Is Paul van Dyk the hardest-working man in the DJ business or what? As seen in 2003's “PVD/DVD” Paul van Dyk: Global (Mute), this 36-year-old producer/remixer is in constant motion, playing to festival and club audiences on his home turf in Berlin, as well as in Bangkok, Barcelona, New York, San Francisco, Mexico City, Thailand and back again, with barely a baggy eye to show for his travels.
As with many a superstar DJ whose name is practically a brand in itself, the Grammy Award-nominated van Dyk is many things to many people: He oversees several charitable organizations for underprivileged children and AIDS awareness (including Rückenwind, the Akansha Children Education Project in India and Safer School), runs the Vandit Records label and maintains two weekly radio shows (Vonyc.com in the U.S., Radio Fritz in Berlin) and still finds time to remix singles for Justin Timberlake (“What Goes Around…Comes Around”) and Depeche Mode (“Martyr”). Chalk up four artist albums, a film soundtrack (Zurdo, Universal, 2002) and his latest triumph, being voted No. 1 DJ in the world by DJ Times for the second year running, and you truly have the ultimate DJ machine. What makes Paul van Dyk numero uno?
“As a musician, I don't make any compromises,” van Dyk replies from his offices in Berlin. “This is why I am believable and convincing when I am in front of my audience. On the DJ side, I have a very clear idea about my own sound and the music I like to bring across. And I am not a snobby-ass DJ who just plays whatever he wants to play. It's all about the interaction with the crowd. That makes it very intense. And I don't have a faked image; I am just the way I am. I think that is what people appreciate.”
RADIO FREE EUROPE
Paul van Dyk's latest artist album, In Between (Mute, 2007), proves that Berlin's best refuses to be tied to expectations, or even genres. Though the album draws from the typical currency of the globetrotting DJ (massive synth pads, house beats, tsunami-like climaxes), In Between isn't a trance record, to hear van Dyk tell it.
“My music includes elements of proper techno, breakbeats, house music, even chill-out elements, as well as the trance sounds,” van Dyk insists. “I don't want to be limited. My background is absolutely electronica and in the dirty basement clubs of Berlin. But I see so much and experience so much, it all has an influence on how my world sounds. Those elements come from everywhere, banging techno as much as some soft trance-y stuff, even poppy elements and something from the rock world.”
Growing up in East Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the young van Dyk listened to radio broadcasts that were strictly illegal and dangerous for his family, but which eventually conditioned his mind and trained his ears for his life's work. Van Dyk focused purely on the music — star-maker machinery and pop affectations be damned.
“My way of getting into music was very different and therefore very important to my musical approach,” van Dyk recalls. “My musical education came purely through the radio. I could never read any pop magazines or buy a record of my favorite artist, so I never had the whole pop-star fixation. For me it was purely the music. I still have that pure, even virgin approach toward music. I don't care about all the surrounding stuff. When it comes to how I make my music, it has more to do with the person I became after the wall came down.”
Paul van Dyk may not think In Between is typical progressive trance, but beginning with the first single, “White Lies” (featuring Pussycat Dolls' Jessica Sutta), to the final, David Byrne-assisted stunner, “Fall With Me,” the album certainly touches on every sonic trademark one associates with the trance genre. Sure, there are detours into ambient chill-out, Brit-pop vocals (“Talk in Grey”), techno (“Stormy Skies”) and even a surprising orchestral segue (“Détournement,” with 24 string players from the Berlin Philharmonic), but In Between will fit nicely into the trance category of most fans' iPods, thank you.
A couple of factors give Paul van Dyk a signature style that separates him from the other DJs traipsing the world in search of fame and fortune. Beyond his recognizable face (a slightly humorous, passive expression typically outlines his features) and superstar cachet, van Dyk has serious skills. And as of late, he has abandoned vinyl-only turntables and CD spinners in favor of two Apple MacBook Pros and minimal hardware. Lots of DJs are using laptops live, but van Dyk is taking it to a new level of creativity and functionality.
“Both laptops are driving Ableton Live,” he explains. “One laptop is full of audio material, the other is completely stuffed up with software synthesizers and MIDI sequencers. Both laptops are linked up through a custom interface, and I have an Allen & Heath Xone:3D mixer, which has a complete template that is also custom-made. I have an Evolution UC33 USB control surface, an Akai MPC2500 and an M-Audio MIDI keyboard to play all the things I want to play.
“The great thing about the 3D mixer is that it combines the possibilities of the fantastic Allen & Heath Xone:92 DJ Mixer with being a complete MIDI controller. Everything has an impact on how I use Ableton — certain buttons, certain faders, certain knobs — they all have a function that basically triggers something in the program.”
Using Ableton Live via the two laptops and various synths allows van Dyk to not only remix his classic tracks (“We Are Alive,” “Tell Me Why,” “For an Angel”) in real time, but to improvise and create new songs on the fly. He can remix old club favorites and mix and match new tunes from In Between — the possibilities are endless.
