Ultravox – Electronics and techniques (E&MM, 1981)

Ultravox’ drummer Warren Cann talks with Mike Beecher about the electronics and the music techniques.

This article appeared in Electronics & Music Maker, april 1981. We included scans of the original pages and included the OCR’d text for you. Because the original article only had B/W pictures of -notsogood- quality, we did add some colour pics of Ultravox to it, the original B/W pictures are at the bottom of this page. Please note that all (c) are with the Magazine and the author.

Most musicians are going to need at some point a lot more background in Electronics because it’s the way instruments in this day and age are going’…. 

‘There’s a real kind of revolution happening in the drumming world,’ says Warren, That was taking place in the 50’s with bass guitar and electric guitar and in the 70’s with keyboards. Hollow logs covered with animal skins aren’t all that far removed from drum kits and they’ve been taken almost as far as they can go – there’s been quite a few developments made in recent years, with different heads and funnel shaped designs for projecting sound out to an audience. But refinements are becoming increasingly smaller so, for example, you’re not going to get much better cymbals than Zildjian make now.’ Warren Cann is undoubtedly a special kind of electro-musician and this has contributed a great deal to the commercial sound that has brought Ultravox such great success in this country recently. Warren is 27 and comes from Vancouver, Canada. His parents are English and emigrated there before he was born. He is entirely self-taught as a musician. His fascination for the electronic side of percussion came from his study of electronics for four years.

Drums and Electronics

Warren’s percussion equipment is built up around a simple but effective old Ludwig acoustic kit that he acquired in 1968, although its finish has only been on general sale last year. It’s a four drum kit because he thinks that big drum kits are a ‘load of waffle.’ It’s a challenge, if you can play on that you can play on anything!’ To his left when seated at the kit there is a rack of electronic equipment. Starting from bottom up this contains: A Yamaha Stereo Power Amp (P2100) and an RSD 12 into 2 mixer which has sufficient EQ over 3 bands plus fold back and echo sends. Usually 9 channels are enough for mixing all the drum electronics, and there are 2 Yamaha PA columns (S0410H) to the left and right behind Warren for monitoring, each containing 4 x 10’s and top horn, which in practice are used upside down because the top horns are so efficient. There is a considerably modified Roland TR77, which Warren has used for a long time. Snare Drum, Hi -Hat and Bass Drum are available on separate outputs and the Snare Drum voicing is pot controlled to alter its noise content. Bass Drum attack can also be varied by damping the oscillation and the circuitry has been modified to give a stronger initial peak. A ‘thud’ control changes the Bass Drum oscillation pitch.

Above the TR77 is the Roland CR78 drum unit. Both these machines have had fine tuning controls added – the original pots as supplied were too coarse. They are never run at the same time because of the problems in synchronising the two together. A very small tempo change in Warren’s drumming can quite drastically alter the feel and temperament of a song; ‘the psychological aspects of tempo when you’re working with drum machines, either playing along with them using acoustic drums like I do on some songs, or just using drum machines entirely on their own, is interesting because it used to be that everyone would tell me the tempo was too fast. But often this was because we were tired, that’s all. The ‘fine tune’ can be used to make adjustments without the rest of the group being aware of any change occuring. ‘In Vienna the first section speeds up, then there’s a ritardando in the middle section, and then it goes back to a different tempo. So we don’t let .the machines dictate to us and in a song where the tempo would be the same throughout, I occasionally ‘tweak’ the tempo up a little bit.’

An interesting extra for the CR78 is a ‘decay’ adjustment for the Bass Drum. Normally it sounds okay at low volume levels – playing at 10 or 15 thousand watts you don’t get ‘thunk’ you get ‘boing!’ The snare drum can also become horrendously loud. In Ultravox’s music the electronic drum complements the acoustic drum so well that the listener might often find it hard to discern one from the other (try listening to “Mr. X” before looking at the music and see if you can tell the difference). A further example is in ‘Astradyne,’ where the metallic cymbal sound comes from the CR78’s ‘metallic beat.’

It is often quite difficult in performance to maintain a correct tempo. A responsive audience can increase the excitement of a piece  and upset correct perception of a steady pulse, so that the music sounds too slow. To help get over this, Warren has an LED 3 -digit readout of the tempo set (measuring frequency period) that has been designed by his engineer and is mounted in a general effects box next to the CR78. This also contains an Electro-Harmonix distortion unit which can be used to boost or totally distort sounds. Below this there’s various MXR devices: a phaser 100, three noise gates and a flanger. The latter has had its standard on/off ,switch replaced with a ‘press to make’ switch so that Warren can flange a specific beat during a rhythm. Above these effects is a Roland DC30 Echo and a Dave Simmonds ‘Clap -Trap.’ Electronic clap boxes are not much used by American groups (even though Electro-Harmonix in America also do a good one). Warren uses it in all 3 modes and has a trigger footswitch for it situated just next to the hi -hat, so that his left toe stays on the hi -hat plate while his heel swivels on to the Clap -Trap switch. One of its main uses is to give that multi – overdubbed hand clap heard on so many R&B and Soul records on the ‘off’ beats. Actual audience clapping can only be achieved to some extent by triggering it from an LFO. Its sound is improved by using it through a chorus box and it can also be triggered by the drum -synth trigger or from a pick-up on the snare drum. Having recently travelled all over America with this set-up, dust and humid conditions become quite a problem although this would be accentuated if sliders and knobs were left in the same settings and Warren in fact uses the controls frequently as he plays. Some drummachines effects are rarely used, e.g. on the CR78, he does not like the ‘fill-ins,’ preferring the A/B alternating rhythms every 2,4,8,12,16 bars and the ‘break’ setting that gives a silence bar at the end of these bar groups. He also uses the ‘Write’ pad of the CR78 in ‘play’ mode without actually ‘storing’ it in the memory.

