Retro Respect: Despite Its Future-Electro Sound, MSTRKRFT Adheres to Old-School Rock Ways

When Toronto’s celebrated electropunk duo MSTRKRFT planned the follow-up to their 2006 smash debut, The Looks, the team of Jesse F. Keeler and Alex Puodziukas (a.k.a. Al-P) let it all hang out. Daft Punk and Justice be damned, MSTRKRFT embraced their inner “Tom Sawyer.”
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When Toronto’s celebrated electropunk duo MSTRKRFT planned the follow-up to their 2006 smash debut, The Looks, the team of Jesse F. Keeler and Alex Puodziukas (a.k.a. Al-P) let it all hang out. Daft Punk and Justice be damned, MSTRKRFT embraced their inner “Tom Sawyer.”

“We wanted to let all our varied, non-dance influences get involved,” Keeler says from Toronto. “We were listening to Steely Dan’s Aja, George Benson’s Give Me the Night, weird Japanese records. We thought about metal riffs. We even joked that we wanted to make a dance song that sounded like Rush’s ‘Tom Sawyer.’ So the prog-rock influence is no mistake. We tried to not let our DJ ideas hold back our musical ideas, and actually make songs.”

With that in mind and due to the fact that both Keeler and Puodziukas are drummers, the duo approached beats in a non-dance way, too. “We did drum programming in a way that is similar to how you would actually play the drums,” Keeler says. “If you only have two hands and two feet, you can’t hit all the drums at the same time. We cut around and made sure it was all real sounding. We emulated how things would be off the computer, in the computer.”

The fruits of MSTRKRFT’s labor are evident in the first track from Fist of God [Dim Mak/Downtown]. Whirring, eardrum-ripping synths and a vicious four-to-the-floor groove introduce “It Ain’t Love,” but after an all-too brief verse (sung by Lil’ Mo), prog-rock lightning bolts upend the house-oriented arrangement like Anthrax jamming with Rush at Budokan. After the big prog moment, the dance groove re-enters, now approximating a gargantuan Run- DMC beat while layered synths morph and mushroom above. The song’s only constant is its ever-changing drum pattern, whirring synths, and prog rock assault. How MSTRKRFT created the track’s vertigo-inducing rhythm is a study in devolution.

“We work with a lot of samples,” Keeler explains, “and for the most part on the grid in Pro Tools, moving actual audio around to make our drum patterns. We’ll program the pattern and run that out to an Akai Z4 sampler, then load up ten or 12 samples that we think might work and scroll through them. Once we make a decision, we lock it down and print it.”

But even prior to the usual sample select/scroll/print process, MSTRKRFT considers the human element. The prog-rock thrills of “It Ain’t Love” were derived from one of Puodziukas’ former loves.

“I was just playing that pattern on my thighs; it originally came from my old punk band, Spiral Hill,” Puodziukas says. “Whenever we program drums, we’re thinking about playing it on a drum kit. What are you going to play on that virtual kit you’ve created with your sample selections? During fills and rolls, we make sure there’s not three hands playing stuff, so the hi-hats will drop out during snare or tom fills. That gives the illusion of having a real drummer. Having things drop out and beats missing really creates the illusion of reality. We also record live drums. We usually stick to a sampled kick, but we’ll record live hi-hats; Jesse plays the pattern and we quantize it. It’s a straight overdub with a little processing. That really brings the drums to life.”

Puodziukas admits there is “nothing complicated about a 1/8th-note hi-hat pattern,” but insists that having the same pattern played by a human hand produces “a psycho acoustic effect.”

“You’re hearing the same sound repeated but each one is slightly different and unique to that pattern,” he says. “That’s really important. Why not just take the best hi-hat and copy and paste it throughout the whole track? Because that slight bit of wander even when quantized really pleases the ear.”

In addition to beat mechanics, Keeler and Puodziukas are known for the massive array of hardware synths used in their productions, including Korg MS-20, Moog Micromoog and Voyager RME, Roland Juno-60, Juno- 106, JX-3P, MKS-80, and SH-101 synths, TR-707 and TR-909 drum machines, Sequential Circuits Prophet 600, and Fist of God’s most used item, the Roland MKS-80 Super Jupiter. Throughout Fist of God, the Super Jupiter can be heard running backwards, zooming like a crashing spaceship and seemingly inhaling and exhaling. MSTRKRFT attribute the latter effect to sidechain compression or “ducking.”

