UB40 exclusive... the drums go digital... Plus Dread at the Controls - top producer Mikey Dread dubs it up, and reveals some trade secrets...
Surprisingly perhaps some of the most radical and exciting use of electronics are occurring in the field of Reggae. Richard Walmsley sets of in search of Dub and discovers UB40's new excursion into digital technology and top producer/singer Mikey Dread inna studio stylee.
What do The Police, Grace Jones, Men At Work, Culture Club and The Clash have in common? The answer? They have all at sometime released songs which either imitate Reggae or borrow elements from it. Coming from an island one-tenth of the size of England, Reggae has of course flowered not just in London and Birmingham, but also in Western Europe, the United States and notably, in Australia and New Zealand, where it has become an adopted musical style among the Aboriginal and Maori populations of those two countries. And in all the places where Reggae has spread, its often beguiling simplicity has influenced all kinds of musicians, both black and white.
What we now recognize as Reggae is the result of the slowing down in tempo of the earlier Jamaican styles known as Ska and Rocksteady, together with the emergence of the bass guitar as the principle rhythmic and melodic element in the music. As far as the rhythmic section goes, Reggae can be said to be essentially a fast-four-four, (possibly about 130-140b.p.m.) in which the bass drum plays two to a bar with the snare kick on three, while the rhythm guitar or keyboards play chords on beats two and four. In addition there is another style known as Steppers, a driving beat which follows the steady eight-to-a-bar rhythm of the Hi-Hats, and generally dispenses with chords on two and four.
It is these and other rhythms and elements of Reggae that inspired songs like The Police's Walking On The Moon, and Culture Club's Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? etc. However, it must be said that songs like these really only touch on the most superficial elements of the style, for Reggae amounts to a good deal more than putting the snare drum kick on three.
The best way to find out what it's all about, is to get yourself invited to a party or gig where a Sound System is in session, for Reggae is also an attitude to sound and only really comes to life amongst the mass of lilting bodies, nodding heads and the herbiferous atmosphere that you find in that situation.
From early on in its history Reggae established a distinctive studio tradition, with the producer tending to have a very dominant role in the final outcome of a session. The emerging sound of Reggae was shaped by producers like Coxsone Dodd, and the late Leslie Kong who produced Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytalls, and of course, Desmond Dekker - the first person to penetrate the British charts with a Reggae single.
The producer also came into his own with the advent of the Dub style, which has progressed from simply playing around with the track faders, to creating complete 'sounds-pictures' using echo, reverb and phasing effects. On a record such as Big Youth's Dreadlocks Dread, amidst the stabbing echo and reverb sends the continuity is often only maintained by insistent phased hi-hats sounds. Examples of more recent developments in the style can be heard on the Dub Me Crazy albums by The Mad Professor of Ariwa Sound, and on albums ike The Pop Group's For How Long Will We Tolerate Mass Murder? produced by Dennis Bovell.
Sound Systems, basically high power disco PAs with a massive supplement of bass speakers and amplification, (wardrobes have been known to be converted to house such speakers) have given rise to another aspect of Reggae production. The producer must be capable of creating bass and drum sounds that are hard enough to project at such enormous levels without losing resonance or drowning the upper parts.
The real rise to prominence of Reggae came during the 1970's under the dual impetus of Bob Marley and the Rastafarian Movement. As a result today's Reggae scene is remarkably diverse, with at least three distinct styles now established. Firstly, there is the traditional Jamaica sound; hard, heavy and uncluttered. Then there is a new, more outward looking Jamaican style, which borrows more from other music. This sound is mainly characterized by the production of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, whose work with Black Uhuru, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs and Grace Jones has been widely influential. The sound they aim for is busier and less constrained by traditions, with a wider variation of rhythms and more use of electronics - significantly, Simmons Drums and synth bass, Parallel to the work of Sly and Robbie is the emerging sound of new British Reggae bands like Birmingham's Steel Pulse and London band Aswad. Again, their sound is more widely influenced and owes a good deal to Funk and Pop studio production styles. Nevertheless, in all these styles the basic feel still remains the same, always gentle and insistent, always rockin' along.
The last major surge of interest in Reggae was probably at the time of the Two-Tone era, 1979-80, when bands like The Selector and The Specials were imitating the early Ska sound, playing what was sometimes called 'Mod-Reggae'. UB40's rise to prominence coincided with, but was not part of, this movement, and they have since continued to play music that is much more in tune with the mainstream of contemporary Reggae.
What makes UB40 different from most other Reggae bands which feature white musicians in their line-up is the fact the most of the members of the band grew up in Balsall Heath, a predominantly West-Indian area of Birmingham. This meant that Reggae was their biggest musical influence and the most natural style of music for them to adopt. They've come a long way since recording Signing Off, their first album, on a mobile 8-track unit in a front room, for now DEP International (the record label they set up,) houses two twenty-four track studios.
