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The Crystal Method explain the art of the remix, why MP3s suck, and Satan Gas

“We like changing things a lot, but we also like to keep the song elements recognizable.”

Legendary electronic duo The Crystal Method — Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland — are well known for their numerous breakbeat and trip-hop innovations, but they’re also expert remixers, having put many a unique spin on a broad swath of artists ranging from The Doors (Roadhouse Blues) to New Order (Bizarre Love Triangle) to UNKLE (Reign). After dropping their self-titled The Crystal Method comeback album in early 2014 — delayed for a year while Kirkland recovered from brain surgery — the dynamic duo began thinking about literally having the tables turned on themselves. Thus was born Remixed, available now through their own Tiny e imprint in a variety of formats, including uniquely configured bundles at Core, iTunes, Beatport, and Spotify (the latter two each containing different bonus tracks).

“We had some remixes done early on, prior to the release of the record,” explains Jordan. “Originally, we either were going to release more singles and have remixes for those, or we were going to do a Deluxe Edition of the album with the remixes added. We found we had so many good remixes that we said, ‘Hey, this is worthy of a release all on its own.’” Adds Kirkland, “We made changes in some of the edits because of the unfortunate nature of the ADD listener nowadays. But they retained some of the original fidelity from the mastered source.” A veritable variety of remix stylists have re-envisioned vibrant TCM tracks like Kezwik’s percussive tour de force tackling of Difference, Terravita’s tornado tempo take on Grace (which also transforms guest vocalist LeAnn Rimes into Pat Benatar), and King Arthur’s sibilant mush-mouth mashdown of Over It.

In addition to appearing at Gasem’s event at The Clevelander this Friday during Miami Music Week, The Crystal Method are hard at work on a remix for a high-profile Web developer’s new hush-hush project, and they also composed an original score with Tobias Enhus for The Sisterhood of Night, which hits theaters April 10. “We’re trying to concentrate a lot more on scoring for film and television,” confirms Jordan. “We’re working on some really cool things, like a new and interesting take on virtual reality with a real cool director.”

Digital Trends rang up Jordan and Kirkland in their Southern California recording studio to discuss the genesis of Remixed, the possibility of remixing their catalog for high-resolution playback, and the current state of EDM. Sling the decks. 

Digital Trends: Once you decided to have The Crystal Method album remixed, what type of files did you make available for people to work with?

Scott Kirkland: We put stems together at the end of each session. Normally, we go between Ableton and Pro Tools, which has lots of bounces or freezes, where we take the audio from a drum bus and then take that down to two channels, rather than individually record out all the drums. Basically, our normal track sessions are a pretty convoluted mess. (all laugh)

“Steven Spielberg doesn’t want to see his masterpiece on a small, motorhome, ‘This version has been edited for television’ screen.”

We try to keep the process simple, and put things into five or six groups — synthesizers, bass, strings, miscellaneous, or whatever we call them. We amuse ourselves with labeling, trying to cut through the boring, day-to-day, working-with-files stuff by how we title tracks or songs in progress. Say we have a really great bass sound — we’ll call it Satan Gas, or something like that, though it would probably be better represented if we just called it Bass Track.

Oh, I don’t know — I think Satan Gas is exactly right.

Kirkland: (laughs) We try to keep it simple. In the past, we’ve sent out a vocal or a synth part that might be bathed in reverb. People have come to us and asked us for drivers or separate stems for a particular part because maybe there are a couple of things stacked. We just make sure we have something that represents the track with the least amount of channels possible that can expand out if needed.

Is there an average number of tracks per cut, or do you have a set limit?

Kirkland: It’s usually right up to where our computer will crash if we add one more thing. (Jordan laughs heartily) It’s always crashing if we do that, so maybe we’ll add this one track and then do a combo percussion track. Over the many months of the progress of a song it’s hard to say how many, but they probably have between 40 to 60 tracks each.

Are you laying things down in the studio in 96/24?

Ken Jordan: We typically do our albums at 88/24. We do 88 because it converts down to 44.1 a little better. They’re pretty big files, but, as you know, storage is getting cheaper all the time.

I prefer listening to high-resolution files, because I hate to miss out on anything in 44.1 or on an MP3, especially with mixes and tracks as detailed as yours.

Kirkland: Oh yeah, yeah. If we could go back and get rid of all MP3s, that would be great.

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Jordan: For our direct-to-consumer campaign to launch The Crystal Method album last year, we offered a USB with 24-bit versions of all the tracks on it.

Can you envision a point where you make the entire Crystal Method catalog available in 24-bit?

Jordan: We would have to upscale the catalog for that, since the originals were in 44.1/16. But if we did newer mixes — which would be hard on [1997’s] Vegas — we could do that and make the mixes higher fidelity, yes.

I’m a big fan of the DVD-Audio version of Legion of Boom (2004), which had your fantastic DTS ES surround-sound mixes in 48/24. Born Too Slow is amazing in 5.1.

