Tools for the discerning audio craftsman
Carl Cox is one of the most charming DJs in the business. He’s a musical ambassador and a veteran of acid house, a champion of techno, a dance music pioneer, label owner, King of Ibiza – you name it, Carl's been there and done it, never losing sight of his passions – playing music, breaking tunes and celebrating life.
At the age of fifteen, Carl bought turntables and began a mobile party DJ business in London, UK. But what led him to music? Federal Audio talked to Carl about his career, gear, music, inspiration and sound. But lets start at the start …
Early days and beginnings…
What drew me to music in the first place goes right back to when I was very small - about 8 yrs old. My Mum and Dad had parties where Dad was the consummate DJ and Mum was always making sure people were fed and had drinks and having a nice time. Dad was the one who was making sure the music was flowing all night.
I couldn’t get away from music if I wanted to - it was always on in the house.
One night we were having another party at home and I came out of bed and looking though into the front room I saw everyone getting down to James Brown and Aretha Franklin.
My Dad saw me and said either go to bed or come down and put some records on -
I thought “I’m not going to bed!”.
He had an amazing 45 collection and said put these on - ten at a time. Each record I played people reacted by dancing and enjoying and I thought - ‘Oh this is alright’.
So I got another selection of records and put them on, and the same thing applied.
It was my entry point without even knowing it. it was just fun.
It interesting to me because those records were quite eclectic - R’n’B, country & western, calypso, soul, reggae.
I was brought up with a very eclectic ear - based on what my Dad enjoyed.
Anything appealed to me at that time - whether it was singing hymns in school or listening to the radio of the time - we’re taking early 70s - predominantly soul, jazz, funk reggae. I was also exposed to glam rock heavy metal, Pink Floyd.
They were amazing times - my ears were always ‘oh my god’ what do I like from all this?
I had an affinity with black music - when Sam & Dave or Wilson Picket sang you felt that anguish - the agony and hardship. When you listen to James Brown’s “Man’s World” he really meant it. You think “I understand what he’s saying” - you don't really get that these days.
In my youth I was getting exposed to anything from the Jackson 5, The Osmonds, Elvis Presley, The Shadows, to The Beach Boys. I would also go record shopping with my Dad and have opinions on what to buy. He’d go ‘What do you think of this son?’ and I’d say ‘..well .. yeah so-so ..’ or ‘yeah put that in the pile’.
I was really enjoying funk music - a lot of music that I collected was what made me move. It was nothing to do with computers at that time - nothing was in the way of talented musicians - it was bass, bass, lead guitar. Someone arranged all this music and it sounded big all the time.
I eventually went into disco music - that four-four kick and disco music for me at the time was super exciting.
Those 45 records on 7 inch vinyl were only 3 minutes long so as soon as they faded out I was like ‘NooOO!’ I want more!
Bring it back up again - there’s got to be an out-take where there’s just jamming’
We wanted those jam sessions - they were gold if you could find them because ‘part two’ was where the vibe was … you had those rhythms.
James brown always had a ‘part one’ and a ‘part two’ because part two was all funk session.
The twelve inch came around ’76, ’77 to give you those sessions.
Before that it was all about 7 inches - I was always frustrated because as soon as they went to fade I knew there was more to it.
The first record that I actually physically bought with my paper round money was Diana Ross’ ‘Love Hangover’ on Tamla Motown records.
When the original (radio) version came out it was only three and a half minutes long. The full version came out on an album and it was 11 and half minute long. It was where the jam was and I remember saving up all my money to find that extended version so that when i played it you didn't get that fade out - you had the rest of it and it was just epic. Even today I play that record and it still stands the test of time.
All my fiends knew that record intensely because I played it out all the time - at home, at the school disco I used to do or any of my friend’s birthday parties. I always had a crowd that followed me.
I didn’t really have any formal musical training as a child. At school I found that I could play the drums - not very well but at least I could keep time and enjoy myself. I used to borrow the school drums and take them home - much to the dismay of my family. I‘d get the radio cassette player out and I would try to copy the drums that were on the records.
I remember I just loved ‘Songs In the Key of Life’ by Stevie Wonder. Stevie played everything on those albums. He could sing, play the guitar, the keyboards obviously - he did everything - arranged everything - and I thought ‘Now thats what I'm talking about!’.
And he played the drums - the guy is blind but meanwhile he's hitting all the skins - its amazing. So I was very much inspired by him as a musician.
