Allan Leibowitz looks at a couple of newish books on oldish gear.
Interest in the history of e-drums has been growing lately, with increasing participation in online groups and internet searches about “vintage gear”.
While there’s a lot of chatter, nostalgia and anecdotal ‘information’ out there, few people have done more to highlight the progress of this sector of the music instrument market than Alex Graham, a New Zealand-based musical instrument collector and drum machine enthusiast. Graham has not only amassed one of the largest drum machine collections in the world, he has also documented his instruments – and scores of others he has discovered in his pursuit of the “full story of electronic drums”.
digitalDrummer has recently been poring over two of Graham’s books – The Complete Simmons Drum Guide and Drumfax 4.
The Simmons story
I thought I knew a fair bit about the iconic hexagonal electronic drums and the people behind them, having interviewed Dave Simmons a few times, reported on the dispute over the Simmons brand, spent time with some former key Simmons people including Tim Root, Sibi Siebert and David Levine and, more recently, preparing a 20-year commemorative report for our May 2019 edition.
I have also visited the Simmons Museum and often speak with its founder, Wolfgang Stoelzle, who has also played a huge role in keeping the name alive.
The 202-page Complete Guide, published a couple of years ago, is essential reading for anyone with any interest in Dave Simmons, the Simmons drum story and the scores of people whose lives have in some way been affected by the British e-drums innovator.
Graham’s account is not a dull, dry documentary, but rather a lively narrative from someone very much invested in the Simmons brand. Indeed, Graham’s personal collection includes several full Simmons kits, among them the SDS V, SDS 7 and SDS 8.
The author starts his story with some background into the development of electronic drums before introducing Dave Simmons and chronicling his early career which began in synth repairs. Graham notes that Simmons began tinkering with electronic percussion in his spare time, “to satisfy the interest of Barry Watts”, the drummer in Dave’s band.
The book runs through the evolution of the Simmons Drum Synthesizer (SDS), and the commercialisation of the products, starting with the SDS III.
Anyone with a remote interest in the development of e-drums will be fascinated by the Simmons technological journey as Graham describes the enhancements and refinements through the years.
Of course, as everyone knows, it was not a story with a happy ending, and the book goes into some of the reasons for the collapse of the Simmons business.
Those with an interest in commerce will enjoy reading about the various financial transactions and the restructuring of the Simmons business through the early years in what was, clearly, a very tough environment for an under-resourced British company competing in a very new market.
The demise of Simmons was not just about the financial loss. Graham also reveals the personal cost for staff members, and includes plenty of anecdotes and reflections on what must have been a fun gig for so many at the Alban Park factory.
The book also looks at the broader Simmons family, with a detailed section on Simmons Group Centre, the US distribution arm which did so much to raise the profile of Simmons globally as well as in the American market.
Besides the dramas surrounding the US market, where Simmons eventually bought out Group Centre to establish his own distribution arm, the book also details the expansion of the brand in other markets, notably Germany – through the efforts of Siebert, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
A large section of the book deals with the Simmons gear, with pictures, brochures and detailed descriptions of every major product bearing the Simmons name. Some of the listings also indicate the noted users, reading like a who’s who of ‘80s music. A later chapter focuses more on the big names who played Simmons instruments on some of the monster hits of the era – the likes of Bill Bruford, Rick Allen, Billy Cobham and Chester Thompson. Bands like Duran Duran, Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club and the Eurogliders feature heavily in that coverage.
When digitalDrummer started publication, the Simmons era had ended, but the name soon reappeared when US retail giant Guitar Center started using the brand without Dave’s permission. We reported on the legal battle, but the book provides much deeper insights into the court actions and the subsequent alliance between Dave Simmons and Guitar Center.
The Complete Simmons Drum Guide is certainly ‘complete’ – it covers everything from product specs to the Simmons motor racing team, with plenty of human interest as well as business details.
It is recommended reading for anyone with an interest in the history of electronic drumming and would be invaluable for gear collectors keen to learn more about the iconic hexagonal pads and the modules which powered them.
Almost every time I interview a drummer for a digitalDrummer profile, I ask about their early exposure to e-drum gear. And while I think I’ve got a fair grasp of mainstream e-instruments, there will always be modules or kits I had not heard of.
This is where another Alex Graham book will come in handy.
Drumfax 4 is the latest edition in a series which catalogues electronic drum equipment in a systematic and comprehensive manner. The first in the series, Drumfax 1, looked at rhythm boxes, with comprehensive descriptions of a host of models form the Ace Tone Rhythm Aces, EKO and Elka units, Korg Mini Pops, Kawai Rhythmers, Maestro Rhythm Kings and Queen, and Roland CompuRhythms and Transistor Rhythms. The next books, 2 and 3, chronicle the drum machines manufactured from 1980-2018.
The book is not totally new – it is a revised and cheaper black and white version of Electronic Drumfax: Vintage Electronic Drum Kits (1970-1990) – and for many, the absence of colour is not a big deal, especially when it saves you around $20.
Drumfax 4 is a guide to electronic drum kits (1973-1989), arranged chronologically and organised roughly by geography – British, Japanese and American offerings are listed in separate sections.
The listings are very detailed and comprehensive, describing the brains, pads, connections and features of each. Where appropriate, Graham also lists artists associated with the kit and songs on which they are featured.
Besides ‘traditional’ e-kits, the compilation also lists the big multipads like the DrumKAT and drum pads like the Duaz pads originally released in 1987 – and still going strong, pretty much in their original form. Another section charts the development of external triggers, including Mike Snyder’s Trigger Perfect which he discussed in his digitalDrummer interview in February 2021.