Bob Cooper is a Music Producer currently based at The Chairworks in Castleford. He has worked with bands like Self Defense Family, Nai Harvest and itoldyouiwouldeatyou, for labels such as Deathwish Inc and Big Scary Monsters. Bob is well-known for his in-depth technical notes, which he shares on Instagram. We chatted about how he structures his days, and why you should prioritise your health and happiness instead of hustling constantly.
Hi Bob! The other people I’ve interviewed for this series have all had a home studio - either a permanent setup, or a makeshift workspace they’ve put together as a result of the lockdown - but I know you’re still commuting to your studio in Castleford. How have things changed for you?
"I was very scared the first week of lockdown because I had to postpone so much recording work."
Well, luckily there’s no-one else at the studio, so I can go there and still isolate, not touching anyone or seeing anyone. There are two other guys that normally work in the same building. One guy who isn’t coming in at all currently, and another guy who works in a studio at the very far end of the building, and I just haven’t seen him. He’s so far away and his studio is super high up, we never see each other.
I was very scared the first week of lockdown because I had to postpone so much recording work. I had one EP and one single to mix at that time, and that was it. But I kind of like those situations where you’ve just got to figure things out, because you have no other option. I decided to just put myself out there, offering to make an hour-long video for people where I would go through their stems, or their raw drum audio, and demonstrate how I would mix it. For the first couple of weeks I was doing that every day!
Since then I’ve had some full albums of mixing work come in. Two of those were test mixes, for bands who I think are awesome. So I did my best on those test mixes, and I managed to win them. That’s not something I’m able to do often, because I rarely have time to do the “test mix” thing.
Luckily, I was supposed to be on holiday for the first week and a half of lockdown. I didn’t have any work scheduled for that time, so I had nothing to lose, and that gave me more time to figure out a new way of working. I’m almost working like normal now, and I’m not really sure how that came about, but I’m glad it did!
You mentioned there have been some bands you were particularly excited about mixing. Does that include the recent Self Defense Family record?
"My studio at that time was originally built by the dude from Sisters of Mercy, so they were like 'Let’s write a song that sounds kind of like Sisters of Mercy!'."
That one was a real surprise! On their last UK tour they stayed at my flat, so I suggested we record something the next day. My studio at that time was originally built by the dude from Sisters of Mercy, so they were like “Let’s write a song that sounds kind of like Sisters of Mercy!”. They wrote and recorded two songs in five hours, all live in the room together, which is something I haven’t experienced either before or since. You rarely get a band that’s so tight, to be able to do that.
With Self Defense Family in general, they seem to have like a decade of music just archived, that they’ll finish eventually. So this was one of those! But the lockdown is giving them a reason to start putting this stuff out. Patrick recorded his vocals at a rehearsal room earlier this year, and I could literally hear a thrash metal band playing next door on some of his takes, but it was good enough to make it work. Self Defense Family have some good sounding records, but they also have some not so good sounding records, and I was really excited to present them how I wanted them to sound. Although there was a lot of me fighting with what I did four years ago, when I was a much worse engineer!
I’m sure that’s not the case! So you’ve been mixing albums remotely, are there any resources you’ve found particularly useful for that? Either for sharing audio more seamlessly, or sharing notes and feedback?
"I don’t use any screen sharing, an attended online mix session sounds like my nightmare! But I might do it if a band insisted."
I’ve got rules that generally seem to work. All revisions have to come through an email, and I give my clients a style guide for how I’d like to receive revisions. I send mixes via WeTransfer. There are some other great things that I should probably try - there’s a service called FilePass that looks really good. I use a CRM called Close, and I keep information in there about all my projects, all my clients. It also helps me with reminders to follow up with bands. Unfortunately I do still get Instagram messages asking for revisions!
I don’t use any screen sharing, an attended online mix session sounds like my nightmare! But I might do it if a band insisted. Personally, I find attended mix sessions unnecessary, even in person. If we’re recording an album, I tell the band that if there is anything they’re expecting me to fix in the mix, then we haven’t finished recording. I will make sure everything is totally dotted or crossed off. Everything has to be ready to mix, and for me that means getting the balance right, it doesn’t mean additional production.
