“I first got into music being a kid around seven or six years old,” says the producer and engineer who’s known to his mum as Neil Fraser, but to the rest of the world as Mad Professor. “Back home where we lived, in Georgetown, the only technical things in our house were a radio and a light bulb. I quickly found out how the light bulb worked, but then I asked my mum ‘Mum, why is that man in the radio talking and singing?’ She said ‘There’s no man in the radio.’ I said ‘I don’t believe you!’ So when she went out to work one day, I opened the back of the radio with a screwdriver and I saw all the resistors, transistors and all. She came in and I got spanked for it! She said ‘I told you there was no man in the radio — why don’t you get a book and find out about the radio?’ So I went to the library and got a book and ended up building a crystal radio. I learned all about electromagnetic theory and about resistance colour codes and how capacitors and diodes worked, and by the time I was about 14 I was building amplifiers, radios and transmitters.“By the time I came to England I had a very good knowledge of electronics. I then thought ‘I’d love to build myself a studio’, so I started to build a simple, four-channel mixer that was being sold in a kit form in different magazines in the mid-’70s. I got various jobs in the electronics industry, fixing amplifiers and working for Philips and Mullards. Then I got a job at Soundcraft. I went in and the guy showed me a room full of PCB boards, and he said ‘These are all EQ channels for Series 2 consoles. Nobody’s been able to fix them. If you can fix them, you’ll get a job!” I probably fixed a hundred of them, so I got the job.
“By then I wanted to do my own thing, so I started to build my own desk based on the Soundcraft design at the same time. I phoned a couple of local singers and bought myself a four-track Tascam 3440. That was the second model of the four-track quarter-inch machines that Tascam made. It started as a domestic machine, because you see, during the early to mid-’70s there was this talk of quadraphonic. Stereo came out in the late ’60s and people were fascinated by the sound of stereo, the drums in one channel and the piano in the other. People started to see the warmness and benefits of stereo, things that most engineers nowadays don’t use and don’t appreciate. Manufacturers like Telefunken, Tascam and Dakota anticipated a big four-track boom.”
A turning point was when he built his first echo and reverb effects unit. “By then I’d started my studio in my house. We had a big room — but now that I see it, it seems quite small — 12 by 16 feet. Three-quarters of it became the live room, and the rest the control room. I put my customised Soundcraft desk with eight inputs in there, together with my TEAC four-track machine. Then I built my reverb from a spring from Practical Electronics. Then I built my echo using an Akai STS4000. I basically took the output from the replay head, going back through the auxillary to the channel. It was a fixed delay time. It was either three and three quarter inches per second or seven and a half. We had a wonky upright piano and a drum kit in the corner. We would record with the sound of all the cars and children passing and the dogs barking, seeping in through the window!”
Even in the early days when his Ariwa Sound Studios were recording a lot of rock bands, Mad Professor would offer them dub mixes, having followed the development of the style in the ’60s. “By the time I came into it with my studio at the end of the ’70s, dub had already had its first peak in Jamaica, with King Tubby as the primary dub engineer. He remixed almost every tune from the ’60s and early ’70s by producers like Bunny Lee and Ninie The Observer. He took what was probably a very boring, average album and turned it into something spectacular by his stunning remixes. He was the first remixer. He wasn’t the only one, of course. You had people like Erryl Thompson, Lee Perry — the insane thing — Sylvain Morris: very good engineers.
The centrepiece of Ariwa Sound Studios is, as you’d expect, an analogue desk, in this case an SSL.“From the late ’60s, we had the part-two thing. You can hear it on some of the early James Brown records, some early soul records. Part one was the song with the vocals, and part two was the instrumental version. Not all songs warranted a part two, of course. You wouldn’t get a part two from a song like ‘Dock Of The Bay’. But songs with a strong rhythm, like ‘Sex Machine’, on the other hand, worked really well. And the talkers, the early rappers, loved the part twos, because they could talk over them. And reggae adopted this as well. Tubby, among other people, started to do versions of some records, for example ‘Rivers Of Babylon’. But then something happened. The talking started to get more and more popular. And then people started to drop out the rhythm section on the instrumental. Then the next development happened around ’71, ’72. You started to get the reintroduction of ambience. Suddenly you had reverb on the drums.
“Then, within months, the next development happened — the echo. And then the term ‘dub’ started to appear. Before dub, we used to call it ‘bass and drum’. Sound systems and dancers wanted to hear the bass and drum version. Then you had U-Roy, who had three records topping the charts, basically chatting over bass and drum versions — becoming even more popular than the original vocals. Records like ‘Wear You To The Ball’ were way more popular than the original versions.”
