Scott Kirkland (left) and Ken Jordan in Crystalwerk''s control room
For years, Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland, better known as The Crystal Method, recorded their big-beat electronica from a studio they called The Bomb Shelter, which they built in a converted 2-car garage attached to a 1950s-era house in Glendale, Calif. That studio was where they produced such albums as Vegas (Outpost, 1997), Tweekend (Interscope, 2001), and Legion of Boom (V2, 2004). The Bomb Shelter had a lot of funky ambience, but, according to Jordan and Kirkland, it was not a perfect recording environment.
“The first couple of years were wonderful. We were able to create this sort of science-fiction-looking pod surrounded by keyboards,” Kirkland recalls. “We were really happy there. And we used to live there early on. But as with most places that are the size of a shoebox, you eventually get that feeling of being confined.”
“It was very difficult to have anyone come over and do overdubs or to have vocalists come over,” Jordan recalls. “There was just nothing set up for it. We really wanted to be able to do that.” And considering that Jordan and Kirkland use guest singers for all of their songs that have vocals, it became a real issue. The Bomb Shelter's sub-par air conditioning and ventilation also contributed to their decision to start looking for a new place to call headquarters.
About two-and-a-half years ago, Jordan and Kirkland began searching and eventually settled on an industrial space in North Hollywood. There, with the help of a studio design firm, they built their striking new facility, Crystalwerks, a multiroom complex stocked with Apple Macintosh computers and monitors, Digidesign Pro Tools hardware and software, a Digidesign D-Command console, and an eye-popping collection of vintage synths and processors. The main control room (see Fig. 1) has hardware synths on both walls — all wired into the patchbay for easy availability. On the floor along the walls are even more vintage keyboards and drum machines, and a center island contains synths and outboard gear. To the left of the room is a soundproofed machine room that houses the computers and the Pro Tools hardware. On the right — behind sliding double-glass doors — is a live room. A second studio, currently used only for storage, is beyond that.
FIG. 1: A view of the Crystalwerks control room. The glass doors on the left open to the machine room.
I had a chance to sit down with Jordan and Kirkland there, and talk about the studio, their production methods, and their new CD, Divided By Night (Tiny e Records, 2009; see Fig. 2), the first one recorded in the new facility. The CD features a rich list of guest vocalists including Justin Warfield, Matisyahu, Emily Haines, and Meiko, among others.
When you were still in The Bomb Shelter, did you put vocalists? in the same room with you?
Jordan: In the living room. In the kitchen.
Kirkland: What was the funniest was when we had Tom Morello [of The Nightwatchman and Rage Against the Machine] over for a [guitar] session and production work. This is a guy who's probably used to working in beautiful studios. And we set his stack up in the kitchen; it was a really bizarre setup.
FIG. 2: The cover of Divided By Night, The Crystal Method''s new release.
Has having this big new space with its improved ergonomics made the production process smoother for you?
Jordan: You never know what's going to happen when you're trying to make art. You get everything set up and art still has to be inspired. But it's much more enjoyable to come here, where everything works and everything's on a patchbay. Yeah, that's a true joy. So I think it's helped a lot.
So you haven't missed the vibe of The Bomb Shelter?
FIG. 3: A number of the bass parts on the new CD were played on a Fender bass and then heavily processed.
Jordan: I've never felt that.
Kirkland: Yeah, I never missed the vibe of the last six odd years at the place, but [I did miss the way it was] early on, when everything was kind of hard wired without a computer. You could just run a DAT and you could get an idea without having to bring up a sequence and figure out the tempo; that kind of stuff that just sort of happened spontaneously. Obviously, we made some great music in that studio so there are those memories. But as far as what we've been able to create here, and our work environment now, it doesn't compare.
Was it challenging to produce so many different singers on Divided By Night?
Jordan: Working with different vocalists, overall it's just fun. On this album, it was half, or less than half, that cut the vocals here, though. We wanted everyone to come here, but due to where people lived, or because people were more comfortable in their own studio, we ended up talking with them or meeting with them, and sending them tracks. And they would cut the vocal either in their studio or at a studio near them.
So you didn't get to actually produce them when they were singing.
Jordan: We did with Sign Language.
Kirkland: And with LMFAO, and Meiko.
Jordan: Also, Meiko's track, “Falling Hard.” With Matisyahu [“Drown in the Now”], there was a lot of going back and forth. But with “Kling to the Wreckage,” Justin Warfield recorded at a [different] studio, but we were talking with him and working with him.
Kirkland: On the Matisyahu track, Matis was working with David Kahn at the time on Matis' album. And both of them made time in their schedule to fit in this track, to do the vocals for us. David did a really great job of producing the vocals and some really great things on the mix side of the vocals.
