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The Crystal Method's Bombastic Sound, Revealed

June 30, 2014
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“We’ve always been record makers; we were never DJs first,” The Crystal Method’s Ken Jordan explains. “Right from our second album we’ve always wanted to make our music. But it’s funny how some successful DJs are successful for being stars and record spinners.”

The Crystal Method’s self-titled fifth album proves once again that the Las Vegas duo of Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland achieved their overwhelming success the old-fashioned way: they earned it. Not for them is the sure satisfaction of working entirely in the box, automating effects, and programming synths. No, these EDM industry veterans use a massive cadre of old-world analog synths coupled to some of the best and brightest beat-and-bass-producing software to create songs that fill your head with visions of what Kirkland calls “Silence [and] chaotic bliss.”

Behooving their former Bomb Shelter studio, The Crystal Method (Tiny e Records) is a bomb maker’s delight, a dizzying crashout of terribly beautiful sounds and anxiety-producing effects, ear-tickling cut-up vocals, and horror-show big beats, like the best of 20 years of dance music compressed into eight songs of head-tripping, id-enlightening, ribsticking goodness.

Self produced, with remixes by Darth & Vader and Kezwik, among others, The Crystal Method follows Vegas (1997), Tweekend (2001), Legion of Boom (2004) and Divided by Night (2009), establishing Jordan and Kirkland’s oeuvre as among the finest in EDM.

As trends rise and fall, as DJs get rich pushing buttons and issuing shout-outs, the Grammy-nominated The Crystal Method drive songs up from the underground and seemingly down from the mountaintop. Ultimately, Jordan and Kirkland are songwriters, again, of the old-fashioned variety. Working out of their now two-year-old Crystalwerks studio, Jordan and Kirkland enlisted vocalists Dia Frampton for first single “Over It” and AfroBeta’s Cristina Elena Garcia on “After Hours.” “Over It” may begin with what sounds like demon sprites boxing in a toilet drain, but as the song progresses, garnished with Frampton’s babylike vocal, it fulfills all the classic requirements of traditional song-craft: tuneful verse, memorable chorus, and mood-altering bridge, with a super sleuth’s attention to detail. The urban dread of “110 to the 101” relies on “fear” and “hope” (see below). “Dosimeter” recalls the bang-up action of an antiquated pinball machine outfitted with Zero Dark Thirty warfare capability and a comic’s vocal timing. “After Hours” is drenched in sex, sweat, and heat, all “ohh ahh” vocals, tungsten haze, and a wraparound big beat worthy of Dave Grohl channeling Tony Thompson. “Funk Muffin” has all the charm of a refrigerator mating with an antelope, a command of “Got to do like this!” and a nasty synth recalling an old Fatboy Slim track by way of an ’80s porno.

Throughout, Jordan and Kirkland sound like they are having fun, the time of their lives. Currently scoring the soundtrack to indie film The Sisterhood of the Night and prepping for yet another global tour, The Crystal Method make EDM for humans, while DJs stop and stare.

One thing is consistent about The Crystal Method, and it’s unlike much of what is considered dance music: Your albums are comprised of actual songs, rather than tracks.

Jordan: We’ve always approached our music with the idea that we are making a song, and we often call sections “verse/chorus/—” even though there may be no vocal in the song. We are always asking ourselves, “Does this sound like one of our songs? Does it sound like it belongs on this album?” We want people to listen to our albums over and over again and find new and interesting things each time. It usually takes us a long time to make our albums, but we hope it’s worth it.

Often, music by superstar DJs doesn’t evoke the idea of a song in the traditional sense, though Skrillex and a few others pull it off.

Jordan: We’ve always wanted to make songs that sound like humans made them. We’ve always wanted to make music that didn’t sound like computers made them. Skrillex comes from a serious rock and roll background, so he is very song conscious. That’s the kind of songwriting we strive to make as well.

Is there a typical Crystal Method songwriting process?

Jordan: We have the best luck when a track doesn’t begin with drums. We find cool song elements, whether it’s a synth riff or a melody or a chord progression, or it might be just pads, but if we come up with that first then build a song around it, then we have the best luck. What we call hooks are often just three- or four-note patterns. Hooks are synonymous with a chorus and often none of those will have vocals. But there will be something to build a track around.

You’ve been working out of Crystalwerks for two years now. What difference has that made in your working process?

Jordan: Everything works better! Of course, we’ve brought over all our old synths and all the gear we had at Bomb Shelter, but we have a machine room now where all the noisy stuff goes, and an actual overdub room for vocalists. We used to send vocalists out to the living room; it was a disaster! So it’s nice to not worry about extraneous things that could hamper the whole recording process.

You and Scott have an incredible, decades-spanning collection of hard synths, including Akai MPC3000; Alesis Andromeda; ARP 2600; Moogerfoogers MF101 & MF102; Clavia Nord Lead and Clavia Nord Modular; E-mu Audity 2000, E4, E-64, and XL-7; Moog Memorymoog; OSC OSCar; Roland Jupiter-6; Sherman FilterBank; Waldorf MicrowaveXT; and Yamaha CS20 and Yamaha CS80. What made the cut this time?

