Sound Mirrors Life

Somewhere in southeast London, Matt Black is reflecting on the glory of his and fellow Coldcut member Jonathan More's brilliant career. They can rightly
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Somewhere in southeast London, Matt Black is reflecting on the glory of his and fellow Coldcut member Jonathan More's brilliant career. They can rightly lay claim to being the first, or at least, the most influential, British DJ duo ever. Coldcut's 1987 remix, or “re-version” as they like to call it, of Eric B. & Rakim's innovative rap anthem “Paid in Full” laid the sonic foundation for the UK's trip-hop, techno, DJ and electronic landscapes.

“I think that is an accurate comment,” Black says, while chasing his cousin's six-year-old around his Lewisham flat. “Our re-version of ‘Paid in Full’ placed the remix as a cornerstone of electronic culture. In our restlessness, we may have contributed something useful to pushing things on. There is a kind of tennis match that goes on between America and the UK, with London being a cultural nexus: [The UK is] constantly looking for things to take in and mutate, polish and sell to the rest of the world. We are good at doing that.”

Through the years, Coldcut has been good at a lot of things. Journeys by DJ — 70 Minutes of Madness Mix (Music Unites, 1995) was one of the earliest extended DJ mix CDs, using several artists from Coldcut's own Ninja Tune label. Founded in 1990, Ninja Tune brought the world such sample-insane artists as Amon Tobin, DJ Food, Herbaliser, Flanger, Kid Koala, Cinematic Orchestra and many more. Ever adventurous, Black and More eventually invented loads of free software that could be used on most any PC. Playtime, My Little Funkit, DJamm, Coldcutter and now VJamm (all available at one time or another from www.coldcut.net) have provided countless DJs with the ability to approach collage and cutup as if they were residing somewhere deep within the Coldcut cranium.

“In the early days,” Black says, “Coldcut was very inspired by Grandmaster Flash. Later, we were influenced by Double Dee & Steinski's 12-inch Lessons 1, 2 and 3 (Tommy Boy, 1985), which used a similar playful aesthetic but made the point that, with multitracks, you could create a more dense and elaborate collage than even with three turntables. Those records and ideas were picked up by the UK underground, and that turned into the sampling revolution. That, with the London warehouse scene and the party that we put on [Plastic] is where Soul II Soul and Massive Attack came from. Coldcut were first off the running board.”

Anyone intent on delving deeper into the Coldcut zeitgeist must warm to the duo's interpretation of world events and all things deep, dark and conspiratorial. Indeed, the first single from Sound Mirrors (Ninja Tune, 2006), their first album in almost eight years, is a raging rock-rant featuring Mike Ladd and Jon Spencer (of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) titled “Everything Is Under Control.”

IS EVERYTHING UNDER CONTROL?

Blasting over squealing guitar and a distorted 16th-note beat, Ladd and Spencer unleash a squawk-box of incendiary raps: “Television incision on the frontal lobe/Capitalism on mind control/Ya' know Big Brother ain't a TV show/Black helicopters, knights of Malta/Illuminati partners tower toddlers/Contact with Martians…with Hitler's offspring.”

Inspired by schizophrenic New York City writer Frances E. Dec, “Everything Is Under Control” implies that Coldcut is still knee-deep in secret societies and conspiracy theories. But beyond lyrics, Sound Mirrors is one of Coldcut's most fully realized albums. Long past the days of analog assemblage, Sound Mirrors finds the inventive duo still shifting gears after all these years.

“The biggest change is the crossover situation in equipment that occurred since our last proper album, Let Us Play (Ninja Tune, 1997),” Jonathan More says from Ninja Tune central in London. “A lot of that was done on the Mac running Opcode's Studio Vision Pro, and then we moved onto Logic Audio, then onto Digidesign's Sound Designer, then onto Steinberg Nuendo.”

More says the duo settled on using Nuendo after switching from Mac to PC. “I didn't want to go back to the Mac [after] having been working on the PC, which Logic wasn't supporting anymore. The last version of Logic for PC, when you zoomed into a waveform, you couldn't really get right into it to do those miniscule tweaks that you need to do to get the drums really sitting nicely. With Nuendo, you can zoom in really finely and move shit around quickly. I find Nuendo quite well-organized for our processes. And a lot of Sound Mirrors was done entirely in Ableton Live, as well.”

IT'S A PLUG-IN PARTY

With a PC, Nuendo and Live dictating production, Coldcut created Sound Mirrors cutting up samples, a 36-piece orchestra, string quartet, live bass and guest vocalists (including Roots Manuva, Saul Williams, Amiri Baraka and Annette Peacock). They also used myriad plug-ins — some free, some not. Commercial plug-ins like BBE Sonic Maximiser, PSP Nitro and VintageWarmer, Silverspike TapeIt 2 and Antares AutoTune were used, but the free stuff was infinitely more unpredictable. SmartElectronix's SupaTrigga and LiveCut and KVR Interruptor BionicDelay are three of Coldcut's favorites, in addition to the duo's own sound-and-image editing software, VJamm.

“[SmartElectronix] SupaTrigga is a plug-in that some lads in Brighton developed based on our original Coldcutter software,” More explains. “The idea is random beat generation. You take a loop, sample it in real time, chop it up in halves, quarters, up to 31 bits, then randomly shuffle those about with sliders to control the different amounts of randomization. We could never get it to work that well, so we made it available for download at our Website so someone could cure the problems. That is what SupaTrigga has done. It looks so similar and works in exactly the same way as Coldcutter.

“If you use it as a plug-in on a track in Nuendo or Ableton Live,” More adds, “it will continue to sample and randomize any given track as it plays, and it also includes a detuning effect. SupaTrigga is featured on ‘Everything Is Under Control’ in its most obvious form. And live, it is so exciting because I don't know what it is going to do next. You have to interact with it so it gives a much better feel than if you just play back a P.A. track. For example, if you play back a split-up drum kit with that randomizer effect, the timing is tight but you have no idea where it is going to play the kicks and snares.”

Interruptor BionicDelay makes its mark in “Boogieman,” which features poet Amiri Baraka in a skittering techno-dancehall track. Interruptor BionicDelay increased the track's feeling of dread with stoned-out delays tripping the sound.

“A lot of these plug-ins have a quality about them that those original guys like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Joe Gibbs would use,” More says. “They would pick a kit that wasn't the most expensive; it just had to have a sound that they loved. BionicDelay is great for that King Tubby feel. I also like sticking it on something and getting a whole bunch of delays off it, sampling those delays back in and then re-editing them with the original. That can sound really fucked up.”

As always, pushing beyond pure audio envelopes, VJamm is a real-time video player that lets you cut, sample and rearrange a virtual kitchen sink of sounds and images. A demo of VJamm is included with Sound Mirrors. (You can also get the demo on Remix's February 2006 CD-ROM or at remixmag.com.)

“If you imagine a piano,” More explains, “and each key on the piano plays a video clip of any length and can play it backwards and forwards at any speed and can put markers into it, that is VJamm. You can film yourself playing the drums, sample that into VJamm, edit all the clips, put markers in and then, from MIDI pads, play the real drum kit and record and sequence the drums in any way. And you can do animation on it. And there are MIDI applications being applied as well.”

TIME FOR ANALOG

It might seem surprising that Coldcut does make use of some outboard gear. They've long since chucked hardware such as their Roland Octapad II drum pads and Ibanez AD230 Analog Delay, but certain pieces still made their way into Sound Mirrors.

“I do all the preprogramming with my standard setup,” More says, “but I am particularly fond of old stuff like the Korg Stage Echo, which is so ancient, I can't find a tape to replace it. It is a combination of stuff like that and the more standard CMT Bitcrusher and the effects in Ableton Live. They put all these mad things in like Beat Repeat and various randomizers and delays. There is a similar thing on the Eventide Ultra-Harmonizer, a glitchy, on-time effect that we use. I couldn't find a soft version of that, so we used the Eventide.”

Similarly, Coldcut enjoys playing with Pioneer CD and DVD mixing toys, but sometimes vinyl rules. “Sound Mirrors” and “This Island Earth” feature nearly hidden vinyl snippets, time-stretched to behave in the mix.

“In ‘Sound Mirrors,’” Black explains, “that weird Japanese thing [that sounds like a queasy guitar] was composed off a turntable, scratched together and then sampled and time-stretched down to about a quarter of the parts' original tempo. I'd made up a pretty weird sound already, and when it was time-stretched, it gave it such a different feeling. I tried time-stretching it in loads of different software: doing it in a really posh one, then a Waves one, then in Sound Forge. But eventually, I went back to the time-stretching function in Ableton Live.”

Coldcut also dug deep in its bag for beats. Nuendo may have made More and Black's lives easy, but they still enjoy the trenches of pure cut-and-paste. “Again, on this album, we went back to some of our old Roland kit and got it repaired and sorted,” More says. “I resampled a lot of stuff, and in some cases the beats are from the Akai MPC, like on ‘Man in a Garage.’ I originally programmed that by pasting all the beats in by hand in Nuendo — did kick, snare, hi-hat — then exported that out as a WAV file and copied that on the MPC and sort of used the same sounds, put those in and got a slightly better feel to it. I do a lot of my drum programming like that, just pasting it all together so there are thousands of little bits in a four-minute track. I get individual hits from anywhere. Sometimes I will paste a lump of 32 bars to get the overall thing, then go in and move them around and change the timing of some and time-stretch others and reverse bits, generally fuck about with them.”

SOUND MIRRORS SHATTERED

Though Sound Mirrors is a diverse album, from the bust-up banging of “Everything Is Under Control” and the ominously wrought “Mr. Nichols” to Bollywood blowout “True Skool,” it's the title track that sounds most epic and involved. Opening with what sounds like broken strings on guitars, the track rises slowly with a full orchestra, jazz piano, upright bass, floating drums, countless keyboards and effects, culminating in a brass-fired crescendo. It's the calm core of an overachieving beat-driven record, and More remembers every note.

“The sort of weird, vaguely Japanese, vaguely electronic-sounding percussion and drums, and actually, the piano as well, are all programmed,” he explains. “Originally, I had a programmed upright bass, but then I got Phil France from the Cinematic Orchestra to replay the programmed bass lines. Then we got a string quartet in doing the pizzicato parts. We got together with an arranger, Michael Price, and he extrapolated our original arrangement and turned it into something suitable for a 36-piece orchestra! We went into Studio One at Abbey Road; I tinkled on the Beatles piano, which was most enjoyable; and for three days, we recorded and mixed that track in 6.1. Then, we did the stereo mix, which is on the album. So it is quite incredible to think that 50 percent of the track was programmed in Ableton Live, which costs about 500 dollars. And the rest of it was done with a 36-piece string orchestra using all the facilities of Abbey Road.”

As always with Coldcut, nothing is exactly what it seems. The sound of swooshing pellets near the track's end is actually a sampled rainstick, “this massive plastic tube you use for drainage with a bunch of rice in it,” More says. “You just pick it up and chuck it from horizontal to vertical and record that. Then, we time-stretched it to about twice its length with a whole bunch of effects to create that swooshing sound.”

Equally perplexing is a warmish high-tone mid-track that sounds like some lone animal crying in the wilderness. This time, Coldcut did dangerous things to a band of brass players. “That is actually an eight-piece brass section that I took and chopped up and time-stretched, adding delays,” More says. “The original source was the brass section playing a long note. It is like a hunting note [people] blow when they go fox hunting. It is a pastoral sound. I love time-stretching because it gives it a completely different feel. We usually use it to make short sounds a lot longer but sometimes compressing big stuff into tiny, tiny stuff, like we did there.”

WORLD WAR III IS NOW

Much of the Coldcut aesthetic is about killing your idols, or ideals, and reinventing everything else. Not content to use the gear of the '80s, Black and More improved on it and made it their own. This translates into their radio (Solid Steel) and ongoing Internet video shows (vjs.net, piratetv.net, nowthemovie.org), and their elastic stable of Ninja Tune artists. Just as no one can teach you to be creative, no one can direct the internal “life of the mind,” as John Goodman referred to it in Barton Fink. But there are signposts.

“If you took ten DJs and gave them all the same ten records,” Matt Black says, “many of the DJs would mix those records together very competently in various orders. One of those DJs might take the records and saw them up and glue them back together again. He would open the mixer up and rewrite it and fuck about with the turntable so it plays at any speed and can play backwards. One in ten people are more inquisitive and want to take things further. Those people are still out there, but they are hidden beneath the weight of all this easily produced music.”

Listening to a new Coldcut record is like receiving a visit from the Magi, or at least a sage, who might pass along some deep truths or secret inner wisdom. As the conversation with Black and More drifts from the Illuminati to 9/11 to Robert Anton Wilson, one wonders if the barmy boffins are as cynical and world-weary as they appear. Is their reflection what it seems? Has Coldcut's distrust of “The Man” and the global powers that be only deepened through the years? Black lets out a wicked laugh.

“That is a great sound bite, but I don't know if it is really true,” he says. “When I was young, everything was shit; now I think that things are as good as they are shit. There is a duality. It is always a battle between the forces of darkness and light, and that battle goes on within each of us.

“‘Everything Is Under Control’ is a rant,” Black asserts. “But there is a serious point behind the theories, be they David Icke's reptile control or Nazis under the North Pole or the Illuminati. But what is truth is a central horrifying realization of control. If you do a Web search for ‘Buckminster Fuller great pirates,’ you will get an interesting perspective on who those controllers are. World War III is now, and it is a battle between the forces who would deny man his rightful spiritual evolution and those who fight for the light.”

COLDCUT KIT

Computer, DAW, recording hardware
PC with Pentium 4 processor, 2.8 GHz, Windows XP SP2

Consoles, mixers, interface
Allen & Heath Sabre Plus console
MOTU 2408 Mk3 digital audio interface

Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers
Akai MPC3000 sampling workstation
Allen & Heath Xone:32 DJ mixer
Pioneer CDJ-100S CD player and DVJ-X1 DVD turntable
Roland TR-808, TR-909, TR-707 and R-8 drum machines
Technics SL1210 turntable

Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments
Ableton Live 5 software
Antares AutoTune plug-in
BBE Sonic Maximiser plug-in
Korg MS-10, Triton synths
KVR Interruptor BionicDelay plug-in
Oberheim Matrix-1000
Roland JD-800 synth, MKS-50 rackmount synth
Steinberg Nuendo software
Yamaha PSS-780 synth

Waldorf MicroWave 1 rackmount synth
PSP Nitro, VintageWarmer plug-ins
Silverspike TapeIt 2 plug-in
SmartElectronix SupaTrigga, LiveCut plug-ins

Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
Drawmer LX20 Expander/Compressor
Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer
Korg SE-300 Stage Echo
Røde NT2 mic
TC Electronic Finalizer

Monitors
Dynaudio BM6As

URLS for free plug-ins
Coldcutter: www.brightonart.co.uk/coldcutter.shtml

LiveCut: http://mdsp.smartelectronix.com/2005/06/bbcut-and-livecut.php

Interruptor Bionic Delay: www.kvraudio.com/get/892.html

SupaTrigga: http://bram.smartelectronix.com/plugins.php?id=6

DO AS DR. DRE DOES

Coldcut created the beat for ‘Boogieman’ with Ableton Live's internal drum machine, Impulse, which led to further experiments: “Ableton Live 5 comes bundled with a good selection of not only instruments and effects but materials as well,” Jonathan More says. “In terms of built-in instruments, there is a drum machine called Impulse, which is very easy to work with and load. We simply got some good kick and snare sounds and layered them up. Afterwards, at the mastering studio we were at, we did actually listen to some Dr. Dre tracks, and when you looked at them on the spectrum analyzer, you could see that his snare hits occupy a huge frequency band. The way that is achieved is by layering lots of different snares, which fill up different parts of the sonic spectrum so it gives you one heavy crunk on the beat. Layering sound is obvious, but if you listen to a lot of the funkiest grooves, you will find that actually the bass line is playing the same pattern as the drums. So overall, you get a reinforced sound. Reinforcing by layering is something we did heavily in ‘Boogieman.’”