My Mum knew I was interested in the keys so she bought an upright piano for us (which she still has today). She really wanted us to learn some musicianship so she kind of forced us to have piano lessons.
It was really hard for me at the time because all my friends were playing football and going out with girls and I'm there playing ‘Blue Danube’ over and over again (laughs) - and I'm thinking ‘this is going to lead nowhere for me, why am i doing this?’
But I could get a sheet of music and play what I saw and I learned how to play from a key structure.
Its quite an emotional, moving thing to be able to play the piano from your heart.
When you hear someone like Alicia Keys and she's playing with her eyes closed its just beautiful - I wish I could play like that.
Unfortunately other things took over so I wasn't able to elaborate on it. But today when it comes to my own production I know the chord structure that I need from playing keyboards - if I need to play a baseline at any given moment I can play it.
But it only goes so far of course - if I want to elaborate on it I get someone in that is fully qualified to take my idea into something else .
My second love is playing the keyboard - my first love is obviously being a DJ.
I've aways had the desire to create tracks within me because I was always looking for something more than what I what I could get my hands on. I always felt that a record needed to have something else in it. Because I was frustrated - most records were fantastic and ‘in the pocket’ but some I wished had more. So even in my early days, even though i didn't have the facility to do anything like that, I would elaborate by having two copies of the same record and create those moments I like. Using that technique I was able to do parties and remix music live like no-one else had ever heard. I trained myself to be able to do that and eventually it became a signature of mine - playing music from three turntables.
All that time I'm thinking of remixing ideas and how to make it better so I bought myself a little Tascam 4 track recorder. I was then able to record and bounce it down layering the music. From there I went to Apple Macs and using Creator and Notator. Then Cubase and then Cubase VST and then eventually on to Pro Tools. Now I work between Pro Tools and Ableton.
In terms of my early productions I wanted to make a statement. After my first home studio in my half-bedroom I built a fully-fledged studio in my garden shed out the back of the house. I was really proud of that studio at the time and then eventually i moved it into a sizeable room and had every single keyboard you can think of and every single plugin and sound I could get my hands on. I was there for ten years at that studio.
Most of my learning in the studio came from Neil Mclellan who produced music for The Prodigy. I worked with him in the early days at a studio called Strongroom studios in Shoreditch, London.
I sat in there many nights basically just watching and learning anything to do with the studio - it was all from him. I would learn something and then take it home and then make it my own. He was an integral part of my learning process in producing music.
Neil is one of the best producers that I know and he's very well respected by his peers worldwide. When The Prodigy did the ‘Fat of the Land’ album the first time around album they did it themselves and they weren't happy with it. They needed to bring in a super-producer. Neil wasn't a ‘super producer’ at the time but was someone who could get a good sound - he knew this stuff inside out. I was there when he got his hands on the Prodigy stuff and even today its some of the most powerful production that you've ever heard.
He was my mentor, he was my teacher. So anything you hear from me, comes from him and I'm very proud that I was able to be learn such a craft.
As you know its not easy - a lot of people spend a lot of money, time and effort to go to music school to understand how a studio works. I had this guy right next so I spent a lot time to sitting, listening, learning and watching. It absolutely went a long way towards my productions being where they are today.
Its a very difficult thing if you’re a young guy or a young girl that wants to get into music and studio production - where do you go? If theres’s someone local and you go down there and its almost studio production-by-numbers, or you bang on a studio door and say ‘I've just come here to learn - I can sit like a mouse in the corner and ill make the tea and do whatever you need me to do’.
Unfortunately you don't have that anymore, so I grew up in a great era of studio production. I've been able to go into those sessions where I've watched and learned and observed.
Strongroom studio had the best of the best of everything in there - it really did. The SSL desk was fully automated - even when they did the test on the automaton i just stood there and went huh? (laughs). Watching it go all up and down and do its waves and stuff i was like “ok - I'm completely out of my league here, I've only got a Tascam!” Its crazy but that was how I learned. It did take me little while to understand it all, but once i pieced everything together iI spent many a night and day learning the craft.
I know this person in America who's gone to a studio production school to learn the basic aspects of Abelton - she's been there three years and she still hasn't made a note. Its so cumbersome - they show you everything in such a small space of time and once your three months are up you get some sort of scholarship and thats it - you're done.
Whereas I was always going to a studio with a friend of mine for late night sessions with the idea of watching and observing and asking the questions when I could. To see what it all did.
In my early days all my ideas came from mixing music.
