Musical Instruments

The Glorious Mattel Synsonics Drum Machine!

I’m still cleaning out my house for sale, and while in the attic, I came upon a gem that I haven’t touched (or even thought about) for probably 20 years!

Back in the early 1980s, when it seemed that everyone was trying to develop the next big thing in electronic toys, Mattel came out with a device that still holds a place in many musicians’ hearts. The Synsonics Drum machine was not exactly a toy (although it was highly entertaining), but not a professional drum machine, either, even for its time. While most drum machines at this time were very rudimentary, having pre-set sounds and patterns (rock, disco, tango, march, etc.) with only tempo and volume controls, they were reliable and useful for anyone performing without a drummer live. By the late 1980s, companies such as Yamaha, Alesis, and Korg were producing programmable drum machines that had more realistic drum sounds (There was a popular musicians’ joke at the time: How many drummers does it take to screw in a light bulb? None, they have machines that do it now.)

The Synsonics was different than other drum machines. It had five sounds (snare, cymbal, tom 1, tom 2, and bass), with the bass only working as a sort of metronome, hitting on the ONE beat. The other sounds could be either triggered by striking one of four circular pads (which were sensitive to how hard you hit it with your finger or drumstick) or by buttons at the bottom of the device. Each sound had three buttons that controlled the number of hits the specific drum made per bass drum beat (two, four, or eight). Additional features included an Accent button, which turned the cymbal sound into a hi-hat, a tempo control, and (what proved to be the most cherished by me) Record/Playback/Stop buttons to record a specific drumming pattern.

Back when I was starting out with songwriting, it was always for a band situation. If I recorded a demo that was just guitar and vocals, the rest of the band went their own way with the song, which usually ended up being not what I imagined in my head (just worse!). I was determined to put in a basic idea of the other instruments (especially drums) onto the demo recording.

Now this was early days of home multitrack recording. I couldn’t even afford the basic four-track machines available like the Tascam 144 or the Fostex X-15, which were going for about $500 back in the early 1980s. My “multitrack” work consisted of two stereo cassette decks bouncing back and forth with each other while recording a new instrument or vocal. After four bounces, the first instrument recorded usually had tons of hiss with it, even if Dolby B was used (I’m dating myself!). The Synsonics machine allowed for recording one drum pattern for the 4/4 time pattern, so I could program a basic but distinct drumming pattern for the song I was working on, then play it back to the cassette recorder (along with a guitar or bass). It was a lifesaver at the time for me!

I eventually moved on to get a better programmable drum machine from Yamaha, as well as purchased a number of multitrack recorders over the years. The Synsonics was stowed away, and eventually hidden until a few days ago. I am so glad that I found it, though. I immediately put in 6 “C” cell batteries and began playing with it again!

A little more about the Synsonics. It did not have a speaker, so you had to listen to it either through headphones (using ones with the old 1/4-inch plug) or by wiring it into the AUX jack of your stereo. There was also an older MIDI jack that probably proved useful to anyone doing synthesizer work back them. There was a volume control, and for one of the toms there was a pitch control, so that it could sound like a large bass drum all they way up to a high-pitched tom. There was also a power supply jack if you didn’t use batteries.

When I played and recorded with it almost 40 years ago, I thought that I was limited to the straight-8 4/4 time groove with the machine. If I was recording a shuffle or something in 3/4 time, I had to limit the use of sounds or try to record a pattern and hope that my drum skills would not be sloppy. I just recently learned through internet surfing that, through special holding down of the drum buttons, you could create a waltz, shuffle, or even a syncopated pattern. I wish that I had known that way back then, but as I got this machine used (I’m still not sure how, either through a trade or at a rummage sale), I didn’t have access to a manual.

While it was produced by Mattel as a toy, the Synsonics received high praise from music-related publications, and had endorsements from legendary drummers such as Buddy Rich, Carmine Appice, and Nigel Olsson. I remember it being advertised on local rock radio stations, most likely to entice those younger teens to purchase one instead of a full drum set so that parents wouldn’t complain. It proved to be so popular that Yamaha developed a similar product in the DD-5, which they made for more professional use, as well as being higher in price. Surfing the internet, I see that these vintage drum machines are making a comeback in interest, and are commanding high prices for used ones.

I am so happy to have found the Synsonics again! It helped my though my beginnings with songwriting, and now proves to be a nostalgic item from my early days as a musician. Here’s a classic news report on the $150 item back in the day!

Chew on it and comment.