Gesturing Producers and Scratching Musicians

Simon Zagorski-Thomas

London College of Music, Thames Valley University
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How have the editing, manipulation, processing and mixing of tracks been transformed into performance throughout the history of record production? Through examining techniques used in dub reggae, EDM and hip hop this paper will explore the changing nature of ‘performed’ music production and the broad influence it is having on music creation.


Turning technological mediation into performance was a process that began very early in the history of recording but which started to take off in the 1960s. Joe Meek’s experimentation with the techniques of record production in the early and mid ‘60s involved performed mixes and the live manipulation of effects. In Jamaica Lee Perry, King Tubby and others were developing the techniques that would blossom into dub reggae in the 1970s.


As the number of tracks involved in the mix process increased during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s we find more and more accounts of the mix process that involved several people manipulating faders, panning and other controls in real time during complex mixes. This led to the creation of automated desks that allowed fader movements and other controls to be recorded and played back.


In dance music and hip hop from the ‘80s onwards, DJs start to integrate the technology of record production (drum machines, samplers, mixers and effects units) into their ‘live’ sets. At the same time, studio production techniques themselves are seeing performed manipulation increasingly incorporated into the process. Sample triggering became a performance art as soon as the technology was introduced and rhythmic triggering, the manipulation of loop lengths and other techniques have become a staple source of musical material. Scratching, performed mixes and live treatments and effects are further examples of how this trend is progressing. By stamping the imprint of human gesture onto electronic music, perhaps these techniques represent a substantive shift in the type of performance entailed in the creation of certain forms of contemporary music rather than the more commonly expressed (and lamented) abandonment of performance.


This paper will use a brief historical survey of how these techniques have developed to discuss the question of why this has happened and what it means for both record production and performance.


As dramatic a development in its way as the separation of composer from performer in western art music, this integration of producer/engineer with composer/DJ will be discussed in relation to the development of new types of performance and music creation.




The study of performance practice in the recording process is normally concerned with ways in which instrumental performance has been adapted to accommodate the increasingly non-linear techniques used in the production of recorded music – the fragmentation of musical performance in the recording studio. This paper aims to approach this question from a different angle. How and why have performance practice been absorbed into the process of technological mediation in the recording studio?


I shall start with a short (and obviously selective) historical survey of some of the ways in which gesture and ‘live’ manipulation have been utilized in the production of recorded music. This will be followed by a discussion of the possible reasons for these developments and of some of the ways that they can be understood using existing theoretical models.


2An Historical Survey


2.1Norman Petty and Buddy Holly


I’m going to start with Norman Petty and his studio in Clovis, New Mexico. In 1957 Buddy Holly and the Crickets were recording Peggy Sue with Petty and they were using several of the creative production techniques that he had developed previously. An example of this is the mixture of the amplified guitar sound with a close microphone placed to pick up the plectrum scraping against the strings of the guitar that is used like a percussion instrument throughout the track. In this recording Petty also performs a live mix of the microphone volumes to alter the level and timbre of the drum track as part of the arrangement.  Judging from interviews with the drummer Jerry Allison (Allison 2000 and unknown date) it seems that the driving paradiddle beat adopted for the track was too loud to record in the same room as the other musicians and Petty placed him in the corridor with a separate microphone and monitoring speaker – this was before headphones were used for studio monitoring. The drums could therefore be sent to the echo chamber in the attic space of Petty’s studio without severe spillage from the other instruments on the track. During the recording of the rhythm track Petty therefore ‘performed’ a mix between the ‘dry’ microphone sound of the corridor and the reverberant echo chamber microphone to create the highly distinctive drum sound on the track.


2.2Joe Meek


Joe Meek was another innovative early producer in many ways that lie outside the scope of this paper but he was also someone who developed the extensive use of  performed mixes as part of his production process. Meek used filters and EQ to create stereo panning techniques on his 1960 I Hear A New World Album which he seems to have created using full and half track mono tape machines rather than a stereo one (Cleveland 2002). He overdubbed instruments by bouncing between tape machines and created dynamic stereo tracks by performing sub-mixes during the recording / bouncing process. Whilst moving signals from left to right in the mix, he often kept a delayed or treated version of a signal panned opposite to the dry signal and moved them side to side as mirror images of each other. He also often changed the focus of a mix from one instrument to another with dynamic fader movements.


