Making Portishead's "Dummy": The Production Experiments of a Trip-Hop Classic

Portishead - Dummy

Although Portishead weren't the first group to explore the sonic territory that would become known as trip-hop (that honor goes to their peers in Massive Attack), the Bristol, UK-based group is now practically synonymous with the genre. And it all began 25 years ago, when the trio of DJ and sampling guru Geoff Barrow, guitarist Adrian Utley, and vocalist Beth Gibbons released their debut album, Dummy, bringing their uniquely dark, melodic take on hip-hop to the masses.

Aside from the undeniably excellent songwriting and tasteful musicianship on display, Dummy is primarily an album of texture—something that is fully apparent within the first minute of the record. The opening bars of "Mysterons" give you a taste of the album's sonic palette: minimalist, tremolo-laden guitar parts, expert turntablism, crackly sampled rhythms, booming 808 bass, entrancing synthesizers, and of course, Gibbons' unparalleled vocals.

So how did Portishead craft the signature sound of Dummy? Turns out it was a mixture of creative sampling, adventurous recording techniques, and some sick vintage gear. In this article, we'll highlight some of the secret ingredients that made Dummy a classic.

Production Tricks of Intentional Degradation

Working with engineer Dave McDonald at State of Art and Coach House studios in Bristol, Portishead got pretty adventurous while recording Dummy. During sessions that would horrify most pop producers and record execs, the band routinely warped and distorted their tracks with heavy-handed processing, gritty tape saturation, exaggerated effects, and heaps of vinyl noise.

Vinyl Abuse

Perhaps the most extreme example of Portishead's taboo techniques is Geoff Barrow's inventive approach to sampling. First, he had session drummer and unofficial fourth Portishead member Clive Deamer play assorted grooves, which were recorded to half-inch, 16-track tape (already a somewhat limited format).

Next, Barrow would have the recordings pressed to vinyl, which he proceeded to enact unspeakable horrors upon. "We'd record a drum break and Geoff would get it on vinyl, then he'd chuck it on the floor and kick it around, so it was a bit crackly, get it on his deck and just scratch on the snare drum bit to make it go dull," Utley said in an interview with Guitar Player.

Once the poor, abused vinyl sounded like something you might find at an estate sale, the crackly, crunchy grooves would then be sampled, programmed into beats, and further processed during mixing. Other instrumental parts on the record received this treatment too, including the guitar on "Mysterons."

Portishead - "Mysterons"

Tape Terrors

Traditionally avoided on "professional" recordings, the characteristic compression and frequency distortion imparted by analog tape was just one more weapon in Portishead's sonic arsenal. "There was a lot of bouncing to cassette. A lot of bouncing to cassette," McDonald says in Portishead's Dummy by R.J. Wheaton. This explains the thin, Mellotron-like strings on "Glory Box": "instead of putting them to DAT [Digital Audio Tape] we put them to cassette, which I remember raised a few odd looks from people," McDonald recalls.

To create the effect heard 30 seconds into "Strangers," the guitar (an "absolute piece-of-shit acoustic we found lying around the studio," according to Utley) was recorded on a dictaphone—known as a handheld tape recorder to Americans—to produce an especially gnarly distortion. From the sound of it, the same was likely done to the vocals as well.

Anything Goes

If it hasn't hit you yet, Portishead will do whatever it takes to get an interesting sound. Other creative techniques used on Dummy include re-amping drums through a Marshall practice amp, sending vocals through an FM transmitter to a 1960s Bush radio, and pushing a Drawmer LX20 compressor to its limits to produce an exaggerated "pumping" effect.

Tools of the Trip-Hop Trade

Portishead would have created a stellar album no matter what gear they had, but the particular collection of instruments and processors at hand during the Dummy sessions contributed greatly to the record's sound. Here's a rundown of some of Portishead's notable pieces and the sounds they contributed:

Akai S1000 Sampler

You could almost say that Portishead's story started with this very piece of gear. In the early '90s, Geoff Barrow was working as an assistant at Coach House studio while Massive Attack was recording its own debut album, Blue Lines. Seeing a strong aptitude in the young assistant, the group gifted Barrow with an Akai S1000 and an Atari 1040 computer to start him off on his sampling journey.

