Looking at Technology’s Effect on Jamaica’s Music

From Red Bull Academy:

Jamaican music scholar Frederick R Dannaway charts the rise of technology and machines – and the changing role of the producer – from roots reggae through dub to digital dancehall.

“Computer world, we in a computer world” – Lee Van Cliff (“Computer World”)

Rhizomatic riddims
The roots of reggae stretch deep to African soils, re-emerging as digital filaments and radicles in the creation of dub, dancehall and digital reggae. The revolving complexity of instruments filtered through various types of mixers and special effects has changed the very conception of music. From bedroom to cutting-edge professional studios, digital hardware is ever birthing new combinations. Dub as the mystical shadow of vocal versions has always had a touch of magic in its echoing translations of one drop riddims. Producers are the ‘scientists’ and ‘professors’, ‘organisers’, ‘doctors’ or ‘chemists’ in their recipes of audio potions that vibrate from their studio laboratories.

All music that is not enjoyed live and in person is subjected to the interlopers of recording devices and studio equipment of microphones and amplifiers. Yet some of the vintage studio equipment seemed to transmute the recordings uniquely – modern producers try to re-invoke the signature sounds. Musical periods, and therefore the studio outputs, are defined by the unique tonal ambiance of the recording equipment. Certain equipment is legendary, such as the Ampex 351, the holy grail of the recording arts. Abroad, the Ampex was recording Elvis and The Beatles, marking the era by its characteristic sound. In Jamaica it was immortalising such acts as The Wailing Wailers with Bob Marley at Studio One.

Studios constantly updated their equipment, enticing different sounds from instruments and singers, allowing a separate channel for each component and effect. Custom mixing boards and mass-produced consumer/professional electronics alike combined in reggae and dub, giving mixes a roughness that enhanced the process rather than detracting from the overall precision. Channel One studios graduated to a killer Ampex MM1200 16 track in the 80s from the $38,000 API console Hoo Kim bought to start the studio in 1972. The studio’s first offering, “Can I Change My Mind” by Delroy Wilson was a chart topping hit, and a landmark change in the island sound, extending the domain of Channel One into the next era.

The logical extension of this is that the mixing board itself becomes an instrument, transmuting certain tones to ghostly echoes, reverb and delays that envelope the music in a warm, almost supernatural aural glow. The mixing board’s magic allowed for the overdubbing of instruments, as exemplified by Freddie McGregor on many Studio One classics – including most of Sugar Minott’s output for Coxsone – that reinvigorated old riddims. The classic mixing desk used at Channel One, the API 1604, is a technological masterpiece and a work of art that rivals the finest wood instruments in aesthetics and charm – even, or especially, if it conjures up science-fiction movie rocketship controls.

One can just visualise the magic unleashed upon the massive in 1968 when King Tubby and the Hometown HiFi strategically placed speaker boxes based on their frequency to unveil his serendipitous manipulation of versions that birthed the genre of dub. This was a milestone moment in music that elevated the producer to artist, and the studio equipment – such as Tubby’s gorgeous modified MCI mixing board – to instruments that remix and reinterpret the song in a profound way. The 12 track, and later 16 track and beyond, mixing boards – as Tubby and Jammy used – allowed the distinct layers of the music to be dissected (and sometimes mixed down to four tracks), allowing bass and percussion to linger and smoulder in an intense minimalism, fathering the reductionist digital reggae of the late 80s on through the 90s. Deejays chatting over minimalist dub versions was rap music before there was hip hop. The ramifications of roots music into the versioned instrumentals created dub as its own genre. The dub aesthetic of Jamaica in the 1970s expanded into electronica, house and dubstep. This avant-garde music played with sound, texture, pitch and scale like a painter attempting to capture light with shadows and chromatic contrasts, forever altering the evolution of music.

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