Not many artists would make an entire album from field recordings of the life of a pig. But not many artists are like Matthew Herbert...
August 2010, and strange things are afoot in a Clerkenwell bar. Celebrity chefs are putting the finishing touches to a procession of pork preparations. A French film crew mutter curses as they try to persuade a tank-like robotic camera-mount to do their bidding. People are drinking, chatting and producing hideous squealing noises from a device that appears to consist of test tubes filled with pig's blood. On receiving a discreet tap on the shoulder, guests are led behind a curtain, in order that the sound of their chewing can be captured by a pair of vintage Russian valve microphones.
The event is the last stage in collecting field recordings for One Pig, the third and final part of a trilogy of albums from experimental composer and artist Matthew Herbert. Each of the three albums has been composed entirely using field recordings associated with a particular theme or event. In the case of One Pig, Herbert chose to draw his audio source material entirely from the life cycle of an individual farm animal, from its birth on a Kent farm to its butchery — and its eventual consumption by friends, colleagues and music journalists.
"The first question I'm always asked,” says Herbert, "is 'Why are you making a record out of a pig?' And for me, that's the wrong question. You should be asking everybody else why they're making a record with a guitar. There's been millions and millions of records made out of guitars, and not so many made out of pigs.”
Of course, as Matthew Herbert is the first to acknowledge, attempting to make music from livestock rather than Les Pauls does introduce new challenges. "The biggest problem that I find doing all my field recordings and turning them into music is that there's very little pitch. On the pig record, for example, on one of the tracks the pitch comes from a cow lowing in the background, and on another one, it comes from the little bleep of my video camera. Pitch is extremely hard to get out, and that's the thing I have to process the most. Consequently, you're left with mostly percussive sounds.”
Working with unpredictable environmental sounds rather than synth presets is likewise difficult from the point of view of production as well as composition. "Music that I hear around me is getting punchier, it's getting louder, it's getting more compressed. There's so many presets out there doing so much of the work for the sound. I'm up against R&B radio productions. Contextually, while my music is not on the radio alongside them, it's being produced at the same time as theirs, and sonically, that world is becoming more and more polished, more punchy, more Auto-Tuned, with drum replacement and massive synth sounds — and I'm going up against it with the little sound of a pig bumping its head against the wall of a pigsty. So in some ways I feel like I have to try to sonically compete, to get it up to a level where it's not a complete joke when you hold the two next to each other. And that can be frustrating and extremely hard, when I know, for example, that if I didn't use a farm gate as a bass drum, I could load up an 808 with a load of compression presets on it and it would sound enormous. So I always feel like I'm 20 steps behind, sonically.”
Despite its extreme conceptual bent, Herbert's music is not at all inaccessible to the casual listener. In fact, it has as much in common with techno as it does with high art, featuring simple melodic motifs and a strong rhythmic basis. This reflects his own background, but also the direction in which he's pushed by his unusual source material. "The organisation of percussive sounds tends towards a rhythmic organisation, so consequently it ends up more in 'danceworld'. I just think of it as a rhythmic sense driving it, rather than a melodic. It would depend on the subject matter. For example, I did a track made out of sounds sent to me by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and one of the sounds was protesters being shot against the wall by IDF forces. The musical possibilities for that, to my mind, feel quite limited. Maybe in 100 years' time we'll have different ways of listening to that and thinking of things to do with it, but at the moment, I still feel like I'm battling with the assumptions I've grown up with about what to do with short, percussive sounds like that.”
As that suggests, Matthew Herbert's music is strongly political, but he's not one to write protest songs. "For me, the idea of singing lyrics about how bad Rupert Murdoch might be feels like a very clumsy gesture. I think it's maybe effective in that it can be easily shared and easily understood and repeated, but for me, artistically, it feels a very narrow idea of what protest can be.”
