Tech talk ~ Manu Genius of Not Easy At All Productions

Earl Sixteen's new album The Fittest is the latest release in a string of classy sounding reggae productions coming from Amsterdam's top producers M&M of Not Easy At All productions.

After successful collaborations with Jamaican legends like Apple Gabriel and new roots artists like Chezidek the Not Easy's have now forged a 'strategic alliance' with Vernon Maytone, linking them straight to the greatest roots voices of Jamaica.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Manu & Marc are now the first name on the list for anyone who needs a professional sounding reggae production. Recently NEAA produced tracks for Maikal X, Benaïssa, Lenny 'Voice of Holland' Keylard and Def P to name just a few.

We talk to Manu Genius to find out more about the technical side of reggae and dub production.

Here's a picture of Earl Sixteen voicing riddims in your studio. Did you record all vocals in Amsterdam?

Well actually that's a pic of Earl in the Houston Studio in Arnhem, where Houston and Kenneth Linger (aka Benaïssa) take care of the extra backings and vocal production for JahSolidRock releases. Earl recorded the vocals for this album in the JamTone Studio in London where he works often and 'Sip A Cup' Gussie P was his voicing engineer. The pic was taken in Arnhem during a press-meeting and exclusive pre-listen session we organized together with Earl, Not Easy At All Productions and the JahSolidRock posse and of course we also recorded some dubplates.

Did Earl choose the riddims for the album? How did that work?

Yes Earl chose the riddims out of a big bunch we picked for him together with JahSolidRock and sent him more than a year ago, and also he sent us some ideas on which we built new riddims. That's what we always prefer, work together with an artist on tunes so that something new and original comes out of it.

About the choice of the riddims, we feel that the riddims fit Earl's voice, and Earl's voice fits our riddims likewise! Many riddims on this album are like 'Not Easy-classics' to us. Real good to have this legendary vocalist on these riddims which more-or-less completes the life-cycle of those riddims for us.

We'll always have lots of new riddims on new releases. Like the next release coming up: Vernon Maytone & Friends and the next JahSolidRock project we are working on. Expect loads of new stuff!

The showcase-style is quite rare nowadays. Why did you choose this form?

Ras Denco (CEO JahSolidRock Music) and we ourselves are big fans of this style or should we even call it a 'genre'? Dub and Showcase have always had a special place in my heart, i don't like it i love it!

Also we think in these times we need to stand out in one way or another, and for now we stick with the plan to just make the music we love to hear without compromise. So yes that means 'radio-friendly' mixes with full-blown dubversions stitched straight after the vocal-versions. Love it... More Dub!

Which producers (reggae or otherwise) have influenced the production style of Not Easy the most?

I would say King Tubby's, Prince Jammy's, Sly & Robbie (e.g. Ini Kamoze), Alex Sadkin (Marley), Mad Professor and I forget a few...

So when you dub a riddim it's usually not in a 'strictly drums & bass' style, but more like a radio friendly sound. How do you approach dubbing? In your digital studio the method is probably quite different from the oldskool 'on-the-fly' sessions that were often done in one take. And which M of M&M does the dubbing?

Yes, still working and improving on my own mixing- and dub-style, to answer your last question. But yes until a few months ago dubbing was done here with a mouse and 'magic trackpad'. What I always did from the first day working with Pro Tools is bussing. Using the advantages of the almost unlimited trackcount while keeping things simple by routing those tracks back in a few groups. I ran a few passes of the mix and first open let's say all the fx-sends on the drums, bass and 'chop' busses and place them so that you can quickly reach from your fader or mute-button to the fx-sends and back and so on. Pretty much the same as I used to do on analog mixers, only with one hand/finger at the time now.

The latest addition to the Dubshelter-gear is a Euphonix ethernet-controller which makes the dubbing suddenly a lot like in the old days if you use your routing and knobs to the max. Pretty much a 'must-have' for more intuitive mixing and less looking-at-the-screen. I am really happy I saved a little longer to buy myself a fast-responding and precise controller. It's no fun when a channel mutes a fraction of a second later. We don't want no latency there. Not that we are connected to Euphonix in any way, we just love stuff that works.

You use Pro Tools, what are your favorite plug-ins? Can you give examples of tracks where you used a certain plug-in for a certain (dub) effect?

