Friday, February 12, 2010

Dub, Studio, and Additive Vs. Subtractive Process

Brian Eno suggests that recording technology, the multi-track tape, seminally influenced music production by allowing sound to leave the constraints of temporality. The recording practices that emerged transformed the musician and studio into painter and palette. Dense forms of music like heavy metal, dub, and some of Eno’s own tape music assume the studio as instrument paradigm. For Eno, this technological evolution meant an additive process where tape systems would build layers like sediment. In Jamaica the arrival of recording technology was harold to the birth of dub. David Toop writes about King Tubby’s early experimentation, “[Tubby] discovered the thrill of stripping a vocal from its backing track and then manipulating the instrumental arrangement with techniques and effects…for the dubmaster they can displace time, shift the beat, heighten the mood, suspend a moment.” (Toop, 356) Toop highlights a process of pairing down recordings and adding effects that would become common throughout Dub production. The resulting aural phenomenon is rich and cavernous, bearing a nimbus of reverberation and decay. This subtractive effect driven process activates the producer and studio as Eno suggests, but differs in audio aesthetic through its initial act of disassemblage.

Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Guiding Star Dub (1996-1997) and Eno’s Lizard Point (1982) are illustrative of both the studio as instrument, and the differences in primarily subtractive and additive processes. Guiding Star Dub opens with a shattering splash of drums, heavy on reverb and characteristically stripped down rhythm of trumpets. These elements feel almost disparate in their juxtaposition, as though their harmonizing element had been removed. Then a downtrodden voice, undoubtedly sampled and reduced from pop-reggae, appears on top. The aegis of horns suddenly fragment, ring, and dissipate echoing from left to right, leaving nothing but emptiness. The voice returns, but the instrumental track continually falls out from beneath him, creating a space of despair that seems to trail on indefinitely. Perry achieves this feel through chopping up and reducing his sources. Perhaps he subtracted from a previous cut until nothing but drums, bass, and horns remained, removing all binding elements, which formerly rendered the source cohesive. As a sculptor he would then use the tools of the studio, echo and reverb to stretch and bend the shards into a landscape of fluctuation. Oppositional in approach are Eno’s use of tape systems. Lizard Point almost feels cyclic at points. There is a more apparent layering going on. The deep and swelling tones pile up on top of each other forming a tightly joined stratum. The feel of this piece is directly related to Eno’s additive process of recording in which the tape continually records over itself, compiling a new band. Both of these pieces are generated through the studio, with the control panel as the main instrument. However, their aesthetic separation is drastic, and this stems from the difference in subtractive and additive processes.

Works Cited
Toop, David. “Replicant: On Dub.” Audio Culture Readings In Modern Music. Ed. Cox, Christolph and Daniel Warner. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008.

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