The mainstream media made a big deal about the breakthrough of electronic dance music (EDM) at the 2012 Grammy Awards and how the genre has crossed over to pop, hip-hop, R&B, and even rock (such as Korn’s recent collaboration with dubstep’s Skrillex). But for those who have been fans of EDM for the last five, ten, or even 20 years this was not news but rather continuing affirmation that the genre has long been far more popular than the media ever realized.
Tiësto is one of a handful of superstar DJs who have dominated dance music over the last ten years. The Dutch DJ, remixer, and record producer played a significant role in bringing EDM out of underground clubs and into the mainstream, producing bestselling mix collections and popular tracks and playing to massive audiences in nontraditional settings. Tiësto's performance at the 2004 Olympics opening ceremony in Athens, Greece, presented dance music to an estimated television audience of billions worldwide. During his Elements of Life tour, Tiësto performed in large arenas and outdoor venues where his audiences regularly numbered in the tens of thousands, including his largest audience ever at a show at Rio De Janiero's Ipanema Beach where the crowd was estimated at about 250,000 attendees.
Tiësto (born Tijs Michiel Verwest) started spinning records as a DJ in the Netherlands during the early Eighties when he was only 12. By the mid Eighties when most other DJs were playing new wave, synthpop, or early hip-hop, Tiësto focused on acid house music from Chicago and London as well as Belgian New Beat records. Eventually he started playing six-hour sets every weekend at a club called The Spock in Breda, near the Netherlands southern border with Belgium. During the mid Nineties Tiësto started producing his own tracks, which he released on numerous independent record labels like Noculan, Basic Beat, and Lightning. In 1997 Tiësto and Arny Bink formed Black Hole Recordings, which released Tiësto's Magik and In Search of Sunrise (on Black Hole's SongBird sub label) series of mix compilations.
By the late Nineties Tiësto was spinning primarily trance and progressive house music, which was beginning to dominate the growing dance music scenes in Europe and the US. In 1999 he teamed up with fellow Dutch DJ Ferry Corsten to record several tracks and remixes as Gouryella. "Gouryella," "Wallhalla," and "Tenshi" were huge club hits that appeared on numerous mix compilations, and their remix of Binary Finary's "1999" became the unofficial theme of the New Millennium celebration, played by DJs on that New Year's Eve in packed clubs in Berlin, London, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Sydney.
Tiësto's big breakthrough came in 2000 when the US record label Nettwerk released his Summerbreeze compilation featuring his remix of Delerium's "Silence," which topped dance charts in the UK and US. The following year Tiësto released his first solo album, In My Memory, which featured five songs that became worldwide dance club hit singles, including "Flight 643" and "Suburban Train." Thanks to the success of these records, by 2002 Tiësto had become one of the world's top-drawing DJs, earning the #1 spot in DJ magazine's Top 100 DJs poll for three consecutive years (2002-2004). In US cities like Miami and Los Angeles, his appearances attracted a Beatlemania-like frenzy of crowds that filled clubs beyond capacity and left thousands of fans stranded outside.
To accommodate his growing following, Tiësto began booking shows in arenas and stadiums starting with a solo performance in front of 25,000 at Arnhem's GelreDome on May 10, 2003. The following year he released his second album, Just Be, which also delivered five singles, including "Traffic" and a reworking of classical composer Samuel Barber's "Adagio For Strings." More bestselling mix compilations and tours to South America, Asia, Eastern Europe, and South Africa followed.
In 2007 Tiësto released his third album, Elements of Life, followed by his most ambitious tour to date, which took him out on the road for over a year playing 106 shows in six continents. The production for the Elements of Life world tour included numerous high-definition video screens, synchronized water fountains, pyrotechnics, liquid CO2 cryogenic jets, and state-of-theart lighting and sound systems that depicted earth, water, fire, and air. The production was previously unheard of for a DJ, and it even was more spectacular and elaborate than many top rock and pop act's shows.
More recently, Tiësto released a fourth studio album, Kaleidoscope, in 2009 and started his own new label, Musical Freedom, for releasing his singles and mix compilations as well as recordings by new artists he discovered. Like many of today's top DJs, he's branched out into collaborations with pop and hip-hop artists, producing the track "Feel It" for Three 6 Mafia. Last year he released the Club Life: Volume One Las Vegas compilation featuring the club hit "C'Mon (Catch 'Em By Surprise)" by Tiësto Vs. Diplo and the studio album Kiss From the Past under the pseudonym Allure. The Club Life College Invasion Tour saw Tiësto embark on a two-week tour of colleges across the United States, culminating in a sold out performance at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles, where Tiësto performed to 26, 000 fans—the largest single DJ show in US history. With over 11 million friends on Facebook, close to 1 million followers on Twitter, and 300 million hits on YouTube, it's not surprising that in 2011, dance music and club culture magazine, Mixmag voted Tiësto "The Greatest DJ Of All Time."
