You need to understand the physics of a speaker, which work the same from the headphones to the club," DJ/producer titan Paul van Dyk says from his home in Berlin. In the promotional club-date storm following the release of his recent remix album, Mirror's Edge, he reflects on the science behind his instinctual control of the dance floor.
"There's a certain physical timing you have to make sure these speakers can do. If you have frequencies too close together, the speaker doesn't have the possibility to move properly and it starts getting blurry. Know this and you can get closer to the things you want," he says.
Of course, speakers and hearing have always been two of van Dyk's primary preoccupations. Growing up in East Berlin, van Dyk learned mandatory Russian, yet it was through a British band that van Dyk experienced his first "intense human moment." Listening through a small kitchen radio at age 10, van Dyk heard the Smiths' "Hand in Glove" broadcast on an illegal station from the American sector, and he had a realization.
"It was the first time I felt something so emotional not connected to my mom or dad," van Dyk recalls. "And I didn't speak English, so it was purely the instrumentation that sucked me in. Since then, music has played a huge part in my life."
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, van Dyk was able to visit the clubs he'd only heard of over the airwaves. He immediately began frequenting all the "itchy and scratchy" parts of a city reclaiming its identity and acting as a petri dish of raw sound. His appetite for electronic music culture was voracious, but van Dyk eventually found the music he encountered one-dimensional. So he sourced his own records and in 1991 debuted as a DJ.
Soon he began producing his own original material. With these tracks, van Dyk made headway into the all-important UK market, and by 1996 he was garnering bookings worldwide. Accolades followed, marking him as one of the world's top peak-hour DJs, as well as one of trance music's top purveyors.
Though some of his biggest hit tracks, such as 1998's "For an Angel," helped define the genre, in the new millennium, van Dyk has been quick to eschew the classification. Instead he now opts to describe his preferred style with the catch-all "electronic music," traversing everything from breakbeat to tech-house, all squeezed through anthemic funnels. (Simultaneously, the melodic synths of trance have been slowly re-assimilated into Germany's long-standing tradition of digital dub.)
Beyond this open approach to the music itself, van Dyk is also all about the equalizing effects of electronic music across the world's scenes. "Promoters from Tel Aviv are very good friends, and ones from Beirut too," explains van Dyk. "And they could never see themselves in each other's countries. But they all met in Ibiza and had a great time, learned from each other, and learned that Lebanon and Israel aren't enemies — they are like-minded. There are certain groups in their countries trying to portray different pictures, but this is where electronic music shows its potential, in that regardless of where you come from, everyone can be a part of this positive energetic experience."
Van Dyk's approach is recombinant in more ways than just psychological. Like fellow top-rung DJ Sasha, van Dyk has adopted a digital rig for the road. Traveling with laptops running Ableton Live and Apple Logic's MainStage, he looks at a DJ set as more than a linear sequence. Each track is an experiment in dissection and reconstruction, a style van Dyk definitely considers a much-appreciated evolution. "When we were all playing tracks eight minutes long, no wonder people became alcoholics — they had to do something during all that time," he says, laughing.
With the laptop's compact technology and instant recall, van Dyk is also able to note the crowd's most enthusiastic reactions and carry over those elements when he is determining layouts for studio tracks. Still, he says, his final production always takes place back in Berlin. "I don't like the digitally bound-together sound of a laptop. The studio I have is digital, but the mix-down is where the tricks are," he says. "This is why it has a certain momentum of sound and a bang to it."
Other examples of van Dyk's cumulative approach can be found in his recently released and commissioned works. The disc Hands On In Between collects remixes of his previous In Between album, including two entries gathered through a Beatport.com competition where aspiring producers submitted their own reworkings.
And for the album Mirror's Edge, he's had to come up with a new three-dimensional method to making mood music. The record is actually a series of compositions for the Electronic Arts console game Mirror's Edge, a freely kinetic, first-person dash that emphasizes the physical contact of every environment. For his remix of Lisa Miskovsky's track "Still Alive," van Dyk gathered inspiration by wandering his own city with an "open antenna."
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The cinematic sweep extends to his other most recent project, a remix of the Dark Knight original score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It became one more expression of van Dyk's approach to clarity.
"If you actually watched the movie, you realize there are three different themes that are the Batman theme, so for me the tricky part of the remix was to combine these intense, distinctive elements into one. Hans Zimmer handpicked me to do this, and we had an interview scheduled for an hour so I could get a feel for what he wanted — the approach he would take listening to my work," he says. "I found the common ground is the understanding of the openness of music. Basically, if you can feel it, anything goes as long as you can keep your space open and your ideas clear."
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"When we were all playing tracks eight minutes long, no wonder people became alcoholics."