In The Studio interview in full
used for Matthew
Herbert In The Studio feature (iDJ
magazine December 2008)
Could you give us a brief outline of your career so far?
I started playing piano and
violin at the age of four and just did classical, orchestral
stuff until I was about 18/19. When I was about 13 I joined
a big band playing piano, that was kind of my first band.
When I was 16 my parents bought me a Roland Alpha Juno 2
synth. It was a very generous and forward-thinking gesture
really. Shortly after that I got a sampler and then I got
a four track so I kind of cut my teeth really on a little
Fostex four track tape recorder, learning the art of bouncing
and the art of recording the old fashioned way. Then I graduated
to an Atari and Cubase and that kind of thing and then my
first record came out around '92/'93 on very small white
label style things. Not hugely brilliant or successful and
then in January '96 I released one record under the name
Wishmountain, one record under the name Doctor Rockit and
one record under the name Herbert. Stylistically they were
three different things. It came very much out of the free
party movement; I was down in the West Country. So I started
doing dance/electronic music officially then and then gradually
over the years I've branched out into film scores and obviously
the big band stuff now and I produced a rock band called
Invisible last year and all sorts of things.
would you say you are right now? How would you categorise
your music, if at all?
For me I started out playing the piano so I started out
age four just playing any music, playing Bach and playing
the blues or thinking I was playing the blues. So for me
electronic music and that producing side that just one personality
of my musical brain I guess. So really now I'm trying
to… For the last few years I've really tried
to find a middle path between melody and innovation so some
parts of my work get quite experimental like 'Plat
Du Jour' and some of them get quite melodic like the
film work or 'Scale', the record I did last.
Something like the big band record probably sits somewhere
more in the middle so I swing between the two really so
that's where I am at the moment. Because I've
just done that I'm likely to swing the other way so
the next couple of records I might just make one that's
melodic and another one that's experimental.
you find there's a different approach when you do
swing from one to the other? Is each one a very different
approach to music making?
Not really, the principles are almost entirely the same
but what I do try and do is I try and change the equipment
and I try and change the studio and I try and change the
people that I work with. So for example the last five albums
that I've recorded have all been recorded in a different
studio. It's always been my studio but I've
arranged it differently and I've changed things like
the mixing desk, changed microphones and changed a lot of
equipment that I use.
you do that to keep things fresh?
I do because I think the important thing for each record
is to try and create a new language, I think music gets
so disappointing when it's just happy to replicate
itself. Particularly electronic music because the software
is designed to make it easier and easier to sound like somebody
else. If you have a modern drum machine, settings like 'Berlin
electro' or 'techno' or 'deep house'
all settings already loaded in which is an absolute disaster
for the artistic impulse.
do you think the ease of producing music is actually limiting
people in some ways?
Yeah. I think it's been a huge disaster. If you look
at when the piano was invented or when valves were added
to the trumpet there was an explosion in the possibilities
of music and that's what happened when the sampler
and electronics came along, it exploded the possibilities
of music. The problem is it exploded it so far I think people
felt a bit unable to control it or unable to comprehend
the possibilities and so it's been getting smaller
ever since in many ways. Because everything's in the
computer now it's so perfect, there are no mistakes.
You look at, for example, software emulations of classic
compressors and it's absolutely perfect. It doesn't
replicate any of the mistakes or any of the quirks or any
of the faults, it takes the best model they can find and
emulates that one so everybody ends using exactly the same
equipment, exactly the same sounds. It removes the air,
like in many modern studios it's almost impossible
to find a microphone or to actually hear the world outside
and the music because everything is just done internally.
obviously feeds into your music because a lot of sounds
you use are from the outside world.
Yeah, they all are. On the last record I guess it's
two or three thousand recordings and I've made or
commissioned every single one of them and they're
all brand new just for this record. So that's somebody
just choosing a microphone and a pre-amp and working out
where to place it then pressing record so that's for
every single sound so I feel like it's taking some
responsibility for the artistic process.
world is your instrument isn't it? Using anything
as a creative tool to make your music and also create a
Yeah, because if you are playing the outside world then
what are you going to choose to make your music out of?
