Interview: Carl Cox on Ableton Live, DJing technology and his new album
With his giant beaming face and iconic gap-toothed smile, Carl Cox is immediately recognisable. He’s been at the captain’s table of dance music since most of you have been knee-high to a Technics.
That’s not to say he’s over-the-hill, or chilling with his pipe and slippers just yet. Not unlike a DJing version of Madonna, he’s managed to stay on top of music’s many twists and turns, and still manages to pave the way.
His latest studio album, All Roads Lead to the Dancefloor, is set to show all you whippersnappers that the don dadda of the banging beat is still at the cutting edge of the scene, both in his music and how he delivers it.
Music-wise the album represents a bit of a departure, what with BPMs fluctuating wildly to take in dubstep, drum ‘n’ bass, Latin and of course, techno. What will strike most peeps about the new album, however, is the format, and that (like old K-Tel pop compilations) it’s not available in the shops. Well, not in a CD type of way. It comes on a USB stick, you see.
Basically, you buy the USB drive (available now for just £17.99), stick it your laptop and it connects to the Carl Cox server and feeds you ‘phases’ of the album.
Those who’ve already picked it up will have been treated to lead singles and some other tracks. Each new update that follows brings you more tunes, remixes, live touring renditions of the album, and all the Carl Cox news you can wave a glow stick at.
We spoke to Mr Cox about the album project and got the inside scoop on how he makes music and his approach to DJing…
So, Carl ‘Three Decks’ Cox? I don’t suppose you’ve been called that for a while?
“Ha. No, not at all. I was more synonymous with that title about 15 years ago…”
Extra turntables, flying over time zones to notch up two NYE sets, and now your new album, All Roads Lead to the Dancefloor, being released exclusively on a constantly updating USB stick. You like being that little bit different…
“I’ve always been a person that’s wanted to give more, and that’s what the new album is all about. Not just releasing a few singles then an album. This USB stick is the album. With it I’m able to push the envelope a little bit more than just being one dimensional, and releasing things that people expect me to make.”
This is your fourth album, and it’s not only the concept that’s modern, the music is pretty cutting edge too.
“Yeah, it’s pretty 21st century in terms what you’re getting. You’re getting drum ‘n’ bass on the album, you’re getting dubstep on the album, and you’re getting high-quality techno on the album, and I wanted to release it all in one go. I didn’t want it to go straight on a download site, I wanted something tangible. So, with this USB technology you get the music and then when you plug the stick into your computer you connect to us and get updates. So you get three phases of the album, with remixes, news, mixes.”
“You’ll get a little signal and be told that there is something new to download to your USB stick. You’ll be first to know about all the music I’m playing, all the music I’m signing, where I’m playing, streams from radio shows… It’s a little power house of Carl Cox music, really.”
Sounds fresh! Talk to us a little about the production on the album. What’s your studio like today?
“I’m making music on the move - I’m on the move all the time, as you can imagine. So I’m using Ableton Live to basically make music when I’m sat on a plane, or wherever, really. I’ll be sat in a hotel room on my own and have these little ideas in my head. Ableton gives me that freedom to make music when the mood takes me. It’s definitely the program to use, because you can create basslines and chord structures, just from the QWERTY keys.
“So, for me, that is quite cool as you don’t need an external keyboard to play synths and that. A high-powered Apple Mac computer and Ableton Live is a match made in heaven for me. I just put the headphones in and rock the house.”
You do have your own studio in Melbourne as well.
“Yeah, the writing studio in Australia. That’s where I can up the ante and bounce everything down into a Pro Tools system. With Pro Tools I’m able to use some really emotive plug-ins and really bolster the sound into a concept. Then, when I’ve got it into that area I’ve got two super producers in Melbourne. One called Josh Abrahams, and another called David Carbone [collectively known as s:amplify].
“What’s really good about working with these guys is that they have this fully-fledged studio with some amazing Focusrite bits on the mastering end which really brings the sound out. All the music that you hear on the All Roads Lead to the Dancefloor album came out of that studio, and they have everything that I don’t have.
“So, I’m quite lucky as they’re always worrying about updates and the latest keyboard sounds, and I’m like ‘Yep. You worry about that, and I’ll worry about the music’.”
So, this working relationship is better for you now as you can let those guys worry about the technical side of the music?
“Exactly. I used to worry about that all the time, as I had my own fully-fledged studio in Horsham, but as soon as you turned your back there was a new update or system, or something new to work with. That would drive me mad.
“All I wanted to do was make a bassline or a chord, or do a loop in such a way, but then sometimes the sound cards would go out of date, and you’d have to update with another new piece of machinery or hardware to make it work. I didn’t know anything about that, so ended up looking on message boards and forums to find out how it worked, and it was very stressful.
“So I decided to take myself out of that equation, and just become the producer and let these guys give me what I need. Anything new that comes out, they’re on it, and for me that’s brilliant.”
What’s your setup like when you’re out DJing live? Are you taking Ableton Live on the road with you?
“My DJ setup now is all Pioneer orientated. I use Pioneer CDJ2000s, where I’m able to stick a USB drive straight into the player. I make playlists for certain parties when I’m playing round the world, then click onto those playlists for what I want to play that night. Then I’m able to choose those records like I would if I had them in a record box. It’s great.
“I use four of those players when I’m DJing now, and I integrate that with the new Pioneer DJM-2000 mixer. I’m all Pioneer now.”
Carl Cox at the North Coast Music Festival 2011 in Chicago in September 2011. © RD/ Kabik/Retna Ltd./Corbis
It’s Carl ‘Four Decks’ Cox now, then?
“Ha ha, yeah.”
It’s an interesting time to be DJing, what with the digital revolution. You’re bringing it with the DJM-2000, which gives you new complex effects combinations, and greater technical control over the music you play. Do you think there is a convergence overall between DJing and production now? I’m thinking about with the likes of Traktor. Or Ableton and Serato bringing out The Bridge.
“It’s trying to get that way, isn’t it? I kinda went that way a little bit by using the Traktor system with a four-deck set-up. I found that I was getting too geeky with performance, though. It’s like, ‘put that loop over that, then that over that, over that…’ and you’ve lost the sense of the original record.”
“Also, you just find yourself playing loops all the time. ‘Loop that record, that record and that one…’ and you’ve found you’ve gone into ‘studio mode’. It’s pretty cool, I like the idea of that, but everything is so structured and so clean and nice that you end up losing the edge and soul and groove of what it used to be like when you were DJing. That ‘edge’ of it all.”
So you want to take it back to an old skool two decks and a mixer way of working?
“ I took myself out of the equation of overdoing it and back to the element of just mixing the record in. So, I stop the player, or scratch it or spin it back. That is the essence of what DJing was about. I didn’t want to lose that, because that very thing got me where I am today, and it’s kept me where I am today based on the reason that people like that energy of what I create.”
“I just couldn’t emulate that when I was just syncing my records into Traktor on four players without the aide of anything else. It’s kinda weird when people used to see me back then with three turntables and effects, and now it’s just a laptop. It’s like ’woah, that’s not the sound of Carl Cox,’ and it certainly wasn’t. I put my feelers out and saw what I could get involved in, but it just wasn’t my way. Hats off to people like Richie Hawtin, who is the don king at it. I’ve just gone back to traditional DJing. It’s all about the songs.”
Coming soon on MusicRadar, Carl Cox talks us through his six favourite albums.
Carl Cox’s latest album, All Roads Lead to the Dancefloor, is out now. Third single Nexus drops on 24 October (with remixes from Foamo and Tomy De Clerque)