The Crystal Method's Bombastic Sound, Revealed
“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
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
(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
and “hope” (see below). “Dosimeter”
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
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
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
Jordan: We have the best luck when a
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
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
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
, 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
Kirkland: I am intimidated by soft
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
Jordan: Yes, but we also used Geist,
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
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
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
Jordan: Yes, we do. If we want to set up
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
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
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
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
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
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
“Over It” has a lot of stomping,
Transformer-like drum patterns.
Jordan: Those are heavily processed
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
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
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,
rubbery, ricocheting synths . . .
“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
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
Kirkland: You get a great riff and a
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
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
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.