Written by Jim the Boss
Beginning Your Journey Into Recording Reggae
by Jim the Boss
When it comes to Reggae music, often times budding engineers will approach it with a sense of recreating the older sounds. I did that when I first started and realized that many things were just unobtainable and a waste of my time and a drain on my creativity. Some of the consoles that were used are left into obscurity or are still kept secret. Other equipment has fell victim to the rise of the vintage gear market and the price gouging that came with the trend. I also found that it was less about the equipment and more about the players, energy of the vocal groups and the creative ingenuity of the engineers.
My advice to anyone that wants to record instruments is focus on finding the best players and worry about the equipment later. The players will make or break your recording. There’s a huge difference in terms of feel when you take a Jamaican recording and put it up against a 1990s Southern California ska or reggae band. Drummers hit differently, they may push or pull the beat in different ways that affects the whole ensemble. Non Jamaicans rarely grew up with influences of traditional African music and that plays a huge part in Reggae. I didn’t grow up with any of that but I did grow up with Jazz and Blues. It was a starting point but I certainly had to train my brain to think a different way. It may not come naturally for most people.
Once you have your players, then you can focus on the equipment. You are more than welcome to track down the same consoles and outboard gear as what they used back then but I believe that it might just be a money pit and in reality everyone does that. I believe in setting your sound apart from others because it becomes your trademark and people will come to you to get that sound.
There has been a common misconception that Reggae was supposed to sound lo-fi but this is completely untrue. People confused that with the fact that they are hearing a really worn vinyl record. In fact, most of the studios had high end top of the line equipment. Studio One used Sound City guitar and bass amplifiers, their console in the early days was a Collins and if you check the build quality and today’s prices on one, you will find that they aren’t cheap! King Tubby and Bunny Lee used an MCI console made by Sony which Tubby modded himself. It featured the Altec designed Low Pass Filter which he modded the output to run out of phase. This gave him a very distinct filter sound that was at the time and still highly sought after today. Other equipment of this circuit design were the Cinema Engineering 6517, Langevin 255 and the Altec 9069B. Lee Perry had probably the most lo-fi sound of them all. He used a modded Soundcraft Series 1 which wasn’t a great console to begin with. He also used tape decks from the home recording market and bounced often. By the time the mix was ready for mastering, the drums often were almost non existent due to the constant back and forth bouncing to add more tracks. If you look at his Black Ark studio compared to other studios of the time, it was the furthest from a professional studio. What made it great was his creative ideas, the feeling that the players had and the messages that the singers wanted to tell the listener.
First decide if you want to go all digital, all analog, a mixture of both “in the box” and out. I prefer to record analog on the front end and use a DAW as a tape machine. Then I output back to the mixing console to mix solely in the analog realm using my preferred outboard gear and make a final mix recorded back into the DAW. I mostly work in Mono but sometimes I do Stereo. I have found my strengths and weaknesses over the years and what I want my listeners to hear in the final mix. Mixing in mono isn’t as easy as people think it is. You must create depth(front to back) and if you listen to most Soul and Reggae records of the 1960s, they seem to be so deep in the way they are mixed. It takes time to perfect that.
When I first started out, I was recording on a 32 channel Mackie 8 bus console. If you were a student of SAE, you are very familiar with this board. I liked it because of the incredible routing capabilities and that I didn’t need a patch bay. It also has 6 aux sends so you can connect a wide array of effects. Unfortunately, it’s not that great in terms of the EQ and it can be noisy. I ended up purchasing a Soundcraft that I modded and went with a patch bay. Other consoles that I have worked on and are preferred by Reggae and Dub engineers are most Soundtracs models, Soundcraft 200B or 400B, Yamaha PM5000, Allen & Heath GL2200 or the Mix Wizard series, Panasonic Ramsa, and of course the well known fan favorites Neve and SSL. Pair this with a good sounding spring reverb and delay unit and you are off to getting started on recording some reggae music.
