Laptops, loops and layers are the tools that have taken Oliver Heldens to the forefront of the future house genre.
Six of the top 10 artists in DJ magazine's Top 100 for the year 2018 were from the Netherlands, including chart-topper Martin Garrix, Hardwell, Armin van Buuren, Tiesto and Afrojack, with the name Oliver Heldens appearing at number eight. Still only 24, Heldens is one of a new wave of Dutch EDM stars who is following up the breakthroughs made by van Buuren and Tiesto. Born in Rotterdam in 1995, he's a digital native who is equally at home in pop music or a swathe of EDM subgenres.
"Before I began producing, I played piano and keyboards," Helden recalls, "but when I started producing on computers, I stopped playing eventually. I now just click in the melodies and chords as they pop up in my head. So there's no need to play keyboards anymore. When I hear a classical music composition, I can easily click in the notes and just remake the composition. It's the same when I have a musical idea: it only takes a few minutes to enter the melody and chords with a mouse. But I do think that playing piano in the beginning helped."
The teenage Heldens became very adept at this way of working, and major success came when he signed to the Dutch label Spinnin' Records at the age of 18, on the basis of his song 'Gecko'. Released in late 2013, it made some inroads in Holland and neighbouring countries. Half a year later, a new version called 'Gecko (Overdrive)', featuring British singer Becky Hill, was far more successful, reaching number one in the UK. It was a meteoric rise for the Dutch teenager, helped by the fact that Spinnin' was the happening label in the newly hot EDM genre.
Heldens recalls how he got swept up: "When I was 11, I got into dance music and house music in particular. I was buying compilations of this music and afterwards I fell in love with jumpstyle and hardstyle. I adored people like Fedde Le Grand, Laidback Luke, Chris Lake, Green Velvet and so on. When I was 12, I discovered electro house and club. I went to high school and they threw really big school parties where they booked people like Hardwell and Chuckie. From that moment onwards I wanted to make music myself. A neighbour friend who was a little older was already producing things using Fruity Loops, and he showed me what he was doing, and we'd dance to his music!
"I downloaded Fruity Loops and started making beats on that as well. Because I had the demo version, I could not save what I was making, so every time I made something I'd export a little bit of a part. I'd be exporting all the different parts, like in bits of seven or 15 seconds of audio, and I'd then pull everything together in Windows Movie Maker. That was my first experience of making beats. In the very beginning, I was only working with samples, but by the time I was 15 I got more serious, and was reading about beat-making and started watching tutorials. I went in-depth and got the full version of FL Studio. That's when I discovered all these virtual instruments, like Sylenth, and Native Instruments Massive and reFX Nexus."
Three years after getting "serious" Heldens had found a record deal and major success. While he never equalled the chart success of 'Gecko' and 2014's 'Last All Night (Koala)', the young Dutchman has become a major player on the international music scene, his releases under his own name being very successful on various online streaming platforms. In addition, Heldens spread his wings in other directions as well. He started his own Heldeep record label, released songs under the name HI-LO (Oli H backwards), and has remixed tracks by the likes of Martin Garrix, Coldplay, Calvin Harris, the Chainsmokers, Katy Perry, David Guetta and Chic. Heldens is also a regular performer at the world's biggest EDM festivals, and this year he signed with RCA, marking a new chapter in his musical adventures.
As his music goes global, however, Heldens himself has returned to his origins — specifically, his old room in his parents' house. "Yes, I'm back in Rotterdam, in my old bedroom! We completely rebuilt it to make it sound really good. For me it doesn't matter where I work, because I just work in my laptop, entirely in digital. My monitors are the old Genelec 1030A's, and I have a sub. I also have a four-way monitoring system from Eve, the big ones. The two systems sound very different, with the Eves more open-sounding, while everything sounds more together in the Genelecs. My soundcard is the Prism Sound Lyra, I don't know how many inputs or outputs it has, and I have the Mackie Big Knob that the monitors and soundcard plug into, so I can select the monitors.
"My dad is a big synthesizer and audio freak, and he has things like a Minimoog, a Hammond and a Fender Rhodes. A few years ago I had his Minimoog in my studio, which has a really sick sound. Right now, I'm playing around with a Casio Casiotone 405, which is really fun. But I don't really use hardware synths in my tracks. For me it is not really practical. I prefer to use digital stuff, inside my laptop."
Elaborating about the goings-on inside his laptop, Heldens says, "I use Windows and a Mac right now. But Fruity Loops works better on Windows. I haven't tried the Mac version of Fruity Loops yet, but just got a new PC laptop, an HP, with the best drivers, and four TB of storage space. I see a lot of people around me working on Macs, but I don't think it matters what platform you work on. I still use Fruity Loops. I am very happy with it, though I saw some other people using PreSonus Studio One, and that appeared to me like the future of music software. I also have it now, and want to switch over to using it, but because I am so used to working in Fruity Loops, and it fits my workflow, I haven't switched to Studio One yet.