2.3King Tubby and Dub Reggae


The DJs (or selectors) of the reggae sound systems in Jamaica in the 1950s and 60s had developed techniques to use equalization as they played back records that would accentuate particular aspects of a recording. Osbourne Ruddock (a.k.a. King Tubby), along with other engineer  /  producers such as Erryl Thompson, Lee Perry, Sylvain Morris, began to elaborate on these techniques when creating instrumental remixes for toasters like U-Roy in the late 60s and this developed into dub in the early 1970s. The techniques involved included:


·       Using faders and mute controls on the mixing desk to bring elements of the track in and out of the mix


·       Using auxiliary sends and group buses on the mixing desk to dynamically alter the amount of a given signal sent to an effects unit such as a delay or a reverb.


·       Using the frequency sweep and cut and boost controls of the desk’s EQ to dynamically alter the timbre of a track.


·       Dynamically altering the parameters on effects units e.g. the feedback or delay time on a delay unit.


·       Adding sound effects that were not in the original mixes e.g. hitting a spring reverb or sending oscillator test tones through an effects unit.


Mixes such as those found on King Tubby’s 1974 album Dub From The Roots involve highly involved and skilled performances utilizing all of these techniques and more.


2.4Pink Floyd and Rock Production


Rock mixing in the 1970s also relied heavily on performance before the advent of fader automation. It was common practice for band members as well as the producer and engineer to line up along the mixing desk and adjust faders, panning, auxiliaries etc manually to construct an appropriate mix. Even albums such as Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd where submixes had been created in the production process, involved substantial performed elements such as the manual panning of the footsteps in  On The Run.


2.5DJs and Samplers


In 1983 Brian Eno started to describe the recording studio as his musical instrument and in 1999 bemoaned


  the insidious, computer-driven tendency to take things out of the domain of muscular activity and put them into the domain of mental activity.”


From the late 1970s onwards however, the developing forms of hip hop, garage and house had been developing the Jamaican Sound Sytem tradition of the DJ as a performer in a variety of new ways. In hip hop we get beat juggling, the precursor of sampled loops and scratching. Grand Mixer DXT brought the sound of scratching to a national and international audience with Herbie Hancock’s Rockit in 1983.


The Fairlight Sampling Workstation and the Synclavier had entered the commercial market in 1979 but it wasn’t until cheaper products such as the Ensoniq Mirage and the Akai S900 appeared in the early 1980s that sampling facilitates the development of new forms of performance practice. Just like turntablism, sampling technology allowed the re-performance of existing recorded performances in ways that transformed them into new pieces of music. So whilst tracks like the Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight (1979) used beat juggling by a DJ to incorporate a section of Chic’s Good Times, it isn’t until around 1985 that we find digital audio samples being played from MIDI keyboards and sequenced (e.g. Paul Hardcastle’s 19).


2.6The Bristol Scene: Trip Hop and Drum & Bass


Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s record production continues to absorb and to develop techniques from both the dub traditions and the DJ / sampling model of re-purposing existing audio. A particularly rich example of these tendencies can be found in the trip hop and drum and bass scenes of Bristol in the mid 1990s. Roni Size, Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead combined the ambient textures of dub with sampling and scratching techniques.  Geoff Barrow of Portishead often works by recording short sections of rhythm track (drums, bass and keyboards), mixing them onto analogue tape and then having them pressed onto vinyl so that he can then create rhythm tracks from sampled performances of himself looping and scratching from turntables.


Roni Size similarly created drum and bass tracks from sampled loops of players that he brought into the studio combined with synthesized parts and other filtered samples. Although the New Forms album has the much cleaner and less ambient sonic textures of dance music, the mixing techniques of constructing an arrangement through muting and unmuting tracks and the performed filter treatments of various elements owe much more  to dub performance than to DJs.


2.7Contemporary Developments


The past few years have seen the introduction of a large variety of products designed to facilitate this desire for gestural control of production. Ironically, the largest area of growth has been in software and hardware interfaces and control surfaces that allow these gestural performances to be recorded and edited themselves.  Products such as the Evolution UC33e (Fig.1) allow faders and knobs – the stock in trade tools of the dub mixer – to be used to generate MIDI controller information which can then be mapped onto any selected parameter in some digital signal processing software and which can also be recorded into a software sequencer and thence edited, copied and pasted.


