My introduction to Mad Professor was via an album called No Protection, his dub remix of Massive Attack’s Protection. It was a journey to a musical universe that I was aware of, but had never fully immersed myself in. It opened doors to King Tubby, Lee “Scratch” Perry [Tape Op #136], Scientist [#136], and Prince Jammy [also known as King Jammy], as well as a music scene, culture, and history that was rich for exploration. Neil Fraser, known as Mad Professor, is a cornerstone of dub’s second wave and the owner of Ariwa Sounds, a studio and record label in London. We caught up to chat about his early days, working with Lee Perry and Massive Attack, the economics of running a studio, and his favorite reverbs and echoes.
You were born in Guyana and moved to London when you were 13?
Yeah, 13 or 14.
Why were you so interested in electronics?
Electronics for me – at the time when I got into it – was nothing else but magic. It started when I was a little boy. The first magic was outrageous: I’m listening to the radio and I said to my mom, “Where is the man in the radio? Why is he in the radio?” It’s that basic curiosity that led to everything.
Did you have access to gear that you could take apart, repair, and start understanding how it was working?
Well, there are always old things that don’t work, like my grandfather’s radio. I attacked that and found out why it didn’t work. It starts from there.
When you were a teenager some of the first dub records coming out of Jamaica were finding their way to the U.K.
Yeah, man. I knew reggae from Guyana. I saw a whole different type of reggae – from the end of the ‘60s – before I left Guyana. I saw the whole development. By going to England, I heard a different reggae. That’s when I realized that the reggae reaching Guyana was different from the reggae reaching places like the U.K. It led me to understand more about the whole migration path of certain labels and productions. Some people, like, say, Byron Lee, had more of a foothold in the Caribbean. Certain other labels would have a Belgian connection, because they had family in Barbados, and family in Guyana, as well as the whole Chinese and Sudanese network that existed that was different from the network that was in London. Certain labels and artists weren’t reaching the Caribbean. For instance, I went back to Guyana around ‘72 and I saw Dennis Alcapone, The Chosen Few, and people like that who weren’t that popular in the U.K.; not as popular as, say, I-Roy. Coming in from the first reggae – Jamaican ska, Treasure House Records, and Studio One – I saw the whole development.
What drew you to wanting to produce and mix dub?
Well, by the end of the ‘60s and early-’70s there were basically three or four types of music, regardless of what anyone says. There was rock music, or pop if you want to call it that: The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and that mainstream sound. Then, at my school, if you want to break it down into race and color, the white guys would be listening to pop or rock, and the black guys would mainly be listening to reggae. But both people would be listening to soul, like Motown and Stax. For me it was either soul or reggae; there was nothing else. I didn’t identify with pop. As I grew older, I enjoyed some songs from The Beatles and music like that, but the bulk of what I liked was reggae. Of course, we also had calypso, which people used to lump in as reggae because it’s Caribbean music. As I went down the road, I realized a lot of reggae records were actually versions of soul songs, like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin. There was nothing else for me to listen to.
There’s something about the aesthetic of dub that’s so different. What made you gravitate to the style?
Dub developed around the very early ‘70s. Dub is technical music. You feel that. It brings the whole technician into putting a stamp on the recordings and the mixing. People with a technical ear would gravitate towards dub.
What dub records were making it to London?
The very first dub that made it to London was a record that Prince Buster had done, a record called The Message Dub Wise. I’ve still got my copy; it was a basic dub record. You could hear that there were songs somehow, because you could sometimes hear some focus in the background, but it created a mood. It didn’t have much echo in it. I’m not sure who mixed it. I got it in a record shop in London, and I played it over and over again. When you go to a sound system, you would hear the dubs; dub was popular in the dances. Bass and drum, we used to call them. By ‘74 a lot of people started to do dubs. King Tubby [and The Aggrovators] made Shalom Dub, which took everybody. That was very, very popular. It engulfed people. Lee Perry might have done [Upsetters] Blackboard Jungle Dub, but it wasn’t popular dub then.
How times have changed! It’s popular now.
Yeah. It’s been through popularity several times, up and down. It first got popular around ‘76 or ‘77. That was the first real wave of the whole Perry dub thing getting popular. The most popular Perry album was King Tubby Meets The Upsetter at the Grass Roots of Dub. That was so popular.
Which was huge for that genre.
Oh yeah, man. That was a big-selling record. It was very popular. You’d hear that record everywhere.
Around 1979 you started Ariwa Sounds. You started with some pretty basic gear?
Well, I built what I could build. What I couldn’t build, I’d buy. I didn’t have much money.
Your first record as Mad Professor was Beyond the Realms of Dub [(Dub Me Crazy! The Second Chapter)].
That came out in ‘82.
