Considering that his prior albums derived their essential sounds from human skin, hair and bones (Bodily Functions, !K7, 2001); big-band jazz (Goodbye Swingtime, Accidental, 2003); and food packaging (Plat Du Jour, Accidental, 2005), many have wondered how Matthew Herbert could possibly top himself. Scale (!K7, 2006) answers the challenge by taking 100 incremental steps forward and one stylistic leap back.
“In a way, Scale is a soulful, experimental pop record,” Herbert says from a Tribeca hotel, “one of those records I would like people to enjoy for what they think it is. And then in 20 years, they'll realize it is really the sound of someone being sick outside a dinner for a London arms fair.”
Scale is a soul-pop extravaganza, with lush R&B vocals wrapped around steaming house beats and strings worthy of '70s soul group MFSB. A distinct left turn from Herbert's more experimental and frequently outrageous work, Scale puts you in the mind of some '70s disco dancefloor where the Bee Gees and The Trammps are the featured performers, not a gang of vinyl-welding, nerdish DJs.
But beneath its slick vocals and driving funk beats is perhaps the most unusual production cast ever assembled for any record. Scale has acoustic drums recorded in the ocean, in a hot-air balloon and from the back seat of a speeding car. It also has percussion created from 12 different types of coffin lids and bass drums fashioned from cereal boxes. Phone messages, jet fighters, meteorites, toy soldiers and a parrot can all be heard on Scale, as well as a large orchestra, jazz musicians and someone “being sick.”
Using an Apple Mac G5 with Logic Pro 7, EMT 156 PDM compressor, EMT 252 reverb, Manley Massive Passive EQ, Akai S612 samplers and a Nagra V location recorder, Herbert hit the road for his freak sounds. “For one track, I just rubbed mud and worms and Froot Loops cereal boxes together,” Herbert explains. “A miked-up kick drum is just capturing the rapid movement of air. So all you are doing is re-creating that sound in a different way. If you get the mic close enough to anything, bass is not the problem, actually; metallic rings are. One sound you won't find on this record is ride cymbals. But kicks and snares and mid-crunch is no problem. I wasn't getting quite the sub I needed, so I also layered a Logic Ultrabeat sub in there.”
The son of a BBC studio manager, Herbert is apparently tired of anything old school, preferring the bizarre and barmy to the ordinary. His mission to capture live drums is a case in point.
“I am bored with drums,” he moans. “You can hit anything, so why would you hit the same thing as everyone else? We recorded a small set in a hot-air balloon at 2,000 feet with my Lomo 82A-12Y3 mic and the Nagra. Up there, the sound has nowhere to go. There are no reflections. The sound just goes out so it is incredibly dry-sounding and raw. For the drums recorded in the ocean, I commissioned some hydraphones, and we took an old drum kit and just walked into the sea. And we recorded drums [while traveling] at 100 mph in the back of my car using an Audio-Technica mic, then looped the beat.”
An original thinker, Herbert's need to push the edge goes beyond recording techniques to attacking modern technology. He takes the long view toward digital and finds it wanting.
“Digital is an absolute joke,” he proclaims. “It is sold as this perfect re-creation of art, but why does one CD player sound completely different than the next one? How come one hard drive sounds different from the other? At the moment, it sounds like we have reached the optimum sound balance where every frequency is perfectly represented, and maybe in some way that is true, but in music we don't want every frequency represented. Digital is just another way of recording, and it has its benefits and also its downside. It should not be sold as the last word. It is impossible when you are making records now to know how they will sound in 10 years.”