Software and hardware that utilizes the techniques of DJs has also emerged in recent years. Probably the most notable software development was the launch of Abelton Live in 2001 and products like Native Instruments’ Reaktor have also facilitated the live, gestural control and manipulation of sample playback.





Fig. 1 Evolution UC33e MIDI Control Surface



3                 Analysis


I shall now move on to a discussion of the possible reasons for these developments and of some of the ways that they may be understood using existing theoretical models.


3.1Changing Role of the Producer


The first issue that I’m going to address is the transformation of the roles of the record producer and the sound engineer. I would argue that in order for these performance based forms of mediation to develop there first had to be a shift in perception away from the idea of recording being a transparent process of capture: the notion of encoding a musical performance onto the recording medium with as little distortion as possible.


During the 1950s and 60s it became clearer that, even as the dynamic and frequency ranges of the recorded representations became more accurate over the course of the 20th century, the techniques of mediation were introducing different and in many instances aesthetically pleasing forms of distortion through practices such as close microphone placement, artificial ambience and tape compression. Once the idea developed that there were aesthetic judgments as well as empirical measurements to be employed in the recording process, it was obvious that these practices could be subject to creative control and direction.


Edward Kealy (1979) has described changes in the way that the training and status of sound engineers evolved in the United States (and the model has also been applied to Europe). He has identified three modes: the union / craft mode (where the engineer is characterised as a technician), the entrepreneur mode (arguable more applicable in the United States where small scale entrepreneur based studios were more typical) and artistic mode (typically characterized as a freelance engineer or producer who has a reputation for creative practice along the lines of a session musician. It could be argued that the artistic mode has moved progressively towards becoming the dominant mode in popular music even since it started to develop in the 1970s. A proviso would be that there has been an increasingly blurred distinction between the artistic and entrepreneurial modes developing at the same time – almost to the point of making Kealy’s distinctions redundant.


3.2Cultural Perceptions of Musical Creativity


In any case, the lack of a broad cultural consensus on a distinct category for sonic creativity outside that of the musician can be seen to be an important aspect here. George Martin may often have been described as the fifth Beatle but that was generally to do with his orchestration and arrangement contribution. Musical and cultural theorists have found it more of a struggle to recognize and assess the creative nature of technological mediation. The very nature of this form of mediation, of interfering with the direct, performance based communication between a musician and an audience goes against our cultural construction of what it is to be a musical artist.


Despite the fact that the vast majority of contemporary society’s engagement with music is through recorded sound, we still seem unable to fully comprehend what Eisenberg describes as ‘one of the paradoxes of the recording situation, namely that the audience is not there…(is) the flip side of the fact that, for the listener, the performer is not there’ (Eisenberg 1987 pp157). Not only is the direct line of communication broken, but there is an entirely new field of artistic and creative activity that has grown out of the need to both compensate for and to manipulate the results of this paradox. Before I move on to address the question of why this creative activity should have incorporated aspects of performance, I want to look at the role and perception of the DJ.


Although the term disc jockey was coined in reference to radio presenters in the 1930s, it was in the 1940s that the DJ party developed, using two record turntables to provide a continuous stream of dance music in a public venue. During the following half century, as techniques such as beat matching, slip cuing, beat juggling and scratching enhanced the musical experience of club culture, there was a gradual but continuous move towards the perception of the DJ as the star rather than as the intermediary between the musicians and the audience. In much the same way as television presenters such as Johnny Carson were often bigger stars than the performers they introduced – and were seen as the arbiters of who should be chosen for stardom – in club culture the DJ, who controlled the process of selection and editing, was the prime mover.


In 1968 Boulez condemned Musique Concrete as collage. This was because the concept of manipulating existing sonic material struck at the heart of Europe's culturally constructed notion of the creative artist. This was Marcel Duchamp's Fountain transferred to the sonic realm – a found object that had been re-purposed as art. In Boulez’s view the artist should determine the art form a priori in their imagination and then cause it to exist in the world. Boulez criticized Cage’s use of chance in his composition from the same standpoint. Duchamp and Schaeffer were engaged in bricolage – a DIY form of music using found objects. High art should be determined by the artist and not constructed from the debris of their surrounding culture.


