Carter Van Pelt talks to New York producer and artist, Ticklah, about his love for reggae music, the recording process, making creatively progressive music, and some of his many and varied projects.

You are one of a handful of non-Jamaican reggae producers who have a great reverence (hope that’s not an overstatement) for the aesthetic of some of the better Jamaican music and the production process that helped give it an identity. What are some of the aspects of Jamaican recording and the music itself, that initially hooked you, and what have you grown to appreciate that maybe you didn’t immediately notice or appreciate?

“Reverence” wouldn’t be an overstatement at all in my case. That’s exactly what I feel about what you refer to as the “better” Jamaican music. It’s hard for me to say what initially hooked me, other than that feeling that probably most people who are not born into an environment where reggae is what they grow up with feel if and when they get hit by reggae. Something like – “damn! this feels different from everything else I’ve heard…and I LOVE it!! MORE!!”.

I was at summer camp when I was probably around 10 years old and I remember passing by a tent where one of the counselors was taking a nap with his boom box playing, and he had on Marley’s “Rastaman Vibration”. I stood outside his tent and listened for a while, and at the time it was the sonic equivalent of watching a movie in color for the first time after having watched black and white your whole life.

I still get that feeling if for some reason I’ve gone a while without hearing reggae (like if I’m busy working in some musical context that takes me away for a while. It’s rare but it happens) and then go back to listening to reggae. To me the music just fits together in a way that gels like nothing else.

Things that took time for me to appreciate was just how drastically different reggae sounds from so much other music from a technical or engineering standpoint. I could hear and feel the recordings had their own flavor that made them obviously distinctive from other styles, but as they years go by and I learn more about the engineering side, the more I’ve grown to appreciate just how unique it all is sonically.

Also as a kid I didn’t fully appreciate just how amazing the musicianship was on the records I listened to. It’d be easy to key on Carlton Barrett’s genius for example, but less so for everyone else. That’s all changed as the years passed. Musicianship in reggae is a very understated thing, so when you’re young it’s harder to appreciate how amazing these musicians were.

Lyrically too, as a kid I could get the gist of some of the messages in the music but it wasn’t exactly the thing that grabbed me. Growing older and becoming generally disgusted by how completely out of step mankind is with itself and the planet, I grew to love the songs that dealt with humanity, love and compassion, etc. and of course Babylon.

But in general I feel like there’s always new things about the music that I notice and fascinate me. Once you’re inside of it (reggae) it’s so vast how much variety there is to enjoy. There’s all kinds of nuance you can gravitate towards or away from depending on your taste.

Talk about your studio and your recording process, what do you do in the analog realm and what do you do in the digital realm and how do you get the best of both worlds, (to quote another Derrick Harriott song)?

I’ve got a modest space that suits my needs. I can record a small rhythm section, and later break down the drums and do horn overdubs or vocals etc. If it’s a live kind of thing I’m usually trying to record at least the bass, drums, guitar, and maybe a few other things to tape before I transfer it to the computer and do the rest of my overdubs in the box.

I do believe that tape machines sound better than computers, but for my “process” working with a computer is great and I can’t get away from it. I really work a lot in the computer but I’ve always worked with a mixing board and outboard equipment. I’ve done a few things where I might do a bunch of the eqing in the box, but after trying that for a while I realized that I’m better suited to working with real equipment and just use the computers for arranging/editing/mild processing and of course playback.

It’s taken me quite a while to learn about the engineering aspect of things. I’ve done a lot of recording where I was just happy to hear something resembling what I played come back at me after I’d hit record. But as a result I’ve made many if not all of the amateur engineering mistakes, and gradually have taken things more seriously regarding understanding mics, placement, what gear is gonna give me what I want. It’s taken a while but I’d like to think I’m getting the hang of it little by little.

I must say though that the quality of plug-ins just get better, so they can be really helpful in getting things to where I want them. But when it comes to instruments, for the most part I use old drums, old basses, old organs, real piano, etc. The character of real instruments always wins with me no matter how good the vintage organ patch is etc. I’ve experimented with a lot of those things and like I said, the new digital stuff sounds better and better, but in the end the real thing trumps the imitation for me 95 percent of the time.

It should go without saying but it probably should be said anyway, and that is that while the equipment/gear choices are plenty important, what’s probably more important is having musicians who play well together executing strong musical ideas. Sounds a lot easier than it is.

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