When I made my first record ‘I Want You Forever’ (on Perfecto) producer Paul Oakenfold
asked me “What do you wan to do?” I said well check this out - I had this track, put a break on it and then added this loop … I put that together as an idea and gave it to him as a demo. He said ok well that sounds fantastic but unfortunately all these records are owned by somebody and we just cant use them - so you have to re-write them.
But if you rewrite them they won’t sound the same in terms of power and the tonality that goes with it. We had to draw a fine line between what I was using and what I was making.
I was quite happy to make the breaks or the baseline or the keyboard part - its just that these things take a little bit longer to do.
Also if you do make anything you own it.
So its important at the end of the day to have an idea that is yours not one thats based on someone else’s. If you're basically sampling and utilising something you’re elaborating, not creating.
All my ideas came from turntablism to begin with but now I write everything and create everything - every drum hit, bass line, every chord change - everything you hear is created by me.
Sometimes an idea from start to finish can take three days. If its goes over one week or a week and half its already all over and it ain’t working, so you have to go back to the drawing board and start again.
I have many many nights like that - where I just want to over-accentuate everything and have 162 tracks there - too much!
I’ve always been into changing things up - although I feel that if I’m going to do something it would be my essence that you had in the work or any remix ideas that I ended up doing.
So you know that its a Carl Cox record - you know it was my sound you were hearing from the dance floor and it was elaborated upon in the recording.
When I’m making remixes or a song its primarily all about the dance floor - thats what i do.
Sometimes I might stretch my legs on an album that and music comes out thats not dance floor - its just something that I want you to hear or listen to. I kinda go off on this tangent and this confuses people sometimes - they’re like “thats not the sound of carl cox!”
But I want people to open their ears - I want them to know that there’s scope in what I do and I want people to under stand I'm not linear in any way - I'm not just going make 128Bpm stripped-down minimal techno.
There’s so many ideas in my head - all these different sounds and music and moods come out because thats where my head’s at.
With my albums I’m able to be more diverse in what I do - to the detriment of my own career (laughs) but thats how I feel about making music.
I feel its the only way I can contribute to whats going on out there. There should be no boundaries or barriers to what you're doing - you should be able to stretch your legs based on whatever you're creating.
The first time I heard David Bowie’s ‘Golden Years’, or Roy Ayers’ ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’ or ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ by Elvis Presley - all of this stuff made me smile - it made me think Wow thats amazing. Thats whats fascinated me all along about music.
‘Bossa Nova’ by Elvis Presley - when you hear that record it just makes you want to get up and dance and move around - you could be washing your car - what a hook! Fantastic.
There’s millions and millions of records coming out right now - we’re super-saturated by everything at the moment. Unfortunately radio stations can only play a certain selection of records which drives me mad - ‘cos there’s loads of other records they could be playing that could open up the musical world. But they’ve decided that between Adele and Justin Beiber its about as far as they want to go. Its a shame because even though those two artists are fantastic theres so much more music out there that should be supported and get played.
I wanna find the depths of the music which makes me feel the ‘Bossa Nova’ effect.
My record label Intec is all about that - finding new artists, finding new ideals, getting behind people who nobody knows.
One day they're gonna know who they are because when you keep piling this music up, you're gonna get noticed in the end.
I've always had this drive - to find new music that pushes my buttons, that makes me get up in the morning. I still have it and its never going to go away.
I'm always going to get wowed by someone else’s creativity. Someone who has something to say in the music that they're making - doesn't matter that its drum n bass, or if its dark jungle or hard techno or fluffy house it doesn’t matter as long as its ideas have substance, that when they made it it was made with love and it came from the heart. That for me is what music is all about and we should never lose sight of that .
It burns me sometimes when people make a record just to accentuate their career. That record may go number one and then it might go pfffft straight out again and then they wanna know what happened to their career.
Because they never made anything of substance.
Make something with substance and then eventually you know you’ll carry on in your career.
I think Aviciii one of these artists. When he started he may not have had all the ideals about how to be an artist and producer but he certainly has shown the way because his music has become more worldwide and more scopeful. It takes guts and its actually made him more of an artist.
To mix blues with country and western and still make it danceable is a really difficult thing to do.
He was able to move the goal posts on what people believed - thats creative production.
When I work on a track sometimes I start with a rhythm or a bassline, or it could just be a musical key. Then that sparks off an idea of how the composition might end up.
Ideas can come from just a note or a tiny piece of something and that can spark your creativity.
