Mixing Jamaican Music

Written by Jim Monaghan

Contributions by Gregory Kage

Preparation for Mixing Jamaican Music

Now that we have our sounds recorded, it's time to move onto the mix. Start with fresh ears, and take frequent breaks every 45 minutes to keep your ears from getting fatigued, and so you don't start hearing things that aren't there. It does happen, the phantom sounds do haunt mix engineers that slave over a mix for long periods!

Make sure you are mixing at a good volume, not too loud, because the louder and longer you mix, the more your ear fatigues. Mixing a comfortable volume for most of the mix and pushing the volume here and there isn't uncommon, a lot of engineers do this. Remember to mix a bit louder when dealing with the bass. If you mix too low when playing with the bass, you really won't get the true level of what is really going on. You may find your mix sounds great only to push it louder later on and everything falls apart. Also, don't listen on just one sound source, try different speakers, headphones and even computer speakers. We want our mix to translate to each source.

If you get stuck, take a nap. It's true, some engineers take naps to refresh their minds. It's known that Winston Churchill took naps in the daytime to rest his mind and he had the Nazi's bombing his country for years!

A great tip to get through speed bumps in the mix process is to not "listen." What I mean by that is, put the mix on repeat and go read a magazine or newspaper, a subject that you find the most boring. This way, you won't get so in depth, and you will be hearing the song in a different situation. You may find things in the mix that you didn't notice before. Something I like to do is, if I am not liking how the mix is going, I will quit for the day and open Itunes. I will tuck it randomly in a playlist with a few other reggae songs. When I wake up and go into the car, I will listen to my playlist, when the song comes on, I am normally in driving mode, I will hear it just like any other tune. I can see how it stacks up to the other tunes. I can find little things here and there that I might have not heard while I was working in the studio the previous night. Another idea is if you are working with a band, repeat the mix and put it at a comfortable volume level, have a conversation with people in the room, about anything you want, something other than the mix at hand. If you hear something you like or don't like, walk over and pull a fader up or down. There are lots of tricks to help curb yourself from slaving over a mix. That age old saying, "The mix is never finished!" isn't really true. Yes, songs can be mixed a million different ways but we have to know when it's finished.

The Mix Session

So, do you remember when I said, visualize the mix in blocks? Well, let's take that as our base for our mix. What do we want to create? We shouldn't have to do too much in the mix, if we recorded everything the way we wanted it to sound at the studio, so we are just doing some tweaking here and there. Well, let's take this from a perspective the way old Jamaican records were mixed. If you listen to a lot of the older records, you find that most of the early stuff where the drums are played in a cross stick pattern tend to be low in the mix. The piano is almost non existent, most of the time. Some songs mix the guitar skanks really high or just in the middle. The organ tends to be higher than the piano but lower than the guitar. Horns are not as prominent either. The bass tends to be the highest along with the vocals. This is because in Jamaican music, the bass is the rhythm. As Lee Perry once said "Ghetto music is bass and drums." We want people to feel that rhythm and remember the lyrics of the lead singer.

If the song is a rockers song, like a lot of later reggae. The drums come up a bit more, but still isn't mixed all that loud. Now, some songs break this rule, but this seems to be the basis of most of the records. I tend to keep along that pattern, if I have a cross stick pattern feel on the drums, I will mix them low. Normally, I will make sure the kick and bass guitar are even level, with the vocals a little higher and everything filling in between. If the drums are a rockers pattern, I will mix the same, but keep the snare a bit higher in the mix, sometimes about the same level as kick and bass, sometimes a tad lower.

Another thing you will find in most Jamaican records is that they are all mono, even if they have a lot of instrumentation! Why is it this way you ask? Well, one reason I feel, is the end of the line for the records were the dancehalls, not really home markets, though people did buy records. All mixes heard in clubs are mono. They are not stereo, and if we remember from Sound 101, stereo only really exists if you are in the right position in between the speakers. There were stereo recordings back then, but very few. Back in those days, they were still experimenting with stereo, so they would do wacky things like extreme panning or putting horns only in the left or drums only in the right. Though, one cool effect I do enjoy is when most of the instruments are all in the right and the reverb is all in the left. Some great stereo recordings were done by Byron Lee and The Dragonnaires. For our discussion, we will mix in mono.

Let's start by just bring the level up on just the kick and bass. Leave all the other instrument faders down. Let's find a nice level between the two. Since the bass and drums may be fighting each other in frequencies, we can cut and boost on each track to distinguish the two. The kick can get a little boost around 224 hz to give it some pop and if you want, you can boost around 4 to 6k to add some snap to it. If you'd like, you can cut frequencies below 200 hz to make room for the bass. If it's not needed, you don't have to. Really, we are just trying to keep them from drowning each other out. For the bass, let's cut all the frequencies above 500hz. A lot of the bass in the old records are really low and don't have a lot of high mids or highs. We can cut on 224hz to give it room for the kick. We can even boost a little at 350 to 400hz to give it a little pop.

We can also try a bit of compression on both to pop them out a bit more. We can do this before or after the EQ, but generally, you

would want to do it before, so we don't peak the frequencies. Also, trying multi-band compression works well, because this compresses certain frequencies. We can use the multi-band on the frequencies we want to boost on the kick and bass.

