Artist Tips - Max Cooper Details Five Ways to Focus Your Artistic Vision and Tighten Up Your Productions
Max Cooper is a quiet artist. While some producers garner acclaim that's based as much on their personas as their tunes, Cooper has been content to hone his craft and steadily build a following by issuing a stream of cinematic, glitch-infused creations. In recent years, his output has occasionally been lumped in with that of the "bass music" crowd, but the UK producer's reach extends much further than that, and his freshly released debut LP, Human, is even prompting comparisons to the likes of Jon Hopkins and Pantha du Prince. Of course, some of these similarities can be traced to the fact that, much like those revered artists, Cooper is someone who more or less lives in the studio. His productions are precise, mutilayered, and full of nuance, which makes him an excellent candidate for our Artist Tips series. When asked to share a bit of his knowledge, he chose to focus on maintaining clarity, both of artistic vision and sound itself.
Beware of the wild goose chase.
The electronic music scene now is an amazing thing—new genres, fashions, fads, and ideas are constantly evolving, blowing up, disappearing, and being reinvented in shorter than ever timeframes. It's an exciting thing to get involved with, but there are also dangers—people blow up one month, and seem to disappear another, with music being treated like some sort of disposable item.
If your sole aim is to DJ in packed clubs, then making the most fashionable music is a logical thing to do, but with some scenes coming and going so quickly, too tight an association with a particular scene can mean a career is short lived. Or even worse, you can get stuck with a long career making one type of music that you don't even really like!
People seem to have such strong opinions on what music is great and what is crap too, without much consideration for the fact that music is something subjective—if you like it, it's good to you, whether or not someone else agrees. So if you're trying to follow what is fashionable and what people think, you can easily end up on a bit of wild goose chase, losing sight of what is important and what might actually generate meaning and longevity musically. What do you actually like? What really makes you feel something? What makes you want to dance? What makes you want to throw up? What makes you passionate about music? If you can identify those things and work with them, I think it gives the best chance of making something special.
Fill the frequency range.
Most people want their tracks to be loud and fat, and compression is a standard answer. But a lot of my older tracks have no standard compression, just a small amount of limiting (a particular form of compression that won't let the signal past a particular dB value) on the master channel, and a frequent use of sidechain compression in a subtle manner to make one sound duck around another. When you have the right choice and design of elements, a track can be punchy and loud without needing much normal compression. I do often compress the drum or hat bus now and rogue elements like field recordings which aren't possible to tame otherwise, but the old pains of how to get tracks loud enough has disappeared with the learning of what sorts of sounds will combine to fill the frequency range, how to shape and layer sounds properly (such as by adding short click versions of synths at higher octaves to increase their cutting through the mix), use of sidechain compression for clearing space for any punchy sounds, and by the frequent use of subtle saturation/distortion on individual elements to boost overtones and fill the range further without noticeably changing their character.
Probably the most common issue with demo tracks I receive is that the sounds chosen don't cover the frequency range (from around 30/40Hz up to around 20KHz) properly, but that's also because it's a very hard thing to get right. It just takes a lot of listening and analysis time to get your ears tuned in properly to be able to spot what might be missing and how to choose the right sounds. But you can certainly aid the process by A/Bing your mixes compared to other tracks you like, and looking at both mixes in a spectral analyzer to see if you can spot any differences.
Sort out your bass troubles.
We hear music on a logarithmic scale, with bass frequencies separated by 10s of Hz, mids separated by 100s, and highs separated by 1000s, roughly speaking. That may be part of the reason why bass needs such careful attention, as there's less bandwidth for separate elements to sit in, and we can really hear when things are interfering with one another—the bass elements need to be clean and simple. Obviously, a lot of work goes into bass elements, but a lot of the character you can hear in different tracks is more a result of the higher bass and mid frequencies giving basslines their timbre—the low frequencies alone are usually simple.
I'm probably one of the worst offenders for trying to cram too much information into my bass frequencies, and with the wrong system or acoustics, I've made some pretty weird noise in the past. There are a few things you can watch out for. Firstly, again, coverage of the frequency range is important, starting from around 30/40Hz at the lowest. It's handy to have your kick and bass elements creating a few peaks up to around 200Hz—often you can layer a duplicate octave up of a bassline without much of a noticeable change in character to fill a higher peak if needed. Or, if the fundamental frequency is too high, pitch the bassline down an octave. It's very useful to check your bass peaks in a spectral analyzer, and compare to other tracks too, particularly ones you think sound great on club systems, to see how they've set up the relative loudness of each bass peak and where they sit.
Anything which regularly sweeps the bass frequency range is very handy, as it's bound to hit the sweet spot for any venue. That's why all of that sweeping bassline techno always sounds fat, even if you don't like it. If you look at a kick, most have a range of frequencies across their short timespan too, which is the same reason why kicks come through on all systems so well and are so fundamental to standard dance music. Sidechaining bass elements to one another is a useful way of clarifying each element, and there's no need to make it noticeably pump. I like the fast-release sidechaining, which forms a tight pocket around each hit and just adds a lot of punch without much of a noticeable change to the element being compressed. You should hi-pass filter every element in your track which isn't specifically a bass element; this will tidy up any stray lows that you hadn't noticed, and ensure you've got a low end to work with that's as simple as you want. And of course, separating different bass hits in either time or frequency is a basic way of ensuring clarity down there.
Sometimes I sit there for ages working on a particular melody or synth patch, eventually landing on something I think is good. I carry on with the track for more hours, days, or weeks, but I often get this little niggling feeling in the back of my mind that something isn't quite right with the element, or maybe even the whole track. That usually means it's crap, and it needs to be thrown out. But after working on something for a long time, it can get very hard to do that, and somehow, the time investment starts to cloud over the quality assessment. It's not easy to do, but no matter how long you've worked on something, you have to be prepared to throw it away and start fresh. I find that when something is really right, it keeps feeling really right, and you have to fight for that if you want to keep the quality up.
A big part of the problem is that after listening to the same loop for 50 hours or something, you sort of go a bit mad, and having any type of good objective judgement goes out the window. That's why I have to rely on these little subconscious thoughts giving me an inkling that something isn't quite right, as all of my conscious thoughts are long gone into the infinite, loop-induced stupidity. Leaving a track for a few days and coming back to it usually helps a lot, but of course, sometimes you have to get something done sooner than that.
I know that some people take a view that if something isn't feeling totally right and flowing and all coming together seemingly without effort (usually the signs of a good piece of music), then they just bin it. But personally, I find that good pieces can come from a hard grind as well, leading to my next point.
Persevere like an infinite monkey.
If you have a strong opinion on what music you do and don't like (and most people do), then you can ignore all the points above, because perseverance is the only other thing you need to make good tracks. All you need to do is sit at your computer, randomly changing things in your DAW until the hit tune comes about by chance. It might take a few decades, but in practice, after the first few weeks and months, you start to learn how to make shortcuts. The important point is, getting to any decent standard of writing/producing music takes fucking ages, and you have to put in the time—unless you've got a load of spare cash to pay ghostwriters and engineers, but where's the fun in that?