Saturday, April 17, 2010


Terroir is a concept used by wine connoisseurs that I've often thought should take on wider application. It refers to the effects that the physical location of the grapes has on the finished bottle; as Wikipedia puts it "the special characteristics that geography bestow[s] upon particular varieties." For oenophiles, exploring terroir requires exacting analysis of soil quality and climate--all of which is beyond my limited knowledge of wine. But beyond geology and meteorology, there is a poetry to the idea: through the miracle of viniculture--a kind of alchemy or transubstantiation--by drinking a bottle from a specific corner of Bordeaux or Napa Valley or Mendoza, you're imbibing the place itself.

Terroir often comes to mind when I think about reggae. Reggae can be daunting for neophytes because the unique social and cultural circumstances that led to its development and continue to influence it are quite different from the models of music production we're used to in the rest of the Anglophone world. One of the difficulties is figuring out a point of entry: reggae is collected and classified in different and confusing fashions. Since Jamaica has always been primarily a singles-driven market, you can find compilations based around singers, groups, producers, engineers, backing bands, labels, studios, and theme (though I would steer well clear of those). Adding to the confusion: sometimes the backing bands are the same group of musicians in slightly different configurations; the number of singers or groups with one single who are never heard from again is countless; some producers simply ran the business end of things and had little impact on the sound of the records they produced; lots of singles appeared and reappeared on different labels; and so on.

However, certain studios have such a distinct sound that experienced listeners can identify them immediately, and if you like that sound, it's possible to enjoy nearly every piece of music made there. There are a number of studios that could be said to exhibit terroir, but I'm going to talk about two very different places: Studio One and Wackie's.

Studio One

Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's Studio One is a giant in the history of reggae, easily the most famous studio and record label in Jamaica. The rhythms made there in the late 1960s and early 1970s are foundational to Jamaican music and are still revived today (see this old post for an example of what I'm talking about). When the studio was reopened in the late '70s after a period of dormancy, it played a significant role in changing the music again as the roots sound transitioned into dancehall. That reopening was a direct response to the fact that most of the popular rhythms at the time were being recycled from Studio One's heyday (Channel One's name wasn't a coincidence). Ska, the music that launched indigenous Jamaican music, began there, and the studio remained massively important through the rocksteady and roots years. But apart from decisively shaping about fifteen years of the music's development, it is the trademark sound of records from Studio One--primarily a product of the engineer and the equipment--that makes them so special.

It's a little difficult to say what exactly that "sound" is, but the most obvious factor is the legendarily heavy bass sound. Like many Jamaican studios, Studio One grew out of Dodd's work as a soundsystem operator. Jamaican audiences were used to the intense levels of bass the soundsystems pumped into the open-air dancehalls, so when Jamaicans first began recording their music, the engineers recorded the bass at levels their counterparts in the U.S. or UK would have considered way too high. Sylvan Morris, the main engineer at Studio One, went even further.

As detailed in Michael Veal's book Dub, Morris built a special box to record the bass sounds coming out of the back of the speakers and used an equalizer that further boosted the low end of his recordings. The result is that the bass is usually the most prominent sound in any given Studio One record, a warm, deep, and physical sound that is hugely different from any American or British music until hip-hop or techno, both of which are clearly indebted to reggae.

Other elements added to the signature sound of the studio, including a tape-based echo unit named the Soundimension (a name the Studio One house band adopted as their own) and less tangible factors like the amazing speed with which new recordings were made, the tight-knit nature of the main musicians, and the inventiveness of keyboardist Jackie Mittoo who created many of the most enduring Studio One rhythms before emigrating to Canada in the late '60s.


Another label-studio combination, Wackie's was founded in the Bronx by Lloyd "Bullwackie" Barnes in the mid-1970s. Barnes was born in Kingston in 1945 and emigrated to New York in 1967. Like Dodd, Barnes began as a soundsystem operator, but, again like many Jamaican sounds before his, Barnes eventually decided the gang violence that dances inevitably attracted wasn't worth the risk. According to this brief history: "after picking some bullets out of a speaker after a party he decided to give up the soundsystem business." And so, Barnes, who had been a backup singer in Jamaica, switched directions and began producing, recording, and distributing music made by a small group of fellow immigrants in the Bronx as well as Jamaican artists--Horace Andy and Sugar Minott both recorded some of their finest work there--passing through town.

