Session File: Dub Trio

Ever since the inception of the subgenre known as dub (a sprout from the main trunk known as reggae or perhaps better yet, the heavy-handed producer’s reaction to reggae), the relations between the recorded product and the live performance have, historically, been a bit of a blur of head-chasing-tail. Why? Many of the main players of this musical microcosm have recognized the satisfying meta-process of applying their numerous studio tricks (dub’s traditional realm) to the live domain in attempts to recreate their often times sonically surreal records. But New York’s Dub Trio has switched this process around 180 degrees, and in the process, have reinterpreted the traditional approach to creating dub music in the studio.
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You see . . . Dub Trio is a bit anomalous, as they perform all their dub effects live. “For instance, Joe [Tomino] mics up his drums and runs them directly to my pedal chain,” says guitarist Dave Holmes. Playing what’s become affectionately referred to as the “sleight-of-hand drum set,” Tomino manually passes the mic around the set while playing with one hand, at times doing some impromptu EQ filtering by squeezing over the top of the mic underneath the hi-hat. Holmes adds, “I route my guitar, a keyboard, a sampler, and the drum mics [into a looper and a delay] to create the dub effects live.”

But to what extent do they take employ their show tactics in the studio? Surely there is a much easier way to synthesize these effects. . . .

DUBBING LIVE IN STUDIO G

In the case of their sophomore release, New Heavy, Dub Trio convened with Joel Hamilton at Brooklyn’s infamous Studio G. Hamilton, who had previously recorded their first effort (the critically applauded Exploring The Dangers Of), pulled out his trusty Studer two-inch deck and the band proceeded to lay down 11 tracks in just under three days. Much of the album was recorded using the same tricks they employ on stage. As Hamilton attests, “They had a pretty good idea where the ‘dub stuff’ was going to happen, as they already play a lot of it that way. It’s not like anybody ever missed the break — so we don’t just cut some crappy fill and apply a delay to it. From this side of the glass, it sounds like the song when it was being tracked.”

“But since it’s dub,” adds Tomino, “the music is only partially done once it’s recorded. There’s so much in post-production that we do to it, but it’s not a deconstruct/reconstruct situation. Nonetheless, I want to be able to hit a crash and hear that crash stopped by the board, by the mute button.”

It’s an odd play: There’s no clearly defined split between tracking and processing for the Trio. The sonic tricks discovered in pre-studio session rehearsals clearly inform the tracking itself. As an example, Holmes says, “Joe was in the live room while I was playing guitar, circling the room with a microphone in hand, so that the guitar track had a weird phase-y sound to it. The guitars on ‘Sunny I’m Kill’ that go [mimics sound of a phase sweep]? That’s Joe actually physically turning the mic 360 degrees.”

WHAT’S THAT DRUM? TELL ME WHATSA HAPPENIN’!

On first listen, one of the most immediate impressions results from the literal battery of drum tones. Experimenting with tuning his drums in key with songs, Tomino removed the bottom heads from the toms — a classic dub tactic in which the immediate decay of the drum leaves plenty of sonic room for the various options of delays and post treatments.

Conversely, the kick sound on “Table Rock Dub,” one of Tomino’s favorites on the album, was created by taking a single-ply head on the beater side, tuned very loosely, with no hole in the front. Captured with a low-passed room mic running into an old ADR expander/limiter, the end result is a kick with an explosive, yet floppy, resonance — almost like a giant heart beating in a subterranean dungeon. “Every time the kick is hit it blossoms, because the expander release time determines the kick drum’s note.” Pointing to the unit in a wall of Studio G’s vintage outboard gear, he comments, “I don’t know what they expected it to be used for — all it seems to do is make things sound like explosions.”

LONG DISTANCE LOVE: ENTER MIKE PATTON

There’s a lot of room for such odd sounds to breathe, as the Trio’s music is mainly instrumental, save for “Not Alone” — a track that features the chameleonic, and ever-virtuosic, Mike Patton of Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Fantomas, and Peeping Tom fame. It’s an interesting collaboration, considering Dub Trio hasn’t yet met Patton, who agreed to lend his talents after they had e-mailed him cold. “We vibed well, cross-continentally,” says bassist Stu Brooks, “It was a shock how great it was. We felt like we sent a finished song, but he found a place to fit in. He really brought the song to him.”

Hamilton mailed a Pro Tools data disc to Patton, with a stereo mix which “turned out to not be the final mix, but it was what the headphone mix would have been, had he been here.” Patton then sent back a plethora of tracks, some processed and some dry, which Hamilton lined back up in the multitrack session and “mixed from the ground up. We ended up using the ones with effects, not just because it was Mike Patton, but because it was aesthetically matched with the intent of what Dub Trio was already doing.”

METAL OCCURRING

New Heavy turned out to be quite a departure from their more traditional-sounding debut, adding influences from Meshuggah, Refused, Bad Brains and Slayer to King Tubby and Lee Perry. Though it is both new and heavy, in many ways the band prefers to look at it as qualitatively innovative. Hamilton describes the difference in the two albums this way: “We didn’t have to break out any tricks that work within the genre confines of metal, where the goal sonically is to get something cartoonishly gigantic and aggressive, both in the performance and the mix.”

AMP-PLAY

Surprisingly, the frequency range of latter-day metal guitar makes a good neighbor to the ultra-low dub bass. Holmes, fluent in the various tonal idioms, switches between the harder-rock sounds and the reggae, but not without effort. On the recording, for maximum flexibility in the post stage, they tracked the guitar through five amps simultaneously: “I used my Ampeg V4 head through a Marshall cabinet, plus three other little amps — an old Moviola ‘squawk box,’ a Fender, and a Gibson GA15RV.” Likewise, Brooks was also something of an amp scavenger when it came to tracking the album, taking his trusty Atelier Z bass and using a variety of head and amp configurations — SWR and Aguilar heads, paired with Studio G proprietor and bassist extraordinaire Tony Maimone’s custom EV 15” cabinet, which is similar in design and tone to an Ampeg B15 Porta Flex. Typically, Brooks will “keep the bass and low mids cranked, everything else turned back to 0, but kicked up in the mids for the rock stuff.” He uses a SansAmp in the chain to achieve this mid range drive without having to change his amp settings — a technique indicative of the band’s live approach aesthetic to the studio.

WHAT THE F$%& ARE THEY YELLIN’?

“When we have ‘conversations’ going on between the live instruments, and the dubs — and the dubs within each other — that’s when we’re like, ‘this stuff’s happening,’” says Brooks. From various knob tweaking to actually manually filtering the spring reverb live; playing the tape echo to draping tape loops on mic stands around the studio (such as on “Not Alone,” when Holmes had played a chimey guitar arpeggiation, and Hamilton put just the guitar to tape and made a spontaneous loop), the studio begins to look more like a Montessori School playroom than a standard tracking environment. A more concrete expression of this approach is found in the album’s final track, “Lullaby for…,” which punctuates the final downbeat of the previous song’s metal riff with a trailing, meditative cloud that morphs over the course of five minutes from a buzzing hive of tinnitus-afflicted bees playing tiny feedback loops to a hovering, jettisoned-from-the-spacecraft tableaux. The first section grew from a sort of “test-tone jam,” as Hamilton explains it. “We each had tone generators mapped to faders, turning the console into a kind of synthesizer,” which they all played together and mixed with another Hamilton idea, a tape loop of an antique Dutch music box: “ The kind with paper belts that you punch out melodies and feed into the box — we placed it on a conga, using the head as a sounding board.

DELIVERING THE GOODS

To Tomino, the final result is an album that maintains the integrity of songs, but augments the spontaneity in a unique snapshot of a recurring event. “It’s as different as if we had tracked the album on two different days, it’s like doing a jazz record. Every night is different, but there are themes, and these are meant to be interpreted as songs.”

John Dylan Keith is a freelance writer and musician vibing mostly within Brooklyn, NY. He’s a regular EQ contributor and has appeared everywhere from the New York Press to TapeOp, and many publications in-between.