Every budding studio boffin needs a certain level of industry-standard pro-audio gear to produce a professional music product. Right? Certain tools of the trade are simply expected to be part of your studio, from Akai samplers and Emagic Logic Audio to Shure mics, Roland synths and Yamaha NS10 speakers, the latter favored by prince and pauper alike. But don't tell that to the Crystal Method's Ken Jordan.
“I cringe every time I hear Yamaha NS10s,” Jordan says. “It has amazed me for 10 years. Everyone says, ‘If you can make it sound good on these, it will sound good anywhere.’ Well, that is no way to mix! It's stupid. If you don't want the same frequencies that are in your music to come out of the speakers, then use NS10s.”
Jordan and partner Scott Kirkland have always bucked hard against the industry grain. Back in the '90s, when U.S. dance urchins were imbibing the sound of everything UK, the Crystal Method was working in Las Vegas, creating inventive music from archaic synths and old Zeppelin riffs. These days, many musicians favor Digidesign Pro Tools, but TCM goes for MOTU Digital Performer. Jordan and Kirkland prefer outboard gear from Casio, Korg, ARP and Clavia. The Crystal Method boys do it their way — who cares if it's the hard way?
A HEALTHY DOSE OF DISTORTION
Legion of Boom (V2, 2004) confirms the Crystal Method's iconoclastic production ideals and their consequences. Looking for that extra spice to further distance their music from dance expectations, TCM enlisted the heavy-metal clamor of ex — Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland and the vocal tantrums of human beatbox Rahzel. One track even boasts what sounds like AC/DC's dead howler, Bon Scott, but it's really a former singer for desert rockers Kyuss, John Garcia. Legion of Boom is undoubtedly a Crystal Method album, evidenced by the “Rock Me Amadeus” guitars and goose-stepping big beats in songs permeated by eerie atmospheres, the sonic signature of two ordinary-looking guys who call their Glendale, Calif., studio the Bomb Shelter.
Named after a gang of local badass DJs, Legion of Boom offers sinister tracks that mirror a California gone mad. It's also the sound of two prescient musicians refining their risk-taking approach. Legion of Boom's whiplash drum grooves and textured, lava-lamp keyboards give the tracks a spaciousness while its black-hearted guitars ramp up the aggression factor.
“We've used guitars on all the albums, but there may be more on this one,” Kirkland says. “Having heavy-metal influences makes a difference. Our first single, ‘Now Is the Time,’ was at the peak of grunge, and it had distortion all over it, as have all our singles, from ‘Keep Hope Alive’ to ‘Busy Child’ going to Tweekend. We have never been afraid of using guitars, and it has helped to play in front of thousands of hard-rock kids.”
“And we believe that distortion isn't just for guitars,” Jordan interjects. “We are an equal distortion lender. We used TDM plug-ins for most of the filtering, such as Line 6 Amp Farm and Echo Farm, and Bomb Factory's SansAmp PSA-1. Wes played a little on the Sound Guy's SFX Machine, but most of his stuff was not effected too much except in the breakdowns, where we would twist the last few beats. The TDM plug-in we used the most on guitars and vocals is Echo Farm; it really duplicates old tape and Roland Space Echoes really well. It does the tape saturation and feedback; we haven't found anything that duplicates that as well.”
ATTACK OF THE KILLER SOUNDS
Running everything through Avalon and Joemeek compressors and an Apogee digital-to-analog converter, TCM made Legion of Boom as spookily human-sounding (or is that inhuman?) as possible. “I Know It's You” is an example with crisscrossing keyboard melodies creating a dizzy swirl like foul spirits swarming around your skull.
“I don't know where that sound comes from,” Kirkland says. “I guess from the heavy-metal minor chord structures we use. On Tweekend and Vegas, there are some dissonant chords, but most of it was like ‘Keep Hope Alive’: energetic and uplifting. We actually started ‘I Know It's You’ during Tweekend, but it just didn't fit. The sounds in that are kind of antagonistic. Each sound comes in and antagonizes the other sound and builds and creeps up and creeps back down. A lot of the eerie sounds were made on the Nord Lead 2 — all of the patches that we created and a lot of noise and filter distortion. There is also the Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro pedal synth on that making that motoring sound. We filtered that up and down and swept it. That is one of our cherished pedals. It adds a synthetic harmonic on top and has a low-frequency harmonizer and a guitar distortion sweep.”
