Imagine this scenario: You’ve made it. You’ve got a Grammy nomination to your name. Your electronic beats have driven everything from video games to the Thunderbirds fighter drill team to an exercise routine by Nike. The rise of electronic dance music in the U.S. owes a lot to you, and you’re celebrating the tenth anniversary of one of your platinum-selling albums. Thanks to all this success, you’ve been able to build your dream synth studio, and you’re powering it up for the first time. . . .
That’s how Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland — the Crystal Method — began their latest effort, Divided by Night. The first sounds of the album were born as their new studio was finished. What might surprise you is that their biggest challenge was to return to the spirit of the poorly-heated converted garage in which their seminal debut Vegas was crafted. Making the new album was half invention, half archaeology, as the duo rediscovered old working techniques.
Getting a state-of-the-art studio with (nearly) every synth you’ve ever wanted? A very good thing once your MasterCard can take it. Reclaiming the freedom to make a record for no one but yourselves, to share that effort with your favorite collaborators, and recapture some of the feeling of making your first album? Priceless.
Going Back to Vegas
The seeds for the new album were planted as the duo deconstructed some of their own work. Vegas set the course sonically, technically, and philosophically, for Crystal Method’s fourth studio album.
“We were preparing for the ten-year anniversary of Vegas, going back and listening to that album,” says Scott. “We had it remastered, had remixes done – pulling up some of the parts gave us a chance to reflect a little bit about where we were in the beginning.” It wasn’t just listening to the album itself, recalls Scott, but recalling some of the scope and ambitions of the duo’s first outing that helped fuel Divided by Night. “There’s a lot of attention to detail on that record, lots of sounds that we crafted from scratch. When you make your first record, you don’t think about anything else. You don’t think about what this certain person would like, or try to make anybody at the record label happy, because you don’t have a record deal. We loved the freedom of that. We loved both Tweekend and Legion of Boom, our next two studio albums. But we thought, especially on Legion of Boom, we left some things on the table. We didn’t explore the full potential of a song.”
Realizing that potential, Scott explains, meant both fully developing the songs and involving the duo’s favorite collaborators to add dimension. “We just had the new studio and had great sounds coming out of it,” Scott says. “We warmed up a lot of our old synthesizers and had space to put them out and access them quickly. It was just an opportunity to really expand on where we thought our sound could go. And we reached out to some amazing people, including Jason Lyttle from Grandaddy, Emily Haines from Metric, and Justin Warfield from She Wants Revenge. We wanted to hear more melody and beauty in the music and just really take each song as far as we felt that they could go.”
Unraveling Vegas’ sonic DNA brought back memories of some of the techniques that made that album tick, as the duo dug deep into archival DATs to find stems for remixing and remastering. “Some of the separate parts were coming back, says Scott. “A track like ‘Busy Child,’ [from Vegas] even — you start to remember exactly how you’d recorded it. We were bringing out some of these old synths that we hadn’t used — the Minimoog and the Yamaha CS-40. We’ve always used the Roland Jupiter-6; it’s pretty much a workhorse. It was getting back into that world. We loved the amount of melody that existed on Vegas, all the little bits and pieces that put together the song. That’s something I think you hear a lot of on this record.”
Scott and Ken are both serious about reconstructing the tiny details of how the first record was assembled, even as they replace gear with slicker, new equipment. “As you get more money to invest in the studio, all these little boxes that at the time you thought were great, you look back on as junk,” says Scott. “We had this ART DR-X rack-mounted multi-effects pitch thing — it broke. It just wouldn’t turn on. And then pulling up [Vegas track] ‘High Roller,’ that delay was from the DR-X.”
Ken Jordan, the member of the duo with the dominant engineering background, cuts in, trying to remember the signal flow: “I’ve got my money on chorus . . . and there was a chain of delays . . . it was like one order, one row of effects . . . I think it was chorus before the delay. . . .”
From Garage to Crystalwerks
For a duo whose big-beat sound is defined by meticulous methods with gear, the working environment matters. Divided by Night emerges from a new workflow, new software tools, and most importantly, a completely new studio built around the tools that are most significant to the Crystal sound. The result is Crystalwerks, a professionally-built North Hollywood studio fusing vintage analog favorites with a Mac-based Pro Tools rig.
It’s a big shift from the home-brewed sonic lair in which Crystal Method famously constructed their first albums. “The first three albums, the first piece of music that we put out were recorded in our little studio in a two-car garage north of Glendale, CA,” says Scott. “It was a studio not well put together, but put together with lots of love and lots of passion for making music. It was really great for us for a long time. We slapped some drywall up and soundproofed this ’50s-era garage — and dealt with fluctuations of weather through the years. California doesn’t get that hot, but in that studio, it got pretty warm. Eventually we put a window-mounted air conditioner in the room adjacent to the studio.”
Ken laughs, “First we just tried to cool the studio that was this big with all the machinery with an air conditioner in a room that was this big right next to it with the door open.” It should come as no surprise, then, that the new studio has its own machine room for the hotter gear.
Of course, the duo that began in the garage confesses that switching on your dream studio for the first time can be intimidating. Ken Jordan recalls that first day: “It was overwhelming at the beginning, because it’s such a great place — the aesthetic is so good, the natural light. We had pretty much all the gear we wanted — except a hardware Jupiter-8! [Laughs.] And it’s all hooked up, and it’s all ready to go. Everything’s beautiful and everything sounds pretty good. I kind of expected the first day to walk in there and have music just sort of pouring in. And that doesn’t happen. There’s still a lot of work.”
Making the move was an important process, says Scott: “It allowed us to think bigger, to be more comfortable, to record things better. It just gave us new energy and new life. The building we have now is a big jump in professional recording and setup.”
