For Holland’s Joris Voorn, telling a musical story is the most important part of being a DJ.
It’s not the mixing skills or computer hocus-pocus, he’ll tell you, although he’s rather adept at both. It’s about a good selection of tracks and the instincts to use them correctly.
That fondness for music, or more specifically sounds, comes into sharper focus on his mind-blowing installment of EQ Recordings’ ongoing Balance series—Balance 014. The 103 tracks listed on the packaging don’t represent some warped more-is-more philosophy; they’re merely his arsenal for stripping the overall presentation to its vitals—Richie Hawtin’s Decks, Effects & 909-style—and re-conceptualizing them as a new kind of artist album.
As such, Balance 014’s two CDs don’t behave like a normal high-profile DJ mix where new-ish singles are paraded along a linear conveyor belt with big anthems inserted in all of the appropriate places for maximum commercial response. Instead, Voorn weaves an epic tale that expands across the visible spectrum of dance music with nods to electro, Italo-house, and the deep techno for which he is best known.
The sonic adventurousness hardly ends there, with otherworldly explorations on the second CD moving far away from dance music or even the adjunct world of ambient. Here he introduces a sky’s-the-limit production manifesto that rubs elbows squarely with more mainstream acts like Apparat or even Radiohead, all in the name of a good story. The whole thing ends up being a giant paean to Voorn’s love of technology with a storyline firmly rooted in his intimate knowledge of techno’s Detroit pioneers.
From Balance 014, it’s clear that few in the modern world of techno have explored the genre’s limitless possibilities and parlayed it into such an artistic success. Yet, amazingly, Voorn claims that much of this aural masterpiece was created by simple accident as he trekked his way across uncharted musical terrain in search of his best story yet.
We caught up with the Amsterdam-based Joris Voorn as he prepared to re-visit America, where he’d play an exclusive set at Miami’s “Sunday School for Degenerates” party during Winter Music Conference week. We talked tech, DJing and the changing face of techno.
DJ Times: Were there any other mixes in this vein by other artists that were used as a benchmark or influence in creating this unique Balance compilation?
Joris Voorn: Not really to be honest, not even [Richie] Hawtin’s DE9 series directly, although he worked on them in a similar way. I tried to start “carte blanche” just to see where the music would take me. In this way, I was able to come up with something that surprised myself with every mix or edit on the CDs.
DJ Times: There are loops from 100 different tracks on this compilation—licensing must have been difficult. Tell me a little bit about how this concept for the Balance CD came together.
Voorn: The Balance mix CD has been quite a project for me. I didn’t have the intention to make it this big when I started, but things got out of hand while working [on it]. I also hadn’t planned for a 100-plus track list, but being able to bring in many different tracks, elements, and samples along the way. It was a very inspiring way to work for me. At first, I worked on a more traditional DJ mix, but the selection of tracks I had decided on didn’t lead to a satisfying mix, so I went back to the studio and started again from scratch, using some of the original tracks and adding many others along the way.
DJ Times: How did you determine which parts of each track you would extract your sounds from, and what is the range of time for the duration of the loops you chose?
Voorn: I was DJing with Traktor next to my Ableton setup, trying to see what tracks, loops, or samples would fit in the mix best. In this way, things developed organically. Then I just listened to how things would match best—sometimes [it was] the complete track, other times just a loop or a sample. I had no rules in this process—it was all trial-and-error.
DJ Times: Tell me a little bit about how you edited and mixed each of the parts into the tracks that make up this mix and what kind of gear and software you used?
Voorn: I used Ableton Live as my main sequencer and arranger. With Universal Audio plug-ins I created my own DJ EQ, like on a normal DJ mixer. I inserted these on all eight or nine audio tracks in the Ableton file and tweaked them manually using automation later. I also had a reverb and delay unit to insert effects in the project. I used a JazzMutant Lemur MIDI controller to make a template in which I could fit all the controllers I needed. In the end, I exported all audio channels and reworked them in [Steinberg’s] Cubase to finalize things here and there and work on the sound quality a bit more.
DJ Times: Do you use any other hardware to augment your software in the studio?
Voorn: The only hardware I used for the project was the Lemur MIDI controller. On other projects I still do use some hardware here and there, but mostly all software. I did buy a good microphone recently, though—as well as a bass and electric guitar—to get some more organic sounds.
DJ Times: Tell me a little bit about your studio approach and your approach to DJing.
