Q&A: Eelke Kleijn

How long have you been producing music now? Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started?

I’d say roughly that I started making music when I was about 16 years old, but I started taking piano lessons when I was 12. So the first couple of years for me was mainly just practicing the piano and getting better at that.

I started working at a music store as well, which was the same place that I was taking my piano lessons. They had lots of production equipment, even a computer with an early version of Cubase, and that sort of sparked it for me. I was working there for a year and I had access to all of this gear, so I started messing around with it.

At first I was copying songs that I knew from the radio, like ATB for instance, they were really big at the time and I started trying to re-create things like that on the Roland Grooveboxes. That’s how I really got started with producing. It wasn’t until a year or so later when I was about 17 years old that I was trying to write my own music.

Sounds like you had a pretty sweet situation working at that shop!

It was awesome! The store closed on Saturday evenings and it opened up again on Tuesday morning. So I could take equipment home as long as it was back by the Tuesday. I’d often go home with one or two synthesizers, and then I’d put them in my backpack and return them to the store on my way to school on Tuesday morning!

That must have been really valuable to be able to try out all of that equipment. Especially back then when you didn’t have so much information available online.

Right around that time, or maybe one or two years later, the internet was just starting to get really popular with forums and things like that. There was this Dutch dance forum called Clubcharts. There were a lot of people posting there, exchanging tracks and ideas. Often we would meeting up a few times a year for different parties and things. So that was really the start of exchanging information over the internet for me.

You mentioned that you were taking piano lessons when you were younger, do you play any other musical instruments?

I started playing guitar earlier this year! I’ve wanted to play guitar for a while now, and I’ve given it a few tries, but I never really had the time to get very far with it. Last year I was at my brother’s place, and he had this Xbox game called Rocksmith. It’s sort of like that Guitar Hero game, except you actually hook up a real guitar to play. The software recognizes what notes you play and what slides you make. He showed me this and I was just blown away!

I’ve been practicing with that for the last 6 or 7 months and I’ve even recorded some of my own guitar parts for tracks recently. I think it also helped a lot that I had a good foundation of music theory from learning piano all those years ago – I guess that shows you are never too old to learn something new!

Speaking of music theory, do you find yourself sticking strictly to those rules when you are doing music production?

I’ve heard mixed things from some producers who feel that music theory can actually limit their creative thinking, and that the rules don’t strictly apply when it comes to genres like Techno.

I have to agree with both sides! I feel that with my style, music knowledge is very important. Dance music is mostly minor keys, sometimes you might get things in major, or Arabic scales, but it’s usually nothing very fancy. You don’t really run into more complex things like 7th, 9th, or 13th chords. So if you’ve got the basic knowledge of minor and major down, you’re very well equipped to make dance music. Especially with writing melodies, it really helps!

There have also been times when I was in the studio with someone that didn’t have musical training and they might do something which is technically wrong, but it sounded good! It all depends on the music you make I guess. Sometimes I will listen to a techno track and think, this is really off key! But apparently it works!

You mentioned that back when you were working at that store, that you got started on older version of Cubase. Was that the first DAW you started using?

Yes, Cubase, and also Reason. I was using the very first version of Reason for quite a while, and I got pretty good at it. I think I managed to finish a few tracks with it.

Since I was able to take equipment home with me, I needed a program that was able to record audio. At the time I think that Reason was completely closed. Nowadays you can actually record audio with it, but back then it wasn’t possible.

I eventually started using Cubase 3.1 or 3.5, and I was able to use that to record some of the synths that I took back home. I just started messing around with Cubase, and always stuck with it from then. I’ve used a few different DAWs, and I still use Ableton a little bit as well. Especially for sketching ideas when I’m on the road or creative processing of loops.

I always come back to Cubase as my main DAW though. Even when I finish a track on the road, when its 95% done, I end up exporting everything to WAV and import it to Cubase to make the final adjustments. I feel like I really know the program inside and out.

Speaking of getting work done on the road, can you tell us a little bit about what your studio schedule is like? How often are you working on new music?

I have a very solid schedule. If I’m not on the road touring, I wake up somewhere between 7:30 and 8:30. Sometimes I will go to the gym for an early workout, and usually around 9:30 – 10 is when I will go into the studio. I usually work until about 6 roughly, until it’s time for family dinner. Sometimes I will go back into the studio if I’m feeling really inspired, but generally speaking its from 10 until 6 every day.