Is it gonna be a branch of McDonalds or is it gonna be a
branch of Starbucks? Are you gonna choose Coke or are you
gonna choose Pepsi? If you wanna make a track out of a car
are you gonna choose a Peugeot or a Rolls Royce? If you're
gonna make it out of government do you choose John Major
or Tony Blair? So it opens out all of these possibilities
and it's almost impossible therefore to avoid a political
or a social process.
do you decide on what sounds and samples you want to use?
A record like the Big Band one I've just finished
took two years to make and one of those years is research.
When I made 'Plat Du Jour', the record made
out of food, that was two years research working with a
professional researcher. Before I even write a note of music
or record a sound that planning has to go into it. If I
know what the record is about I'm trying to be extremely
specific so, for example, on 'There's Me, And
There's You' there's a track about torture
in Guantanamo and rather than just making a track about
torture, even torture in Guantanamo, I wanted to tell a
specific story of one specific person. So I started to do
the research on which person it would be and their story
and it turns out that someone called Bisher Al-Rawi was
imprisoned for having a battery charger. For me that immediately
suggests one of the sounds that I would use. Then he met
MI5 at McDonalds in Kensington so we went and recorded some
of the vocals in the McDonalds branch at High Street Kensington,
and whilst they were there they ordered a fillet of fish
so the fillet o fish becomes the snare drum and one of the
percussion noises. So all of those details follow from the
story. It's not just a random collection of noises
it's a very specific and precise process.
reading through the liner notes covering your sound sources
there's a message there in itself of what you're
trying to convey. Then the music puts it into context.
For me I think the liner notes are one way in. I feel a
lot of my records are like puzzles and I give the audience
two or three keys to parts of it and it's up to them
how much they wish to unlock or how much they wish to engage
with it. So the liner notes, for example, do give more information
to some of it but they don't tell you the whole story.
you hope by listening to the music or reading the notes
it will lead people on to other places?
I would hope that, yeah. My principle hope for people coming
to see a live show or listening to the record is that they
would engage in a critical process so that it would lead
them to ask a question: 'What is that noise on track
three?' That's all I'm after really or
'Why is he scraping 70 condoms along the floor?'
or 'Why is John Major on the record?' or 'Is
that a choir of 30 people I hear in the background?'
or whatever it is. So for me I'm just hoping that
people will engage critically with it because once that's
involved then you can start to develop a relationship between
the music and the listener. It's not just a can of
Coke. I don't want people just to consume my music,
I don't want to be part of a consumer society that
is happy to create disposable objects that have no depth
or no moral clarity in their purpose so I'm hoping
to create something that has the possibility of having a
broader and more engaging relationship with people.
have the ability to key into people's emotions and
their minds as well I guess?
Yeah, music is essentially an abstract form so it allows
people to have all sorts of different relationships with
it. So if I played you the sound of a dog barking you might
imagine a Jack Russell and I might imagine a Great Dane
so it's not like an image where if you see a picture
of a dog it's that dog, it can't be any other
dog. So consequently music and sound stimulates the imagination
in ways that the visual image just doesn't do.
you have decided which object or sound source to use, how
then do you actually set about recording it? Are you always
carrying around a tape recorder?
Yeah, it depends what it is. When I recorded parts of this
record in the Houses of Parliament and so I wasn't
allowed in officially so I sort of snuck in so I had to
have a subtle recording device but it needed to be of a
high quality so I used a little Nagra soild state handheld
recorder. But I do use a bigger Nagra recorder for bigger…
like recording at the British Museum for example and both
the microphone and the Nagra itself are developed for film
location use so it's of that kind of standard and
do you go from capturing the sound and then using it musically?