A part of the attraction of dub for Mad Professor was that, unlike other styles of music, it put the engineer’s skills centre stage. “Before dub, as the engineer, you had to ‘not be seen and not be heard’, as the proverb goes! In other words, the most successful engineers before dub, funnily enough, were the engineers who had no identity. Because if you had an identity on a track, you were not fulfilling what an engineer was supposed to do, which was basically to be invisible. You were already invisible, being on the other side of the board, but you were also supposed to be invisible in a sonic way. You were supposed to record a track so that nobody would know if it was Mad Professor or Andrea who had done it! We reversed that with dub music. From the point where you heard a drum roll, you could go ‘Yeah, that sounds like Erryl Thompson recorded that roll!’”
Home-brew analogue equipment has always been at the heart of the dub sound, and Mad Professor clearly feels that the sonic identity dub mixers worked so hard to establish is threatened by the rise of digital gear. “We spent years developing an identity, where you could hear exactly who’d done what. The problem with the digital format is that the more a producer leans on it, the less of his identity is stamped on the record. The digital thing takes that away. Anything you do on your digital system, he can do it as well. Maybe in the next few years, someone will start to build analogue machines again. Maybe the sales of records are gonna be so disgustingly low that you realise that the medium is just not working. We need to go back. Especially if money is no problem, then there’s no reason not to use the best-sounding analogue tape machine around.”
The studio’s Lynx Timeline synchronisers are used for large analogue multitrack projects such as Massive Attack’s No Protection . But it’s not only digital equipment that makes a lot of modern dub records inferior, according to Mad Professor. "The difference between the real dub and the digital euro dub, made on a computer, is that the real dub is built on songs. When you hear a good dub album from the ’70s by Tubby or Perry, the tracks are built on songs with proper constructions. Original melodies. A lot of the new guys don’t build on good a song, or at least not a very good song, so it doesn’t take you anywhere. It’s a marriage between music and technology.”
Despite Mad Professor’s poor opinion of digital gear, the current incarnation of Ariwa Studios is a hybrid analogue/digital affair. “I love the digital technique for the editing. I think that it has brought lots of things to the table that we didn’t have before. I mean, I haven’t mixed on quarter-inch for more than 10 years now. We went through the DAT thing, but the problem with DAT is that you couldn’t edit it. But now you can. I love the Alesis Masterlink. Alesis are such a fantastic company. New standards at an affordable price. The things work. Alesis are the nearest thing to a company where you can actually go into the box and think of the things and make it your own. Even the digital stuff. Most of the Alesis equipment, I’ve altered to suit me.”
Unlike a general-purpose commercial studio, Ariwa is permanently wired to make dub mixes easy to set up. “Ariwa is a customised studio. We always have our effects hooked up. The first stereo auxiliary is always my reverb, a Lexicon 480L. It’s a quad-input reverb, one of the most developed reverb units ever, so we could have two stereo auxiliaries to that one. That’s always on and comes back into two stereo splits. Next, we got our delay. I’ve always used the Roland SD3000, I think that’s one of the best delays ever built. A magic delay. We’ve got them in every room. I’ve got maybe half a dozen to a dozen of them, I really love them. It doesn’t distort or go bad. I bought the first one for £900 back in 1984 and since then I’ve collected them. It’s beautiful. I also use MXR phasers, quite a collector’s thing — I’ve got them hooked up to the desk as well.”
However, Mad Professor is keen to point out that he doesn’t have a fixed way of working. Instead, he has a number of techniques open to him, depending on the material and his frame of mind. Even the basic technique of dub mixing, creating feedback loops, can be done in varying ways. “You could do it on the auxiliaries. On a desk like this SSL, you can actually use the in-line row. You can do a lot of tricks with these desks.
“Truth is, after having made several hundreds of records, if you do everything one way, you’d soon have to stop. It’s all challenging and it’s a challenge to take everything in its own context and to have a different approach. A lot of the time, it depends on how the thing comes to you. For example, when I did Massive Attack’s No Protection, which is one of the best-selling dub albums ever, with more than a million copies sold, it came to on two 24-track tapes locked together: altogether, 48 tracks. We locked them together using those Lynx synchronisers down there. You spent a couple of hours locking them together so that when you pressed the master the Lynx sent a code to the slave. So I basically adapted my whole mixing to that, because I had two machines turning at 30ips in conjunction with each other. The whole mechanical process ends up contributing to the song you’re getting. Somehow, it sounded better coming from two-inch 24-track. “You have to approach each project in a different way. You can’t just say ‘I always do this, so I’ll just do it again.’ I don’t know what other people do and as for me, I just do what I feel for in the moment. It’s like what you want to eat: some days you want curry, some days something else. Sometimes I want a long echo, sometimes I want a short one.”