If using a regular compressor, generally, people like to compress drums at 3:1. This works well, sometimes even 2:1. But, with anything, go lightly, we don't want to compress it too much to the point the sound is choked. Just a little bit to make it pop out. Generally, I will only add compression after I hear how the mix is sounding with the other instruments.

Let's bring up the stick guitar track. Let's get that on a nice even level with the bass, but not too loud, just sitting nicely on top of the bass. Let's boost a little bit around the mids, get a nice percussive pop to it. Let's pretend this is the high end of the bass. Though, leave out the high frequencies around 2.5k and on. We don't have to cut these, we just want to leave them alone to make room for the rhythm guitar. Add a bit of spring reverb if we didn't record any during the tracking session. Don't add too much, we don't want to drown it out, but just a enough that it pushes through.

Let's bring up the rest of the drums. The snare and the overheads. If cross stick pattern, let's put them fairly lower than the rest of the tracks. We can add a bit of EQ on that click of the cross stick. Around 500hz to 1k. Not too much, again, we want to make it natural. A little bit of reverb can really bring this track out. Let's stay away from big sounding reverbs, something small. Like a small snare trap or plate.

If we have percussion like shaker or tambourine. We want to stick this in a little lower than the overhead track. We want to distinguish between the hi hat, but not over power it. Keep the hi hat the priority. If there are cowbells and blocks, add them in but keep them low. Adding a bit of plate reverb can make them pop out. Watch out with the wood blocks, we want to separate their frequencies from the cross stick on the snare. We don't want to make it appear that the cross stick is playing extra hits. Make sure we can distinguish between the two. If there are Djembes or other hand drums, let's put them a bit higher than all the other percussion but still lower than the drum tracks. To get some more slap out of them, we can boost a bit in the higher frequencies. Watch out for the low end on the Djembes, they can compete a lot with our kick and bass track, we want to make sure that they sit well and can be distinguished.

A cool trick I like using with reverb is faking a resonance in the drums. Say, you want that snare track to sing a little more. Impulse Response reverbs work beautifully to achieve this. It's not for the fact that they are "real" rooms, it's the fact they are sometimes much more controllable. Start by finding an IR that has a short decay. After finding your IR, manually tweak the decay to simulate the size of your drum. Listen to just the drum tracks while doing this. Listen and try to make it as if the reverb is the natural ring and body of the snare. It's applied ever so slightly. The goal is to not make it sound like a drum with reverb on it. Eq the reverb sound to match the sound of the drum. You can try adding a random high frequency to simulate "ring" in the heads. This works best with drums but can be used with any instrument.

If we have a rockers type drum pattern, we can add a bit of EQ around 3k to give the snare some crispness and a bit of snap. Adding reverb on the snare, like we talked about above with the cross stick pattern, can really liven up the snare.

Now finally, we can add our overhead. Sometimes we may hear records were the hi hat is up high in the mix, sometimes it's lower. Whichever works best for your track, is what you should do. We can compress the overhead track too. But again, like with the kick and bass, we don't want to go overboard. Ever so slightly, try a 3:1 ratio and work your way back. We can add some EQ around 10 to 14k to add some sizzle to our high hat patterns.

Let's bring up the guitar, the piano and the organ. Let's get the levels to where it's piano on the bottom, organ in the middle and rhythm or skank guitar on the top. Kind of like a sandwich, the organ being the thickest part. We can do a few things here. We can leave the piano track alone and kind of give it a raw feeling. Or we can cut the lows and low mids out around 500 to 600hz and have a clanky piano sound that can work well with the guitar. With the organ, cut a little bit out of the high mids so it doesn't compete too much with the guitar. The guitar can get a boost up around 2.5k to 4k to get that scratchy sound. We can cut the mids out a bit to help the stick track out. The levels for these should be a lower, because most of them are just skanking all together.

If we have any organ, piano or horn melodies, we want to lay these on top of those rhythm parts, but still not overpowering our bass tracks of kick and drums. With horns, it's not unlikely to hear their lows cut out and their highs boosted. Adding medium size reverb on the horn tracks are standard. The bathroom reverb sound is a nice tone for sax or brass. We can make those reverbs easily with a delay unit or just by using a reverb program.

Finally, let's add our vocals in. We can use a multi-band compressor on them. They tend to really push the vocals out over everything. Try adding a bit of plate reverb on them. That is a great sound for the early reggae feels. If we have a Roots Reggae or Dancehall track, the delay or doubling effect is a standard. Short delays, nothing too long or crazy sounding. We want the words to be distinguishable. We can add a bit of EQ up on the high end to give the vocalist a bit of sizzle. My general rule is, EQ depends on the vocalist. We all have unique sounds to our voices whereas a guitar or bass is generally the same sound.

