“My Operator” was the affectionate nickname given to the otherwise unsung engineer Sylvan Morris. Also called “The Original Scientist” for his early work in dub, Morris is responsible for the sound of many of the key landmark reggae albums in the mid-70s, including Bob Marley & The Wailers‘ Burnin’, Natty Dread and Rastaman Vibration. It’s easy to overlook his influence when even reggae scholars like Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton failed to give him credit for his work on albums in their Rough Guide to 100 Essential Reggae albums. Not that they would deny that his engineering work was key to the sound and success of those albums. It’s just that producers traditionally get top billing. Sometimes they did take credit for the work of the engineers. There are thousands of songs out there where Morris’ work is completely uncredited to him.
Growing up in Trenchtown, Kingston, Morris was precocious, building tube amplifiers since he was 12 and fixing electronics for neighbors, and repaired two way radios for a company called Comtech for a year and a half while still in high school. After a brief stint at WIRL (West Indies Records label), that talent and a pitch perfect ear earned the teenager a job assisting engineer Graeme Goodall at Byron Lee’s Dynamic sounds in 1965. He assisted Goodall in updating the studio from two to three and then four tracks. Two years later he spent six months at Duke Reid’s studio, then joined Coxsone Dodd at Studio One, where he would control the board as chief engineer for six years and define the Studio One sound. The studio was actually still only two tracks, and Morris bought another two-track machine to dub more takes, which informed techniques used in dub. Dodd like to take credit for the innovations (despite not even being in the studio much of the time), but very gradually, the truth is leaking out via some liner notes and books like Michael Veal’s Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae (2007).
“Plenty of people don’t talk about that engineer. And Sylvan Morris was an engineer and technician all in one. You understand? Is he teach Errol Thompson…” — Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee (Heptones, Night Food liner notes).