In general, I’d prefer not to mix the same project all day, because you have productivity peaks and dips throughout the day. If I can get to the studio for 8am, I can have a really good mix session until 1pm or 2pm. Then I’ll have a dip for a couple of hours, and in that dip I’ll either do revisions, or something a bit more mindless like editing, because I know I can’t make any good creative decisions in that period of time. An hour or two later I start coming back up again, and that’s the recovery period, which is a very creative time of day. That’s when I do a lot of my automation, and when I try to make a mix feel more emotional. The start of the day is very technical, “I need the kick drum to operate in this frequency range, I need the snare drum to operate in this frequency range”, whereas the end of the day I’m thinking “I need this to make me feel a certain way”. It wouldn’t be good to have a band waiting around in the middle of the day, waiting for me to make a good decision when I know I can’t!
That makes sense to me. It’s interesting that you say you’re most productive if you start at 8am, because I imagine that’s quite common, but I’m always surprised by how many engineers prefer to start at 10am or even 12 noon. And then a lot of the time it’s a case of “work until everyone’s sick of it”.
"I love doing this job more than anything in the world, but I know it’s not important enough to require 14-hour days, 7 days a week. That kind of schedule will absolutely sacrifice your health, and nothing’s worth that."
Well, on a recording day I do work from 10am, but my sessions are 8 hours instead of everyone working until they die! You can’t have a home life or a family when you work like that, it doesn’t make sense to me. A lot of my approach comes from a book called Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg. If you’re not much of a morning person, you might have your peak in the evening, and your recovery in the morning. So you might do your best analytical work in the evening, but your best creative work will be in the morning, even if that means more like 11am rather than 8am. It changes as you age, but when you know this stuff, you can take advantage of when you work best.
When I’m mixing, I’m in charge of my schedule, and I’m way happier when I get up really early, but it’s much easier in summer than in winter! On a Monday I can get to the studio at 8am, on a Friday it might be more like 9:30am. I think I overdo it on a Monday because I’ll often work until 7, without realising how hard that 11-hour day hits me. But I have a real problem with the attitude of working 14-hour days, it’s a big thing in the recording industry. How are you supposed to have a family life and a social life, or stay healthy and eat good food? It doesn’t make any sense to me.
I love doing this job more than anything in the world, but I know it’s not important enough to require 14-hour days, 7 days a week. That kind of schedule will absolutely sacrifice your health, and nothing’s worth that. I’ve found that my work is so much better now that I take a full weekend off - you can only do good work if you’re resting, too. Say you’re building muscle for example, the muscle is built in the recovery period. You do a little bit of work that stretches you, but then you have to take a break to actually build the muscle. And it’s the same with your mind!
I used to have that hustle mindset where I worked all the time and never saw anyone, and then I just fully burnt out. I couldn’t work properly for two months after that because I felt terrible, and it was probably six months to a year before I was fully immersed in making music again. It’s not a sustainable path, and I want to be doing this job until… well, until I’m dead!
I agree with you there! I think it’s really important to look after yourself. Just to kind of bring us back around, has there been any NUGEN software that you’ve found particularly useful for these mix sessions?
"SEQ-S is cleaner than anything else I’ve tried, and it’s really good as a mix bus EQ."
I’m still using your EQ for everything! I still think it’s great. That’s the main one I use, I haven’t dug into the other NUGEN plug-ins as much as I should. SEQ-S is cleaner than anything else I’ve tried, and it’s really good as a mix bus EQ. This past month or so I’ve been much heavier on mix bus EQ than normal, and SEQ-S has come in really useful. It’s great!
Thanks! It’s nice to get at least one NUGEN plug somewhere in here. And the last thing, if there’s one piece of advice you could give to other audio professionals working in the lockdown, what would it be?
"Every day when I mix, especially if it’s really nice weather, I’ll mix for 50 minutes and then I’ll just go and sit outside the studio for 10 minutes."
Take breaks! Take advantage of whatever outside time you’re allowed, because it’s so restorative, make sure you’re getting it. Being able to go outside for exercise is very, very beneficial for our minds. And especially in an industry where everyone works in a dark room for 12 hours, that outside time is important!
Every day when I mix, especially if it’s really nice weather, I’ll mix for 50 minutes and then I’ll just go and sit outside the studio for 10 minutes. And my work is so much better when I get back! Because I’ve had some space away from working.
Great! Thanks for doing this, it’s been nice to have a chat!