Rotterdam, Holland's Ferry Corsten is often placed alongside DJs like Tiësto, Paul van Dyk and Armin van Buuren as a king of the trance genre. His recordings under the guises of Gouryella (in collaboration with Tiësto) and System F were some of the biggest trance songs of the late '90s/early '00s and brought Corsten instant credibility in the club circuit. With his 2004 debut album Right of Way (Moonshine), however, Corsten veered away from trance music's uplifting synths and explored more rugged terrain on tracks including “Punk” and “Rock Your Body Rock.” Continuing to progress musically, Corsten picks up in 2006 where Right of Way left off and presents his collaborator-heavy sophomore CD on Ultra, L.E.F. (Loud Electronic Ferocious). Blending trance with breaks, electro, house and techno, L.E.F. is created with both the dancefloor and the radio in mind. As a result, several pop-culture icons such as Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon (“Fire”), Gang Starr's Guru (“Junk”) and Howard Jones (“Fall into the Dark”) grace the album's standout tracks.
Even if you aren't a fan of trance music or Ferry Corsten's past work, you might be surprised with the musical direction of L.E.F. While it's perceived that most of the bigger names in dance music use engineers to create their music, Ferry Corsten is one of the few who has control over his productions every step of the way. He has a grasp over how he's trying to express himself from the first note of the album to the last. And quite simply, this is not the same old trance.
SUCCESS: FROM OUT OF THE BLUE
Ferry Corsten started off in the electronic-music business as a teenage producer in the early '90s. It wasn't until he found success with his productions later in the '90s that he began his career as a DJ. “DJing and producing really goes hand in hand for me,” he says. “When you have new productions, it's absolutely necessary to showcase this music to new crowds. Being able to DJ was instrumental in the early reception I had with my productions as System F, Gouryella and even today.”
Corsten's decision to record under aliases was due largely in part to legal reasons and label bandwidth. At the time of Corsten's earliest tracks, he wasn't DJing. His output was so high that he was releasing an EP every three weeks, too much material for one label to handle. Corsten decided to package his music under different guises and release each project through a separate label. When Corsten needed to find acts for his Tsunami Records label (launched in 1997), he decided to record and release music under the project names System F and Gouryella, which went on to be all-time classics. Thanks to the success of those tracks and a number of top remixes for Art of Trance, William Orbit and Apoptygma Berzerk, Corsten launched a very successful DJ career that seems to only get busier. Now on the road every weekend and sometimes on tour for several weeks at a time, Corsten has become one of the most popular DJs in the world. His DJ setup is simple: two Pioneer CDJ-800s and occasionally a laptop loaded with Ableton Live. “I play with CDs mostly because it's much more hands-on than a laptop,” he says. “I'm in love with the Pioneer CDJ-800, which is an upgrade over the 600. It has all the onboard effects, but the sound in this one is much better. I'm also playing with Ableton Live at the moment, but it's not interesting for the crowd to watch.”
THE ROAD TO L.E.F.
Corsten views his drive away from pure trance music as a constant evolution that began when he first started making music in 1991 through to his 1999 System F breakout “Out of the Blue.” “Those seven or eight years, I was doing everything,” Corsten says. “I just wanted to try everything out there and see what it was that attracted people to a certain style of music. I've been making ambient, drum ‘n’ bass, hardcore and house — just testing everything but always with a taste for the melodic side of things. It was with trance that I had my breakthrough, so I stuck with it. After five or six years of just doing pure trance, I felt the need to go back to some diversity again. The last album, Right of Way, was the first step in that direction, and L.E.F. is a continuation. What I still try and put in my sound is that hands-in-the-air kind of factor, regardless of the type of genre I'm working on.”