My favourite and most-used plug is the Waves SSL-channel for sure. Never dreamt I would own a SSL-desk (laughs)! What a great sounding tool, also the bus-compressor out of the same bundle is amazing. I love the new AIR FX that you get free with Pro Tools. Two of my fav's out of that bundle are the talkbox and the vintage filter which I used on the horns in the Masterplan dub. Turn those knobs!

Also the technique of impulse-responses allows you to look for interesting impulses on the net and build your own sound on original or old-school sounding verbs and fx. Lots of good people sample their old gold-sounding-gear and put the pulses on the net for us all. Nice!

The 'Not Easy' sound is defined by the use of live instruments and high quality mixes. What is your idea about the use of analog equipment vs.digital? Is that 'issue' relevant or important to you?

I would say it's highly relevant, a lot of sound-improvement to be made there. But for me it's not digital vs analog but how to make those two work together flawless and good sounding. The thing is a complete analog setup to do the things we do now is beyond reach... imagine: we get in 80+ track recordings from bands sometimes. We would need like 96 high quality convertors and a really big analog desk that wouldn't even fit in the shelter. Besides that it's just a really big investment. Rack-gear, cabling etc. etc.

Right now we focus more on the quality of one channel strip, and mixing ITB and I have an audiophile stereo D/A-A/D path to insert analog gear if needed. Analog summing with an A-type summing mixer and A-type D/A-convertors is on the wish-list. Have to work some more hahaha!

But the benefits of mixing in the box, complete control and recall, moving faders, etc. etc. I couldn't do without anymore. It will probably always be a hybrid setup over here.

Besides your phallus, do you have another favorite piece of analog gear? Would you describe yourself as gearsluts? ;)

Yes, on the second place proudly resides our Avalon 747. A highly musical vacuum-tube EQ and compressor. And yes we are gearsluts, with the years we grew a little smarter so we think longer before we buy something. Do we really need it? Will it sound better? Do we have the money?

I think that if you can't get a proper sounding production with the gear we have, you should probably look for another hobby. But yes... you will need some proper stuff. Steady computer, monitors you can mix on, good sounding instruments and at least one good sounding mike. I like to think I have a small setup but I get frightened a little when I see what I bought and collected the last 25 years.. hahaha. I'm afraid it's not a cheap hobby.

Your albums are mastered in Hilversum by Peter Brussee from Q-Point. What do you get out of the mastering process?

Although we have lots of masterbuss-options in Pro Tools (besides the Avalon 747) that can make your mix really loud, we love what a professional mastering session can do for an album. Sometimes like in the case of the Chezidek album, the individual songs differ a lot (other drummer and bassplayer and studio) and mastering can bring those sounds closer together turning a collection of songs into an album. Peter has highly specialized gear and ears and we love to work with him.

We also do a lot of fine-tuning there, like get the bass solid, the high as crispy as possible without causing ear-bleeds etc. He knows what we want and when we return home we have a master that is loud enough to withstand the test on the radio with other (reggae)tunes yet not joining the ongoing loudness-war. And yes, it's a job, mastering-engineer!

Manu, you are a professional sound engineer. Do you have some advice for beginning laptop dubbers who want to improve the quality of their mixes?

First: train your ears and listen haha, but on a more serious note, the best advice I can give is put all plugs you don't use or don't know how to use in an unused-folder. Get to know one EQ and one compressor real good and pick only a few high quality FX, route them and put them in a template so you can recall them quick.

In other words: back to basics. You don't need all that stuff. Now that almost all plugs are available in the same way our releases are available (although you don't have to 'crack' our music to spread it freely) a lot of people have all plugs that are available and just don't know what to use because you have like 12 EQ's, twenty compressors etc. you'll never find the peace to get to know how to use them all.

I'm very confident that programs like Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic etc. come with enough free and legal plugs to get you going. When you have complete control over those and you need a step forward I would say buy something like the SSL-bundle. Most plugs are available for reasonable prices on Ebay and I assure you, when you saved money for a long time and pay a few hundred for a plug, you read the manual and will get at least 200% more sound and better vibes of this plug than someone who 'gets' it for free. Demo all things freely and buy the stuff when you use it and especially when you get some money from it. I might sound old now, I know, sorry bout that!

Another advice: get your head into routing/bussing. And don't be shy. Turn those knobs and listen to what happens!