[Emch at the helm. Photo by Thad Brown.]
Kids these days. They just don’t respect the foundation. But Emch from Subatomic Sound is out to change that and hopes to remind all of us that those roots often point to dub. Whether it be through his radio show on BrooklynRadio.net, the live shows he organizes, the music released on the label, or the production of the collective, he’s coming from all angles. The New York-based iron man talked to Dubspot recently about his views on technology, production tricks, history, and spirituality. The conversation ranged from detailed technical discussion of ‘reverb bombs’ to the importance of allowing your spirit to communicate with others when in the studio. - MS
[Subatomic Sound System meets Ari Up - "Bed Athletes (7" Radio Edit)"]
THE VILIFICATION OF COMPUTERS HAS SUBSIDED
You know I was just thinking the other day how we used to hide the fact that Subatomic Sound System even used computers to make music. We were scarred by winning a Redbull DJ and remix competition in NYC called Vinylab around 2001, right when CDJs came out, and we were almost disqualified when they found out we did our mix on a laptop, as if the computer somehow did some voodoo to create the winning mix for us. Can you believe that? Now 10 years later, it is a different world and everyone can speak freely and openly about their computer technology because everyone uses it! Hilarious. So to answer your question, I have different setups for optimum Subatomic Sound System dubbing in different situations: studio, solo gigs, group show, DJ, mobile. I use Ableton, Reason, and Traktor all at the same time for live performances. I run them independently rather than with ReWire so they can have their own tempos and do other quirky dub things I do, but I manually feed all the signals into Live for sound manipulation and I switch back and forth between the programs during the show for different tracks. I have a Novation Remote 25 as my main controller that can actually control all the programs separately thanks to its highly evolved mapping and channel settings. I use that as my virtual live dub mixing board these days instead of a real mixer. Oftentimes, I am mixing and dubbing singers and live instruments on stage too so I have some compressors, mics, and line inputs going into an RME rack sound card which has a great virtual mixer managed through the computer. I also use Cubase in the studio. Although I grew up on Macs and love Macs, I have long used Thinkpads for music because they can have two hard drives and storing samples and tracks on the second hard drive allowed me to run all these programs at the same time at a show without crashing. They also have great tech support worldwide and when you use a laptop intensively it will break down, usually at the worst possible time and location, so you need that support.
A FOCUS ON REVERB INSTEAD OF ECHO
I like that you asked about reverb because when most people ask me about of dub techniques, they usually focus on how I get the echo. In fact, the reverb bomb is one of my favorite dub tricks. It is a sound that should go hand in hand with a lightning bolt from the heavens! It was popularized by King Tubby and is often overlooked. Basically it works like this: Set up a reverb on a FX send channel followed by a compressor in the signal path. Use an EQ built into the reverb if it has EQ (the standard reverb plugin in Live does) or an EQ placed after the reverb in the signal path to roll off some low end and high end. Set the compressor to a very high ratio or even use a limiter so the effected signal won’t be louder than other elements of the mix. Now it’s time for to dub it: On a drum track, crank up the send knob when a snare hits. The effect should be somewhere between a crash cymbal and a thunderclap. It sounds particularly amazing through an outboard spring reverb because the springs rattle in a very unique way. There are some other tricks I could tell you about from there, but that’s a good start for experiments.
[Emch performing at Sound Liberation Front.]
USE EFFECTS WISELY
A common mistake is too much of the effects, too often. If you leave reverb and delay on the whole time, first of all, it crowds and muddies up the mix and secondly, it doesn’t really make it an effect anymore because it loses impact by being there constantly. The great Jamaican dub producer Scientist (who studied under King Tubby and worked at his studio) was speaking at a Dubspot event in 2009 and he said that the “key to a good dub is the element of surprise”. It’s really true, because when you listen to his classic dubs (check the albums Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires or Heavyweight Dub Champion or King Tubby’s Dub Gone Crazy), they take unexpected turns that really make them so much more than simple rhythm tracks. The bass and drums will be rocking with some reverb bombs here and there and then suddenly Scientist will mute everything and cut to just the vocals and skanks, then back again to the groove before you lose it. I’d say let that be your guiding principle and try to surprise people with effects rather than blanket the mix with them.
