Monday, October 31, 2011

Dub and the Virtual Sound Space

The unique ability of the dub artist is to create a virtual universe in your mind. A three dimensional canvas to stage his sonic wizardry. Using low, rolling baselines and sparse drum hits, Lee "Scratch" Perry evokes a futuristic and mystical sound space on his tracks. One of the most important things to a dub artist is their production space. Most artists at this time had a very personal connection to their craft that stems from having a 'sacred ground' in which to work.

David Toop, a well respected writer on contemporary music explains how Lee Perry and his contemporaries approached the mixing board in the recording process. He says, "the mixing board becomes a pictorial instrument, establishing the illusion of a vast soundstage and then dropping instruments in and out, as if they were characters in a drama."

Lee Perry's studio was called the Black Ark, and it was there he worked with many famous Reggae artists, including Junior Murvin, the Heptones, and Bob Marley and the Wailers. I believe there is a direct correlation between Perry's studio space, and the virtual sonic space that he crafts on his dub tracks. If the producer's studio is the vehicle, then the mixing board is his control center. Using a plethora of effects and techniques, Perry opens up a world inside your head. Sending elements of sound across your mind like a shooting star. He deconstructs instrument sounds and reconfigures them in a new ways. The sparseness and slow tempo of the music actually enhances its ability to create an inner space in your mind. Perry's tricks open the universe inside your head where you can sit embryonically floating and watching the sonorous elements fly towards and away from you at the speed of sound.

Perry's track "Upsetting Dub" starts off with a tight drum roll that explodes and multiplies outward into the universe. These, delay-heavy drum hits are a staple of dub music, as they repeat faster and faster ad infinitum, they give the impression of staring into an infinity mirror. You can imagine each sonic element visually in your mind. The drama metaphor used by Toop is very apt. There is a story unfolding, each part of the composition carries a personality. A strum of the guitar, saturated in reverb brings a harsh and isolating feel. A bold drum fills up the space in the front of your mind before spiraling out into orbit. A cool melody from the organ lulls you into a place of meditation until it is cut short and aggressively looped, shocking you from your complacence. The low, meandering groove comes in the form of a slow lackadaisical bass line. It is the only anchor in the song, and is essentially the vehicle upon which the listener travels through the track. It serves as a vantage point to keep you grounded as other sonic elements are firing off above and below you. Overly-reverberated snare hits cut through the space like a knife, then ricochet off into the nothing. A semblance of a drum beat is created, giving an assertive direction to the track. Though no sooner has it settled in, it is abruptly removed where it disintegrates and echoes away.

Like many of his contemporaries, Perry's Black Ark studio did not feature the latest in recording technology. In fact, much of his equipment was rudimentary and dilapidated. It was by the creative genius of the producer which imbued each track with a mix of black magic and cosmology.

This unique approach to the recording process would make a lasting impression on music to come. The Boards of Canada are one group that has made studio sound crafting as important in the musical process as the music itself. This electronic duo use modern processing techniques to give their sound a retro feel. They, like Lee Perry, strive to strip the music down to the basic elements. Imperfections are celebrated rather than avoided. With this mindset, the music can be organic and vibrant; it takes on a life of its own. The Boards of Canada acknowledge this feeling in the title of their 1998 album, "Music Has the Right to Children.

No comments: