International superstar DJ and producer, Paul van Dyk, has been amongst the world’s top 10 DJs since 1998 pushing the boundaries of trance and then electronica while enchanting audiences across the globe. Having sold over 4.5 million albums, his latest release, Evolution, has met with critical acclaim and features collaborations with producers such as Arty and Adam Young.
Tell us about your background and how growing up in East Germany influenced you musically and socially?
The biggest influence in my early years were the West Berlin radio stations, because I grew up in East Germany and I couldn’t really go to record stores, so it was just the music on the radio. Whenever I used to do my homework after school, I would listen to the radio. There was one moment when I heard Hand in Glove by The Smiths, and I felt like music really means something to me. It was something special and I became a big fan of them, but also of music in general. I then started to listen specifically to those specialist shows in order to find the music that I found inspiring. This is really what got me interested in music.
When I was about 12, I wanted to learn how to play the guitar like Johnny Marr from The Smiths. Unfortunately, they made me learn East German folk songs, so I didn’t become the guitar player I wanted to be! But these were my early steps into music.
So when did you become exposed to electronic music?
By following different radio shows, I found early House music which I found even more inspiring because you didn’t have anybody singing to you telling you this is sad or happy. It was the instrumentation and the music itself that conveyed emotion and relationship. After the wall went down in 1989, I went to all the clubs and listened to what was going on in West Berlin. I started to go to record stores and buy some records and made mix tapes for myself with some friends. And actually the story goes that one of my friends passed on one of my mix tapes to a promotor in Berlin and this is how I got my first booking.
What gear were you using at that time?
I had a Denon tape recorder and a Vestax VCM 5 and two dual turntables with a rubber band driving it. So, it was an interesting approach to mixing! I had to use that difficult equipment and never had the (easier to use) Technics turntables, so I learned the techniques for how to beat-match and how to do more melodic or harmonic mixing. My first synthesiser was a Roland JX-1.
And when you first began producing what equipment did you use?
It was on an old Atari ST 1024 using Notator, connecting everything via MIDI, and of course the JX-1. Basically from my first trip to Japan I bought myself a 303, 909 and 808. Then I got a Juno- 60 and Juno-106. Later in the mid ‘90s, I started using Apple computers and began working with Logic and produced more and more using this kind of system.
Are you still using Logic Pro?
For the majority of my career I was using Logic, but in the last 2-3 years I’ve been appreciating the natural flavor of producing in Ableton Live more than the static approach of Logic.
Was transitioning from Logic to Ableton easy for you?
It was in a way because I used Ableton on stage and Logic in the studio. At one point I thought why not start using the production tools of Ableton? So, I started to produce in Ableton and found it to be a much more organic process. It’s quicker to get ideas down. If you know how to warp the different elements of a track in the right way it sounds phenomenal and it’s so straightforward to do. I think I haven’t done any productions in Logic for about a year.
What about other 3rd party plug-ins. What’s in your typical production setup?
I don’t even know how many soft synths I have!! Obviously, I use Sylenth and Nexus. In the production field, the entire Waves bundle… On my journey of discovering sounds, everything I find I get! In terms of filters, I’m a big fan of Sonalksis plug-ins which are fantastic. Then the stuff Ohm Force are doing is really, really crazy.
‘For an Angel’ is perhaps one of your most popular tracks. Can you talk about any of your production tricks, for example, how you achieve the separation while keeping the overall sound together?
Everybody asked me when For An Angel came out, ‘how do you make the kick drum always come through?’ There is no trick to it. The only thing I do which might be different is I try to vizualize the sounds. Put yourself in a club and imagine what body part you’ll be hitting with each sound. So, of course you want the bass on the lower end, and a kick element in the middle section of your body, and you want a comfortable listening flavor around your head. Once you start working like this you automatically get quite a spacious yet tight sound. It’s no secret, and there’s no such thing as doing it the same every time. It’s about listening to and working with the sound.