“Another thing that adds to the eeriness of it is Milla Jovovich's vocal,” Jordan adds. “We spoke the ‘I Know It's You’ part through a V-Synth, and then Milla sang a beautiful vocal, but it sounded more mysterious when we reversed it. We just took 24 bars and reversed it, and then it magically fell in place. We repeated it and hit Reverse using one of Digital Performer's audio functions.”
“It is such an epic track — all those antagonistic sounds that swell up and down,” Kirkland says. “We had rerecorded two of the original sounds over and over again to DAT, the snake from the Nord Lead 2 fed through the Bass Micro Synth. We were chasing that particular performance because the one sweep had an airy shriek, like a screaming voice, and the rockier Nord Lead sound. There were only eight bars where the two sounds were at a level volume; they kept creeping up and down. The drums on that were made with the E-mu E4, adjusted and filtered before finally returning to the initial simple kick-snare pattern.”
Equally horrific-sounding, “True Grit” and “Bound Too Long” mash up monosyllabic vocals, rubbery bass riffs and squirming keyboards for a ghouls 'n' goblins sonic freak show. The grooves are thumping, but the overall effects are what make the tracks work.
“‘True Grit’ began on Reason, again with simple loops and segments of ideas,” Kirkland says. “The Nord Lead 3 made those really harsh ripping sounds that build into the rubbery tones with some filter sweeps. The great thing about the Nord Lead 3 is that you can tie three or four different movements from the different knobs — whether it is the resonant filter or an LFO sweep — to one controller, like a pitch wheel. The opening keyboard riff is the Nord Lead 2. Again, like a lot of the things that we do, there will be a sequence part; then, we will record an eight-bar section and manipulate and filter it, then treat it the same way as when we didn't have digital audio. We would record to DAT, play the part out, then fine-tune the good bars and expand on it. That Wurlitzer electric piano in the breakdown was played live, then sent through a lot of delays.”
THWACK, CRACK, BOOM
Although the creation of its melodies is a fascinating process, what makes Legion of Boom (and the preceding Tweekend [Interscope, 2001] and Vegas [Outpost,1997]) kick are the bristling, hard-edged drum loops, which can also be traced to TCM's holistic approach. “We always run the drums to one compressor so they sound like they are in the same room,” Jordan explains. “If it is outboard, the compressor is the Avalon 747, but these days, we also use the Analog Channel plug-in to simulate tape saturation. It rolls off top end and levels out the bottom. For compression, sometimes we will use something as simple as Wave's L1 Stereo Limiter just to knock things off on the top so things don't get too loud.”
“The best drums ever recorded were with a single well-placed mic in a good room,” Kirkland says. “Like when Zeppelin's drums only went down to two tracks. You can't have a kick and a snare and a hi-hat sounding like they are coming from three different machines, all different EQ and dynamics. That always sounds computer-made and sequenced. We spent a lot of time on the drums just fixing EQ level. There aren't that many drums on ‘Starting Over,’ just kick and snare and hats and some conga, but it was about EQing everything and getting it to be a cohesive groove. We didn't want to layer too much, unlike on Tweekend, which had more of a bombastic approach with layering. This one is more streamlined and more about the bass line and the beat and the hook, whether that be from guitar or synth. One of my favorite sounds is from the Andromeda on ‘Wide Open,’ that big heavy sweep sound.”
Whatever the formula these Vegas gamblers put to use, they know that if they don't move forward, they're doomed. They're also well aware that giving 150 percent can make the music — and their audience — go boom. “We are fortunate enough to have momentum and a good fan base,” Kirkland says. “We are not afraid of trying new things. We consciously made an effort from the very beginning to make music that goes beyond the dancefloor, though we test our tracks out when we DJ. For the most part, we try to make songs that fit into an album that you can listen to in any environment. That helps us appeal to a larger mass audience.”
