Max Cooper has long maintained a curiosity and deep appreciation for sonic aesthetics and the minutia of sound perception. Through a constant bid to translate this from a personal interest into his work, Cooper has earned well deserved plaudits for his majestic electronic productions. With a sound that crosses endlessly back and fourth through the membranes defining techno and electronica, Max’s beautiful brand of electronic music leaves the body in a state of dissonance, not knowing whether to move or simply sit back and admire. Max’s ideas of musical interaction extend far beyond music itself however, using his PhD in Computational Biology to help form the bewitching visuals in his live show. To understand a little more about what happens between the head and the hands, we visited Max’s studio to talk tech, science and sound.
On the morning we met Max in his London studio, he was preparing for his much acclaimed ‘Emergence’ audio-visual show later that week, so we were lucky enough to get the full works. We were led up to a cozy but tidy attic room filled with cables, vinyl, an Ableton-loaded monitor and many a foam panel. Not five minutes had passed and we had been well versed on basic acoustics in studio setup design, specifically the science behind reducing a room’s low frequency resonances. So immediate was our lesson in response to our curious pleasantries (with an additional demonstration), we almost forgot to hit record.
Your interests in psychoacoustics and 3D sound design have seen you produce all kinds of music that lead one away from the dance floor. How much of these principles do you apply to your music and do you find it can be appreciated when you’re simultaneously trying to get the audience to move?
Yeah I use a lot of psychoacoustic effects in all my tracks, mainly for when people are listening at home wearing headphones; you don’t really get those effects in the club just big bass elements, different rhythms. The fidelity of the sound isn’t high enough to get those effects across. You can definitely get the spaciousness of reverb in clubs, but the psychoacoustic stuff you definitely need headphones on because you need to separate the signals out. This way you can basically trick your brain into thinking that signals are coming from behind for example. In a club a signal is coming from behind gets filtered by the ear; coming from the front it will interact with the ear differently and they also interact with your head and your jaw. Through headphones all these signals get integrated into the sound and your brain figures out where the sound is coming from giving you the feeling of a three dimensional spacial sound environment. That’s what you can recreate with binaural effects either with recording, or electronically with spacial effects.
How would you record the effects?
I have these little binaural microphones that I record with. They’re basically little mics that go inside the ear and you can actually record real sounds from inside the ear. That means it captures how the sounds interact with the ear and head, so when you play it back with headphones you get the effect of actually being in that place and that’s what I actually did with this track (‘Origins‘) using the Sansula (see below).
The good thing about these is that you can wear them about in town capturing sounds in their natural form and people won’t ever know you’re recording. They just think you are listening to something else. So a lot of the time when I travel, I walk around different places capturing stuff then use it. There was a big building site across the road which I went to the other week and captured these mad machine noises.
Then there are a lot of ways of recreating space electronically using different plug-ins and simple effects, for instance sticking a delay on with a few milliseconds difference in the left and right. I’m not really sure what happens psychologically because the delay wouldn’t really happen naturally but it just gives this feeling of wideness.
Everyone uses stuff like that, they use stereo widening and similar, but some people really take it to an extreme and make it a feature. I love that sort of music, the sort that wraps you up and makes you feel like you’re inside some sort of new world and there are all these things happening.
In terms of sound quality in your music, would you say this holds as much importance for you in the more dance-orientated material you make?
Yeah definitely, I don’t really write music just for clubs. I have done but rarely. Most of the time I’m trying to make something either just for listening or that will work in a club also. So I’ll try and do my best getting the space and putting a lot of work into that stuff.
Do you feel your scientific background influences the way you approach your music making?
I guess, when you learn how to do research you learn how to direct your own learning. You have to figure out a way of approaching a new subject that other people may or may not know about and you figure out your own way of learning and developing your self in that area. That would be the main thing that I took away from research. I didn’t have any production or musical training I just experiment with things and play around and try and learn as much as I can. So that’s my general application I guess.
Another way of looking at it as well, is that my research was all sat in front of a computer playing around with abstract systems, making simulations of those systems and learning about them. Making music is quite similar. Each piece of music is sort of a system, where there are different interlinking parts that have to function as a whole and fit naturally together. There are rules, obviously you know chords and melodies and things that have mathematical structure with ratios and dynamics and these you build the music with. Scientific systems are the same, except you break it down and quantify into numbers, whereas with music its more just by feeling. There is a lot done in science by feeling as well where you can’t quantify; you have to have a feeling for how these things work, of what might be right or wrong or what to try and music is very much the same.
Then in terms of the ‘Emergence’ show, that’s a direct application of scientific ideas, taking these ideas, visualising them and making a show out of that. But that is more in the visuals than it is in the music, the music is made more to fit.
It doesn’t sound like your scientific brain or the mechanical way of thinking developed from science restricts you in any way at all?
No not at all. Science and particularly what I was doing can be really creative. You have to have both sides, which is the same for everything. Some science can be really dry and there isn’t much creativity but thats not the science I was interested in, there were always lots of unknowns and everyday I was having to think of new ways of being creative. That’s the science I enjoyed.
But actually with music – electronic especially – there is a lot of technical stuff. It gets pretty crazy actually. I haven’t even delved into all of it, I use Max for Live a lot but when you get into building Max patches and designing your own software then it’s computer science. That’s really technical.
So essentially building your own hardware?
Exactly, and if you go down the modular route that side of thing is as technical as science. Well it basically is the science of sound synthesis.
Before you started to familiarise yourself with hardware, did you start off on Ableton?
Pretty much. I tried Cubase messing around with a few bits for a couple of months but I didn’t really know what I was doing and then I moved over to Ableton and found it a lot easier. Ableton is just a lot more user friendly, a lot of drag and drop stuff. Cubase may well be a lot easier now, but that was like ten years ago.