In addition to changing the physical surroundings, the move also involved a software switch, from MOTU Digital Performer with TDM support (for Pro Tools plug-ins and hardware) to a full-blown Digidesign Pro Tools HD setup. They also gave up their Mackie Digital 8-Bus Mixer, mixing instead on a Digidesign D-command control surface. That move was ultimately a comfortable one, says Scott. “We were learning Pro Tools, which isn’t that far from [the Digital Performer setup] — we already knew the plug-in side of it, the audio side of it. Both being American companies, I think that some of the choices that MOTU and Digidesign made regarding their interfaces and their MIDI are similar. Although for years DP was a lot more advanced on the MIDI side, Pro Tools has made many steps to move to the forefront of MIDI implementation. It did take us a little bit of time to get used to the program itself.”
Aside from the software, says Scott, they needed time to adapt to the room: “It’s a much different room. We knew what everything sounded like in the old room. We kept the same monitors; we use PMC, a company out of England. But it just took a little while for us to get used to the way the new room sounded.”
The Right Tools for the Job
Writing isn’t easy, concedes Scott: “I think it’s hard for everyone. You just go in and you try to start with a drum beat that you like, or a bass line you hear in your head. Or you get a new synth and just have to make a tune with it — on ‘High Roller’ on Vegas, for example, we really played around with the first Nord Lead when it came out.”
“Yeah,” laughs Ken. “We were so excited to lock the arpeggiator to MIDI clock!”
Make no mistake about it: Ken and Scott both love plugging in their toys to get inspiration going. “On Vegas,” Scott says, “we had distortion pedals and fuzz pedals and tube pedals — you just throw everything in there, so you get excited that way. The same thing happened here.” Even surrounded by many of their favorite vintage hardware synths, they got additional creative fuel from virtual emulations of instruments they don’t (yet) own. “We got excited going through some of the new virtual instruments — Arturia having a Yamaha CS-80 and an ARP 2600, and GForce having an OSCar and an ARP Odyssey, and we were intrigued the things they did,” says Scott. “It’s not ever going to be the same as real analog synths, but the things that were different about it made it fun to jump to those new programs. The sound quality was great, and the updates, as far as locking up LFOs and arpeggiators, were exciting.”
“Don’t forget having every knob work!” interrupts Ken.
“That was fun,” agrees Scott. “Getting in and realizing, wow, now that we can lock these things that we couldn’t lock before, let’s take this idea that we once had on the CS-80 and expand it here. Every bit, from beats to bass lines to new sounds on synths to things in our heads to amazing songs that we’d hear from different artists that were releasing new music – everything is inspiring to us.”
That’s not to say there isn’t some sense of economy in the Crystal Method’s production, as is revealed on the album. “Even if you have all that stuff available,” cautions Ken, “if you think you have to use it all on every track, you’re really screwed!”
The Crystal Method Sound
Divided by Night is slicker and more developed than any album since Vegas. Oh, and it’s faster, too. “Prior, we haden’t had a song as fast as 155 beats per minute,” says Ken. Regardless of tempo, moving forward is what keeps the duo creatively energized. “We’re more concerned with just moving on,” Ken explains. “You can’t get trapped in worrying about what people are going to say: ‘How come you didn’t do what you did last time?’ or ‘Damn it, you just did the same thing you did last time!’ You can’t fight that battle. You’re never going to win it in your head, so you’ve got to progress.” The result is an album very much in the Crystal Method sound die-hard fans crave, but with plenty of fresh ideas — all with the signature, rock-influenced big-beat drums.
“We’ve always wanted to sound different from our last record, says Scott. “A lot of people were confused when we released Tweekend. They wanted us to get in there and have those 16-bar drum rolls and use a lot of the same tricks. “There’s a track called ‘Black Rainbows’ that’s more four-on-the-floor, upbeat kinds of sounds, expanding what we’re trying to do.”
“Black Rainbows” features the delicatelyfloating sounds of Stefanie King Warfield’s vocals, but against an animated percussive landscape. “We’ve got a Roland TR-909 and these great drum machines from the past,” Scott continues. “So we brought a lot of those into the mix. Of course, we’ve always tried to find the big kicks and snares that give us that big-rock, dirty, organic, live drum sound.” Add in a “gamut of collaboration” as Ken puts it, and you have Divided by Night. Those collaborations “worked out pretty magically,” he says.
“When we’re making a record,” Ken reflects, “we plan on it sounding good forever — we’re concisouly not trying to say, ‘Hey, here’s this new sound, so let’s put it all over the record.’ I think not pigeonholing what we do has always served us well. We are electronic, I guess, but we’ve never tried to be breakbeat or trip-hop or big-beat or any of those things.”
The duo’s signature sound, however, is all over this record. “Certainly, you still hear some of the overall grime, you still hear the low end distortion and the real, you still hear a lot of hard sort of rock and classic sort of rock tones and sounds in everything we do, says Ken. “There’s always contrast — the prettiest of things and the dirtiest of things.”
Crystal Method’s Virtual Reality
The new Crystalwerks studio is the perfect fusion of digital and analog, vintage gear feeding into a high-end Pro Tools HD system. Ken and Scott took advantage of non-historical, modern sound design features on software emulations as they did authentic sounds from the hardware originals. “It was close to 50/50, if you really break it down,” says Scott. “Some songs are more geared toward virtual synths; some toward the analog hardware. I think that we found on this record, we found that balance, where we appreciate the sound and the warmth of a Memorymoog or a Yamaha CS-40 or an Andromeda, then we appreciate the convenience of some of the newer Arturia, GForce, Korg, and Native Instruments plug-ins.” Here are some of Scott’s favorites:
(from Korg’s Legacy Analog Edition 2007)
GForce Virtual String Machine