Karl Marx predicted that history would repeat itself as farce — but he never saw a role for expert pop parody!
Recording a broadcast-quality song for television would be a daunting task for most of us, especially if that song had to sound uncannily like a big-budget mainstream pop hit. For Matt Katz and Richie Webb, however, it’s quite literally all in a day’s work.
“The Horrible Histories song styles range from R&B to EDM through to classic rock, acoustic stuff and even some operetta type things,” explains Matt, who takes care of the production side of things. “For example, the Crassus song was a Dizzie Rascal send-up, Napoleon Bonaparte was Skrillex, Alfred The Great was Ed Sheeran, Mary Queen of Scots was a ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ soundalike, Boudicca was a Miley Cyrus ‘Wrecking Ball’-type thing, the Australia one was an ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ spoof, Charles II was Eminem, the Shakespeare one was in the style of REM’s ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It’, Dick Turpin was Adam and the Ants (right down to having two drum kits), Cleopatra was Lady Gaga, Queen Victoria was a Bollywood soundalike, and Charles Dickens was the Smiths, which was a great one to work out with that Jazz Chorus and thin, clean amp sound!
“Increasingly the songs are a pastiche of a specific track, and they are slightly less satisfying to do than a hybrid of an artist’s output or a genre. The Viking Song is an example of a generic power-rock ballad that any number of late ’80s bands might have done. It has overly reverbed snare drums and so on, but it’s not any particular song or band. Likewise, The Four Georges could be Boyzone, Westlife or any of those boy bands sitting on stools. It’s distilling something of the genre and a range of bands, rather than being specific. In contrast, Norman Style is a direct send-up of ‘Gangnam Style’ by Psy.”
At the time of our interview, Matt and Richie had just finished working on Series 7 of Horrible Histories, which aired from the 15th June 2017 on CBBC. Their impressive list of credits also includes infant favourites Baby Jake and Teletubbies, as well as a huge number of audio productions for BBC Radio 4.
To date, 95 episodes of Horrible Histories have been made, and Richie and Matt have written songs for every one, including the theme tune. They’ve also recorded and produced all of them, in Matt’s own 700-square-foot Noisegate Studios, built within an industrial unit in Warwick. Each song is commissioned by the Horrible Histories production team, which decides during pre-production meetings which element of the episode’s main theme will make the most entertaining lyric, song pastiche and music video take-off.
“I’m sure there are plenty of seven-year-olds who’ve never heard of bands like Adam and the Ants or the Smiths,” explains Richie, who acts as the duo’s main songwriter, “but there’s enough going on visually that the songs work anyway. For them it’s a funny song with some likeable characters saying funny things and they’re learning about history. If you’re an adult you might think it’s very clever, so it works on many levels.”
Once the theme and song style have been decided upon, the programme’s researchers provide series writer Dave Cohen with a booklet of historical information to help him construct a song lyric, which Richie, armed with the same booklet, turns into a song. “Sometimes Dave provides lyrics that are literally perfect and I do nothing to them,” says Richie. “Other times they need quite a bit of work and I’ll pull things around and write a few lyrics myself. If he’s apeing a particular song then it’s quite easy, but when it’s an original song in a certain style, his lyrics in one verse might lead me one way and I’ll have to make everything else fit. So his first couple of lines will suggest a rhythm and melody and if that clashes with lyrics he’s written later on then I’ll pull things around.
“If we’re doing a style of music I’ve not heard a lot of I have to work out how it’s written, but when we are apeing a particular song I’ll just listen to it, pull things around a bit, then write it on the guitar or piano and sing it into my iPhone. I’ve worked that way since I started writing weekly comedy songs for a topical show called Week Ending on Radio 4 in the ’90s. I used to get the lyrics on a Wednesday, write the music on Thursday night and record it at the BBC on Friday, and so I wouldn’t forget the idea I’d to sing it into a Dictaphone.
“The songs never have to be an exact length so it’s fairly flexible. If we’re doing a really big number I know that I might have two and a half or three minutes, but usually they’re about two minutes.”
The duo’s production process is, by now, highly efficient, as Richie explains. “I’ll turn up at Noisegate and say, ‘Right, Matt, we need to sound like the Smiths. Make it work!’ and we’ll spend a day recording it. Sometimes I’ll have a really clear idea of what I want, but other times I know that the recording process is going to make the song a hell of a lot better! We’re quite a well-oiled machine now. We just slot into our roles and bang it out.”
“You can’t obsess over every nuance of an arrangement when you only have a day to arrange and produce something in an authentic style that may have taken the original artist a fortnight to record,” adds Matt, “but equally you haven’t got to dream it up from scratch because you have source material to listen to, which is why it’s in any way achievable at all!
“The first stage is to listen to the original and see how easy it is to unpack. If it is an R&B type track, you try to identify whether there’s a Roland TR-808, TR-909 or TR-727 drum machine on there, and work out how they were processed. Then you create a sound set for the song. If it’s a straightforward rock band we’re spoofing, I’ll be looking at the sort of guitars and amps that were used and working out how they were recorded — what reverb was on them and if they sound very ‘roomy’. Anything that’s a real band, we are out of here mid-afternoon, because we play guitar and piano. Coldplay, for example, is well straightforward.”
Despite the incredibly tight deadlines, the duo very rarely do any pre-production before embarking on a day of recording. According to Matt, the only time he does prepare in advance of a session is when the track being spoofed features a lot of creative synth work. “The Napoleon Bonaparte song is a Skrillex send-up and that’s quite dense, with a lot going on, and so I needed to compile a massive sound set. For that sort of thing I spend an afternoon in advance putting together sounds, otherwise we are pushed to get it done in a day.”
Although Matt and Richie have a variety of guitars and amps at Noisegate, for the vast majority of their recording sessions they look no further than their Line 6 Variax physical modelling guitar, which Matt says is brilliant for their purposes. “It models the pickups and hardware of various guitars, so it’s easy to dial up those esoteric, hollow-bodied jazz guitars that you’re never going to get around to buying, or just to flip between a single-coil thing like a Tele for a piercing lead and a humbucking Les Paul for rhythm tracks. It plays like a Stratocaster, which feels slightly strange when you are making it be a short-scale Casino, but you get over that because sonically it’s so close to the guitars that it emulates.
“The Variax doesn’t have any amplification models inside, so on the computer I have Guitar Rig by Native Instruments. My signal path is an SPL Channel One preamp that goes straight into my PC via an RME HDSPe RayDAT card. So we’ll start by dialling in something that works OK, then once the rest of the track is recorded I have the chance to change the amps or the gain level. When you are starting to record something the tendency is to make the sounds too big because there’s nothing else there, so often you end up backing off the settings a bit.”
Sources that can’t be DI’ed are usually recorded with Matt’s AKG C414s. “The acoustic models on the Line 6 are terrible,” laughs Matt, “and I’d never DI an acoustic guitar, so I record my Takamine EN10C with my AKG C414XLII and C414XLS. The XLS is great if you are putting that in a piano or in front of an instrument and want it to be as natural as possible. The XLII is slightly hyped with a presence peak but if you have both you can try them out. I run those through a Focusrite ISA Two which I also use for things like violin because it’s beautifully clean. I also have my SPL Channel One which has compression and a bit of EQ built into it, so I use that for DI’ing guitars and the Variax.”
For bass, Matt and Richie use a Fender Jazz bass guitar, recorded using the same signal path as the Variax, but processed instead with Guitar Rig’s bass amp models. However, their drum tracks are created entirely in the box, mostly using the suite of kits provided by Native Instruments’ Komplete Ultimate.
“I used to be a big fan of Toontrack EZ Drummer,” recalls Matt, “until Native Instruments released some fantastic libraries for Kontakt. Komplete Ultimate includes everything that Native Instruments make and the drums are superb. It’s got the Abbey Road ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and Modern Studio kits, so if it is an acoustic kit you’re after, you can quickly dial up the appropriate drums for any genre.
“Neither of us play a wind instrument so they are really challenging in terms of trying to sequence, but sometimes we have the budget to get players in and we have a number of those on hand.”
For orchestral work, Matt’s current favourites are the symphonic libraries that are included within Komplete, although occasionally he uses other sources too. “For a long time we used a couple of things from various iterations of Gary Garritan’s Personal Orchestra. That’s so good because of how immediate and processor-light it is. You are able to control how hard things are blown or played with the mod wheel. We used that for a ton of broadcast stuff that involved orchestral instruments. And for a time I was using the exquisitely detailed EastWest orchestral libraries a lot, but you need to have time to use them. The articulations are individual instruments that you load in and that’s a bit of a bore. You get great results with it and I’d use it if I was only doing a small and defined thing, like a string quartet, but otherwise it is a bit of a luxury in our world.
