van Dyk at the North Coast Fest in September 2010
Paul van Dyk meticulously constructs dance tracks in the key of life
As a purveyor and creator of electronic music
made from cold, hard machines—as well as a
Berliner who grew up in East Germany before
the wall came down—Paul van Dyk isn’t usually
pegged as the sensitive type. But it turns
out that his emotions are easily stirred. “I get
watery eyes from watching movies and seeing
people saying goodbye at an airport,” van Dyk
says with a laugh. “Seriously, I know it maybe
sounds a little cheesy, but in a way that all leads
into the emotional side of me making music.”
But while a banging beat isn’t the only
driving force in Paul van Dyk’s tracks, the DJ/
producer still hits the dance floor pretty hard.
He’s earned dozens of awards over the years,
including the 2011 title of “Longest Running
DJ in the Top 10 of DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJs” (for
13 years). And he also rules the dance-music
airwaves with his radio show, VONYC Sessions,
which can be heard weekly on 53 radio
stations in 23 different countries.
Meanwhile, songwriting and producing is
something van Dyk has been passionate about
since the early ’90s, before he released his first studio
album, 45 RPM. In fact, he’s pretty geeky about
it, spending hours in the studio trying out new
recording and engineering experiments. But many
of his songs are actually conceived outside of his
studio as he’s performing live. From afar it might
seem as though van Dyk is just tweaking a few
knobs and pumping his fist in the air, but he’s also
remixing tracks in real time—composing brandnew
hooks on the fly using his two-laptop setup.
Some of those off-the-cuff ideas informed
tracks for van Dyk’s sixth artist album, Evolution.
Then, back in his studio, he used those hooks
to create rough sketches for tracks and called
upon 13 vocal and instrumental collaborators
to help him tap into his emotional side, including
Adam Young of Owl City, Sue McLaren,
and Sarah Howells, as well as electronic producers
Austin Leeds and Ummet Ozcan.
Just back from a U.S. trip playing a massive
New Year’s Eve party in Anaheim, CA, van Dyk
chatted with EM to reveal details about his studio
geekery, his collaboration process, and why
he’s pretty much over the whole compressiongating
I love how Sue McLaren’s vocals sound on
“The Sun After Heartbreak.”
It was probably the most expansive vocal production
I’ve ever done. It’s like tons of little
bits and pieces. I took so much of the little
elements because I wanted to have that really
intense feeling of the sound of the vocal. And
of course, as much as the song says, I believe
everybody has felt that once before, and I
wanted it to drift away into something with
a positive vibe to it. So I took the approach of
stretching out every single piece and word bigger
than it was, in terms it being angelic and
making it just flow and fit at the same time.
How did you do that?
I had one big stream of vocals, and then I
chopped it up. And pretty much every other
word has some different effect on it. So you
have different room reverbs and different delays
for those different words, and therefore
it develops a different rhythm underneath the
actual singing. For example, I tried to make
the first syllable a bigger reverb than the rest
of the word that’s being sung; it needed to flow
so both reverbs would end at the same time
without going into the next word. In the end,
I had something like 25–30 different tracks
just for the vocal and had things moving in and
out. Sue McLaren has such a clear, wonderful
voice, and it probably would have been absolutely
phenomenal without doing all that, but I
wanted to really over-exaggerate the feel of it.
What was the process for working with
With Adam, I sent the first track that I thought,
“Okay, that could be really good.” He came back
to me and said, “It’s kind of finished the way it
is. I don’t really have any idea what I should do
with it.” Then I said, “Okay, I’ll try something
else.” I sent a second track over, and he said,
“Well, again, it’s so structured. I don’t really
find the space for me to vocally breathe.” And
then we had actually been on the phone a lot
talking about how spaced out he sees the world
and how things are evolving, his own acoustical
universe in a way. And that is when I had the
idea of doing something more spaced out but
very tight. I sent it over, and he came back and
said, “This is it. Exactly what I wanted.” It took
him probably two days. I got the files back and
started to finish the whole production.
So there’s some back and forth in working
with artists, being sort of like a therapist?
