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Interview with DJEQ Magazine Issue 2. Words by Tim Irwin



Even if you know nothing about UK garage, the chances are you've heard of MJ Cole, the West London boy behind last summer' s underground anthem 'Sincere', the massive 'Shadows' and mixes for Kim Mazelle, Soul II Soul and Johnny L. His production skills are some of the most respected on the garage scene, so DJ eQ went to find out just how he does it.

MJ Cole, alias Matt Coleman, is not your average garage producer-in fact he's not your average producer full stop. For a start there's his varied and somewhat unusual background. A classically trained pianist and oboe player, he began producing drum & bass whilst at music college and engineered for some of the biggest stars on the garage scene before moving on to make a name for himself in his own right. Then there's his seriously diverse taste in music, taking in everything from classical composers like Rachmaninov and Debussy, through weirded out electro-acoutic doodlings and seventies funk, to a wide cross-section of contemporary dance flavours. And it doesn't stop there. Speaking to Matt at his West London base, it soon becomes clear that he takes a similarly idiosyncratic approach in the studio. He seldom uses breakbeats or instrumental loops, plays everything live wherever possible and almost never uses EQ when mixing a track down. He talks as enthusiastically about fiddling with sounds in his sampler as he does about using live musicians or arranging songs on the fly. He wants to experiment with both melody and process, to play music and to manipulate sound. It's an approach that can be heard in the devastating hooks and super-crisp production of tracks like 'Sincere' and it's one that Matt agreed to share with Dj eQ readers, providing an exclusive insight into his unique studio skills.

Music and the Machine
Where many formally trained musicians shy away from experimenting with technology and many dance producers have concentrated on manipulating tone and colour at the expense of melody, MJ Cole productions seem to take in both sides of the equation. Matt explains that this is what he's aiming for in his music, although he doesn't have to try too hard-apparently it all comes naturally. "Music and technology have always been my two main interests. I come from a musical background but I've always been obsessed with gadgets-my favourite book as a kid was the Argos catalogue. I suppose the way I work now is to think now that the technical side of things is more in the background. When I'm putting a record together, because it all comes naturally, and I think that's what you've got to aim for, to reach the stage where it's almost second nature.
"At the same time, I am very interested in experimenting with sound and I try to have no experimenting with sound and I try to have no boundaries in my music. I like fucking about with things, taking, say an acoustic guitar and twisting its sound into something different. I use a lot of unusual noises in my music and obviously that's quite a technical process, it's just that I like to make a decent song out of it as well. To be honest, I've never thought of the two things as separate; for me what I'm doing now is just a continuation of what I was doing when I was playing the piano." Musical roots: where I got my groove form... From his childhood training in classical piano and oboe, through experiments with sound processing at Music College to his first productions as a drum & bass artist and on to the present day, Matt has seen many different sides of the musical world. He emphasises that all these experiences have played their part in shaping the MJ Cole sound.
"I've been playing piano since I was six years old, playing classical piano between the ages of six and eight and the oboe as well, I suppose it has had an effect on me, because I still like to play things live wherever I can. I always play strings or basslines or whatever live and even with the drums. I'll play them in first and quantise them afterwards. When I was at college I did a module on electro-acoustice music which was about putting sounds through process and that's something I still use-we did a lot about the psychology of sound, changing familiar sounds, by taking away the attack for instance, so that it fools the ears. I still use a lot of stuff I learnt from making drum n bass, little intricate programming things, ways of playing with bass in the sampler, loads of little tricks-it all helps! "I'm still using all that stuff and I don't regret any of it, because it's all added something to what I do. That's what I'd say to anyone setting out to make music, just try anything and have fun. Don't listen to anyone who tells you you've hot to programme your drums this way or that way, just start playing around for yourself. Get an old tape recorder and tapes stupid things or whatever... a lot of what you do will be rubbish, but you'll learn something from it every time."

Technology Matters
Although garage producers might not have the same reputation for pushing technology as their counter-parts in drum and bass or techno, Matt emphasises that this is changing as the underground sound develops. More to the point, he feels understanding technology is central to producing any form of dance music and explains that a lot of technical skills go into making his own records sound just right.
"Unless you understand the equipment, you're never going to know what you can do in a records. If you've got the technical skills, it's so much easier to turn your ideas into reality, because as soon as you hear a noise in your head you're thinking about how you can actually produce it. Even if you think, 'I'll never get that' it can still inspire you, because you start to think of ways to get around it. Just fucking around with technology can be very exciting, like if I can't get a tune going I'll often just start playing with my sampler-for me it's better than playing Nintendo!"
"I suppose usually I take care of all the technical details before I even start, because I'd rather get something right to begin with than go and sort it out later. I don't really use EQ when I mix down, because if a kick's got too much hiss on it or whatever, I'll sort it out when I'm in the sampler. I'm very tidy in the sampler, like if you look at this kick drum, I've already taken off the crackle, phased it and made sure it's triggering right so that I don't have to worry about any of that once I start working."

Putting it on Wax
When it comes to putting a record together, Matt Coleman doesn't like to mess around. His studio technique is geared towards working spontaneously and letting the grooves flow, which means everything has to be just right before he actually gets going.
"I've never really been able to work like some people getting a kick going, then looking for the next thing. I have all the sounds laid out in front of me when I start. I'm really into sampling and I think if you take vocals out of the equation, getting the right samples is really half the battle, so I spend a lot of time looking for them and I'll always have a lot more than I need in the sampler. I suppose it's like an artist painting a picture really; you've got to have your palate right before you even start. 'After I've got the sounds, I'll start working on the drums, which I programmed myself from individual hits. I've never made a garage tune where I'm using other people's drums, mainly because you have so much more control over the beats if you programme yourself. From there, I'll start messing around on top of it, try to get a groove going, get a little section together and move onto the next one. Once I've got three or four sections together, I'll start to think which should be the bridge, which should be the chorus, which should the verse and how the vocals will fit into it all. "I don't really do anything very different from anyone else with my equipment while I'm actually laying down the tune. At that stage it's more to do with my ear for the music. I build from the drums up and try to fill in the gaps in the records so it all fits together properly. I suppose it's a bit like playing in a band really."

Those Machines in Full
In case you're wondering what kit Matt prefers here goes. But remember he made some his biggest tunes on an Atari...
"I use samplers because I hate modules and the sampler gives you total control over an infinite amount of sounds. I was using two Akai 3000 SLs, but I've changed to the Akai 6000 SL because it's about twice as powerful, its a mans sampler. I'll use a Roland sampler as well for strings and stuff. As far as sequencers go I usually work with Logic Audio when I can because the timings better. Recently I've started to get stuff like this Nieve compressor and these Urei LA4s because I really love the old circuitry, then I also use the TC finaliser, which just fattens everything out and gives it a nice sound. The details are important, but I'll use anything-all the VIP mixes were made on an Akai S-1000 and an Atari."

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