Mix master and the art of iteration

Ben Rymer of Minibrew, an all-in-one brewing machine designed for brewers to experiment, looks at how the ‘version’ is always the most essential mix. Here, Ben delves into the roots of dub to demonstrate how the latest version is just part of the set.

When Black Ark Studios burnt to the ground in Jamaica in 1979, a dynasty came to a close. The studio, where Lee Perry – ‘the Upsetter’ – produced all the reggae greats such as Bob Marley, The Congos, Max Romeo, and an endless array of breathtaking talent, went up in a puff of smoke. Black Ark had a more profound legacy than the records that came out of the heady mix of simple technology and the mind of a genius. Mr Perry had used his time to pioneer dub, alongside Osborne ‘King Tubby’ Ruddock and a select few of Jamaica’s finest studio producer greats. Where previously the producer was a name in the middle of a 7-inch single, known only to the trainspotter, the rise of dub gave birth to the producer as an artist in his own right.  Suddenly the collector would look at this name first, no need to listen. What was responsible for this sea change? It was the idea of embracing different versions.

Technology had enabled the Upsetter to tweak endlessly. With that realisation came the natural step to release multiple vocalists, and then came the dub version. An experimental form where the producer had time and space to play endlessly. From that came the dub, an almost freeform, live take. And thus was born the 12-inch single. For years the reggae sound system would play back-to-back singles, with the dub on the B-side, the 12-inch was merely an extension.

Never at any point within reggae culture had anyone thought to release the most commercial version. Record pressing was focused on the local systems. Dubplates, the acetate disc, became prevalent, with exclusive versions cut for particular DJs; one-off vocal takes, with shout-outs to the system in battle. If anything, reggae cultures idea that the perfect version was a one-off single pressing. Versions of the same track weren’t released for profit; they were merely an expression of the producer and vocalists synergy. In fact, when a certain Chris Blackwell appeared from the UK and whisked Mr Marley away to the UK to record his widely selling commercial hit records, Lee Perry called him ‘the white devil’.

The advent of software development leads to versioning in a different build. Multiple versions will exist in the life cycle of a program, and eventually, somebody within the business department will deem the software ready for release. This is often followed by an immediate fix the day after as multiple errors are found. There is never really a perfect version of the software. The idea of something being the best version is ascribed to it afterwards by the spotters. The creators will never really want to finish the process. There can always be improvements, whether it’s a heavier bass or a more agile build. The version has become a dream for the marketers. Wider screen, faster processor, vinyl-only remix, any excuse to sell you the same thing twice. 

There are however a few exceptions. Mario Kart on the N64. And yet it could be the SNES version. Or maybe the Gamecube. It’s not the end result that ever defines these things or the features. It’s when you played it. Who with. Where.

There is no best version. Tina Turner was a liar. How could there be? Nobody who creates would ever declare a particular expression the best. It’s simply not part of the process. These meanings always come from other people. The marketing department loves to declare it’s the best yet. Guaranteed the engineers, programmers and artists loathe this sentence. Lee Perry’s reverberations move endlessly through the musical landscape. He didn’t plan this; there wasn’t a release schedule. What started as a collection of rudimentary equipment in a shed in his garden in Kingston, Jamaica became the Black Ark Studio through the mind of a genius. Today the 82-year-old version of Lee Perry is playing in Brixton in 2019. Mr Perry never stopped to think about his best version; he would undoubtedly scoff at the concept. He may have helped invent the version, but he never stops refining.