Easily the most significant producer of reggae in the U.S., Wackie's has, until recently, been mostly ignored. This has something to do with the indelible connection between the UK and Jamaica overshadowing reggae made elsewhere, but the biggest factor is the limited quantities the records were pressed in. Nonetheless, those rare records found their way to Germany where they played a large role in the development of dub techno, exemplified by Basic Channel and Pole. Basic Channel in turn has reissued a huge portion of the Wackie's catalog, reintroducing their music to a global audience and bringing these records more attention than they could have possibly had when they were originally released.

The Wackie's sound is even more distinctive than Studio One's--even songs recorded elsewhere and then mixed at Wackie's bear the studio's unmistakable fingerprints. Those fingers mostly belong to Douglas Levy, the studio's main engineer (as much as I like this terroir idea, obviously this piece is a testament to the unsung role of the engineer), who as Prince Douglas made perhaps my favorite Wackie's release, Dub Roots. The influence of Lee Perry's maximalist approach to recording and dubbing--as opposed to King Tubby's process of subtraction--is pretty obvious, but the Wackie's sound is nonetheless singular. Almost alone among dub mixers, Levy often treated the bass guitar with effects, creating a psychedelic, liquid bass sound that is disorienting compared to the heartbeat/pulse-like role the bass usually takes in reggae. This rubbery bass combined with the heavily processed sound of the other instruments and early adoption of a variety of synthesizers and effects units gives some Wackies productions a proto-digital quality--I can see why they would have appealed to German techno heads since they often remind me of the electronic side of krautrock (Cluster and Harmonia) as much as of their Jamaican counterparts.

Other distinct elements include a very flat, usually phased drum sound, huge amounts of echo, simple guitar lines that aren't far from the wiry post-punk sound being played in downtown Manhattan* at the same time, and a general dubwise approach to the production. Ultimately, though the sound is ineffable; it's as much a mood as a recognizable set of sonic signifiers.

*Wackie's location in the Bronx leads people to wonder whether you can hear a New York influence in the records, especially with hip-hop being born at the same time in the same borough. Ultimately, I don't really hear it on a literal level, but there is an urban coldness to Wackie's productions that could reflect the concrete, high-rises, and winters of the American ghetto.

Terroir Postscript

I've given a lot of credit to the engineers here, mostly because they put the final stamp on any recording that passes through their hands (I suppose you could make arguments for mastering services and pressing plants--and there are some famous examples of the latter that people claim have identifiable effects on the finished records) and they are often ignored. But the reason terroir appeals to me as an apt metaphor for musical production is the constellation of factors that influence recording a song in a room: the musicians, instruments, recording equipment, the producer, the engineer, and the acoustics of the room itself. I've focused on reggae studios because I'm more steeped in it than other genres--though the big omission here is Lee Perry's Black Ark--but there are plenty of other good cases, including Hitsville, Muscle Shoals, the Van Gelder Studio, and Abbey Road.

[Obviously I don't agree with some of the narration in that clip!]


  1. This reminds me that I thought it was funny when I got here to hear people use terroir as both a noun and, occasionally, a sort of adjective ("la bourgogne est une région très terroir"). Which works in terms of your metaphor, too. --MM

  2. Ooo, that's interesting. I suspected that might be the case since it help explains the (fading? maybe not in France) prejudice against wines that combine different varietals. That Wikipedia article mentioned that people also use the term for tea and coffee--I would think scotch would be the next logical product before those, but maybe there's a different word for scotch lunatics' particular brand of obsessiveness, something Scottish perhaps? Obviously the whole locavore/'eat your view' movement puts stock in the idea as well. But yeah, I really like the idea of it functioning as a positive quality that recordings could have more or less of.

    Speaking of funny things to hear people say, I originally had a line in this piece about this being a terroirist theory of music production, as opposed to an auteurist one which would privilege the producer. The analogy doesn't quite work, but trying to pronounce that made me sound like Elmer Fudd doing a George W Bush impression, which amused me at least.