There are few DJs and producers in the world as prolific and impactive as Ferry Corsten.
I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Ferry in New York—my fourth time speaking with him in the last two years—about his incredible history in electronic music and the technical steps he took to get to where he is today. Ferry’s been producing since 1995. That’s twenty years of shaping the world of trance and electronic music as a whole. This being our fourth hour of interviews, Ferry and I brought the focus to production and the studio, covering the technical aspects of digital audio and music theory.
What hard synths are you using these days?
I have a few in my studio that I don’t use very much; funnily enough, I connected everything again for Gouryella. Just to get the old sounds out of it. I have the Andromeda, Nord Rack 3, JP8000, Roland XV3080. In terms of my favorite, it’s a tough decision between my Nord Rack and the JP8000. A lot of it is sentiment, really. The big tracks were all made on those. But in terms of go-to synths, it’s Nexus. It’s super easy. It may not have the sound that I want to use eventually, but it’s a matter of finding a preset, play around, and find the melody that you want.
In the last five years, what track are you most proud of producing?
Anahera. It’s really fresh, maybe that’s why. It took me a week to produce.
Tell us about the progression in your production.
For me, I always start with melody. Or, in a weird case, a crazy groove or something. But usually melody. My music is very melody-centered. All on Cubase. I tried Logic for two weeks and it drove me nuts. I’ve always used Cubase, ever since Atari. I was always on PC. I was using Cubase VST3 when Logic 5 came out—which was really advanced with the audio side of things—so I went to Logic for a bit. Then they stopped supporting PC. For me Logic was the most illogical program there is. If you just want to have your measures in sixth twelfths… in Cubase it’s just 16T or 8T, you can swing them out 50%… stuff like that. Then Cubase came out with SX and I went back.
Do you prefer working solo in the studio?
It’s nice to bounce ideas off of one another, but after a while I just want my time. I’m absolutely neurotic. Everything has to be concise. Sometimes I get stems from people and it’s just a mess. And I’m like, “how can you work like that?” Maybe I’m OCD with that; it needs to be super clean. When I’m with someone it’s nice to spit out the ideas. After that, let me be.
Do producers work faster as a duo?
Producing together works quickly. It’s like a contest. You come up with one idea, the other one builds off of that. When it doesn’t work, I’m better off alone.
What was the breakthrough year for you?
The end of 1998. In ’96 I was just coming out of school, I studied to become an electrical engineer. I was still living at home, in my parents’ place, and I said, “you know what? Give me a year, I just want to give this a chance. Until I become financially independent.” Within a year, I realized this was going the right way. I produced “Out of the Blue” and that sort of changed the whole trance scene. All of a sudden I was flying all over the world, DJing everywhere, and that was the end of ’98.
What method helped you learn how to produce the best?
For some reason I’ve always had a good ear for melody, although I never studied music. I can find any complex melody, the chords, progression eventually, but it’s not like I just lay it down like that. Unfortunately. I wish I could. I took piano lessons after a while. I thought maybe I should get some of the theory behind what I’m actually doing here. So I took piano lessons with a friend of mine; after half a year he took me aside and said, “I need to talk to you. What my advice is to do your own thing. Because I’m going to put you in a box. I might close your mind up. I’m going to tell you how it should be done. Right now you have no notion of that—you just do whatever you feel. You will start following the rules and forgetting the whole way of free thinking.” So I heeded that advice. But eventually, over time, you learn the theory anyway.
How have you seen the world of production change in the last twenty years?
I started out on the Atari. I’ve seen the world change a lot, and in a way it’s a necessary evil (if that’s the right way of saying it); before all the software and all the amazing plugins you have now, and all the endless possibilities, you were limited to what you had there. It cost a ton of money. You had to buy a hardware synthesizer, a sequencer, a drum computer, effect rack… it was really expensive. So you were limited to two or three synths, a sampler… and with that you just make the magic. You played a melody, put effects on it, and you feel it, the momentum, beats, you sample some stuff, bang, go, mix it down. Done. Right? I made “Punk” in four hours. The melody, beats, boom boom boom, really quick. But nowadays with all the amazing plugins out there, the possibilities are endless. So where does it end? You’re sitting there tweaking and fine-tuning; if you’re not careful your track will never be finished. You’ve really got to know what you’re doing. Not to overproduce. Or underproduce. It’s a lot tougher now to produce. Easier in a way, but tougher in others.
If you had to restart your career right now, what five steps would you take to get to where you are now?
I would be YouTube’s best friend. That’s your biggest mentor. I’m still learning. It’s great to see how other people work, especially when you watch tutorials of producers that do rock bands or whatever; they look at things from a very different perspective. Or other DJs. How do they compress a snare, is there anything else they do differently than I do? Oh, that’s a clever trick. I don’t necessarily have go-to tutorial makers that I watch; at this point in my career I just search for the particular method or skill I’m trying to learn. There’s some really clever stuff out there. I was watching a tutorial of a producer who was making heavy bass stuff—drum and bass and dubstep, you know—the way they compress their drums is so different from how we do it. I knew about tuning your kick drum, but these guys were tuning their snares and everything else, and I was like, “oh wow, I never thought of that.” So that’s what I’m doing now as well. If I’m not sure what tune my kick drum is in I’ll use FabFilter Pro 2; if you look at the analyzer the highest peak is the key, so I can see it’s in G or something, but sometimes it’s unclear and if I really don’t know I just use Melodyne to analyze it for me. Nowadays, especially with dance music being so dependent on that tuned kick, the best tuned kicks are basically F, F#, and G. That’s why you find a lot of these tracks in that range of keys, you get the biggest punch.
As always, many thanks to Rephlektor and Electric Zoo for making this discussion possible.