Their music is not traditional Reggae, and each LP has marked a fresh departure in style. Their latest LP, Geffery Morgan, is unique in that it must be one of the first Reggae albums to feature almost totally electronic percussion.
Jim Brown is UB40's drummer and was entirely responsible for the new and more percussive sound of the new album. This was his first real brush with digital percussion, and was an encounter he at first had reservations about - "I don't know the first thing about maths. I don't think I can even do subtraction!" However his reservations were dispelled as he explored the possibilities of the technology. "It's dead easy! It's down to knowing what you want. If you've got a direction it's easy to get the necessary information."
Basically the units he used were the Simmons SDS7 and 8, DMX, Syncussion, live toms and live cymbals. The crucial tool that enabled him to build up his percussion tracks was the Friend Chip (SMPTE Reading Clock). SMPTE is a code which can be put down on the multi-track and subsequently used to drive sequencer type units (via the SMPTE Reading Clock) during the recording process. The Friend Chip SRC, and other similar units such as the Roland SBX80, can convert the SMPTE code into almost any form of clock signal, which means that from a single track on the multi-track you can sync almost any sequencer or drum machine you want. The other advantage SMPTE has over other sync codes, is that it is an intelligent code which records not only the tempo information of the music, but also the progression of the music. In other words, at any point the code can inform the SRC how long the track has been running. Cues for starting sequencers etc can therefore be programmed for any point in the music, and the track does not have to be started from the top each time for the purpose of doing over-dubs and drop-ins.
The facilities offered by the SRC enable the drummer to use computerised percussion in a much more sensitive way. "What we'd do is this;" Jim explained, "I put down a basic drum pattern with the DMX, then the other instruments would go down, and as the song took shape I'd decide where I wanted rolls to go, or where I wanted a change of beat or whatever, and then just re-programmed it all again on the DMX. " Thus the relationship between the bass-player and the drummer could still be organic and responsive - "The inspiration is still there, in fact more so because you're hearing it almost as a completed number rather than how you imagine it is going to be."
At the mixing stage he then added sampled drum sounds, using the AMS, programming the rhythms he needed on the DMX using the metronome outlet. Sounds from other multitracks they had, and from other people's music were used, and, given the considerable facilities at their disposal, the problem was not so much obtaining the sound they wanted as agreeing amongst themselves which sound to actually use. In spite of all this, all the hi-hats on Geffery Morgan come straight from the DMX; "The DMX has got a great hi-hat!" Jim explained, showing a healthy instinct for using hi-tech only where artistically necessary. "The cymbals were actually played live, but with the tape running fast, so they come out sounding heavier and wider."
Having worked out how to use their equipment to advantage in the studio, the inevitable question must be, how they are going to manage in a live situation. "We're a very straight band, you know what I mean? We've always gone into a studio, played what we wanted to play, gone on stage and tried to reproduce that exactly." In a live situation the SRC can also be used. In its Free mode, it can feed up to twelve other units from its own internal clock, or from a clock signal on another unit coming in through the input module. However, Jim admits that for the moment the problems of live playing are still unresolved.
Mixing down for UB40 is a matter of endurance. They spend fifteen hours at least on each mix, and it's only those of them still standing at the end who get to have their way with the sound.
The influence of Sly and Robbie runs very deep among them. Ray Falconer handles UB40's sound both in the studio and on stage; "They've got mixing really well sussed," he told me, "because everything is totally audible, has its own position. It's three-dimensional, there's no coy little moody bits in the back ground; everything shouts at you." Jim Brown - "I think what they do is quite simple. It's just a case of who thought of it first. And they think it makes them a genius. We're influenced by it which makes us less of a genius... only slightly less of a genius though!"
The band regard effects as integral to the music. Ray Falconer's motto is, "If it moves, effect it! Jim Brown put it another way; "Effects brings things together, makes things fit in. To effect something is to put it into its slot."
Ultimately, it's not the equipment that counts, but the music. Using digital percussion was for Jim Brown, merely a means to an end. Some aspects of production brought about by having an abundance of hi-tech equipment, such as the fact that the band can spend three days arguing about a snare drum sound, make them nostalgic for the old days. "Really what we're talking about is nit-picking to most people who buy records," Jim wound up. "They don't actually care whether you've got an AMS or a Lexicon, providing the songs are good."
At the other end of the spectrum from UB40, giving an idea of the wide compass of Reggae music, is Mikey Dread. An exponent of the traditional JA style, Mikey has worked both in England and Jamaica with a considerable number of different artists, notably The Clash. Mikey, along with Professor Larry Bassie on Bass, Charlie 'Eskimo' Fox on Simmons Drums, and 'Rockers' his assistant, came into our Regent Street studios to give us a taste of the tropical style.