I remember a track called ‘Family Guy’ off my last album ‘All Roads Lead to the Dancefloor’.
I was watching the TV show ‘Family Guy’ and heard the signature tune at the beginning. Theres a piece on that song where they go ‘…maybe he's a family guy’ (sings melody) …’laugh and cry’. Well I made a track from it.
It got remixed and re-elaborated on and an original idea came out.
From that idea I created four or five remixes and had so much fun doing it. It was not The Family Guy theme but had everything to do with what I did with it next.
Why did that little bit get stuck in my head? I wasn't really looking to create anything from it but there it was.
My main criteria for music production is really just to shake that ass (laughs). The bassline is something I always missed in early techno music. It was just drums, kick drums, hit patterns, drums, drums, boom - whats happened to the bassline?
So when I hear the bass drop in a record I'm like ‘thats what I'm talking about’.
When a bassline comes in on anything - you feel it, because bass pushes the sound
Hit those frequencies in the right way and you know the record is working really well. The bassline is the thing that you grow the sound from - always have a really good bassline!
The first ever keyboard I bought was a Korg M-1 and it was nice. Then I bought an Ensoniq, then a Juno and then I eventually had Jupiters and all sorts of things - I ended up with a keyboard heaven all around me. Not many plugins, because at the time computers didn't have the Ram to run them. I remember in the early days having four plugins and my computer would crash. I was like ‘well, we gotta bounce that down’ (laughs).
Everything was MIDI chained. We basically had to move a lot of timing on all of these tracks because keyboards were the last ones in the chain and had to catch up with everything else.
I learned so much in my all-hardware days, especially in the early days producing with Neil McLellan.
These days its unbelievable - you can have gigs of RAM. Processing now is so much faster and it was only a matter of time before all these keyboards and effects and plugins were all in the computer.
Some people will always say ‘the hardware will always sound better than the plugins’ - yes you're right but the thing is people who eventually hear the music in the endgame do not care whether its a real Pultec (EQ) or the one thats in the computer. If you use it in the right way, sound design it in the right way and get it to work the right way they sound amazing.
The thing with the studio I have now is its all about space - I've got no space for any of these keyboards anymore - I just don’t. Ive got a few keyboards left, but to have everything in the box is definitely the way forward as far as I'm concerned.
I don’t start to get creative til around 5-6 o'clock in the evening. About 7 o'clock I think ‘right lets get this thing going’.
I start with a rhythmic bassline and I elevate from that point. I get an eight bar loop and work from there.
Some people will have six or seven minutes of the same loop and then start stripping things out. I find that really laborious and really difficult, so I just basically move those eight parts along until I get about three and a half minutes and then i flip ‘em - instantly six minutes.
Then I elaborate down the line - so you get your arrangement done.
Sometimes you can get stuck on your arrangement for so long that you forget what your record was in the first place. You can get so hung up on the arrangement so I always try and get everything running together so no matter of it works i can start clicking in and out, muting all the parts i wanton don't want.
Once they’re muted and I know I'm not going to use them I just delete them - I don't want to see them in there any more.
When I've got past creating the loops I start arranging that can take all night and all day.
Then you can do all your clever edit tricks and really start creating your sound. Things are just limitless. There are no boundaries anymore you can really go completely crazy and create all sorts of new sounds and wobbly baselines and the hardest kick drums you can possibly muster.
For me this is really exciting and I can be in the studio all night.
Sound has always played an important part in my life. Even when I was a mobile DJ doing weddings and birthday parties the sound system was the thing that I wanted people to be blown away by. In the early days I was being booked because of my sound systems - I wanted people to feel the bassline, hear those vocals. Midrange and high end - I didn't want it to be screaming in anyones ear, I just wanted them to be tickled by it.
A good bassline, really nice midrange and top end - those are the three elements that if I try and get right when playing out.
This is what I want to hear when I'm creating and making music.
Resonance and a full range sound - clarity.
I've always been demanding from speakers - I’ve blown up a few in my time I can tell you! But only because they weren't efficient enough.
You don't have to have it loud for it to be good - speakers these days , especially in the studio environment just have to have a really good presence. If you're getting what you need from the speaker you don't actually have to have it really loud.
So I don't really believe in having really massive speakers in my studio. If it sounds good in the studio then it should sound fantastic out there live on any rig these days.
I wasn’t completely happy with the speakers I had been using for many years - I always found myself over accentuating on the hihat. The mids were OK.
