Dawn of the Dub

Dub Style, King Tubby, and the Birth of Remixing

Dub is an early form of electronic dance music. It evolved from reggae on the island of Jamaica during the late 1960s. It’s an important style of music because it’s the first to use remixing, which is the craft of creating alternate, electronically-modified versions of existing songs. Osborne Ruddock, better known as King Tubby (1941 – 1989), was dub’s inventor and most prominent exponent.

To create dub, the vocals of a reggae song are partly—or wholly—removed, and echo effects are splashed sporadically throughout the song. The basic track, composed of drums and bass (the beat), remains largely unchained, but the vocals, guitars, and horns are significantly altered by the echo effects and the remix.

The term dub comes from the process of copying one recording onto another, which sound engineers call overdubbing—or dubbing for short. In the dub style, the individual tracks of an existing recording are processed, manipulated, and copied onto a new master track, which can be construed as doubling or “dubbing” the original, hence the name.   

New dub songs are created by rearranging sounds from existing recordings. Usually, the result is a song so different from the original that it scarcely admits to being derived from the same source material.

One of the most crucial aspects of dub is that it features deep bass and loud drums. Indeed, it is designed to be played in bars and nightclubs that have a professional sound system capable of handling low bass frequencies. The combination of drums and bass, which is the centerpiece of dub music, is called the “riddim” by listeners and producers. “Riddim” is Jamaican patois[1] for rhythm.

The most common source material for dub is reggae. Indeed, you’d be forgiven for believing that you are listening to reggae when you are, in fact, listening to dub. The two styles are extremely similar. The main difference being that reggae is performed by a live band and dub is produced by remixing a reggae band.

Reggae is a style of music that emerged in Jamaica during the 1960s. It features near ceaseless offbeat rhythms, usually provided by an upstroke guitar strum. Given the similarities to reggae, dub is typically categorized as a subgenre (“Dub music” par. 1).

Subgenre or not, dub is an interesting style of music—especially given its reliance on technology. Next, we’ll look at how dub is created.

How Dub is Created

Although dub is largely a studio genre, it can be produced live in a fashion that resembles a hip-hop turntabling. Watch the video below to get a sense of the process.

To make dub music, producers rely on three devices: (1) multitrack recorder, (2) mixing console, and (3) effects processor.

(1) A multitrack recorder is a tape machine in which multiple, simultaneous tracks are accessible to the record/playback head. This means that different sounds can be recorded to independent slivers of the same piece of tape. The independent slivers of tape, subsequently, can be edited, or recorded over, without affecting neighboring slivers of tape. This device makes possible the one-person-band phenomenon, meaning a person can record a drum track, a bass track, a guitar track, a vocal track, etc. at different times and places with the tracks eventually being played back simultaneously; thus, giving the illusion of a band performing together.

Figure 1: A multitrack tape recorder facilitates independent access to slivers of analog audio tape. This allows producers to rerecord or edit individual tracks without affecting neighboring tracks. This technology allows for careful precision and accuracy to be applied to all parts of an audio recording, facilitating excellence in fidelity. The use of multitrack recording has been commonplace since the late 1950s. Nowadays, of course, this process is accomplished with computers. But the concept is the same: multiple, independent audio tracks running in parallel. (Photo by Vova Krasilnikov on Pexels.com)

(2) A mixing console—or mixer for short—is a device that allows for manipulation and processing of sounds coming from a tape machine (or live band). With a mixer, sounds can be balanced for volume, which is loudness; they can be balanced for pan, which is left-to-right presence; and, they can be plied with effects, which is a method for altering timbre. As you can see from watching the above video, the mixing console in the dub style is used like an instrument, and the echo effect plays a prominent role.

Figure 2: A mixing console, or mixer for short, allows individual sounds form a multitrack recording to be balanced and blended to form one cohesive whole. A mixer can also be used to adjust the equalization of sound, which is volume at specific frequencies. Importantly for the dub style, a mixer can route an audio signal out to an effect processor like delay or reverb and rejoin the newly affected audio with the original signal. This is a critical process in the production of dub music. (Photo by David Bartus on Pexels.com)

(3) An effects processor is a device that can manipulate the timbral characteristics of an audio signal. There are many varieties of such devices, including delay, reverb, EQ, and dynamics. The most common effect used in the production of dub is echo. Echo, or delay, is an effect that copies an electronic-sound signal to facilitate multiple playback repeats, often with a cascading sound that fades out in volume. In the dub style, the most employed delay unit is the Roland Space Echo.

Influence

The concept of a remix is ubiquitous today, but the habit of pop stars issuing remixes of their songs started with dub. In the past, music was distributed on vinyl records. One of the most popular types of vinyl record was the 45, which featured one song per side—an A-side and a B-side. Starting with dub in the early 1970s, the A-side usually had the regular, hit version of the song, and the B-side often had a remixed, or “dubbed,” version of the same song.

Figure 3: Pictured here is a 45-RPM vinyl record, which have one song per side. Beginning with dub, artists issued remixed (dubbed) versions of their singles on the B-sides of their 45s. (Photo by Miguel on Pexels.com)

In addition to influencing the music industry with the now-common practice of issuing remixes, dub imparted a significant influence on emergent musical styles. Ambient, hip-hop, house, techno, and many others owe a meaningful portion of their aesthetic to the model outlined by dub—principally, the prominent drum and bass “riddim” (“Dub music” par. 3).

King Tubby

King Tubby (1941 – 1989) was the most consequential dub artist. He is credited with both the invention of the remix concept and the dub style of music (“King Tubby” par. 1).

Tubby was a radio repairman and sound system expert operating in Jamaica during the early 1960s. He had a business called Tubby’s Hometown Hi-Fi, and he got work fixing sound systems installed in the bars and clubs around Jamaica.

In 1968, he got a job cutting discs for a record producer named Duke Reid. One of his responsibilities was to create instrumental B-sides. These instrumental were typically made from ska and rocksteady songs denuded of vocal tracks. Such songs were called “versions” in the parlance of the Jamaican record industry. Around this time, Tubby began experimenting with his remixes by significantly altering the nature and arrangement of his “versions,” usually by adding delay splashes over a drum and bass backdrop—thus, heralding the birth of the dub style (“King Tubby” par. 3).

Watch this video of King Tubby working to get a sense of the man’s skill and artistry:

Another remarkable factoid about Tubby and his contribution to music history is that he designed and built much of the studio equipment he used to create the sound effects on his tracks. So, not only did he invent a new style of music, but he also constructed the equipment that made the new style possible (“King Tubby” par. 5).

King Tubby’s most well-known dub is a 1974 song called “King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown.” It is a remix of “Baby I Love You So” by Jacob Miller featuring Carlton Barrett of the Wailers on drums. Tubby’s dub features Augustus Pablo on melodica,[2] and it features a doubled superimposition of Miller’s drum track. The result of this superimposition is that the song features two drum tracks playing simultaneously, which adorns the song with a rhythmic feel that is altogether distinct from the original (“King Tubby” par. 8).

Below is the video for “King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown.”

Sadly, King Tubby was shot to death in 1989 in Kingston, Jamaica after returning home from a session at his studio. According to an article on allmusic.com, Tubby’s death was the result of a robbery and was never solved (Greene par. 8).

Legacy

The dub style remains popular today, and some of the original artists are still working. For example, Lee “Scratch” Perry, who collaborated extensively with King Tubby, is still working.

In addition to its continued popularity, dub is cited as a significant influence by many contemporary artists. Curiously, since the 1980s, dub has had and outsized influence on the punk rock scene. Indeed, many punk bands have called dub one of their primary influences, including The Clash, Sublime, No Doubt, and others.

To get a sense of where dub ended up, check out this comparatively recent release from Lee “Scratch” Perry called “Having a Party,” which came out in the year 2000:

Quiz

Works Cited

“Dub music” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 18 March 2020.

Greene, Jo-Ann. “King Tubby: Biography & History.” AllMusic, http://www.allmusic.com/artist/king-tubby-mn0000093322/biography.

“King Tubby” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 March 2020.

Notes

[1] Jamaican patois is a regional dialect found on the island of Jamaica that features a mix of English and West African languages.

[2] A melodica is a mainstay of the dub style. It is a small keyboard-operated harmonica that has a distinct “reedy” timbre.

Video

Here is a video presentation of the above material:

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