls stuffed with foam and plywood and with unforgiving riot-shield plastic as their playing surface. The pads were heavily criticized for spreading “Simmons Elbow,” mainly because drummers weren’t used to them and injured themselves by attacking the hard surfaces with unnecessary enthusiasm. Those original controllers were edged with metal to create a rim and contained dynamic piezo transducers, which carried the vibrations from the pad to the brain.
Mechanically, the set was based on the principle that less is more. Originally just a couple of Pearl stands supported all five pads using their Triple-X clamp to locate the tom arms, but ultimately a Taiwanese company called King took over the manufacturing of the hardware and eventually went on to make their own electronic drums. Simmons bass pads stood on a point fitted with an L-shaped piece of aluminum to retain the pedal and was otherwise stabilized by substantial tubular spurs. It also featured the riot-shield playing surface.
SDS.V’s electronic side was very much a modular concept, and since each drum voice was self-contained it was simple to remove one and substitute another. In essence it was the familiar bass, snare, and three toms setup, although you could have cymbals and hi-hat, too. Unfortunately, the metal box would only hold eight modules (one of which was the mixer controlling the outputs and sensitivities of the others) so if you wanted more sounds you needed an extra box.
Each module was equipped with six potentiometers running in a vertical line, four buttons, a collection of LEDs, and six screwdriver-operated trimmers. All the modules had a choice of four different source sounds: Channel 1 was preset and unchangeable while the others could be changed with those knobs and trimmers. At the time those factory-preset sounds were used most; perceived to be more drum-like, they consequently found their way onto a great many records. Frankly, there was another reason for this, because in the beginning the majority of drummers were still skeptical, so they didn’t actually own their own SDS.V. But they invariably rented them for sessions, and being unfamiliar with the various controls of the instrument, wasted a great deal of valuable studio time messing around unsuccessfully with channels 2 through 4. With channel 1 you got scintillating sounds immediately! Eventually as guys got used to what the Noise, Tone, Bend, and Decay controls did to the sound, they began to be more adventurous. (Frequently it was the band’s keyboard player who was already involved with synthesizers who pointed the drummer in the right direction.)
Like the majority of keyboards of the time, SDS.V’s drum sounds were produced by analog synthesis, but its cymbals and hi-hat were the first Simmons products to use digital sampling, with an integrated chip buried within its module that put out its sound whenever a trigger impulse called for it. The hi-hat required a special pedal to achieve the “chick” sound of cymbals coming together. It didn’t feel right, but certainly sounded pretty good.
There was an extra option to the pads supplied with the product called Suitcase. It consisted of seven very small hexagonal riot-shield pads mounted in foam and packed into the top of a small briefcase. Piezos under each pad were joined to output sockets to connect to the brain. It was designed for use in the control room, but was plagued with crosstalk problems and didn’t take at all kindly to being hit with drumsticks.
I liked SDS.V immensely, but it did have its drawbacks. The playing surface was not only hard on the arms; it was hard on the ears, too. Overdubbing in the control room was a problem – you could hardly hear the drum sound at mix level because of the clatter of the stick. It also had the unique distinction of being the only electro-set on which you could not only break sticks; you could also break bass drum beaters!
The unit was driven from tape enabling already recorded sounds to be replaced. Unfortunately it only worked to a point, with the triggered sounds being just slightly but uniformly out of time. Another drawback was in its lack of headphone socket to allow the drummer to either practice alone or work on his sounds in private.
Having said all this, SDS.V was successful in its way and was certainly the “sine qua non” of electronic drums. Its sounds were exceedingly evocative with great balls and character, and having heard a set recently, I can attest that they still are. (No record or film music of the period was complete without the sound of SDS.V.)
Simmons has always vigorously denied they had endorsees, but all the most famous players of the early ’80s had the SDS.V equipment, including Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, Peter Erskine, Larrie Londin, Harvey Mason, John Robinson, Jim Keltner, Roger Taylor, Peter van Hooke, and Sly Dunbar.
When SDS.V came out you couldn’t buy a five-piece Simmons drum set for less than $1,800. Nowadays I’ve seen the brains advertised for a couple hundred dollars or so! They certainly are collectible, especially if you come across one of the very few “human heads” sets they made early on. These were molded from fiberglass and modeled on those presidents’ heads at Mount Rushmore with the cranium sliced through to take the riot shield playing surface. They came complete with glass eyes and were available in red, yellow, and blue. I’m told Carl Palmer, Richard Burgess, and an unknown nightclub in Paris have sets, but where are the rest?