James Ellis

We Got an Exclusive Tour of MSTRKRFT's DIY Toronto Studio

From drum machines to vintage synths, the duo's recording setup is a gear-head's dream.

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19 January 2016, 1:10am

James Ellis

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James Ellis

Toronto electronic duo MSTRKRFT first burst onto the scene in 2006, just as Jesse Keeler's rock band Death From Above 1979 went on hiatus. He and longtime friend Al-P (aka Alex Puodziukas) quickly found themselves in the centre of the indie dance scene, but after two albums and countless remixes for artists including Bloc Party, Justice, and Metric, MSTRKRFT went on their own break just as DFA 1979 reformed.

That hiatus is over now, and the pair have been holed up in a makeshift east end rehearsal space in Keeler's laundry room, working on a whole new approach to both songwriting and performance. This time around, they intend on putting together a completely live stage show, based on analog hardware and modular synthesis. Their new sound has mutated from their electro house origins into something closer to straight-up techno.

"We tried to work live for a long time," Keeler explains. "But every time we would see anyone try to do something live, it never sounded right to us." "It always sounded like a compromise," adds Puodziukas. "The people that were playing live at that time, it was never really 'live'. It was more like backing tracks that were being manipulated. That kind of stopped us from going down that road, but since we've been away for a while, we've been working on doing something that is fully live, with all the equipment that is generating the sounds in our current productions."

The popular Ableton Live software has made electronic performance much more accessible to producers than ever before, but MSTRKRFT have decided to bypass the convenience and stability of a computer-based setup. Instead, they've wired together vintage and modern drum machines, synths, effects, and a couple of custom modular synthesis racks. With such a complicated mess of wires and devices, there's a lot that can go wrong, but that's a big part of the appeal for the pair.

"We're trying to make a setup that can fuck up," says Keeler. "One that can have grand, massive errors. That's sort of the fun of being in a band onstage. I mean it sucks in the moment, but that's how you know when you're seeing something real. It's like why people watch NASCAR—they're waiting for an epic car crash. Well, that's why I watch it."

"It's like why people watch NASCAR—they're waiting for an epic car crash. Well, that's why I watch it."

That unpredictability and in-the-moment excitement is also informing the new music that they're recording. While hardware equipment was always part of their sound, computer-assisted editing and effects were also integral to their first two albums. The recordings they're making now for their third album are much more about capturing studio performances, which is designed to make the transition to the stage smoother.

"Every time we hook everything up and start working, content is generated very quickly," Puodziukas explains. "The music we're making is being created on the kit that we're going to take out live, so that there are no compromises when that time comes. All the machines we're using for the production will be onstage, so we don't have to run a sample of something that we can't create live."

Some of the equipment they used on their earlier work does reappear in their new setup. Their first album The Looks featured lots of bass lines played on the classic Roland SH-101 synth that's still in their rig, as well as copious use of the snare from the underrated Roland TR-707 drum machine. On their 2009 sophomore record Fist Of God, they relied more heavily on the Moog Voyager synth, but that keyboard has since gone back in the gear closet. As powerful of a synthesizer as it is, they're just more excited by the complicated patches and unpredictability of the modular synthesis systems they've been building.

Read More on THUMP: Should We Welcome the Return of Classic Synths?

Modular synths aren't a new concept at all, but in recent years they've experienced a surge in popularity. All over the world, small companies are building weird little modules that can be patched together with bits built by other inventors. That flexibility allows for truly unique sound shaping capabilities, though it's next-to-impossible to accurately reproduce previously created ideas. That could be seen as a big disadvantage, but it's also a big part of why modular synthesis is so central to their new sound.

"This setup also allows us to create improvisational pieces within the set," Puodziukas says."It will never be 100% the same as the recordings, but that's part of what's appealing to us."

"The big inspiration for us going down this route is that we are band people who learned how to perform and make music with our hands, not a mouse," adds Keeler. "When someone came along and gave us a record deal, we said 'yeah sure, we'll do a record'. And then they asked us how we wanted to perform, and we had a panic, because there was no way we could do this at the time. So we just DJed, and next thing you know, it's your whole life, and you don't have time to do anything but DJ. Doing this was just too scary. It is still kind of scary."

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