Essentially a rackmount version of the better-known Akai MPC, the S1000 traded its cousin's compact size and playable pads for advanced features. But even with expandable memory up to 32 megabytes, the S1000's capabilities were quite limited. According to McDonald, this is a large part of why Dummy is a mostly mono album. "If you were to sample stuff in stereo on an Akai S1000 you'd have no memory at all," McDonald explains. "But if you were to do it in mono, you could probably get your 30 seconds of whatever it was."

Roland TR-808

An instrument that almost needs no introduction, the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer has held down the rhythm on countless hip-hop records. The 808 makes an appearance on nearly every track on Dummy, but Portishead didn't just punch in a few beats and call it a day. They used the machine sparingly, creatively, and extremely tastefully. In most cases, the 808 lends just one or two elements—a kick here, a snare there—becoming an integral part of the sound, but never defining it.

The most recognizable use of the 808 on Dummy is the rhythm in "It Could be Sweet": the swinging faux-cymbal, pitched-up bass drum, and staccato rim shot that carry the song are all compliments of the 808. The unit's famous trunk-rattling bass drum sound is used to great effect on "Pedestal," mingling with the bass to give the track an absolutely massive low-end thump that contrasts perfectly with the brighter edge of the real drums and vocals.

Roland SH-101

Initially created as an affordable and somewhat simplified alternative to Roland's more advanced synthesizers, the SH-101 has attracted a loyal following since its release in 1982. And Portishead has undoubtedly contributed to that legacy, utilizing the SH-101 to great effect on Dummy. In fact, one of the first sounds you hear on the record—that ethereal, Theremin-like lead on "Mysterons"—was actually conjured out of the SH-101.

Although the "Mysterons" lead sounds an awful lot like the smooth sine or triangle wave produced by a Theremin, the SH-101 doesn't offer either of those waveforms—only sawtooth and pulse width–modulated square waves, plus a sub oscillator. How Portishead cooked up that particular tone is known only to them, but it likely involved heavy filtering to roll off most of the overtones, plus generous portamento settings and a bit of vibrato to create a convincing faux-Theremin.

If you're lucky, you might find an SH-101 with the optional MGS-1 Modulation Grip accessory, which allowed it to be played like a keytar and offered a handy modulation wheel. Various CV and gate I/O adds additional expandability for patching the SH-101 into other gear such as modular synthesizers. In addition to "Mysterons," the venerable SH-101 makes several more appearances on Dummy, including more recognizable synth tones and heavy sub-basses.

Fender Rhodes

Ever wonder how Portishead came up with the title of "Roads"? Well, now you know.

The track opens with nearly a full minute of dark, spacious chords ringing out from a Fender Rhodes electric piano (through a Fender Twin, with the bass cranked) with the onboard tremolo cranked to deliver the pulsing vibe that gives the song its underlying rhythm. Being an analog effect, the tremolo is never perfectly in sync with the beat—just another one of the little idiosyncrasies that gives Dummy its signature sound.

The Rhodes also provided the slinky, jazzy groove that anchors the song "Biscuit" and lent a warmer tone to "It Could be Sweet" (one of the record's happier-sounding tracks). The instrument is reportedly featured on six tracks across the album, so it's entirely possible that it was used to create unique basslines and subtler textures as well.

Portishead - "Roads"

Hammond and Vox Tonewheel Organs

According to author R.J. Wheaton, two Vox Continental organs and one Hammond L-100 (which the studio dog slept under until it caught fire) were used on Dummy. Although it's tricky to tell which type of organ is used on each track, one thing's for sure: the rich, smooth timbres of these tonewheel organs are a big part of the album's sound.

The Hammond and Vox organs can be heard on prominently on "Numb," "It's a Fire," and the end of "Wandering Star." In addition to the silky tones heard on these songs, it's likely that the Hammond's foot pedals contributed some of Dummy's heaviest bass sounds (again, "Wandering Star"). Along with Utley, session musicians Gary Baldwin and Neil Solman are credited with playing organ on the album.