While Tiësto's productions and DJ sets have embraced the harder sounds of electro in recent years, he still retains much of his signature trance sound as well, characterized by strong melodic lines, lush, sophisticated productions, and intricate rhythms. A bigger change is the technology that Tiësto employs in the DJ booth, partly necessitated by the recent discontinuation of the legendary Technics SL-1200 turntables that most DJs relied on over the last three decades.
"Technology has changed a lot over the last ten years," says Tiësto. "New equipment like computer software and MP3 players have made DJing so much more accessible for everybody. Electronic music has become bigger than ever worldwide. I think that's because the music and the technology is now easier to access than ever."
While Tiësto abandoned the burden of performing with crates of vinyl records and turntables long ago, he still favors CD players over newer computer-based technology like Serato Scratch, Native Instruments TRAKTOR, or Ableton Live. "I actually don't even play CDs anymore," he admits. "I play SD cards that I load into the CD player. I feel that using DJ software on a laptop can make you lazy because you don't have to do much of anything anymore. You just push the play button and it's all good. I still like the interaction of cueing up tracks on a Pioneer CDJ."
When asked to identify the magic ingredient that's crucial to his performance in the DJ booth, Tiësto does not hesitate to name a crucial but often overlooked piece of gear—headphones. Tiësto recently joined forces with AKG to design a collection of headphones made specifically for his discriminating needs.
"I think that the headphones we developed are going to be a game-changer," says Tiësto. "I started wearing them a couple of months ago to test drive them. I wanted the sound quality to be as good as possible, and I also wanted them to be very durable. I'm on the road nearly every day, so I need headphones that are tough, can handle a lot of abuse, and last a long time. And I wanted them to look very stylish. These headphones are designed for all music lovers—from DJs to iPod users and laptop listeners—who want the best sound quality. These headphones look amazing and sound amazing."
"Electronic music has become bigger than ever worldwide. I think that's because the music and the technology is now easier to access than ever." - Tiësto
While most DJ headphones are designed to deliver high output levels so they can be heard over the booth monitors and exaggerated bass for matching kick drums, Tiësto's AKG headphones deliver clear, well-defined sound that help DJs match melodic keys and crisp, fast transients that make it easier to tighten up percussive parts. Just as AKG's K240M headphones have become standards in pro and home recording studios, Tiësto hopes that the high-end reference DJ model of his new headphone collection will become a new standard for DJs.
Another reason why Tiësto wanted the sound quality to be as good as possible is because he often uses the headphones he wears in the booth to listen to tracks that he records while he's on tour. "I have a portable studio that I bring with me on the road," he says. "I can also log into my home studio while I'm on the road. I can actually control my home studio from any hotel room with an Internet connection. Being able to work on a track during the day and play it later that night is a huge advantage. Ten years ago when I was still spinning vinyl you had to wait three to six weeks to get a 12-inch single pressed. Now everything is much more immediate."
Tiësto's studio is well stocked with pro audio processors and hardware synths, including his favorites—an Access Virus and Alesis Andromeda—but he says that many of the producers who provide him with the songs that he plays during his sets have surprisingly modest setups.
"It's so easy to make music nowadays with inexpensive software," he says. "That's a great way to start producing your own tunes. A lot of DJs start with loop collections. That's how I suggest most people should start. If you like it you can move on to more advanced software. Producers like Afrojack and Ellesse use some of the cheapest software ever and they make great hits. You don't need to have a fancy, expensive studio anymore."
While Tiësto has enjoyed working on a handful of high-profile projects like his collaboration with Three 6 Mafia, he generally prefers to work with other dance music artists or new talent. "If I were to work with someone like Rihanna, all of the credit would go to her," he explains. "I prefer to work with new artists that don't have a history yet so the credit goes to everyone involved with the project instead of just a few people. I just did a song with the singer from New Navy, which is a band from Australia, and with a singer-songwriter from L.A. named Luciana. She came up to me on the street and told me she'd like to work with me. I gave her my email address, and she sent me some vocals that I loved. I love it when things come together spontaneously like that."
In addition to working on his own tracks, collaborating with new artists, and touring all over the world, Tiësto also hosts weekly radio broadcasts of his Club Life program (available on Sirius and XM satellite radio as well as iTunes podcasts) and provides fans with exclusive videos, music, and photos via his "In The Booth" subscription website and mobile app. He also plans on launching a 24/7 commercial-free music channel on Sirius XM called Tiësto's Club Life Radio later this year featuring music selected by Tiësto himself. Because his busy touring schedule allows his fans to see his shows only once or twice a year when he comes to town, his radio shows and "In the Booth" website and app allow him to stay in contact more frequently.
"I developed 'In the Booth' to show people my life on the road and what was happening behind the scenes," Tiësto explains. "It's an experimental thing that I wanted to try doing. I didn't want to do the whole reality show kind of thing—that's a little too intense. This is just my life, which seems very normal to me. People seem to love it, and I find that exciting. It's given me inspiration to do much more in the future."