Jordan: As far as the older synths, we used ARP 2600 a lot, Memorymoog, Jupiter-8, which we didn’t have on the last album. And we were given this amazing old Korg MiniKorg [700], and a Korg [SB 100] Synthe-Bass. They’re half -size keyboards with not too many controls, but they sound great.

And soft synths on the new record?

Kirkland: I am intimidated by soft synths. But we used [Native Instruments] Massive, and Absinthe is something we’ve always loved. But with Massive there are so many things to get your head around, its functionality and capability. I choose not to get entangled, but more recently we had fun with it. And [Native Instruments] FM8—not the big dubstep sounds, but its textural sounds, and [Spectrasonics] Omnisphere, [FXpansion] Geist, and the D-Cam Synth [Squad] has a lot of beautiful, messed-up sounds. I like sounds that have a little bit of sparkle and a lot of dirt. We used the Andromeda plug-in on a couple tracks. [Lennar Digital] Slyenth too, and I love the Arturia Oberheim [SEM V], which sounds amazing.

Do you still create drums from your large sample library?

Jordan: Yes, but we also used Geist, running that in Pro Tools and Ableton Live, as well. Geist has these infinitely variable parameters for programming drums and importing loops and using the feel of the loop to program other sounds. It’s really amazing. It does other things besides drums but it does drums really well. We haven’t even pushed the limits of it yet, but it’s really flexible and very powerful.

Kirkland: Geist has its own algorithm for cutting things up. It guesses where the kick and snare are if you are using traditional drum loops. I like the ability to get a great loop with great timing or feel, then take it and align vocals to those hits. Geist will also switch things around, [estimate] an algorithm, and replicate it with vocals. FXpansion has created so many great products, including the D-Cam Synth [Squad] and the new outboard compressors and effects plug-ins. We’ve built our whole career on putting something through the wrong effect or pushing it too loud.

Is there a new technology that made a big difference in how you worked on the new record?

Jordan: We used the new version of [Celemony] Melodyne. It’s great at allowing you not just to tune and change vocals but to take any part of anything you’ve played or imported and change up the melody or the chord progression. It will do chords on some things pretty well; it’s a really creative tool, not just something for tuning vocals.

Ken, in an older Electronic Musician feature you said, “We love cutting things up and sending them out to other programs like Effectrix Sugar Bytes.” Do you still use that for cutting up sounds?

Jordan: Yes, we do. If we want to set up a breakdown with a fill but have it be particular instruments, Effectrix can cut and slice things up on many levels, such as pitch effects or stutter or scratch effects, and you can save it and mark it and have many levels of each one, and it saves a lot of time.

Did you use more soft or hard synths this time?

Jordan: Up until this album we were more than 50% hard synths, but we’ve crossed the threshold. We’re nowhere near being completely in the box, but we are using more plug-ins as they’ve gotten better. We have an ARP Odyssey and two 2600s and they’re being serviced all the time. Often you go to slide a fader and you hear noise or it doesn’t work at all. If we’re looking for some really earth-shattering bass or super-round sound from a Moog bass, then we go to that source because we have it. But often the plug-in is faster, more reliable and in tune, and it works every time.

Can you hear a sonic difference between soft and hard?

Jordan: On the true analog synths there is warmth and bottom end I haven’t heard any plug-in duplicate. But often you are not looking to create those kinds of sounds, specifically, and the plug-ins can reproduce it just fine.

You work in both Ableton Live and Pro Tools and still use the Digidesign D Command console. What are the major working differences between the two platforms?

Jordan: If you’re playing on Pro Tools and you’re pushing the system to its limits, it will tell you you’ve got an error and why. Ableton doesn’t do that; it has a little graph meter showing your CPU usage, but it doesn’t mean much. And you will hear pops and glitches and you won’t be absolutely sure what’s causing it. When you balance things in Ableton it makes up for all that, but it can be hard to know where you are in Ableton sometimes. And I wish Ableton had the ability to split out the screens to a mix screen that an arrangement screen instead of one screen and you toggle back and forth. We’ve got two side-by-side monitors but we can only use one with Ableton. C’mon, it’s a simple fix!

What was the signal chain for vocalists at Crystalwerks?

Jordan: We used a Neumann TLM 103 through an Avalon VT-737sp pre; it has EQ and compression but we just use the compressor to limit the vocal a little bit. We try to cut everything as cleanly as possible so if we need to recut more, then there’s no problem when matching.

How did you create the whirring intro sounds in “110 to 101”?

Kirkland: That began in Ableton; it was in the box from the beginning. It’s all [Lennar Digital] Sylenth VST plug ins. That’s another song with lots of great conversation going on between the sounds, lots of distorted effects that were frozen and bounced out and brought back into Ableton. We label the sounds. The opening rhythm melody is called “fear,” another is called “hope.”

