Stones Throw Records followers and liner note junkies will probably recognize the name Dave Cooley from albums like Donuts, Madvillainy, Champion Sound, The Further Adventures of Lord Quas, and Ruff Draft. Cooley is a world-renowned and well sought after mixing and mastering engineer, audio restoration specialist, and producer at Los Angeles-based mastering studio, Elysian Masters. He’s currently working on a number of “top-secret” projects and audio restorations/re-issues with the assistance of Elysian Masters’ recently attained and newly-restored Neumann VMS66 lathe-cutting machine, of which there are only a few left in existence. Matt ‘The Witzard’ Horowitz recently interviewed Cooley about everything from Paramore to Silversun Pickups, J Dilla to DOOM, and everything in-between.
How much does the overall sound (to the common ear) of an album generally change and progress from when you first get it from the artist to when you’re completely done mixing and mastering?
Well it can change quite a bit in terms of where the focus is being drawn to within the tune. Ultimately my goal is to honor what the intention was, the feel that the artist was originally shooting for… but just more of that same feel and more energized. By the time things are mastered, the listener’s ear should be drawn to the interplay of all the different sonic registers and events, so that the music sounds more dimensional, huge, and sort of animated in presentation. That might be done through pressurizing the sound (compression), highlighting or separating things (EQ), smoothing the high frequencies, or spatializing the mix. Spatializing means handling the depth from the upfront leading edge of the sound all the way to the “back wall” or deeper image of the sound.
Now some people will say mastering is just getting things “loud” which is somewhat true, but it’s not that easy. You’ve got a limited amount of canvas, and to maximize every square inch of it with the least amount of degradation to the signal…. it’s knowledge that takes a long time to develop. A lot of easy processes that people have access to at home are either the wrong choice… or overcomplicated and tricky to simplify. Knowing which parameters on a piece of hardware or plugin to not touch on an album, or to take out all together… again, not easy… takes years of experimenting. I compare it to surfing. Looks easy but it’s a lot of muscle memory built up over time. No way are you not wiping out first 10-50 attempts.
How much hands-on or face-to-face interaction do you typically have with artists like Madlib & Freddie Gibbs, DOOM, Silversun Pickups, Paramore, Electro-Acoustic Beat Sessions, Washed Out, etc?
I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing artists and really enjoyed being there with them during the creation of the music, mapping out songs and performances. That was in my producing days with bands like SSPU and others. There’s so much face to face when producing that it’s like you’re in a mountaineering base camp together; making a record with a band really does feel like climbing a mountain. On the other hand, when it comes to mastering we have a no attendance policy while doing EQ (Equalization). It’s a one day process usually and I find that almost nobody expects to attend anyway. It’s both a technical and a meditative process; it doesn’t help the music if we’re trading war stories or jokes while I’m working. I take that very seriously and I need to zone in and listen deeply to the tunes. Sometimes the artist will come in at the end of the record and work on spacing/sequencing with me in the studio and I really enjoy that, but even that’s rare these days… most people just fire off notes or tweaks, if any after listening.
Do artists ever disagree with decisions you often have to make during the mastering stage, especially those who are producers themselves? You really must have gone to-to-toe with some sizeable egos, over the years, plus plenty of perfectionists like J Dilla!
Very occasionally, but less and less… and if there’s a redirection after the first listening it’s always for the best because it’s almost universally a project preference thing and not a technical thing at that point. They want it brighter or less bright, that’s pretty common. But often times I’m taken aback by how quick we get through a record, one pass in many instances. Ironically Dilla… the perfectionist… signed off on everything almost immediately with very little second guessing. Madlib too. I would say experience = less indecision. Both on the engineer’s part and on the artist’s end.
The names of engineers often only get noticed by crate-diggin’ liner note junkies, but when you read histories of classic Hip-Hop studios like Callipe, Power Play, D&D, and SugarHill Recording Studios, the engineers always get their proper shine; would you say that Hip-Hop is a genre that really appreciates and respects the skills an engineer brings to the table?
