Afrojack Q&A: 'Forget the World,' Producing, and Performing Tips

Insight From A Dutch Super-DJ
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Insight From A Dutch Super-DJ

NO ONE could have seen coming the present state of electronic dance music (EDM), especially not a young Nick “Afrojack” van de Wall, who says he once made the decision to become a broke musician rather than a banker. Since then, EDM has blown up, perhaps replacing hip-hop as the minter of young multimillionaires. Forbes magazine has ranked the top earners in EDM, and the plump figures from 2012 to 2013 just about doubled, with Calvin Harris sitting pretty at the top with $46 million for 2013.

EDM has even been dubbed the savior of Las Vegas following the 2008 crash. Club after posh club now enter bidding wars to secure annual contracts with top DJ talent to fill 3,000-person venues backed by technological wonders of LED screens and light shows.

Sting and Afrojack collaborated on the Forget the World track "Catch Tomorrow." At the center of this maelstrom stands 26-year-old Dutch DJ and producer Afrojack. A top-10 standard on both the DJ Mag Top 100 DJs and Forbes Electronic Cash Kings money lists, Afrojack taxes his private, logo-emblazoned “Afrojet” to the extreme, bouncing from top club to epic festival and back again to The Netherlands to finish tracks in his studio. Following his debut major-label album release for Forget the World, Afrojack’s schedule saw him blanket the world from Cannes to Los Angeles to Ho Chi Minh, hitting 10 destinations in 20 days.

In the ultra-flooded dance music market, an artist has to stand out. Afrojack set himself apart by developing a bouncy, high-energy style, punctuated with signature pitch-bent, slightly disorienting lead synth lines. Then he produced singles and remixes at a blistering pace.

Starting as a teenager with just a laptop and Fruity Loops software, Afrojack honed his style, and by his early 20s, he was remixing the top names in club music, like Steve Angello, Laidback Luke, David Guetta, and Benny Benassi. He earned a Grammy for remixing Madonna in 2010 and reached mainstream status in 2011, producing with Pitbull on the international hit “Give Me Everything.”

By 2014, Afrojack had become something of a pop-culture phenomenon even before Forget the World dropped. Life-affirming, anthemic singles from the album like “The Spark” and “Ten Feet Tall” had already topped 20 million YouTube views; he had launched an Afrojack clothing line with G-Star Raw; he regularly fills Vegas mega-club Hakkasan; and he’s building a studio compound outside of Amsterdam for his Wall Recording label artists. Everyone seemingly wanted a sip of the Afrojack juice. The star-studded album features guest spots from Snoop Dogg, Chris Brown, Wiz Khalifa, and Sting, as well as up-and-comers handpicked by the producer.

Yet though it all, he preaches a positive, “If I can do it, you can do it” attitude, and still writes all his music in Image Line FL Studio running on a Mac laptop off of a booted copy of Windows. Only now, instead of in his mom’s house, he does it while soaring in the Afrojet.

How do you fit in recording with all the touring and other activities you’re involved with?

As soon as I hit my plane, I start making music. All of my songs start in my plane and will be finished in my plane. The time in between is when I work on them in a real studio.

My schedule’s pretty crazy, but I don’t really take time off, so then it becomes a lot easier. When you work seven days a week, 16 hours a day, it becomes easy to fit everything in. It’s not a bad thing. I love my job; it’s still my hobby. Everything I do is all part of my favorite thing to do in life, so it makes it really easy to do this.

You make music in all different environments, from just a laptop on the road to high-end studios. What are your favorite working conditions?

It doesn’t really matter. I prefer working in a big studio with big speakers, so I can hear the sound loud but banging. But I also love to work on my headphones in airplanes and in my hotel. I actually sometimes produce on just my laptop speakers to get ideas out there—melodies and stuff.

Making music on my laptop is what I’ve done since I was 15. I always knew I wanted to create music with my computer. I can play the piano too, and drums, but sitting behind my laptop creating music is just something I love doing. I create the music everywhere, all over the world, but I finish it off in the studio to make sure it sounds like it’s supposed to sound.

There are two different sides to making music: You have the musical side of making a sound—the melodies and good ideas, and then the technical side,the production side—the engineering and stuff. I do everything myself, so that’s all happening on my headphones and in my own home studio in Holland, where I have gigantic PMC speakers. That’s where I mix and do all the technical stuff.

So you do everything yourself. Do you even record all the vocalists?

No, I’m actually born from being a producer in my attic studio at home, so I never had any experience with professionally recording in Pro Tools. But I do put the compressors in there, the equalizers and the delays and create my own effects on all the vocals.

The only thing that I don’t actually do is recording through Pro Tools, because I have no idea how the hell that works. I know how to tune Autotune; I know how to work with Melodyne; I know how to hook up my hardware, but I actually have no idea how Pro Tools works. I hate that software. It’s so… how you say? It’s like working in a hospital when you’re working on Pro Tools. Like all the energy gets sucked out of it, and you have to get too into mixing, engineering, and mastering mode, and it’s so technical. I like creating while I’m mixing and mixing while I’m creating.

