High Contrast is one of the leading lights of modern dance music culture. His brand of “gay disco drum and bass”, as he has called it, liberated the genre from the clutches of the copycat badboy producers who sought to make it as macho and dark as possible at the start of 2000.
Over the course of three albums, True Colours, High Society and Tough Guys Don’t Dance, he spread his wings. Graduating from “hot two-bar loops” as the basis for his tracks to much more complex, mature and musical arrangements.
Whilst his varied and textured LPs have shown how jungle can develop across the album format, High Contrast also has lessons to give in the art of the remix. Whether it’s refixing the grime of The Streets, cranking up the sweet soul of Adele, or giving big room treatments to guitar heroes Coldplay, the man also known as Lincoln Barrett seems to have the secret of production alchemy at his fingertips.
We join him now, turning black wax samples into solid gold hits, in his understated studio surrounds, in his native Cardiff.
High Contrast, busy as usual. What are these beats that you’re tinkering with at the moment?
Often I’ll make a track with a gig in mind. So if it’s New Year’s Eve or a special festival somewhere I’ll wanna make a track to play out at that event.
Earlier this year I played at the first big matter London night. It’s a huge two thousand plus capacity place. The design is fantastic and the sound system is amazing. It’s my new favourite club.
So I made a track to open up with at my gig in Matter. It was a quite atmospheric and brooding tune with some techno influences in it, so it was quite a new sound for me. It turned a few heads, and a lot of people have been asking me for that tune.
Sounds tasty, what’s it called?
I’ve got a name for it, but I don’t know if I want to say it because I might change it. The name was influenced by road signs [laughs]. No, it’s not Max Headroom [laughs]. I’ll tell you… it’s actually Adverse Camber [dramatic pause]. There’s just something about it as a term.
I guess you could call my use of language quite Surrealist. Just taking everyday objects and putting them in different situations until they become something quite bizarre. I guess that’s one of the things I like doing, re-contextualising things like that.
Indeed. It’s like the names of your albums. They really don’t fit in with the traditional language of drum and bass. Would you say that you try and theme each album?
My first album didn’t really have a theme. As soon as I made True Colours I had an idea, and High Society came into my head. I pictured it more as a concept album, creating a collection of tunes that had the feeling of commenting on the British class system. This fantasy world of PG Wodehouse, you know? I imagined Toad of Toad Hall racing through the British countryside in a green Jag in tracks like Racing Green [laughs].
But then I quickly realised that you can’t, or I can’t, work too intellectually around music. If you adhere to a concept… it just doesn’t happen that way. Music is too abstract and odd a medium to impose too great a literal narrative over the top. So as soon as I started working on it as an idea, I ended up making tunes like Angels and Fly with a grime MC over the top of it [laughs], which is the complete opposite of the ‘elite society’ vibe I had set out to make.
I thought it would make an interesting concept to have a jungle album about the upper classes. But then the reality was that the tunes I was making didn’t fit into that bracket, so making a concept album was hard. I thought it was better in the end to make tunes that came naturally and from the heart.
With your third album, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, it has a cinematic and Film Noir influence. How did you bring that sound out in your production?
That was the idea. But how much of that comes through in the final product, I don’t know. I think there are cinematic tracks on there. I got that sound by… well, on previous albums the sound was a lot ‘smaller’. On Tough Guys Don’t Dance I was making tunes that sounded bigger and vaster, with more epic structures.
Before I had been more focused on two-bar loops that I would base the entire track around. On Tough Guys Don’t Dance tracks like Metamorphosis, Ghost of Jungle Past, Forever and a Day, Sleepless… they have lots of changes and evolve over time so there is more of an epic nature to things by having them more varied and complex.
Before I was focused on just finding the one hot loop. Now I’m more about finding the changes and figuring out ways to let a track evolve and let it take you on more narrative surprises.
For me the most advanced track I’ve made is Metamorphosis off the last album because it’s constantly changing and ends with the track building up and building up and ending on just pure distortion. So I’m thinking more on these lines now, having an almost storyline to the tracks. So there are more moments.
So when you play out and you’ve got a thousand people with their arms in the air you are creating a beautiful moment in this space, where the music played there might normally be more immediate and obvious. So if you bring some poetry in that will stand out.
Your sound is epic, but your studio is quite modest. Talk us through the set-up you have here.
I keep it as simple as possible. I’m still 99 per cent software based. I do everything on Cubase SX on a G5 Mac. I do it all in Cubase really. Sometimes I use Reason for some of the sounds, that then get rewired into Cubase.
I’ve got a Korg hardware synth I bought as it has a built-in microphone so you can do vocoding, which I’ve always had a bit of a fetish for. Then I’ve just got a basic Edirol MIDI keyboard that I’ve got plugged into the USB to control VST instruments in Cubase. I’ve also got Tannoy Ellipse speakers.
