The dub master: Goth-Trad on mixing, mastering and cutting dubplates

Takeaki Maruyama, aka Goth-Trad is a Tokyo-based producer and sound experimentalist who has perfected a unique mixdown and mastering process for his dubplates. Here, Jack Needham finds out more about his production techniques for cutting dubplates and how he’s keeping Japanese dubplate culture alive.

‘Tokyo might be the best place in the world to listen to music,’ said the Resident Advisor journalist Aaron Coultate in 2016. He wasn’t exaggerating. Tokyo natives take their sound systems seriously where the term ‘audiophile’ goes beyond a simple hobby or passion. Wander down a street in Shibuya and you’ll discover many a café, bar and restaurant decked out with displays of one-of-a-kind customised speakers, high-end tube powered amplifiers, and eye-wateringly expensive mixers that make your average London rent look like pocket change.

A similar, almost borderline obsessive approach to crisp audial perfection lies in the music of producer, sound experimentalist and Tokyo-based Takeaki Maruyama, more commonly known as Goth-Trad. From the late-90s Goth-Trad has made music inspired by the darker corners of electronic music, his productions earning him a reputation as the founding father of dubstep from the Far East.

As we speak over a grainy Skype connection, Goth-Trad sat in his Tokyo home-cum-makeshift studio, he almost immediately begins to pull out all manner of DIY effects pedals and handmade pieces of equipment that can only be described as noise makers. “This unit is 15 years old,” he says of a particularly industrial looking metallic box, a sound source that’s found its way onto Goth-Trad’s releases on the Deep Medi and Tectonic labels. “It’s a very simple instrument, it’s just a spring with a contact mic attached that you can use to make noisey, drone sounds. Plus, it’s very easy to fix…”

Goth-Trad’s studio is littered with peculiar self-created instruments, some that work, others not so much. “I wanted to make some synths, but that was too hard,” he says. “But I made a couple of oscillators that I can connect to my distortion and filter pedals, which is like a synthesiser in a way.” I ask if this DIY approach to production, building machines through odd bits of metal, is something he picked up through the studio sorcery of the likes of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, King Tubby and Augustus Pablo; dubs founding fathers.

“To be honest, I first began to discover dub music through the On-U Sound label,” he replies. “I was particularly influenced by producer Mark Stewart, the crazier form of dub techno. But dub music is made of looping effects, feedback and delay, and when you use real instruments it doesn’t sound like you’re making a dub mix on the computer. It sounds human, not like a machine, so the reason why I began making instruments and effects pedals came from dub.”

His first musical outlets were explorations into noise music. 2003’s ‘Goth-Trad I’ and 2005’s ‘The Inverted Perspective’ were formed of distorted walls of sound and brooding drones. But from his teenage years Goth-Trad was always drawn to electronic pulses which emanated from the UK’s underbelly. From 14 his local record store introduced him to Bristolian trip-hop in the form of Massive Attack and Portishead. Early obsessions with rave and jungle brought Goth-Trad to the harder edges of the UK’s electronic music scene, while Warp Records’ staples in LFO and Aphex Twin showed him that dance music could be taken beyond its 4/4 boundaries.

In 2005, late-night sessions listening to BBC radio opened his eyes to a new form of rave music that inspired a change in direction for Goth-Trad; grime, and more specifically, Wiley’s foundation setting masterpiece ‘Morgue’. “When I heard that track,” says Goth-Trad on Wiley’s iconic grime staple. “I thought it was very forward facing, something I really liked in the early-2000s.”

His grime-obsession came to fruition in his second album of 2005 Mad Raver’s Dance Floor, 10-tracks of low-end heavy, chest-rattling electro, half-step DnB, and what would come to be known as dubstep. DMZ, the label and club night fronted by DJs Mala, Coki, Loefah and Sgt. Pokes that became a dubstep ground-zero, was key to incubating the genre from its opening night in the summer of 2005 and in that, ushered in new possibilities for Goth-Trad. “That was such an important club night for me,” says G-T on DMZ’s legacy.