I re-discovered Ozone 5 by iZotope a few months back, which I use on the mastering section. There’s so much you can do with it, and I used it on my remix for Linkin Park. I had it on a master chain already set up, and produced against the mastering chain, rather than producing and then putting the mastering on top. I was producing it exactly the way I wanted it to sound at the end. So from the very beginning the whole production had the right punch. That was an interesting approach. I might do that again…
In terms of your live setup, you mentioned Ableton. Do you use any other gear?
On stage I have two 25-key keyboards, two 17” MacBook Pro computers, a custom made Allen & Heath Mixer based on the 4D, a custom made Vestax VCM-600 that has a different routing inside. I have another Akai controller and two smaller ones. That enables me to be really all over the place creatively! I switch between programs a lot. On the right machine is my audio material, and on the left machine I have most of my sequencers and soft synths there. I sync these elements with each other which gives me the freedom to do different things and switch back and forth and re-create and re-produce something from scratch while I’m playing.
This sounds more like live producing than DJ performance. Is that fair to say?
Absolutely. There’s a common perception of what DJing is and how electronic music is presented… But it can be many things. What I’m doing is not the most common way of DJing. It’s really taking the whole process of making music onto the stage, to the point that as part of my journey throughout creating Evolution, I took tracks on stage with me. I had a backing track ready, but I played the hook live in front of my audience. I changed it a little to see what’s the biggest and best reaction to the hook. This is how a track like Verano came along.
I hear you also use Apple’s Mainstage 2 when playing live?
Yes. What I really like about MainStage is how you can layer the sounds together. Instead of making just a piano, you can create a moody, layered sound so that even a simple chord gives you a depth that is really hard to get with any normal soft synth. I use it more when I play epic breaks and stuff.
What about Traktor and Serato?
I’ve used both before and I was probably one of the first DJs who started to play with Traktor. This was about 8 years ago, so back then I had some technical issues. Later I discovered Serato which I found much more stable at the time. Again, this is from 8 years ago… I can’t make any assessment of how it is now. But I really enjoyed using Serato. The whole idea of playing everything live felt so much more organic and was the next step I wanted to take. So I was changing from the DJing beat matching element to the DJing playing live element.
You talk about “organic” production and performance. Can you explain more about how this concept influences your music?
I try not to have boundaries, even in my head, about music. First of all I’m an artist and a musician. This is what I Iove doing. It just so happens that electronic music is my favorite music, but I still think a certain musicality is always in what I do, even if I do something that’s just a basic bass line and drums. It’ll always have a certain melodic element to it.
I grew up as a kid in the ‘80s so I have a lot of melodic influences rather than, let’s say, some of the less melodic music that was around in 2000s or even the ‘90s..
Many DJs focus solely on the groove, so it’s interesting to hear you talk about the melodic elements as being very important, too.
Groove is obviously important as well. But to me music is not just a bass drum and a hi-hat. When I listen to a kick and hi-hat it’s an intro to a club track. So, if this is all the track has to offer to me it’s just basically a demo. Interesting music doesn’t need to be complex though. It can be simple, like something Sharam or Richie Hawtin would do: a very unique style of creating an atmosphere without much.
Are there any DJs you feel have influenced you musically?
In the mid ‘90s BT had a massive impact on me. We started making music together, and when I came to his place I realized I’m not alone. You see, back then my studio was like a spider’s web. In order to create the sounds I wanted, it wasn’t a case of opening my laptop, opening Massive and finding a sound! I needed to create it from scratch. I remember this thick, farty sound we created… we took a guitar jack cable, plugged it into a distortion unit, recorded the sound of the cable, tuned it in the sampler and started to use these sounds. This was how we designed our sounds back then. Crazy! So, I saw Brian creating his stuff in the same manner. It made me feel much more comfortable and we did some really cool music together.
In terms of DJing, I have to say Sasha. The first time I listened to him I was completely blown away by his musicality and how he managed to create a vibe and an atmosphere in the venue with his music. It was so powerful and strong. More recently, someone who has impressed me is Arty who has developed his own unique way of producing. Four or five years ago, before he was well known, I began playing his music on my radio show. Of course a lot of people try to copy him now… but this helped him become a big name in the electronic world. He has done something which is unique, which I find inspiring. I want to point this out to people and say, listen don’t copy the shit that’s out there, try to create something unique, your own way.
