Jamaica’s studio-spiked rhythm music called Dub changed modern recording and production more than most styles of music. Dub was the first style of music that made the producer a technical engineer, composer and artist. While the lead vocals or other melodic elements took centre stage in a typical reggae mix, Dub stripped everything back leaving the drums and bass as focal points in the tune. Bass heavy rhythm tracks were accentuated with modulated stabs of guitars, vocals and organs in a wash of spring reverb and tape echo.
In 1950s, sound system parties became a driving cultural force in the ghettos of Kingston. DJs and party promoters would host open-air parties featuring turntables, large speakers and a Deejay (Jamaican term for MC) to toast (rap) over the music. Competition was fierce with several crews pitted against one another in battles for the loudest sound system and the most exclusive dubplates. Sound clash parties epitomized the competition between the crews. At a sound clash, two or more crews would setup their systems and alternate turns to play records with the goal of winning the favor of the crowd. It was in this climate that Dub was born.
Dub began in Jamaica’s Treasure Isle studio as a mistake. In 1968, Ruddy Redwood, a sound system operator from Kingston approached an engineer named Byron Smith at Treasure Isle studio to cut a one-off exclusive dubplate of a hit tune by The Paragons for use at his upcoming party and Smith accidentally left the vocals out of the pressing. Redwood decided to keep the pressing and play it at his next dance. At the next party, Redwood played the “Dub” without vocals and his DeeJay toasted continually over the rhythm and the crowd went crazy. Before long, many singles were pressed with a vocal mix on one side of the record and a dub version on the other side. Producers like King Tubby soon began to record dub versions of tracks supplied by veteran reggae producer Bunny Lee. Tubby’s sound rose to international acclaim and is quintessentially considered dub music. Characteristic elements of his style included heavy drums and bass with fractured vocal cuts and the warm, metallic sound of syncopated tape echo. Early dubs was very much “jazz at the mixing board” and the engineer would improvise with the faders, knobs and effects. The result was a track sliced and diced together, often in one take. Dub’s echoes were felt around the world.
Other genres of music adopted the dub mentally of striped back recordings. For example, in Hip Hop, drums breaks were sampled from records and stitched together by DJs for MCs to rap over. This philosophy has also been adopted by modern dance music and is called mixing by subtraction. In short, mixing by subtraction is asking the question, “What can I remove from my song?” In days gone by, removing mix elements was difficult and potentially destructive but today in an era of DAWs mixing by subtraction can be easy, quick and non-destructive. Ableton makes mixing by subtraction easy. In any MIDI clip, highlighting one or more notes and pressing “0” will deactivate the note(s). When the clip is played back the deactivated notes will not be heard. Notes can be activated again by repeating the process. See the video below for a demonstration:
Deactivation can also be applied to entire Audio or MIDI clips. Select the clip you want to deactivate by clicking on it and then press “0”. To reactivate any clip, click on it and press “0” again.
Mixing by subtraction can be applied in a broader sense to your workflow while you compose your song. In order to do this, write the peak of your song first. Often the peak of a song is where the energy of the tune is highest and more different elements are playing simultaneously. Once you’ve written that portion, duplicate the loop 4 or 5 times. Now start carving out your arrangement by deactivating individual clips and notes in the different loops to make up the introduction, first drop, second drop, breakdown and outro of your tune. Be ruthless! If a given element doesn’t help your song to become a single cohesive and inspiring piece of music it has to go.
Not only will mixing by subtraction allow you to write songs more quickly, it will also help to solve mix problems resulting from non-essential elements competing for space with essential elements in your tunes.