Discovering the magnitude of DJ Tiësto's fame in Amsterdam, Netherlands, is like an unexpected jolt. Little electric-shock hints of his stardom are evident at times, such as when, while hanging out in an Amsterdam Marriott restaurant with the DJ, he suddenly pipes up: “Hey! They're playing my song!” It's his track “In My Memory,” from his 2001 debut artist album of the same name (Nettwerk). But this doesn't come as much of a surprise; after all, Tiësto has been ranked the No. 1 DJ in DJ magazine's Top 100 DJs poll for the past two years running.
On the Dutch music-television station TMF (The Music Factory), flashes of Tiësto are everywhere. Then there's undisputable evidence of superstar fame on Tiësto's In Concert DVD (Black Hole, 2003), which begins with his goa-trance take on “Adagio for Strings” (composed in 1936 by Samuel Barber) and a powerful WWE-type announcer bellowing, “Sold out weeks in advance … presenting to you the man who has won all imaginable awards in dance music.” But this isn't just any sold-out rave party. It's Tiësto — alone on the bill — DJing to a crowd of 25,000 people. Standing in a booth in the middle of a circular stage, it looks as though he's operating a space ship delineated with strips of neon lights. Pyrotechnics go off; guest singers sparkle high up on platforms; Chinese dragons ripple across the stage; and Vegas-style carnival dancers and girls dressed in cheerleading outfits shake their eye candy.
But nothing can prepare you for seeing Tiësto (born Tijs Verwest) spin live in person. On a Saturday night at Amsterdam's The Powerzone, there isn't exactly a sea of people, as with In Concert, but there's a good lake of 2,000 heads bobbing up and down like wind-blown white caps in water. Bottles of vodka and champagne arrive nonstop at Tiësto's roped-off VIP area. But the DJ himself is far too busy to pay attention. As he spins, at least a dozen or so people wait eagerly to hand him paper, CDs and even their wallets to autograph. A few even attempt to show Tiësto notes that they've typed up for him on their cell phones. As his recent single “Traffic” comes on, the audience lets out a giant roar and starts jumping up and down. Even schlumpy older dudes wearing Dockers put their hands in the air.
Earlier at his apartment — a holding pattern until he and his girlfriend sell his house in Breda, Netherlands, and move to a house on a canal in Amsterdam — Tiësto plays tracks from his upcoming album, Just Be (Nettwerk, 2004). The thumping and cracking rhythm-and-synth-riff anthem “Traffic” is playing; Tiësto lowers his voice and, with his signature happy-go-lucky grin, says: “This song was No. 1 on the Dutch charts, ahead of Justin Timberlake. And I'm not talking about the dance charts — the regular charts.” It isn't arrogance speaking, but rather something more along the lines of disbelief and pride. Sitting next to him, Tiësto's big-eyed cat, Noah, is unmoved by his owner's success and stares blankly into space.
DJ AS A SALESMAN
In Tiësto's DVD Another Day at the Office (Black Hole, 2003), the DJ gives a tour of his hometown of Breda, a little more than an hour south of Amsterdam. At one point, he stops by his record store, Magik — one of his life's dreams. Tiësto insists that owning and working at his shop has made him a better DJ. “You learn so much when you work in a record store,” he says. “People have so many different tastes of music, and you just have to find a way to please them because they're looking for a certain sound. You have thousands of records, and they're looking for a couple. For example, this guy comes in, and I play two songs for him, and he says, ‘I like this one better.’ And I ask, ‘Why do you like this one?’ He explains, and I'll give him more records in that direction. And that's what I do when I play, as well. I play for myself, but I mainly play for the crowd to make sure they have a good feeling when they leave. So at the beginning of my set, I drop, like, two or three different songs and then check out where the crowd wants to go.”
If it's a 25,000-person crowd, Tiësto says that the audience tends to go for the harder, more minimalist set, but in smaller clubs, the atmosphere is more intimate, and vocal tracks are the norm. But whatever the scene, Tiësto always re-evaluates it as he gets further along in his set. Occasionally, he doesn't get the reaction to a record that he was hoping for. “And then I can get in a bit of a panic,” he says. “But I just drop in three more different kinds of songs in different styles: one progressive, one a bit harder and one really trancey, and then I see which of the three they react to the most.”
MAKING DANCEFLOOR TRACKS
One track from Just Be, “Sweet Misery,” is not traditional Tiësto fare. Chugging bass and tremoloed swells of synths introduce a big crescendo into sweet female vocals. But the beats are not exactly aimed for dance clubs. Nevertheless, Tiësto is interested in creating tracks that are dancefloor hits. “In the beginning, I thought, ‘Tiësto as an artist and Tiësto as a DJ are two different things,’” he says. “But I think it's more natural to keep them together. ‘Sweet Misery’ is more like a fluke song, 'cause I was thinking of maybe in the future becoming more of a producer and produce a band like Moby does. Moby has his Moby thing, and he has his Voodoo Child thing. And the ‘Sweet Misery’ song is like a business card, like, ‘I can make this music, as well, and you'll hear more about me from that side, but for now, I'll stick to the dancefloor because that's what I most enjoy.’”
