Producing Jamaican Music

Written by Jim Monaghan

Contributions by Gregory Kage


This article is about my approach to recording, mixing and producing Jamaican music genres such as Ska, Reggae or Dub. I try not to generalize it all into Reggae, because each has it's own style and sounds. I will talk about some history, choices of gear and instruments, terms used

throughout the world of Jamaican music, and some general ideas that can be applied not only to Jamaican music but to any genre of music. I encourage anyone who is a Jamaican music fan and wants to learn how to get the traditional sounds used, or someone that is just getting into the music, or any engineer that just wants to learn something new, to read this article. Well, anyway, let's dive in, shall we?


Back in the early days, before I knew anything about how sound moved in a space or the difference between polar patterns or what proximity effect meant, I would record the best I could and what sounded pleasing to my ear. It's very easy to get lost in the world of recording. So much information fills your head and sometimes you find yourself questioning every move. Most of the time, all of that doesn't really matter. If you make something that sounds good, than it is indeed good.

The Jamaican music producers made amazing sounds with whatever they could get their hands on and some even built their own equipment for their own unique sound. There was a lot of competition on the little island of Jamaica in those days. There weren't many studios or places to record at first, but men like Coxonne Clement Dodd, Prince Buster, Duke Reid, to name a few, had a vision. They were successful with their sound systems. Back in the early days, DJs would load up a truck with turntables, generator and a massive array of speakers and play at street parties that catered to thousands of people. American music was really popular for Jamaicans in the 1950s, so this was the common music heard at these parties. It was difficult to get the new singles from America, so every DJ was competition. DJs would scratch the labels off of the records so other people couldn't see what they had. When American music started to progress into new genres, that's when these guys formed their own studios.

One of the first Jamaican studios was opened by Ken Khouri in 1954. It was called Federal Records. He inspired sound system owners Dodd (Studio One) and Reid (Treasure Isle) to record local artists. The music they recorded at time was Mento, a native Jamaican genre. Also, a popular music style was called "blue beat." This genre was a mix of Mento and New Orleans Jazz. It got it's name from the Blue Beat label. Eventually this turned into Ska. It is contested who actually made the Ska beat. Some sources will say it was Lloyd Knibb, the drummer of the famed Studio One backing band, The Skatalites. Also some will say it was Roscoe Gordon. Whoever it was, it doesn't matter, because Ska took the country by storm and is still a popular genre today.

Not much is known on what equipment was used in these studios. A lot of the studio owners built their own gear. They were fluent in electronics, so this is what gave each studio a certain sound and it was hard to emulate. Most of them had an 8 channel board running to a 4 track in the early days. They were record everyone live in the room to 3 tracks and leave the vocals on it's own track. Drums were miked used 1 or 2 mics. Bass, Piano and Guitar each had their own mic. Horns all shared their own mic and if their was a solo, the soloist would step up closer. It was all live mixing, moving instruments and people back and forth physically. Same as with the vocalists. At this time, there were a lot of vocal groups like The Wailers, The Maytals and The Techniques to name a few. The harmony would share a mic and the lead would have his or her own mic.

Millie Small's "My Boy Lollipop" was the first world-wide ska hit, produced by Chris Blackwell out of the UK. Now they say this was the first time, but that song is a bit far from actual Jamaican Ska. That song was actually more Blue Beat if anything. Desmond Dekker's 1968 hit "The Israelites" is closer to what was actually happening. But, if we want to get even more into it, that song was even less like ska and more like what was about to become Reggae, this was the pre-Reggae era called Rocksteady.

Rocksteady, is actually more of an era than a genre. Since Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae didn't have over night changes, there was a lot of lapse between the 3 and I am sure at that time no one called one tune Ska and the other Rocksteady. There had been slow tempo ska songs like "Take it Easy" by Hopeton Lewis but it wasn't until Alton Ellis gave the music a new name, like in his hit "Rocksteady." Musically, there is no difference between that song and any Ska song of the day, just the tempo. Really, a lot of early Rocksteady is just slowed down Ska, but you really hear the change as it moved through the years. By 1969, it had gotten much more bubbly and choppy. The drums got more intricate as well as the bass. Organ and piano were more apparent.