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“For example, using the two laptops,” van Dyk elaborates, “I will play a bass line and press record at the same time. Ableton automatically quantizes the bass line and loops it. Then I go to the next layer, maybe choose a string sound, then I play a string sound on top of that, do exactly the same thing. Now I have the drums, bass line and strings playing, and then I will play a piano sound or whatever I am going to choose and play that on top.”
“If it feels like a lush break is needed,” he adds, “I can do that in a matter of seconds: drop the beat, play a big pad and I have a big, lush break. If I want to kick it up a notch, I just add some fucking freaky, hard drum loops to it; then it is even more banging. I could play your favorite track, like [Underworld's] ‘Born Slippy,'' and it will sound completely different and so much more intense and right for the moment.”
Van Dyk admits to a steep learning curve, that even he is still mastering the flow of working two laptops in tandem. But as with any new technology or use thereof, mistakes — in the hands of a skilled musician — can sometimes turn into gold.
“I am still practicing and things are still going wrong from time to time,” van Dyk says. “When I played in Seattle the other weekend, by mistake, instead of a volume controller, I switched on the pitch controller. So when I hit the keys the next time, it was out of pitch and it sounded horrible. But when by accident I screw up a drum loop or create a break where there shouldn't be a break, I can, at the same time, create a snare roll and stick it back in even more hefty and even more banging. There is the definitely the possibility of highlighting your mistakes and making people believe it should be that exact way.”
YESTERDAY'S SOUND TODAY
Technology, coupled with creativity, is the very basis of the modern electronic musician, and considering that technology changes practically as soon as your next issue of Remix arrives in the mailbox, its impact is impossible to ignore. Yesterday's technology is today's push of a button.
“Technology enables me to make things easier, like those sounds that myself and BT made famous, those very hard electronic, even farty sounds: aaggnnhh, agnnhhh,“ van Dyk says. “Back in the day, to get that sound I put a jack cable into a guitar distortion box and sampled it. Then I tuned it to a note then played it on a sampler. These days it is much easier; you have Access Virus and all these software synths that come with those sounds. When you think of a sound, you can just play it and manipulate it a little. Back in the old days when I wanted a sound like that, I really had to get creative to even make the sound, never mind creating a track with the sound. Now I just look for a sound that is similar to that, and I go on being creative with the track. It supports the creative process much better than in the past.”
And van Dyk places much of the credit for his technological advancement squarely with Ableton Live. If there were a vote for the most popular software-recording program for live situations, Ableton would surely take first honors. Its inherent flexibility and ability to personalize programs makes it a no-brainer purchase for a rising army of producers and DJs.
“The fantastic thing about Ableton,” van Dyk insists, “is, let's take Ritchie Hawtin, Carl Cox, Sasha and myself: We all use Ableton for our DJ sets. And we all use it in completely different ways. As an example, I could never work with Sasha's setup, he could never work with my setup, and I could never work with Ritchie or Carl's setup. It is a program that allows you to very individually use it the way you want to use it. It is difficult to give advice on how to use it with two laptops. Just play around with it and use the elements and the possibilities that are available. When I started with Ableton, I wasn't using any more than a laptop and four channels and bringing things in and out. The next challenge was playing something on top, then adding loops, then triggering them from the outside. Then I thought it would be cool to sequence ideas, and that is when the second laptop came in.”
WHITE ROOM RIGORS
Paul van Dyk's Berlin studio is called The White Room because, you guessed it, the whole place is painted white. Custom-built recording gear fills the studio, along with a Euphonix console to oversee Logic Pro 7 and tons of soft and hardware synthesizers. Though he uses a variety of control surfaces, the Euphonix System 5-MC seems to handle most mixing functions.
“The Euphonix System 5-MC has this open-format software,” van Dyk says. You can use it with every program, and it is like a proper desk. Another thing about my setup, I have a lot of RME digital/analog converters; every channel in my program setup has its own output so I am not bouncing the tracks together, I am actually playing it out. So the audio is getting transformed into analog then mixed together in a big custom-built rack mixer, and then it comes back. That adds a little extra punch to it because every single sound has its space in the mix.”
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One look at van Dyk's gear list shows a man in love with both soft and hardware synths. And given his predilection for using synths as colors to texturally shape each track on In Between, van Dyk is like a master music chef recalling iconic sounds in dance music history.
“First of all,” van Dyk says, by way of illustration, “I was constantly making music over the last three years, so I had a lot of material. Every track follows a pattern and story. It starts off with the lush ‘Haunted;'' it lulls you and sucks you into the vibe of the album. Then you get the house-y poppy electro feel with ‘White Lies.'' Then it goes deep into electro house with ‘Sabotage'' and moves you up to the first climax in terms of tempo and back down to some deeper levels with the title track and ‘Detournement.'' It picks up again and evens out at the end with ‘Let Go,'' and you have this moment of breathing through when ‘Fall With Me'' comes in and closes the album.”
For each song, a different keyboard fulfills a certain role. Van Dyk pulls no punches when describing his favorite tool to achieve the desired results.