The Nashville songwriting duo of Joanna Lloyd and Dan Muckala wrote “Sweet Misery” and originally intended to sell it to the goth-rock band Evanescence. But after the band turned down the song, Tiësto got second dibs, took the vocals and built the music around them. The tune shows Tiësto's darker side. “I can be very dramatic and melancholic,” he says. “That's why I like bands like Radiohead and Sigur Ros. That's quite dark. But that kind of vibe I really like to present in my music, as well.”
Nevertheless, Tiësto loves music that makes him happy, and that means big danceable trance anthems. You can tell that this is true by the giant perma-grin on his face while he's behind the decks. “A lot of bedroom DJs don't connect with the dancefloor,” Tiësto says. “They are just in the room, producing the music, and it's a totally different story when you play it out. Sometimes when I produce a track, the break is getting big, big, big, and after the break, when the climax has to come, I just pull everything back and play a beat with a bass line. And then people are surprised, and that is also a big feeling to do the opposite [of a big climax]. Emptiness can be very powerful. Like the track ‘Traffic,’ that's very empty. It has only one melody or not even a melody. It's very hypnotizing and very simple. And that's why it's so powerful.”
Like many DJs, Tiësto tests his tracks on an audience before finalizing them. But the reaction he gets doesn't just reflect on the quality of the arrangement and production. “I have to also figure out, ‘Okay, at this time of night, I'm going to play this track’ because if you play it too early, people respond differently,” he says. “It doesn't connect with the people because they're not ready for it yet. You can play a minimalist track with a big melody afterwards, and then the melody gets more attention.” From there, Tiësto keeps building up his set until heads start exploding: “Yeah, and then I stop.”
EASING INTO PRODUCTION
Although Tiësto has been a DJ for 15 years and has quite a few mix CDs under his belt, his foray into producing was a fairly timid one. “I started out as a remixer, not as a producer, because in the beginning, I didn't have a clue how to make my own tracks,” he admits. “And remixing is much easier to do because you have the melody — the voice — so you just have to give your own flavor on it.”
Like many budding remixers and producers, Tiësto benefited from watching others. Producer, engineer and composer Geert Huinink created the strings on Tiësto's “Magic Journey” (from In My Memory), but Tiësto also gained knowledge from Huinink's mixing process. “If you hear my old tracks, how it's mixed, it sounds all right, but,” Tiësto trails off. “With most bedroom producers, like I used to be, [all the frequencies] just come out of the middle. And with a really good sound engineer, you can see the tones; they can place everything in that frequency curve so no frequencies really bother each other — like the kick drum and the bass line. For my music, the bass is the highest point in the curve, and then the other stuff, the vocals and the middle, are down a bit, and the hi-hats are more on the lower level.”
Tiësto also recently worked with BT on the song “Love Comes Again,” for which BT sent his own vocals across the Atlantic. “I sent him the basic track with a bass line and the kick and everything,” Tiësto says. “And he sent me back the vocals, and from those lyrics — it's quite a positive song — I got the inspiration to put the rhythm and strings in.” One of the song's main synth sounds comes from the Roland JP-8080. “That one is famous for a lot of trance tracks,” he says. “But most trance producers use the same sound in there. I always try to use completely different sounds from the JP-8080. People should look more in their gear because there's so much more in that machine. All my lead sounds are either from the JP-8080 or from the Access Virus. The guy who designs the sounds for the Access Virus, Mike Clark, designed especially for me 130 exclusive sounds, and I can use them for a year for free. And after that, he's going to use a Tiësto bank in the Virus.”
Although much of Just Be was produced in the Netherlands, Tiësto made the trek across the ocean to work on a couple of tracks with one half of the remixing team Gabriel & Dresden, which has remixed New Order, Way Out West, Paul Oakenfold and Tiësto, among others. Collaborating with Josh Gabriel, Tiësto came up against an unexpected tweakfest. “From him, I learned that I need to take more time sometimes because, sometimes, I get a bit more sloppy in the end,” Tiësto says. “He can work on a sound for a couple of hours, and I always move on. I always have the picture in my head of the whole track [I want to create], and I get impatient. I want to finish it off. And he's like, ‘Oh, no, I first want to try this, this and this.’ I just go right away for the best option that feels good. So it's very difficult for me to work with someone else, 'cause you always have to make concessions. I was working on a bass line, and I said, ‘Wow. This bass line is cool.’ And then he said, ‘I like it more like this,’ and he got all tweaky. He said he really liked that more, and I didn't. So we were like, ‘Okay, what are we gonna do now?’ So I took the parts with me to Holland, and I'm going to finish my vision of the track here. And he's going to finish his version of the track in San Francisco. So we'll have two tracks — an A- and a B-side — that are influenced by each other but still have our own stamp on the track.”
