As a teenager with three A-levels, Alex Cooper walked into his first job at Klark Teknik and, through several corporate changes, stayed there for over 30 years, writes Phil Ward. He is currently migrating to a new position at XTA/MC2 Audio, having played no small part in establishing Midas as one of the leading live console manufacturers in the world. His greatest legacy is the XL4, and now that the high-end mixer sector is exclusively digital he has decided to remain within his comfort zone of exquisite analogue circuitry and to go where this technology is still near the top of the agenda. He also plays guitar and harmonica, which may or may not include bottleneck…
Why was now the right timing to move on?
“Well, I’d done 15 years at Midas-KT on the testing, quality and assembly side of things plus another 15 years on the design side, and I’m 51 years old now. There have been lots of changes in the background, so maybe it was simply time for a change.”
What drew a college student to pro audio?
“I was a musician – still am – and we used to hire the occasional bit of kit including some very nice graphic EQs from this company called Klark Teknik. On the back they had this Kidderminster address, which was three miles from where I lived. I hassled them for a job until they let me in.”
So you were the ‘tech’ in the band?
“I’m a scientist by nature. I was the one mending the amps, and in fact our regular PA was the one I built from scratch. I’ve always been known as ‘Dr Alex’, the guitar and amp doctor. I still have a large collection of valve amplifiers to service regularly. Just before developing the XL8 I started a guitar amplifier business. I ran it for a few years and sold amplifiers to several very notable musicians.”
Why has that remained so important?
“It was during the process of developing this amplifier product that it became blindingly obvious to me that there are many things that are audible to the human senses that we still have no suitable measuring dimensions for. I say ‘senses’ intentionally, because they’re all linked and, in particular, visual stimuli have a huge impact on the sound perceived. So do tactile feel and size, and so on.
“This takes me down the most recent area of discovery for me, as I’ve become increasingly interested in the way that human beings immerse themselves in the world. I find the whole subject fascinating and I love to watch the way people respond to different situations, including myself, and how easily we can be fooled into thinking black is white! It’s a good example of the ‘first principles’ approach that I always adopt. In the case of the guitar amplifier development, I learned many tricks about getting things to sound good that I now use to make better sounding products – and that includes the XL8.”
How did mixer design become a speciality?
“At KT I was employed to listen to signal paths, because there were always audio artefacts that no one else could hear apart from Terry Clarke! This led me through all areas of production and testing, and then the company acquired DDA and Midas. I quickly realised that, if you want to test a high-performance circuit, the test circuit has to be even more high-performance – otherwise you’re just measuring the test circuit. I probably learned more about low-noise, low-distortion circuitry from designing test jigs than I ever did from designing mixing consoles.”
How did you apply that to mixer design?
“I learned a lot from David Dearden’s approach. He has this minimal signal path topology: wherever he doesn’t use a circuit he takes a short cut. For example, if you switch out the EQ he will bypass it totally; he won’t run through it with the EQ effectively set flat and, therefore, still picking up noise. He’ll join what would have been the output of the EQ circuit right to the previous stage. And that’s on every single step. If you went in on a mic pre, didn’t engage the insert or anything else, and came out on a fader… you’d physically go straight from the mic pre to the fader. I don’t always apply that technique, but I appreciate what it’s trying to do.”
Talk us through the evolution of the XL range…
“When KT bought Midas they’d just built the first XL, of which I offered a very serious critique! So a lot of the electronic issues were resolved with the XL2, which was the first generation built in Kidderminster. The XL3 had to follow because the XL2 wasn’t spec’d highly enough: it only had eight busses, and the market was already clamouring for more. Andrew Grayland was heavily involved in the design and, although I’m often credited with it, it was his concept. I suppose the XL4 was the culmination of getting the electronics right, and listening carefully to exactly what customers wanted to achieve.
“But you also have to be brave enough to follow your own instincts and overcome scepticism and resistance both inside and outside your operation. My earlier designs are a lot more cautious; at least I now feel that people will go with me down some whacky route, at least for a while!”
Had the world not gone digital, how much further could the XL4 paradigm have gone?
“I know now that I could design a lot better analogue console than the XL4! But there’s no need. I’m still very proud of it. It was really my first complete design. ”
So what is the job at XTA?
“Once people started talking computer programming languages to me, basically talking at me in binary, I became more and more involved in control surfaces, usability, product definition, audio quality and so on. A lot of the XL8 circuitry was originally designed in analogue and then copied into DSP, but ultimately it’s a huge listening test. Here at XTA I’m again in a position to have a lot more hands-on input on design, and of course it’s not just XTA but also MC2 Audio – meaning amplifier design. And although they’re called digital amplifiers, it’s basically analogue switching and stuff that I understand! There’s no software, shall we say. Some of the amps produced here are staggeringly powerful, and I find the whole subject totally engaging.”
More time for the guitar and harmonica, too?
“I’ve always made time for those, and I’m actually in two bands now. One thing, though. I know it’s supremely analogue, and I am a bit of a bluesman, but I just can’t get the hang of playing bottleneck…”