“We use sidechain compressors like a Drawmer DS201 [Dual Noise Gate] or a stock [Waves] C1 compressor set up to duck the hihats out of the way when the kick drum enters to make it sound more like a real kit,” Keeler says. “And that’s also what gives the synths those different effects.”

You’ve heard the effects of sidechain compression a hundred times. Remember that big sucking sound in Daft Punk’s “One More Time” or similar sonic tomfoolery in Thomas Bangalter & DJ Falcon’s “Together”?

“It’s a special effect; it sounds like studio processing,” Puodziukas explains. You’re trying to achieve a radio effect where you’ve got a hard master compressor on stereo program material. Anything above 100Hz is getting pulled down by the heavy kick drum ’cause it’s pushing so much more energy than the top frequencies when you put it through a heavy compressor. So the ducker is to achieve that effect but in a controlled manner.

“In ‘Fist of God’ and ‘Vuvuvu,’ the Super Jupiter is being ducked out of the way of the kick drum. At times it sounds like it’s being reversed, because the envelope the ducking creates is kind of unnatural because it’s a slow attack and a hard release. By jockeying the release time on the ducker it gives that swelling effect. We usually try to time it on an upbeat so you have a kick drum on the downbeats, and by timing the release of the processor, you’ll get a swing up on the 1/8th note in between the main beats. All you need is a compressor with a sidechain input. It’s an exciting sound; it gives the impression that the track is cooking and crushing everything.”

In addition to ducking, “Vuvuvu” also features a bizarre deceleration section where the synths, beat, and everything else slows to an almost painful BPM.

“It’s an ascending chromatic scale from the Super Jupiter,” Puodziukas says. “The idea was to have that pattern running, then during the break just slow it down until it became in time with the original tempo, but the rhythmic figure is different and the actual pattern was truncated. If the original pattern was 2, it would be 1.75 times the original length. To execute that idea took some brainpower and a calculator. Once the pattern slows down, it’s running at a different BPM in relation to the original BPM, but it’s being truncated to fit over the original BPM. The de-acceleration was a programmed tempo change in Pro Tools.”

By now you can tell that Keeler and Puodziukas are thoroughly old-school, at least in their attitude regarding live instrumentation versus programming. That also influenced their choice of control surface. While they use Pro Tools to assemble the bits and bobs, recording is done via a 1971 Neve 8016 24-channel 8-bus console—loaded with Neve 1064 EQs—which they lovingly call “Rhiannon.” And for good reason. Theirs is the exact Neve console used to record Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled album, which produced the 1975 hit, “Rhiannon.”

“It’s a special console, and we’ve put a lot of work into it to keep it functional,” Puodziukas says. “It’s built like a tank. It’s all military spec, 1971, so the wiring is the same quality that is used on missile silos. It really does have a certain spirit. Every Neve sounds different, and this one has a signature sound you can hear in our productions.”

The console also serves as a reminder to not cut corners when it comes to recording signals going in.

“On old mixing desks, EQ was called ‘correction’,” Keeler says. “I tell the kids on our message boards to take that mentality when recording. Get the sound right going in and don’t try to use all manner of processing, and only effect it in Pro Tools if you are not happy with it. A lot of the sounds on our record are the natural sounds produced by the instrument. We only messed with levels. Letting things breathe is a good idea, and just being careful and not overprocessing sounds.”

For a duo as popular as MSTRKRFT— they’ve remixed Yeahs Yeahs Yeahs, Kylie Minogue, Brazilian Girls, Usher, and many others to great acclaim, and even R&B superstar John Legend insisted he appear on Fist of God (“Heartbreaker”)—they seem strangely stuck in a sonic time warp of their own design.

“Is it just us being nostalgic?” Keeler wonders. “I really believe that these traditional processes end up sounding better in terms of harmonics. Digital is great, but it is has a frequency range. These analog sounds that are not even audible do affect your production sound; they can even change the other frequencies. That doesn’t happen in digital. Digital can only do harmonic emulation, but it is not actually happening. It’s just static fuzz.”