One of Tiësto's stamps is working with a full-on mixing console. “[Gabriel] does everything on his Mac with a really small 8-channel Mackie mixer,” Tiësto says. “I think his sound would be better on a big mixer, because everything is coming out of eight channels, and in the end, it's just coming out of two channels. It's too much out of just two channels. I don't think it's worth it. If you use a big mixer, you get much more space to let everything breathe. You can treat everything separately, and you have much room to spread everything out. And you can hear the difference. But it's quite an investment.”
BATTLE OF THE DJ
Dance music is often given the hard way to go by old-school musicians. Sometimes, it's due to the repetition of the music, and, sometimes, it's because DJs don't play traditional instruments live. But Tiësto sees creating dance music from a different viewpoint. “I think dance music is very underestimated by other musicians,” he says. “But I think that it's much more difficult to make dance music than it is to make a pop or a rock song. When you have a band like U2 or the Rolling Stones, they play their hits, and then everybody is satisfied. If a DJ comes to a gig and he plays every week the same songs, people get bored. So it's much more of a challenge to be a top DJ than to go on tour with a band. I saw Coldplay, like, three times this year. They played the same tracks. They played all the tracks from the new album, all the tracks from the old album. Everybody's satisfied. That's easy.
“If I go back half a year later to the same club, I can't play the same tracks as I did a half year before. But Coldplay goes on tour for two years, and it's all the same. I saw Radiohead, and they're great musicians, but the sound wasn't that impressive. That's also the thing with live bands, it doesn't sound that impressive, because when you hear the studio album, you're blown away; it has beautiful sounds, and everything is mixed down very well. And then they play live, and it's always less good, I think. That's why I would never really go live with electronic music, 'cause it's impossible to do live. All the things you program in the computer, you can't do that live. And in the end, nobody really cares if it's live or not. You want to be entertained.”
TIPS FROM TIËSTO
Bass placement: “I've learned a lot from other Dutch producers, like Ferry Corsten. When you put the bass line in, you never put it on the kick, just on the side so that it doesn't get boomy. So the kick kicks in and the bass just after that.”
The power of sounds you don't hear: “It's very powerful to have a sound that you hardly hear but you feel. We put in sounds you don't really hear, but they are part of the main riff, just from other keyboards. So you put a simple Virus sound under there, and you add some extra low or extra mid or a hi-hat or just some noise. When you mute it, you don't hear that it's gone, but you feel it's gone.”
The relief of the release: “I use the release on synths a lot. I draw it out, and it goes wider, and it works on the dancefloor a lot, at least here in Holland. You're dancing with the melody, and at the end, the melody gets bigger and bigger, and you just hear one synth at the end, and then everybody is lost in the rhythm, and they get confused, and then the kick comes back in the end, and it goes boom!”
TESTING: SELECTED TIËSTO GEAR
Tiësto works in three different Netherlands studios in Amsterdam, Breda and Rotterdam.
The following is an abridged list from those studios:
Access Virus B, Virus C synths
Akai MPC3000XL: “Because of its excellent MIDI timing during studio sessions,” Tiësto says.
Akai S6000 samplers (2)
Alesis Andromeda A6 synth: “Trancey and more techno sounds,” Tiësto says. “It's more warm, a lot of mid. It's good for the side sounds, the arpeggiated sounds.”
E-mu Vintage Pro, Proteus 2000 synths
Intel Pentium 4/3.2 GHz w/1,024 MB RAM
Korg Triton synth
KRK 8000-series monitors
Lexicon 480 rackmount reverb
Linn Electronics LinnDrum drum machine
Moog Music Minimoog Voyager synth: “That's brilliant with the expand-a-board,” Tiësto says. “It's amazing.
Basically, it's the low end, bass lines, the lower sounds. But it's not going to rumble or anything.
Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntable
Pioneer DJM-600 mixer
Roland Alpha Juno 2, JD-990, JP-8000, JP-8080 (2), MKS-80, XP-80, XV-3080 synths
Roland SDE-3000 digital delay
Roland TR-909 drum machine
Sony DMX-R100 48-channel digital console w/digital switchable patch bay for analog signal processing: “All compressors and limiters are built in the Sony mixing console — it sounds perfect for all drum loops and drum sounds,” Tiësto says.
Steinberg Cubase SX 2.0 software
TC Electronic M-One rackmount reverb
Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables (2)
Waldorf MicroWaveXT sound module
Yamaha CS6x, CS6R, FS1R synths
Yamaha MSS1 SMPTE/MTC converter: “Very old but still the best analog converter for MIDI synchronization problems,” Tiësto says.