Are you usually working on deadlines for projects, or do you just like to go in the studio and come up with new ideas?

Well its always different. Like 2 years ago I was doing quite a bit of third party production work. Lots of movie trailers and stuff for big shows, which meant lots of deadlines every day. I actually seem to work better when there is a solid deadline. I become very focused and result driven. I felt like I was doing a little bit too much third party stuff and I wanted more time to write my own music again. So right now I’m doing mainly my own music, which means less deadlines.

I started working a little bit different recently. If I feel really inspired, I will start on a new track every day. At the end of the day, I will export it and the next day I will start on a brand new project again. I’ll go at it like this for a week or so, and at the end of that period, I’ll have 9 or 10 basic ideas for tracks that I can finish.

I waste a lot less time working like this. Because in the past, I might have worked on a project for 5 days before I realised that it wasn’t really as good as I thought it was. I’m really enjoying working like this at the moment.

Once you’ve decided that you like one of your ideas, how long does it typically take you to finish a track?

I’d say in real time that it’s probably 5 solid studio days. Sometimes I will work on something for 2 days and then I might not go back to that track for a couple of weeks.

Usually if it’s on a Friday, I will try to finish a V1, which is a version I can play at a gig. Then I’ll play it a couple of times and see how the audience responds. I’ll go back to the studio with a bunch of notes and work on the track again. Usually by version 2 or version 3 the track is finished, but I’ve had a few that went all the way up to version 8 or 9!

So yeah, generally speaking after about 5 to 6 studio days the track really should be finished. If it takes more than that, its often because afterwards I realise that it wasn’t really good enough to begin with, and I had a hard time just trying to force it into being a coherent track. Throughout the years I’ve gotten better at recognising this and just quickly moving on to the next thing.

By now I know that sometimes when you are producing music, you get really into it, and you feel like you are making something really good, but listening back a week later or so.. You are thinking, ‘Hmmm.. maybe this isn’t as good as I thought it was!’

So by starting something new every day, and listening to those 10 things over and over again, you realize that maybe only 3 of them were really good.

Is road testing something that you always do with your tracks?

Yes, nowadays I always do that. In the past, sometimes I was on a tight deadline. I wouldn’t have the opportunity to play it out before it had to be completed. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t want to release anything that doesn’t feel like it’s 100%.

Are there certain parts of a track that you find more time consuming than others? Something that you find usually requires more attention to get right?

The mixdown probably! I want the mixdown to be perfect. The problem nowadays is that you have to get it at a pretty high volume and that means making some big decisions in the mixing process.

Sometimes if you’ve selected a certain kick for instance, and you want to get the track up to a loud volume, some kicks just don’t enable you to get to that volume. There are sounds that need a certain type of processing in order to get the whole track up to that volume without limiting too much. Sometimes when I feel like a track is really done, I want the sound to stand out in a certain way, but the volume I need to get the track to is sort of inhibiting me from getting there.

Very often when I have a track which is almost finished, I bounce out the audio and then import everything in a new arrangement to do a completely new mixdown.

I think that is definitely noticeable in your tracks. You don’t go overboard with the loudness, but they are always very clear and dynamic.

I try to get them loud, but not at the cost of everything else. If I’m limiting a track and I see the final limiter is taking off -4 or -5db at certain times, I go back into the mixdown, because that feels like too much for me. I’m happy when I get a track really loud and I see the limited hitting -2 or -1.8, then I feel like I’m doing a good job.

So you do all of the mixing and mastering yourself?

Most of it! I mix everything myself. I’ve been thinking about getting mastering done by someone else, because they can hear things that you don’t necessarily hear yourself, but I will have to find the right person I think. It’s definitely something that I’m open to.

We visited you in your studio a little while back to film your Toolroom Academy tutorial courses, was that the first time you had done something like this?

I had done one about 2 years ago for my track ‘Ein Tag Am Strand’, but it was nowhere near at this level of detail. It was basically me with a microphone doing about 25 minutes of screen capture and running through the track in a very quick way. The Toolroom Academy course was on another level, it was much more professional and I was able to go much deeper than I had before.

