From DRUM! Magazine’s September 2017 Issue | By AJ Donahue
Dave Simmons essentially created the modern electronic drum market. His iconic hexagonal pads were a staple on kits used by some of the most recognizable pop and rock drummers throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, and still have a dedicated following today. Now, after a nearly 20-year hiatus, Simmons is returning to the world of e-drums as part of an exclusive pairing with Guitar Center. We rang the English innovator for a quick chat about his brand’s history, what brought him back, and his goals for the newly relaunched Simmons Drums.
Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention
I was working with ARP synthesizers and was very interested in electronics in music. I was messing around with keyboard stuff, but there didn’t seem to be anything happening in drums at the time. So, I made the drummer in the band I was playing with something that he could hit to make some noise. It was a bit of an accident because I couldn’t play the drums then. I still can’t play the drums [laughs].
And So It Begins
I was working at a company called Musicaid in the late ’70s, where I did the SDS III and SDS IV drum [synths]. It wasn’t until 1980 that I bolted things together and made a real drum kit. That was the SDS V. Later, I did my first trade show at the British Music Fair in London in 1981. I had three kits there: a heart-shaped kit, a bat-shaped kit, and the hexagonal kit. The hexagon was the one that everybody said they would buy, so that’s what I kind of standardized.
At first, nobody in the musical instrument trade seemed to be interested. I don’t think they saw it as a threat. They just weren’t interested in electronic instruments yet. In the end, it was demand from musicians that got things moving. They wanted something new, and then, when it got some publicity on TV, things went wild.
The Tipping Point
Everything really took off very quickly after that, but it almost didn’t happen because there was a musician’s union strike on in the UK. We were quite famous for our strikes at that time. The band Landscape had a hit called “Einstein A Go-Go,” and they were going to perform it on Top Of The Pops. I remember [Landscape drummer] Richard Burgess phoning me up and saying, “The program’s being threatened to be canceled by the union.” Thankfully the program did end up going out, and we got probably millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity on TV because for the next few months the TV cameras would focus a lot on this strange looking drum kit.
The mid-’80s was the height of it. Pretty much every name drummer was using some of our drums. The pros were using the SDX, which was a 16-bit, 16-channel, positional, multisampled drum kit. We had names like Peter Van Hooke, Phil Collins, Danny Carey, Roger Taylor, Alex Van Halen; the list goes on and on. I actually gave Nick Mason SDX programming and sampling lessons when he was first getting into his kit. But Bill Bruford was the best ambassador I think a lot of people know. He took the drums further than anyone else in terms of melody and composition.
By the mid-’90s, we found ourselves with a very expensive electronic drum set. We put keyboard samples in it, and made it a complex workstation. But at that time, music was changing, and nobody wanted electronic instruments anymore. That pretty much killed us off.
After I stopped making electronic drums, I thought I never wanted to see another one in my life. But around 2006, a friend of mine called me and said, “Dave, you’ve got a new drum set?” I told him no and that I didn’t know anything about it, so he pointed me to the Guitar Center kit that was being sold as Simmons. They were being pretty naughty. I had to think long and hard about what I would do about that. I suggested in the nicest possible way that they should have talked to me first. To give them their due, they apologized to me for it, and the people who took my brand and made it a badge have all left the company. That went a long way. There’s a guy over there called Jim Norman who was the main driver in getting us all around the table to talk about the idea of working together. Now we’ve got a development plan that I’m really excited about.
I told them I’m not interested in getting involved in this unless we can really do something that’s designed well, functions well, and does something different. Our goal is to create maximum control for the drummer. I truly believe that in five years’ time, drummers will look back at [today’s] electronic drum kits and say, “Do you mean that if I hit it with a stick and then I hit it with a beater, it makes the same sound?” It’s crazy that it does that. I think the electronic drum should be able to make all those different sounds, and I think as the technology improves, it’s only a matter of time before we get there.
The new drums are sort of softened hexagons because that’s the trademark, really. It’s going to look like a Simmons kit. Beyond that, you’ll see tensionable mesh heads, because that was a brilliant shift in the design of electronic drums. The cymbal side of things is different. We’re still working on the ideal surface for electronic cymbals, and we’re still worried about the acoustic noise of striking a cymbal pad versus a metal cymbal.
We’re working with a group of really talented industrial designers, including Robin Slaton, and a team called Mimima Design. There’s a guy called Tom Etheridge there who’s incredible. He’s doing all the solid works and modeling. We’re so lucky to find a guy like him. It’s my name on the equipment, but without this team of people, none of this is happening.
Visit Simmons Drums at simmonsdrums.net.