MSTRKRFT: Inside The 'Operator' Sessions

Jesse F. Keeler and Alex "Al-P" Puodziukas rely on modular synths, live tracking, and analog mixing to push dace music beyond its comfort zone on Operator, their third album.
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Jesse F. Keeler and Alex "Al-P" Puodziukas rely on modular synths, live tracking, and analog mixing to push dace music beyond its comfort zone on Operator, their third album.
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In their search for a sound that would capture hearts and minds, wallets, and headphones, MSTRKRFT’s Jesse F. Keeler and Alex Puodziukas (aka “Al-P”) have made one of the most extreme dance-floor fillers ever. From first track to last, MSTRKRFT’s third release, Operator (Last Gang), finds the Toronto-based duo pushing old-school beat machines and DIY-worthy modular synths into truly unruly sonic ecstasy. Operator posits this mustachioed duo performing in ’90s-era warehouses in Chicago and Detroit, their DJ works glogged up with chewing gum, distortion, and spit.

“The song that my wife dislikes the most is ‘Playing With Itself,’” Keeler laughs. “The constantly changing chords make her dizzy. We admit it—an element of everything we’ve done is designed to upset people. We would be getting ready to DJ before 50,000 people and the last thing we’d say to each other would be ‘Okay, let’s go f*cking punish them!’ We’d have the attitude of a punkier-sounding metal band the whole time. Now it’s out in the open!”

Recorded live in rented spaces with a minimal gear palette, self-produced, self-mixed, and mastered by Tom Coyne at Sterling Sound, Operator is a triumph of punk-rock performance, electronic music aesthetic, and experimental tools.

“Everything but the vocals were performed live,” Al-P says. “Our modular synths, drum machines, and such went into the Venice Midas 160 mixer, then the outs from every channel into Pro Tools. We’d just hit Record and start being creative. If we found something cool, we’d encourage each other, keep going with that idea, and fully explore it. We amassed an obscene amount of music. We’d listen back over the recordings and edit down to create the final record.”

“I learned that technique reading a Basement Jaxx feature in Electronic Musician,” Keeler adds. (Read the article at emusician.com/basementjaxx.) “They were discussing their song ‘Red Alert’; how they kept recording and edited afterward to choose what to use. They even made the singers do multiple takes. They’d take moments from when the voice was more burnt-out, for example, then just pick through and create the final version from chunks of that longer recording. That always stuck with me. That’s how we worked on Operator as well.”

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Operator is a work of exceptional lunacy. From the dive-bomb guitars and larynx-shredding vocal of “Go on Without Me” and the dub-maniacal beat and assaultive mouth spew of “Priceless,” to the surreal, E.T. like textures of “Morning of the Hunt” and the nausea-inducing terrain of “Playing With Itself,” Operator pushes dance music beyond its comfort zone.

“Our equipment is minimal,” Al-P says. “That was a conscious decision that came from being able to record in a live setting. When touring we’d always perform as DJs. People would ask us to play live but there was no way we could do that without completely compromising the production. But this album was created from a fixed palette of equipment so we can perform the songs live.”

Operator’s only overdubs are Mellotron on “Runaway,” squealing synth on “Playing With Itself,” and in “Partyline,” a bass groove produced by a Korg MS-20.

The duo’s gear-stack includes a Lexicon 480L; Roland TR-707, 808, and 909; Roland SH-101; and Korg MS-20. Genelec and Yamaha NS10s provide monitoring, along with an “old Yorkville P.A. system”; each side has an 18-inch sub, two 15s, and a horn.” MSTRKRFT’s cost-effective (average price: $299) Eurorack modular synths include Keeler’s Intellijel Rubicon, Corgasmatron, and Quadra; Mutable Instruments Braids and Elements; Synthwerks Lamp 2; Make Noise DPO, Echophon, and MATHS; and Acidlab Autobot. Al-P’s modular array is no less extensive: Blue Lantern Modules Blue ZTVCO and Diode Operator Station VCF, ALM/Busy Circuits Beast’s Chalkboard, Make Noise DPO, Analogue Solutions SH-NZ, Doepfer A-190-3, and WMD Devices Aperture. These modular toy-tools play by their own rules—the perfect choice for sonic sorcerers MSTRKRFT. The modular first-fruits can be heard on Keeler’s wife’s favorite, “Playing With Itself.”

“That song was titled literally,” Keeler explains. “My modular synth was up, we hit Record, then Al and I went out to have a beer and a cigarette. When we got back the patch had evolved in our absence. That weird mutating chord that keeps moving around, the modular decided that—not me. That was a Modcan Triple Osc. It just kept evolving and never seemed to come back to the original pattern. It kept mutating.”

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When asked if they work in the box, Al-P says, “to the extent that we’re recording multitracks out of our Midas Venice 160 mixer, which allows us to monitor all the different synchronized drum machines and synthesizers. We record all of those as direct outs and use the multitrack recording computer as a tape machine. We adjust levels and let it run. As far as in-the-box mixing and processing, we’ll do surgical equalization, or filtering, like setting high-pass filters at 24 Hz to get rid of unnecessary low end. We mix all analog.

“We mixed Operator in Toronto at Union Sound Company,” Al-P adds. “They have a beautiful 1972 Neve 8014 console that sounds great. Most of our songs are 9, 10, 11 tracks, plus effects. The Neve is a 16-channel console with four buses that allowed us to route exactly way we wanted.”

“It’s a pleasure to mix on analog equipment instead of using the mouse and looking at a screen,” Keeler notes. “We use our ears. While mixing one song we turned the screen off entirely, we were just listening. Immediately it sounded better. We were able to get a superior mix.”

MSTRKRFT are fans of the popular Universal Audio line of plug-ins for mixing duties.

“UAD plugs are all over the place on the record,” Keeler says. “Those are the equivalent of five Teletronix LA2As running. Who owns as many compressors as we might’ve had going at once using the UADs?”

“A lot of UAD EMT 140 [Classic Plate Reverberator] is on the record,” Al-P adds. “That’s a great plug-in of a classic piece that UAD really nailed, as well as the UAD AKG BX 20 Spring Reverb. We actually own two of those original units. I’d been avoiding the plug-in version ’cause I didn’t believe it could sound as good as the hardware but it sounds great. And it doesn’t have any of the noise our real ones have. We also use UAD Manley Massive Passive EQ. If we had five of those hardware pieces running—imagine the cost!”

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Keeler explains how the Massive Passive was used: “We used its high-pass filter set at 22 Hz to clean up any errant low end we didn’t want in the mix,” he says. “Some of the modular synths are capable of very low frequencies. We don’t want that energy to take up space on our mix bus so we always cap it using the UAD Manley Massive Passive EQ. We also used the Lexicon 480L [“Digital Effects System”] reverb on everything. Partially because we own it and also we love how it sounds. Al is very deft at getting great patches out of it.”

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Al-P reveals his affection for the Lexicon 480L’s tiny remote, Lark, which resembles a 1980s pushbutton calculator. “I love the Lark, the Lexicon’s alpha/numeric remote control,” Al-P says. “It’s a small little thing with six sliders that allow you to access six parameters simultaneously. So you can be in mix position dialing in reverbs, as well as changing lowpass, cut-off, and decay of the whole program, all at once. It’s a great tool for doing performances on reverb programs. You can page through groups of six. So, for example, you can simultaneously adjust the decay of the reverb and the lowpass filter. It’s even better than an in-a-box reverb. And we like the sound of the Lexicon; a ton of hit records have used that reverb. You hear that the moment you put it up. It sounds like a classic piece.”

One of the greatest digital reverbs ever since its introduction in 1986, the 480L does more than reverb. Its functions include sampling, a “Shape and Spread’ option that enables Waves-like hall modeling, even 3D-like reverb using “Panorama” mode.

“We also used the 480 for pitching shifting,” Keeler says. “Like the last song on the record, ‘Go on Without Me.’ The guitar is being pitched around with the Lexicon. After we mixed the song, we used it again on the master to pull it all together and make it feel less like things in a box and more like things in a room.”

Operator is about extremes, from the 909 warfare of “Wrong Glass Sir” and the Japanese sci-fi horror sounds of “Little Red Hen,” to the siren peals of “Death in the Gulf Stream” and somnambulant space walking in “World Peace.” Which production was the most extreme?

“There’s a lot of Dave Smith Tempest on ‘Death in the Gulf Stream,’” Keeler confides. “It’s doing a lot of the weird percussion, and the way the sequences jump around the start point keeps changing. We made a conscious decision with that track to leave in the errors. You really hear us finding the things that we want.”

