“Early Chicago and Detroit house was made by people who had no idea what the rules were, let alone that they were breaking the rules,” says Cut Copy keyboardist and vocalist Dan Whitford, extolling the virtues of musical ignorance. “They were making sounds that weren’t supposed to be made with the gear they were using and that gave birth to a whole genre of electronic dance music. Sometimes it’s good not to know what the rules are.”
Creating trippy dance music liberally dosed with Bryan Ferry, My Bloody Valentine, and Spiritualized, Australia’s Cut Copy are as likely to perform at a pounding rave as a “summer of love” style festival. Their fourth album, Free Your Mind (Loma Vista/Modular), pulses with Special K buzz, coiling disco bass guitar riffs, and swirling analog synthesizers bookended with spoken-word nonsense from party revelers (“there’s a leader of the tribe on the horizon, I can see the future”). Found sounds and quasi-occultist field recordings are all part of Cut Copy’s musical message in Free Your Mind.
“After we recorded a bunch of tracks, we realized there was a motif running through them,” explains guitarist/sample jockey Tim Hoey. “The lyric ‘Free your mind’ appeared in three of the songs. We became fascinated with the idea of freeing your mind. We gave people a list of topics, and that was some of the magic we recorded from the conversations. [‘I was above the city,’ a woman coos; ‘It’s been a lonely road for you but that’s gonna change,’ intones a man.] We enjoy the sweaty masses of people going crazy at our shows, and we wondered if there were other ways of achieving that euphoric state. The state of freeing your mind.”
The album was recorded in Melbourne’s Adelphia Studio with engineer Mirko Vogel, producers Whitford and Cut Copy (including drummer Mitchell Scott and bassist Ben Browning), and mixed by Dave Fridmann. Free Your Mind may sound like a perfect pill of Roland 808 and 909 endowed grooves (it is) with levitating melodies performed on vintage Sequential Circuits Prophet 8, Moog Prodigy, Yamaha CS-80, and Roland Jupiter-8 synths (it is) all conjured by Juan Atkins. But it’s really the product of four musicians and one engineer working experimentally in a workshop environment, exploring sounds in separate spaces with Steinberg Cubase and Logic Audio (and guitar, keys, bass, and drums), and coming together to jam, trade files, and free their minds.
God! Show Me MagicFree Your Mind unfurls like a beautiful, house music-fortified concept record—female vocals darting around the mix like banshees, samples of ’60s “Moon River” crooner Andy Williams deconstructed beyond recognition, and tribal drums, surging waves, the “Amen, Brother” break, handclaps, Taste of Honey disco bass riffs, strings, doves, and Whitford’s dayglow vocals soaring through your mind and beyond.
“Our sessions are often 200 tracks,” Hoey states. “After sifting through them we will loop a verse, chorus, or intro section, then keep adding layer upon layer upon layer. Our process is to throw the kitchen sink at it and then find the magic within the chaos we’ve just created.”
Free Your Mind began at Whitford’s home studio (CCHQ) with his arsenal of synths, drum machines, and microphones. “I wrote demos and recorded vocals and synths,” Whitford recalls. “Roland 909s and 808s, Prophet 5, Jupiter-8, Moog Prodigy, and Yamaha CS-80, the granddaddy of polyphonic synths—I’ve been using a lot more digital FM synths; this record harkens back to that era of music making. I have a Yamaha DX7, Korg M1, which is a wave station module, and a synth from Synthesizers.com based on the old Moog modulars. I’m obsessed with finding out how old records were made and wanting to use those same machines they used.”
Whitford works in Cubase exclusively and mostly prefers hardware effects to plug-ins, often replacing soft synths with the real thing. “Being able to move knobs and change things physically was more attractive, but I am not a purist,” he says. “I don’t think that records made on a laptop sound worse than records made in a studio. Using a soft synth, you might get a certain sound that, if you used the original synth, the opportunities for manipulating that sound could change the end result. The Arturia Minimoog is one of my go-tos; I used that on every track multiple times.”
Cut Copy (left to right)—Dan Whitford, Mitchell Scott, Benjamin Browning, and Tim Hoey.