I’ve done a few other things in more of a live setting like at ADE and the Rio Music Conference in Rio de Janeiro, but again it’s like 50 minutes maximum. So you really just scratch the surface and you cant go too much deeper.

People aren’t interested in hearing you talk about kick compression for 20 minutes when you’ve only got an hour to cover the whole thing.

Is this type of tutorial something that you would like to do more of?

Yes, I really enjoyed it! I learn a lot from other people as well. I go on YouTube and watch videos about how people achieve certain sounds or effects. I find it really interesting, and no matter how long you’ve been producing there are always new things to learn. Different people always have different ways of working and I’m happy to share my knowledge.

It was very interesting to see that you have a standing setup in your studio. Can you explain a bit of the thought process behind this?

Basically, 2 or 3 years ago I wasn’t really feeling 100%. I was tired quite a lot, and I also had a lot of back and neck issues. Nowadays looking back, I feel like I was close to maybe having a burnout at the time. I wasn’t really on the right path.

One of the things I noticed was that when I was in the studio, I had a lot of neck problems from just sitting down and looking at the screen for 8 hours in a row. At the end of every night I’d have headaches and just generally wasn’t feeling very good.

When I was doing something else, like work around the house, I was on my feet the entire day, and I usually had none of those problems because I was moving around a lot.

I was looking around at a lot of different options and doing some research on the Internet. I even went on my Facebook page and asked for experience from other producers. A lot of the stuff that I had read was that people who moved to a standing desk had solved their back and neck issues.

I decided to build everything in my studio at standing height. My original plan was just to stand every day, but I quickly noticed doing that for 2 weeks in a row, it was really killing my feet! That wasn’t the best solution either. I went to a situation now where I stand half the time and I also have a high barstool that I can sit on for a couple of hours. I change it up and it’s actually been going really well! All of the issues I had from years ago are pretty much gone.

I’m feeling much healthier now. I’ve also been working out more, so that has helped a lot as well. It was a much needed change from sitting down my entire life behind a computer screen.

I’ve seen a lot more people moving to this sort of setup recently. I think Patrice Baumel also moved to a standing desk because of his back issues. I’ve even seen some specially designed studio desks that are made for standing now. The IT world was first with this, and maybe now music is following.

It was really getting to the point where I was thinking that if I want to continue with this career, I need to make some big changes. If I have to do this for another 30 years and sit down every day, I’m going to end up at the physiotherapist very soon and it’s not going to end well for me.

Do you find that you are still as efficient in the studio? Did it slow down your workflow at first?

It just took a little bit of time to get used to it. There were a few days in the beginning that I was thinking ‘What the hell did I get myself into now?’, but I’m really used to it at this point.

I feel like I’m actually even more efficient working like this, because standing up is more energetic. For instance, if I’m working on an idea that’s really good, I will even start dancing!

I remember that you also use a pen instead of a mouse in the studio?

Yep! I started using a pen almost 10 years ago because I had some pretty bad RSI issues at the time. I was just getting started in music, but I was also a video game fanatic! I was using the mouse probably almost 16 hours a day and that caused some very serious wrist issues. I went to a setup where I was using a tablet and a pen and I’ve never looked back!

It’s all about not doing the same movements repeatedly. So instead of doing everything on a mouse, I might use the track pad a little bit, or work on a controller. It’s also one of the reasons why I have so much hardware. I like walking around and having a hands-on interaction.

Speaking of studio hardware, can you tell us a little bit about your studio setup at the moment?

My basic setup is a big Mac Pro tower, running Cubase. I’ve got a Universal Audio UAD-2 plugin card and an Antelope Audio Orion 32 analog soundcard hooked up to a patchbay. All of my synths and outboard gear are run through the patchbay as well.

The synths I would say that I use the most are the Moog Voyager, the Clavia Nord Rack 2x, and the Novation Bass Station 2 which has become my go to synth for bass recently.

I also really like guitar pedals, so I run almost everything through my pedals all the time. Even for basic things like reverb and delay.

I like working in audio a lot. So even when I’m using soft synths, when I’m happy with the sound, and I’ve processed it with various plug-ins, I’ll bounce it to audio which also helps to free up resources because I can delete the original instruments and I get all of that processing power back.