Being creative is the number one thing to think about when engineering. Engineers like Sylvan Morris of Studio One or Lee Perry of Black Ark did just that. They kept moving forward and pushing the envelope. Reggae is a niche even though it is more popular now than ever. Putting out records of traditional Ska or Reggae is even more niche. Thinking outside of the box and not sticking to one thing or the other is best advice I can give. Find your own sound and people will eventually come to you. What I write in the next bit of tutorials aren’t rules set in stone. They are my notes on experimentation after years of trial and error. I was extremely lucky and fortunate to find the right players and have an abundance of them as well as working with some legends of the business. I learned a heck of a lot from them and it taught me that the players are about 70% of your recording. Take this tutorial as a starting point and add to it as you see fit.
Recording Jamaican Music
Ok, so we have our place to record and our gear, but how do we get the sounds we want. Well it depends on what style or genre it is. Most reggae from back in the day, even still today, was recorded with all the musicians in the studio. Overdubs were mostly left to vocals or organ leads. This is because there were fewer tracks to work with. Nowadays, we have a plethora of tracks on any DAW. Though, that doesn't mean you have to use them all. Jamaican music is about the pulse, the feel of the riddem, so having all the musicians in recording at once may make the track "feel" better.
Let's talk about drum sounds. I must note, that some drum preparation and general drum maintenance/tuning is essential to not only classic Jamaican sounds, but for any sounds.
Tuning for the early Ska, Rocksteady and Early Reggae sounds are high pitched. The snare has a really high tuning, because it mimicked the sound of a timbale, just with snares on. The drummers do a lot of rimshots. They used coated heads on all the drums. The toms were tuned high like in Jazz. (See Ex. 2)
For the later sounds like the mid 70's reggae, early Dancehall and Dub, the sounds were tight and crisp. Playing a lot of open snare like on Rocker beats, the snare is tuned medium to low. The toms the same way. (See Ex. 2.1)
For the kick drum, stuff it with towels or blankets. For the really tight sound, feel it up way past where the beater hits, so about 3/4 of the inside should be stuffing. For more resonance, a little below the center, about 3 to 5 folded towels should do the trick.
Snare and toms are muffled as well. Take some toilet paper or paper towels. Fold up about 5 sheets and make about a 4 inch square. Tape all four sides of the paper square closest to the rim of the drum. You will get different sounds if you move the square to different locations around the rim. That's because not every lug is actually the same tension. Something to keep in mind.
Depending on the material of your snare and the way it's tuned really changes the rim click sound. I've found over many sessions, the best drum materials are any metal. They are much brighter and more resonant. Wood snares are great too, but are very warm and if not tuned to a higher tone, the click can be non existent, even if played with the butt of the stick. Jamaicans used the Ludwig Acrolite snare on many recordings. Once regarded as an inexpensive student practice snare, this steel snare is now becoming a collectors item in the drum world.
Let's talk about some drum miking techniques we can use. Since, reggae drums aren't as busy or technical like Jazz or Rock, we can use less mics. We can use as little as one mic. I have a technique for one mic that works well that I will share. If you point the mic at the top, nearest the front of the kick drum, about 4 to 6 inches away and angle it about 230 degrees, you get a very full tone. Kick, toms and snare sit even in the mix. Depending on the materials of your cymbals, they aren't too in your face, kind of like icing on a cake. If you want less kick, move it farther from the front of the drum and if you want more kick, move the mic closer to the front of the drum. (See Below)
The above technique really only works for drums that are playing a pattern with the cross stick. Really, it does not give the snare a clean or tight sound. A 2 mic technique that works well also with cross stick patterns is just one mic in the kick about 2 inches away from the batter head and a single ribbon mic over the drums about 4 to 5 feet. Depending if you want more hat and snare or more toms, experiment where to point the diaphragm. With some songs that play open snare and have more of a Rockers feel, moving to a 3 or 4 mic technique is best, plus it comes in handy if you are looking to do a dub mix later on.