How were you finding people to work with and to get your foot in the scene?
Well, people found me. My own records weren’t particularly brilliant, because the whole market was quite competitive. I’d put out a record in my front room with basic 8-track equipment, and it’d be competing with “Waiting in Vain” by Bob Marley, or with [Dennis Brown’s] “Money in My Pocket.” Records that were done in state-of-the-art studios and mixed by engineers who knew exactly what they were doing. I didn’t. That’s what I was up against.
Many of us learned about you because of Massive Attack [v Mad Professor]’s No Protection. This record changed my life.
Yeah, a few people told me that.
How did you approach mixing that particular record?
Well, the same way. We strip it down and put it together. I mixed it how I would mix any other record.
How did you start working with Massive Attack?
They came to me. Those were the days of fax. A fax came through the machine and said, “This is blah, blah, blah and this is the group. We’d like to know if you’re interested in mixing a single from this band.” I had a listen and said, “Yeah, okay. I’ll mix a single.”
Which one was that? Was that “Protection”?
No, that was “Sly [(Eternal Feedback)].” That came out and they were happy. They sent me more tapes and said, “We’d like you to do this track as well,” so I did another track. That track came out, and somewhere along the line they said, “Hey, we need you to do a dub album,” and we did. It was unique at the time, because you didn’t hear about pop bands doing dub albums. The label was pleased!
It introduced a generation of people to a new form of music, and vice-versa. Your remixes of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine [Massive Attack v Mad Professor Part II (Mezzanine Remix Tapes ‘98)] are so dark and abstract. They’re even darker than the original.
Right, right. The problem I have is that a lot of times I don’t listen back to what I’ve done. I might hear it back incidentally, in a club or something. Usually I don’t even recognize it. It’s a weird thing when you make records. You just move on.
A dub mix is so performance-based. When you sit down to do a mix, how are you approaching the song? Do you do multiple passes throughout the day? How do you find the center of each mix?
Well, there is no standard. I gotta mix the record, and I start to mix it. As I mix it, I’m either happy with it or I’m going to go again. So, there’s no standard. Sometimes I’m happy with it, and sometimes I’m not happy with it. There’s no one way of doing it. You’ve gotta take it as it comes. If you are lucky, maybe you do it in one go.
You mix now on an SSL [SL 4000 E] console, is that correct?
Yeah, one of the studios has an SSL. We have had SSL since 2003.
They are amazing for their routing flexibility, which makes it a great live performance console for dub mixing.
Yeah. It’s fine. Everything is in the right place; it’s a great desk. My first desk was a Soundcraft Series TWO. That is the desk that I built; one whole studio is based around that. The Series TWO is really different than the SSL. The EQ in the Series TWO is better, in a sense. The SSL is clean and it’s polite. But the Soundcraft… you can go deep. You can go plus or minus 15 dB at 60 Hz. It’s strong EQ. It can go right up to 22 kHz, on the brink of going into RF. It is so sharp. But the SSL is a lot more tame and more polite. That’s a good way to describe it.
Are you using samples or a sampler when you mix in the studio or live?
No, I don’t use samples. I’m an old-fashioned analog guy. I don’t even use a computer in the studio. I don’t know if I would. I’ll probably end up being the last man standing.
So much music now is mixed with peoples’ eyes and not their ears.
Yeah, absolutely right. I’m still doing it the same way I’ve always been doing them, from back in 1982. No different. Tape machine, real desk, and a signal path, all the same way.
But not everybody’s recording to tape.
You do, but if you’re doing a remix for Massive Attack, are they sending you tapes, or are you transferring them?
These days, nobody sends stuff on tape. People just don’t. But for me, it ends up on tape before it reaches me. We’ve got machines. I know it costs more money and takes more time, but you see the tape turning and whirling. That’s it. It’s gotta end up on tape.
So, you’re doing transfers of everything that comes in?
Everything. Everything goes to tape.
Are you doing it yourself, or do you have an assistant who’s prepping your mixes?
Of course, I have assistants, but I could do it myself, because it’s gonna end up on tape.
Can you tell me a bit about making Lee Perry’s Mystic Warrior record?
Mystic Warrior was done in Peckham around 1984. Lee had come in from Jamaica and had a bunch of tapes. At first, he was doing music for himself; recordings he had to complete from Jamaica. When he finished, he asked me if I had any tracks, and he started to sing on those tracks and put things together. He was in a lot more of a “singing” vibe than now. He had just started to record those records. Then he asked me if I could go tour with him. I said, “Yeah, why not?” He did his first tour ever up and down the U.K., in places like Leeds, Newcastle, and Manchester. We toured together, with me on the mixing board, front-of-house, and he was out on stage with the band. In between the shows we would be in the studio. Then he moved to West London – where he was living with a lady – and I got busy with my label. At that point, I hadn’t seen him for three or four years. In ‘89 I decided I was going to release the album and call it Mystic Warrior, and that’s it.