“But increasingly we use the Native Instruments orchestral libraries in Kontakt and the latest version of Komplete includes all of their new symphonic ensembles and solo instruments. It is a lot quicker than EastWest because of the way the articulations are nested within keyswitches, and the way you can map controllers to expression. I started using it a lot when we did a kids’ show called Strange Hill High, where each episode was based on a different genre of TV or film, or a specific film, and we had to turn around so much music. For example, there was one where it was The Day The Earth Stood Still so we had to kind of recreate the soundtrack, and there was a Day Of The Triffids one. So we had to unpack how the music worked in those shows and bring some of that to the underscore of this kids show.
“Generally, I find that rather than trawling libraries for something that’s almost right and having to settle for it because you’re out of time, it’s better to give yourself time to wander out with a microphone and record stuff. It’s fun, you get to tailor-make the sound, it’s unique and you get the right result in a fixed amount of time. For example, we did a Radio 4 comedy drama called Storm Chasers where they were chasing tornadoes in an ice-cream van. It’s difficult to find that exact atmosphere in a library so I borrowed a Transit van and drove it aggressively around the estate and up curbs and had my little Zoom recorder in the back!”
Almost all the Horrible Histories songs are sung to camera by characters from history, which means that the actor or actress playing the lead also has to perform the vocals for the recording. These sessions are supervised by Richie and usually take place in whichever studio is currently being used for dubbing and voiceover work, rather than at Noisegate, although the results are always brought back for Matt to edit. Before the sessions, guide lead vocals are carefully mocked up by Richie and mixed to stereo by Matt, who also provides separate stems for the musical backing track and any vocal harmony parts.
“We send the cast copies of the song beforehand so that they can learn it at home, and Matt will give me separate stems to take to the studio,” explains Richie. “We only get half an hour to do a song, or an hour to do a couple of songs, so I’m usually just after something that’s close enough for Matt to be able to fix in Melodyne. Some people need their hand holding, and we go through line by line doing multiple takes of each. Other people like to do a few warm-ups and then they’re good to go. You just adapt to the performer you are dealing with.”
To help Matt edit the vocal files back at Noisegate, Richie writes on the lyric sheet how many takes were done during the session and highlights the ones he thought sounded acceptable.
“We compile the lead, and if it needs to be tracked, then we compile the tracked version or the harmonies,” says Matt. “It’s best when Richie gets a convincing performance from the actors, even if it’s not necessarily quite in time or in tune, because you can’t change the energy level or how in-character something is, but generally you can tune it and put it in time. Sometimes our backing vocals stay in if it’s not really working with the cast or there’s no time to get them to do it. The most challenging songs are the large ensembles, because the vocals are recorded at different times and inevitably there’s a lack of continuity, so I often end up moving syllables to get people in time.
“Tuning-wise, I’d be lost without Celemony Melodyne. There are some tracks that have been 100 percent rescued with it. It very transparently allows you to change the length of syllables and move things around.”
“Some songs need a lot of work, especially if you are doing current pop stuff, because it’s so massively produced,” continues Richie. “We’re often replicating something that’s had an incredible amount of time spent on it. Obviously these are comedy songs, but Horrible Histories has a reputation now so the production standards are pretty high, and we are getting two days to finish everything including the post-production vocals.”
“That’s where a compromise comes in,” admits Matt. “Anything by Lady Gaga and those kind of singers has a wall of vocals. Quite often there’s hardly anything going on instrumentally, just a little bit of a drum machine, a pad and some ear candy, then the rest of it is enormous vocals, but that’s the most difficult stuff to turn around and make compelling. Even the lead is sometimes double tracked up the middle with a couple of tracks flown out either side, and then you’ve got the BVs to add to that. They’ve all been tuned and put in time and it is not always appropriate to treat a comedy song like that when somebody is in character. You can lose the character performance if you back it up to that degree, so you do an element of it with backing vocals or support it differently with the music.”
The final stages of the vocal editing process happen after the Horrible Histories episode has been filmed and the actors have mimed to the rough mix, as Matt explains. “It’s always best if they are performing to an edit that we have done of their vocals, but it depends on the filming schedule as to whether or not we’ve had chance to do that before shooting, so sometimes they shoot to the guide vocal and I just have to make sure that I line up their studio vocals with Richie’s guide, because at that point I don’t usually have the pictures for reference. Sometimes we find that the audio doesn’t quite fit the final pictures and we have to tweak it slightly. If they are breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera all of a sudden, for example, we might dry that out so that it stands in front of everything else.
“So we get a day to do the backing tracks, anything from a couple of hours to half a day to edit and process the vocals, and then possibly a couple of revisits once we’ve seen the pictures.”
