Musical history is littered with examples of innovators using technology in creative ways that have wide reaching and lasting affects. In part one of this article we examine the techniques and equipment used in the creation of dub music, a genre that would grow to birth and influence not only reggae but pop and all types of electronic dance music, including quite notably dubstep, jungle and drum'n'bass, as well as having a major hand in the invention of the remix and hip-hop.
THE BIRTH OF THE REMIX
The evolution of dub and the evolution of the remix are two parts of the same story. One of the key moments in the creation of dub happened in 1968 at Treasure Isle Studio in Kingston, Jamaica. Because very few people had the money to buy records, the main way that people were introduced to new music was either in dancehalls or at street parties. Therefore whoever owned and operated the portable sound systems was in a position of influence when it came to setting musical trends.
Rudolph ‘Ruddy’ Redwood owned one such system and one day he was attending a session produced by Bunny Lee and engineered by Byron Smith and Osbourne Ruddock, otherwise known as King Tubby. They were cutting a ‘dub plate’ - an acetate copy of the song to be played through the sound systems – and were having trouble getting the vocals to fit in the mix. Redwood insisted that they cut a version of the track without the vocals and consequently this instrumental version was used to extend the original version when played by the dancehall DJ, thus giving birth to the concept of the extended remix. Although Coxsonne Dodd had pioneered the idea of releasing a 'riddim' version of a song in the mid-'60s by removing some of the melodic elements, such as the horn section, Tubby took this idea even further. This proved to be so popular that by 1970 it had become common practice to issue an instrumental version as the B side of a single.
THE BIRTH OF RAP
From there King Tubby took the idea of creating an instrumental version of vocal tracks and quickly began experimenting with techniques that emphasised the song’s rhythm after the main melody had been removed. This also created space in the track for the deejays (or MCs as they became known in the USA) to toast over the records when played live, an important musical evolution that would eventually lead to the birth of rap. Wheras previously the deejay’s job was to entertain the crowd in between songs, U-Roy became a sensation through toasting over productions by King Tubby, earning himself several charting singles in the early ‘70s.
THE BIRTH OF DUB – THE INTRODUCTION OF DELAY & REVERB
Although King Tubby is now known as a producer and musician, his primary occupation up until this point had been providing transformers to stabilise electrical current on the island and building and servicing amplifiers for the local sound systems.
After the success of the instrumental ‘versions’ as they were called,Tubby became inspired and started to improve his own sound setup and experiment with techniques in his sessions with U-Roy. He bought an old MCI mixing console from Dynamic Sounds in 1971 and turned his front room into a remixing studio, crucially adding reverb and delay to his mixes for the first time.
“We introduce a different thing to the sound system world,” said Tubby in 1975. “This amplifier here have a chrome front and reverb. That is the first time a reverb was introduced in Jamaica is when my sound come out. And it get de people so excited that everywhere we go we have a following. And then U-Roy come on with a style...”
The techniques developed during this period saw the engineer/producer begin to use the mixing desk and outboard gear as instruments to orchestrate new versions over the existing track’s rhythms. Such techniques included muting key parts of the arrangements, such as the bass or vocal snippets, and then reintroducing them to the song.
An early example of a dub mix that became a completely new song was ‘Phantom’ by Clancy Eccles & The Dynamites.
SPACE ECHO/SNARE SHOT
Another distinctive technique that became a major part of dub was the practice of introducing delay feedback or echo on certain phrases or drum hits, particularly on the snare. See a video below of Llyoyd ‘King Jammu’ James, who worked as an engineer in Tubby’s studio before branching out on his own, demonstrating this technique.
Given that Tubby and his team of engineers used the mixing desk as an instrument, one of the defining sounds of the dub records made during that time was the use of the console’s hi-pass filters.
“It was a very unique board because it was custom built for Dynamic Sounds,” remembered King Jammy in Michael Veale’s Dub Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. “It had things that the modern boards nowadays don’t really have, like a high-pass filter that made some squawky sounds when you change the frequency. We would put any instrument through it – drums, bass, riddim, voices. That high-pass filter is what create the unique sound at Tubby’s.”
The ‘sweeping’ sound caused by the filter can heard on many productions from the period, see this video for an example of how this was put together in a mix.
TURN UP THE BASS
The booming bass line more and more became a major component of dub music and foreshadowed one of the many genres that would grow in its wake - drum'n'bass.
Stay tuned for Part 2: How Dub Impacted The Sound Of Modern Britain