I think I'm looking for two things. Well, it's
more than that, but one, either a tangible rhythm that I
can pick out of it or pitch. Pitch is the hardest thing
to get out of recording sounds. For example a great deal
of effort and planning and preparation and history has gone
into making a clarinet sound absolutely beautiful when played
by the right person and the same can't be said for
a cardboard box or for a Peugeot 205. They're designed
for something else entirely so pitch becomes a real issue
and that's something you really look for. Basically
it's just loaded into the computer then turned into
samples whereby I just pick out things that I think are
going to be the most useful or interesting or convey the
intent of what I'm looking for and then I use a combination
of hardware samplers and software samplers to do that.
it important to you that the samples you use still sound
like the source?
It is, yeah. I do process them but it is important, and
I always try to make it evident at least once in a track
that it's on its own somewhere. It is important because
there's no point going to the great length of trying
to record somebody lighting a match in the House of Commons
and then manipulating it so much that it starts sounding
like a trumpet. You might as well have had a trumpet. So
I don't want to disguise the sounds particularly.
the Big Band how many members are there? Are there a hundred?
Or is that all created by you?
The Big Band is a standard 1940s big band so it's
five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets and a rhythm
section. On this record we've got 28 people singing,
a choir of 28. And we also have 70 volunteers that came
to the British Museum to make noises. Plus there's
a hundred people from around the world singing one word
each and various other contributors so it ends up being
about 300 people on the record but the big band itself is
about 20 people.
incredibly ambitious. It must have taken you a long time
to put together?
It did and sometimes I get a bit bored being ambitious!
It would be much easier if I just went back to making house
records like I used to! Me in the studio and a packet of
crisps would be much easier but the problem is the world
is in a big fucking hole and I'm not prepared just
to create a sort of disposable soundtrack to that. I want
to try and engage with what's going wrong and things
that I think are going right and try and bring that all
together through music. After all, music is one of the few
places in our lives where we actually have control of most
of the elements. We don't have much real control in
our lives. If I can't create some kind of vision or
vision of some utopia in my music then where can I create
like if you went back to making house music or anything
generic you'd only be using part of your power as
Yeah. The way that I've made music has taken me into
the most peculiar kind of places. You know, stood next to
John Major in the Houses of Parliament, been down the Suez
and watched turds float past at two in the morning, I've
heard 25,000 chickens hatch at the same time, I've
listened to the sound of a nazi gun shooting an apple pie.
I've heard some ridiculous things and been to some
fascinating and challenging places. On 'Scale'
we recorded drums in a hot air balloon and it's a
lot more fun than pressing a few buttons on the drum machine.
it does come to recording the band itself. How difficult
is it to set up the studio to record them?
Not really. Basically, the big band was recorded in a studio
in Abbey Road so literally you tell them what you're
recording and you turn up on the day and there's three
guys who've been working for a couple of hours before
you arrive there working very hard to set it all up. So
literally you just walk in and you press play and off you
go. When we recorded the other stuff, because they were
in location we basically had two sets of mics so we have
a close set of mics recording the front of the choir or
people making noises and we have another stereo pair set
further back recording much more of the room and the response
and the reverb. When it comes to mixing you do a mix of
the two depending on what kind of sound that you want so
once you get beyond a certain number, if they're all
basically of the same thing then it's not a massively
complex procedure to record them. It's a lot more
complicated recording real instruments and recording ensembles
and things like that. If everyone's just scraping
condoms on the floor or squirting Britney Spears'
perfume then it's a pretty simple experience.
the notes I see you used the reverb of the corridor at the
Houses of Parliament. How do you go about doing that?
Yeah, it's part of the convolving reverb so basically
you can create an impulse response. So basically, if you
just clap in a room then the reverb plug-in measures the
response of how the room responds then removes the original
file and then just leaves the response so then you can apply
that response. So it's like taking a recording of
an empty room so I can then apply that. When I was in the
Houses of Parliament for example I clapped and recorded
that sound and then when I came home I turned that into
the reverb and that allowed me to then apply a Houses of
Parliament reverb to any sound that I want. So if I've
got the sound of somebody lighting a match then in theory
I could politicise that or say someone opening a can of
coke, I could then make it a political act just by putting
the Houses of Parliament on it.
an extremely intelligent approach to music making. You must
think a hell of a lot to come up with these ideas.