Creatively, Corsten had this feeling of going back to his roots with a really open view to approach the new album. Since he started out making music from many different genres, he didn't want the new record to tilt too much in any one direction. Corsten decided to call the record Loud Electronic Ferocious because the word “Lef” is translated to mean “having guts” in the Dutch language. “This idea for the album title comes from the previous album,” Corsten says. “People knew me as a trance guy, and I came up with an album like Right of Way, which was gutsy thanks to different tracks like ‘Rock Your Body Rock’ and ‘Punk.’ I just wanted to have a few party tracks on the new album, so ‘Watch Out’ is sort of a piggyback of ‘Rock Your Body.’ Then, I wanted a few tracks that would do well at the festivals, so I gave the title track more of a rock/electro feel. I made an ode to 808 State with the track ‘Cubikated’ because ‘Cubik’ was the first track that switched me on to this music back in the day.”
The tracks with the largest potential to crossover are those featuring well-known artists from the world of pop rock and hip-hop. The lead single “Fire” features the vocals of Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon and was built around a small sample from a track on the group's Best Of album called “Serious.” “Fall into the Dark” features Howard Jones and came about when Corsten bumped into Jones' manager at Amsterdam Dance Event. Corsten was a big fan of Jones', and when he learned that Jones also admired his own work, a relationship began. For the track, Corsten initially made a base track and sent it to Jones for review. A few days later, Corsten received a full-on vocal track back from Jones and went back into the studio to produce the final product.
Perhaps the riskiest track on L.E.F. is “Junk,” featuring Guru. Corsten wanted to do something outrageous that people would never expect of him. While admitting that he's not a big fan of today's hip-hop and R&B, Corsten was heavily influenced by old-school hip-hop. When he found out that his U.S. record label Ultra was in touch with Guru, Corsten asked if it might be possible to collaborate on a track. Similar to the working relationship with Jones, Corsten created a funky rock-themed track and sent it to Guru for review. Within a few weeks, he had the track back with Guru's vocals and added his own finishing touches.
The workhorse gear used for the creation of L.E.F. included Steinberg Cubase SX3, a Sony DMX-R100 mixing console, the Clavia Nord Rack 3, Alesis Andromeda A6, Virus TI, Roland V-Synth and the JP-8000 (“one of my biggest friends in the studio; I make everything on it, from bass lines to weird synths,” Corsten says). On the software side, Corsten uses Native Instruments Komplete 3 bundle (featuring Reaktor 5 and Absynth 3) and Spectrasonics Trilogy and Atmosphere.
L.E.F. was almost entirely produced in Ferry Corsten's own Rotterdam recording studio. Unlike a majority of top-name dance-music DJ/producers, Corsten actively participates in every phase of the production. He writes, arranges, produces, engineers, mixes and also does some mastering. “I'm really a control freak and like to have control over the entire project from start to finish,” he says. “Though, the last bit of mastering is so specific that I like to leave that to someone who really knows about it.”
Seeing as how Corsten's tracks are melody-driven, he starts a new track from scratch by looking for the right melody and synth sounds. Then he spices up parts with reverbs and delays and starts working on the beats and the bass lines. There is still a sense of unpredictability to the tracks because he never sets out to make a specific sound. “I've worked on a track that starts off like a trance record, and when I'm done with it, that same track might evolve into a dirty electro track,” Corsten says. “It's hard for me to say what I'm going to make on any given day. I just start and see where the track evolves.” It's also by starting his tracks from scratch — and not just taking a certain arrangement and changing the melody — that Corsten fights the problem of writing the same song twice.
NEW TECHNOLOGIES, BAD HABITS
While you'd think that all the new technology out there would be the saving grace for a producer who makes computer music, it's simply not the case for Corsten. He actually prefers the production methods used in the past due to the simplicity and human quality. “Back then I'd work on something, and it was right there — it was instant,” Corsten says. “Now, all these weird plug-ins allow you to spend months on one track, and you never get it done. It was more out of necessity back in the day. You worked on a track, and in a couple of days you were done because there weren't as many possibilities. Also, you could feel all the momentum from the studio in the track. It's really easy to lose the momentum in a track these days.”
