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Martin Garrix: Superstar DJ

From Bedroom Producer To International Star By Paul Tingen
Published February 2021

Martin Garrix: Superstar DJPhoto: Louis van Baar

Martin Garrix’s extraordinary career has seen him graduate from bedroom producer to international star, label owner and proprietor of one of the world’s most advanced Dolby Atmos studios. He tells us how it happened.

The Martin Garrix story — his rapid progression from a small Dutch attic bedroom studio to worldwide fame when he was still only 17 — is a compelling one. Garrix broke through in 2013 with the track ‘Animals’, which reached number one in the UK. The instrumental version later became an EDM hit in its own right, and Garrix has enjoyed many more hits since, often working with other artists, among them Afrojack, Usher, Tiësto, Bebe Rexha, Ed Sheeran, Dua Lipa, David Guetta and Macklemore. His headline set at the closing ceremony of the 2018 Olympics, and three consecutive number‑one spots in the DJ Mag Top 100, further illustrate his dramatic rise to the top. Garrix also started a record company, STMPD RCRDS, and last year opened a huge studio complex in Amsterdam, STMPD Recording Studios (see box).

Today, at the age of 24, Garrix still can’t believe his luck. “It was indeed crazy,” he explains. “In a few weeks my entire life was turned upside down. And yes, it still feels bizarre. Of course, you get used to certain things, but I still have many moments when I have to pinch myself. For me it’s very important to share the especially surreal moments with friends and family. They remind me that what we’re experiencing together is very unusual, and this keeps me with my feet on the ground.”

Garrix’s real name is Martijn Gerard Garritsen, and his artist name, stylized as Mar+in Garrix, or +x, has become a global brand. Reflecting for a while longer on how he got to where he is, Garrix elaborated on some of his early influences. “I grew up in a musical family, with my dad playing guitar, my mother piano, and my sister violin and piano. I began by playing flamenco guitar. My first encounter with electronic music was when I saw a performance by Tiësto during the Olympic Games.”

By Their Fruits

Amazingly, that was in 2004, when Garrix was only eight years old. The experience changed his life: “The energy of Tiësto’s music immediately grabbed me, and I got myself FL Studio and started experimenting. So it began purely as a hobby. The support of my parents also was extremely important. If they had not believed in me, I would never have gotten to where I am now. They always supported me, also when I told them I wanted to attend the Herman Brood Academy. It was very inspiring to sit in classes where everybody had the same passion for music!”

The Herman Brood Academy is a secondary school in Utrecht, central Holland, where students enter around age 16 to receive both general education and in‑depth courses in all aspects of popular music, including studio production and live sound. Garrix is the most famous of several successful alumni. While he was at the Academy, FL Studio continued to be at the heart of his studio…

“FL Studio has been very important to me throughout my career and for my musical development. When I first started out on it, I learned by a lot of trial and error. You just experiment and try things. I also watched many YouTube videos, and learned from working with others. Every producer has his or her own tricks and ways of working. At the Herman Brood Academy I learned a lot about music, and mostly about certain studio techniques, which I still use.

“My first monitors were the KRK Rokit 5, and I initially worked simply with the internal soundcard of my PC in my attic bedroom. Later, after having saved up some money, I bought the KRK Rokit 6 monitors. There also was a house rule that I had to use headphones at night! But throughout, FL Studio has remained at the heart of what I do. I made it my own from day one, and I now have a very fast workflow in it. When I have an idea in my head, I can work it out immediately in FL Studio. It’s just a really enjoyable way of working!”

In Gear

Today, Garrix works mostly from his studio at his house. “I have big PMC MB3 XBD‑A monitors, and small Genelec 8351 monitors for nearfield. I worked for three years on the Genelecs, and I know them really well. They have a very truthful sound. For the rest I have a Sony C800G microphone, a Tube‑Tech CL‑1B compressor and a Neve 1073 mic pre. The combination of those three sounds great, and is almost an industry standard for pop vocals. An added advantage is that when you travel across the world and record in different studios, you often meet the same setup, and this of course makes it easier to combine recordings made at different times and different locations.

Garrix at work in STMPD Recording Studios.Garrix at work in STMPD Recording Studios.

“I have FL Studio and Pro Tools at my studio. I use the latter to record instruments and vocals, because I really enjoy recording and comping in that DAW. Especially vocal comping is very chill in Pro Tools. In FL Studio it’s about the workflow and the speed of programming. When you have an idea, you can see it as a canvas on which you’re going to paint. If you don’t work fast enough, the paint starts to dry, and you don’t want that. It’s the same with making music. It’s really important that you can sketch out the rough foundations quickly, and then you can later polish them. If you spend too much time on getting the rough ideas down, you can lose the magic.