You’ve done something around ten releases with Lee…
Probably more. We have about 12 or 15 albums released. Yeah man, we’ve got a lot.
You’re insanely prolific. Are you at the studio every day mixing? What is a typical day?
I don’t have a normal day! [laughs] Today I came in about twelve o’clock. Yesterday I came in about nine o’clock. I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow.
You own the largest black-owned studio in the U.K., if not the world. Today that is not an easy thing to say, because studios are disappearing.
It’s not an easy business. Some days you balance on the edge of creativity and economic stability.
What about the economics of running a commercial studio today?
As you know, everyone’s got a studio in the front room, in the back room, or whatever. Usually it’s got some DAW where they’ve got Pro Tools or Logic. It’s probably as small as possible, and it’s based around a computer. A studio needs to be soundproofed. If you’re going to use a room, you want a room where you can soundproof the room and don’t have neighbors complaining. I’ve been through all that. You need to have designated premises. If you have it at home, the family is going to be complaining. So, you need to have a specific, dedicated place to keep your music. That takes money. London is one of the most expensive cities. If you’re talking about a room six feet by six feet in London, that room is going to cost you about 500 GBP per month, or $700 US. And the rest; the electricity. There’s not much you can do in a room six foot by six foot. When I started, you could call in these bands – rock bands, punk bands, soul, or reggae bands – who’d come in to rent the studio for a day. You can’t even get that now. It’s a delicate balance of economics and creativity.
When you have a band in to do one of your productions where you’re not just mixing tracks from somebody, is that approach different for you? Are you thinking about it in terms of the final mix, or are you doing a production that could be interpreted many ways?
Well, usually when I do a mix, the band doesn’t come into the room. I do a mix and I just deal with the tapes. When I’m recording a band, the band would be in the studio. I am thinking, “How do I put things together? What sounds am I going to employ?” Doing a band is really, and truly different from mixing. A different headspace.
You’re not thinking about the end result, as a mix?
No. When I record it, I don’t know if I’m going to mix it. Let’s face it. You could be recording it, but not necessarily mix it.
I would think that you would always mix your own productions.
Oh, if it’s my “production,” yeah.
That’s what I mean.
Okay, right. Yeah. I tend to just mix and record, but I don’t even think of the mixing when I’m recording. Recording has so many overdubs.
What reverbs and delays do you like to use?
Well, I’ve been stuck on the [Lexicon] 480L for the past 20 years, but I’ve got a load of others. I’ve got a few spring reverbs from Grampian. I like using the reverbs by ART and MXR. I’m always trying them, but the one I’ve stuck with is the Lexicon.
How about tape echo?
I don’t really like tape echo. I’ve been through that when I started, and I had to use tape machines for echoes. That was my real echo; modifying an old Revox tape machine to get an echo.
What do you use now?
Well, for years – from 1984 – I used a Roland SDE-3000. I love that delay; I’ve got about six of them. People talk about the [Roland] Space Echo, but this is the deal man.
I’ll have to go get one! You bought ‘em all, probably.
What do you prefer about the SDE-3000?
This one is pristine. It’s one of the cleanest delays you can find. It’s even cleaner than most modern delays. Up until a few years ago, they made some new additions. It’s one of the longest-running, longest-built delays. It’s tough. Physically it’s tough. Very nice.
And it’s stereo?
No, no. Mono. They made a stereo version, the SDE-330, but it wasn’t well-built. I’ve got two of them as well, but I don’t like them. Mono; that’s the killer.
Are there any other pieces of gear that you absolutely cannot live without?
No. That’s it. I’ve got MXR phasers as well. They’re good, but that’s it. Yeah, man. That delay is good!
How do you find your voice as an artist through mixing?
You sure you want to say “voice”? When you say voice, my first reaction is I can’t sing! I don’t have the voice. But I know you don’t mean literally!
I don’t mean literally, no.
I just find it amazing that you choose the word “voice.”
The reason I do is because I know your mixes from the second they come on, every time. Your mixes are your voice.
Right. Probably it’s the sound of the studio. It’s a DNA thing with me. I could be in a room when I hear a track, and it could be the snare of the track or the delay. I’ll say, “I worked on that track!” It’s something with the DNA of some engineers where you put your stamp on the track. I don’t know how.
There’s something about the atmosphere or the way that you approach it that is different.
Yeah. You could probably tell more than I could. But yeah, I know it is recognizable. How? I don’t know. God alone could tell us. I don’t know though. [laughs]
Well, that’s a good gift.
Yeah. It’s one of those things, man. You just do it.