Jordan: Thank you. So you like that format? I like Fleetwood Mac Rumours in surround. [Rumours was remixed in 5.1 by the album’s original co-producer Ken Caillat for DVD-Audio in 2001.]

I do like that one, actually. So many elements got pulled from the original mixes done in 1977 because they just had too much on them for the vinyl format to reproduce properly. I like the alternate version of Never Going Back Again with the electric-guitar solo from Lindsey Buckingham and brush drums by Mick Fleetwood. I thought that was pretty cool.

Jordan: I have to say, you’ve given us a great idea. It wouldn’t be that hard to do. We have a 5.1 system in our main studio, so we could do surround mixes of all our albums, and then press our own Blu-ray discs.

“If we could go back and get rid of all MP3s, that’s would be great.”

Count me in for Blu-ray for sure. What do you feel gets lost in the MP3 format?

Kirkland: You can’t just take something that’s been mastered for a CD and convert it down without losing something. With a CD, you’re compressing from a 44/16 source, rather than using a higher-res version and compressing down from there, where you’d potentially have a much richer, fuller piece of data to work with. And nowadays, people are mastering for MP3, so the mastering engineer, or whoever is doing it, knows not to push it too much.

There is the potential for certain sections to sound distorted and degraded. No artist likes that. Steven Spielberg doesn’t want to see his masterpiece on a small, motorhome, “This version has been edited for television” screen. Those lines have been drawn much more clear in video than in audio.

When you hear the phrase “mastered for iTunes,” do you cringe?

Jordan: Our mastering was considered “too hot” for them, actually. We had 88/24 masters, and we tried doing it multiple times to get the master “right” for them. There’s some meter thing they use, and our levels were too hot and too high for them. (laughs)

Kirkland: They’ve got it in AAC, and then they convert it down to MP3. It’s kind of the Wild Wild West of converting, and not knowing where it came from initially. I’ve been doing research on this mastering for iTunes thing, and I don’t find anything wrong with it. Their format is to make it sound as good as it can through their system, so it seems like they’re taking the necessary steps to account for the possible problems you will have when things get smaller.

When we do our DJ sets, we try to keep things high-res with the files we buy or the promos we get. I use iTunes Match for any device that I have. You put anything in there, and it will convert it. I put some rough mixes in my computer, and it would be Matched while we were working on the song!

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Have you had a song submitted to you after mastering where you said, “No, we need this to be redone?”

Jordan: With mastering, that happens all the time. We’ve had some fidelity issues.

Kirkland: Another problem we’ve had is if you send a high-res version to someone to put out in a blog or some other form, nine times out of ten, they’re going to figure out the quickest and easiest way to convert it to a lower-res format and not do it correctly.

What was the process of deciding who got to remix what for Remixed? Did you have a short list to start with, or did people come to you?

Jordan: We had a short list for some of the people. We always wanted a Darth & Vader remix.

Their take on Jupiter Shift is awesome. I don’t think I can ever say “shit” the same way again after hearing that one. (all laugh)

Jordan: We had been playing a lot of Wes Smith and Refracture, but we also wanted to open it up to some people we weren’t familiar with. We wanted some new, fresh takes on our sounds. The Bixel Boys remix of Over It was really cool, and we did not know them at all before.

That’s a fairly minimalist remix, compared to the seven other remixes of that song.

Jordan: One of them is by Audiobotz, and we don’t know where they came from or how they got the stems, or anything like that. I think it showed up on Soundcloud, and we really liked it, so we put their track out.

“There’s no better instrument out there than a bass or a guitar.”

That’s the one with the girlish effect on the vocals —

Jordan: Yes. There’s a remix of Difference on the Spotify-only package by Topher Jones, who’s doing a totally different sound with a new name, King Arthur. He changed the [Dia Frampton] vocal to a male vocal. It’s like an ’80s garage-grungy house track.

Kirkland: I generally don’t like it when people mess with the vocals. It’s much more disruptive than helpful, but that one’s fun.

Did you get any mixes that you rejected or asked for something else to be done on the track?

Jordan: Well, there were several of those… (To Kirkland): You went back and forth with one of those guys.

Kirkland: It was just about making some changes in the edit because of the unfortunate nature of the ADD listener nowadays. (both laugh)

And ADD doesn’t mean Analog Digital Digital like it used to, either.

Kirkland: (laughs again) No.

What’s the official Crystal Method remix philosophy? What do you look to do when you get your hands on something?

Jordan: We like changing it a lot, but we also like to keep the song elements recognizable.

Kirkland: We’ve turned down a lot of remixes because we don’t have a lot of time to do them if the song isn’t interesting enough. If it’s a great song, you want to keep those song elements there, but you want to have the different elements do what they do. Trying to make some crazy version of a well-known song where you’re making scattered vocals and things that take away from the essence of the song — that’s a no-win proposition, I think. On those particular ones, you try to build something that supports that particular song, but maybe represents it in a different way.