“Over It” has a lot of stomping, crunchy Transformer-like drum patterns.

Jordan: Those are heavily processed sounds from our library. We typically send all drums to a common bus where we do compression and limiting. In a song or mix like this, we do a lot of sidechaining of buses off the kick drum, but we didn’t do that on this one! There are three kick tracks in “Over It.” We used the McDSP Analog Channel on one of the auxs, a little Brainworks EQ, iZotope Alloy as an EQ limiter, and the [Waves] Kramer Master Tape plug-in quite a bit on drums, bass, and aux returns. We generally have the noise off; I like everything but the noise on tape effects. That is one of the kick drums!

Kirkland: In “Over It” we used an Arp 2610 sequencer, too. It’s so quirky, it has a mind of its own. It froze and we looped it around. The spring reverb on it is gorgeous. You can hear it on the end of “Over It” in the big rock groove and the repeat of the drums. It really connects the spacing in that bit at the end.

“Funk Muffin” has all these slide whistle sounds and loopy effects. All of your songs are crammed with ideas and sounds. That’s practically your sonic ID.

Jordan: Part of that comes from our old method of recording back when storage was at a premium. We would have a DAT running, one side would go the mix, and the other side would be whatever we were recording at the time. We would do long passes of Scott playing an analog synth, completely freestyling it, then we would take the DAT and sample the cool parts back into the existing version of the track. We still do long overdub passes with hardware synths and cherry-pick the cool stuff on every track. We have had some young guys in here, like Dyro, and they ask, “Wow, you do that?” Most of these guys are so completely in the box they can’t imagine recording all this audio and going through it later.

“Dosimeter” has ratcheting noises, then rubbery, ricocheting synths . . .

Kirkland: On “Dosimeter,” we used a Univox Traveller Organ, with the filters on the sliders. We hooked a Sherman Filterbank up to that with a bunch of distortion pedals on two different sends. Nick Thayer played the organ and I was controlling the Sherman and we came up with all those metallic, distorted industrial sounds that are so analog. It has this warmth. No matter how clever the virtual synths become, it’s really hard to capture the particular wonder of this setup we had. There was some of that in “Dosimeter” and also lots of Geist. We also used [Spectrasonics] Omnisphere and a little Rob Papen’s SubBoomBass and Sylenth and [Native Instruments] FM8. Quantizing the groove just won’t do it; you have to get in there and carve out the space. That’s the big thing with dubstep, the space that exists on those drops and creates such a roller coaster effect. Going to the top and that drop, and that kind of silence and chaotic bliss, that’s really what separates great production from the run of the mill.

Perhaps that’s why your synths sound so liquid and alive.

Kirkland: When I saw Star Wars, everything changed. It has a lot of antagonizing sounds; a sound would stick its head up, and another sound would come, and then, this drop. I envision sounds antagonizing each other or communicating with each other and working their way through. Sounds have to get in there and fight for their space within the song. I like sounds that are aggressive and have a place. And another sound shakes that sound out of its place for a second. We’ve been accused of being too bombastic with our sounds, and I am guilty as charged. That’s what we do.

How did translate with your own keyboards?

Kirkland: You get a great riff and a great bass line and try to find the right instrument, the right frequency, the right notes, and have a conversation between the sounds. The new generation of producers has the luxury of powerful laptops that do so many things. Our studio was always filled with great analog gear and pedals and drum machines and the most power in the box you could have then. You couldn’t have 15 plug-ins running on a laptop in 2006. Now processing power is so high, a lot of talented producers don’t even think about it. Sonny [Skrillex] just draws things in. Another great producer visited us in the studio and we wanted to jam on our Jupiter-8. He said, “I have never touched an analog synth before.” “It’s not going to bite you!” I said.

Your music always has this sense of energy, urgency, and largeness. It’s a big sound.

Jordan: On this album we started doing a lot of sidechain compression. Before that, it was just getting the frequencies to work together between the kick, bass, and all low-end stuff. We always monitor with a few different pairs of speakers, nearfield, etc., and a TV speaker. We think a great mix sounds great on everything; we don’t believe that mixes can only sound good in a great listening environment, so we test mixes on all different-sized speakers.

You guys have been around awhile; how have you survived and thrived on the EDM scene?

Jordan: Yeah, wasn’t all this success of electronic music supposed to happen in the ’90s? [Laughs] We just kept working. And we never thought we had “made it” or that it would all be easy living. Our first album sold well, but we’ve always had good success with licensing our music, and we’ve recorded music for TV ads, films, and video games. We try to make music for our albums and assume that it will work for everything else. There is lot of success for electronic music now, but we don’t think it will always be this big. Things come in cycles, so we want to be prepared for the next cycle.

Ken Micallef has covered music for all of the usual suspects, including DownBeat, The Grammys, and Rolling Stone. His first book, Classic Rock Drummers (Hal Leonard), is currently in reprint status while he ponders the sonic perfection and current resurgence of the vinyl LP.

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