Something that’s really important to me—not
just with vocalists but with everyone I’ve ever
collaborated with—is that I like the people that
I work with. There’s never a manager telling
me, “Hey, you should work with that person
because it’s a great marketing plot.” I have
this really clear idea about what I want to do
and how my music should sound. If I invite
somebody in, I invite that person for a reason
because they have something very unique,
something of their own, something that I really
like of their work. And I like to have these two
worlds collide and merge. That is why I try to
be involved in the whole process. It’s not really
being a therapist for the vocalist or the collaborator;
it’s more trying to understand them
in order to make it all work.
Years ago, you said that you would play a
melody or riff on six or seven instruments
and then layer them to get just the right
sound. Is that something you still do?
In my head I know exactly what the sound
should be like, so what I do is get to the sound
that drives the whole thing, the one that is
kind of the meat of the sound. And then I actually
develop the whole atmosphere around it
with a delay, a reverb, and maybe a chorus effect or
a bit-crusher to get some dirt in it. So it’s many different
things that become one sound, even though
it’s all these different machines playing together.
You speak with such certainty about what
you want your music to sound like. What
inspires your ideas?
I know it sounds like a really general answer,
but life in general is something that inspires
me. I’m a rather emotional person, and whatever
I see or experience, it always ends up having
an impact on me, and that impact somehow
always leads to a melody or some sort of sound.
When I’m in the studio, I try to actually recreate
the atmosphere or use that inspirational
moment that I had and make a song out of it.
The other thing that’s really important,
especially in the development and the creation
of this album, is the setup that I use
when I play live. I have a custom-made Allen
& Heath mixer, and I have two keyboards,
MIDI controllers, and two computers [running
Apple Logic and Ableton Live]. One is
full with software synthesizers, and one is full
with audio material, and they link with each
other. A lot of those big hooks that are on the
album are actually something I came up with
while I was playing live. I had some punchy
beat going on, I played a hook, and I really
saw the reaction live from the audience. Obviously,
I developed the whole thing further in
the studio, but the song started out because I
took the chance of composing live in front of
You once mentioned that you used a VocALign
plug-in as a gate with a drum loop gating
a string sound. What other unusual things
have you done with plug-ins?
Something that I’ve done is, when you compress
a vocal very hard to make it really close,
then you get those weird, plopping sounds. And
what works very well is to take the [Logic] Enveloper,
work on the envelope of every single
word very carefully, and then put a little, tiny
short delay on it. That gives you the feeling that
the person is basically singing about an inch
away from your nose but still has the whole distance
of the world behind them. Just try it and
see if it works. If you don’t use Logic, I’m pretty
sure there are plug-ins where you can take the
envelope of an audio signal and make it slightly
softer and bend it until the point that the audio
is clear without it popping too hard.
It’s interesting how one side of the stereo
field on “Heart Stops Beating” has a pulsing
sound and the other has a contrasting melody.
What was the process for that song?
I’ve known Sarah [Howells] for a very long
time, and I think she’s one of the best vocalists
we have in the dance field. Not many
people know this, but she is also touring with
her band [Paper Aeroplanes] playing folk-pop
songs. With this track, she had a basic demo
track that she sent over, and I was inspired by
both worlds. She has this very strong, characteristic
voice that I love so much, and the way
she sings is absolutely beautiful. I tried to combine
this folksy, poppy world with a dance-y,
punchy sort of tech-y world.
As for the panning, I couldn’t really tell you
why or what I was thinking because when I
start to layer the sound and engineer the track,
basically I just try to visualize the sound. It’s
like I’m standing in the club: Where should
the bass drum hit me? Where should the bass
line hit me? And then I basically put it there
[laughs]. It’s not something that you can plan.
It’s one of those magical creative moments
where it just happens, and you’re like, “Oh, did
I just do that? That’s cool.”
Compression gating is such a huge technique
in dance music. Is there another go-to
technique that you use?
In terms of compression gating, I try not to
use too much of it. A lot of the productions
that are out there now would probably sound
very good if they were engineered on a much
more careful level with not so much compression
on it. What we listen to these days is very
scrunched together, and in order to get some
of the key elements like claps and the bass
drum through, you put a ton of compression
on it. So the whole thing moves and breathes,
but basically what you get is the feeling of an
offbeat, regardless of what groove or hook
you’ve done. I’m not really a fan of that, to be
honest. It’s just not tight.