I think monitors are the most important part in a studio set-up. Ideally you’d have a room that is acoustically right-on and with the speakers set-up correctly. The way I’ve always worked is not to necessarily have the monitors set-up and the room acoustically perfect, but set-up to have a relationship with them.
Where you know what sounds good with them with different types of music, and use tracks that you know work in the club and see how they sound on them. That’s the most important thing. As long as you get in tune with the monitor and understand the subtleties of its character, that will give you the true sense of what you are doing when you are making tracks.
The studio is my house in Cardiff… it’s too grand to call it a studio really. For a while I did everything in a laptop, just after True Colours. This room is probably bigger than it should be for an acoustically right studio. It’s just full of old books and dusty records, really [laughs]. I don’t have a live room, or a vocal booth because Hospital Records have got a professional studio set-up in their offices in London. So if I want vocals done we do them there. Tim from an act called Landslide there has also been integral in recording vocalists and different instruments and things for me. I kind of outsource it.
So, no long nights here sweating over a huge buzzing mixing desk then?
No. I have no mixing desk. I had one for a while, but I got rid of it because I never used it [laughs]. I looked really cool though. It had amazing flashing lights on it and it was automated so all the levels could go up and down of their own accord [laughs]. Which was cool to show people, but I actually never ran sound through it. I can’t remember what the hell it was. It was a digital desk made by TASCAM I think. We’d best not talk about it too much or they won’t send me any more equipment [laughs].
So you get sent a lot of free equipment then?
No, no. I’m sure I could pursue it more but I kind of like just ambling along in my own little world, making so with what I have. Some people are all about the new technology, but I just like working with what I’ve got, and knowing what works for me.
In terms of hardware gear, besides the Korg MS-20 Vocoder I’ve got a Proteus 2000, which is quite broken now and that’s it. Hospital have got an impressive looking studio. The first time I went there they had the old big desk and tons of strange tape delays and compressors and tons of stuff that then, in 2001, that they were saying they were using less and less. And now I don’t think they use hardly any hardware, really, as most people.
What plug-ins are you favouring at the moment then?
They’re mostly off people’s websites, direct downloads. I use Massive, Vanguard. The stuff made by Arturia, the CS-80v and the Moog Modular V and things like that. I use Kontakt as well. A lot what I do is from the old records that I find and chop up in the computer. I use Melodyne a lot for re-pitching and time-stretching those samples.
Ahh, schooled in the ancient art of record digging. You still get out much and get your fingers dusty?
I probably haven’t been on a proper digging expedition for a good few years now. When I first started touring The States and Canada and Europe I would come back with another record box full of old tunes, and pick up some just great samples. A lot of the vocals of the second album, High Society, came from those expeditions. But generally I go for things I’ve don’t know about. If I see a soundtrack to a film I’ve never heard before I’ll generally just buy it because it’s so obscure that it’s bound to have something interesting on it.
Of course you end up buying a lot of records that don’t have anything on them, but occasionally you end up finding those gems that make it worth while. Then I started buying job lots of library records from eBay. Small Italian labels and things you wouldn’t know about.
Do you find that you are inspired to produce when you hear modern artists as well?
Recently I’ve been influenced by a lot of techno and electro house tunes, and more of that is synth-based and not so sample-based, so I’ve been dabbling more with Massive and the other VST instruments to get try and get some of the electro synth sound. But I’ve still got a ton of samples sat there waiting for me to sort out into music. I could be sat on samples for ten years until I find the right place for them.
When you’re producing do you try and maintain a stable of plug-ins to have some continuity with your music?
I try not to use the same plug-ins each time, so that the tracks have a different quality to them. Sometimes I’ll make a bass sound or a beat a certain way that I really like, then when I try to make it again I’ll have no idea how I made it [laughs]. So I constantly have to re-invent how I do things. But I try and keep it as simple as possible when I do things. I think if you try and get too technical about things you can kind of kill the genuine creativity in there.
The thing about making drum and bass is that you are having to be the artist and technician at the same time. Which are conflicting rolls. In the past you would have definitely had the recording artist and then the engineer in there as well, in any genre of music. With the rise of the bedroom producer you have to wear both hats. For me I think it’s important to be the artist and not the engineer. I think often people get caught up on the technical side, and engineering it to make it as loud as possible and things. But really, that’s the least important element when it comes to the artistic integrity of the piece.
When are able to produce most lucidly? Perhaps you record solely at night, or for a set number of hours a day?
Rain is always good outside, to set the tone. I often work at night. You can work in the day, there is no general science to it. I consider what I make as ‘night’ music, so I make it at night.
Some people approach producing like a nine to five job. They go in very focused and go ‘right, we are going to make this tune. This is going to be a liquid roller’, or ‘this one is going to be a dance floor smasher’. And they are very on the nose about it. Whereas the way I work is kind of out the corner of my eye. I don’t go in saying I’m gonna make a smasher. I just mess around and keep it fun, and I listen to other types of music.