‘Incidentally,’ says Warren, ‘I’d found that the drum machine track or click track that was first put down as a guide to recording other instrument overdubs sometimes required changing – and this was impossible. This was also true if I wanted to overdub another drum machine track.’ So Warren suggested a possible design to overcome this to his engineer. Although he does not have time to do this himself, he majored in electronics as a student and so has a good understanding of what can be or can’t be done without actually knowing how to wire up the finished product. And Warren is sure that a lot more musicians are going to need at some point a lot more background in electronics because it’s the way instruments in this day and age are going. ‘I’m not knocking acoustic instruments, there are going to be separate instruments – just as there are grand pianos and electric pianos. It is a great help if you know what’s available – new technology helps you get more from your music and if you can build the electronics yourself or know what to suggest to someone who can build equipment for you, then you have a big advantage.’

Coming back to the clicktrack problem, the unit used by Warren to help with this is named the ‘Trigger Recorder Sequencer.’ Basically the unit can put down a click track on specific beats out of a maximum 16, and on separate tracks if necessary where it may become part of the final sound mix, with different EQ’s and treatments. Then afterwards portions or all of it can be erased and new material added. Always in sync too, Warren claims, despite mains fluctuation and problems of linking old material to new tracks! A line of toggle switches selects the click pulses to trigger the drum machines, clap trap or even keyboard synthesisers used by Chris. The biggest advantage it provides is to allow numerous drum and additional sequencer tracks to be built up in synchronisation with everything. It was used on Vienna which was made very quickly, with the basic recording taking 2 weeks and the mixing about 10 days over in Germany. ‘Vienna’ and ‘Western Promise’ both needed extra treatment with the unit. While touring in America Ultra – vox did some recording at Criterion Studios in Miami, where the Bee Gees, Eagles and other notable groups record and the engineer there was totally impressed with the sophisticated drum electronics pointing out that very few U.S. bands were using these techniques with percussion.

The whole set up is modular so that Warren can frequently update his equipment and several units have been housed in clear perspex, which although fragile looks good. Numerous LED’s provide control status signals while others simply enhance the visual effect. At the rear of the rack most signals and power lines are fed via cannon connectors. All of Ultravox’s keyboard and drum frames are metal with castors to facilitate transport.

Writing and performing the music

Ultravox are unusual in that they don’t have one central writer-all four of the group compose the material. When performing, Warren has to carefully monitor the bass part played by Chris because a lot of the time he plays synthesiser instead of guitar and his sequencer pulses have to fit exactly with the drums. Headphones are not used by the group for stage monitoring on a gig and in Warren’s case he hastried variousamplification set-ups, from small on-stage monitor wedges to huge 500 watt side -fills. He’s found a big PA side -fill will be loud and powerful but it colours the sound too much.

‘The answer for me because I’m using electronic drummachines’ comments Warren, ‘is plenty of quite small speakers – 2 x 15’s and a folded horn isn’t the answer. Headphones give a totally different sensation – it’s a lot more complex because you’ve got to start mixing everyone in.’ So the two Yamaha PA columns are the best situation given the space limitations of the drum platform and the locations that the group performs at, which in the States can be from the huge Santa Monica Civic at Los Angeles to a small club at Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Other Drum Parts

Warren uses two ‘Synare 3’ drums which have a good filter sound and are ideal if you’re on a tight budget. They’re right next to the hi -hat because it’s easier to get off the hi -hat and on to the Synare drums. They add definite electronic sounds to the percussion in contrast with the acoustic kit.

Over by the Ludwig tom-tom drum are two very narrow Premier drums that have the same kind of effect as the Synare 3 electronic drums. These were early versions of Dave Simmons drum synthesisers that utilised real drum heads and small drum rims, with tuning lugs and wood shells, but actually having no acoustic sound. The rubber pad used on the Synare 3 is also ideal as the ‘skin’ for electronic drums and gives sufficient bounce for the sticks. When Warren is playing a ride cymbal pattern on the’floor tomtom, it’s very easy forMirri to lift his stick a couple of inches and catch the Synares for interjecting accents. Placing of these extra electronic drums is important as is the position of microphones over the drum kit. He deplores the drum kit set-up that has a forest of chrome stands for mikes as well as cymbals, which can cause trouble from vibrations rotating a mike off -position and requires someone to come on stage during a number to put it right.