“Certain keyboards are better than others, he says. “The Korg Trinity is absolutely fantastic for pads. It is really shit for bass lines. I don't think there are good pads in the Virus, but it is really good for sequences. It is like an experience thing, as well a question of taste and what you like and what elements you use out of those machines. Bass is a tricky thing. The software synth by Spectrasonics [Trilogy] is what I like. I have three Spectrasonics [soft synths] for bass lines; they are just fantastic. In terms of a hardware synthesizer, the Roland JV-1080 makes a hell of a cool bass sound.”
TALKING AND FALLING
Former Talking Heads front man David Byrne lends his always curious vocals to closing track “Fall With Me,” resulting in one of the album's best and most effective productions. The track opens with what sounds like footsteps click-clacking on the wooden planks of a ghost ship, slowly surrounded by Byrne's doubled vocals and van Dyk's swirling synths. “That is actually a distorted guitar sound,” van Dyk explains. “Then it goes into a plug-in for his voice that sounds like a vocoder, then you hear a live string session, the same orchestra as in ‘Détournement,'' proper live strings.”
A truly trippy bass line bubbles and gurgles below, like some unholy sea monster about to swallow a victim. “This is exactly the bass line you hear from the Spectrasonics Trilogy. The drums that kick in are actually composed in parts, a bass drum from the Roland TR-808 and other stuff from the Spectrasonics Stylus RMX drum module.”
Byrne's vocal is especially spooky, sounding like his classic Talking Heads recordings (as in 1978's More Songs About Buildings and Food) but also weirder, more compressed, effected and layered.
“When you are listening to Talking Heads' tracks, David is always doing more than one line. He is singing one main line; then he is singing different chords over it. When he adds those chords, it creates this freaky, wormhole sound. That is what we went for there. And that chattering sound over the top is the Spectrasonics Atmosphere Dream Synth.
“The other stuff happening is also software synthesizers,” van Dyk continues, “Massive by Native Instruments — it does this weird wrrrgghh wrrrggghh sound in the back of “Fall With Me.” Then a fantastic filter, the TBK2 from Sonalksis, they have one absolutely fantastic filter and another distortion filter [read our review, page 76]. In the second part of the song during the verse, when the track gets all distorted-sounding in the background, that is the TBK2 that opens up and distorts the track.”
THE POLITICS OF DANCING?
Paul van Dyk has achieved much, received awards for both his music and humanitarian work and still he continues to tour like a madman and advance the cause. His commitments are many and his dreams are larger than life.
“My goal is always to deliver the next good gig,” he says matter-of-factly. “My next gig is always the most important thing. But I am involved in a few charity organizations, and my goal there is that eventually they don't exist. So that we have done everything we could so we would not have the problems anymore — that actually inspired us to start the organizations in the first place. That would be something absolutely fantastic, which I believe is probably not going to happen. That is why we continue doing it.”
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Rückenwind (in cooperation with German Red Cross) helps educate disadvantaged children to advance their chances of employment, Safer School (a project of Berlin AIDS Federation) sensitizes youth to protect themselves against AIDS, and Akansha helps build and maintain schools for children in India.
“The majority of the people on this planet don't really care that there are others who are not in a fortunate position,” van Dyk says. “So to be honest, it has nothing to do with what I do as DJ, or why I am voted the No. 1 DJ. I got the German Medal of Honor, but I felt ashamed because without the work of the volunteers, nothing would have happened. Then someone said, ‘It wouldn''t exist without you at all.' So then I took it as an honor for all of us who are trying to give those kids a better life.”
Computers, DAW/recording software, consoles
Apple MacBook Pro (2), Mac G5 2.5 GHz running Apple Logic Pro 7 and Ableton Live 6, 23-inch Ci nema Display
Euphonix System 5-MC Integrated
Audio Mixing System
Mackie C4 Control Pro, Control Universal with seven Control Universal XT extensions
M-Audio UC33e Advanced USB MIDI control surface
RME Intelligent Audio Solutions HDSP
Card with 64 I/O, ADI-648 MADI to ADAT interface, (8) ADI8DS Converter
Access Virus TI Pølar
Clavia Nord Lead Rack
M-Audio Keystation Pro 88 MIDI keyboard
Novation Supernova Module
Roland JP-8000, Juno-106, JV-1080, TR-808, TR-909, TB-303
DJ mixer, sampler/drum machine
Allen & Heath Xone:3D DJ mixer
Akai MPC2500 sampling workstation
EQs, compressors, effects
Aphex Dominator II Master Kompressor
iZotope Ozone 3 mastering effects
Native Instruments Spektral Delay
Sonalksis TBK2 Digital Grimebox sonic
Waves Platinum Bundle
Software synths, plug-ins
Arturia Prophet V Prophet 5/VS synth
Music Lab Real Guitar
Native Instruments Massive, Komplete 4
Rob Papen Albino 3, BLUE
Spectrasonics Atmosphere Dream Synth
Module, Stylus RMX Realtime Groove
Module, Trilogy Total Bass Module
KRK 7000Bs, V12S subwoofer