Diary Of A Madman
The Mad Professor
An excursion into the depths of dub with reggae master and sound manipulator The Mad Professor.
Richard Walmsley journeys to Peckham in search of a master of dub
"Deep in the heart of Peckham, behind the facade of an ordinary building, down a dark and winding staircase, amongst a maze of dimly lit cellars lives a Mad Professor. That is where you must go. Seek him out, partake of his wisdom, learn the mysteries of the master tape."
Thus spake the answerphone in the voice of one who, though unidentified, must surely be a member of the ES&CM editorial staff. (They get a bit excited at times.) And so without more ado I sharpened a new HB, donned my coat and set out to inflict another barrage of embarrassing questions (what's this button here for?) on an unsuspecting and innocent individual.
Known once as Neil Fraser, the Mad Professor has over the last four years been building a considerable reputation for himself both as a producer and as an artist on the British reggae/dub scene. His experiments in dub which began in a sitting room, have led to him setting up his own studio and record label, Ariwa Sounds, whose catalogue includes his own five part series Dub Me Crazy, and diverse LPs from other reggae artists such as Ranking Ann, The Wild Bunch, Sergeant Pepper, Peter Culture and The Robotic Orchestra. In addition to these the Professor has worked with an impressive roster of reggae talents, at the head of which must be Lee 'Scratch' Perry and Sid Buckner from Jamaica's Studio 1, whose work with the late Bob Marley entitles them to the rank of mogul in reggae circles.
For all those out there who don't know what I'm on about, Dub is the style of reggae where the mixing desk and its auxiliary paraphernalia become the focus of creative activities; where the drop-out and the reverb explosion replace the logic of the vocal line and the verse structure. In his Dub Me Crazy series, the Professor has been consistently spiralling out on an electronic plane, bringing some of today's most succulent sounds to the deeply rooted traditions of reggae.
So what does it take to become a Mad Professor? How many years of research are involved? And does one have to wear one's glasses upside down?
MP: "When I started I didn't know fuckall about studios, I just used to like a lot of reggae and dub. I woke up one morning and said to myself, 'I'd like to make some dubs!' and I had the idea I should build a studio. I used to be a test engineer on segments of computers, but when I went to work I'd be talking about the studio, and reading all the sound magazines, analysing every fac' an' every word. An' I wouldn't do any overtime either; as soon as the place finished I'd be out, back in my studio. So I got the sack. But then the phone ring, 'cause by then the word was spreading, and it was one of the local sound systems, Mombasa, who had some tapes over from Jamaica and wanted them transferred onto cassettes. Then other people phoned up to hire the studio, and I thought 'this is the life'. Mind you, the next week was hard. I didn't earn anything, but I hang on and gradually it picked up."
He makes it sound very easy. Sitting in his 24 track basement studio, amidst rooms piled high with Ariwa Sound LPs, I'm wondering what it all looked like in the early days. It seems a far cry from a front room.
MP: "I started with an Akai 4000DS, an' I problem wi' de Akai is it's never in sync. An' it puzzle ya!"
How do you get around that?
MP: "You either get two tape machines, or you get a machine that's in sync. Still, that's the way you learn. Then I bought this Teac 4 track and this guy came along with a diagram of a Soundcraft desk, so I started building my own Soundcraft desk. I was just reading up and learning, going into it by my head and by my pocket. Then in '81 I bought a Tascam 808, some AKG D12 and 451 microphones and started renting this studio."
So much for history. Now the studio comprises a two inch Ampex 24 track recorder, a much enlarged version of his original Soundcraft Series Two desk (half of which is now factory made) and a modest but versatile selection in the racks made up of two Drawmer Dual Gates, MXR DDL, MXR Pitch Transposer, MXR 01a Stereo Reverb, Roland SDE 3000 DDL and a GBS Spring Reverb.
The studio, though large, is rather spartan and decorated with the most incredible array of rubbish; empty record sleeves cover the floor, Ariwa labels adorn the walls, blank slates perch precariously behind the studio's ancient monitors.
