Matthew Herbert

•• Matthew Herbert - In The Studio interview in full
•• Quotes 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.

Where 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.

Do 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.

Do 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.

So 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.

That 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.

The world is your instrument isn't it? Using anything as a creative tool to make your music and also create a message.
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.

How 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.

Just 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.

Do 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.

You 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.

When 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 quality.

How 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.

Is 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.

With 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.

It's 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 it?

It's like if you went back to making house music or anything generic you'd only be using part of your power as a musician?
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.

When 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.

From 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.

It's 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 new bits.

Once 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.

Are 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.

What's 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.

Do 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.

It 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?

I 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.

Out 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 anytime soon.

Music 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 first place.

What 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.

What 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.

Kit list
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.

So 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.

Some 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
Copyright © Ian Roullier 2004-2014