Yeah. It's years of doing it as well. I've probably
in my lifetime written… on PRS MCPS (the royalty collection
society) I think there's 650 pieces of music I've
written and they're just the official ones. So when
you've done it a lot and you've written a few
thousand pieces of music over the years it's like
I just couldn't bring myself to keep repeating myself
over and over again so I'm looking for ways to do
you've pooled all of your samples, vocals, the band
recordings etc how would you then go about making a track.
What process do you go through?
Well there are two aspects of it. One is the harmonic or
melodic side and one is noises and how they're put
together. I work with an arranger so basically because there
are no rehearsals or anything like that we recorded the
whole big band in one day, so we recorded 13 pieces of music
in one day. So there's no time for rehearsals or improvisation
or anything like that so it has to be very precise. Basically
I start writing using crappy fake trombone and fake saxophone
sounds and then I email that off to the arranger then he
works on it and sends it back and I correct it and it goes
back and forth. That process takes six months of making
sure the harmonies are correct and the textures are right
and all the structures are in place and then we record that.
The second thing is all the planning and all the research
into what sounds I want to use and how they're going
to be recorded. For example, if I wanted to record the sound
of someone having a cup of tea I might want to record that
at 100mph or stuck in the sea or under water or something
like that so I need to plan and research all that, then
I have to set about actually recording it. The recordings
of the Houses of Parliament were made one week before the
album was finished so they dropped in very late into the
process but everything sort of happens at different speeds
depending on what it is and how many people are involved
in putting it together.
there any special techniques that you use in the studio
that you don't mind telling us about?
It's very much what suits the individual track. I
guess the main technique that's probably of vague
interest to some people is that I don't believe in
the separation between the control room and the light and
the studio. When I'm recording vocals for example
I don't like working with headphones so I just have
the singer sat or stood next to me in the studio just recording
as we go along. There's no headphones, no baffles,
we just have the music on quietly in the background.
the thinking behind that approach?
It's to add more accent to it. It's to acknowledge
where it is. It's about the tonality of it. I don't
like the idea that singers go into a sterile booth in sterile
circumstances into some special place to record the vocals.
It's like, if the vocal is good enough to record,
it's good enough to record next to me. It's
just about making the process as organic as possible. I
don't really like that word but it's to make
it as clean, free flowing and as uncontroversial as possible.
The studio's very much about that hands on approach.
I don't have any synthesisers in here; I don't
do a great deal of programming. It's much more about
mic technique and sound quality.
you not use synthesisers because you want to maintain the
realism of it and don't want the sound to be too synthetic?
I think synthesisers sound amazing, particularly older ones
but artistically they just don't excite me and I can
go outside and make what sounds like a synth patch out of
sounds of me ordering a full English breakfast in the café
opposite my studio. Why would I want to work with a sound
of eighties slap bass that someone programmed into a device
ten years ago or something? Artistically it doesn't
excite me. Yeah, sonically I think they can be amazing it's
just not my thing really.
sounds like the whole of life and the whole of your experience
in life is open to being used as a tool within your music.
My understanding of musicians is that we're storytellers
and my ambition is to just make an accurate reflection of
what it's like to be alive today. I don't wish
to contribute to this illusion that we in the West are living
under which is that everything's OK. If you go to
a supermarket you can get any food you want 24 hours a day,
365 days a year and that's an unsustainable model.
We live in this delusion and music seems very happy to be
part of that delusion, to be part of advertising, happy
to be used for torture, music to be used for fashion shows
or whatever as constant distraction. I think all that stuff
is OK as long as that's just part of it but unfortunately
that's all of it. If you look back over the last five
years and think that there was a war going on in Iraq and
if you look at music you'll find very, very few mentions,
certainly not in the charts. What does that tell you about
musicians and their view of the world?
think we're used to thinking of protest music or political
music as something entirely separate and I totally disagree.
