UMI-2B | Absolute
Sequencing interface for the BBC
Tony Mills takes a close look at the £495.00 UMI-2B compositional system, and talks to Absolute, a young band who've been making good use of it.
From the heights of modern technology to the relative simplicity of the cheapest Casio, via the London Rock Shop's BBC-based UMI-2B compositional system, Vince Clarke's used them all. And his unique approach to electropop has perhaps rubbed off a little on a new young band, Absolute, who had their first single TV Glare released on Eric Radcliffe and Vince's label, Reset Records. They might yet be the success story many young musicians can only dream about — all aged seventeen, band members Taf, Dave Thomas and Paul Johnson met up with their mentors almost by chance.
Splendid Studio, of course, has already made a name for itself as the birthplace of all the successful Yazoo and Assembly singles, and up to now hasn't been available to the public. However, all that's changing, for reasons not unconnected with the use of the UMI-2B, as we'll see. The studio is on the move to a larger room, and will become available for bookings complete with Fairlight. This is due to the fact that it's no longer in continuous use because everybody now has a setup at home to work out songs — while Absolute have their own Portastudio (courtesy of Eric) he has just invested in EIGHT Casio CZ-101's to go with his UMI-2B; and Vince has another UMI and any synthesisers which aren't in the studio at the time, including a Prophet 5, Pro One, Juno 60, MC4, Roland System 100, ARP Sequencer, two Casio CZ-101's, Sennheiser Vocoder, LinnDrum, Simmons modules.
Still in Splendid are an old RSF Polykobol synth, an Oberheim keyboardless Xpander, a CZ-101 which can be used to play the Oberheim manually via MIDI, the trusty Fairlight which provides a lot of the drum backing and all other sampled sounds, a Yamaha DX1 and a Roland Vocoder Plus, which features choir and string sounds. The setup's completed by a Yamaha RX11 drum machine and a whole stack of studio effects including AMS Delay and Reverb, Publison and Lexicon Reverbs, Roland SDE-3000 Delay, Roland Dimension D and Yamaha and Urei monitors. There's an Amek desk, and a 24-track machine, with mastering onto 1-inch tape or Betamax via a Sony PCM F-1 digital convertor. So what is the miracle gadget that's liberated all this gear?
The UMI system, which has been considerably upgraded since its launch as the UMI 1B, is based on the BBC B micro with considerable expansion of memory hardware as well as the use of sophisticated software. The only external sign of this modification, however, is a single cream-coloured box (to match the Beeb's styling perfectly) which provides the interface to MIDI instruments and has a single blue control button, the function of which changes at different points in the program.
The 2B software allows you to control a sixteen-note polyphonic synthesiser on each of the 16 MIDI channels — so you could theoretically have 256 notes sounding at once. Compared to the Fairlight, which can only sound eight notes simultaneously, this is a considerable advance in compositional power, and with the use of units such as the Akai S612 sampler you could even challenge the Fairlight on its own home ground. However, the use of (say) sixteen Yamaha DX7's would be a little more likely, and the 2B software has many special provisions for the DX7 and its ilk. Velocity, pitch bend, modulation, after-touch and patch change information are all remembered, and you can even dump patch information (for the DX7 only) for sound storage to disk.
The 2B can record in step time or real time, and information other than key-down data is optional to save memory space. In fact you can remove, for instance, velocity information even after recording, or you can overdub a pitch bend or patch change which isn't in the original recording. The system allows you as many attempts as you like to get such Overdubs right before you press Commit to make the recording final.
The menu page of the 2B software gives the options of Real Time or Step Time recording, Chaining, Fine Adjustment, Clock Input Type and Value and many more. Going into Real Time Record produces a metronome click which can be amplified, and you have the option of a count-in before recording begins, or automatic start as soon as you play a key (or even touch the pitch bend wheel!). Maximum pattern length is 64 beats, after which point the pattern repeats; you can go back to the menu page to decide whether to go again, overdub, auto-correct (up to 24th beats) or whatever. The screen displays the number of patterns recorded and/or the percentage of memory left, and you can select whether or not previously recorded patterns are replayed as you record new ones.
The Chaining facility allows you very quickly to enter a step number and pattern number which are then displayed as pairs with a moving arrow showing which pattern is playing at the time. This section of the software is very fast to use, as is the disc dump routine — in contrast to many Commodore 64 or Spectrum-based systems. A song can be loaded in about three seconds, and perhaps this is what attracts the professional to the system — in fact Vince and Eric intended only to use their systems at home until they realised exactly how fast and powerful they could be.
Step Time composition is just as easy, and it's possible to enter either single notes or chords, with the same overdubbing possibilities. Note value in Step Time is fully variable but there are only three options for Gate Length at the moment. As Vince pointed out, this isn't too limiting when you're recording bass lines, and more expressive lead line material is more likely to be entered in Real Time mode.
Both Step and Real Time compositional modes allow full display of notes sounded for every beat. Each bar is displayed individually at the bottom of the screen together with a screen-sized matrix indicating every note in every octave; a cursor steps from one beat to the next and any note sounding at that beat in the sequence becomes highlighted. It's easy to remove or replace a note by replaying it on the synth keyboard, and so even the most complex realtime pattern (with auto correction) can be comprehensively edited.
Obviously operation of the UMI2B has more aspects than can be listed here. Included amongst them are the PAC MOD and PAC BEND modes, which compress modulation and pitch bend information to save memory space, with a slight loss of resolution. 128 Step Time or Real Time patterns can be written into a chain — enough for the longest song — and the Fine Adjust function allows you to slightly offset the start point of slowly-attacking sounds such as Strings in order to make them reach their peak at the right moment.