To consider the producer and the DJ as artists was to elevate the mediation of objects created by other musicians to a status that contradicted the basic tenets of musical creativity in western culture. Forty years later these forms of practice have become widespread within both the visual and the sonic arts and yet musicology is still struggling to come to grips with them.


3.3Why Perform?


I shall now return to the question of why performance practice has been adopted so widely as a creative methodology amongst record producers.


Most technology that is used in the recording studio has been designed to be set and left. The model is for the technician to ‘tinker’ carefully and fine tune the sound of the output until the desired form of mediation is achieved. From this perspective, even in an age and musical style when record production is expected to be intrusive or opaque, it is still expected to be static – a staging or framing process rather than something that interacts and changes with the musical performances. Keep (2005) has explored the idea of the creative abuse of technology as a motor for innovation in both record production and electronic and electroacoustic composition. Many of the techniques that he catalogues involved dynamic intervention and manipulation with hardware and software that was designed to set and left.


Another aspect of this question takes us back to the culturally constructed notion of what it is to be a musician. Creative activity in music is divided between composition and performance and whilst mediation doesn’t sit easily in either category, it is generally more akin to performance than to composition. In fact, in 1929 Stokowski, quoted by his biographer Oliver Daniel, described the role of the mix engineer thus:


“He’s the conductor and I’m not. I don’t want this to be broadcast under my name if I’m not controlling the pianissimo, the mezzo forte and the fortissimo.”


Thus, in many ways, a producer or engineer who is seeking a creative role in the process of music production will necessarily gravitate towards some form of gestural control of the mediation – a variation on conducting. If it is indeed true that our cultural constructions of legitimate musical activity identify gestural performance as more authentic than editing and ‘tinkering’ then it should come as no surprise that this sort of activity has become commonplace.


Producer Pip Williams (2007), at a recent panel discussion at the London College of Music, extolled the virtues of an improvised, performed mix as a way of generating freshness and spontaneity. It is obviously true that when the sound of a gesture can be heard in the mediation process as well as the performance process then the mediation is perceived as part of the creative process rather than as staging or framing. The audience’s attention is drawn towards the human agent rather than a static phenomenon such as unusual ambience or strong compression.


Andersen (2006) has discussed this in relation to the production techniques utilized by Portishead. Many of these techniques are specifically intended to be opaque – to draw the listener’s attention to the mediation. Geoff Barrow (1997) of Portishead has ascribed his reasons for doing this to the fact that the sound of the mediation – of analogue tape compression and the crackle of vinyl playback – creates types of meaning that separate to the musical content. It’s the sound of old music.


I would add to this by suggesting that for Barrow and for much of his audience, the types of performance that are authentic, that are worthy of respect, include those of DJs, record producers and dub mixers. The sound of a record being scratched or of a sample being triggered from a MIDI keyboard are as legitimate as gestural audio shapes as the strum of a guitar or the closing of a hi-hat.


3.4The Sound of Gesture


This leads us neatly into the final section which discusses the question, which some of you may have already been asking yourselves, of whether the spread of these performative production techniques might just be related to the fact that they sound good. This question is obviously going to be related to the style and musical tradition involved and to the attitude of that particular audience to the idea of audible mediation. It’s not very likely that the normal audience for recordings of Beethoven String Quartets are going to consider that a dub mix would improve one. This assessment is going to be more related to their perception of which kinds of technological mediation are appropriate rather than to any strictly aesthetic considerations.


In the light of this, I am going to differentiate between four basic approaches to the perception of mediation in recorded music:


1)     Transparent mediation: where there may be some essentially vague characterizations of what constitutes ‘good’ sound (such as “warm” or “bright”) but where the mediation is meant to be inaudible.


2)     Audible but static: in which the mediation may be quite extreme and artificial but where it acts as a form of staging for the performances. A visual analogy might be of the representation of the same figures and background as a colour photograph, a pen and ink drawing and a water colour painting.


3)     Audible and changing mechanically: where the mediation changes throughout the piece of music but where it does so in a discrete or smoothly mechanical manner – where changes are machine controlled such as envelope shaping or Low Frequency Oscillator controlled.


4)     Audible and changing gesturally: where the changes to the mediation have the irregular or imperfect character of human activity.