At that point you’ve made a commitment though! You can’t go back and change something once you’ve bounced it down.

That’s also something! Recently I have been into quite organic type of sounds. Bells, marimbas, mullets… When working with those sounds, often they have what is called a round robin sample type. So there will actually be 6 or 8 different samples that will randomly change when you play the sound. This also means that when you play something back, the melody might sound slightly different each time because of random sample selection. By bouncing to audio, I know that things will sound exactly the same every time I play it.

That’s also part of the charm sometimes. Once you record it, that’s the way that it is!

Do you remember what the first synth you purchased was?

The first synthesizer was actually a gift from my parents for graduating high school when I was 18! It was a Roland XP-30, and I used it in a couple of tracks, but it was more of a sample-based synth. I ended up using it mainly as a MIDI keyboard and I never extensively used it as a synth.

One of the first synths that I bought was an Access Virus C. It was my biggest synth when I was producing trance music, but when I moved onto other stuff I didn’t use it so much. When you go beyond the presets and start to program your own sounds, it can do some really interesting things that aren’t trance-ish though!

Do you find yourself doing a lot of sound design, or do you typically cruise the presets?

If I’m feeling lazy, I will go through presets to try and find the sound that I’m looking for and change it a little bit. I’ve discovered that if I start from scratch and design the sound myself from the bottom up, they tend to become a lot more interesting! So lately, I’ve taken up programming a lot of sounds myself.

For a catchy unique melody, the sound is just as important as the melody you are playing. I would say it’s about 50/50. You can have a melody that’s amazing, but if the sound is bland, it doesn’t work. By programming your own sounds and coming up with something that’s a bit more edgy or original, that helps you to stand out from everyone else.

Exactly for this reason I’ve started to get into modular synthesis recently. Basically in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been looking at tons of different modules and starting my own little system.

Nice! It seems like that’s the natural progression when it comes to sound design. How are you finding the modular synth setup so far? Has there been a steep learning curve?

Actually right before we started talking today, I was installing the first couple of modules! I haven’t played with them at all yet. I actually just got them in a couple of days ago.

Another reason I also wanted to get into modular is that they offer some really amazing sequencers! Some of these sequencers are so incredibly inspiring that they give you ideas you would never get otherwise. It really opens up a whole new world of sounds and possibilities!

I’ve heard that modular systems can be quite addictive! I know it’s supposed to be fairly expensive as well?

Yes for sure! I would say that for the cost of this first system, I could have gotten a proper Dave Smith synthesizer or something like that. So it is fairly expensive, and also you don’t get to save your presets, so it’s all cables and photographs! On the other hand, it offers a lot more possibilities and you can basically build the ultimate synth for yourself.

I don’t have ambitions to build an entire wall of modular synths… I want to strike a good balance between using it in my productions in a creative and original way, but I also like to have things like recall and access to presets, so I would never go completely modular. It’s just another thing to help spark my ideas and to get inspired.

Apart from the modular system, do you have any other equipment on your wish-list at the moment?

I would like to get a bass guitar because I’d really like to be able to play my own bass on my tracks. There is always wanting stuff, and needing stuff! You always want everything, but when you question if you REALLY need it, the answer is usually no… Haha!

If there is one other thing I’d like to get, it would probably be a high end Dave Smith synthesizer like the new Oberheim collaboration, or the new Prophet. There might also be one or two pieces of high-end external processing gear, like a compressor or EQ. At the same time, I’ve already invested a lot of time and effort into UAD, and I’ve sort of chosen that route. So I’m not sure if I will start going down the whole external processing road.

I’ve also noticed that with the really high-end hardware, things start getting so expensive, and you have to start to ask yourself if this is really going to change your sound so much that its worth the price.

Nice list! Do you use your guitar in any of your productions at the moment?

Sure! I just recently did a new track where I recorded a couple of lead lines from the guitar. Sometimes I do basic chords and run them through pedals or Guitar Rack on the computer from Native Instruments.

The nice thing about bass in dance tracks is that it’s usually not much more than eighth notes, so even for me as a not very experienced guitarist, that’s pretty easy to play.

I find that tracks can get something quite interesting about them from using real instruments. A guitar will sound slightly different with every hit, you know?

For example, if you play a certain melody with a guitar I always feel it sounds much more organic than if you were to play the same melody with a synthesizer.