I think all music is political. You wouldn't say 50
Cent is political but his music contains very particular
messages about violence, about money, about homosexuality,
about fast cars, about poverty. Many of these messages are
the same messages of the American government so really he's
making political music but unfortunately for the wrong side.
of interest, do you feel that what's going on with
the global economy at the moment that people on other levels
will begin to sit up and take notice of what's going
on and take stock?
You'd hope so. I remember standing on the roof of
a warehouse in Manhattan, watching one of the buildings
collapse on September the 11th a few years ago when I was
in New York. I just thought music is gonna change forever
and that it's the end of ridiculously disposable fashion
and all the rest of it but since then it's actually
got worse. So I'm definitely optimistic and think
things will get better but people are gonna need to be shocked
out of what's going on for us to see meaningful change
and politics are inseparable, especially when you consider
that most of music technology is developed out of military
technology so there's a kind of violent undercurrent
to the tools that we're using to make music in the
was your overall experience of producing the album like?
It was definitely a challenge. On this record I'm
trying to look at the monarchy, government, torture, religion,
AIDS, money, sex, I mean I really seem to have accidentally
chosen the biggest topic in a way. That comes with a huge
weight of responsibility to try and do that, so that was
pretty hard. The best thing about it was recording with
Eska [Mtungwazi] because she's probably the best musician
I've ever worked with and working with the Big Band
itself when you're off the politics and away from
the heady side and doing the soulful part, all the emotion
of it, that was an exciting part of it. When it all comes
together it's pretty rewarding. It's a lot of
work and doing so many recordings there's a lot of
things you can get wrong. It's rarely a perfect experience
but nevertheless I'm pleased with the results of it.
advice would you give to any aspiring producers?
The first thing would be to stop listening to other people's
music and avoid trying to replicate anybody. The second
thing is to question the tools that you're using,
to make sure that the tools you're using are encouraging
you to be original. Particularly with the modern studio
everything is designed to sort of drag you towards laziness
and designed to drag you towards the replication of somebody
else's idea. Like modern samplers don't even
sample, they don't even have microphone inputs so
you can't even record samples into them. I think that's
an artistic dead end. It's all about carving out your
own space and trying to talk about the things that are important
to you rather than what you think other people want to hear.
Obviously the main part of the studio is the computer and
I'm using Logic 8 which is much better than Pro Tools
for writing on. I use Morpheus soundcards to get the sound
in and out of it. Then I have everything hardwired to a
Moog designed desk from the late eighties, early nineties
and each of the outputs of the soundcard go to a different
routing so I just basically use the desk as a subbing mixer.
I don't really use all it's capable of. Outputs
one and two go into a Harrison EQ and then they go into
an Audio and Design compressor, both of those from the late
seventies, early eighties. So if I want that kind of sound
I send it out one and two. Output three and four on it have
a harmonic distortion unit on it that goes into a Furman
compressor then into a Valley People Dynamite compressor
and that's the basis for dirtier sounds. The next
one goes into an API EQ and into an Anthony Demaria valve
compressor and basically that goes on through each of the
sixteen outputs goes to a different EQ and a different compressor
so depending on what the sound source is I route it through
the equipment differently. So using a patchbay the studio
is basically set up, hardwired and I route the sounds through
it when appropriate.
aside from Logic you use hardware rather than software?
I use plug-ins to do the fun stuff so for creating strange
manipulations or something like that or impulse reverbs
but the main structure of my studio is set up to process
high end audio so I'm working with Manley and Helios
equipment and API, so I'm mixing 80 piece orchestral
scores in the studio that I recorded in at Abbey Road studio
one so the equipment needs to be of a decent standard. The
emphasis is very much on the hardware and it's stuff
that you just can't get from software.
of it is really noisy. I've got a couple of old compressors
that are incredibly noisy, there's a lot of hiss,
but for me that's part of the compromise of it. Your
life is a compromise, it's not the perfect recreation
and yet in music you create a new digital signal flow that
eliminates any possibility of error and I think that's
a very inaccurate view of what it's like. A sanitised
closed system that isn't open to failure or distortion.
- Ian Roullier, 10/2008