Moments after this picture was taken, the analog gear unhinged its jaw and swallowed Al-P (left) and Jesse F. Keeler whole.
Photo: May Truong
Even in stealth mode, MSTRKRFT's Jesse F. Keeler somehow manages to attract attention. He's grabbing a quick smoke outside the lower Manhattan offices of Downtown Records, where he and fellow KRFTsman Al-P (Alex Puodziukas) have taken over the label's recording studio to track some vocals for their new album, when two eagle-eyed youngsters stop to converse. Keeler is open and easygoing with their questions — the very idea of rock star preening makes him cringe — and he offers sage and sincere words of encouragement before turning to go back inside.
“I'm gonna change my first name to Tangent,” he jokes. “‘Hi, I'm Tangent Keeler — I'm going off!’” Upstairs at the studio, he settles into a couch next to Al-P and immediately launches into a hilarious shtick about how much easier it is to talk about recording tips and gear to Remix rather than submit to questions about how the group feels about the latest trendy topic. “Yeah, we feel really great about feeling feelings,” he drawls. “I had a real realization of reality the other day.” He glances sideways at Al-P, and the two of them snicker dryly.
The vibe is relaxed and confident in the MSTRKRFT camp, and with good reason. Since the release of their breakout debut, The Looks (Last Gang/Vice, 2006), they've hooked up remixes for an unusually diverse client list that includes Wolfmother, Chromeo, Brazilian Girls, Kylie Minogue, Usher, and most recently, John Legend (“Green Light,” the single from his upcoming album, Evolver). Last year, they hit the road with none other than John Digweed for a U.S. club tour, and this past summer they rocked Australia before initiating the fall leg of their Fist of God tour in the U.S.
Fist of God, in fact, is the title of the Toronto-based duo's long-awaited sophomore album (Dim Mak, 2008) — a sinewy and aggressive take on the distorted synth melodies and thick-hipped club beats that have been at the heart of MSTRKRFT's music ever since Keeler cut back on his bass playing and began moving away from the mutant dance-punk of his former band Death From Above 1979, with drummer Sebastien Grainger. Although at this writing the album was still in the final stages of tracking and mixing, JFK and Al-P revealed an ample glimpse of their new direction when they released the sawtoothed single “Bounce,” with guest vocals by N.O.R.E. (aka Noreaga), back in April.
“Sometimes we go in the studio and just start a beat and things come together,” Keeler explains. “‘Bounce’ was like that. I remember I was in the studio and I was waiting for Al to get there, so I just started working on a beat, and I had the beginning of the song when he came in. We did a lot more work on it eventually, but really, we were planning this album before we even finished The Looks. We probably started at least 30 tracks. Some of them we ripped apart to make the other songs that we did choose sound better. So a song that was getting scrapped but had an amazing hi-hat pattern, that pattern might have been stolen and put into something else, just to combine the good ideas from different tracks.”
DECREASE AND SIMPLIFY
While MSTRKRFT may have taken a cut-and-paste approach to assembling most of the songs on Fist of God, their intentions from the percussive side of the equation were much more about stripping down the kit to only what was essential. Although the band still relies a lot on the Roland TR-707 (whose unmistakable clap sound can be heard all over The Looks, especially on the album's first single “Easy Love”), and will fold in sounds from actual 808 and 909 units (rather than the sampled sets), Keeler and Al-P have also added a vintage LinnDrum to their arsenal. And they've taken to layering their snares with more precision to suggest the presence of a real drummer.
“I think we've been a little more selective about what goes into the drum kits on this record,” Al-P says, “especially when we're talking about the individual pieces — kick, snare, hi-hat, open hi-hat, crash. I'm calling it a drum kit, even though it's a bunch of samples, but we wanted to create the illusion of some sort of drum kit being played. So just in the programming, just changing the slightest thing — like taking out one closed hi-hat where you wouldn't be able to actually play it — changes the feel of the drum part dramatically. When you make sure all of that fits together, it really changes the way you hear it, I think. It just feels more exciting when there's a piece missing at the right moment.”