Voorn: Things are quite different, as onstage you never get a second chance. Things have to be done right in one take, so my setup is a lot simpler and more hands-on. I have a lot of effects and looping options available, though, so I can do edits on the fly, which is great. In the studio, things are practically unlimited. Though these days, this is pretty scary and intimidating sometimes....
DJ Times: You mention using a simpler set-up in the booth when DJing. Is this important to you? You also talk about re-editing on the fly as well. How much of your typical DJ performance is comprised of these live edits?
Voorn: You have to keep things simple enough so as not to lose control on stage and to be able to keep the crowd dancing. Sometimes it’s also easier to make the edit beforehand in the studio, and play it out like that. The real-time edits are more like catching a loop of something, and skipping forward and backward in a track—so nothing too difficult. In my sets, I’m constantly looping and skipping these days.
DJ Times: What kind of gear do you prefer in the club?
Voorn: I like mixing on a Pioneer DJM-800 because of its great filter section, the classic three-way EQ, and relatively short faders. Then I have my Apple Macbook Pro running Traktor Pro in combination with an Allen & Heath Xone 2D mixer and a Jazzmutant Lemur touch-screen MIDI controller. It’s a nice setup that allows me to be in control of many parameters of Traktor.
DJ Times: There are a lot of sounds and genres on this mix, but what’s really noticeable is the range of quiet musical passages of non-dance oriented material. Tell me about the challenges of incorporating more organic sounds, like guitars and vocalists, into the mix. How was it accomplished?
Voorn: These elements are found mostly in the second CD, which is the slower, more crossover, and experimental of the two. I tried creating an exciting flow in which things happen all the time—there are lots of surprises and mood swings. In that sense, it’s less about the continuous flow, but more about the different colors and sounds. For me, this was very inspiring to work on and to create something I had never really done before. It was like making one of these compilation tapes I used to make when I was 16....
DJ Times: Which DJs do you appreciate and why?
Voorn: I used to always be a big fan of Derrick May’s eclectic style of mixing disco, house and techno—very funky and booty shaking. Richie Hawtin was another favorite, but in a different way. I really liked his long journeys with lots of deep, driving basslines, working towards euphoric breaks.
DJ Times: Who are your favorite producers?
Voorn: My all-time favorite producer of electronic dance music is without a doubt Carl Craig. I used to like Jeff Mills a lot as well, but he’s been silent for a while now. Basic Channel’s Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus have also been high on my list.
DJ Times: And today?
Voorn: Easily accessible software has created a revolution in producing electronic dance music the last few years, so there are many new producers that bring a fresh new sound to the scene, things have really changed. Today, I like music from artists like Stimming & H.O.S.H., Jimpster, Ripperton, Yagya—too many to mention really. Just have a look at my Balance 014 track list.
DJ Times: Tell me about a couple clubs you really like and what makes them so special for you?
Voorn: Two of my favorite clubs are Womb in Tokyo, Japan, and the Sub Club in Glasgow, Scotland. Womb is great because of the great sound system, but even more because it has the best audience in the world. Sub Club is a very intimate club with a crazy and outrageous audience that makes every party a highlight of the year. Another essential club is, of course, Berghain in Berlin, Germany. It’s dark and industrial, almost like a techno church with its high ceiling and big concrete pillars.
DJ Times: What do you believe makes for a great DJ-mix comp, as opposed to the generic “toss-in-some-big-tracks” kind of thing?
Voorn: Original track selection is of great importance—not too many hits, as they will be featured on many other CDs as well. A good flow and “storyline” is essential, too. Mixing has to be good, but doesn’t need to be flawless in my opinion. One of my favorite mix CDs is Kevin Saunderson’s X-Mix: Transmission from Deep Space Radio [Studio !K7, 1997], which is far from perfect, but it has lots of character.
DJ Times: It seems that the state of techno music is strong and that it’s currently making further inroads in America. Would you agree with that or is it becoming fractured by the sporing of digital labels and countless micro scenes?
Voorn: For me the word “techno” has lost its meaning a little, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily. My own music has influences from many genres of electronic dance music and is a bit softer than it used to be—and therefore, maybe less techno—although I think techno is more in the soul of the music and the way it’s performed than in the BPMs. The mix of many genres and subgenres creates interesting crossover music, and people today are open to listen to many different sounds. Techno has always had a strange place in American music history, I think. It was basically invented in Detroit, but it never got the recognition it deserved in its home country. Let’s hope for a better future!