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 trend.
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 Adam Young?
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 my audience.
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 it unique?
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 everything else.
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 band Loquat.
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, warm, lilly-lally 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.”