The aesthetic comes through in the breakdown section of “Vuvuvu,” the bugged-out flip side of “Bounce.” As the rhythm gradually decelerates and the lead synth line becomes more and more unhinged (complete with sampled crowd noise to heighten the mood), a simple kick-and-crash hit accentuates each bar, programmed even to duplicate the muting of the crash that happens when a drummer grabs the ringing cymbal just after it's struck.
“We pull drum samples like that all the time,” Keeler says, “not just from new records, but old disco records, too. No one's ever gonna come after us for it, because we're just gonna process it afterwards anyway. But it comes from when we first started talking to Armand Van Helden, who's been like our godfather. We've been getting tips from him about just trying to get a sound that you hear in a club or on the radio or whatever. If it's a sound you like, just pull some stuff out and try to get it, because he said to us, ‘Listen, the chances are someone else has already done it.’ And he pointed out that apparently Thomas Bangalter — Daft Punk — told him that their drums get stolen so much that he just started putting white noise in the drum sound to make it unusable. [Laughs.]”
Although MSTRKRFT's main recording platform is Pro Tools, the lads have always fostered a deep appreciation of all things analog (or at least old-school digital), as well as an equally deep mistrust of effects plug-ins and their ability to emulate, for example, a true old-school reverb experience. Sometimes they'll engage the DigiRack plug-ins for EQ — the EQ III in particular, as well as the Compressor II when they're feeling frisky — but that's about as far as Al-P, who tends to handle most of the fine-tuning on the DAW front, is willing to take it.
“We've started to play around with some…I was about to say new reverbs,” he says, “but they're actually reverbs from the '80s that we've rented a couple of times. What I'm talking about is the Lexicon 300L, which we've already used on some mixes, and the changes it makes are amazing. I'm convinced that a lot of it has to do with the fact that you're sitting in front of knobs and faders instead of mousing around on the computer. Also with the LARC — the remote for the Lexicon — you can change four parameters at a time if you want. Just to be able to sit in front of the stereo field and feel the depth change and feel the spread change — to me that's a real organic way of introducing dimension into a track.”
Fist of God's aggro-techno title cut is rife with several prime instances of extreme reverb saturation, whether it's on the growly, distorted and backward-flipped Roland Juno-60 lead synth, or on the splatlike sound of the song's ear-crushing clap track. But what's really interesting about the group's use of effects like these is that instead of just indiscriminately dropping them over a track, Al-P has devised a simple way to automate just how much reverb a track will get at any particular moment.
“It's a really wasteful way of working,” he says. [Laughs.] “But what I do is I have a few open channels on the board for reverb sends, and I mult whatever we want effected to those open channels and automate in Pro Tools how much signal is going to them. So you can play with the spatiality of an element in the track and automate that — push it back or bring it forward — as time progresses. The only thing is you're wasting a track to do that. For us, it's not that big a deal because a lot of our songs on this album are 16 tracks fully broken out, so to use a pristine Neve channel for just an automation thing is okay.”
Keeler is quick to mention that even though he and Al-P tend to fiend for the older gear, they understand the so-called necessary evils of working in the digital realm. “Look, we use Pro Tools because in many ways it mirrors the real world,” he concedes, “and that's what we're more accustomed to. But when you're sending a Moog Voyager through this beautiful discrete 1970 Neve 8016 module into Pro Tools, then what you're actually recording digitally at some point sounded really fucking awesome. That's what we're after.”
SYNTHESIZE, RINSE, REPEAT
Of course, with gritty analog synthesis playing such a key role in the raw, rambunctious sound of a MSTRKRFT project — be it the paint-peeling psycho-house textures of “Word Up” (another Fist of God club banger) or the tranced-out distorted arpeggios of their frenetic remix for John Legend's “Green Light” — Keeler and Al-P both make it clear that their synth arsenal has rapidly outstripped any other aspect of their studio setup.
“We're still massive Roland heads,” Keeler confides. “We've got an SH-101 that's been MIDI-retrofitted, the Juno-60 and the 106, and the Super Jupiter with the controller. We've also started using the Korg MS-20 — more like a noise machine or a harmonics generator to supplement the other synthesizers. But we're just really good with Roland's stuff, so we use it a lot. We're familiar with programming them, and you don't want to waste too much time with technology, especially when you're trying to write a record. It's the same reason why we still use all analog synths. It's not to be different, or even because we like them that much. It's just a straight fact that they just sound better.”