We can either mix them in equally with the music or do what most music tends to do and make them the loudest, whichever you prefer. A great trick I always use is a volume trick. Turn the master level down and if you can hear the lead vocal track above all, you know that the vocals are in a good spot. Same if we are doing an instrumental and our lead is an organ. If our lead melodies are heard above all but below our vocals, we are in a good spot with them. If you are at a point where you are checking on headphones, take the headphones and listen to what is being projected while they are just laying on the table. If the vocals and melodies are popping out, they are in a good spot.

Now after we have a good mix, quit for the day. We like it now, but will we like it tomorrow or next week? Check it in the morning when you wake up after you have had your breakfast or coffee. Check everything out, does it work? Can some things be tweaked a little more or is everything sounding good? Then, take it to the car, a listen a few times or leave it for a week or two and listen in the car a lot. If you find that everything sounds great by the weeks end, you can be finished with this mix and move onto the next track.

The Dub Mix

Now you may want to do some dub mixes with your tracks. I am not a dub mixer, I only know so much. So, I called a friend up to help me with this section. He is a great friend for many years and a great musician. He is my go to guy when I want a riddem dubbed. I will keep this in an interview form.

Name some gear primarily used on your mixes. (Company and model names and the type of effect)

Lexicon  LXP-15  Multi-effects

Klark-Tekhnik   DN-405   Parametric EQ

Boss           DE-200           Digital Delay

Boss           VF-1           Multi-Effects

FMR Audio      RNC     Compressor

+ a few secret weapons !!

What would be the ideal set up for dub mixing?

So my ideal set up would be a mixing console with enough channels, auxiliary sends, busses and insert points. It allows me to patch together different signal chains of processors and effects for various elements of the mix. It adds a lot of flexibility.

Would you recommend computer or analog?

Although there are benefits to both ways, I prefer to create and mix Dub in an analog situation. On some level, even though the end result is the same, they seem like slightly different activities. In DAW based Dub mixing you are recording performances of changes in parameter levels on to channels and then bouncing that mix down to stereo. in analog, step one and two happen at once which makes more for an immediate experience.

Pros of computer based Dub production:

Automation, editing, the ability to undo, the ability to make multiple passes & mixes quickly & easily. To save settings of every knob and fader involved with a particular mix. The ability to chain together many plug-ins with little or no detectable noise.

Cons of computer based Dub production:

One of my favorite techniques ( well used by King Tubby & many others) is feeding a delay back into itself through a signal chain including an EQ of some type. This can be very dangerous, as it has a tendency to rapidly increase in volume, and if not careful, your speakers and your ears can be damaged. So to do this technique effectively, one needs to have one hand on the feedback control of the delay and the other hand on the EQ.

Analog tape is very forgiving of this rapid escalation in volume. In fact, the natural tape compression is part of "the sound". This is not the case with DAW based recording. Rapid escalation in volume creates harsh, thin, and distorted sounds. Working with plug-ins can be limiting if you want to get into creative, non-standard, side-chaining or inserting configurations. That being said, I have worked with some excellent plug-ins that were a bit more Dub friendly. More importantly, I prefer throughout the mix to see the track as one thing and to work on it as another thing. I see the different elements as working together and bouncing off one another. Working on one element at a time kind of fractures the picture for me. The analogy is like making a meal by cooking all the parts simultaneously rather than each part 1 at a time. It gives you a sense in real time how they will go together.

Pros of analog based Dub production:

Sound is fuller, warmer, natural sounding, As stated above when in the analog domain, I do passes of the track working on all the elements at once.

Cons of analog based Dub production:

More time consuming than DAW based approach. Tape, mic preamps, hardware processors and effects can present noise problems as more stuff is added to a signal chain. Although I don't use much MIDI in my Dub tracks, working with MIDI is more reliable with non tape based recording.

When you do a dub mix, do you have it planned out in your head the way you want it to go, or do you just do it on the fly?

If I am creating a Dub version of song using the original tracks, I first listen to the song a few times picking out elements that interest me or that seem to lend itself to the Dub style or have potential to do so. For example an instrumental or vocal phrase that might sound good with an repeating echo or phase-shifting reverb etc. If I set out to make a Dub track from scratch, I just go at it on the fly.

When you do a dub mix, do you change the way a certain track sounds with EQ or Compression, or do you leave the track the way it sounds in the original song or riddem?

Yes, both depending on the track and the song.

During the dub, do you do all the instruments at the same time or do you work on, for example, just bass and drums first, print them and then work on other instruments?

I often start with drums and bass. If I am working digitally, I will most likely print somethings on an additional channel. However I don't try to do everything for that element before moving on, because I know that as other elements are brought in to the mix, they inform me on what to do with the first element. So, the process is about the relationships of elements to each other. In fact as I work on a track I often listen to pairs of elements together to see how they blend.


Author Jim Monaghan is an engineer and owns Studio Two Recordings and Pulse Records, an independent reggae, rock, and soul revival record label. Aside from running the studio and label, he plays organ and drums with many NYC bands.

Contributer Gregory Kage is an engineer for more than 20 years. He works with reggae, dub and afro-beat genres at his studio, Raw NYC, in New York City. Gregory is also a musician and has been playing with Afro-beat band Digital Diaspora and many other reggae bands over the years. He also works with Studio Two Recordings in NY as a session guitarist and dub mixer.


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