Max Cooper - The RFB Interview
20 May 2013
RFB spoke to the London producer about vocalists, soft synths, and Maplins mics.
Photo: Josh Hall
Max Cooper's music is, above all, satisfying. There is a heft to it; a captivating chunkiness that translates into a feeling of fullness somewhere around the chest. If it had a synonym, it would be not a word but a noise: 'ooft'.
Over the course of more than a dozen EPs Cooper has burrowed himself into the fertile space in which kick drum bulk and aeriform mood music cohabit. His well received mixes see the producer and DJ oscillate between Tim Hecker and Lusine, between Hot Chip and Amon Tobin, pulling out the threads that tie together artists whose relationship would otherwise be defined by their disparity.
With a new EP out on London label Fields and an album in the works, Cooper is busier than he has ever been. We sat down with the Londoner to talk about vocalists, soft synths, and Maplins mics.
How long has music been a full-time occupation for you?
About three years. I was doing genetics before that. I went into research. I really enjoyed doing science research, and I would have been happy to make that a career. But in the end I was doing both things, and it was just a matter of seeing which one worked first. And it happened to be music.
I'd been slogging for manny years before that point. I was really poor, and didn't have enough money to pay the bills. But sometimes you need that to really focus you. It was very hard. Making good music is very difficult, but anything worthwhile is difficult.
That's interesting - some musicians claim it comes easily.
I'd be surprised if those people haven't put in a lot of work beforehand. Once you've got years of experience behind you, then it can come quite naturally. The best tracks seem to come together without much effort. It just fits and works, and you don't know where it's come from. But I'd be surprised if there are people out there who have no experience in making music, and can then just sit down [and do it]. Purely the technical side of it, actually using the software, and knowing about the sound engineering, the physics of the sound. You've got to know a lot of basic theory to make something sound professional enough to be releasable.
Is the theory side something you're quite preoccupied with?
Not really, funnily enough. I've never really read or dealt much with the theory. I've done it mainly by trial and error. I've got good friends who make music and I get tips off them, but I've never really delved too deeply into the proper way of doing things. It's good to do it like that, because the more you develop your own approach the more you get your own sound.
Do you feel as if your sound is defined by the equipment you use?
It's definitely defined more importantly by how you use the equipment. There are so many ways of doing things, that if you learn your own way you'll come out sounding a little bit different to the next person.
My favourite way of working is having some sort of abstract concept, which I can then apply to everything. It doesn't need to be musical at all - it can be a picture or a feeling, or something technical. Then I'm just going through lots of ideas and seeing what fits. Playing with the synths, trying different types of instruments.
Tell me about the concept for 'Numb'.
That was quite a simple concept really. I had some glitchy drums that I was playing with. I had a deep bassline, and I wanted to make something that was quite intense. Numbingly intense, potentially, and quite melancholy, but with a bit of a big club feel as well. Kathrin De Boer, the vocalist, came along, and I explained the basic idea of what I was going for. I played the loops, and she just sang completely improvised. It was a kind of raw feeling of what she was getting from the track. I was supposed to take what she'd done, and then pick out the bits I liked, and then send them back to her for her to write lyrics to. But in the end, when I started putting what she'd done onto my framework, it just seemed to work. I just layered up the live improvisations. We didn't bother going down the lyrical route. It was more just to keep that pure feeling she got the first time she heard the music.
Was that the first time you'd worked with a live vocalist in the studio?
Exactly. I'd worked with vocals before, but never like that. In the past it's always been that I would send a framework, and then someone would do vocals in their studio and send them back, or someone would send me some vocal parts and I would chop them up and build things around them. It was the first time I'd worked in that way.
And presumably that renders its own set of challenges.
I think it's the best way of doing it. It seems to be the least challenging way in one sense, because the vocals get made as best the vocalist can to fit what you've done. So there was less work for me to do afterwards. It just seemed to fit. Obviously there are always challenges to get it to sound good, and I guess one of the key ones is the actual challenge of recording the vocals properly. You really need a proper vocal booth, with complete sound isolation and a great microphone. My studio setup is made for electronic music; it's not made for live recording. Surprisingly, actually, it seemed to work with my not very high end setup. I've just got this crap mic that I bought in Maplins in like 2002, for £12 or something. Kathrin sang into it, and it sounded amazing. Actually I mentioned that to Jon Hopkins recently, and he said he really likes the Maplins mics. Maybe there are some hidden gems there.
Has your studio setup evolved over time, or has it stayed relatively fixed?