Adelphia Means Brotherhood Each Cut Copier maintains a home studio where ideas sprout and develop. Whitford and Hoey filled their hard drives with sounds and samples, then joined Mitchell, Browning, and engineer Vogel at Adelphia.
“We recorded tracks and samples and sequenced parts there,” Whitford says. “We went through everyone’s files and chose what parts we liked and worked on it as a band. Sometimes we might have a beat looped up and a simple bass line and we’d play around that together, but usually the song ideas are fleshed out before the band hears it.”
Vogel used Adelphia’s old radio station baffles to create cubicles, fashioning a fertile workshop space where each musician worked individually and collectively.
“Basically, [we worked] the same way we recorded their last [Grammy-nominated] album, Zonoscope,” Vogel says. “The studio has 25-foot ceilings, movable walls, exposed brick, other walls covered in drapes. We created zones for everyone to work alone or together.
“Everything was being recorded 24/7,” Vogel continues. “So no matter who wanted to record, everything could be inserted into the songs.”
The band mixed in the box with instruments miked so as to facilitate free-form jamming and sample exploitation simultaneously. Vogel relied on an RME Fireface card, with a clutch of preamps from Aussie manufacturer Joe Malone’s JLM line, and a trusty Presonus Digimax. Cut Copy mixed and matched loops, rhythms, samples, sounds, and vocals, adding live instrumentation as the spirit moved them.
“There were no scratch tracks in the studio,” Vogel recalls. “They’d replace parts from Dan’s demos, then maybe loop the new part. Everyone would jump on instruments and experiment with everything. Fifty percent of it was experimentation.”
But before their collective unconscious merged and expanded, Whitford recorded vocals at CCHQ, using an Audio-Technica AE5400 large-diaphragm mic through a UAD 2-610, “like the Beach Boys-sounding preamp,” Whitford says. “I also have a Roland RE-501 that I use as a basic tape echo on everything. I prefer that to reverb on vocals, just the spaciness of it.”
Along with the virtual and analog synths recorded at Whitford’s studio, Vogel tracked synths at Adelphia direct through a Radial active DI box. “We also set up a VOX AC 30 amp with a Shure 57,” he explains, “so Dan could hear the band. They could all play without headphones while tracking. I did like the sound of the keys through the VOX AC 30, but eventually it broke because square waves don’t go well through valve amps.”
Staying Innocent Hoey’s Fender Jazzmaster, Jaguar, and Telecaster guitars often sound like keyboards, or birds, or vocals. He experimented with a sampler in the studio, and ran his guitars though effects pedals as well, including a Yamaha SBX90, Eventide PitchFactor Harmonizer, and Eventide Space Reverb, into a Fender Vibrolux and Vox AC 15.
“You can have just one of the Eventide pedals and find endless sounds. They’re extensive and they sound fantastic. But I don’t use any plug-ins for the guitars; it’s all foot pedal-based.”
A guitarist who triggers samples but only effects his instrument through foot pedals? It’s all the more surprising, given the computer-based nature of Cut Copy’s music, that Hoey’s personal signal chain remains staunchly analog.
“Usually when you get to this point in your career you’ve begun to master your instrument, but I am trying to stay completely naïve and just plug in a bunch of stuff and hope to find an interesting sound,” Hoey says. “I’ve been listening to guitarist Rowland S. Howard [The Birthday Party] for his really ear-piercing guitar sounds. And I like the way Kevin Shields bends the tremolo arm. I try to replicate certain sounds and I won’t come close, but I do find something new of my own.”
Vogel miked Tim’s VOX AC 15 with a Shure SM7 and a knockoff Chinese ribbon mic to create “different shades of light and dark,” he says. “Using the SM7 as the brighter mic and the ribbon as the darker, fuzzier mic, we could turn the bass and treble up without physically doing it. It worked great on his guitar, since his playing is precise and noisy.
“For some of the guitar sounds Tim is playing through the AC15 then looped out of his pedals into a VOX AC 30 to get this crazy sound happening,” Vogel continues. “We’d put an omni mic in the middle of the room to capture that crazy out-of-phase swirling thing. A lot of the sounds are actually mics that weren’t being used just spilling into other instruments.”
Everybody Needs an 808 Scott’s drums are the ephemeral element on Free Your Mind, sometimes sounding as rock-solid as ’70s studio drummer Alan White, other times pulsing like a heartbeat, or a disco groove machine. Drum sounds are live, replaced, sequenced, and sourced either from one of Vogel’s ’70s-era kits or a Roland TR-808.
“Over Dan’s Cubase demos we’d discuss drum sounds,” Vogel recalls. “Whether a track needed more of a Giorgio Moroder kick drum mixed with a Flaming Lips snare drum sound. I had a bunch of kits to produce as many drum sounds as possible. Our main set was a ’70s Rogers kit. And I used toms with top heads only, another standard element in ’70s recordings.”
For a “Giorgio Moroder” sound Vogel deadened the kick and changed the beater heads. He also changed mic positions: For a disco sound, Vogel placed a single EV RE20 mic inside the kick drum, and moved it around, depending on the desired effect. Shure SM7 and an AKG D112 were also used.
“We’d try to find mics that worked with the kick to create that initial punch, then the air or beater release,” Vogel says. “I always record a condenser on the front kick head, mostly a Røde K2. For the snare, an SM57 on top and Beta 57 on the bottom head. Sometimes for the airier snare sounds, an RE20 as well, mixed with the Beta 57. We cut out a bunch of deadening rings from old drum skins laid on the snare head to add different tonalities. And an AKG SE300B for hats; they sound good on acoustic guitars too.”
Vogel also used RE20s on the toms, or for something “bombastic,” Shure SM57s, or for lighter playing, Neumann KM184s. A Røde NT4 was the single overhead mic.
“Overheads needed to be really focused like a drum machine but real sounding,” he says. “You can stick the Røde NT4 in the middle of the drums without it getting in the way. It created this tight focused stereo pickup, and because it’s perfectly in phase it almost meant whoever would mix it could absolutely compress it without getting any phase problems. You can do so much with the NT4 without compromising the integrity of the overall drum sound.”
When considering room mics, Vogel changed room parameters, moving baffles to add air, defeat echo, or give the impression of space. “Using the baffles, we built a little cubby house for the drums or removed all the baffling to make the drums sound more open. When we wanted that tight disco thing, we’d use a tiny bit of overhead mic and move the baffling around the drums to tune the drum sounds. The kick might sound good, but move the baffle closer and the condenser on the front head would pick up this whole other dimension.”
Finally, Browning’s Fender Precision bass was recorded using two DIs: a SansAmp programmable bass DI in front of his live cabinet into a JLM Neve 1073, “driving it to give more slap,” and a clean sound from a Radial DI.
Hit to Dance in the Future Head After the party’s over, and the revelers have taken their spiritual visions and nonsensical babbling home, Free Your Mind continues to give up its secrets. Repeated listens reveal unintelligible voices, strange sounds, and layer upon layer of instruments and noise.
“I’ve always loved records with a lot of detail, things that you can pick out on a tenth listen,” Whitford says. “Having that level of detail to a recording is special, it gives the record longevity. My Bloody Valentine, Spiritualized, even some Beatles recordings having weird additional sounds and effects that pop out of the mix. The Beatles records are some of the most accessible records around but they still have weird things, just unconventional ideas.”
Sequential Circuits Prophet 8 and Prophet 5, Moog Prodigy, Roland Jupiter-8, Prophet 5, Moog Prodigy, Yamaha CS-80, Yamaha DX7, Korg M1, Synthesizers.com modular, Arturia Minimoog, Hammond organ
Apple Mac, Steinberg Cubase, Logic Audio, RME Fireface card, JLM Audio preamps, Presonus Digimax
Audio-Technica AE5400 large-diaphragm mic, UAD 2-610, Roland RE-501
Fender Jazzmaster, Jaguar, and Telecaster; Yamaha SBX90; Eventide PitchFactor Harmonizer and Space Reverb pedals; Fender Vibrolux, Vox AC 15 and AC 30 amplifiers; Shure SM7
1970s Rogers kit, AKG D112 and SE300B, Electro-Voice RE20, Shure SM57 and Beta 57, Neumann KM184s, Røde K2 and NT4, Roland TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines
Fender Precision bass, SansAmp DI, Radial DI.