This irregular and imperfect character of human activity has been described by Keil (2005) as performance discrepancy or P.D. In order for a musical style to integrate dynamic mediation techniques characterized by P.D.s it has to have a particular cultural viewpoint as to the nature and validity of this mediation. Where the mediation is obviously mechanical rather than gestural there may be several intended types of meaning. Perfectly smooth transitions may be less noticeable and may thus be an effort to maintain the illusion of static mediation. They may also be intended to lend an aura of commercial slickness to a recording: to provide an ‘expensive’ sounding production. Alternatively they may be used as a cipher for inhumanity: of a soulless industrial society.


Combining technology with human gesture on the other hand provides the opportunity for an alternative set of meanings. One approach might reflect the idea that this technology is thoroughly engrained in this producer’s musical vocabulary and the gestural shaping of the sound reflects their virtuosity. Another might be what Meiling and Andersen (2007) have characterized as a dilettante approach to technology – the idea of suggesting naivety by introducing deliberate flaws or inconsistencies. A third approach might relate to a ‘Mad Max’ aesthetic: cobbling together recycled and re-purposed pieces of technology demonstrating the triumph of ingenuity in the face of limited resources.


Thus the idea that these forms of mediation might just sound good has to be investigated from within the context of how particular musical cultures view the use of technology in general and the deliberate mediation of recorded music in particular.




To conclude then, I propose that the history of performed mediation in record production can be best understood when analysed in relation to four basic concepts that can be used to construct an appropriate contextual framework:


1)     The changing role of the producer / engineer from technician to artist.


2)     Cultural perceptions about the nature of  musical creativity.


3)     The perceived connection of performance with musicality.


4)     Cultural constructions about the meaning and validity of technological mediation in the recording process.


The various examples that I used in my brief historical survey can all be effectively contextualized through this approach. The relationship of all of these disparate musical cultures to the mainstreams of western art music and of commercial popular music plays an important part in explaining why these aesthetics evolved and how they served to create meaning.




Allison, Jerry (2000) interview taken from National Public Radio’s Morning Edition program from Dec 8th 2000. (Accessed Nov. 30th 2007)


Allison, Jerry (unknown date) interview quoted on (Accessed Nov 30th 2007 - original link to video of interview is no longer active)


Andersen, Ragnhild Brøvig (2006). Opaque mediation as part of the composition - a study of Portishead’s music. Paper given at the Rhythm, Sound and Technology in Computer-Based, Groove-Oriented Music Workshop at the University of Oslo, 12 – 14th October 2006.


Barrow, Geoff (1997) Interview from Addicted to Noise by Michael Goldberg. (Accessed 22/11/2007)


Barrow, Steve (1995) Sleeve notes for the Dub Gone Crazy: the Evolution of Dub at King Tubby’s 1975 - 77 album. Blood and Fire Records B000005L7T


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Cleveland, Barry (2002) Production Values: Meek First. Electronic Musician (Feb. 2002)


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Grand Wizard Theodore. Interview from 2001 in (Pray, Doug director) (2002) Scratch. Firewalks Film.


Kealy, Edward (1979) From Craft to Art: The Case of Sound Mixers and Popular Music reproduced in Frith, Simon & Goodwyn, Andrew (1990)  On Record: rock, pop and the written word. London, Routledge.


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Meiling, Lars and Andersen, Jesper (2007) The Influence of Computers on Imperfect Beats. Paper given at the Mediation, Movement and Micro-Rhythm in Groove-Based Music Workshop at the University of Oslo on 18th – 20th October 2007.


Mix Master Mike. Interview from 2001 in (Pray, Doug director) (2002) Scratch. Firewalks Film.


Parsons, Alan (2003) interviewed by Ken Richardson for Sound and Vision Magazine. Transcriptions posted at (Accessed Dec 1st 2007)


QBert. Interview from 2001 in (Pray, Doug director) (2002) Scratch. Firewalks Film.


Size, Roni (2001) Interview with Mac Randall for Yahoo! Music. (Accessed 1st Dec 2007)


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Williams, Pip (2007) Comments made during the Breaking Records panel discussion held at London College of Music, TVU on 15th March 2007.





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Hancock, Herbie (1983) Rockit. Columbia Records 03978


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