Turn effects off and on, cut the delay time in half while its echoing, feed the signal back on itself. There are so many ways to just go crazy with a dub. Having a controller with tactile knobs and faders is so crucial, because it lets you do what you feel at the moment and really play the mixing board as an instrument in the same way a scratch DJ would use turntables like instruments. Dub evolved out of trying to make reggae instrumentals on the B-side of 45s more interesting in the absence of vocals, so the effects would be used to create drama and tell a story would otherwise be done by the singer. It’s story telling without vocals. The dub version of a song is like a poem rather than prose: just a few words and the mind has to use those as the basis to fill in the full picture.
[Dubblestandart feat. Lee "Scratch" Perry & David Lynch - "Chrome Optimism Oxygene Dub Pt. 4"]
SOMETIMES LESS IS MORE
First of all, dub is ultimately more about taking away elements than adding them. It’s about creating space and highlighting elements of the track to change the listener’s focus and give the music three-dimensionality. Reverb and echo are tools to use to make that happen, bringing pieces closer and further away. If you just keep adding effects the whole time, you end up with a muddy mess. It is easy to make that mistake because a lot of the western music tradition is layers of sound and harmonies washing over one another and not so much space. If you are adding something, unless you are trying to build the intensity of the track at a certain point in time, consider taking away something else to make space.
To be honest, I’m guilty of all of these things all the time myself when I am working on Subatomic Sound System track, but when I remind myself of the mistakes I’m making, I improve on them and it ends in making the music better. You have to be your own teacher, and for me following the principles of dub is like the way of the samurai, an ongoing study to reach a higher level excellence.
DUB AS STATE OF MIND
I just did an interview with Kidult, Pharrell’s site for the youth, and they were asking me about the dub genre and I realized that I don’t really consider it a genre anymore. I think dub has elements of both a production style and a genre, but it is both and neither. It’s like the way the say light behaves like both a particle and a wave, but isn’t necessarily either. It started out as a style of remixing reggae tunes but it is a style that can be applied to other genres of music.
[Emch with Anthony B & Devon Denton after NYC-2-Africa recording session in Kingston. Photo by Chauncey Denton.]
JAMAICA IS MORE ABOUT DANCEHALL THAN DUB
The young producers [there] are all about dancehall and except for some splashes of dub effects in the rootical dancehall riddims, the kind of tracks you often hear Sizzla, Capelton, and Anthony B riding. Those are often relics of older riddims from the days dub was popular, so on new riddims there is very little dubbing happening. Subatomic Sound thanks to our links with Dubblestandart has teamed up with People’s Records in Kingston and we are hoping to change that. We recently put out a release with both traditional dub and dubstep featuring Jamaican dancehall artist Elephant Man called “Vampires & Informers” [Grab a free download here].
We also released a dubby African drum oriented dancehall beat with Anthony B, Jahdan Blakkamoore, and Bajah on a release called “NYC-2-Africa” [Grab a free download here].
[Anthony B, Subatomic Sound System, Nomadic Wax - "Dem Can't Stop We From Talk"]
DIGITAL VS ANALOG
Certain things like live recording of voices and instruments and traditional dub mixing demand it both in terms of sound and setup. I have narrowed it down over the years to just crucial pieces because the gear is heavy and takes up a lot of space and power. I used to bring a lot of it to the club for Subatomic Sound System and Dub Champions live shows back in 2000-3 but I was always looking for ways to emulate it in the computer otherwise I would never have been able to do a gig out of town! So in the studio I still have a spring reverb with a crazy filter built in called a Retroverb from Vermona, a German company. I have Moog first edition Mooger Fooger Analog delay that’s brilliant for how dirty and analog it is. I have both of those set up on a mixing desk coming as sends but returning to channels on the desk so I can EQ, compress, and send them back to themselves to create feedback loops. Besides dub mixing, you can create some great sounds doing this that can be used as rhythmic or textural loops in any kind of track. I have a TL Audio Ivory rack that includes tube preamps, compressor, tube EQ, and limiter. It’s really versatile, which I think is important if you have a limited hardware setup. I have a special edition Blue mic that sounds great matched up with the TL Audio. I record vocals on it mostly and it gives a really special and unique sound to the vocal recordings you here on Subatomic Sound System tracks.