Keeler refers to the brutally high-pitched harmonics and deep lows — a frequency range that often breaks up in a digital soft-synth simulation — as being essential to the group's sound. “It's not just about what you can hear,” he insists. “It's about things you can't hear affecting what you can hear. Like the effect on the signal of some really high frequency way out of our range, and the way it pulls on the other tones that you can hear. When you take that out, you definitely notice a difference.”
And just as no two vintage Fender Stratocaster guitars are alike, individual synths have their own distinctive quirks. “If you take two SH-101s and put them side by side and put the same patch on the sliders, it's not gonna sound the same,” Al-P notes. “So there's a certain amount of character inherent in each individual analog synth that you can't replicate.” Keeler agrees, remarking on the big differences he detects between Roland Junos. “Sometimes I can't believe it,” he says. “From Juno-60 to Juno-60, the differences are huge. My old Juno-60, when we do use that thing, it's just so loud. It's just an absolute monster.”
The MSTRKRFT online message board [http://mstrkrft.suddenlaunch3.com] is packed with aspiring young DJs and record producers, all of whom are seeking a way to capture a similar sound, often using very limited equipment. While Keeler is a staunch advocate of vintage gear and carefully recorded performances, he's also regularly floored by what he hears when he's on the road or in a club.
“I think amazing work can be done on whatever you've got,” he says. “There's this incredible drum 'n' bass track called ‘Burning'' by Audio & Dylan, and I found out from Dylan that they made that using all [Propellerhead] Reason. And I'm just like, ‘You've gotta be kidding me. The drums on this sound better than everything.'' So the best advice I can give is just to really master the stuff that you have. Know your synthesizers so that if you have an idea for a sound, you can go and make that sound right away. If you're a guitar player and you have an idea, you want to be in a state where your hands can be an extension of your brain. It's the same with your synthesizers and your DAW and your whole setup.”
MSTRS OF THEIR DOMAIN
Sometimes it's easy to forget that not only is MSTRKRFT a band, it's also the name attached to that band's fully tricked-out studio in Toronto. “Initially we just wanted to build a studio so we could produce music,” Jesse F. Keeler explains. “Not necessarily our music, but for other people or whatever. And we did a couple of records for bands, but then we started doing some remixes in our own studio, and we did one that got a lot of attention in England [Bloc Party's “Two More Years”], so people were like, ‘Hey, are you guys gonna make a record?'' And then next thing we knew we had a record deal. Now we're so busy we barely have time to work on our own stuff. [Laughs.]”
Computer, DAW, recording hardware, console
Apogee PSX-100 AD converter
Apple Power Mac G5/dual 2.3 GHz
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD3 Accel with 192 I/Os
HHB CDR800 CD recorder
1970 Neve 8016 24-channel 8-bus console loaded with Neve 1064 EQs
Studer A80 2-inch 24-track wide-body tape machine, A80 ¼-inch 2-track tape machine
AKG 414 EB
Neumann KM 85i and KM 184 (matched pairs of each), U 87
Sennheiser MD 421 (pair)
(4) Shure SM57, SM58 (pair)
Synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, keyboards
Akai Z4 rackmount sampler, MPC1000
Fender Rhodes 73 MkII
Moog Micromoog, Voyager RME
Roland Juno-60, Juno-106
Roland JX-3P, MKS-80 (with MPG-80) and SH-101 synths; TR-707 and TR-909 drum machines
Sequential Circuits Prophet 600
Wurlitzer upright piano
Preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
AKG BX20 spring reverb
dbx 120X subharmonic synthesizer, 160X compressor/limiter
(4) Neve 1065, (2) 2254A and (2) 2254E
Roland SPV-355 pitch-to-voltage synth, SVC-350 vocoder
(2) Universal Audio Teletronix LA-3A
(2) Urei 1176 rev H, Urei dual 1176 rev D
Ursa Major Space Station SST-282
Neve mini (onboard)
Urei 809s with Bryston 4B amplifier
Yamaha NS10s with Bryston 2B amplifier for powered sub