The first thing we learnt was that you must have powerful monitors in order to work on the Reggae sound. The studio was in the midst of a refit, and the monitors which we were having to make do with were given a curt dismissal by Mikey - "You can't mix Reggae like that!" However, we persevered and in due course the monitors received a good deal of heavy punishment. Remember, the bass end of the sound in this kind of music has to really move the air and contact with the stomach. It's a very powerful form of sound separation really, with the Bass and Drums intended almost to move you physically below the neck, leaving the head free to take in the higher details, the vocals and keyboards etc.
The sound of JA is partly due to the fact that recording studios in Jamaica tend to be a bit primitive by British standards. Treasury recording studios for instance, where Mikey has done many recordings, is an eight track which in fact consists only of two four-track rigs! Since Mikey is an exponent of a very simple style as far as an instrumentation is concerned, this is not a major problem - "Four-track is better for the music really, 'cause with sixteen track you tend to overdo things."
The technique involved is incredibly simple, i.e. putting all of the drums (via a pre-mixer) onto track 1, bass on track 2, guitars and keyboards on track 3, and vocals on track 4. However, unlike engineers in other spheres of music who tend to pay most attention to the sound of the individual tracks at the mixing-down stage, Mikey pays a lot more attention to what is actually going down onto the multitrack. The idea is to get the sound pretty much as you want it to sound in the mix, and also to put as much signal onto the tape as possible - even to the point of it distorting very slightly. (Noise Reduction is a dirty word amongst the Mikey Dread entourage!) For obvious reasons therefore, this sound cannot really be achieved on a portastudio.
If Mikey wants to add horns, then he records over onto the second four-track, bouncing down the drums and bass onto one track. This of course means that the bass and drums cannot now be separated for the purposes of doing a dub-mix.
Complexity is scorned by Mikey, and given that we had sixteen tracks at our disposal he preferred to over-dub a second snare drum, tuned much higher than the first, and a second hi-hat track (both with different EQ settings from the other side-drum and hi-hat tracks,) rather than add complex instrumental overdubs. Again, the obsession is more with sound and with producing very wide, full sounds that will sound resonant and yet still project at very high volumes.
The recording of the actual music does not take that long. In this case it took less than an hour and a half (not counting time spent miking up etc.) The session really began to cook at the mixing stage when everyone crowded into the control room to listen with intense concentration, commenting on the feel and 'hardness' of the sound.
At this point Mikey produced one of his dub special effects tapes - everything from recordings of detonations, to excerpts from film soundtracks. This tape was set up on an available two-track Revox and run (in mono) through one of the remaining free channels on the desk. Because the Revox was located away from the desk the task of cueing and punching-in the effects became a two-man operation. (Another hand was also recruited, in the absence of any phasing on the outboard, to continuously move the EQ's up and down on the keyboard track, thus changing the overtone response and creating a phased sound.)
Although the Reggae bass sound is very deep, with little or no top frequencies, the bass drum sound has a much higher boost on the treble end. Unlike Funk bass drum sounds where the bass frequencies are cut out, leaving only a click, the lower frequencies are boosted as well to give a full, woody sound.
The technique of mixing this music has more in common with the art of the abstract painter, of sweeping brush strokes and inspired stabs, than it has with the traditional role of the producer as technical planner and architect of the sound. Selecting climatic drumbeats, shouts or special effects to send to either of two delay units, pulling faders in and out, muting channels and boosting reverb, Mikey improvised each mix, 'playing' the desk as if were a musical instrument. The cueing and punching-in of the special effects was roughly pre-planned and either executed by Mikey himself, bouncing back and forth in the packed room, or by Charlie Fox, acting on Mikey's signals. Each mix however, was a question mark until it was down on the two-track, and was a performance in itself.
In this smokey and rather chaotic atmosphere, it was at first rather hard to believe that anyone really knew what they were doing. However, as mix after mix was put down on tape, each one different and unexpected, I began to appreciate this method of working.
For whereas many bands stay up all night becoming more and more bleary-eyed, getting much too crucial about tiny details, this approach preserved the fun right up to the end. If a good mix went wrong half-way through, it was earmarked for editing (for many dub-mixes are created on the editing block,) and just in case any good dubs did not find their way on to the stereo master, a cassette-deck on a stereo output from the desk was kept running throughout.
Reggae is in a sense, the antithesis of most other forms of contemporary music; the beat is back to front, the sound balance is upside down, and the performance often only begins at the mixing desk. But it is these 'lateral' elements that make it such an inspiring style, both as a music to listen to, and as a source for musical inspiration and ideas.
Interview by Richard Walmsley
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