On August 29th, 2021, the music world lost prolific producer and mixer Lee “Scratch” Perry. Many outside the audio community came to know Lee for his eccentric personality, but his iconic work in the studio with Bob Marley and Junior Murvin will stand the test of time. Lest we forget his experimentation with remixing and his status as one of the forefathers of dub.
Having released music less than a month before his death, it's obvious Lee had an obsession with creating and spent his life dedicated to his craft. In celebration of the outlandish producer, we scoured the web to discover some of his tricks and found some unique anecdotes from his decades of recording and mixing in the studio.
Lee was an extremely spiritual person who constantly worked to make his recordings sound more “organic.” Sometimes, the means were less than conventional by studio standards. For starters, Lee liked to blow joint smoke into the tape machine at the start of a session, as he believed that it imparted a certain spirit into the recordings. It’s often said he also made sure to do that with the microphones during the set-up process. The tapes would later undergo certain other treatments to ensure they had that “natural, organic” vibe. Lee was often noted for spritzing the master tapes of songs with urine and whiskey.
In some cases, the tapes would go on to be buried in the earth like a seed. Each of the corners of his Black Ark Studio would receive a light pour of rum or other alcohol onto the floor to ensure successful recording sessions. Lee often spoke of how his inspiration came from the Earth and its plants and animals, so it comes as no surprise that he would constantly conduct rituals to ensure his recordings embodied this fascination.
Space Age (Over)Dubs
Lee had a way of adding unorthodox sounds into recordings to amplify each song. When adding in these auxiliary elements, he was almost always known for manipulating overdubs using his tape machine and warping sounds to create something completely out of this world. On many recordings, he would mouth the sound he wanted then loop the recording to design beats. This was an early example of beatboxing to achieve instrumental tones.
Lee would regularly use household tools and cooking utensils to design his rhythms, utilizing the tape machine to slow down sounds and distorting them to resemble percussion. Using simple spring reverbs and his beloved Roland Space Echo, he would stretch out the cries of children, animal sounds and howls, making spaced out laser effect sounds and echoing hums that transported the tracks into the tripped-out sonic territory that defined the dub reggae genre.
In one of my favorite stories, Lee insisted on setting a mic up in the ground next to a palm tree, beating it to achieve a kick drum style sound. When asked about it, Lee insisted it captured the sound of the “African heartbeat.”
Thinking (And Mixing) Outside Of The Box
A classic part of Lee’s signature sound came from his modest set of studio tools, which were used resourcefully to add character to records. Lee's studio, Black Ark, was located in his backyard and featured a small-but-useful array of gear including spring reverbs, a Roland Space Echo and a Mu-Tron Bi-Phase.
At Black Ark, things like running percussion into the Space Echo with the delay section turned off were regular. He would use the Roland to distort and drive the signal and then impart its reverb onto the source. The use of spacial effects without their reverbs or delays activated was very common on the recordings of that era. The iconic saturation of the preamp sections would often be cranked to distort and warp sounds.
According to his biography, Lee would often manipulate his pre-production model Mu-Tron Bi-Phase during playback, performing his mixes just as the musicians performed their songs. Utilizing modest reverbs from Fisher and Grampian, drums and vocals would be given their own spaces in tracks, wobbling and bouncing in their own washed out sonic worlds.
Despite his mad scientist-like personality, Lee’s less-than-typical approach to cutting records led to a sound that can be instantly recognized as the “Black Ark sound” of the 70s. After burning the studio down (due to fear of “evil spirits"), Lee spent his time working out of other studios. Still, he always retained his signature sound and ability to create something unique out of nothing.
Lee Perry's use of the studio stands as a valuable lesson for recording engineers. His style of tracking and mixing was to treat each track as a living, breathing organism. Unafraid to take chances, his irreverence towards conventional techniques gave birth to a classic sound that was truly all his own. In short, Lee was a legend unlike any other.