There are times that we engineers are acknowledged and it’s appreciated: a shout out in a rhyme to Mario Caldato or Bob Powers, etc. I was very grateful to be included in much of what’s been written about J-Dilla’s story and legacy as another example. And then conversely, there are times when we’re plainly written out of the historic narrative. Not every single record necessarily; It’s more like when you see a body of work or a true contribution to a sound or label that engineers should be given their fair share of acknowledgement I think.
What album(s) have you contributed to that you’re most proud of and which album (if any) would you go back and approach differently knowing what you know now, in retrospect?
My favorite mix was for These New Puritans’ Hidden album, if only for how wild it was sonically, and just surviving the sheer track count with orchestra, programmed drums, and live band. I think I have Stockholm Syndrome on that one. My favorite mastering jobs I’ve done, probably the two M83 records and our recent Bob Marley: Exodus 40th Anniversary reissue. And Madvillainy because it’s pretty reckless and punk in spirit.
As far as what I would approach differently today… probably all of them done pre 2017! Not that they should have been done different, but I prefer to keep evolving. If my skills and techniques remain the same then I’m not honoring new ways of looking at things, or I’m not trying to do my best sonics yet. The early Stones Throw records, some of the techniques on those… I wouldn’t default to now. But they became part of the sound of those records. It fit the music, and people liked what it was contributing as far as the aggressive and disorienting sound. Sometimes I get requests to run things like that (which is retro at this point) and I do it if it’s right for the record. No absolute methodology, just whatever supports the vibe of the record.
How exactly did you go from playing in Rock bands to producing for Silversun Pickups to mixing for J Dilla and Madlib to mastering records for Paramore and Jimmy Eat World to doing audio restoration and working with the Neumann VMS66 lathe? Your musical career path really sounds like it’s been one hell of an exciting journey!
It was borne out of necessity. When I got in, it was the tail end of the music industry as it was previously known. We went from a Pangea major label land mass to a broken up world of independents. To survive, you needed to be able to translate between the differing cultures and sub-genres, and navigate between all the newly minted indie labels. You needed to be a jack of all trades too because budgets were scant. Lastly, I spoke “record collector”, which was the equivalent of a rosetta stone… and hard to find in an audio engineer in the early 00s. That really helped me lock up with Light In The Attic, NowAgain, Stones Throw, Dangerbird etc. I guess things have only gone further in that direction since. For my clientele I still need to know the difference between zamrock, beach goth, and next gen new age… what those sound like. I don’t think most mastering engineers do.
What was it like being right there in the studio while Madlib & DOOM crafted and recorded Madvillainy? Do you happen to have any particularly crazy stories you’re able to mention from those fateful sessions at The Bomb Shelter?
Well the beat making all happened at Madlib’s Bomb Shelter before I was brought in; he had hundreds of 2 track beat snippets on CDs. In one month of reclusive producing he had a CD made up called “100 beats”. Two weeks later, he had another CD made up called “Another 100 beats”. He had Jeff Jank (in house designer at Stones Throw) make custom album artwork for these CDs which were only used internally at the label and to shop beats to MCs. DOOM would go through those to pick out his faves. Most (if not all) of the material for Madvillainy, Jaylib’s Champion Sound, and I think Dudley Perkin’s first album was sourced from that one month’s worth of Madlib beats!.
The music was then imported to Protools at my place, and then DOOM tracked all the vocals. We had a great mic sound and workflow, everything got pretty well cinched up. DOOM took the semi-final material home and upon review decided that he had put everything down with “too much energy” in the vocal takes. So all those takes were scrapped! He ended up re-recording the vocals with a super laid back delivery, on a rough mic, and those became the finals… I think to the betterment of the record. It just had a better dichotomy to it. Madlib’s beats were so day-glo intense; DOOM’s casual delivery worked well against that. I also remember loaning DOOM a book: Tao of Physics. Every time I saw him he wanted to talk about that; he was really into the the idea that quantum physics was a manifestation of the ancient Tao teachings. So some of that super-consciousness you get from his rhymes, it’s informed from places other than psychotropic substances. He was more of a hip-hop Tim Leary: well-read in addition to being a cosmic explorer. Also, we probably went through about 8-10 differing album sequences for Madvillainy… over a period of 2-3 months. Peanut Butter Wolf and Jeff Jank were grinding out how it was strung together, there were probably 50-60 snippets of audio scene changes that needed to be put in a particular order, to create that audio-meets-comic-book feel.