Do you typically write a song with a certain artist in mind, or do you find someone who will fit after you've written the music?
Jordan: Yeah, it's more the song develops along, and then we start thinking of who it might work for.
Kirkland: On “Falling Hard,” we had this really, really beautiful track that we were very happy with as an instrumental, but we felt it could be that much better if we could get the right vocalist on it. And we found Meiko and she just had this really beautiful voice, and the things she had done, the things that we had heard, didn't sound anything like the stuff that we were doing, or even the track that we had sitting there. And she came by and we had a really great conversation. And we played her a few things, and she was really comfortable with that track, and she came in and gave it a really beautiful vocal that sort of has the feeling that everything was created at once.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge of doing the album?
Jordan: I don't know. Everything always is sort of a natural development. Certainly involving so many different vocalists and still maintaining a band identity on the record.
Kirkland: The hardest thing is not to get wrapped up by looking at the clock. We sort of wear both hats when we're in the studio. The producer side of us wants us to get the songs done and get an album out and move forward, and the artistic side of us wants to take the time and let songs develop and get the most out of our album or out of each song.
Did you use live drums at all on this record?
Kirkland: We did on two tracks.
Jordan: Samantha Maloney played.
Kirkland: We used lots of live bass and a little bit of live guitar.
What about drum loops?
Kirkland: There are still some loops. We've got a vast loop library that we've collected over the years that we manipulate before they go into [a track]. There are very few perfect loops out there that haven't been overused to the point that the next time you hear them, you just want to turn the radio off.
In what way do you manipulate them?
Kirkland: Some we'll just EQ or pitch up or pitch down. But for the most part, it's been a lot of stuff in [Ableton] Live and [Propellerhead] Reason — using Redrum in Reason.
Do you ReWire Live to Pro Tools?
Kirkland: We have, yeah, to dig deep into our loop library with all the various effects that exist inside Live, change the dynamics of the sound, the texture of some of the loops. But for the most part, we use our vast drum [sound] library that we have, creating drums from the start. Kick, snare, hat. And we're using the MIDI tools within both Reason and Pro Tools to get the different feel out of the loops and drums that we create.
You both play keyboards, right?
Jordan: Scott plays them well, though. [Laughs.]
Kirkland: A lot of stuff was played by me. But we both have the idea of what we want it to sound like and what we want to get out of the gear we have, and, like I said, things that are played in, rarely ever stay the same. We love cutting things up and sending things back out to some other programs. There's one that's called Effectrix [Sugar Bytes]. So we'll send these sounds through some of the programs that don't have the RTAS or the TDM license [so they can't be used in Pro Tools]. For example, we'll bring up Live first and then bring up Pro Tools so it's not synched, and then just get the tempo and transfer stuff over and listen to it. It's sort of like what we used to do when we would manipulate a lot of stuff within a sampler, the E-mu sampler. Send things over, dice it up, send it through different internal effects, and then feed it back through and find something great. Sometimes you'll have 15 or 20 different takes of a loop being manipulated, and then you'll send it back in and then you'd find slivers and pieces of those 15 different takes that would create a 4-bar loop. I mean it's that kind of stuff that is sort of the basic Crystal Method sound.
You previously used MOTU Digital Performer, but now you've switched over to Pro Tools. Was it a big change for you?
Kirkland: It wasn't, but it was a change because we had been using the TDM audio side so we were comfortable with the plug-ins.
Digital Performer and Pro Tools do have a lot of similarities.
Kirkland: They're very similar, so we adapted really well and we started to create from very early on when we got things set up.
Have you been happy with the MIDI editing in Pro Tools?
Jordan: Yeah, we have been. We use a lot of the real-time properties. We do still keep MIDI tracks running a lot, especially when we're using a lot of the plug-in synths. So those will stay MIDI almost until the end before we finally bounce them. There's still a lot of control over it. We are coming from the Digital Performer world, so that's really our only real comparison outside of Reason or something like that. So I don't know, apparently there is more stuff on others like [Apple] Logic and whatever but…
Kirkland: I'm not saying that Pro Tools is in any way simple. They've really made leaps and bounds from 5 to 6 to 7. And now that Version 8 is out, like I was saying earlier, we're really excited to finish this album so we can install 8 because you never want to install a new system in the middle of a project. But, yeah, the audio side of it is really where everything happens. Ninety-five percent of it is running audio that was recorded or manipulated in some way. To us it sounds superior to any system that we've used in the past.
With the new system that you have, with your new console and all your synths wired into the patchbay, have you been running a huge amount of tracks per song on this album, or are you starting to say, “Oh, we better pull it back a little”?
Jordan: We actually are used to running tons of tracks.