When using a 3 mic technique, you can try the following for a well rounded sound. For the kick, set the mic up at about 4 to 5 inches off
the batter head and pointed a little off 180 degrees. Any farther back and sometimes the kick will be too boomy and is easily lost in the mix. With the snare, point it dead center at the drumhead. If the song is played with rim click, you can point the mic towards the edge of the drumhead or mic the side of the drum shell. This gives more cut and body to the click. With the over head, set it up coming from the side of the bass drum so it's in between the first rack tom and the floor tom, at about 4 to 6 feet above the drum set. Point the mic more towards the snare. This will give equal level to both toms, snare and cymbals. (See Below)
There are many mics to use, but really, I feel what the "right" mics are, not only for the sound you want, but for your room too. At my studio, we have tons of mics, but for my drum track sessions, if I am using a 3 mic technique, the best mics for the kit we have and the room we have is the RE-20, the MD421 and the SM57. I like natural drum sounds, and these work well to keep the naturalness of what I hear with my ears. If I am using a one mic technique, I will use a pencil condenser. Dynamic mics just don't seem to cut it for that technique.
Try a D112 on an amp. It can give the bass anything from a punchy to smooth low end, depending on whatever you set the amp to, which is what the sound of reggae bass is. Going direct works well and you don't have to worry about bleed from other instruments. But miking an amp gives you different sounds to choose from. One amp that works well with bass tracks especially for reggae is the amps that come with Rhodes electric pianos. (See Below)
You should eq what you want the bass to sound like on the amp even before you mess with the mic. When it comes to placing the mic, put it about an inch or two from the center of the speaker. Really, you want direct as possible sound and nothing crazy. Generally, you want to cut the highs and focus on the low and mid range.
In Jamaican music, there are normally two guitars. The rhythm guitar is called the "skank" or the "chop." This is the guitar that plays the off beat chops that accentuate the triplet. Then there is the lead guitar, this will sound muted and percussive. This is called "stick." It will normally play or stick exactly to what the bass plays or something that is a variation. The stick will also take care of any solos that need to be played, but generally, there aren't many guitar solos.
Amp settings for the skank generally sit in the high frequencies or sometimes scoop out the mid frequencies. A little spring reverb can be applied, but try not to go overboard. Dryer the better. They can be either really clean or slightly distorted. Don't go overboard with the distortion! You want these to pop out in the mix of things. Go to mics are normally the SM57. 57s have that bump in the high frequencies. MD 421s work well too, they give more of a scratchy sound. Try different mics and see which works well for the track. I have found that pencil condensers work well too, because they tend to have a clear or transparent sound.
Mic set ups generally are center of the cone, either right up on the grill cloth or backing it out 1 to 3 inches. If you want a little more room, try going a little further away. Maybe 6 to 9 inches.
Amp settings for the stick guitar are more in the mid range. You want these to sit on the bass well. Since the bass is more low end, these frequency settings will round out the sound and will stand out from the skanks. Adding spring reverb on these are almost always a required thing. Rocksteady era stick tracks were drenched in reverb, later in the 70s, they backed off. If I intend on adding reverb, it's always to the stick track more so than the skank track. Again, SM57s work well with these or pencil condensers.
Mic set ups, you want the stick to blend well with the bass and not get overpowered by anything, so keeping the mics close as possible, center of the cone will give you the most direct sound possible. Think of this sound as just the high end of the bass.
MD421s work well on piano. It gives that same scratchy, scoop sound like it gives to the guitars. Sometimes an SM7, gets it a little brighter tone. If you like having a resonant piano, something that sounds roomy and even a little ringy, mic the case, either on top or from the front. If you want a more direct sound, mic the strings in the back. Using two mics is best, bigger pianos, like old player pianos, are very long, so catching the low end of notes and high end of notes equally is key. Don't pan the mics yet. Keep everything at the center, for now. We will get to this during mixing.
There are many piano plugin emulators out there. In my opinion, none of them beats a real piano. I have yet to hear any that accurately replicate the resonance of a wooden case or the real sustain of the strings. Also, if you don't have a weighted keyboard controller, it doesn't help all that much. Though, for Jamaican music at least, you hear a lot of fake piano. Why you ask? Well, it's because to Jamaicans, it's always been about striving for the best sound in the studio. Same with hearing a lot of fake horns. If it's easier to get them, why not? But to me, nothing beats the real thing. I feel a resonant piano really opens up a track and takes the "deadness" out of it.
There really is no special way I could really think of recording vocals that needs to be talked about. I can give you insight on certain sounds of the day.