While recently perusing your Discogs profile, I noticed you’ve had a hand in nearly every Adrian Younge (Linear Labs) release since 2013, including Adrian Younge Presents The Delfonics, Ghostface Killah’s 12 Reasons to Die I & II, Something About April II, and The Electronique Void (Black Noise). What’s it been like steadily working alongside Younge as his career rapidly progresses and evolves? How did it feel being part of what most would quite arguably call Ghostface’s recent “Rap career resurgence”?
Adrian is a really heavy artist in that he’s a multi-instrumentalist composer/arranger. And he cranks out consistently great records. He and I have worked closely together over the years to get a finished sound for his records that people recognize immediately, and he’s great at getting me input on what he needs the mastering to sound like. Working for his projects is right in my wheelhouse (historic record presentation mixed with hip-hop/breaks). He’s also probably one of the most gentlemanly dudes I’ve ever worked with, a savvy businessman, and a great friend. As far as 12 Reasons to Die, I was a fan of Wu-Tang Clan of course from way back. While I was mastering, I was trying to get it where I felt like I was listening to a classic Wu record for the first time all over again. Am I getting that record buzz I remember from being a teenage rap fan skipping class? If so, move to the next song. Sweat, repeat.
How did you go about attaining your fully-restored Neumann VMS66 lathe-cutting machine now housed at Elysian Masters? I remember you’ve said you and your crew used it to cut Ariel Pink, Betty Davis, and Paramore’s recent records… but what exactly does it do, for those who may not be familiar with such a machine?
Well this particular vinyl lathe was rescued from the backyard of a DJ in Boston who didn’t have the time or resources to restore it properly and get it running again. We spent about a year with four people working on it, and 10s of thousands of dollars, to get it cracking again. It is now cutting amazing records, just amazing. We went nuts making sure that the lathe was restored to the condition it would have left the German factory in 1966, which was truly a painful process. Then we took it miles further by improving the electronic components and wiring, shortening signal paths, and optimizing the computer that handles the groove placement.
We got it to the point where we were benefiting from the fantastic original discrete designs by optimizing them with new component choices, but also benefiting from certain modern upgrades that could only happen within the last couple years. The result is a lathe that cuts a lacquer master for vinyl that is really efficiently cut. And super musical and high fidelity. The running times can be longer, the depth of cut can be deeper for more volume and better signal to noise, and lead outs at the ends of sides are long. This puts most of the music on the outermost diameters where it sounds the best. We feel it’s the best cut for the money out there and possibly at any price point. So once our clients have a 14” lacquer master from our shop, then that is sent out for electroplating to create the metal parts and then the stampers that will handle the production run for a vinyl release.
Matt Horowitz has been a hip-hop fan ever since he first heard Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) back in the mid-90’s, which positively or negatively changed his life ever since, depending on who you ask. He single-handedly runs online music publication The Witzard, and has been fortunate enough to interview Eothen ‘Egon’ Alapatt, Guilty Simpson, Dan Ubick, Career Crooks’ Zilla Rocca & Small Professor, Kool A.D., Cut Chemist, and J-Zone, amongst countless others. He enjoys writing about and listening to hip-hop, Punk/Hardcore, and Indie Rock on vinyl with his lovely fiance, while drinking craft beer, red wine, or iced coffee. To paraphrase both Darko The Super and the Beastie Boys: “Already Dead fans, they want more of this… I’m a Witzard like my man Matt Horowitz!”. Follow Matt here.