What's the highest track count you've had on a song?
Jordan: We're using every voice on a few of them. There are like 96 voices, but that's only 48 stereo tracks. But every time we introduce some thing or return or plug-in or something, it's getting used up.
Kirkland: We've had some vocals that have been recorded outside the studio, [such as] the tracks that we did with Emily Haines from Metric. She did the vocals in New York, with direction from us. And they sent us, it was probably 18 vocal tracks with layers. There are quite a few voices being consumed on most of the mixes on this.
Talk about how you got all those cool bass sounds, the kind of legato, distorted ones on the new CD.
Kirkland: On “Kling to the Wreckage,” that bass is from the Alesis Andromeda sent through various different plug-ins. On the track that's tentatively called “Cobalt” now, there's a 2600 plug-in from Arturia. And there's also the [Roland] Jupiter 6 that comes in with a bass sound.
So you don't have a particular synth that you use to go for that kind of sound usually.
Kirkland: No, it's more the saturation and the processing that we put it through that gets us to a sound that we're comfortable with. But like on “Slipstream,” that's the [G-Force] Oddity that has that sort of long, modulated bass sound. Like I said, we used lots of live bass on this record.
And then you process the heck out of it.
Kirkland: Yeah. And it goes between live bass and synth bass. For us, it's a perfect marriage of analog and digital.
Let's talk about your mixing procedures. Do you mix as you go and then just tweak it, or do you pull everything down and start over?
Jordan: We always mix as we go. So we never just say, “Okay, today is mix day on this song,” bring it up from scratch and mix it. So it's always mixing on the go, trying to get it better and better all the time.
So your mixing process isn't a separate entity.
Jordan: It hasn't ever been like that.
Kirkland: Because most of the time, on the early records, what we sort of got used to was just Ken and I working on everything from sound development to song structure to writing to playing to producing to engineering. It was just the two of us in that little Bomb Shelter, without any sort of recall system. When we first started, it was eight tracks of audio with maybe some ADATs coming in. So you would never pull all the faders down [and start over]. Especially with all the sends and returns that we had. We did it a few times, and it was like, “Uhh, it doesn't sound as good.”
So you had to work on one song at a time from tracking through mixing?
Kirkland: In the early days.
Jordan: One at a time, yeah. [Laughs.]
Kirkland: The first album that's how we worked, one song at a time.
So how long would it take you to do a complete song?
Jordan: Sometimes it was quick, sometimes really long. [Laughs.]
Kirkland: It's weird having to think about doing that now.
Jordan: Yeah, recall is such a gift.
I did notice that when you were showing me how you got that bass sound on the Memorymoog [see Web Clip 1], your assistant had digital pictures of the knobs. Are those what you use for recall sheets now?
Kirkland: You can never trust some of the old gear to save properly or maintain its memory. You never know when that battery is going to die or something's going to happen to it.
How do you make your drums sound so big? Do you use parallel compression?
Jordan: Generally, when everything is in the box, and this is usually how we're mixing now, generally all the drums get bused to one drum bus, and then we do some lighter stereo-bus compression on that drum bus. We always try to do that so they're kind of always in the same room. Instead of things just jumping out of left-field, level wise and stereo-field wise, [it's more cohesive] if everything sort of gets the same treatment. Like, if you're using any verb, kind of have a general send from your drum tracks going to the same verb or verbs, and then everything gets the same sounds. We probably will do some soft compression and then some hard limiting. But the hard limiting is always a very little bit of gain reduction, just to try to even it all out and keep it loud.
So when you're compressing them, are you typically using a hardware outboard compressor?
Jordan: We haven't done that on this album. But we used to do that a lot. One tip is always get your compression in early and mix from that. A lot of people I talk to still wonder, “Okay, when do you put the compressor in?” At the very beginning. If you add a compressor or a limiter, then your levels, your dynamic range, and your frequency all change kind of radically. Always EQ and mix with compression on, because you can't just add it like some magic plug-in that's going to fix your track later. You have to be mixing with it the whole time.
But if you notice a track is jumping out in spots, later you could throw something on it, no?
Jordan: I'm talking about stereo-bus compression. Either on auxes for groups or your overall stereo bus.
What's your opinion about the issue of the “loudness wars,” and how people are complaining about CDs being overcompressed?
Jordan: Yeah, that's a big discussion with us all the time. Because everything we've done has lots of peaks and valleys. We like how loud records are, so I don't know. We've been using Brian Gardner [for mastering]; we really like the sound he gets, and he doesn't really do that wall-to-wall limiting thing. But it's going to be interesting mastering [Divided By Night] because we do want it loud, and we're aware that if you play a track with a lot of dynamics next to another track that's just like totally pegged, if you're A/B'ing them, you might say about the one with more dynamics, “What's wrong with this one? It's not as loud.” That's going to be the discussion and we're going to deal with that. Because we do want it loud, but we do want dynamics, for sure.