On thing I’d like to point out is that sometimes the most expensive gear isn’t always the best. What they were using in Jamaica in the 70s wasn’t always the greatest gear but they worked well within its limitations and even used those limitations define their sound — like the rattling springs in the spring reverb I talked about earlier for the reverb bombs. The TL Audio Ivory preamplifier colors the sound more than their high end models, but I wanted that analog color and warmth because the computer is so literal in its representation if sound, too literal for me, and any color it adds is generally harsh digital artifacts and grating distortion. That’s the ultimate lesson to learn about gear, to look at how your limitations are your strengths rather than your weaknesses. If from two turntables and a mic can come rap music, and if from three chords came punk rock or blues for that matter, then there is nothing stopping someone with a basic computer setup these days from revolutionizing music. You may not be able to compete with a live symphony recorded through Neve pre sounds, vintage Neumann condensers, and mixed on an SSL desk, but you can create something unique that is your own sound that has never been heard before, partly because you are using different tools.
If your goal is to make authentic Jamaican dub or, like Brooklyn’s Dap Tone recordings, to emulate the sound of 70s soul recordings that were made on all analog gear, then I think the lesson that can be learned from their work is, use the original gear and techniques, because the tools and art of recording are ultimately inseparable. Throughout time, genres have been defined by their tools: Jimi Hendrix playing the blues on a Fedner Strat guitar through a Marshall defined rock music as much as Rusko doing bassline on the Albino synth defined the past few years of dubstep.
Occasionally I’ll be fooled if someone worked hard at making digital sound analog or they used good samples of analog recordings. Sometimes I fool people with Subatomic Sound System because I used some analog elements in an otherwise digital mix, but generally people who know both can tell the difference. Sometimes you want it digital if the track need to be really aggressive and in your face, depends on the goal of the music. Digital isn’t always bad and analog isn’t always good.
THE STUDIO AS TEMPLE
[In the studio, it's about] the vibes mostly. The sound secondly. In Jamaica, the studios really feel like holy places and I love that. I think it comes from the respect and care people have for studios, probably due to the importance of music to the country.
THE GAP BETWEEN DUB AND DUBSTEP
It’s a massive divide and getting bigger at this point. That’s why a few years ago Subatomic Sound System did the track “Respect The Foundation” with Jahdan Blakkamoore reversioning Dubblestandart’s take with Lee Scratch Perry on his classic dub tune “Blackboard Jungle”, a tune and an album that was one of the corner stones of dub reggae music from 1973 in Jamaica. Conceptually dub and dubstep share the idea of dub as production style focused on heavy bass and drums and not much vocal, but aside from some occasional skanks of Jamaican vocal samples, there is very little of dub reggae in most dubstep.
I interviewed Rusko after his Terminal 5 show a couple years ago for a little documentary video we did called Lee Scratch Perry: Blackboard Jungle From Dub To Dubstep. It was right when Rusko’s super distorted Albino bass sound was getting really big in the US and I asked him what he thought about the connection between dub and dubstep. He actually said the same thing I was thinking, that the connection is in the bass and drums and the principles of production. I knew he was a guy who was into reggae and referenced it in a lot of his early tracks, so it was interesting to hear him say that too.
A lot of people making what I think of as second generation dubstep, dubstep influenced primarily by other dubstep, are skipping the connection to reggae entirely and I think that explains the glut of dumbed-down, 100% aggro dubstep (or bro-step as it is being called) that is gaining popular in the US, but is not favored by many people who followed dubstep throughout the earlier part of the decade, people really got into it for its creativity and diversity of sounds, everything from placid Burial two step to techno laced Benga to dubby Digital Mystikz and hip hop influenced Loefah. It reminds me of what happened to drum and bass in the 90s when it lost the connection to reggae, lost the basslines that made women dance and melodies people could sing along too. It’s not unlike kids in the 70s who copied Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath but missed that those guys were doing a variation of the blues and so the second generation created corny 80s heavy metal that lacked soul and rhythm in favor of power and face-melting guitar solos. Now we are up to our eyeballs in faced melting dubstep basses instead of heavy metal guitar solos. Some of it is good but some of it is too much. The Subatomic Sound System mix of Elephant Man “Vampires & Informers” borders on bro-step I guess, because it seemed appropriate with the vocal, but we still kept ‘nuff reggae vibes in there too.