Instead, Herbert sees himself as making political gestures in the very act of creating and selecting his field recordings. "For example, I wasn't allowed to record in the Houses of Parliament. I asked them, and after a year of waiting and negotiations with them, they said no, because they were worried it might bring the house into disrepute, which I found really extraordinary. I'm constantly asked by music journalists 'Does music really have the power to change anything these days?' and here it was, my own government telling me they were worried about a piece of music. For me, that was one of the best things that I've ever encountered, the idea that the government felt threatened by a piece of music.”
In 2005, Matthew Herbert crystallised some of his ideas about how he wanted to approach music-making into a formal 'manifesto', which can be examined online at www.matthewherbert.com/manifesto/. The most important element of this manifesto is a commitment to originality, a refusal to use presets or sample from the work of others. It began, says Herbert, as a response to the direction that dance music took in the last decade of the previous century.
"I felt that there was a tangible shift in the mid to late '90s, whereby manufacturers cottoned on to what musicians were using equipment for. Roland didn't design the 909 drum machine to make techno, and they didn't design the 303 to make acid house: they designed it for another function and it was adapted and used in ways that they hadn't predicted. Then, in the mid to late '90s, manufacturers cottoned on. A good example was the Akai sampler range. They introduced the CD3000, which didn't have a microphone input, and it had a CD tray. They were seeing that people were sampling mainly from existing music, and they adapted the technology to fit that.
"For me, that was the beginning of quite a disappointing run of technological innovation, so I felt compelled to force myself to not take the easy route, and not just hand responsibility for the sonic content of my songs to somebody else. The manifesto has shifted over the years, slightly, but principally it's about not using other people's music. And in acoustic music that's no great controversy. You don't sit at the piano and think 'I'll play a Billy Joel bass line with a Haydn right hand, and then we'll have a Little Richard middle eight.'
"I feel like the composition process starts with the selection of the sounds. For me, it's about taking responsibility for that and not being lazy, because I feel so much technology encourages us to be lazy. It's a lot harder to mic up a real drum kit and get a great drum sound than it is to pull a drum loop off a CD. So, for me, it was about taking control of that process.”
Since the manifesto was originally written, Herbert has made his self-imposed constraints even more hard-line. He doesn't so much work with found sound as with sounds that he has remorselessly hunted down: every aspect of gathering his source recordings is determined by the political and conceptual ideas behind the project that it belongs to. One Pig takes this commitment to its logical extreme, by entirely limiting its sound world to a single narrative.
"I've written like that for a long time now. For me, a revolution has happened in music in the last 20 or 30 years, which is that with the invention of the sampler, there's no distinction between sound and music any more. That boundary has blurred completely. With the sampler, suddenly the whole world is your keyboard. It's constantly shifting and constantly generating new noises in new combinations, constantly evolving. It's such an enormous idea that you can suddenly pluck things out of the air and turn them into music. It has become really important to me to be clear about what the end result is supposed to be: not just take things at random, or because it sounds cool. Without wanting to sound too abstract, you have to submit yourself to the material. You have to learn how to listen better.
"For example, I did an album called Plat du Jour, which was made out of food, and I went to an industrial chicken hatchery that hatches 25,000 chickens at exactly the same moment. I thought that 25,000 chickens hatching at exactly the same time would potentially be the greatest sound of all time, an incredible, Jurassic Park-style moment. But you get there, and there's huge industrial fans keeping it at 99 degrees, producing this huge drone, 'nvoooom', and the eggs are all just in plastic tracks, racked up as if you're in a bank vault. Consequently, the little chick that goes 'neep neep neep' — you multiply that by 25,000 and it just goes 'neeeeeoow', just a single tone. So this sound that I thought was going to be the most incredible noise ever turned out to be 'nvoooom' and 'neeeeeoow', and it was quite dull, in many ways.
"I was pretty disappointed, and I was trying to find ways of rectifying it, and eventually I got back to the studio and realised 'Well, that's what I'm there to record. I'm there to record the reality of what there is.' And there's nothing romantic about hatching 25,000 chickens at the same time, that are going to be killed 30 days later. That's the story, and that's what I'm there to record. It's no different to turning up to record a blues guitarist and being surprised that they don't play 'Granados'. You have to submit yourself to what you've got. You have to become a much better listener, and you have to step away as a composer, an artist, an author — whatever role you're playing — you have to step back, see what you hear, and try to make it into something usable.”