“I really enjoy the piano roll in FL Studio, and draw my melodies in that. FL Studio is like an instrument for me. It also has some great plug‑ins, and is well organised. After I have recorded and comped vocals and instruments in Pro Tools, I render these things to audio, and then I import the audio into FL Studio, in which I mix and master the entire song. This workflow is very suited to my way of working. Previous versions of FL Studio had issues that I sometimes struggled with, but I’m in touch with the technical team behind the DAW, and all these problems have been fixed in the latest versions. The DAW is now just great.

In FL Studio it’s about the workflow and the speed of programming. When you have an idea, you can see it as a canvas on which you’re going to paint. If you don’t work fast enough, the paint starts to dry, and you don’t want that. It’s the same with making music.

“My favourite soft synth is Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2, which is incredible. It really sounds fantastic! It contains so many sounds, you never get bored with it. I also use Native Instruments Kontakt, because of the cool libraries which I use for my piano, strings and atmospheric samples. I always have the strings played live later on, though. I often use the Synapse Audio The Legend for bass sounds — it has a really warm analogue vibe! U‑he’s Diva also is cool, and I still use Lennar Digital’s Sylenth a lot.

“More recently, I record more analogue sounds at STMPD Recording Studios, because I can use hardware synths there like the Minimoog, Dave Smith Prophet Rev2 and Dave Smith OB‑6. It’s a different and wonderful way of working. In general, I am fascinated by analogue equipment, and we have quite a bit of it at the studio. It’s very impractical, but it’s cool to make music in a different way, where you can’t radically change things that you have recorded. I also think some analogue sounds cannot be imitated. Take the Moog. There are tons of plug‑ins that imitate it, but they don’t get close to the original. Of course, who knows whether listeners hear the difference, but I love experimenting with out‑of‑the‑box equipment.”

Home & Away

While STMPD Recording Studios offers Garrix a great alternative working space, he’s also made his home studio suitable for analogue recording. “I have tie‑lines at several places at my home, where I can plug in a microphone and record the signal directly in my studio. I love just picking up a guitar, press record, and start jamming. Later I listen back to judge what the magic moments were in those jams. Pretty much every track of mine now starts with me on either guitar or piano. I have a Yamaha C6 grand piano in my house, with microphones permanently set up to record it.

“In general, I like writing songs from scratch, whether alone or with others. I love working with other artists/songwriters. I have a tendency not to finish songs, because when I get stuck, it’s easier to just start a new song. But when you work together with someone this happens much less, because you are constantly inspiring each other. The great thing is that you can learn from each other in the studio, and you have to deal with other opinions and other ideas.

“When considering an artist for a collaboration, it is important for me that we resonate and get on. If there’s no connection it simply won’t work. Apart from that, all collaborations happened in very different ways and the processes also were very different. With some artists I spent days in the studio, and on the other hand, for example with my recent release ‘Fire,’ which I did with Elderbrook, we did everything via FaceTime and WhatsApp, because of Covid. Though I have to say that I prefer to be physically in the same place when I collaborate. It’s really very special to experience those magical moments together when you’re creating something cool.”

...with my recent release ‘Fire,’ which I did with Elderbrook, we did everything via FaceTime and WhatsApp, because of Covid. Though I have to say that I prefer to be physically in the same place when I collaborate.

Hit Parade

Garrix elaborated with examples of how some of his best‑known tracks came into being. First off: ‘Forbidden Voices’, a progressive house track released in 2015, fronted by a vocal sample melody, using the voice of Martina Sorbara of the band Dragonette. “I had an a cappella of which I liked the voice, but not the melody or lyrics. But I just loved the sound of the voice. So I reversed and pitched the a cappella in FL Studio, and then sliced it up, and started playing a melody, which I found almost hypnotic. Later, on a flight from Amsterdam to the Dominican Republic, I created the entire track. I eventually finished the track at home on my speakers, because I’d only worked on it with headphones. But most of the track was put together during that flight!”

‘Summer Days’, released in 2019, is a dance‑pop track featuring Macklemore and Patrick Stump, the lead singer of Fall Out Boy. “I had a rough instrumental idea lying around,” commented Garrix, “and then I did a session with Brian Lee [whose writing credits include Post Malone and Selena Gomez] and Jaramye Daniels [Beyoncé, Lukas Graham]. I came up with ‘I got this feeling on a summer day, know it when I saw her face.’ Soon afterwards I had scheduled a day with a bass player to work on another track, but thought that it might work to add a live element to ‘Summer Days'. We landed on that bassline, which became one of the most recognisable aspects of the song. That was really nice, especially because it wasn’t planned and came into being very spontaneously.