The thing I've put most effort into has been the acoustics. Getting good monitors, and a good acoustic space. I've got my little booth, which is heavily treated with bass traps and panelling. But in terms of the equipment I use, I don't have any analogue gear - no synths or analogue compressors or anything. Synths are very expensive, and I also don't know that much about them. At some point I'd like to go down that route, but at the minute I think there's so much to explore in the computational side of things. I'm still swamped by all these things I haven't tried.
But saying that, what I'm doing at the moment, instead of going down the analogue route, is doing a lot of field recordings and working with vocalists. I've been working with a classical composer called Tom Hodge. He's playing some piano and recording some live strings, so I'm bringing in a lot more real elements into the music without going down the analogue route. There's other ways of doing it. Maybe I just keep putting it off. But the more time goes on, the better the emulations get.
Any particular favourite soft synths at the minute?
One of my favourites is a really basic, simple synth in Ableton called Operator. It's just an FM synth, which is very easy to use. I just start with a blank canvas and I can build the sound from scratch pretty quickly. That's good for workflow, because when you're writing a track the worst thing is if you're dealing with a big complex synth and you lose the idea of the track. You just get lost in the technicalities of sound synthesis. I find it's important during the writing to be able to work very quickly with whatever synths you're using, and I find Operator is great for that. So a lot of the time I'll write with that, then I'll go back and replace it later.
I use Absynth a lot, which is good for bringing in that more complex, computational sound. Razor is a nice synth as well, from Native Instruments.
You can plot so many musicians' careers through their Native Instruments acquisitions.
Yeah! Native Instruments stuff seems to be pretty standard for a lot of people. They do great stuff, so you can't really argue.
Have you explored the idea of building your own instruments?
I have actually. I use a bit of Max MSP, which is a language that you can build synths in, or any other electronic music modules. I've had a fiddle with it, and the potential is there, but it's the sort of thing I'd need to spend six months focusing on building up my capacity to work with. I use it a lot in writing my tracks, but mainly through the user-built plugins that come with it. They're really useful for enhancing the capabilities of [Ableton] Live.
In what sense do they enhance them?
It's generally great for generating complexity and weird noises, which are two things that I love. Probably my favourite thing about it is the API tools. They don't make any noises as such, but they allow you to modulate loads of parameters. Basically, you can take your whole track and make every parameter in it wobble around. It just generates mayhem. One of my favourite ways of working is to generate mayhem and then pick the good bits out of it.
Is that reflected in your live set?
It is, in the sense that I use lots of audio renders of bits of controlled randomness, lots of glitchy bits, and I like to deconstruct things into a bit of a mess and then pull it back to something more coherent. It's reflected in the live sets in the sound coming out of the speakers, but it's not reflected in the processing going on. I do use Max for Live in my live set, but not for that. When you do it in the studio it generates chaos, and most of the chaos is rubbish. You don't really want to have that in a live show.
Is there much of an improvisational element when you play live?
I never pre-plan a show. I have maybe 200 tracks in my Ableton setup for my live show, and I set it up in a way that I can mix between two tracks at any time. I play it like a DJ set. I like to see what the vibe is, and play a different set each time. Build a set like I would as a DJ, rather than a standard live set where I would have a preplanned order, and spend your time tweaking and taking in or out drums. I don't do any of that. I do more global set design. I take tracks and I layer on extra glitchiness and extra effects, and focus on the big stuff rather than going into the details of each track, which keeps it more fun for me. I feel like the most important thing is making the best show I can, and for me that's the best way I can do that.
Do you approach the recorded mixes in the same way?
The Resident Advisor one, or the Decibel one - the ones where it's a DJ set rather than my own music - those ones are ones where I've taken all the tracks, and sat down in Ableton and fiddled round with them, and put lots of effort into working out the track order. It's not a live jam, basically. Those are carefully thought out, fiddled with sets, whereas the club shows are much more improvised. Especially with the DJ sets, like the RA one or the British Museum one, those ones are always sets where I'm trying to throw together lots of different genres that won't necessarily fit, so I have to try it out first because otherwise it would be potentially a lot of clashes.
How did the British Museum one develop? And how long did it take?
The thing that took the longest was working out where to do it. Magnetic Magazine had this idea of sounds in spaces, where you make a mix somehow related to a space. I thought that sounded really interesting, so I was trying to figure out where in London I could do it. I was at the British Museum for a photoshoot, and I'd spent a lot of time there as well. When I was doing my post-doc at UCL I used to walk down there and hang out there. I realised it had a beautiful ambient noise, and was full of all these interesting things which I could tie to music. Luckily I had my binaural mics with me, and my little recorder, so I just spent some time in there recording sounds and walking around, and came up with lots of ideas. I went home and scoured the internet for any old music I could tie into the exhibits in the museum - similar regions, time periods. I built up this big catalogue of old music, then pulled out more modern stuff that I thought would fit. Then I had this big folder of a couple of hundred tracks, and it was a matter of playing round with them and seeing what would fit with what. Once I had the idea and all the music there, it didn't take too long. Probably three or four days.
