Hanging In The Balance

Hanging In The Balance – Interview

Byline: Kylee Swenson

The “DJs aren’t musicians” argument is getting old. Actually, it’s more like dead, and DJs the world over are kicking its corpse on the ground. One reason to defend the musicianship of DJs is that many are, in fact, musicians. At first glance, some might see Paul van Dyk as a puppet with a pretty face, but van Dyk doesn’t have an engineer or a producer behind the curtain making his music for him. Everything is hands-on, and all that he’s learned from other producers and engineers during the past 10 years can be traced in his music.

Once upon a time, East Germany – born van Dyk was a huge fan of The Smiths and New Order. Then, in 1989, when the Berlin Wall got bashed apart, Detroit techno poured into the East side, and electronic music had its way with Germany. For van Dyk, however, it was trance that really stuck with him. (Although it must be noted that he still appreciates guitar pop such as The Sundays, The Cardigans and – gulp – Alanis Morissette.)

Van Dyk started DJing, producing his own tracks and remixing. After releasing a remix and a club single, van Dyk came out with his first artist album, 45 RPM (Deviant, 1994), followed by his second, Seven Ways (Deviant, 1996), and third, Out There and Back (Mute, 2000). It’s an unusual path for a DJ to take while many others are churning out mix CD after mix CD before even thinking about producing their own tracks. It wasn’t until 2001 that van Dyk did his one and only mix CD to date. And for that, The Politics of Dancing (Ministry of Sound, 2001), he reworked many of the tracks, including three of his own. In February 2003, van Dyk came out with his first greatest-hits compilation DVD and CD, Global (Mute). But then it was right back to the studio.

For his fourth full-length artist release, Reflections (Mute, 2004), the hype was building momentum long before the album even hit store shelves. His single “Nothing But You” (featuring a sample by Hemstock & Jennings) hit playlists everywhere. And in August, the Motorola commercial starring van Dyk and his song “Connected” (titled as such before he was even approached by the cell-phone company) went into major rotation on TV. But although his attractive mug will probably help sell thousands of phones, van Dyk maintains that doing what he does for a living is no dog-and-pony show: It’s music for the sake of music. “For me, I only do something that I’m 100 percent behind,” van Dyk says. “I produce the music exactly the way how I want to have it. If other people like it, then I’m happy. But I wouldn’t change a note to actually achieve that.”


For van Dyk, his history brings to mind the old chicken-egg riddle: “Who came first, the DJ or the producer?” The answer seems to be, well, both. He’s equally passionate about the studio and the DJ booth, but he creates music to please the club kid in himself before pleasing the ones on the dancefloor in front of him. “In my head, I’m still a little raver kid,” he says. “I probably would be jumping up and down on the dancefloor if I weren’t a DJ.”

But while van Dyk is no yes-man, he does pay close attention to the reactions on the floor. “It’s like feeling the vibe in a way,” he says. “People always ask me, ‘What do you mean by that?’ The thing is, just imagine you’re coming into a living room and you sense, ‘Okay, these two guys have been fighting.’ You haven’t been part of the fight, but you know they’ve been fighting. It’s just sort of the vibe or feel of the room. And this just translates into a bigger scale in a club. You just adjust yourself to the vibe in terms of the music that you pull out of the box and play.”

When van Dyk steps up to the platters, he generally has the first couple of records ready for a set and then assesses the crowd before making his next move. Using Stanton Final Scratch on his Apple Mac G4 laptop, Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntables and Technics SL-1200MK2 decks, van Dyk has enough technology at his disposal to keep things interesting. “The thing is, as long as something is giving you even more possibilities to be creative, it is great,” van Dyk says. “I know a lot of guys have some problems with Final Scratch on the technological side, but I have a system driven by Macintosh, which is totally reliable. I’ve never had a breakdown ever. And what you can do with it is so amazing. For example, I would never use it with an MP3 file because I don’t like the cheap sound of MP3s. I put on 16-bit AIFF files, which is like CD, high-quality. So, therefore, it’s sounding even better because you don’t have the problem of a dirty needle or some feedback or whatever. It’s just pure, clear, full-on, banging sound, which is amazing.”