‘No Sleep’, also released in 2019, is another dance‑pop track with a big EDM drop, made with the Swedish singer‑songwriter Bonn. “‘No Sleep’ literally is about not being able to sleep,” wrote Garrix. “Bonn and I had just premiered our song ‘High On Life’ at the end of my set at Tomorrowland. We were so full of adrenaline about the great response, that we wrote the song in my hotel room. I had my guitar with me, and it really is a song that came out of excitement, inspiration and adrenaline.”

Released in 2020, ‘Higher Ground’ is a progressive house track featuring another Swedish singer/songwriter, John Martin. “This song was written from the beginning to the end with a piano,” noted Garrix. “Once we had every melody and lyric, we recorded it, put it in the computer, and created the production around it. It’s really great to see that every track started in a very different way. It’s one of the fun things about making music. There are no rules. You can get inspired in all sorts of ways.”

Finishing Touch

Finishing tracks is a big challenge for many beatmakers. Garrix explained that he’s no different, but that he nonetheless prefers to do this himself. “At the moment I do all the mixing and mastering of about 98 percent of my releases. We tried working with external mixers in the past, but we now do this only if I get stuck at the end stage, which is usually more to do with the sounds than the mixdown itself. From my perspective you can work out any mix, if you take enough time and organise it well. It’s like solving a puzzle, which you can do as long as you have the right pieces to get the mix to the level where you want it to be.

At the moment I do all the mixing and mastering of about 98 percent of my releases.

“In the beginning of working on a track it really is a matter of getting that painting down as quickly as possible, and then you can look at who you want to feature on the track, and which direction you want to take it. Only once that’s clear, and the label is OK with the track and wants to release it, do I go into finishing mode. So I have a lot of unfinished music, but that’s because finishing takes a lot of time if you want to do it correctly. I mix the vocals in Pro Tools, before doing the final mix in FL Studio. Plug‑ins that I use in Pro Tools are by Plugin Alliance, UAD, Sonnox, Valhalla, Soundtoys. I also love OTT by Xfer, and The Glue by Cytomic, which is a great‑sounding compressor.”

The loudness wars have long been a core feature of pretty much all pop and EDM music. Given that he masters his own music, what’s Garrix’s perspective? “I will not deny that I have really participated in this, in the beginning. For example, I pushed my track ‘Poison’ completely into loudness misery. On the other hand, that also was the sound at the time. It gave a lot of energy, and you got that pumping effect because it was completely pushed over the edge. Live, everyone thought that it sounded really big and fat.

“But I’m glad that the loudness wars appear to be coming to an end, because at some point there were no dynamics anymore. The thing is, you create emotion with dynamics. With real instruments, which I use a lot now, you need dynamics to make them sound beautiful and to do them justice. Personally I don’t mind whether tracks are more or less loud, as long as they have enough internal dynamics. Plus all the streaming services now push everything to have the same volume, so you might as well have more dynamics and allow the track to breathe.”

Viral Load

Garrix’s activities have expanded over the years to become extremely multifaceted, with him being an artist, producer, beatmaker, songwriter, engineer, mixer, mastering engineer, and a label and studio owner. He’s also extremely prolific, with a discography that to date consists of over 71 singles (some under pseudonyms like GRX and YTRAM), and four EPs. In addition, 47 music videos with Garrix as the lead artist have seen the light of day. With a YouTube channel with 14 million followers and featuring over 180 videos, and 16.4 million Instagram followers, he’s dominant in the social media landscape as well. Add 19 awards, and modelling and philanthropic activities, and one wonders when Garrix has time to sleep.

As well as being a successful producer and studio and label owner, Garrix is in high demand as a DJ.As well as being a successful producer and studio and label owner, Garrix is in high demand as a DJ.Photo: Louis van Baar

All this doesn’t even take into account another major aspect of his career, which is his DJ work, with him performing and often headlining many of the biggest EDM festivals around the world, amongst them Coachella, Electric Daisy Carnival, Ultra Music Festival, Tomorrowland, and Creamfields. As for every other live artist, this side of Garrix’s career came to a grinding halt in March 2019 because of the Covid‑19 crisis.

