Dubplates, Direct from the Studio to the Dance Halls of Jamaica
A series of Interviews with Ray Hitchins on Jamaica's Popular Music
In this installment of our series of interviews with Ray Hitchins, he explores the way Jamaica's sound system operators of the sixties and seventies leveraged dubplates to take first generation copies of music directly to the Jamaican dance halls.
Dubplates are synonymous with Jamaican popular music and particularly with the sound systems, but it is appropriate to try and understand what the history of that media is. The correct name for dubplate is an acetate disk. And acetate disks were the primary recording medium in the recording industry going up into the 1940s, 1946 tape came in, and it started to replace acetate disks.
The mechanics of the disk is that it is basically an aluminium plate with a substrate material of acetate layered on top of it, it is soft, you can put your finger nail in it. The idea was that the microphone picked up a sound wave and electronically converted that to a signal that went through a transducer and was sent to the needle in the arm of a disk cutter that then transferred an analog signal of the original sound into the disk in the form of bumps that were located within the groove of the disk. But whats important about the media is that, up to 1946 it was the primary recording media. When tape came in after 1946, studios didn't change all at one time but as they gradually transitioned to tape, disk recorders using acetate disks continued to be used in the record industry as the mp3 of the day or the cassette of their day, where at the end of a recording session if you wanted to give the recording company or the producer or the arranger, a copy of how the recording sounded you did it on an acetate disk. Or for a radio station they would use an acetate disks if they just were recording a commercial to be played that day or a speech or a performance that could not be done live. One of the big problems about acetate disks was the fact that they could only be played for 20, perhaps 40 times, before you heard noticeable increases in distortion and noise and static as the needle each time it was played, wore away the surface of the disk.
The way that the sound systems used acetates disks was that, initially their business of using music in an entertainment setting was that they were using foreign music. And what they would do is bring down, or purchase records from local suppliers wherever they could get them. And if they found something that was particularly attractive to local audiences, they would ensure that the label had been scraped off the disk so their competitors could not get the name of the artist and order the record and also use it. So certain popular songs produced in America found their way into Jamaican sound systems.
San Diego Bounce
by Harold Land
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A good example is that Coxsone Dodd for many years, it was said had a, an instrumental, called, well the actual name of the song is San Diego Bounce by, I think it was originally recorded by Harold Land in the 1940s. But Coxsone Dodd used that to the point that it was given a name that was associated with him as his theme, until of course Duke Reid found out what the name of the song was and also ordered the song and played it. So the way acetate disks would have been used, if Coxsone had a record lets say like that, San Diego Bounce, he would have taken it to a recording studio and had multiple dubs, dub meaning a copy of the disk, from the original vinyl record on to dubplates, acetate disks, which had a temporary life, so he would have to reorder them every week or a couple of weeks, but it would mean that he would have multiple copies of that song to use in his various sound systems that played and wound the island.
According to Graeme Goodall who was the audio engineer at Federal, when he joined Federal in 1960, the main business of Federal at that time was producing music for the sound system producers. They were their primary clients, but that music was not being used with the intention of making records. It was being used so that dubplates could be made of that music at the end of the session, and they were played on the sound systems. So they were exclusive recordings. It was very antithesis of the American Record Industry was at that time. So dubplates became the way that you controlled your product, and of course the way that that was monetized by Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid and others, was by selling liquor and food at their dances. So it wasn't by coincidence that Duke Reid was a liquor distributor. That was his primary income. So this whole idea about the acetate disk and the dubplate, it became a central theme in Jamaican popular music.
What was significant about it was that as the rest of the recording industry changed in the world, and they moved away from acetate disks and instead of making copies to be played to record company executives they moved to cassettes, they continued to be used in Jamaica. And if you think about it, a record has gone through a process, it's most likely is a sixth generation copy of the original recording. A sound system using an acetate disk, a dubplate, was a first generation copy of the record and so the quality of that recording would have been certainly in the first few times that it was played, would have been excellent. And played on a sound system that had a wide frequency response and the massive emphasized bass that sounds systems were associated with it would have been a very impressive sound, at that time. And I would hazard a guess that certainly in the sixties, and going into the seventies, there was no where like Jamaica where you could listen to recorded music in a public setting with that kind of volume level with that kind of frequency range where you were hearing recordings that basically came straight from the recording studios in a pristine fashion.