During the Ska, Rocksteady, Early Reggae eras there were a lot of singing groups. Even when it came to solo singers, the same sounds as Soul or Motown seemed to be the general thing to do. Recording them in an open room or with the band. A lot of those early
tracks seem to be hit with a lot of plate reverb. Later on, they seemed to do dry stuff, like in a small vocal booth. In the Dancehall and Deejay eras, they enjoyed delay on vocals to give it the doubling effect. When we get to the mixing section, I will go a little more in depth with some vocal techniques.
I saved organ for last because there is a lot to talk about when it comes to organ. When you think of the word organ, what is the first thing that comes to mind? The Hammond B3 right? Well, for Jamaican music, this is not the organ you hear, later on in late 70s and beyond yes, but for the early stuff, very rare.
A reliable source of mine, told me that Treasure Isle used a Hammond L-100. This would most likely be the case, since I assume it would be hard to ship or even fit a huge console organ like the B3 in their studios. The more you get used to the sounds that each organ makes, the more you can pick out what it is. Early Hammond sounds were made using tonewheels that used additive synthesis. Most every other organ were transistor made sounds that used subtractive synthesis.
Other organs that were used were Lowery, Farfisa Compact or VIP series, because the VIP series sounded close to a Hammond tonewheel sound. Crumar Traveller series organs, Vox Continentals, because again they both had drawbars and could sound like a Hammond.
Also, another partner item always seen with a Hammond is the Leslie rotating speaker cabinet. They weren't used much until after 1970. Some UK recordings had them in the early 70s. This is because the producers most likely rented studio time than owning the studio themselves. So at that time, the commercial studios went with the big console organs and the Leslie.
A great trick to use to get a Leslie sound can be achieved using a delay device, something we all have in our DAWs or racks. Here are the base settings, play with them to dial in the right tone for your sound.
Delay time - 12 ms Feedback - 15% Mod Width - 20% Mod Speed - Fast settings around 10 hz Output - 50/50
You can also mix this with a chorus effect, mimicking the chorus/vibrato settings on Hammonds. Either making it on your delay or using a chorus effect.
My advice is to stay away from emulators, because most all don't accurately replicate the unique sound of the drawbars or the scanner vibrato found in some Hammond series of organs. Most plugins never emulate anything but the B3. Though, there is one plugin that I must recommend and that is Native Instruments Vintage Organs. They replicate the Hammond C3 and B3 consoles, the Hammond M3 spinet, the Farfisa Compact and the Vox Continental. Having played all the real life counterparts before, I must say these are the best replications I have ever heard. Especially the Farfisa and the M3.
If you have the space, get a real organ. Your session organist will thank you. Hammond spinets, L-100 and M-100 series are really cheap these days, you can even find a cheap M2 or M3. Even finding a combo organ like a Farfisa or Crumar is easy too, but you may have to keep searching to find a deal. Crumar T1 and T2s sound exactly like Hammond L and M series, so buying one of these would be an ideal choice, plus you will have less back problems moving them! Researching the sounds you want and trying them out before you buy them, makes all the difference. For tonewheel organs this site here is really great (http://hammond-organ.com/) and for combo organs like the Farfisa or Vox, this site is helps out a lot. (http://www.combo-organ.com/)
Now, with that out of the way, onto recording your organ sound. Most sounds in reggae either tend to be a low thumping sound, something beefy or a mid range pop. Below, I will list some drawbar settings and some tab settings for different sounds.
The below sounds work well for bubbling or skank rhythm tracks.
Drawbar Organ - Lower Manual (77030050) Upper Manual (647730554) (Percussion OFF) - This gives a bassy or beefy tone. This tone works well with Vibrato or Chorus/Vibrato settings.
Drawbar Organ - Lower Manual (64322030) (Percussion OFF) (Reverb ON) - This is another bassy tone. I like this a lot, especially if you have a Hammond that has a lot of key click, it sings with the reverb on, really adds a lot of roomy-ness to it. Also works well with Vibrato settings.
Drawbar Organ - Upper Manual (700242015) (Percussion ON, Volume NORMAL, Decay FAST, Harm. 3rd) (Reverb ON) This tone will give a mix of real thunderous bass with a screechy top end. Works well with Leslie on Fast or Slow settings.