“Yes, Covid‑19 has turned my life completely upside‑down,” noted Garrix. “On one side there are moments when it was good for me. For example, I had a real holiday for the first time in years. I think the last time was before my breakthrough, so when I was 15. I also could spend a lot of time with family and friends, which was very valuable, and normally is quite tricky.

“On the other hand it is of course a really annoying situation, and I’m far from the worst affected. It is horrible to see how many leading music companies have had to fire people, and it remains to be seen how many companies will come through this OK. I really hope that we can perform again in 2021. That will be a moment that everyone will remember. The energy and freedom that we’ll all feel will be incredible!”  

Stamp Duty

Garrix’s STMPD Recording Studios is one of only nine facilities in the world to have a Dolby Atmos Premier Studio certificate.Garrix’s STMPD Recording Studios is one of only nine facilities in the world to have a Dolby Atmos Premier Studio certificate.

In addition to his many musical activities, Garrix has also diversified into business, setting up a record company and a studio, both using the STMPD brand, named after his dad’s stamp auction business. The renovations for STMPD Recording Studios were completed in 2020. It is an extremely ambitious project, consisting of eight studios, one of which is a film mix stage. Unusually, it has a Dolby Atmos Premier Studio certificate — one of only nine in the world.

“The entire process of creating the studio has been extraordinary,” elaborates Garrix. “The studio was known as FC Walvisch, where many famous artists have worked. I visited a few years ago because David Guetta always hired a room there. At that point I was still making music in my bedroom, and I was really impressed with the studio. I’d never seen anything like that! Years later I’m the owner. It’s bizarre.

“We decided to keep Studio 3 as it was, and we renovated the rest. Each room has its own vision and character. Just like at my place, the acoustics of the studios were done by Pinna Acoustics. In terms of gear, the studio is a hybrid of traditional studio and modern digital workflow. An example of the latter is that you need only one single USB cable to connect your laptop to all inputs and outputs of the Neve mixing desks, and you can automate the Neve with a plug‑in in your DAW.

STMPD Studio 4 comprises a control room based around a Neve Genesys, and a 45‑metre‑square live room.STMPD Studio 4 comprises a control room based around a Neve Genesys, and a 45‑metre‑square live room.

“The same people who did the interior of my home also designed the communal spaces and offices. For this reason it feels really warm and homely. The offices of STMPD RCRDS are above the studios, and of course many STMPD RCRDS artists work in the studio. The atmosphere is very special, like a big family. I also use the studios, because it’s a place where I like being, with tons of recording options. We recorded the gospel choir for my track ‘Dreamer’ there, for example.

“We want to give the songwriting and music production scenes in Amstedam a big boost with the studio, and also take the audio post‑production industry to a higher level. Already the studio is being used by very different types of artists, from big names to dance, pop and indie bands.

“We obviously were a bit apprehensive to see what effect Covid was going to have on the studios, but we can’t complain. Because of the government restrictions we cannot receive as many people at the same time, but bookings continue. The team had expected that the Mix Stage would need some time to start up, but it’s booked for quite some time in the future.”

Garrix founded his electronic dance label STMPD RCRDS in 2016. It now has over 60 acts, among them Brooks, Julian Jordan, Justin Mylo, DubVision, Dyro and, of course, Garrix himself. “I started the label with the idea of creating a music company that serves artists, and where artists are treated honestly. The focus really is on artists and their music. I often saw artists whose music I adored, but who totally did not get the attention they deserve. So I want to use my platform to give them a kickstart and the recognition they deserve.

“We don’t like putting music in boxes, and are open for all kinds of music, it doesn’t matter what sound or genre. STMPD RCDRS has a fantastic team that does everything from A&R to marketing, but I also join in when it comes to dealing with releases and our artists. And I often work with the artists who are on the label, because I think they’re really good and I’m a big fan!”

No Mistakes

For Martin Garrix it’s easy not to make mistakes, because, he says, “The great thing about music is that you can’t make mistakes! Is it really a mistake if you do something by accident, and it sounds great? I’ve often by accident loaded the wrong MIDI or the wrong sound, and I discovered that it worked and sounded excellent. There are tons of rules on how to use compression and EQ and other effects, but if it sounds good, it’s not wrong.

"For example, I had two different mastering chains for my track ‘Poison.’ I rendered the track and then played it live, and thought: ‘this sounds crazily big!’ Later I worked out that I had rendered both mastering chains at the same time! It was really a mega mistake, and normally speaking I would never have done that. But for this track it worked. It’s the only track for which it worked, and I would not recommend it. It is a perfect example of a mistake that gave a lot of energy to that track. So the question is: is it really a mistake? It’s more a discovery.”