Although many of the Horrible Histories songs present production challenges, Matt and Richie are adamant that they haven’t yet encountered a commission they couldn’t handle. The latest series did, however, require them to create the ‘Music Through Time’ song, which covered at least a dozen different musical styles in less than three minutes!
“In that history of music one there’s an orchestral setup, a big pop band setup, a caveman type setup, plus pop music from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and modern day, so it’s an example of something with multiple setups with completely different sound sets within the project,” says Matt. “That project takes a lot of time to open and that’s a lot of pressure on a DAW. We have to make sure that our workstation is powerful enough to handle that sort of thing, because it is not helpful to have sections of the song submixed if you need to come back and tweak things later on. And with it being so complex, in terms of the on-screen action, the lyrics and the music, it changed a few times and we had to revisit it.”
“And also there’s loads of different people saying things,” adds Richie, “so we had to record at different times and drop it in. It took forever to put together, so that was probably our biggest challenge. Another was the ‘Kings & Queens’ song, which listed every king and queen since William the Conqueror. Just trying to make that work and decide how we were going to do it within the timescale was also a big challenge.”
To cope with projects like the ‘Music Through Time’ song, Matt currently uses a custom Windows i7 PC from Scan Computers, with 12 virtualised cores, six physical cores and 32GB RAM. All mixing duties now take place ‘in the box’, although Matt still has a Mackie 8-bus mixer that sees action when big radio productions require extra preamps. Monitoring is handled by ADAM P33As, which Matt says are very revealing, and the studio’s default sequencer is Steinberg’s Nuendo. As far as plug-ins go, Matt explains: “I love Waves’ Renaissance Bundle and their Classic Compressors, and I love the Noveltech Character which is an enhancer and dynamic EQ. It was originally a Powercore plug-in but now it’s a native plug-in with Plugin Alliance. It has three optimised modes and you can play with your target frequency, and it’s great for livening things up. So my default vocal channel setup is a Waves Parametric EQ, Noveltech Character and a Waves Renaissance Compressor.
“On the mixing bus I tickle things with Waves Renaissance compression and EQ, and if things need to be quite aggressive I use the Waves L2 Limiter. I’m also a big fan of iZotope RX audio repair software for getting rid of noise.”
The working relationship Matt and Richie have built over the years has brought them lasting success in both radio and TV, and is something neither party believes could be replicated with anybody else. Richie has become extremely skilled at composing pastiche songs, while Matt has developed an impressive ability to dissect and reproduce the key elements of song production, and the two together manage to keep to seemingly impossible deadlines. As for the phenomenal success of Horrible Histories, Richie’s opinion is that it has something to do with aiming high.
“We get people to just write funny stuff instead of trying to write comedy specifically for kids, so we don’t dumb it down. But you can’t design that sort of crossover hit — it happens by accident.”
Matt Katz and Richie Webb have worked on a lot of children’s television programmes, and say that the key is to give each one its own distinctive character and sound world. “When we are starting a new project we try to come up with something that gives a program a specific sonic identity that’s instantly identifiable as that world, rather than it just being generic kids’ TV music,” says Matt.
“Teletubbies already had a distinctive sound when we started working on it, so we had to stick to the same kind of sounds that Andrew McCrorie-Shand had originally used,” adds Richie, “although he used a GM-type bottle blow for a lot of his keyboard accompaniment, which we replaced with a sample that we made using an empty bottle of Merlot. We pitched it over four octaves and used it in 120 episodes!
“Another show that I’ve done with Matt is about a gardener called Mr Bloom, which is a big hit on Cbeebies. It was a matter of finding a sound for him that’s quite acoustic but also a bit brassy and a bit messy, really.”
“We got to spend quite a lot of time on the Baby Jake theme tune and did all of the underscore, but the standout thing was the characters’ voices,” continues Matt. “Baby Jake’s friends are actually Richie and myself making silly noises, and Baby Jake is Richie’s nephew. We gave his parents a Zoom recorder when he was 18 month old, and for a month, they recorded what he was saying under the duvet, so it wasn’t too roomy. We chopped that into discrete collections of sounds and syllables, so that things like the names of family members became Baby Jake phrases. We sent them to production company Darrall Macqueen and they decided how to spell the words, put them in a spreadsheet and came up with a translation of Baby Jake’s language. All of his dialogue is drawn from that.
“Our big achievement was picking out phrases that were rhythmical and had a bit of implied melody to them, and re-pitching the occasional one so that it would fit a simple harmonic structure. We used those to make ‘The Yacki Yacki Yoggi Song’, which occurs in the middle of each episode and has had over 147 million views on YouTube.”