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The Case for Vintage Electronic Drums

by Michael Render

[ originally published in Not So Modern Drummer Magazine, ]

You first question might be, “What the heck is Michael Render doing writing for Not So Modern Drummer? Isn't he that electronic drum guy? Isn't that the height of modernity?” I can imagine the disdain in your voice. I can also predict that visceral, gut reaction many acoustic drummers have for electronic drums; they are not real drum, they don't sound or play like acoustic drums., they are toys. While I am not here to convince you to run out and start playing electronic drums, I am going to make the case that they have played an important part in the history of drumming and some even deserve the designation of vintage.

Before I make my case I need a few working definitions. What do we mean by electronic drums and what do we mean by vintage?

The first is easy. An electronic drum is a device that is struck with a stick or hand and produces sound electronically. It is meant to be played in real-time by a drummer. That means drum machines and sequencers don't count. Although we could discuss at great length how devices like the Roland TR-808 and the Linn LM-1 changed the face of percussion, they are not drums. They are drum machines. A subtle but important distinction.

Now how about vintage? There's a can of worms that I do not want to open, metaphorically speaking. But I need a definition that doesn't have anything to do with grape or wine analogies. I like “an object, no longer in production, that has aesthetic or historical significance.” It is simple and concise and the people (and you know who you are) who collect those crappy “vintage” Japanese drums from the 70s and 80s can't complain. I am also going to arbitrarily set a 25 year limit. That way I can't claim my first generation iPod as vintage, regardless of what it says in my eBay listing.

The first use of electronic drums is arguably on the Moody Blues 1971 song, “Procession” from the album Every Good Boy Deserves Favor. Graeme Edge used a very innovative and fragile custom drum synth that he created with Sussex University Professor, Brian Groves. It was a tangle of wires and transistors and worked only sporadically. No commercial product ever came from it.

In 1973, Moog Music, Inc. released a drum controller for the Moog modular synth. It's official designation was the 1130, but was also called the Moog Percussion Cointroller or simply the Moog Drum. It had two control voltage outputs, one for volume and one for pitch.

You could plug it into one of those enormous Moog systems that had patch cables running every which way and have it control sounds. The 1130 was meant to be an alternative to a keyboard and not a dedicated electronic drum, so we will not consider it for inclusion at this time.

It wasn't until 1976 that Pollard Industries released the first commercial electronic drum, the Syndrum. It immediately attracted the attention of many famous players like Carmen Appice (who appeared in their ads), Terry Bozzio and, of course, Graeme Edge.

Syndrum Quad
 

Although not a financial success for Pollard Industries, the Syndrum did introduce the world to the sweeping “doooooom” sound that was to become a classic signature of electronic drums. That sound was soon to be heard on many recordings, from Linda Ronstadt's “Poor Pitiful Me” to Gerry Rafferty's “Baker Street” to The Car's “My Best Friend's Girlfriend.”

The Syndrum consisted of a sound module and one or more external drum pads with

 

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