[Subatomic Sound System feat. Jahdan & Lee Perry - "Respect My Shit (Dubplate Mix - Radio Edit)"]
THE MOST INNOVATIVE DUB RIGHT NOW
There is so much great music right now, but I’m going to tell you about some reggae oriented dub and dubstep because that is more what I am known for and I know some people have a hard time finding it these days.
For live dub: Dubblestandart who I have had the honor of working with does the best live band dubbing and when they team up with Lee “Scratch” Perry you get a whole history of dub live on stage. Zion Train from the UK does the best mixing desk dubbing live. I gotta blow up my own crew too, Subatomic Sound System, because we have worked hard to do what we consider the best sound system style live dubbing. Of course I’ve got to shout out Liondub and Dub Gabriel who are also on the frontline of dub producers. Alborosie, an Italian who relocated to Jamaica, has got a great dubwise new roots production style and I love his studio stuff. Some of the future dub pioneers from the UK I love are RSD, Loefah, Pinch, Mala of Digital Mystikz. For traditional sounds, Ticklah, Victor Rice, and Dubmatix are guys who are masters at recreating original vibes. Nick Fantastic also does great new school roots riddims.
RECENT AND UPCOMING SUBATOMIC PROJECTS
On the live front, we are hoping to finally get our Planet Dub tour to hit festivals throughout the USA this year, after finishing off 2010 with some crazy shows in Europe. Here is an example video of Dubblestandart & Lee Scratch Perry live where I had the chance to play guitar and melodica with them in front of about 10,000 people who really lost their minds to all different types of dub that we dished out, from Scratch’s 70s classics to new school dubstep.
As far as new music from the studio, we have lots of music on the way and closed out 2010 with a stack of releases from our label Subatomic Sound, both vinyl and digital, with some of my musical heroes plus remixes and collaborations with our favorite producers. You can get a taste online and grab some free downloads from them on our Soundcloud page. A few of the highlights have been: Subatomic Sound System & Nomadic Wax “NYC-2-Africa” an incredible project recorded in NYC, Jamaica, and Africa featuring Anthony B, Jahdan, and Bajah; Dubblestandart meets Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and David Lynch “Chrome Optimism Remixed”, dubwise and dubstep remixes of two eccentric guys, Jamaica’s dub originator and the famed American filmmaker in combination with a Viennese dub band; Subatomic Sound System meets Lee Scratch Perry & Ari Up (of the Slits who tragically passed away in October) “Hello, Hell is Very Low” the first time these two wild punky reggae personalities ever appeared on record together, and Elephant Man “Vampires & Informers”, the first dubstep and possibly first roots dub from Elephant Man as we mentioned before.
Coming up in 2011 the Subatomic Sound System album full length called “Emergency Dubcast Signal” will finally drop this spring featuring all the aforementioned people and more. We also have an album of remixes with Anthony B that is going to be crazy! We have been talking to Neneh Cherry (remember “Buffalo Stance”?) who I always loved about some secret projects that are really exciting. We have a release coming up from April White (Dubspot alumnus) with some interesting remixes, that is called “Happy Endings”. We have Subatomic Sound System remixes for Dubmatix, Noble Society, and others, plus a crazy political track called “NYC-2-India” featuring Delhi Sultanate, a razor sharp political reggae MC based in New Delhi, India, who we met on tour there in 2009. That will be out on High Chai’s SUB continental BASS a South Asian bass compilation next months.
As I [write] I am sitting next to the vinyl 12”s of the Elephant Man “Vampires & Informers” dropping on Feb. 22 and I can definitely say on the issue of analog vs. digital, that vinyl sounds incredible, the way it shapes the bass and the sizzle of the snares and hats is just beautiful and unparalleled.
MOVE WHILE YOU WRITE
It is very important to move your body when making music. A lot of people working on computers these days don’t do it and they don’t realize that they are putting themselves in serious danger. First of all, if you stay still while creating the music, people will feel that stillness and won’t move their bodies when they hear your finished music. Secondly, when you are making music, your spirit becomes detached from your body and drifts just outside it connecting with other spirits in the surrounding space so if you don’t move your body to keep the two in alignment, the body and spirit might become permanently disconnected, your heart will stop, and you could just drop dead suddenly.