This commitment to be faithful to the narrative extends, naturally, to the technical aspects of its recording.
"The thing that has to come first is the story, and everything else follows that, even technical decisions or working methods. If you're going to think about mic placement, if you're going to think about perspective, then I think that becomes part of the story. We just think of microphones as capturing sound, we think of them as just functional, but actually they're our remote ears, they're [listening] from our perspective. If I'm recording this pig, do I want to keep a respectful distance and listen in, or do I want to get right up close and really try to understand this pig? So choosing mic placement, and microphones themselves, and all of that technical stuff, what kind of EQ, how to EQ, whether you should be doing any EQ... For example, this album about the pig is, in many ways, a biography, so I feel like I have some kind of abstract responsibility to the pig to not manipulate it to the point at which it becomes unrecognisable.”
Whether he's recording in a farm outbuilding or a Frankfurt nightclub, Herbert sees no reason to compromise on sound quality and, where possible, uses the same gear he would favour in the studio — vintage Lomo microphones and other esoterica. "I'm really interested in the idea of taking microphones out into the world instead of bringing the world to the microphones. And in doing that, I feel I need to take out the best microphones for the job, regardless of the faff involved. I did this record called One Club, which was the one before One Pig, where we recorded in a Frankfurt nightclub for one night, and we were using Quad Eight mic pres and little B&K mics as outriggers, then we were using Lomos, then I've started using the AEA stereo ribbon mic for field recordings and being out and about.
"I think the issue with field recordings is that, historically, the biggest market is radio and TV, and it's all about functionality and reliability. The audiophile aspect of it is not that high up the agenda, particularly with TV — you've got one chance to get it right, so you need to know that it's working every time. But I'm doing something different. I'm recording music, effectively, so I feel like I should treat it as if it's my studio.”
One area where Herbert has eventually compromised sound quality for usability is in his choice of sampler. "I've moved almost entirely, very reluctantly, to software samplers, mainly because of the quickness of editing. For example, the pig record is made with six months to a year's worth of recordings. I record onto a Nagra V, onto a hard drive, and then transfer that onto a computer. So it's very easy for me to drag it across and import it.
"A typical record of mine will end up with two to three thousand recordings, and handling all that data is best suited to the computer. It still doesn't sound as good as the Emu, which I used for a long time. My favourite sampler is still the first Akai made, the 612, because it's like an analogue synth, all knobs and buttons, and you can edit physically with two sliders. There's no menus or anything like that, so it feels more intuitive and like an instrument, and it sounds wonderful as well. But just from a data management point of view, I feel compelled to use a computer, unfortunately.
"Also, I sample everything in stereo, but microphone inputs on hardware samplers have always been mono. I recorded the whole [One Pig] album in M/S, so I could decide how narrow or wide I wanted the stereo image. I could pull out detail, or sort of zoom out, more towards the atmosphere of the room. So before I've even got into making music, before I start to put the pieces of music together, just that one thing — how wide or narrow the stereo image is going to be — is an artistic decision for me.”
Once the raw recordings for a project such as One Pig have been safely transferred to their new digital home in the Mac, there arises the question of how to turn them into music. Again, the key issue for Herbert is finding a balance between matching the power and immediacy of chart music and respecting the integrity of the source recordings and the stories they tell. "You want the provenance to be clear, and you want the story to still carry through, and the atmosphere to still be there. There's no point in recording a pig being born and treating it so it sounds indistinguishable from an electric guitar. So there's a tension there, and that tension is something I'm always working out, and sometimes I get it right and sometimes I get it wrong. It's a pretty hard thing to get right all the time, I think.
"There's quite a few different techniques that I use. One of the main ones used to be to identify a key piece of audio that you feel carries the story most effectively, and then chop it up. I used to do that manually, and now — I can't decide if it's a good thing or a bad thing — Logic will chop it up at transients and lay it out over the keyboard in 10 seconds. So basically something that I spent the last 20 years doing manually, and has taken hours and hours of my time, can now be done incredibly quickly. But unfortunately, it nudges them straight up to the transients, whereas I much prefer a more random approach.”
Matthew Herbert's horror of falling into lazy habits or repeating himself has led him to some interesting decisions as to how samples should actually be played. He dislikes samples that are ruthlessly edited, to the point where his manifesto now incorporates a prohibition against trimming the tail of a sample. "It makes you play differently if you hit the key and the transient is heard one second afterwards. It forces you to play in a very different way than if it's instant. And that's something that I find very unsatisfactory about modern software sample libraries and synths, just how instant everything is. There isn't that element of chance there.”
He also forces himself to program the samples in different ways. "Particularly for someone like me, who's played piano my whole life, I'm still inputting sounds for the most part on a piano keyboard, but just the shape of my hands and I how I play it leads me to input music in a certain way. I'm trying to break that, so recently I got a little Akai MPD thing and I'm trying to play bass lines and chords on that. It's forcing me to use my fingers differently, so the chords aren't just the same. That's what the manifesto is about: giving yourself limitations and parameters to work around, and forcing yourself to engage with the process every time.”
Another of Herbert's manifesto commitments is to give "equal rights within the composition” to accidents. A good example concerns the track in which the pig's carcass was butchered, where melodic content — so hard to find elsewhere in the project — emerged unexpectedly from background noise of electrical appliances. "All the sounds I recorded had different tones in the background from the fridges. So suddenly, when I started playing what I thought was a percussion part — like an ear being cut up — suddenly as I go up, instead of it just being a percussion sound, it's got tone underneath it. So this piece, even though it's ironically one of the most percussive circumstances on the record — chopping up a pig — actually ends up being one of the most melodic, because it's got all these artificial hums in it. So again, you have to put aside your expectations of what you're going to get, and work with what you have.”
Mixing and the use of effects are likewise conducted against a background of political and conceptual considerations. "Just by making a technical decision, I suddenly find myself having moral debates with plug-ins. It's quite a peculiar position to find yourself in. One of the reasons I like working in the way I do is that I feel constantly challenged by the material, and I'm never 100 percent sure that I make the right decisions at the end of it.
"I'll give you an example. This track is called 'January', and this is the point at which the pig is going off to the abbatoir. It's the only time on the whole record that we hear the pig on its own. It's like a solo, or what have you. So I'm thinking about what I'm trying to say about this. The first thing I did was to put a low-pass filter on it, so it's muffled, and there's a sense that something's happening off-camera or out of earshot. And then you hear human voices. My first reaction when I'm writing a piece like that is 'I don't want human voices in there. I don't want speaking.' But then I'm thinking 'Wait a minute. This is a pig going off to the abbatoir at 20 weeks, it hasn't even seen a full set of seasons, and one of the reasons for that is that it's being grown for food.' So I left the low-pass filter on it, so that starts to tell the story: these are humans discussing the fate of the pig, off-camera or off-site. And if part of this record is from the pig's perspective, trying to tell the pig's story, the pig doesn't necessarily understand what these people are saying, so how I've treated that is part of this particular story.”
Matthew Herbert's unique, conceptual approach to making music is perhaps not for everyone, but it's brought him more than just artistic rewards. He's in demand as a composer of film soundtracks, most recently for Ridley Scott's Life In A Day, and has remixed hundreds of artists, from REM to Roy Ayers. His music has graced numerous television programmes and stage shows, and as a producer and programmer he has worked with Björk, Roisin Murphy, Patrick Wolf and more. His Accidental Records label, meanwhile, has been a long-established home to all sorts of "music without compromise”.
"Having done this for 25 years, and still feeling challenged, that's my preferred state. My ultimate goal is to make a record with a million sounds on it. We have the capacity to do it, now, and we have the capacity to listen to the world in a different way. So when we did this film soundtrack [Life In A Day] we asked people to send in sounds, so we had the sounds of a thousand people breathing at the same time. That's an interesting sound that we're not used to hearing, and the combination of digital media and storage plus computer power to organise it is opening up the creative and artistic possibilities into this huge landscape. The only limit is our imagination, really.