The Channel to Track assignment page is like a patch key for MIDI channel selection, while the DX7 voice dump routine will hopefully soon be joined by a Casio CZ synth routine. There's a Track List page for notes and remarks, and recent software improvements (available for around £45) include better Gate facilities, access to pages without going through the Index, and cycling of groups of bars within a song.
The UMI-2B is clearly a powerful and professional system, but the Electronic Soundmaker credo is that music speaks louder than words — hence the demo tape. The UMI demo piece, Merry-Go-Round, was composed by Absolute and recorded by the band with help from Vince and Eric in around eight hours.
Each line (apart from the RX11 drums and leadline) was recorded onto the UMI and played onto 24-track tape synchronised by a SMPTE clock. Synthesisers used were a Casio CZ101 and an Oberheim Xpander, with effects including AMS, Lexicon and Publison reverb and AMS and Roland delays.
So is the UMI 2B reliable enough for professional studio work? Eric Radcliffe certainly seems to think so — "I haven't had any problems at all, even with the power supply. Of course everything in the studio is suppressed to avoid random clicks, but my home setup isn't and I've never lost any information at all. I haven't had to consult the Rock Shop for any advice because it's all in the handbook, although there was a slight incompatibility problem with the RX11 drum machine which we've sorted out now".
Vince tends to agree — "It's really easy to use and very fast — you can load a song just like that, and if all your synth voices are ready you can include all the patch changes as well. Live work with the UMI is quite feasible — nowadays I just work at home and bring the UMI in with me when I come into the studio, with the Juno or whatever synthesisers I need. Lately I've been doing some jingle work for the first time — for Volkswagen and some cosmetics companies — although I'm still using the MC4 a little as well as the UMI".
What do Absolute make of this computer technology? As Taf remarks, "none of us are very computer-oriented. I was more interested in football than music until Paul started playing me records by Thomas Dolby and Ultravox. I'm more into Hanoi Rocks and Gary Glitter myself, so we've got a good selection of different influences in the band.
"We're a very young band though — we've played live a couple of times but when most bands were touring we were doing our "O" Levels!"
In fact Paul Johnson and Dave Thomas, the keyboard players, defined the technological direction of the band. Dave had a Technics U90 organ and a piano at home.
"When we thought we could do something reasonable, he says", we bought a Yamaha DX7, a Korg Poly 61 and a Korg KPR 77 drum machine. Now we have a Portastudio which Eric gave us for recording basic ideas, before which we just used the hall of the school which we all went to and put songs straight onto tape."
Paul takes up the story.
"After getting in touch with Eric and being introduced to Vince we demo'd three songs with Blackwing's engineer Phil. Our ideas go from the Portastudio to demo stage before we present them to Vince and Eric for their opinions, and then we record downstairs in Vince's studio".
Absolute's first single for Reset, TV Glare b/w At The Third Stroke, was mostly played by hand with a couple of parts on the MC4 and UMI, but the band aren't against sequencers as such. It's just that Paul had many years of classical piano lessons ("all the usual stuff") and Dave too is an accomplished player. Only Taf admits to having no musical training at all — "and it shows", mocks Vince. "I was more interested in chasing girls at first", says Taf, "but we auditioned a singer for the band and he was awful. At the time I was in charge of the Pause button on the tape recorder, but I thought I could do better than that, so I became the singer. It worked out quite well — we'd all heard Depeche Mode of course, and we could relate to them because all the other people we heard using synthesisers were doing funky stuff. My voice records a little like Dave Gahan's, but we haven't set out to copy Depeche Mode or anyone else.
"The ideas for the songs just come to me at odd times; for instance, the B-side of the single is an instrumental intended as a tribute to the lady who was taken off the Speaking Clock this year, which is why it's called At The Third Stroke. I did write a political protest song recently, but you couldn't tell what it was protesting about in particular... And the gadgets give you ideas too — the sounds inspire new songs, but you have to have some idea in the first place or you've got nothing to work on".
Whether or not Taf deserves the title of World's Fastest Songwriter (he claims four-and-a-half minutes for TV Glare) there's certainly some power in the songs — reminiscent of the earlier Depeche Mode perhaps, but with plenty of ideas of their own. Writing is a communal effort which is now of course influenced by Vince and Eric.
As for the Reset label — Vince has his first single for some time coming up as a collaboration with Paul Quinn, with an album due in collaboration with Andy Bell late in the Summer. Robert Marlow has a new single, Calling All Destroyers, while a new band Hardware (consisting mainly of a mysterious synthesist called Zax) have a 12" single out called Dance. Jimmy Chambers, a backing singer from Paul Young's band, also has a single coming, and Absolute will be recording more demos and experimental tracks with a view to choosing a second single.
If the marketing is right, Absolute may be one of the youngest successful bands in the electro-pop field. What it was about their approach which attracted Eric Radcliffe remains obscure — "I get about fifty demos a week from various sources", he explained, "and I try to listen to all of them, but this was the first one I'd heard that I was really bothered about."
Obviously Vince and Eric are taking the band seriously, but Taf has his doubts. "I haven't been listening to music for very long in the sense of taking it apart to see how it works, but I know that we haven't set out to sound like anybody else. If we are lucky enough to make it though, I don't think anybody's going to take us seriously". Not at first, perhaps...
UMI-2B costs £495 including fitting if taken to the shop. For further info, contact: The London Rock Shop. (Contact Details)
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Review by Tony Mills