So through that experience, you’ve kind of created your own system for mixing?

Yeah, usually I test out the tracks in clubs: I have the ability to play them in night clubs, which is a really nice extra to make sure the sound is clean, especially for club tracks. I think it’s like your ear gets used to hearing if it sounds good or if it sounds shitty compared to the other songs. If it sounds good, then you’re happy, and if it sounds even better, then I’m jumping around like a crazy man in my room. I’ve never attended any kind of mixing school or music school or anything, but I’m just lucky; when something sounds good on the radio, I’m really happy.

Do you have a favorite vocal microphone?

I have no favorite for recording vocals for my songs; I’m not professional on that. I actually use my iPhone to do all the talks for radio shows and stuff.

How was it to work with an orchestra for album tracks like “Mexico?”

That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve always been into classical music, and I’ve always loved the sounds. But I’ve never really been able to re-create them with software. I had my own composition that I prepared in Fruity Loops—the whole composition of the strings, and horns and stuff. But I did it together with a guy who runs a big symphony in Holland. I went into the studio with him; I presented my composition; he made a professional version of my composition—because I’m not a professional classical composer. But then he worked it out even more, and we went to a studio together to record it. That was one of the coolest things ever. It’s like, I don’t know how to play guitar, but I can make a guitar song, and then to have a real guitarist play it [for example, on “Three Strikes” from the album], that’s one of the most awesome things ever.

How are the studios you’re building for Wall Recording?

I just bought a new house and it will have studios next to it. It’s in the middle of nowhere … countryside. If you open one of the studio doors, you can actually hear the birds whistling in the trees. It has its own lake. It also has a swimming pool. It’s 45,000 square meters. And it’s four tiny writing studios, one mixing studio, and one gigantic studio for myself. I also have a guesthouse if we want to keep working all night long.

Are you going to have Pro Tools in there?

Yeah, I need to have a whole session. But I also have a friend who worked with me on the album for engineering the vocals, and he’s also going to help me when I record into Pro Tools.

Being a self-taught producer, do you think that’s the way to go?

I could tell you a lot of stuff, but the nice thing about the society we live in today: We have Internet, and you can find everything there. You type “YouTube tutorial” for a certain sound, and get three different tutorials. You will find one sh*tty one, one decent one, and one that also tells you how to mix it. Like, I’ve seen this tutorial about how they remade Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up,” and it’s so exactly what they did. In 2014, if there’s a producer who wants to start producing, and if they’re saying, “It’s too difficult, I don’t know what to do,” they are just lazy.

With the album title Forget the World, was this a concept album in a sense? Were you looking at this like a completely cohesive collection?

The only thing that I wanted to say with Forget the World is that people shouldn’t worry about what other people say, what other people do, or what society tells you you should be doing. You should just do what you love, and then you’ll be way happier. Like, if you could be the most successful banker in the world, but if you really love baking cookies, you will never be happy until you’re actually baking cookies. I see a lot of kids who are lost, and they don’t know how to follow their dreams because they’re so afraid of what people will say or what their parents will say. Because no one is following their dreams, I’m trying to tell the world the reason I found my dreams was because at one point I had to make the decision: I’d rather be a poor musician than a rich banker.

So switching gears. how are your shows going at the Hakkasan Club in Vegas?

They are going good. Sold out and people jumping up and down. It’s a big part of my life. I want to bring a special experience to Hakkasan, something so different from what you see in Vegas; just make sure you catch me there!

For the new visuals you worked on for that club, do you work with partners on that?

I work with a visual graphic team, but I’m really the creative director. I got together with a team of five or six people for the light show and the visuals. Again, I’m not a visual professional, but I know what I like. So I work together with these guys. I tell them what I want, how I want it to look, and they make it sort of like that.

With your growth in your musical sound and your club projects, do you also have any goals to expand your live show?

Yeah, that is my goal eventually. Right now, there’s no space for that. I’m already putting so much back into the shows. I’m trying to make sure that the promotion is right if it’s something special, ’cause if the events are special, you have to rent special staff.

I did a show in Holland and we had 25 dancers, sh*tloads of guest vocalists, a moving DJ booth, a moving piano, and the biggest LCD screen they’d ever had in that venue in Holland. It was the most expensive production they ever had. It was like the homecoming, so I wanted to give them something special.

Out of all the stuff you’re doing in your life right now, what excites you the most?

Right now, producing. There’s a lot of new sounds available; a lot of people are not making [music with those sounds], so there are a lot of options to make new sounds. I’m excited when I’m in the studio right now.

Markkus Rovito drums, DJs, and contributes frequently to DJ Tech Tools and Charged Electric Vehicles.