From start to finish, it took more than 18 months to complete L.E.F. While it was hard to balance a busy DJ schedule with the production of the album, Corsten will admit that the infinite possibilities of his software programs made it hard to know when his tracks were completed. These days he relies on his gut instinct and the opportunity to showcase works in progress to his DJ audiences to know when his tracks are complete. Corsten also receives constructive criticism from his wife and his label associate. “I work alone, so you need an opinion of the tracks as you go along,” Corsten says. “My wife has a particular taste in house music, so I play things to her sometimes. She often comes up with cool ideas that I never thought of, and it comes out cool. I have a label assistant who I call to check out the tracks, too. But his personal taste is very electro, so I need to be careful to not rely too much on his opinion.”
BATTLE OF THE REMIXES
Of all the remixes Ferry Corsten has completed, his remix of William Orbit's version of Samuel Barber's “Adagio for Strings” is by far the most memorable and emotional. Samuel Barber's original version is most known for being the signature orchestral theme from the film Platoon and is the perfect example of what emotional music and powerful imagery can do for the soul. Barber's track was remade in the electronic format by William Orbit on his 2000 album Pieces in a Modern Style (Warner Bros.), and a bonus disc featured a great trance remix by Corsten.
In 2005, Tiësto also released his own a version of “Adagio for Strings” that didn't expand much of Corsten's trance remix from some six years earlier. “[Tiësto] had this concert, and he told me that he made the remix as an opening to set the room on fire,” Corsten says. “He told me that he never had the intention to release it, but the demand became so big that he released it. To me, it's a cool record, but it misses the whole point of the original or what my remix was trying to prove. Pieces in a Modern Style was about classical music made with modern-day synthesizers with total respect to the original. I was asked to make a version for the dancefloor but with much respect to the original. In my piece, you hear a longer piece of the original classical version, whereas in Tiësto's version, he only loops the first, most recognizable piece. You just can't compare it to the original classical piece because it is such a little loop.”
Next on Ferry Corsten's agenda is a major North American tour this fall that will take him through many of the country's smaller markets. When he's not touring in support of L.E.F. or remixing another artist, he'll be busy running his new Flashover Recordings label (Corsten has since ended his relationship with Tsunami). Much like his current musical direction, Corsten is looking to sign artists who represent many different styles — from trance to techno and house. “I would love to sign records that are slightly different and a bit more risky,” he says.
In the future, Corsten may even resurrect the popular System F and Gouryella monikers. “Fans would love for me to do a new Gouryella [record],” Corsten says. “I think it will happen again, though I think it will still be a matter of time. I'd prefer if it were in the original setting, which is me and Tiësto together. [As for] System F, I've been telling myself I've laid that to rest, but I'm not sure yet.”
While trance music is a dance-music subgenre that people tend to either love or hate, there's little not to like about Ferry Corsten. His tracks evoke more emotion than disposable trance tracks simply made for the dancefloor. And on L.E.F., Corsten pushes boundaries without pissing off loyal fans. “Some artists want to change their sound because they worry too much about being cool,” he says. “As a result, they ultimately forget about their roots and the people who love their sound for who they are. I never think you should step too far away from that. But now I finally feel that my fan base is ready to accept something new.”
accept tracks like “Fire” or “Forever,” which is just a house track!,”
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Intel Pentium 4 3.2 GHz PC, running Cubase SX3 software, with 400 GB worth of hard drives
MOTU HD192 interface
Sony DMX-R100 mixing console
Compressor, effects and plug-ins effects
Focusrite Red 3 Dual Channel Compressor
Lexicon PCM91 reverb
TC Electronic D-Two Multitap Rhythm Delay, FireworX multi-effects processor
Waves Platinum Bundle plug-ins
Synths, modules, software, drum machine
Access Virus Indigo, Virus TI synths
Alesis Andromeda A6 synth
Clavia Nord Rack 3 synth
Native Instruments Komplete 3 software package
Roland JP-8000 synth, TB-303 bass synth, TR-909 drum machine, V-Synth, XV-3080 rack synth
Spectrasonics Trilogy and Atmosphere soft synths
Note: No mics; vocals recorded at other studios