INSIDE THE BOMB SHELTER
Akai MPC3000 sampler/sequencer
Alesis Andromeda A6 synth
Apogee PSX-100 2-channel 24-bit, 96kHz A/D converter
Apple Macintosh G4
ARP Odyssey synth
Avalon U5 Mono Instrument & DI Preamplifier
Avalon Vt-737sp preamp
Avalon Vt-747sp compressor/EQ
Bomb Factory SansAmp PSA-1 TDM plug-in
Casio CZ-101 digital synth
Clavia Nord Lead 2 synth
Clavia Nord Lead 3 synth
Clavia Nord Modular
Digidesign Pro Tools TDM systems
Electrix Mo-FX effects unit
Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synthesizer
E-mu Audity 2000 synth
E-mu E4 sampler
E-mu XL-7 Command Station
E-mu Xtreme Lead-1 synth
Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer effects processor
Fairchild 660 TDM plug-in
Gibson Les Paul guitar
Joemeek SC2 Stereo Compressor
Korg Electribe/R ER-1 synth
Korg Mono/Poly synth
Korg Prophecy synth
Line 6 Amp Farm and Echo Farm TDM plug-ins
Maestro Rhythm-N-Sound effects processor
Moog Memorymoog synth
MOTU Digital Performer 3 software
Musictronic Mutron biphase/pedal
PMC IB1S monitors w/Bryston PowerPac 120 monaural amplifiers
Pro Co Rat effects unit
Propellerhead Reason software
Roland V-Synth synth
Roland Jupiter 6 synth
Serato Pitch 'n Time TDM plug-in
Studio Electronics SE-1 synth
Tube Works Real Tube Overdrive 901 pedal
THESE AIN'T YOUR MAMA'S BEATS
Although some electronic artists are happy to do the robot dance to their ultraperfect drum-machine-spewed beats, Ken Jordan prefers to bring some man-made realism to the Crystal Method's rhythms. Here, Jordan details Legion of Boom's grooves of doom: “We don't go for that four-on-the-floor computer beat. We are making the music with computers, but we don't want it to sound computerized. We want that human element.
“We send everything through the same Avalon 747 or 737 compressors so that everything sounds like it is coming from one place. On ‘Born Too Slow,’ that first loop is kind of brittle; we just rolled off the bottom. Then, the bigger kick comes in and gives some real meat to the drums. ‘American Way’ has an electro snare drum, which is really two snares together with some EQ and compression. The snare in ‘Acetone’ is really overdriven and distorted. It was too in-your-face at first; we sent it through the SansAmp plug-in using a fuzz setting. We made the percussion ensemble in ‘Wide Open’ with Ableton Live, a loop-sequencing program that is like Acid. We programmed it in Reason's Redrum kit, but we don't use any of the stock sounds.
“All of the drum components go to an internal bus within Digital Performer, where we run plug-ins like compression, reverb and EQ. What is key is that the reverb gets compressed with everything else so that it all sounds as one. We sacrifice some stereo separation, but in a band, that drummer is in one place. Whether we program drums from Reason or a drum machine, we do lots of labor-intensive separating of all the sounds in DP to make them feel perfect. It is not about lining them up, but shifting and moving sounds to figure out which things feel good ahead of the beat and which things feel good behind.”
As for the real drum dirty work, TCM leaves that to the Bomb Shelter's production assistant and resident loop guru, Chris Olmos. “I chop up blocks of their audio and turn them into loops using TC Electronic Spark, BIAS Peak or Propellerhead Software's ReCycle,” Olmos says. “Ken or Scott will give me hip-hop drum samples and vocal a cappellas, and I will put them into REX files, cutting every part into Reason so they can manipulate it. If Ken likes a particular drum-loop CD, he can take the kick or the snare, then layer them into this crazy drum loop made out of 20 loops. I will make either a bar or a REX file, depending on how good the drum loop sounds; then, they will send it through plug-ins and Redrum and get the snares popping and the kicks bumping. They don't want it to sound like a loop. They get into the mindset of a drummer and how he cracks away at the drums. Ken has worked with live bands, and he knows how to make drums sound live, not programmed. They always want that swing, that groove.”