DUB: a Technique for all Genres

Today I'm writing about DUB, a production style credited to Jamaican studio genius King Tubby.

Dub is a technique where you turn the mixing board into the instrument you play with.  Play with.  Play with.  

The point of this article is that when you hear the word “dub” it does not mean you have to make reggae. You can use this technique with any genre of music to make a dub mix and get playful with your sounds.

Yes it came from reggae music. No you do not have to make reggae to do dub mixes.

Thank you to King Tubby, Lee Scratch Perry, Scientist, Mad Professor and many other studio wizards who showed us how the recording studio can be used as an artistic instrument and not only a technical tool.


Dub is a technique, a process, a way of looking at the studio.

Man, it's just playing with the studio tools like they're toys!

I mean really, that's all it is, having fun making weird sounds and seeing where they lead, unplanned.  

And it happens over a heavy bassline and drumbeat that put you in a trance.

You can do it with house music, tekno, hiphop, DnB, trap, psytrance, chillout, and even with live band recordings of course.

Anything hypnotic can get dubbed-out into a new song form.

It means the creative process happens AFTER the music is recorded.

You do it with your FX, your reverbs and delays,

your track mute and pan controls,

your Aux sends and controller mappings,

and your feelings of how the song needs to change at any moment.


When you dub down a song, you create a living mix where listeners can hear somebody inside the session, manipulating the sounds from behind the scenes.

Doing dubs is what makes sessions into a spontaneous magic, where surprises happen, where you can get unexpected ideas out of nowhere, and you just have fun.

People can HEAR that!

They can hear you having fun on the studio equipment, whether that's on a laptop with the mouse, or on a giant analog mixing board with 6 AUX sends & hardware FX units patched in chains.

Dub is spontaneous, improvised, and it's the number one fun thing about electronic music.

You should try it some time!

In fact, when we were making electronic music on MIDI hardware, EVERY MIX was a live dub.

There used to be a lot of records where the A side was the album version, and the B side was the experimental dub.

The dub might be 10 minutes long but it never got boring, because you could hear somebody in there playing with layers, building up grooves, and tweaking the FX.

I always loved this spaced-out sound; it's the first thing I did with my MPC2000 to turn little 16bar sequences into a musical journey.

Now that I think about it, you had no choice about doing dubs.  Drum machines and synths didn't play themselves, you had to tweak some knobs and mute some patterns or else everything would be boring & repetitive.

The talented people could bring it up to a peak and drop the beat, the not-so-talented people made never-ending songs that were kinda boring.

That was the deal with live electronic music back in the day and I think you know, people today are STILL making tracks that are sometimes amazing, or sometimes a long wash of bleah.

It's not about the gear, it's about the technique and the process.

And you take a risk every time you press play -- the song is definitely going to come out different from last time you played it.

It's never the same song twice, just like in a band, you have space to improvise, extend, express something in a new way... or make a mistake and ruin the whole thing.

Are you connected to the crowd tonight?  Are you in the right studio headspace to press record and commit to a version?

In a weird way, doing dub requires you to be in the right space emotionally before you do it. 

Otherwise the music will show that you're not coming from a good place, and your dub mixes will be off.

Just like with a real instrument.


Nowadays doing live dub has been mostly replaced by mix automation.

We don't have enough hands to move all the parameters simultaneously in a full mix, so of course we use tons of automation.  

Buuut when you mentally plan out each move and automate them to be perfect, the music comes out predictable and clean, perfect, orderly, a little bit too predictable.

Not dangerous, not exciting, and not fun to play live.

Automating a perfect mix is like slowly carving stone to make a sculpture,

but doing live dub is like spinning clay on a pottery wheel.

yeah, it's a lot like that.

good analogy, I think they will get it.

you can't throw clay pots when you're in a bad mood,

and sometimes throwing clay pots FIXES your bad mood.

wait, are you talking to them right now about what you're writing?


sure why not? 

Let's all be on the same page here.

writing and telling you that I'm thinking about you at the moment I'm writing,

that's exactly like live-mixing in your music and letting everyone know you're there, changing sounds around on purpose.  

Breaking down the line between audience and artist?

YES I am changing these levels, yes I am panning that sound, yes you can hear me muting the vocals and putting them into an echo-reverb chamber.

Not trying to be invisible like an editor, not trying to be invisible like a studio engineer.

I guess you could say dub is the opposite of transparently presenting the artist's vision of their music, like a good engineer does. 

Instead, you're taking their multitrack session and turning it into some crazy new thing that YOU like to play with...

That's the difference between automating your mixes in the timeline, vs. live-mixing a dub version in session view.

I'm trying a bunch of different ways to express the idea of what dub is all about, from my point of view.

It's not for everyone.  Some people like to make perfectly automated studio mixes and then play them live in a DJ set, which is totally cool too.

But I am noticing that doing Dub mixing is becoming almost like a lost art, so I thought I'd put this out there.


Because it's fun!

I really want to stress that when you live-mix your FX and tracks, people can hear the difference.

You can hear it and you can FEEL IT as it's happening, and once you get the hang of it, it's really really fun.

Dub opens your world to an infinity of options that are ALL good! 

The hard part is deciding what NOT to do.

Doing it makes your tracks sound more interesting, feel more "alive", and capture the audience in a way that they can't stop listening.

It's also like burying your music in their subconscious world, so they even forget they are listening to music at all...

At the most poetic, dub mixes make you forget about time and go into the timeless infinity of music, where there IS no time, except for the drumbeat.

But that's a bit too trippy maybe, yea?

Anyway, I'm on a mission to tell all my ableton friends how dub works with Live.

Session view in Ableton gives us the PERFECT dub instrument.

You can play your song sections in any order, you can loop one drop forever if you want, you can mute pieces and un-mute them to surprise drop a layer, and you make it a living mix with the controllers you tweak (even if you're click+dragging on the mouse).

Try it, that's what dubbing your mixes is all about.

You can improvise a dub mix either live or in studio production -- it's not only for performers.


Want to learn more about the dub technique?

Maybe you just need somebody to show you how, so you can start doing it?

If you think this sounds cool and you want to learn more, sign up for this FREE live workshop.

I'm going to show you the basic techniques for changing your song structure into a fluid, improvised living dub, with FX.  Crazy fun.

Sign up here.

I realized this week that live dub mixing connects everything we do in electronic music,

from sound design, to song structure, to FX and mixdown.

So I'm going to go more into this in 2018 with live videos, workshops, and built-in session lessons where we do it hands on.

This is an extension of how to escape the 8-bar loop.

Are you into the dub technique?  Leave a comment, email me, or sign up for the workshop.


PS thanks for reading.

this is the end.

stop reading now


Steve Knots

Thanks for your visit! If you're new here, check out the session lessons. They're the most exciting new way to learn sound design, composition and mixdown techniques for electronic music production in Ableton Live. -Steve