"My intention is always to pick an ideal scenario and try desperately to make it happen.” He pauses and smiles: "And probably fall short slightly, I'd have thought.”
The Kent studio in which One Pig was mixed is due to be torn down and moved to a new location the day after SOS visits. "I change studio every three years,” says Matthew Herbert. "It's just being restless. Every two or three years I get a new mixing desk, I change all my equipment, I change my monitors, I change the studio. Like a lizard that sheds its skin after every few years, I try to start again. It's a constant battle to stop myself repeating myself. So much I find about writing music is about habit these days.”
Herbert is clearly uncomfortable with the tension between his political and artistic ideals, and the audiophile tendencies that have led him to fill his room with very expensive analogue signal processors. "I'm in a very privileged position: I get to listen to and work with stuff like the DW Fearn gear, which is very expensive, it's four grand for one mono EQ. But the problem is that once you've heard it, it's really hard to go back. I just think it's a real trap, and I'm up to my neck in it. I feel like it's a millstone round my neck, because I travel, and laptops and plug-ins can do so much, and get so far, but it just doesn't sound like this stuff. It's like a curse, because you always home in on the weakest link in the chain, and before you know it you've bought three Prism Orpheuses. A good example is that tube DI by Fearn, which is probably one of the most expensive DIs ever made, but it just sounds like nothing else.”
The current centrepiece of the studio is the new 5088 modular mixer from Rupert Neve Designs. "It's an amazing desk, amazing value for money, it's got ridiculous headroom. I love Neve stuff, things like the EQ goes up to 25k — he's really into frequencies you can't hear and the effect that it has on sound. For me, having a modular desk and being able to build up what you want is so obviously the way forward. Because I don't do much recording in here, I wasn't interested in having 16 mic pres, so I have a few EQs, and I'll probably get the compressor.”
Although Herbert's new studio will incorporate a patchbay, he's always preferred fixed signal paths, for the sonic benefits they bring. "All this is hard-wired. My Dad used to work for the BBC, and part of the mantra I inherited from him was the shortest signal path possible, with the least amount of components. The patchbay was like another thing in the chain, so I've resisted it until now, because I feel like it sounds better without it — but now I want that flexibility.
"The way that it's set up is, for example, outputs 1/2 of the soundcard go to the Portico EQs, then to the Gyraf compressor and then through the tape effect and then into the desk. And that's got a certain sound to it, and channels 5/6, for example, go through API EQs and the Anthony DiMario valve compressor, so that has a different sound to it. So, depending on the kind of sound I want, I route it through the different chains. For a vocal chain, I would just hard-wire in the Retro 176 and a Fearn EQ, and bypass it if I didn't like the tone. I had a blackface 1176 for a while, which is a wonderful vocal compressor and very widely used, but I got fed up with the tone of it — it adds some airiness and I got fed up with that being on every recording, and it had no bypass on it. That's why I say I feel like it's a curse, because once you spot that it has a tone, it's impossible to unhear it!”
One of the commitments in Matthew Herbert's music-making manifesto is to openness: on his web site (www.matthewherbert.com) he divulges in considerable detail the equipment and processes he uses in the creation of each of his tracks. "When I started off in techno, there was a sense of mystery, and people had 'a sound': the [Emu] SP1200, for example, was associated with various producers in New York, and this relationship with technology was really expressing something to do with the artistic vision of the person making it. And then I realised that it didn't really matter. It was what you did with it that counted, not what it was. It's quite hard to just throw open your doors and let everyone see what you're using, because it breaks part of the mystery, but I also don't like the idea of 'top down' hierarchies like that, where people aren't invited into that system. It doesn't feel very generous. You're asking people to buy your music, but you're not allowing them to interact or to have a relationship with it beyond just consuming it as a product.”