“The whole record is a masterpiece of editing!” Al-P jokes. “We begin with a lot of material when looking for the bits and pieces we use to assemble a song. On that song we were trying to square up the events. But after the mix it sounded wrong. So we went back to a rawer version of the edit where things were changing every five or thirteen bars. It felt way more alive.”

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The first Operator single “Runaway” is particularly jam-packed with sonic juice. Opening with humongous, dinosaur-sounding synths, the vocals of Big Black Delta’s Jonathan Bates enter, adding a calming element.

“The main synth there is the Make Noise DPO with two different CV pitch signals being sent to the two different oscillators,” Keeler explains. “It’s just a saw out on one and a square on the other. That’s running into the Blue Lantern Asteroid Operator VCF. That oscillator has a sub-octave that I ran with a sinewave out also from the DPO. That was sequenced with the Intellijel Metropolis synth.”

“The Make Noise DPO oscillator is a staple in our rigs,” Al-P adds. “Aside from the oscillators themselves sounding really great, all the cross-modulation access points between the two oscillators are very extensive. The relationship between the two oscillators is great as well. That’s our go-to oscillator when we want to start with a note before we add all the modulation.”

“Runaway” features numerous breakdown sections, Bates’ layered vocals picking up the ball and moving the track forward.

“Initially ‘Runaway’ was 20 minutes long,” Keeler says. “After we recorded everything, we edited it to reflect those breakdowns. At that point it was just moving the audio around like Lego blocks in Pro Tools.”

The track also features a rubbery synth so gluey-sounding it sticks to the ears like candy sludge. “That’s a Bubblesound Instruments oscillator with an envelope generator going into it,” Al-P says. “We liked the way it was wobbling around so it stuck. We referred to that as the guitar, when discussing it.”

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And the swooping, growling synth that enters the mix before the first breakdown? “It’s the Blue Lantern Asteroid Operator VCF,” Keeler explains. “It’s like six different filters in one module, depending on how you set it. Some of the extreme low end that made the speakers flap around was lost from the final master, but you’re hearing the performance, the same oscillator. That arrangement is crazy.”

The textures in “Runaway” morph from ’80s guitar rawk to Vangelis-like synths. A Roland TR-909 ride cymbal lightens the track, but MSTRKRFT couldn’t leave it alone. The cymbal tone seems to pitch upward as the track progresses. “That’s a TR-909 ride cymbal being tuned up,” Keeler explains. “You’ve only got level and tune controls on the TR-909 ride. Another sound that is really important in that song is a single note on the Roland SH-101 being played at the same moment as the snare. But it’s with varying degrees of noise, and in terms of whether it’s noise or the sound of the oscillator, the snare heard in that song is actually the synth, not a snare.”

“The beat and the hi-hat pattern in ‘Runaway’ are the TR-707,” Al-P adds. “The 707’s hi-hat has several different levels of shuffle, similar to the 909, but not as many. So when you go from shuffle level number one to shuffle level number two you can hear some shuffle happening, but level three is unusable. [Laughing] The 707 hi-hat there is between shuffle levels two and three. We put the bottom and top halves of it together to make the recurrence seem normal, otherwise it would have been too much shuffle.”

Visiting WMD Devices in Denver while this interview transpired, Keeler and Al-P were excited to collaborate with the manufacturer for a signature piece of MSTRKRFT kit. What might it be called, MSTRKRFT BLSTR BTR? What’s with the name anyway?

“Originally we had no intention of being a group,” Keeler states. “We just wanted to build a studio, and we called it MSTRKRFT. Then we began doing remixes, next thing we’re being offered record deals. So we kept the name but left that studio.”

After 2006’s The Looks and 2009’s Fist of God, MSTRKRFT delivers their boisterous noise to the masses on Operator. Where can they go from here? “We’re fans of some pretty weird music,” Al-P says. “If there is a single reference point for us, it’s the band Crom-Tech. We love them. In our single days we played their song, ‘Girls Go Home.’ Drop some Crom-Tech and the girls would leave the party! Some of our weird tastes are reflected in Operator. But we’re happy if you only like one song.”

Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s no denying MSTRKRFT’s amazing skill set, and more importantly, their talent for injecting cold electronics and old hardware with the sticky sounds of real life.

“The thing that is the least exciting or even worse,” says Keeler, “is when someone reviews our record and they have a tepid response. I would rather Operator be vehemently hated or loved than casually enjoyed. We’d rather elicit traumatic emotions. Maybe you hate certain songs now, but when you revisit the album later it may be the soundtrack you need.”