Did you have an idea of the overarching aesthetic before you started?
Yeah. I knew that I wanted to start the mix with the ambient noise in the British Museum. That gave me a sort of starting point of what the vibe should be. From there it was a matter of building it from that first idea. That's usually the way I'll work with a mix like that. I'll have some idea of what I want to include, and then it's just a matter of running it from start to finish. So I might have little sub-sections where I know this track will fit with this, but it's then a matter of working out the best intro, the vibe, what will run nicely after this. Obviously with those things I try to push things a little bit, and do some unexpected things, but it's still thinking about that flow and how it will fit.
Do your mics travel with you wherever you go?
I do often bring them out with me. It's nice to end up somewhere random and capture some sound.
Is that something you've been doing more of late?
I've only had them for a year and a half. Since I bought them I've been travelling around with them a lot, trying to pick up sounds wherever I can. I still haven't explored the potential of it yet. I'm just building up a catalogue really, and trying ideas out. But there's a huge potential for enhancing material with those field recordings.
You've talked about collecting sounds while you travel. Presumably travelling has become an increasingly important part of your life.
I really enjoy travelling, luckily. I love seeing new places. People think very differently in different parts of the world. They approach life differently. They worry about different things, and different things make them happy and different things make them sad. It's really interesting, getting that perspective. It's quite refreshing sometimes.
Do people tend to approach life in more appealing ways abroad, do you think?
Not necessarily. For sure people have better mindsets in other countries in a lot of ways, but I haven't found anywhere yet where I'm like, I want to leave London and go and live in this other place. The UK is a pretty good place. Obviously people here would never want to admit that, but we have it pretty good here in a lot of ways.
Do you anticipate finding somewhere that you want to move to?
Probably not. The other thing is that some of the places I have found, which would be tempting for me to move to, are places where it would be very difficult for me to work from. Anywhere in Europe I could settle in easily enough, because most of my work is in Europe. Every weekend you can go from anywhere in Europe to anywhere else, pretty much. But for example San Francisco is a great city, but I just wouldn't be able to travel from there to Europe every weekend. It would just kill me.
The only thing I don't like is when I'm at home and I'm getting some work done, and then I've got to go again. That's the thing that annoys me. There's no routine. That's quite unsettling. But I'm getting used to writing music on planes and sleeping on flights, and just generally having a bit of a disrupted lifestyle.
Are you working on an album?
Yes. I've been working on an album for a long time, but it's slowly coming together into hopefully the finished format. It's been fun. I wanted to experiment with things that I couldn't do with the dancefloor EPs. I wanted to escape that, and do whatever weird stuff I wanted. Which I did, and then I came up with this collection of tracks which didn't really fit together. So I went back to it, and I'm trying to get it into some more succinct format. It's been an ongoing thing for a long time. It's the first time I've done it. I guess the second time round I'll approach it very differently, and get it done a lot quicker.
What would you do differently the second time round?
The key thing for me would be to set aside three months or four months and only work on that, so all the music is consistent. It's like a snapshot of the music I'm doing at a certain period in time, and should therefore fit together. Whereas what I've got now, I've been working on it for so long that i've got different parts and different ideas, I'm basically wasting a lot of work. It's not a very efficient way of working.
Have the EPs you've released during that period been written as self-contained records, or have they come out of the album writing process?
The EPs generally work as self-contained units. I'm really used to that format. It will generally start with one or two ideas, and I'll build an EP around that. It's a format that I've done for years, and I'm really used to that way of working. And that's why the album has thrown me, I guess, because I'm just not used to it. I need to learn a new way of writing music, I suppose.
Is the album format a freer way of working?
Creatively, definitely. The EPs I do are released on vinyl for dance music sales. So you have to think about what's going to work in a club, and that puts a lot of constraints on what you do. Although saying that, Traum, who I've done a lot of releases with, they're very good in the sense that as long as there are one or two club tracks on there I can have room to experiment. But the album is ideally more of a listening project.
Do you have a time limit?
I need to have it finished in the next couple of months. It needs to be finished early summer. A release early next year, I think. But I hate talking dates with it, because it's been going on for so long. But I'm going to get it finished very soon, and as best I can, and then move onto the next one.