DJ gear is becoming more and more accessible to the masses from CDJs to Ableton to iPad apps. How do you feel this technology is altering the future role of the DJ?
The main thing for me is that you’ve got to be creative with the tools you’ve got. It doesn’t matter if you use a laptop, iPad or CD player. It’s the creativity that comes out that matters. Then if you have the musical skills and ability, you automatically advance to the next step involving more and more things that enable you to be creative.
You’ve done scores for video games and films. Is this a different process compared to creating tracks for clubs or albums?
My main inspiration when I make music is life in general, so everything leaves a mark in my music. So, if I’m making music for a video game or a movie, I’m seeing the scene and the elements of the video game I’m going to compose music for. It’s about providing the right musical soundscape to support what you see. While it’s a different approach, it’s just as much fun because there’s the same challenge: instead of trying to make noise to a picture in my head I actually make noise to a picture in front of me.
Are you a gamer as well?
I’m not someone who runs home to play a game. For me it’s if I have nothing else to do, on a plane for example, I’ll pick up my iPad and play some stuff.
Do you have a favorite iOS game at the moment?
Well it’s quite embarrassing. The game I like a lot right now is called Spy Mouse 2. It’s about a mouse that needs to collect pieces of cheese. It’s quite entertaining when you’re on a flight and the guy next to you is snoring!
Throughout your career you’ve collaborated with many artists, from vocalists to other producers. Can you tell us about how you share your creative visions with others.
Making music is one of the most fun things and making it with friends is even more fun. Also it’s one of the most intimate things, so it makes sense to do it with people that have something in common with you. This is how I choose who I work with and how these collaborations come about. There’s a story behind every single track and collaboration. For example, Eternity, which is going to be the first single off the album in the UK is a collaboration with Adam Young. He called up four years ago before his big hit Fireflies came out… and I said let’s get back in contact when the time is right. The interesting part is I composed the music while I was in Greece, he wrote the lyrics while touring Australia, we recorded everything while we were in New York, I did all the arrangement in Mexico City, and then produced it in Berlin!
Wow! So, do you have one city or place in the world where you feel particularly inspired or creative?
For me, life in general and everything I experience is my inspiration. But I have to say I’m a homey! Berlin is a rather special city. I love it here, it’s very inspiring when you walk around here, there’s so many different kinds of music being played on every street corner. It’s amazing. On top of that, Berlin is a melting pot of creative people in the art, design and fashion worlds too, plus the history… it’s a great place and is one of the most inspiring places for me.
Having said that, I think it’s important to enjoy the local vibe wherever you are. I don’t have preconceptions about places. It’s about going somewhere and trying to feel the place, like trying to find out how the local people think.
So do musical ideas come to you when experiencing a place or when you’re in the studio?
It depends. For example, I was sitting in my garden and playing the chords on my guitar for After Heartbreak. Then I basically just went inside the studio and recorded them. So many different things can lead to a full track. There is no set recipe. Very often I have this melody in my head and it runs like a sequencer and becomes more and more complex, so I take my phone and sing it into my own mailbox. Stuff like that happens all the time.
What tips would you give to aspiring musicians and DJs starting out?
I think the most important advice is when you’re in the studio and working don’t make any compromises. At the end of the day, you’re going to stand in front of people, even an A&R manager, or your best friend, and you need to convince them what you’ve done means something. If you’ve made a compromise along the way you might not be convincing or authentic, so this is probably the biggest advice I can give. Just create exactly what you like, and if you find a unique way of doing it, even better. Then you have a chance at becoming the next Arty or Skrillex.
Written by Rounik Sethi
Rounik is the Editor and Lead-Writer on the MPV Hub. As an Apple Certified Trainer for Logic (and a self-confessed Mac fanatic) he’s taught teachers, professional musicians and hobbyists how to get the best out of Apple’s creative software. He is a Visiting lecturer at Bath Spa University’s Teacher training program, facilitating workshops on using iLife and digital media tools in the classroom. If you’re looking for Rounik, you’ll most likely find him (and his articles) on the macProVideo.com Hub & Forums.
Read this interview and much more in issue 4 our print & digital magazine here: