When Cooley first moved to Los Angeles from his hometown of Milwaukee, his interest was chiefly in recording and mixing records. And he started out doing just that. He landed a choice gig working with producer extraordinaire Eric Valentine, and was able to begin refining his craft and finding his way.
“I worked with Eric for a while, learning the ropes on Pro Tools when that was still something sort of new,” says Cooley. “So I assisted him on some sessions, and then went on to produce some bands on my own; and had fun doing that.”
To this day, Cooley is the rare mastering engineer that still occasionally produces and mixes records – most notably working with L.A. favorites, Silversun Pickups. But the mastering work, he assures, continues to dominate his time. “It’s become the thing that I’m doing the best, and the most,” he says.
Although mastering had been of interest to Cooley as he started his career, it wasn’t always so clear that it would become his chief vocation. But it was kind of a calling, or – in a sense – the path he’d always been on. He’d come up a DJ and avid record collector, always in search of new and diverse sounds. Mastering records was a good way to channel his versatility and satisfy his appetite for new music, new styles and sounds.
“I grew up in the crate digging scene of the 90‘s, so finding old records, jazz, R&B, hip hop, funk, etc. was really important,” Cooley describes, “And I was just enjoying as much music as I could possibly get my hands on. I did an ‘all you can eat buffet’ for about ten or fifteen years. The good part of that was it allowed me to understand genre-specific music…which was the future back then, and now it’s sort of what everything is right now. [To do that] you have to know what those records sound like, and what they are supposed to sound like.”
One year, on a random record hunt in Nashville, Dave happened to strike up a conversation with a fellow vinyl aficionado, Eothen Alapatt. The two stayed in touch and ended up moving to L.A. around the same time. While Cooley was honing his engineering chops, Alapatt had begun working for the indie hip-hop label Stones Throw Records. Cooley saw an opportunity to try his hand at mastering.
“I said to Eothen, ‘look, why don’t you shoot-out my mastering with whoever you’re using now,’” Cooley recalls, “And he went for it. So I mastered a song and they came back and said ‘well, yours sounds better…. so you’re doing all of our mastering from now on.’ So at that point it was like…figure it out! trial by fire!”
With a sturdy toolkit including a GML 8200 EQ, a Crane Song STC-8, and some Lavry Blue Converters, Dave began mastering all of Stones Throw’s releases – including multiple records by the highly influential producer/rapper, J Dilla, and hip-hop artist/producer and Stones Throw founder, Peanut Butter Wolf.
Without a mentor who was a mastering engineer, Cooley had to learn a lot on his own, and having gone through many different processes, pieces of gear, and aesthetics, he has come to rest with the “less is more” philosophy.
“It’s interesting how long it takes to get a grip on it [mastering], it’s a very simple process, but to do it properly you have to be minimal,” he says. “But to do it minimally is difficult. You need to encounter enough problems over the years to know how to achieve your goal with the fewest number of steps.
“If you solve the problem that comes in your door with 15 steps it probably won’t sound as good as it would have if you had only used one or two. For every move in mastering there is a slight penalty, so you want to rack up as few penalties as possible while you’re getting to the finish line: To do that, and knowing which steps to skip, which things to go for and grab onto, takes a lot of time and experience.”
Accomplishing the best results with the least interference is not only a specialty of Cooley’s, but one that actively stays out of the way of the music while allowing it to be presented in the best light possible; truly an important concern when working with independent music that comes to him in so many different states of (sonic) quality.
Many independent artists today are not always highly skilled engineers and mixers, so elevating the quality of the final product can often come down to the ears of the mastering engineer. This is a role that Cooley relishes, and it allows him to stay closely in touch with the independent music he is so passionate about.
“I’ve done work for major labels too and that’s fine, there is some cool stuff that’s coming out,” he allows. “But for me, I’ve been always specifically tried to work with independent artists, because that’s the music that I love.”
Recent albums mastered at Elysian include M83’s acclaimed Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, and new releases by Madlib, Stars, Liars, Magic Trick and Salem.
Visit Elysian Masters and Dave Cooley at http://www.elysianmasters.com.