Kirkland: The way we write, we're always aware of that. Our goal is to make an album that you can listen to from beginning to end and have that experience of listening to a piece of art that has those different emotions and that different dynamic sound to it. A lot of our tracks are big, bombastic tracks, but there are moments in each one where it does get down, it does get quiet, or the track is sort of stripped down to a sound that allows it to breathe a little bit.
Do you have signature effects techniques you like to use? Like for delays, for example?
Jordan: Delay-wise, overall, a dotted-eighth delay is generally available on every song.
Because a straight value is not as interesting sounding?
Jordan: Yeah, it's always a little funkier, a little cooler with a dotted-eighth. And it's not too long. I find quarter-note delays are a little too long, and eighth-notes are sometimes a little too short. We really like the tape-emulation delays. They're warmer, and you get that weird sound they have, especially adding wow and flutter, it's not quite as mechanical.
One last question: How would you say Divided By Night differs from your previous work, musically?
Jordan: Certainly, there are more vocals than we typically have on our albums. It's much more musical, it's more song oriented; it has more chord changes and more instrumentation than all of the other ones.
Kirkland: Like Ken said, it's much richer tapestry of musicality and warmth and the songs develop in different ways. A lot of people [ask], “Does it still sound like Crystal Method, that sort of distorted, edgy, big sound?” And I think a lot of the songs do have that. Some of the songs don't seem to have that, and then all of a sudden there will be a song that really rips into that and opens it up. I think it's just the natural development of where we've come from. We never want to sound like the last record.
((To see a video tour of Crystalwerks with Jordan and Kirkland, go to the Online Bonus material section at emusician.com)
Mike Levine is EM's executive editor and senior media producer. He hosts the monthly Podcast, EM Cast (www.emusician.com/podcasts).
When you look around Crystalwerks, synthesizers are everywhere. They're mounted on the walls, sitting on the ground along the walls, on the table on the island in the middle of the control room, and even on shelves in the machine room. Vintage, modern, analog, digital — you name it, they've probably got it. And that's just the hardware synths. Jordan and Kirkland also use a large variety of software synths. When I asked them which they used more of on Divided By Night, Jordan said that it was “60-40 for the virtual synths. This is the first time it has broken the 50-percent barrier.”
FIG. A Kirkland playing the Memorymoog, one of the many synths at Crystalwerks.
Photos: Mitch Tobias
And which virtual ones did they favor? “The ones we used a lot of on this record were the [Arturia] Jupiter 8V and [Arturia] CS-80V plug-ins,” Jordan says. “Also, a couple of the ARP 2600 things,” Kirkland adds. The G-Force Oddity and impOsCAR were used a lot, as well, as were Native Instruments' Absynth, Electrik Piano, FM-8, and Reaktor. “There's some great Reaktor stuff on this record,” Kirkland says. “Also, funny enough, [we used] the McDSP synth, Synth One. On the track called ‘Black Rainbows,'' there's this really beautiful, big, big synth. I was really surprised how good that one sounded. Also some of the Korg stuff has been really helpful. The Mono/Poly and the WaveStation [plug-ins] sound really great.”
When Jordan and Kirkland are tracking with one of their vintage hardware synths that predate MIDI, they'll obviously record live audio right to Pro Tools. When using more modern hardware synths, they'll sometimes record a MIDI track rather than audio, and work on a final sound later. “Well, if it's something with really good MIDI implementation, we'll go ahead and record MIDI,” says Jordan. “But, like with the Memorymoog [see Fig. A], even though it has limited MIDI, we're generally always recording audio with that.”
“On this record, we got into a lot of using some of the quantize features in Pro Tools,” adds Kirkland. “Stuff with more swing. We did more of that and sending it through some of the Nords or the [Alesis] Andromeda. But it's been a good combination.
“A lot of the stuff on this record was just me sitting in front of [the synth], hitting Record, and doing a bunch of takes,” Kirkland continues. “That's what we're sort of familiar with from not having great control over some of our analog synths, and having limited audio tracks to record to.” In the band's early days, Kirkland says, “We would record 20 or 30 minutes of DAT, left and right, drum signal on one side and synths on the other, and go in and cut it up and do a lot of sampling.”
With all the synths they have, both virtual and hardware-based, which one is their top choice? “If there was, God forbid, some sort of disaster when someone said, ‘Grab your favorite,''” says Kirkland, “definitely the [Roland] Jupiter 6 would be the first one out the door. It's always been the warmest, edgiest synth in our arsenal. It's all over this record.