In this week’s journal entry, we sat down with the producer behind SM Studio Dubbed Vocals, a 600MB+ collection that blends the best of best in Dub, Afro, Reggae and Dancehall vocals.
Tell us a little bit about Dubbed Vocals and how you prepared for this release.
The concept behind Dubbed Vocals was to produce a unique and versatile collection of original and authentic vocal samples, drawing influence from Reggae, Dub, Ragga, and Dancehall, past and present.
We were bouncing ideas around at Sample Magic about a unique new vocal pack, and through pure coincidence, I met a vocalist called Leo during a jamming session at a friend’s studio. Although there were some other vocalists in the session, it was when Leo picked up the mic that everything really started to flow for me.
Having been so impressed with his vocal performance and presence, I invited Leo to my studio the following week to work on something, which eventually became Dubbed Vocals.
Leo grew up in Sao Paulo, Brazil and after several years studying and performing music in California, he relocated to the UK and performs at many festivals and events under the name ‘Reggado Por Jah’.
Before we started any serious recording, we prepared backing tracks and lyrics over several writing sessions. We eventually arrived at seven short songs covering a range of different styles, moods, and keys and spent a few days recording these. In addition to the core lyrical content, we also recorded a huge amount of melodic hooks, harmonies, single words, shouts, and phrases.
What got you inspired during the creation of this pack? Any particular influences?
I discovered Reggae through listening to the Prodigy when I was a kid. I remember reading the credits on the ‘Experience’ LP to find where they sourced their vocal samples and this led me to various Reggae artists including Max Romeo and The Upsetters, who’s ‘Chase The Devil’ is heavily featured in the Prodigy’s dancefloor classic ‘Out Of Space’.
Delving deeper, I then discovered Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and King Tubby, who have since been personal heroes of mine. Aside from recording a lot of the big names in Reggae in the late 1960s and 1970s, they approached production in a new way; using the tools in the studio creatively and collectively, as if the studio was a musical instrument itself. This revolutionary approach effectively laid the foundations for the way in which much of the music we listen to today is produced, especially bass-centric dance music.
Along with my own appreciation of Dub and Reggae, Leo’s vocals and our jamming sessions were the main inspiration for the pack. Leo lives for Reggae and has many years experience as a performer and recording artist. I grew up playing instruments in bands and having the chance to write music in a ‘live’ situation again was hugely inspirational.
What was your biggest challenge in creating this sample pack?
Recreating the authentic Reggae vocal sound. Normally when I work with a vocalist, I instinctively go for that full range, layered, wide, ultra-bright, clean commercial sound. This method wasn’t appropriate for this project, and this took me completely out of my comfort zone.
The pioneers of Reggae and Dub music were working with purely analog gear and being an underground movement; they didn’t have access to the equipment that the big commercial studios did at the time. They were also the first ‘bedroom producers’, using whatever equipment they could get their hands on, often making their own effects devices and recording to tape through noisy mixing desks.
I overcame this challenge by removing myself from the computer, gathering together some dusty old hardware and embracing the production techniques that were used back then. I used a different production technique for each of the seven themes in the pack, in order give each theme a distinct character.
Tell us a little bit about your current studio setup.
I keep a fairly minimal setup to maintain a quick and efficient workflow; a heavily upgraded Mac Pro, Genelec 2.1 monitoring system, Maschine Mk2, Novation controller and a Yamaha AN1x as my master keyboard. I’ve always liked the feel of Yamaha’s keys, pitch bend, and mod wheels. I have a bunch of other synths, but I only get them out when I need them. For recording, I use a Focusrite Trakmaster Pro channel strip and a Focusrite ADC/DAC. I also have a few mics, guitars and a bass guitar on hand. The room is treated extensively with broadband absorbers, bass traps, and high-frequency diffusers.
What’s a unique, unconventional production technique that you would like to share with our readers?