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I see you’re still using that special CDJ hybrid guitar/keyboard onstage. Has it been modified or updated lately?

Kirkland: We just put a new modification into it. Eventually, it will have everything technology has to offer. (all laugh)

Jordan: We put rhythm controllers on the bottom of the top neck. You can’t see them, but a rhythm controller will now send MIDI. It’s always been set up for USB because of the keyboard, but we can now send MIDI with the rhythm controller, if you have a synth sound or want to control any kind of distortion. The whole thing is a heavy, cumbersome technical weight and ergonomic nightmare, you know. (laughs)

It makes me think of Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick wearing that mondo five-neck guitar. The CDJ is that kind of heavy.

Kirkland: It definitely wanders into absurdity. (Jordan laughs)

That should be a title for something — Wanders Into Absurdity.

Kirkland: It’s a fun experience to take that DJ-world element and shape it in a different way and give it a different image. Growing up watching bands play, there’s so much satisfaction and joy you get from that performance aspect of it, if the band’s really good and they’re really into playing the song. For DJs, fists in the air and clapping are definitely appreciated, but it doesn’t have the same feel. But now there you are, wearing a 50-pound thing around your neck with cables coming out of it and looking like an EWP/power company kind of thing.

There’s no better instrument out there than a bass or a guitar. Nothing looks better on a human being. The accordion came close, but… (all laugh) The keytar is a disaster. Besides sitting behind a giant drum kit, guitar and bass are definitely the best-looking instruments to play. If our plan goes through, outlawing turntables and putting these things in would definitely make for a much more entertaining night, I think. (chuckles)

As long as Pioneer is involved, you’re good to go.

Kirkland: Yes — the exclusive GM-2000, a Bass Odyssey. What is it called again? Wandering Into Absurdity. (all laugh)

Is vinyl still important to you guys?

Jordan: In our own online store, vinyl sells like crazy, so we know people are into owning it. It’s the only place you get big artwork, you know what I mean? I gotta tell you, I hadn’t really done a side-by-side comparison of well-pressed vinyl on a good turntable versus the in-the-studio high-resolution digital files, but wow, there’s just no comparison. I understand there’s sort of a round, pleasing quality to vinyl, but man, there is no comparison on the signal-to-noise ratio, you know what I mean?

Oh yeah, I do. And as much as I love vinyl, it’s still a medium that deteriorates. Every time that diamond stylus drops on a record, something gets lost.

“Vinyl is like sunglasses — it covers up a lot of really harsh stuff that isn’t pleasing.”

Jordan: Pull a record out of a sleeve, look at it, pick the side — that’s all fun. If you’re playing older recordings, you’re not going to miss out on the fidelity because they kind of match. On the newer stuff, oh boy — you can really, really tell what you’re missing.

Kirkland: I got rid of a lot of vinyl when we moved studios years and years ago, but I’ve held onto a lot of it. I have some other friends who are buying turntables, and my cousin really loves it. I guess when you have so many options available in front of you, it’s so easy to get into the “that song’s over; I gotta find another one” thing. There’s a kind of peace that comes over you when you know you’re going to be listening to a side of vinyl for 25 minutes or an album for 45 minutes, whatever it is. If you get those albums that are really well done and they flow really well together, there’s something that’s really magical about that.

Vinyl is like sunglasses — it covers up a lot of really harsh stuff that isn’t pleasing. We could see really, really bright stuff, but we put sunglasses on to avoid it. I don’t know if it’s one of those things where people have a really romantic relationship with it. With iTunes, you don’t get something you can hold in your hand. You could look at it on your iPad, but that’s not cool. I think that if people are finding their way to listening to music — no matter how they’re doing it, as long as they’re listening to it and appreciating it, that’s OK, whatever form it may be.

What do you feel about the current state of EDM — is it continuing to move forward, is it becoming too reliant on vintage ’70s and ’80s sensibilities, or…?

Jordan: A combination of both new and old work out really well. We have the latest, most advanced digital everything, but we’re always firing up our old analog synths. The last two keyboards we brought into the studio were a Roland Juno-60 and a Roland ARP 2600.

Kirkland: I’ve listened to the new Mark Ronson album [Uptown Special]. He’s obviously showing a great appreciation for the sounds of the past, and he did it really well. When you get in the neighborhood of that style of music, you hear the influences that they had on other songs. The one track he did with Bruno Mars, Uptown Funk — it’s the Commodores, with Prince keyboards. You go through the song, and you find these things. I was just listening to that song in the car on the way over to the studio, and I went, “Ahhh, they really nailed the bottom end with the bass and the kick; they really nailed that part of it.” It’s definitely done really well and sounds pretty great.

With us, there’s definitely always an appreciation for what has come before. We love listening to old, obscure funk tracks, or some of the big boys like Isaac Hayes and Bill Withers. You listen to those recordings and go, “Wow.” It all starts out with the initial song and the initial talent on the recording.