So when did you start to bring in more analog sound to your setup?
Probably about a year or two ago. I’d done everything digitally for such a long time, which had been great, but I wanted to try something new. There is just so much out there with music software and hardware, you can never really scratch the surface with either one of them. I just wanted to feel like I had given the digital thing a go and learnt the software a bit, and only when I felt like I had got a decent understanding of that did I then start to play with analog stuff. Then it’s also partly because analog synths are so expensive, so I concentrated with the acoustics in my setup and then music videos, that was the one thing I always put my money into.
Could you talk us through the set up here? Is there anything you a hold more sentimental value to than others?
Yeah, so I guess we’ll start with the battered old synths, this one (pointing to the Yamaha DX7) basically does Mariah Carey power ballads. It was one of the first digital synths and was literally used in those old Mariah Carey tunes. Then this Poly800 Korg is the other synth I mess around with; they’re a couple of digital synths so not true analog but they make lot of cool old school electronic sounds and are just for experimenting with, not the core.
Did you pick them up cheaply?
Yeah I picked them up pretty cheaply, this one has a big dent in it (referring to the Yamaha). I use them every so often whereas the ones on this side I use them all the time.
So the Sub 37 Moog, this is my favourite synth definitely. Super fat, really nice to use and it just feels really satisfying to interact with. It’s especially great for bass lines because it makes really big sounds and strong leads in places. It’s a fun synth, but it can only play two notes at the same time. So if I want to play chords then I use the Prophet ’08, I use that a lot also for pads and it’s a lot more complex as you need a lot of routing. But those are my main two. Then this Moog Minitaur I use quite a lot for bass, it’s just a bass synth. Then I have my Focusrite Scarlett audio interface which has got a load of inputs and outputs which is handy because I don’t actually have a mixing desk. At some point I should get one but at the moment I’m jut about managing. Then I have a load of pedals, I’m really into my distortion pedals.
Do you play guitar at all?
No I just run synths through them, it’s really fun and you can get sounds out of them that are just different. I use a lot of guitar rig, saturator and different types of simulated distortion but the sound you can get out of real distortion pedals…I don’t know what it is, but there’s something different about it. In particular this WMD Geiger Counter is amazing, it’s a beauty and it makes really extreme distortion. It has a wave table of different types so there are hundreds there and a lot of really interesting intense distortions. Then I have my controllers (Akai APC40 and iPad).
I also use a Subpac. It’s really hard to replicate the effect of being in a club in the studio, obviously if you have a massive studio setup with huge speakers you can more easily replicate that punch of the sub. You know in clubs it’s the bass frequencies which are really enhanced and that’s partially because when everything is louder, the higher frequencies are dampened by your ears whereas you actually feel the bass frequencies and that’s the effect which is really hard to replicate in the studio. But this does a really good job of that. It works pretty well as a back massage too!
Another thing I have is this Tape Delay (Watkins Copicat Echo) [see below], which would usually be here instead of some of this gear if I wasn’t working on the live show. It’s an old machine that sends the signal into the tape reel, records it then plays those signals back later creating a delay. You can change the speed of the reel which will affect the delay and then the reel itself also gives the sound that saturated quality, basically through the properties of the tape reel and the process of recording and playing. Its a bit of a knackered machine that I think was built in 1980 and every time I plug it in, it trips the audio interface meaning I need to reset it each time. The plug on it is really dodgy and I read something online that people always get electrocuted by these which is why that’s not plugged in!
I saw that Rival Consoles uses one. He just has the best synths, I love the sound of them. I had always assumed he used the Roland Space Echo because everyone uses that but then I saw he used one of these, so I thought ok I’m going to get one and try it out. Then finally my mic which I do a lot of vocal recording with.
How much of this would we typically see at a live show?
So the live show would have two laptops with one for visuals, the APC40 the iPad, the audio interface and then an iConnect MIDI.
You’re travelling a lot at the moment. Does it ever dictate how much of your setup you would take to a performance?
Yeah, for ‘Emergence’ I need to bring the two laptops and controllers, and for my DJ and live hybrid stuff I just need to bring one. I’ve designed everything to fit in hand luggage because I know that it makes my life a lot easier, just because I’ve had my bad lost so many times its not really worth it. You get it back, but you don’t get it back in time for the show.
What inspired you to add a visual element your live show?
I’d always enjoyed working with visuals and it was way that I could tell more of the story that I wanted to tell. For me music is all about trying to communicate some sort of idea, a feeling or a concept or whatever you are trying to get across; adding the visual element allows you to communicate a lot more that you could just with the music. I’ve always loved the fusion when it happens in the right way and also there is just so much potential. As computers and technology gets better there is increasing scope to do interesting things.
Can you visualise even further degrees of immersion to your show?
I’m really into surround sound, and 4DSOUND shows. Ideally I’d like to bring it all together including the visual dimension, fusing all the different forms of communication to create something even more interesting. I used to be a scratch DJ and I did a lot of scratching and turntablism back in the day, at some point I’d like to bring that in somehow as well!
Who have you been listening to recently?
I’ve been listening to a lot of A Winged Victory for the Sullen. Rob Clouth also, he’s the best out there in my opinion, his productions are just mad. He’s a master of the whole psychoacoustic effects thing, a lot of the genius of his work is in those type of stereo effects and the weird spaces he can create and the way he changes them. JoeFarr also who’s stuff is pretty heavy.
Max is busily touring his Emergence show throughout Europe and in-between is working hard on his new album. Also check out Max’s Soundcloud for some free goodness.
Photos shot exclusively for Stamp The Wax, by Lewis Khan. Thanks to Freddie for helping make this happen.