Which soft synths, plug-ins, and hard synths
have you been using lately?
To be honest, the only two hardware synths
I’m using are the Moog Phatty and the [Access]
Virus TI [Pølar]. With the possibilities of
sounds these days and the quality of the software
synthesizers, it’s so convenient to work
and still be able to pull off a massive sound.
I use the bass plug-ins a lot because I think
they’re really good, and also the Waves Renaissance
compressor, which I like a lot.
And I think one special thing about my
studio is that I don’t render or bounce things
together, so I don’t get this digitally merged
sound. I have a massive Euphonix [System
5-MC] mixer, and behind every single digital
channel is an [RME] analog/digital converter,
so every single sound has its own space to
breathe, and it’s all mixed analog together and
comes back as a stereo signal.
When you find a soft-synth patch you like,
how might you tweak or filter it to make
To be honest, before I even go to that point, I
nearly finish the composition of everything.
Getting into those detailed elements is what I
do when I engineer to finish the arrangement.
As an example, the [Logic] ES1 has some phenomenal
bass sounds to it, but it doesn’t really
make sense to tweak the sounds of the bass before
you have anything else. Sometimes the bass
sounds would sound—on their own—completely
lame, but within the production they sound
good. So first I make sure that those individual
sounds fit within the actual production.
Yeah, sometimes a part sounds tinny or
weak when isolated, for example, but next
to another element, it sounds right.
Yeah, exactly. I remember at the end of the
’90s, there were a lot of really cool hardware
synthesizers around with very cool sounds,
and I was always absolutely amazed by
them. I had them in the studio, but I never
used them for anything purely because the
sounds were so characteristic by themselves,
I couldn’t really make a track out of them.
My main aim is to bring across the overall
feel of a track, and if you have a sound that
is too characteristic in itself, it just destroys
Do you use specific studio monitors to help
you find that sound?
I used to have the old KRKs, the ones that
came from San Francisco, not the ones
when they started to manufacture in China.
I had six or seven pairs in the studio
in case something broke, so I had a whole
stock of backup, but I was running out at
one point. Then we had lots of different
kinds of speakers in the studio, and I checked
them out. I felt not good, or I felt okay. And
then I found a German manufacturer called
Klein + Hummel. Their speakers are just as
good as the KRKs were back then, and I have
a big KRK sub connected to it, and it gives me
pretty much what I need.
Are there any important pieces of gear that
you use for the mixing process?
I use the whole possibilities my studio setup
gives me, so I couldn’t really point out
one thing that is especially important. I constantly
learn and try things. Something that
I like is recording a tiny little bit of a hi-hat
and then recording it again and shifting it
slightly. You get a completely crazy room just
from the hi-hat, and that makes the track
sparkle much more. It’s more the creative way
of using what you have rather than a certain
machine that does it.
In terms of actually mixing a track, I always
try to mix it in a way that I don’t really need a
limiter or a compressor at the end because if
you have that, you kind of lose the breathing of a
track. So I try to make sure that I mix everything
to 0 dB before I come to the point where I’m going
over. And if I actually put something on it,
very carefully, I use the Waves L316 plug-in. It’s a
very minor correction, and it’s beautiful.
Kylee Swenson Gordon is a Bay Area freelance
writer and editor, and performs in the
THE BEST KICK IN A CLUB
Many DJ/producers test-drive their productions in clubs before finalizing and mastering
them. But van Dyk had an interesting revelation that other DJs may have missed: A superloud,
tight bass drum is not always the way to go with tracks played on club PAs. “On this
album, I went much softer on the actual sound of the bass drum but made it really, really
intense coming across,” he says. “Instead of hard and dry, it’s wide and warm. It has much
more compression on it, but the sound itself is much warmer, so it feels like this really inviting,
thing that has a massive
impact when you listen to on a PA.
“People are listening to music these days on various different PAs and setups, and if you
have an MP3 of a track that has one of those banging, tight-ass bass drums, and you play it
through your iPhone on one of those iBox speakers, basically all you hear in the end is kch-kchkch-
kchhhh and a little bit of the track in the background. So I tried to find the right balance
of having a bass drum that gives the whole thing a warm feeling and at the same time is tight
enough and punchy enough when you listen to it live on a good PA.”