Q&A with Max Cooper: Immersive Audio & Video Innovator
United Kingdom-based DJ and producer Max Cooper discusses the past, present, and future of immersive audio – and its intersection with immersive visuals.
An early adopter of immersive audio and video, Max Cooper has been creating 3D music since 2010. Cooper is known for his fully immersive performances, which balance visual art and music. In 2016, he released Emergence in Dolby Atmos. Since then he’s released another four albums and several remixes, including his album Glassforms (2020). It was a pleasure to interview him for the IAA blog, and we’re thrilled to share his views on art, music, and (of course) immersive audio.
Congratulations on the release of Glassforms this year! Tell us about the creation of that album.
It was my first experience creating a live album with hardware running via midi and custom software connection to Bruce Brubaker playing a midi enabled grand.
Alexander Randon built us a tool to allow me to live-modulate the midi signal before it reaches my synths. I have a live patch building jam for the shows, which we recorded, and I then took home to the studio to work with it further.
It was a refreshing process coming from my usual approach of mousing around music projects, building things in tiny iterations at a time, and it fed into my solo project techniques a lot as well.
What do you enjoy most about creating immersive experiences? What is most challenging about creating in this way?
I think we need music to immerse us; it’s escapism to somewhere different. So creating immersive music, for me, is just a natural extension. It’s a way of making the message more powerful. I aim for that with many techniques other than just spatial signals, though: constant bass harmonies to create a warm body massage, constant pads to engulf. I love that feeling when the music wraps you up and takes you somewhere else.
That’s why I make so much music. I just love the experience of sitting amongst those sound fields.
In terms of what is challenging though, everything is. Making even half decent music is really difficult. It takes years and years of hard work along with plenty of pain and frustration with all the failed attempts. Maybe some people have an easier path, but I think they’re the miniscule minority.
Simple music can seem easy to make, similar to simple art. People say, “I could have done that!” when they’re at the modern art museum. But set out to make a simple hit piece of music or art, and you’ll find it’s not so easy. Just creating something simple is easy, but simple and novel and subtly rich and engaging isn’t. In the end, everyone is competing for these things. So, if it was easy everyone would make hits and they would no longer be hits, proving that idea false.
Tell us about the evolution of 3D audio tech since you first started using it. How has it improved? Are you surprised by the way the industry has evolved?
The basics of the tech haven’t changed that much since I started. There has been a general move towards object-based systems, which allow you to build 3D audio spaces. Those spaces map to any speaker configuration (rather than just mapping particular sounds to particular speakers), but even that technology existed when I started with spatial experiments around 2010 or so.
There has been a big growth in the number of different groups offering these sorts of tools though, and more freely accessible tools as well.
But the main change for me has been the public interest, and the growth in home surround systems via gaming, home cinema, and soundbar integration. Plus, the distribution architecture with Avidplay gives independent labels a method for Dolby Atmos distribution. And more streaming platforms are starting to support the format.
There’s still a long way to go, but it’s growing, and there’s a lot of untapped potential for artistry in there, which is what excites me about the whole thing.
What would you tell people to get them to listen to your music, or support immersive audio as a whole?
Spatiality is a fundamental part of our audio-awareness. Try blocking your ears for a day and find out how much duller the world becomes. Try listening to a binaural recording with good headphones and your eyes closed, and experience how real it feels. Spatiality has always been part of music, but now we have the technology to much more fully express ideas with it.
Traditionally we’ve had melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, and dynamics to create our music. Now, we have spatiality as an artistic tool as well. It’s a building block of our experience of sound as important as any other. So if you want more from your musical experience, it’s worth delving in – just as colour TVs were worth upgrading from black and white.
What are you currently working on related to immersive audio and/or in general?
I’m working on my next album and a film project. The album has a lot of spatial work via binaural field recordings. I’m using the new DPA 4560 in-ear mics, and a lot of simulated binaural panning work (Sennheiser Ambeo Orbit free plugin is great for this amongst other things). That’s all binaural work though – spatial signals for headphone listening and partially for good stereo field speaker systems.
The film project is more developed with Dolby Atmos spatialisation, building pieces of music as physical entities out there in a space around you. It can be experienced more directly via home surround systems in addition to the purely binaural route.
Do you have a surround sound system at home? If so, which one?
I just have a simple 6 channel audio setup in a hexagon, although I need to get some roof mounted speakers put in for the new Atmos project so I can monitor the height properly.
You were an early adopter of immersive recording and production, using 3D tech as early as 2013. What first inspired you to utilize 3D audio tech?
My whole approach to music has always been about how I could take my love of club music and the live experience and make it something more. That led me not only towards a lot of visual experimentation (which has become as central as my music to my shows), but also to looking for ways to expand on the music side of things too, via spatial mixing, spatial live formats, and generally bringing elements of every genre I love together into one.
Take us through remixing Emergence. What was it like remixing for Atmos?
It was a great experience. I got to spend a lot of time at Dolby Soho in London in one of their spatial audio studios, delving into every sound of every piece of music, spatialising, and live jamming 3D walks for every track.
It was a long process, but I pushed as hard as I could to maximise on the spatial form and have it become as much a part of the music as anything else. I tried to escape the standard format of having all the main elements front centered as well, and got a bit more experimental with the surrounding form.
The most challenging aspect was having to use Pro Tools instead of my usual Ableton DAW. The Atmos panner itself is intuitive and easy to use.
Tell us about the visual aspect of your work. When did you start integrating visuals into your music, and what inspired you to move in this direction?
Since my first EPs in around 2008/2009 I’ve always had a visual element. I started in the traditional manner of writing music and sending it to visual artists to come up with a video, but over time I got more and more into integrating the two.
Now, I generally write up visual ideas first, then chat with visual artists and write the music with the visual art in mind. I love visual art, and music, and science, and this approach is how I can bring them all together. Here are some examples: www.emergence.maxcooper.net or www.yearningfortheinfinite.net.
What projects do you anticipate working on in the future? Do you plan to continue creating immersive experiences for your audiences?
Yes, the live side of things is where there’s a ton of unexplored potential, both in terms of physical surround AV mapping, but also digital live stream experiences mapped to this same AV spatial form. This way, both the online audience and the live audience can simultaneously experience immersive audio and visual.
Where do you see the future of immersive audio production going? What are you most looking forward to seeing? Anything you are hesitant about?
4DSOUND from Amsterdam are really pushing things forward in exciting ways. I’m always looking to them for what’s coming next.
What would you say to beginners interested in creating immersive music?
If you enjoy it, then delve in. It’s that enjoyment of the art form and your resulting drive to spend time on it that is more important than any particular software or hardware tools.