“Mala booked me for a live set there around 2007, and nobody played live on the dubstep scene at that time,” he says. “I brought a big mixing desk with me and some effects pedals, and I’d do live dub mixes using my music, but how the crowd reacted to my music was completely different to my experiences in Japan. In Japan, you had to play famous, popular tunes to get a huge crowd reaction, but people in London at DMZ were reacting that way to an unreleased dubplate. The DJs didn’t care about the technicals so much, they played to people’s reactions, and that was so fun. It was just so musical.”

As Goth-Trad entrenched himself in the mid-2000s dubstep culture and became Japan’s flagbearer for the genre, he began to change his live approach. “From 1999 I was performing an all live set, but when I witnessed dubstep culture so many other DJs, like Mala, used dubplates,” he says. “The reason why I didn’t want to be a DJ was because most DJs played other people’s music but Mala would play all dubplates, and his sets sounded like he was playing live. We didn’t really have a dubplate culture here in Japan at that time, so that was something truly original to me.”

Cutting dubplates is expensive, so you have to really think about how good the track is. It makes you focus on the music more

From there, Goth-Trad explored ways to cut his own 10” exclusives, using his local studio Wax Acetate to cut vinyl exclusives, which is lighter, cheaper, sounds better and lasts longer than usual acetate dubplates.

“There’s an interesting dubplate culture in Japan,” he says. “We have a healthy hip-hop scene here and a lot of those DJs cut dubplates, but they’re looking for rare grooves from old albums. It has that ‘vinyl sound’, which is good if you’re looking for something old school, but I’m making music through computers so I need something that sounds modern, rich and detailed.”

“At first, I brought my engineer a few of my earlier releases and asked if he could cut some of the tracks. He couldn’t…” he goes on to say. “The mix was very loud with a wide-range and it sounded really heavy at first, but the engineer was into what I wanted to do so we worked together for around three months. To cut a dubplate, the process of taking the recording you have from a computer to a cutting head is very important. It has to be very pure, so he started upgrading some of his equipment and the sound just kept on getting better and better. The engineer almost began to play his equipment like an instrument, constantly tweaking and fixing things, so after that I started to cut all my tunes as dubplates.”

The techniques he uses to produce a track specifically for dubplates doesn’t differ too much than any other format. “You have to check the low frequencies,” he says on the cutting process. “The low frequencies have a much wider waveform so each track will be too close to the next one on the record. Apart from that, it’s not that much different”. Where the strengths lie in dubplates however is how it demands your full attention.

“You need to work on your final mix before you can cut a dubplate, because otherwise it’s just wasting money,” he says. “It’s very easy to create music now, especially digital music. You finish your track then you put it on to Soundcloud. But cutting dubplates is expensive, so you have to really think about how good the track is. It makes you focus on the music more.”

Today, when hours of music can be downloaded in an afternoon, limiting yourself to a single record bag is liberating, a technique of less is more that’s refreshing now that a life of musical discovery can be condensed to a USB. “Before cutting dubplates I was playing CDs and building this huge collection of digital music,” he says.“But most of the tracks I would never get time to play. By cutting dubplates I have to focus on each piece of music I’m playing. I need to think more carefully about how I would play a track, planning my set more acutely. That process is really good for me.”

Goth-Trad is not a purist, mind. “To be honest, I don’t care whether the DJ’s play CDs or vinyl. If it’s good, it’s good,” he says, and Goth-Trad’s reputations have resonated through the loyal fanbase he’s built in his home city with Back To Chill, the long-running monthly showcase that began in 2006.

His future projects as a solo artist are set to keep him busy throughout 2018, and as one-third of noisemakers EARTAKER his musical breadth goes beyond club walls. But it’s within those confines where Goth-Trad finds his natural habitat, and having recently celebrated 11 years of bass-rumbling nights he won’t be finding the light anytime soon. What’s your secret to longevity, I ask. “We have a huge sound system,” he replies, with a smirk on his face.