THE SYNDRUM SAGA
By Mark Barton
The Pollard Syndrum, invented by Joe Pollard and Mark Barton in 1975, was the world's first commercially manufactured electronic drum synthesizer. It appears on many influential music tracks, including "Good Times Roll" by the Cars, and "Baker Street" by Gerry Rafferty, and it had a major impact on the sound of disco music in the late 1970s. After 45 years, the Syndrum has been reborn, as a set of modules for Voltage Modular. Precisely modeled by the original inventor, the Syndrum module is a fantastic source of both classic and complex electronic drum sounds. Here, Mark Barton tells the history of the Syndrum, from its birth in 1975, to its rebirth in Voltage Modular in 2020.
In 1975, I was working as the line technician at Tycobrahe Sound Company. They were a mobile P.A. company providing sound reinforcement for acts such as The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, and Robin Trower. In that year, they decided to go into the guitar pedal business. Three pedals were manufactured: the Octavia (fuzz), the Parapedal (emulated in my WahWah module), and the Pedalflanger (the first flanger in a pedal). Any pedal that didn't work off the assembly line, I had to fix.
One day, the chief engineer, Jim Gamble, told me there was a guy in the shop with some questions. Jim didn't want to deal with him, so he sent me out there to see what he wanted. That guy was Joe Pollard, a session and touring drummer who had worked with the Beach Boys and The Grass Roots. He also knew every important drummer in the country. Joe had criss-crossed the U.S. for the last decade, spending more than $10,000 ($48,000 today) on air-fare searching for someone who could build him a set of electronic drums. He brought along a set that somebody had made for him which worked horribly and was totally impractical -- they made a blip when struck, and would sometimes howl for no reason.
Joe's original intention was to create an electronic drum set that could be amplified in order to be heard over screaming guitar and bass amps. He said he was tired of pounding as hard as he could. When I realized that the main requirement was "strike head - get tone", I thought it was pretty easy and I told him so. He didn't believe me, but decided to give me a shot at it anyway, giving me 4 shallow 6-inch fiberglass drums in which to build.
The original Syndrum 1 drum synthesizer. The Syndrum was available in three models: The Syndrum, the Syndrum Twindrum, and the Syndrum Quad.
I had constructed my modular synthesizer a couple of years prior, so I was familiar with VCO, VCA, envelope circuits, etc. and had all the necessary building blocks. Rather than draw on existing designs though, the prototype was created to the purpose -- be a drum.
Joe wasn't an electronics or synthesizer guy, so it was completely up to me what to put in and how it should work. I remember making the very conscious decision not to put in a filter because I didn't want it to sound like a synthesizer, preferring instead to give it its own identity. Also, there was no snare or sweep function. Those were to come later. All they did was produce a static triangle or square wave with adjustable pitch and decay (sustain as it was later called), but they were fully dynamic and very playable.
I drew up the schematic, laid out circuit board artwork (with tape, no computers yet), and fabricated some circuit boards. When the 4 identical prototypes were complete, Joe took them to his rehearsal studio and invited drummers to come and try them out -- and what a list of drummers that was! Jim Keltner, Hal Blaine, Ringo Starr, Steve Gadd, and more I can't remember. (I wasn't there the day Ringo showed up, dammit.) We didn't know what to expect because they certainly didn't sound like real drums, but they were novel. The result was that the drummers all loved them and opened their wallets wanting to buy the prototypes then and there. That was the end of our market research, and we decided to form a company. I came up with the name ("Syndrum", because it seemed dead obvious), and also the Mobius band logo. The color would be IBM blue. Joe designed the screw-together drum pads, and enlisted Sam Mushnick of Duraline to make the Kevlar drum heads. There wasn't anything old-school about any of it.
Early prototype drum voice circuit for the Pollard Syndrum.
Before the design was finalized, I was in my parent's garage where my band rehearsed and I was playing around with the drum kit. There was an 8-inch mounted tom that had a fairly loose head, and when I struck it real hard, I could hear the pitch jump higher and then decay downwards. The thought immediately occured to me to exaggerate that effect to make that static tone more drumlike. I went to my modular and patched it up. I thought it was a little cartoony but definitely worth including as a feature. That was the birth of the swept DEOOOM sound that became the Syndrum's signature identity and has been copied in every drum synth ever since. I know our band's drummer still has that kit with that 8" tom, but I'm not sure he knows it's a piece of history.
The Syndrum was a big hit at the NAMM show in Atlanta in 1977 with huge crowds in our booth. The only time I was rendered completely speechless in my life was when Bob Moog walked into the booth. Literally nothing would come out of my mouth. My only thought was, "Bob Moog is looking at my stuff. Bob Moog is looking at my stuff." and taking pictures. I eventually composed myself and we had a nice conversation.
The Pollard Industries Corporation employees, at NAMM, 1978. From left to right: Don Stone, Mark Barton, and Joe Pollard.
Syndrums were an immediate success, and there was huge demand. I remember a call from a session drummer one day asking, "What the hell is a Syndrum? I just lost a Cadillac commercial because I don't have one." Electronics was a very new thing for drummers to get used to. I handled another customer call that went like this:
"Hey, these things don't work!"
"Are they plugged in and the power is on?"
"Do you have the volume sliders up?"
"Is your amp turned on?"
I had hoped that Syndrums would be snatched up by the progressive rock community, and stuff similar to Carl Palmer's electronic drum solo in Toccata (from ELP's Brain Salad Surgery album) would be popping up all over. Alas, that was not to be. Much to my dismay, the disco world embraced it with a vengeance, and Syndrums are all over disco records of the time. At least Gerry Rafferty used them on "Baker Street", but most people don't know that those descending tones in the chorus are 2 Syndrums being struck simultaneously.
A flyer advertising the Syndrum product line. Pollard advertised the Syndrum as "a new world of creative possibilities for the drummer/percussionist."
One person who used them to good effect was Frank Zappa. When I delivered a set to him, I set them up next to Terry Bozzio's kit for a tryout. When Frank heard them, he put an arm around me and walked me outside saying, "You have done a very good thing." I appreciated the compliment, but that walk was to try to weasel a couple of free sets, (but he wound up buying them like everyone else.) We never gave away a set for an endorsement, yet our endorsement list was huge and read like the who's-who of drummers.
Our little company seemed like a success, yet why did it fail after 2 short years? Customers bought them as fast as we could make them, but the problem was cash flow. Music stores took forrrrrrrevvvvvver to pay. I hear they still do. The terms were net 30, but they interpreted that to mean net infinity, so we accrued a large debt. We then sold our debt and the Syndrum name to a company called RDSI which continued to manufacture them, but never made any improvements to keep up with the times. Eventually other companies copied them and put out superior products, and the Syndrum was done.
Even though I didn't make much money at all, I wouldn't trade the experience I had in the creation of the Syndrum for anything. I did studio sessions with famous artists and met a lot of important music people. I was a young kid, and it was a great time with great memories.
So now I'm more than thrilled to bring the Syndrum to the Voltage Modular platform. I have tried to make it as close to the original as possible while adding voltage control to everything. Please make use of its dynamic capabilities and explore the wide gamut of available sounds. Of course, the polyphonic version never existed before, so it's up to the Voltage Modular community to do great things with it.
MRB's Syndrum module for Voltage Modular, back for the first time in 45 years.
Aug 31, 2020