As he gets into his set, van Dyk likes to “create an atmosphere,” he says, by feeding off of the crowd’s vibe, so where he’s at by the end of his set, not even he knows. “I have a 100 percent clear idea about the music I like to play, about what I like to bring across musically,” he says. “But the way to that point is completely up to the crowd. In a way, it’s all about the moment: It’s about stretching a moment, holding a moment back and bringing something to a moment.” To quote Kenny Rogers (or, rather, songwriter Don Schlitz), the way van Dyk interprets this elusive vibe is along the lines of, “You gotta know when to hold ’em / know when to fold ’em / know when to walk away / know when to run.” It also serves as sage advice for aspiring DJs who should be honest with themselves about why they want to get into the business. “There are so many DJs out there who want to break through,” van Dyk says. “You need to actually present something that you are 100 percent behind. Otherwise, it’s not going to come across. When you play records, you have to play it with full-on love for the record, not because you think someone might want to hear that record.”


Van Dyk may try to connect with his audience when spinning live, but when writing songs, he’s much more in his own head. “Very often, it has nothing to do with the dancefloor at all,” he says. Still, the result is very dancefloor-worthy. It’s just that laying down pounding beats isn’t a rote process for him. “When I go to the studio, I usually have a very clear idea about the atmosphere of a certain track, about what the track should actually say, and then I just start producing it,” he says. “Every track has its own little story behind it of why a track is a certain way or why the track actually even exists. As an example, there’s one song, ‘Reflections,’ that’s actually not inspired by a particular thing that happened to me. I don’t know if inner joy is the right way of saying it, but wherever I come from … I love Berlin so much, and I have a beautiful home. And I’m always so excited when I go home. Basically, this track for me reflects that. I go on a plane, sit down, and I know that the next time you get off, it’s home. This is musically what I did try to bring across. I’m just in the studio trying to re-create a feeling and play along until I feel that it is the soundtrack for that moment for myself. The more intense I get the feeling for myself, the more easy it is for someone else to understand what I mean with that track.”

Transferring a gut emotion onto a keyboard or other instrument isn’t something that can be easily explained, though. “The thing is, music for me has to be intense, whatever it is,” van Dyk says. “If it is something bass-y, if it is a driving bass drum, if it is a melody, if it is a chord change, it always has to be intense.” And part of getting that feeling across is actually due to technical parameters. “Back in the day, I learned everything about engineering,” he says. “So I know how to compress something in the right position, lower some frequencies so it rolls nice, warm and naturally. Basically, it’s an engineering process.”


Achieving the sound that you want when recording can be tough, especially if LFOs, oscillators and VCFs make your head spin. Van Dyk suggests breaking it down to the basics. “Obviously, you have some idea in your head what the sound should do and what it should be like,” he says. “If you want a basic analog string sound but with nice, weird, wobbly effects in it, first of all, you need to know which machine is making a basic analog string sound. Then, you need to know how to create this wobbly nice effect – a chorus sound, as an example. And what I do from time to time is, a lot of machines aren’t actually able to merge or layer all the sounds how I want it. I basically record the notes how I want them, and then I have different sounds playing them. I may have the same thing played by, let’s say, six, seven different instruments. And then I take those layers and mix them together. The advantage you have by this is, each individual layer can have a separate effect on it and do separate things. So you maybe have a sound that is very tightly compressed, but you can have a high note playing exactly the same thing with a big delay, which gives it a kind of feathery, warm, warbly sound.”

Another little trick van Dyk recently discovered was with the Synchro Arts VocALign Project plug-in. “If you sing harmonies on lyrics, and then you have the rhythm of your main vocal and the harmonies are maybe a little bit off, you assign the rhythm of the main vocal onto the harmony vocal, and it automatically gets it into the right rhythm of the vocal. The idea I had was, basically, why not take a string sound and a drum loop and assign the rhythm of the drum loop to the string sound and see what’s happening? It was the coolest gate I’ve heard. And these things I do all the time. I never really use plug-ins for what they are usually done for.”