Beth's Vocal Chain

According to engineer Dave McDonald, the AKG C414 was the microphone of choice for Beth Gibbons' vocals—partly because of its signature sound and partly out of necessity. "It was all we could really afford in State of Art," McDonald confessed. The 414 contains the same capsule as the classic AKG C12 used on greats like Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, giving it an unmistakably vintage sound. "That was something I was deliberately seeking," adds McDonald. "I've always liked the sound of old vocals. I grew up listening to old records. I love that intimacy."

Gibbons' vocals were then processed heavily with a Teletronix LA-2A compressor, which brought every articulation and breath to the fore, creating that right-in-your-ear sound. A heavy dose of EQ provided the final touch: McDonald generously boosted the area around 1kHz, an area most mixers would cut due to its harsh, nasal sound. This treatment gives the vocals a distinctly lo-fi sound, as if they were coming out of a public address system—exactly the effect the band was looking for.

Roland RE-201 Space Echo

The Roland Space Echo's magical combination of tape delay and spring reverb is what puts the "trip" in "trip-hop." It adds a certain sheen to the vocals, gives a sense of space to the percussion, and softens the edges of some of the rougher-sounding samples. Going back to that first minute of "Mysterons," the Space Echo's analog mojo can be clearly heard, adding a short slapback delay and a generous reverb tail to the snare drum.

But Portishead wasn't content to simply use the Space Echo as the instruction manual intended. Inspired by dub artists who warped reggae tracks into psychedelic masterpieces, they pushed the machine to its limits—and beyond. One such heavy-handed use is on "Pedestal," where the vocals spiral off into outer space after every line, adding an air of mystery to Gibbons' esoteric lyrics. Around the two-minute mark, the unit is pushed into gnarly self-oscillating feedback, an abrasive effect that can be heard again near the end of "Numb."

Adrian Utley's Guitars

Being primarily a jazz player before Portishead, Adrian Utley's main guitar at the time of recording Dummy was the venerable Gibson ES-335. But before you go out and buy one hoping to ape Utley's style, you may be surprised to learn that he wasn't really a fan of it. "I played a 335 for years, which I hated," Utley told MusicRadar in 2013. "It was just the one I could afford, but it was a nasty one: It didn't sustain."

Utley's Gretsch G6129 Silver Jet takes center stage on two of Dummy's biggest songs, its unique Filter'Tron pickups providing some of the album's nastiest tones. On "Glory Box," Barrow manipulated the guitar's Bigsby vibrato while Utley played, creating the squealing pitch bends that embellish the simple descending line in the chorus. The Gretsch also appears on "Sour Times," providing gritty, tremolo-soaked melodies that enhance the spy-movie feel of the track.

During his days as a sideman, Utley had the distinct pleasure of playing with Jeff Beck, who let the Portishead guitarist play his '56 Telecaster. While the facts are unclear, internet speculation says that Utley also played a cheap Squier Tele on Dummy, and he can be spotted with what appears to be a '52 reissue in Portishead's 1995 Roseland NYC concert.

Dunlop Crybaby

A favorite tool in Adrian Utley's arsenal, wah-wah makes several appearances on Dummy. Though he has since switched to an American Real McCoy, Utley's wah of choice during the recording of the album was the Dunlop Crybaby, a classic effect used prominently by one of his guitar heroes, Jimi Hendrix.

The Crybaby first appears a couple minutes into "Roads", and later lends a distinct sauciness to "Glory Box", combined with tremolo to make each note shimmer. When the guitar solo hits (the only solo on the record, which Utley admits was a little tongue-in-cheek), the Crybaby is what pushes it over the edge.

While a lot can be learned from reading about the tools and methods Portishead used to create their masterpiece, the best way to use this knowledge is to create something completely original. Even Portishead themselves made a conscious effort not to retread old ground after the success of Dummy, forcing themselves to come up with new sounds rather than going back to what worked the first time. So, by all means, go snag a deal on some of the gear mentioned in this article, but let it inspire you to create something all your own.

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