King Tubby was a Mister Fix-it before he became the world’s most acclaimed dub engineer. He fixed televisions, toasters, hairdryers and radios. Because he was so skilled in repairing electronics, he could also wind filter coils, design EQs, build large amplifiers for sound systems and create his own mixing desk. In the seventies, dub reggae was the result of Jamaica’s revolt in sound engineering. The groundbreaking musical style was driven by the rebellion against the normality of things. Dub reggae put Jamaica on the world map for its music and historical approach to sound production; the small island making a big impact on the use of studio technology.
Rush Hour has just released a new issue of their House Of Music print zine. It lays out the importance of DIY mentality in music recording, with examples of groundbreaking dub technologies from the seventies. The numerous videos that illustrate the inventiveness of dub music are hard to stick on print, so hereby a short version of the story, with a few indicative examples.
In the seventies, Jamaican studio engineers gave the studio mixing desk a new purpose. Although these were initially designed to seamlessly integrate the different layers of a musical piece, sound engineers started to use the desks to create thunderclaps and massive sounding echoes. While most reggae songs have been performed by bands, Jamaica is the first country to value recorded music more than live performances. Reggae didn’t get radio play in Jamaica, so reggae selectors made the music heard on sound systems. And dub versions of a track were created to make the music as effective as possible for a dancehall, cut up and rearranged for a more exciting sound. Reggae music is bass music; it needed to be felt.
Dub was created to some degree by the sound men, who started using the studio as an instrument. They probably just wanted a particular rhythm to play with, so the recorded drum and bass got cut and rearranged. These engineers would then play the effects in the studio using the mixing desk. It was the dub version that provided the testing grounds for techniques in creating minimalist remixes from pre-recorded material; techniques such as sampling, have become standard in the digital age. Nowadays, many of the studio effects like flanging, echo and delay are integrated in production software and on DJ mixers for playing live to an audience.
Rearranged For More Impact
The first dub experiments came down to dropping out the backing to leave the voice a cappella for maximum impact. An example of a very early dub piece that showcases this technique properly is the B-side of Burning Spear’s “Marcus Garvey, Garvey’s Ghost” 7-inch release. This version actually has no effects at all, but has been rearranged for more impact by just removing the vocals, cutting out the drums and horns and putting the guitar skank back in the track in a different order. Unfortunately this version isn’t available for playback on YouTube, so let’s insert an example of dropping out the backing:
Jamaica’s adventures in dub started in the late sixties, when multi-track recording and overdubbing capabilities landed on the island in a recording studio called Dynamic Sound. It began spreading to other studios, at first in the form of two-track recording (mostly one track used for the vocals and one for the band). Music production democratized, creativity and naivety became the norm, partly due to limited studio resources. Tubby’s protegé and Channel One’s engineer Scientist once said: “With (dub) reggae, when you make a mistake, it finds a place and fits in.”
King Tubby and Lee Perry are the two most acclaimed pioneering dub artists. Both engineers, for which their unorthodox studio use is well documented. Numerous books, documentaries and LP reissues introduce their works extensively. Most explorations have led to studio techniques that are generally integrated into studio software today, such as multi-track reverse and high-pass filters. King Tubby had a style like no other, which was helped by building his own mixing consoles, granting him the ability to work with electronic features no one else had. He had a high-pass filter built into the console with a slide, so while mixing a dub, he could swing the frequency from a low to high and keep on swaying it, a technique that is audible in Johnny Clarke and The Aggrovators’ “A Rougher Version”, produced by Edward ‘Bunny’ Lee.
Tubby also became famous for his “thunderclap” effect, (presumably the effect was discovered accidentally) created by physically striking the reverb spring, causing the smashing sound in, for example, The Aggrovators’ “A Better Version”, the B-side of Horace Andy’s Skylarking 7”.
The sound of Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio was partly dictated by making the maximum of minimal resources. Unique sound textures were developed further through working with four-track equipment, and the necessity of dumping completed tracks onto one track, in order to free them up for further overdubbing. It meant a loss of sound quality, though in favour of the hissy sound characteristic as is audible on his classic “Super Ape” album.
Also: Dub is about deconstructionism, about the removal and re-introduction of sounds after recording a band, so as to anticipate certain elements. This type of musical post-arrangement is the precursor to the (disco) remix.
From a macro view, we could also conclude that techno and dub reggae are born out of the same musical approach: the act of taking what can be considered a series of crude musical fragments, and expanding them through a series of time-based performative processes. They just happened in different places and times, but both are all about the gaps.
Rush Hour releases a non-periodical zine to carry out more about the music they represent and believe in. The fifth issue is out now, available for free at your local record shop worldwide.