But I'd been working in Dave Carbone’s studio Samplify with Josh Abrahams and my productions had a completely different sound. Completely different to my sound. ‘What’s that name again - ADAM, right - ok”
We A/B-ed with my speakers and basically the ADAMs had exactly what I was looking for - the depth, scope, dimension and not having to have them too loud to really get what I want.
Don't forget when you're in the studio and you're listening to music like ours - quite repetitive - you naturally push it to go louder and louder. Because your ears are getting used to that sound all the time.
What I found with the ADAMs is that you didn't have to do that, because you weren't really playing loud to begin with.
Once you've sat back and given your ears a rest you can go back in and power up the speakers to really get the full range of what you've just created.
If there’s anything not quite right in the frequency range you're going to know about it.
This is what I like about the ADAMs they have pinpoint accuracy when it comes to the frequency dimension.
I don't think I've heard a better speaker - these are really phenomenal. If I want the sub end - its there, sub low - its there, mid, mid-high - there, high end there.
Thats a lot of scope to have within the kind of music we’re making.
You need to find all those elements by listening.
If the speaker misses them then the track doesn't become the record it should be.
You can have the best record in the world but if it isn't produced in the right way it doesn't come across. So every time I produce its a one-shot deal - it has to be the very best it can be.
I've found the ADAMs give me the information that I want from the speaker - what I'm listening to and something which is tickling my senses - what I like to hear when I'm making music and giving me the very best reference of what Im creating.
In my early days I was involved in a lot of rave parties and when you heard this record it would absolutely move the floor. The mad thing is that its almost like a rock record but with a breakbeat and a good kick drum - a lot of noisy fun.
So I've been asked remix it to basically put my ‘stamp of approval’ on it, but its very hard because its already great. So how do you make a great record better? Its difficult - I’ve started already and I'm half way through it and quite happy with it.
Will it be as good as the original? who knows - I don't know yet.
A lot of people getting into the music now wouldn’t know that record at all because they probably weren't even born when it came out - it didn’t exist.
They’re going to hear it now for the first time once its done, and for me everything that we spoke about earlier - how I start with the basslines and the grooves - is integral with this record.
I’ve actually just finished another record actually with Nile Rodgers called ‘Beat the Track’. Its the first time we've seen able to have Nile Rodgers in the the studio for a couple of days and get him to lay down his guitar work. I felt so privileged to sit and run the track from his Hitmaker (Nile’s famous Fender Strat guitar). He’d sit there just playing with his eyes closed, and I'm thinking ‘this is gold - those samples - its all him!” Fantastic…
We’ve done the record already and its going to get released this year. His guitar work is exceptional. He’s never really made a techno record with his guitar work. He’s done disco and he's done pop but never techno. So this was a real challenge for both of us. But he wanted that challenge - he came to me and said ‘Carl I wanna work with you man - you're the king of what you're doing” and I was ok - relax! - we’ll get it done (laughs).
We managed to get him for two days working in the Melbourne studio and he laid down some amazing grooves. To see him with The Hitmaker live! I was just sitting there with my mouth open - I can hear every single hit record he ever made in this guitar .
I was looking at him thinking ‘I can’t believe this’.
He’s just one of the coolest people I've ever met in the music industry - he's an absolute genius.
Are you making music when your travelling?
I have my laptop and I have the ability to make music - I just find that when I'm travelling its the last thing I need to be thinking about. You still need to make music within an environment, not because you've got eight hours to kill on a plane.
You get to the other end and you’re “Oh yeah I made my record on the plane whoo!”.
Ok - good I'm glad you did, but I find it a very difficult thing to do.
I tried it many times - to pull off something but I can’t get past a four-bar loop - I'm just over it. Its not for me - I love being in the studio environment.
So what’s Carl’s favourite plugin instrument?
My favourite plugin has to be Massive (Native Instruments). This one plugin that has spawned a nation of all sorts of weird and wobbly baseline sounds and noises - but one of the reasons a lot of people have gone to it is because it is massive. I think its still the number one plugin used today.
There's many different variations of it but I think massive is the one you go to if you want that sound.
Does Carl have any advice for the up and coming producer/DJ?
I believe that you have to make music that you believe in. Don't make music because you think you’re going make money or if you make this style if music your friends will think that you're wonderful because you're ‘keeping it urban’, buts its still not what you wanna do. if you want to make pop music - make pop music, if you wanna make death core then make death core. It doesn't matter - as long as you're doing what you believe in you'll be very very happy and fulfilled by what you've created.