You are very well known for your emotive dance music tracks, but some people might not know that you also do composition for films and commercials as well. How long ago did you start getting involved with these sorts of projects?

Probably about 6 or 7 years ago now! At the time I was talking with my management about what I wanted to do in the future. I told them I’d like to get into producing music for video and movies. They started reaching out to different people and making contacts. At first it was just small projects, but each time they got a little bit bigger.

All of a sudden we were getting offers for movie trailers and things like that. Of course at first try it’s never good enough, but you learn a lot just from trying. You do a second, and a third, and maybe eventually it will be what they are looking for. Before you know it, you’ve done your first movie trailer!

Do you remember what the first movie trailer that you did was?

It was for a film called Parker with Jason Statham!

How does it work when you are working on something for a film? Do they give you quite a specific brief on what they are looking for, or do they send you the trailer to watch as an example?

They almost never send you the trailer because they don’t want anything to leak before the release. It can usually go two ways. One way is that they send you a briefing, which is often very detailed as to exactly what they are looking for and the vibe they want. Sometimes you will also get an explanation of what is happening on the screen. Because often the agency that is doing the trailer has seen some of the footage, so they will try to describe it to you from second to second what is happening.

The other option is to create your own track and shop it around. When you really pay attention to trailers in depth, you start to notice that they all have a very similar sort of build up. There is always an intro, then a little bit of action, then often there is a little bit of a break where it winds down before it will come back for the final climax. So if you write a track that works with this formula, you can offer it to agencies and they can try to send it to around to different studios.

Do you approach the creative process for these sorts of projects differently? Obviously for your dance tracks, you are thinking about what would work on the dance floor, but for something like this you might be trying to provoke a different sort of feeling or emotion?

When you make a dance track, you are sort of only inhibited by your own feelings of what it should sound like. When you are doing a track for a trailer or something like that, you’ve got the studio, the marketing team, the director, and everybody has a say in it. So the amount of experimentation is actually quite small.

The nice thing is that you will usually have a small, boxed off little area that the track has to fit, you know? So if I do a track like that, I often know what sort of goal I’m working towards, which makes it easier for me to write somehow.

When I’m making a dance track it’s often more experimenting, improvising and trying to spark different ideas.

I would imagine that your piano and music theory training really comes more into play with projects like these as well? The basic techniques and approach must be quite different from dance music.

For sure! If it’s an orchestral track, I just start by sequencing strings and melodies. It’s not uncommon that I will have 80 tracks of just strings building layer, upon layer to get that big sort of Hollywood sound that you are going for. That’s a completely different way or writing music than dance music I guess.

Wow! 80 tracks?!

Oh yeah easily! I’ve gone up to 300 in a single project!

On that same thought, do you find that you end up using different hardware or soft synths than you normally would on dance projects?

Yes, if I’m doing something orchestral, its only software. Its completely sample based with large sample libraries. In that case, I actually have two more computer systems, both with 32gb of memory. All of the samples load up on my slave computer, so they don’t slow down my main system. They are hooked up to a network on a Gigabit switch with Vienna Ensemble Pro.

How long do you usually have to complete one of these projects from the time that they give you the original brief?

The funny thing is, even though it takes years to make these movies, somehow by the time the assignment ends up on your desk its like “Well, we’ve got this trailer, it’s Thursday evening now, we’d like to have your first ideas by Monday morning!”. I’ve even had times when I’ve gotten a brief on Wednesday and I had to hand a first version in by Friday! The most I’ve had is probably 6 or 7 working days, and that is considered quite a lot.

I often keep in close contact with the people that I am writing for, so I will do one day of scoring, send it through to them in the evening, which is morning time in LA, and they can listen during the day. The next morning when I boot up my system I will have their notes and feedback waiting for me.

It’s also helped me to work much better with constructive criticism. Sometimes that can be difficult as an artist. It can be hard to have someone disagree with your vision. When you work in film, you can do the best thing you think you’ve ever done, but if the director says “I don’t like it”, then that’s that, and you will need to do it again.

The funny thing is, when you listen back three months later, you might even agree with their opinion! Going back to our earlier conversation, that is part of the reason why I like to export tracks and let them breathe for a little bit, instead of getting too hung up in the moment.

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