Drawbar Organ - Upper Manual (70042334) (Percussion ON, Volume NORMAL, Decay SLOW, Harm. 2nd) (Reverb ON) Try running through a tube amp with light distortion, it will give you something scratchy and poppy. Also will have nice smooth low end to it.
Farfisa Organ or similar - Footage (8) Tabs (Bass 16, Flute 8, Flute 4) (Reverb ON Medium,) This sound has a nice well rounded tone, with a little top end.
The below sounds work well for leads, solos and melodies.
Drawbar Organ - Upper Manual (806605056) (Percussion ON, Volume SOFT, Decay FAST, Harm. 3RD) This setting gives a nice well rounded tone. Try both with Percussion on and off. This setting works well with Vibrato or Chorus/Vibrato settings. Also works well with the Fast setting on a Leslie.
Drawbar Organ - Upper Manual (524036000) (Percussion ON, Volume NORMAL, Decay FAST, Harm. 3rd) (Reverb ON) This tone is almost screechy like, but still retains some fullness. Really cuts through in a mix.
Drawbar Organ - Upper Manual (600001534) (Percussion OFF) (Reverb ON) - This tone will give a real scream to your solos. Works really well with the Leslie on fast.
Farfisa Organ or similar - Footage (8) Tabs (Bass 16, Flute 8, Flute 4, Piccolo 4) (Reverb ON Medium, Vibrato FAST, Heavy) This sound has a nice well rounded tone, with a high top end, especially on the higher notes.
Organ Mic Techniques
If you have a spinet, you can mic one or both speakers. Each speaker on most spinet organs are designed to carry different frequencies. You can mic both speakers but normally one speaker works well. To get a beefy organ tone, use the low frequency speaker. (See Below)
If using a Leslie or other rotating speaker. One mic on the horn and one mic on the drum is pretty standard. To get the beefy organ tone, put the drum signal more in the mix than the horn. The drum is all of your low frequencies. Don't worry about panning anything yet if using two mics. We will get to that later in the mix.
If you don't have the room for a big Leslie or just don't have the patience to constantly maintain it. The company Voce, makes the Spin and Spin II. These two boxes are great hardware simulators. They also offer MIDI capabilities. Also, Motion Sound offers small Leslie-like amps. Some have just the rotating horn and a simulated drum. Others, offer both rotating components are much smaller than Leslies.
If recording with a drummer, you can use gobos or basically anything to section off amps and the drums. Cubical walls, couch cushions, etc. If you don't have any of these or don't have the space, what you can do is, make sure the amps are far away from the drums. Have the speaker cones facing towards the drums. That way the mics that are capturing the amps will be off axis and will pick up little drum bleed. The drum overhead will pick up most of the bleed as well as any piano mic. Best to either overdub piano or try to separate the piano with a gobo of some sort. Organs generally don't get any bleed if placed far from the drums, cause their mics will also be off axis.
Like with the vocals, I didn't offer much on percussion or horns. I can say that most percussion was through the use of Djembes, because of the ties to Rastafarianism, who's religious ties are stemmed from African culture. Though, there are many other articles of information out there that can help with recording horns, woodwinds, percussion drums, shakers and the like. Adding percussion can really fill up the track and make it a bit bigger than if it wasn't there. Try it out.
Also, while you record, visualize what your mix will be. I visualize my mix as a series of blocks, the size of the blocks depend on their level in the mix. (See below)
Always record hot, I know we can't clip a lot like in the tape days, but clipping here and there won't hurt. It's better to get the right sounds and the right levels at the source. Fixing in the mix never works, we end up adding so much to make it sound like we want, we end up making it worse. Do it right the first time and you will thank yourself in the mix stage.
Author Jim the Boss is a producer, engineer and musician residing in the NY metro area. He started Hoboken HiFi recording studio in 2012 with the aim of reproducing the feel of 1970s reggae and dub music. He has worked with veteran Reggae musicians and producers such as Victor Rice, Dubmatix, David Hillyard, Cornel Campbell, Sly & Robbie and many more. His Hudson Soul label releases have been nominated for numerous awards worldwide. You can find him on all social media platforms and check out his work at hudsonsoul.com