The first in an irregular series of essays regarding electric/electronic drumming, including some historical background info, objective information, and subjective experience to help guide drummers through the mass of conflicting information regarding this technology.
As long-time readers are aware, about a year and a half ago when I was working for Musician’s Friend, I purchased my first-ever electric (or electronic, if you prefer) drum kit. Through the rest of these articles, for the sake of your eyes and my fingers, I’ll refer to these simply as “e-kits.”
I’d avoided buying electrics for decades, and the kit that I bought – the Simmons SD2000 – has already been discontinued. I think that’s a shame, if not a sin – it’s not the world’s best e-kit, but it’s better than it had any right to be. With that said, and in spite of various issues with the kit beyond simply not being available anymore, I’m glad I made the buy. I got a hell of a deal on it for one thing, because Guitar Center, Inc owns both Musicians Friend and Simmons Drums, so the employee discount was…well, the price is the one thing that’s covered by the non-disclosure agreement I signed when I worked there, but let’s leave it at there’s just no way I could have bought a comparable kit for the price.
Now that I’ve had some pretty substantial time on the kit and learned the ins and outs of e-kits in general as a player (rather than simply as a salesman), I thought it was time to put together a long article to help other drummers get their heads and thoughts around the world of electronic drumming in the modern era, whether they’re just starting out or seasoned pros (and after hitting my 40-year anniversary behind the kit in 2018, it would be nothing but false modesty for me to pretend I’m not in the latter group).
Before we get too far into this I want to make sure I draw the distinction clearly between an electronic drum kit, and an electronic drum machine. While it’s true that, especially in the early days, these were almost interchangeable as a functional matter and early trigger pads were often used to trigger sequencers or synthesizers, for our purposes an electronic drum kit is an instrument comprised of at least three percussion-activated pads, and some kind of synthesizer or tone generator that responds to those pads. The Roland 808 is a drum machine. The Pollard Syndrum and Simmons SDS-5 are electric/electronic drum kits. You’re welcome to your own definitions and standards here as far as I’m concerned, but for the purposes of these articles, that’s the line in the sand for me. If it uses buttons and sliders and a keyboard to make the sounds, it’s not an electronic kit to me. Ditty keyboards with built-in “drum sets” that are triggered by little tiny pads; these are gimmicks in my opinion and don’t qualify as e-kits. Trigger pad module systems like the Roland SPD-SX are also not “e-kits” to me, although they’re perfectly legitimate electronic percussion instruments in their own right.
Where it all started
While I don’t want to get into a comprehensive history of the e-kit (spoiler alert: that’s exactly what I ended up doing), there are two key human-corporate players in the earliest days that are critical to be aware of. The first is Ace Tone, whose Rhythm Box line of proto-sequencers/triggers were the first commercially available electronic drum instruments of any kind. It’s well worth noting that the inventor of these nifty little devices and founder of Ace Tone, Ikutaro Kakehashi, left the company in 1972 to found Roland, the unquestioned king of modern e-kits. We’ll discuss them much more later.
The second key player is Dave Simmons and his company, Simmons Drums. Dave was absolutely vital to creating the first practical e-kits, meaning they were reasonably portable and useful to drummers. We’ll cover more of this in detail later as well, but Dave’s early kits were the ones you think of when you think of electronic drums – those hexagonal rubber and plastic things that were all over the place in the early to mid-1980’s. The SDS-5 was the first “real” commercial electronic drum set in my opinion, and the followup SDS-7 in 1983 was the first to contain electronic samples stored on programmable EEPROM chips. The 5 and 7 could also be used as triggers to interface with sequencers and other early electronic instruments to produce loop beats and so forth.
As a matter more of trivia than anything else, the first actual electronic kit used on a recording was a homebrewed monstrosity built by Graeme Edge of the Moody Blues, working with a professor at Sussex University in the UK. This was used on their 1971 track “Procession.”
This kit – built entirely with transistors rather than chips – contained “5 snares across the top and then ten tom-toms and then a whole octave of bass drums underneath my feet and then four lots of 16 sequencers, two on each side. There was a gap — to play a space — a tambourine, ebony stick, snare and three tom-toms…” (unsourced interview quote from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_drum) and was terribly sensitive, impractical, and unwieldy. But it worked, and the revolution had begun.
Early Commercial Implementations
There were a couple of intermediate stages as well that are worth mentioning. Moog released their 1130 pad in 1973, with control pots for volume and pitch, that could be used to trigger various synthesizer sounds. Another company called Pollard Industries released a product called the “Syndrum” in the mid-1970s that was used by a few prominent players including Terry Bozzio, and appeared on some hit records like “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty and a few of the big tracks on The Cars’ first album including “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Good Times Roll.” Here’s a video of someone playing around with one, you’ll probably recognize some of the sounds (it is eight minutes of beeps, boops, and white noise, though).
In spite of pretty decent penetration into popular recordings and its position as the first commercially available electronic drum “set” (the Syndrum Quad came with four trigger pads, which just barely qualifies by my reckoning), the company went broke and left the half-complete on-ramp in place for Dave Simmons and Simmons Drums to build the first major inroads of e-kits. As a final note: the Syndrum was almost universal in Disco tunes, providing that “pew pew” sound that was in so much of that genre at the time. Things being what they are, it’s about impossible to say this song or that was definitely a Syndrum, but here’s one we know for sure:
That electronic percussion you hear in the beginning that ends with what sounds like a tom roll is definitely a Syndrum Quad. So now you know that. As a sidebar it seems that a few folks have uploaded samples of the Syndrum…I’m tempted to download them and throw them into my SD2K brain just to have fun with. It doesn’t take much of an ear to hear how this same instrument, with slightly different waveform, shows up in “Baker Street.” The descending pitch on decay is kind of a trademark for the Syndrum. You hear it here at 25 seconds; ignore the video showing the guy doing the palm slide on the keyboard; in reality it’s a single stroke on a Syndrum pad.
And there I went, said I wasn’t going to write a comprehensive history of electronic drums, and ended up doing it anyway. I’m at about 1100 words now, so I’ll save the rest of the history for Part 2 in a day or three, and then get into more nuts and bolts over later essays.
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