Maybe I’ll be sat there listening to classical. Then I’ll be playing a Chopin piano piece on the keyboards. Then I’ll be listening to Bollywood disco or something. Or I’ll watch a movie, or just start reading a book and get inspired to produce a track.
It’s almost like the art of making something without knowing you’re doing it. You might look up and realise that you’ve got a tune up and running, but how you got to that point, you don’t really know. It’s just trial and error. You play around with things. I don’t like to approach it too mechanically.
When it comes to mastering, who handles the mechanics of that?
That gets done Metropolis Mastering, which is the best mastering house there is. There’s a guy there called Stuart Hawkes, who is the don of drum and bass. His ears are so in tune, he knows how to get it sounding great on vinyl. The thing is that he’s got hundred thousand pound monitors there, so it’s best to leave it to him. I might do some slight mastering myself to give it the sort of sense of the impact I’m going for.
A lot of people are mastering themselves now and just maxing out their tunes so much, so when you open it up in a wave editor there are no dynamics, it’s just a solid block of sound. I think that’s a real shame that it’s gone this way. Dynamics are so pleasing to the ear, and that’s how you can get a real impact on your tune when it drops. A solid block just doesn’t have that. There is no contrast, so I’m just not that into it.
As a man who travels the globe DJing you must have developed a way to keep producing on the move?
I haven’t really produced on the road when I’m touring for a few years now. I often found that you’d never get that much done working away on a laptop. It’s just too fiddly on a laptop mouse. And doing it on headphones, it just doesn’t sound right so I knocked it on the head. The way I work is that I’ve got to get into the mood. I kind of need to be on my own and focused and it’s hard to do that if you are on the move or in an airport somewhere.
What’s your secret for making a great remix of another artist’s track?
I’ve done The Streets, Coldplay, Kanye West… The thing for me is that every track I make, in my head, is a remix. I don’t see myself as a musician, I just see myself as an editor of sounds, whether it’s an original track of mine or a remix.
Everything I do is riffing on something, whether it’s a sound I’ve heard or an idea I come across. That is the true nature of art, that something is based on what came before it. There is no true original artwork. Nothing is created in a vacuum. Things came before it.
Doing a remix is just like making a tune, but they’ve taken the hard part out of the equation, which is finding the hot sample in the first place [laughs]. Doing a remix is fun. They’ve already given you the hot loop to start with. Then you just take it from there. Making an original tune is just about trying to find the sample yourself. Or that’s how it is in my head.
My favourite remix is one of the early ones I did, the Future Sound of London Papua New Guinea bootleg. That did a lot for me with people like Grooverider and Andy C playing it out. People still ask for it off me today.
So that was when you were first coming through. But who are the ones to watch now on the drum and bass scene? And are you bringing anyone up?
The Brookes Brothers are good. They’re guys I’ve been supporting for a number of years, so it’s good to see them doing well. There are some other guys called Sigma that sent me a tune called Paint It Black. They had sent it to Hospital but they hadn’t got back to them about it. But I passed it on to Annie Mac at Radio 1 and she loved it and played it and then the next thing Hospital singed it. So I like doing my ‘under the radar’ A&R [laughs].
I guess I like the stuff along my lines. Sample-based, funky, uplifting drum and bass. There are also some guys called Nero that have this real pumped-up, dance floor smasher production technique that are also making some quite housey, funky drum and bass at the same time. They are definitely ones to watch. They’ve made some really interesting music. It’s melodic and aggressive at the same time, so it’s really great to play at big events.
You came out of the Cardiff scene when there wasn’t one. It’s like High Contrast was year dot for that. Have you left the door open for others to follow?
Dan Marshall is doing well in Cardiff now. He’s had quite a few releases and his name’s building. He’s got quite a breadth to his sound so he can cover a lot of styles of music. There are a lot of good guys coming out of Cardiff who are producing now and putting stuff out.
When I was coming through there was no one else. There was no real community of people. Whereas now there is a whole bunch of them, so that’s good to see. The guys now are probably more technically proficient than I am. The bedroom producers now are so in tune with the technology that comparatively I’m lo-fi, but that’s how I like it really.
Your style has become a lot larger in scope and vibe since you began producing. Has finding a global audience encouraged you to make bigger music?
Having a big audience now does affect your style. It’s definitely affected my DJing style. Before when I was just a resident playing in a small club I would play smaller tunes. Now I’m drawn to bigger sounding tunes because they are bigger spaces and they need bigger sounds to fill them, and I guess that has filtered over into my production.
OK, finally, what advice would you give to aspiring producers that want to tread a path like yours?
The key thing is to make stuff that doesn’t sound like anyone else. A lot of the time people are making tunes that are mimicking other drum and bass. Which is what I did when I first started, trying to make Bad Company rip-offs. But it’s only when you get into a zone where you find your voice.
Some people can make a career of copying other people, but you can only go so far. You have to find your own unique voice.