Van Dyk is no dilettante when it comes to the technical side of music. Just don’t expect him to give a blueprint of his every engineering move. “I’m not the kind of guy who’s going by formula, like the ratio has to be this and the threshold like this,” he says. “I just sort of go, and when I feel it and hear it, this is it. I remember when I started, I was always asking my engineer, ‘So what’s the best compression for a bass drum?’ And he said, ‘Well, it really depends on the track.’ And I said, ‘Come on! Don’t fuck around. Just let me know!’ And he was right. There isn’t such a thing as a formula. Everything is different. It always has to do with the elements of a track. It has to do with the drive of a track, the speed of a track, how you compress things. I could give you an example, but the things would only work for someone else with the same setup, same elements, same speed and same style. This is why there are highly rated and respected engineers who do things like this.

“With electronic music, I think it’s even more important that you are creative as an engineer as much as a musician or a producer because, obviously, you can change so much. And it has a lot to do with experience on one hand and a lot to do with understanding of basic physics and Mother Nature’s laws, as well. And you have to have a big knowledge about all the equipment you actually use and what kind of impact certain equipment has on certain instruments and certain parts of a track. I don’t have an engineer or anything. But there’s a guy who I buy my equipment from. And when I buy something, he explains the basic rules of a certain piece of gear to me. Then, it’s basically down to mostly experience with the thing. Is this compressor right for that kind of bass? That’s what you have to find out for yourself.”


Where scientific formulas do come into play for van Dyk is beyond the immediate scope of compressing a bass line or EQing a kick. In fact, his understanding of physics informs his no-formula way of working. “People always refer to my kick drums as some of the most energetic ones and the most cutting-through ones,” he says. “The thing that you have to understand there is basically the physics of how a bass speaker works. The magnet within the speaker is moving back and forth as the bass drum moves. So as fast as the bass drum goes is as quick as the magnet has to move. So, therefore, you have to make sure that there is still enough gap for the same speaker to give some time to actually get the sound across. If this is physically not possible for the speaker, then it will sound shit.”

At the old Twilo club in New York City, van Dyk had a little problem with that exact law of physics. “I had quite some talks with Steve Dash from the Phazon sound system, the guy who used to do the Twilo sound system. Their speakers are adjusted in a way so it fits for bass-y house music, but when I played there, it didn’t sound good. It didn’t really have a kick because of the pure fact that a bass speaker, to move back and forth, needs much more time than the midrange or the high. So what happened was, my kick was much earlier than the actual wooohm of the bass. So we did sound check and did little delays and adjusted everything so it came together. And this is what I mean by physics: You have to understand that certain frequencies need more time to actually move the speaker itself. When you understand this, you know where to place the kick itself and how long you actually keep the boom of the kick.”

This principle is something to keep in mind when working with the lower frequencies of a track. “Again, you cannot put it into formula, because this is always in relation to the bass you need,” van Dyk says. “If you have a bass line that is not doing much in the low end, you can take a longer bass drum so it kind of like fills the warm atmosphere of the room. But if you have enough bass [in the bass line], you might need to shorten the bass drum.”

To get the hang of playing with frequencies, van Dyk suggests messing around with an analyzer (such as the Waves plug-in PAZ Analyzer or a Behringer DSP8024). “Just play a bass sound on the keyboard through an analyzer,” he says. “Play an A and see where the peak frequency is. And go further on with B, C, D and on. Then, you will actually see those differences. Notewise, they are higher, but the frequency picture they come across with, it’s lower. It’s just for a basic understanding to see that different bass notes have different frequencies that they support.”

Clearly, for van Dyk, making polished trance hits wasn’t instantaneous, but the result of a long road of balancing nearly blind experimentation with practice and scientific knowledge. “This is how we develop knowledge and experience about producing music,” he says. “You can learn by working with someone who knows a lot, and you can get some advice from people, but at the end of the day, you have to make your own experiences.”


DJ mixing isn’t as easy as it looks. Sure, once you get it, it’s like riding a bike. But until then, here is a quick tip from Paul van Dyk about how to gradually change your tempo range throughout a set. “The thing is, you have to be careful with the notes,” he says. “As an example, +4 is the average of about one note higher in terms of the pitch, which means if you play a vocal record at +8, it’s two notes higher, so it probably sounds really horrible. So, therefore, you have to be careful. This is just something you know and you feel and you hear. To get faster, you might have a record that’s 130, the next one is 132 and so on, and then at some point, you are faster. If you drastically speed something up from 130 to 134, people won’t actually love what you’re doing.”


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