Uncommon Sounds: Dave Cooley Damns the Cliches

Every now and then, we experience that strange phenomenon in which one name keeps popping up in connection with much of the best music going down at any given time. Without a doubt, Dave Cooley has got to be at the top of the current list. The Milwaukee-born, Los Angeles-based producer, engineer, and keyboardist is currently making big waves for his work with an intriguingly varied number of rock and rap artists, as well as an assortment of artists in-between and way outside: J Dilla, Bloc Party, Matthew Dear, Madlib, Peanut Butter Wolf, David Axelrod, Silversun Pickups, International Noise Conspiracy, and Darker My Love.

In addition to his busy production schedule, Cooley owns and operates Elysian Masters in Echo Park with Kelly Hibbert. Currently, Cooley is ensconced at Sunset Sound Recorders in the middle of Hollywood—the Doors, the Stones, and tons of other icons worked there—working on the follow up to the Silversun Pickups’ Carnavas.

“The history of this place is incredible,” says Cooley. “We’ve recorded in a number of different places around town, but there’s something about the warmth of the wood and the size of the room that makes drums sound amazing. There’s a certain liveliness that lends itself to rock music, as well.”

Although he is becoming well known as a producer of edge-pushing modern rock bands, much of Cooley’s earliest work was mixing hip-hop— an experience that gave him an intimate understanding of the different sonic requirements of each genre.

“When you mix hip-hop,” he says, “you can get away with a lot less vintage equipment. Hip-hop is more about creating a futuristic, otherworldly environment, and then balancing everything, making sure the vocal is intelligible. Of course, you want it to rock, but you’re not as reliant on harmonic distortion, vintage compressors, and vintage consoles. Basically, it’s a more digital medium, and there’s a lot more space. You don’t have to rely on building up subtle layers of harmonic distortion to make the whole thing sound fatter. In rock music, however, things are reliant on tape and outboard gear. It seems like the elements want to be pushed harder, so you push things into the red. If a mix is too clear, it’s not as inviting, or as heavy. But in hip-hop it’s acceptable if things are really clear.”

Cooley’s experience also inspired an appreciation for the various applications of digital and analog technology. Now, the “velvet heaviness” of his production work relies on a hybrid approach.

“I started on the digital end of things, and then moved towards more traditional recording techniques,” says Cooley. “There are all these analog characteristics—such as depth, dimension, and width—that you sacrifice when you’re using a computer, and you can try to find ways to make up for them. In addition, there are certain things that digital doesn’t do very well—such as boosting high end and compression—so you have to learn how to blend the analog with the digital.”

Of course, coming from a hip-hop background, Cooley does value some of the digital artifacts and aliasing that are part of that genre’s sound, and he plans to make extensive use of these anomalies on the Silversun record to give a dry, cold, and “sample- y” timbre to a lot of the keyboard tracks. Avoiding clichés is of utmost importance in Cooley productions, and that goes from the song’s initial conception all the way through its arrangement, performance, mixing, and editing.

“When you sing, `You’ve got a heart of stone,’ the lyric just flies past most people,” he says. “They can’t connect emotionally with it, because they’ve heard that cliché so many times. Such clichés remove you from the music, and from the moment. The same thing happens with textures, guitar tones, and drum sounds. If you constantly play cards that are clichés, the music won’t draw you in, because it’s not hitting you in a new way. One option for achieving something that sounds unique is to find arrangements that are flattering to the artist’s vision of what he or she wants to be, but to also incorporate some kind of creative or sonic tension. That way, there’s a kind of dialogue between two disparate areas that hopefully sounds mysterious and interesting.”

During his tenure as both a producer and mix engineer, Cooley has developed a favorite list of basic tools that typically create the foundations for his recording projects— unless he decides to try doing things another way.

“We use everything on vocals,” he says. “We’ve used Electro-Voice RE20s, Neumann U67s and U47s, and even an AKG C12A. It depends on what sounds good on a particular voice. Usually, we’ll put up eight different mics at the beginning of a project, and have the vocalist sing through them all in order to see which one really flatters their voice.”

Cooley is just as picky about drums, and he’s fastidious about tuning.

“I spend a lot of time tuning drums,” he admits. “We’ll sit around a Casio keyboard, and make sure that the notes the snare and toms are sounding do something musical to the song. We might go through ten different snare drums to find the one that produces a note that’s flattering to the music. I learned that many producers in the ’60s and ’70s were extremely concerned with how the tuning of the drums affected the overall sound. Apparently, the Rolling Stones were very big on that.”

For compression, Cooley tends to rely on two polar opposites—a Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor for adding color, flavor, and distortion (especially on 100 percent digital tracks), and a Cranesong STC-8 for extremely transparent level adjustments. He also owns a couple of compressors made by John Hinson, who is apparently one of the very few people to have access to the schematics for the modifications EMI techs did to the ’50s- and ’60s-era Altec compressors used at Abbey Road. For monitoring, Cooley is hooked on Barefoot Sound MM27s.

“They’re incredible,” he says. “They have a lot of extension in the low end, but they also have the super-clear midrange of a Yamaha NS10.”

Cooley’s cliché-free, artfully complex productions typically serve one basic objective.

“My goal is to have the product sound like it wasn’t made in the computer,” he says. “Whatever you’re doing with the music, you have to keep an ear out for things that stay true to rock and roll, and sound a little bit off the rails.”