In order to get that authentic vocal sound for this pack, I had to get out-of-the-box and go real lo-fi. I gathered together what gear I could and put together a rather unconventional ‘FX rack’ that I could integrate with my computer. This was the signal path:
Ableton Live send > Focusrite DAC > Digitech RP7 guitar FX unit > AKAI GXC-40D cassette recorder (1973) > Marantz Model 5030 cassette recorder (1978) > Focusrite Trakmaster Pro channel strip/ADC > Ableton Live return.
This FX rack offered many possibilities. The Digitech guitar FX unit has a great valve preamp with different amp modelling settings and speaker cab emulation.
Both cassette recorders have built-in preamps and limiters and I used these to add a bit of extra analog warmth. I found some old worn out cassette tapes, to which I recorded the vocals at each stage. The recordings I made using the AKAI tape recorder, in particular, sounded perfect, reducing the bandwidth and adding just enough background noise.
I also fed Leo’s vocals through an old guitar amp with horrible sounding EQ and spring reverb. I mic’d this up with a few different mics and recorded it back into the computer:
Overall, the main benefit of all of this was taking the sound out of the box and running it through analog circuitry, removing the digital edge, introducing hiss/noise and random crackles.
What DAW do you normally use, and what are some plugins you typically use?
I use Ableton Live for all production and creative editing with Maschine running as a plugin for quickly laying down grooves. I use Logic Pro for recording live sources as it has a zero-latency monitoring function that actually works.
In terms of synths, I generally use NI Massive or Xfer Serum for quickly making any type of patch. When I need to go deeper into synthesis I use a high-quality sample-based instrument such as UVI Falcon, NI Kontakt or Reaktor.
In the mix, I use DMG EQuilibrium for all my EQing. FabFilter Pro-R is my new reverb of choice. Soundtoys Decapitator, Echoboy and FilterFreak are outstanding plugins as they are not only wildly creative, they also emulate that analog sound that most plugins fail to. Sominus’ Satson Channel is great for adding a little warmth and softening the top-end with it’s ultra-clean low-pass filter.
On the master I use BX Control for M/S monitoring and to mono the sub bass, Waves L3-LL for limiting, DMG Limitless for the final push and Izotope Insight for visual feedback.
For this project, I experimented with a lot of different plugins on the vocals. I found myself going back to long-time favourites of mine like Izotope Trash, CamelPhat and Izotope Vinyl for degrading the sound. Izotope Trash, in particular has a convolution module with a huge range of amp and other device models. It also has a great delay module that trashes the delay, which is perfect for getting those saturated dub delays. The Waves Kramer Tape is great for degrading the sound further and has an awesome built-in delay with IPS and slapback modes.
I used a lot of other, more obscure plugins along with Ableton’s built in effects for the processed samples, for example using Uhbik-G in phase vocoder mode for pitching down the vocals in combination with various delays and reverbs to create a lot of the Techno-style processed samples.
Any tips or advice for aspiring producers?
Develop an efficient workflow. Keep listening to new music. Maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly. Healthy body = healthy mind. Never stop learning. Study the fundamental aspects of sound engineering – gain structure, compression, the stereo field, the frequency spectrum, our perception of sound and how this relates to EQ.
Choose a DAW, learn it inside out and stick with it. Features and workflow vary, but there is no difference in audio quality. Experiment with different plugins/software instruments, but don’t overwhelm yourself. Find a handful that work for you and learn them inside out.
Analyse your work objectively, reference your music with music by producers who are at the top of their game to maintain perspective. There’s nothing worse than referencing a tune that you think sounds amazing alongside a commercial track and realising it’s just not hitting in the right places, but if you make a habit of this, realise and take note of where you’re going wrong it will pay off massively.
Focus on the arrangement and the changes in dynamics throughout a track as well as the mix. If you don’t have a great monitoring system, use a spectrum analyser to visualise these. There are many free plugins that do this, although Izotope Insight appears to be the most comprehensive if you have the budget.
Finally, don’t procrastinate – get on with it.