All Warren’s drums are miked up with individual mikes used for snare drum (top and underneath), hi -hat, rack -tom, bass drum, and floor -tom. A ‘Dead -ringer’ (circular band of highly adhesive foam) is used between the drum rim and the skin to deaden the sound. Next to the hi -hat footplate is, on the one side, the clap -trap switch already mentioned and a start/stop switch for the TR77 on the other side. This is essential for Warren, as the touch -plate of the TR77 may not always trigger (or sometimes double triggers) when playing in hot humid conditions. Hum can be a problem with all the electronics – and the MXR gates help overcome this.

The Simmons SDS3 drum synthesiser control box is located to the right of the mixer and PA mikes can go directly through it as well, thus eliminating having to put pick-ups all over the acoustic drums, yet still giving the choice of electronic treatment of the whole kit if desired. Sometimes recorded material is put through the SDS3 and triggered from the drum pads.

The Syntom

‘I think the Syntom is an excellent way of getting your feet wet when you know nothing about electronics, you’re a drummer and you want to start familiarising yourself with what can happen. It’s very simple to use – and at its price it’s excellent,’ states Warren enthusiastically. ‘I found that if you have just one Syntom, you can do some pretty marvellous things with your bass drum, because if you have difficulty getting a real solid heavy sound, then by attaching it to the hoop and adjusting the sensitivity you’ll make a big improvement.. In order to fit it on the bass drum I removed the piece of rubber from the mounting clip. The Syntom increases the drum’s scope and gives special effects for some songs. I don’t like to use it too much for the typical high sounds that swoop down in pitch, because they’ve been done to death recently on disco records – just like a lot of records had wha-wha and fuzz tones for a time. So the high pitched effects from the Syntom are fine once in a while but its main purpose for the serious musician – and it can be used by any member of the band, attached to a convenient place or simple held in one hand and hit with a finger of the other hand – is for providing new electronic sounds to your music.

Warren likes it on the snare drum rim: ‘By playing with a little bit of “decay” and “sweep” and adjusting your “pitch” you can definitely expand the effects from your snare, either by using it all the time fairly subtly or by suddenly whacking up your sweep control or decay. Of course, the controls inter -relate with each other, you can’t adjust the sweep without affecting the pitch – it takes a little bit of experimenting with, especially if you’re not conditioned to turning knobs whilst drumming.’ Warren found that he did not have any feed back problems at all and is currently using it with his kit. ‘By the way, if a drummer thinks, “Well great, I’d like to have one of these very much,” the chances are he’s going to have to borrow a spare amp from someone in the band. And don’t forget that when you use the Syntom or any other type of electronic percussion you hit, you’re probably only hearing a fraction of the quality the unit can put out because most people won’t have a sophisticated enough amplification set-up to actually get it!’

‘If you have one on the snare drum then it really is a good idea to add a second Syntom to the tom -torn to balance up the drum output.’

The Future

‘The player activated type of percussion – the Syntom, the Synares, the Syndrums, the Simmons equipment: All that type of thing is initially the easiest sort of gear for a drummer  to make the leap into electronics with, because it’s something that he hits and plays like a drum. He does have the controls and modifiers to contend with but it’s going to become a lot more popular and it’s going to be integrated a lot more into bands in general.’

Its usually the synthesiser player on stage who has quite a lot of setting up to do, but Warren is the same and rarely has a spare second – often making adjustments during the music. A different approach to playing exists for him – he has to be totally alert the whole time during a 11/4 hour show with only a couple of minutes relaxation. Warren comments further: ‘Personally, and some people might not agree with me, I think the real future of electronic percussion isn’t so much in player programmable percussion. I think that drum machines that enable you to pre-program an assortment of beats will definitely be the ones that open things up – that’s really what a drummer does in the first place! In his mind he might have (not considering jazz and other esoteric types of music) as many as a dozen Rock and Roll rhythms upon which to base his playing and maybe it will be possible to do all of this in advance of a performance, with drum machines programmed with these possibilities. Then instead of just using the acoustic kit you would also consider the use of your own original creative electronic drum programs!’

In Ultravox’s latest album ‘Vienna’ (which is on special offer this month), the group made a decision on this particular album to under -play the use of electronics. ‘The only thing to expect from Ultravox is change,’ says Warren emphatically, ‘that’s why “Vienna” surprised a lot of people who thought we’d become more esoteric, and it should make the album enjoyable for a much wider audience.’ Warren finished by adding: ‘The next album is going to be different again. One of our trade marks is our duality – total opposites being blended together and we’re going to try for something that’s a lot more ‘off the wall’ but at the same time is still easy to listen to and fun to dance to – a lot more electronics will be evident too!’