Usher in the era of Reggae, again, there is a lapse. Nothing was considered Reggae until Toots and the Maytals came out with their song "Do the Reggay." Some people may say the first actual Reggae song is "People Funny Boy" by Lee Perry or "Longshot" by the Pioneers. Longshot features the distinctive organ bubble sound. The organ bubble sound is achieved by playing chords in both hands andplaying a left-right-left pattern. Actually, the word reggae comes from the patois word "streggay" which means "loose woman." Some say it meant the sound of the double chopped guitar, just like the word Ska meant the sound of the single chopped guitar.

Over the years of the era of Rocksteady and early Reggae, the recording techniques got better. Studios could afford larger mixing boards and had 8 tracks or two 4 tracks synched together. It wasn't until later on into the mid 70s when they started using multiple mics on the drum kit. The sound of the drums got tighter and cleaner. Emulating American music was a thing of the past, Reggae became it's own style. The music of Jamaica.

Also, there was something called "Skinhead Reggae" around 1968, lasting to the early 70s. Now, when we say skinhead, we aren't talking about Neo-Nazi's. There was a sub culture in the UK that consisted of working class men and woman who wore boots, suspenders and shaved their heads. They weren't racist. This got distorted later on by Neo-Nazi's using their sub culture to identify themselves. The term "Skinhead Reggae" doesn't mean it was reggae made by skinheads. It was just a name that was given to Jamaican music imports to the UK. Skinheads were working class, so they couldn't afford to go to the posh dance clubs, instead they frequented the dancehalls that were run by the Jamaican immigrants. There were many Jamaican immigrants in the UK in the 50s and 60s. Jamaica had close ties to the UK because they were once a commonwealth. Most of the songs they listened to were actually old Ska, Bluebeat and Rocksteady tunes, but as Skinheads became more interested in it, Jamaicans started to record tunes especially for their market. Some producers such as Chris Blackwell and Joe Mansano recorded skinhead tunes in the UK. Though, ask any Jamaican of that time period about Skinhead Reggae, they may not even know about any of those tunes. It was not popular in Jamaica. A lot of Skinhead Reggae tunes have 12 bars blues progressions, whereas Jamaican Reggae does not.

Also between the Rocksteady and Reggae eras were two other genres, well, weren't really genres, again, until someone gave them a name. The first was DeeJay music. In America, a DJ is the person who spins the records and the MC is the person who talks, well in Jamaica, the person who spins the records is the Selector and the person who talks is the DJ. Deejay music was basically instrumental versions of popular hits or riddems, that the DJ would talk over. Some say this is the birth of Hip Hop. Most singles at the time either had a instrumental version on the B-side of a Dub mix of the A-side.

Dub music is a remix of a popular hit. The engineers basically became the artists, using the mixing board as the instrument and would essentially remake the song, sometimes making it sound nothing like the original. They would focus on the bass and drums, adding delay and copious amounts of reverb on the snare or tom fills. They would drop the guitars, organs, pianos in and out, same with the horns and the vocals. Lots of EQ filters, spring reverb and use of the Space Echo. Engineers would build their own equipment to get their own brand of sound. Dub remixes evolved throughout the years and eventually became its own genre, where the engineer would record his own riddems and then dub mix them. Some popular Dub mixers were Lee Perry, King Tubby, Scientist, and Augustus Pablo. (For an example of a riddem and the dubbed version, see Examples below)

Riddem Version
This text will be replaced
Dubbed Version
This text will be replaced

Reggae evolved like all music. In the 1980s reggae evolved into a new genre called Dancehall. Producers used electronic instruments for the first time, some used cheap Casio keyboards to make their sounds. Jamaicans progressed with their music, but the old genres still stuck around. Ska revivals in the UK and California were hugely popular. Today, there is more of an interest in Jamaican music than there ever was. Most likely, because Americans and the rest of the world missed out on the hey-day of Reggae. It's not hard to find engineers recording the old school sounds, because the people love those old tunes so much. There is a plethora of information on the history of Jamaican music, more than I discussed. I encourage anyone who is interested in learning more to seek it out. Now that we know the history, let's head to the studio.

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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