Whilst photos were being taken, the Prof started the tape rolling and gave a demonstration of the art of dub. As I mentioned in my December feature on Mikey Dread, dub is created in a unique fashion whereby the producer uses the desk and the effects in an improvisatory manner, building up layers of sound and chasms of silence with no previously worked out programme. I am often struck by the fact that in some spheres of music mere possession of high tech has tended to replace creativity, and therefore I find dub interesting because of its emphasis on maximum creativity from even the most humble technical resources. The Professor explains:
MP: "When I do dub most of it isn't planned out although I've got to have an idea of what I'm going for. But once I've got that I just go into it and see what happens.
"I need a lot of auxiliary sends to do dub. With this desk there are four auxiliary sends with a switchable option, so you could have eight; you can send it anywhere. This desk is permanently in tune. That's why I hate to work with another producer who will change things; I'm not into that shit. My cassette deck is always wired in, my echo is always on Send 1 and my reverb is always on Send 3; it don't move. Some engineers come in and they put it all back. Why? I can't work like that, it upsets me.
"Sometimes I use the MXR delay as a flanger. I don't use the gates that much now, except for effects like triggering the reverb by the snare, because with these gates you can link them, and have this one operating so that what it does, the other one does as well. Also I use the gates to get automatic panning, using a decay on the threshold in conjunction with a delay or drum machine rhythm. One comes on and then when it shuts off the other one comes on. Then by setting the pan controls on the auxiliary channels correctly you can get it to go left-right-left-right (bangs a rhythm on the desk), according to the rhythm of the delay or the drum machine."
I suspect that sampling does not play a major part in the Professor's repertoire since his rootsy operation hasn't yet run to the 'Lazy' and 'Rydim', altering the programmed settings, then getting some startling blips by sending quick signals from the MXR into the Roland. (Some of this has been included on the tape.)
MP: "It's not that easy to sample with the Roland. The bad thing about doing it with this one is that even though you can get nearly five seconds, you are halving the band width to do it and so the quality goes down. I don't use the GBS Spring Reverb now so I guess I should sell it, but I'm too LAZY. (Suddenly the word leaps back out at me from the monitors. This guy even dubs his own conversation!) The MXR 01a reverb I like very much; I think it's a good compromise between price and performance."
One of the peculiarities of the reggae world is the sound systems; monster discos which hold court at blues (all night parties) and at dance halls. Each system prides itself on the exclusiveness of its music, and for this purpose reggae artists make one off recordings called Slates, which are sold to one system only for large amounts of cash. I wondered whether the Professor was involved in this scene at all.
MP: "Yeah. I've got two cutters, a Neuman AMS 131, and a little MSS Cled built in 1930 which came out of a television studio. It's interesting because Reggae is about the only business that still supports that kind of a scene, although it hasn't been as popular recently as it used to be four years ago. Because most of them come from the States, the price of blank slates has gone up on account of the dollar to pound relationship."
Reggae, like soul music is far less ephemeral than most other styles of music. Thus it is that producers from the sixties like Lee Perry and Coxsone Dodd are still working successfully now. So what's it like collaborating with Perry, one of the fathers of reggae?
MP: "What's it like working with a legend? Very much fun. He's very much a vibe producer. Some people produce according to the precision, he produce according to the vibe."
Things are changing though. It's not only the more pop oriented bands like UB40 that are letting the machines take control.
MP: "For the past three months I've used a drum machine, in fact my drummer is very upset at me, and you can understand it. I've got a Sequential Circuits Drumtraks which I love. Nice snare. On Obeah Pressure I used a DMX which is good as well, but the snare isn't as good as on the Drumtraks. The good thing about the DMX is that it's got separate tom outputs, whereas on the Drumtraks they put the toms on the same output, so you have to synchronise and overdub if you want to effects them separately. On the Peter Culture LP, Facing The Fight, I used Simmons on every track, but I usually like to vary the formats more on an album. I've also used Prophet 5 as a bass synth, but that's mainly on more funk type recordings."
The phone, which had been interrupting us constantly, rang once again, "This place is an asylum," remarked the Professor, and I realised it was time to go.