"In terms of plug-ins, I like the parametric EQ and Gross Beat in Fruity Loops. Gross Beat is really useful for side-chaining. Nowadays you have all those LFO plug-ins and the Kickstart plug-in by Cableguys and Nicky Romero, and they kind of do the same thing, but I still like to use Gross Beat. For reverbs I love to use Valhalla. I still use the three synths I mentioned above — Sylenth, Massive and Nexus — but at the moment I also love Xfer's Serum, and Native Instruments' Kontakt for more organic sounds. Spectrasonics' Keyscape also has really good sounds, and I like to use Native Instruments' Guitar Rig. I spend a lot of time doing sound design, though I don't mind using presets. If I find a sound I like, I'm happy to use it.
"In a lot of cases I layer sounds. For example, in a song like 'Gecko', the sound that you are hearing is not a bass sound, but a mid-range sound and a high sound, which is layered with a bass sound. When I do have bass and sub-bass sounds I tend to use Sylenth, Nexus or Serum, which are my go-to plug-ins for bass sounds. In a number of tracks, I use just 808 kicks, which I will put through Guitar Rig, like a big guitar amp, and this will create a huge bass sound. Sylenth is great for creating clean sub sounds."
Of his writing process, Heldens says, "It varies a lot. I don't really have a particular way of working or one specific thing that I always start with. Sometimes I start with a melody, sometimes with chords, sometimes with a bass sound, sometimes with a rhythm, sometimes a vocal. Anything can be a beginning, and then you work from there, adding the other parts of an arrangement as needed. I tend to create like 140 songs a year, which is a lot!"
Over the last year, Heldens has released four singles: 'Fire In My Soul' (featuring Shungudzo), 'This Groove' (with Lenno), 'Summer Lover' (featuring Devin and Nile Rodgers), and 'Cucumba' (with Moguai), and at the time of writing he was about to release a track called 'Turn Me On', a collaboration with UK beatmaker Riton featuring singer Vula.
Collaborative writing is the norm these days, and Heldens describes his approach thus: "Both 'This Groove' and 'Fire In My Soul' started during writing sessions with other musicians. For 'This Groove' I was in Sonic Vista Studios in Ibiza with Lenno, a Finnish producer, and the singer, JHart. We wrote 75 percent of the song on the first day, and Lenno and I then created the production. Lenno uses Logic, so we sent files back and forth, adding stuff and changing things. I wanted to do something more clubby, more dancy, kind of inspired by the Studio Jack disco tracks. So I came up with the bass line melody, and then Lenno added the piano, and we carried on creating the entire track. We then worked with JHart, and he came up with some really fresh vocal hooks. For some reason the melody 'every time I hear this groove' [from the 1984 disco track 'Time To Move' by Carmen] kept sticking in my head, so we downloaded the a cappella and pitched it down, to make it fit with our track. It really worked.
"'Fire In My Soul' was written in LA, in a session with Warren 'Oak' Felder, who usually does more pop and urban productions, so that was an interesting combination. Oak works with two writer-producers, Trevor Brown and Zaire Koalo [a production and songwriting duo called The Orphanage], who were there, and we also had a really cool singer–songwriter in the studio called Alexandra Shungudzo Govere. I have been into African music lately, and Shungudzo is half Zimbabwean, and Oak is half-Turkish, and we started out showing each other all these African gems. This meant that we had a vibe when we started writing. Trevor played some chords, and then Oak and I created a bass line to that. We were all inspiring each other, and it happened really quickly. Shungudzo wrote the vocal hook and melodies in a really short time. The song was written on that day, and I then took it home to work on the production and make it more Heldens."
When 'Le Freak' turned 40, the record company wanted a big dance remix, and asked me to do it. That was a big honour for me!
One of Heldens' most memorable experiences was working with Nile Rodgers, one of his all-time heroes. "He has always been in the top of my list of people I want to work with, and two years ago I emailed him and sent him some of my ideas, and there was one song he really liked, and he wrote a song to it and played guitars over it. We didn't finish the track — I'm still working on it — but when 'Le Freak' turned 40, the record company wanted a big dance remix, and asked me to do it. That was a big honour for me!
"They sent me the stems, and I loaded everything in Fruity Loops. In most cases when I do a remix, I just use the vocal, and create an entirely new production, but in this case I wanted to use the guitars and strings as well. I wanted to remain true to the original and not turn it into a completely new track. I created a heavy bass line drop, which goes well with the original guitar and vocals.
"Nile and his team and the label were really happy with my remix, and they invited me to go into Abbey Road Studios in London. I did a few sessions with him there, with several different singers, like Rebecca Ferguson and Craig David. For the first session I had some instrumentals ready, and another session started with an idea Nile had for a song. He played the idea, and I hummed a cool bass line to it, and when he heard the bass line he started playing something different, and suddenly we had a completely new track with just his guitars and my bass line. I put the bass line in Fruity Loops, and within half an hour we had a completely new song, with really fresh vocals from Craig. Only one of the songs I have done with Nile has so far been released, 'Summer Lover', but we still have several other unreleased songs."
In general, Heldens seems to be branching out to slightly more traditional music industry activities, like writing in commercial studios with others, as opposed to alone in his bedroom, and also signing to RCA and further developing his Heldeep label. "I signed with RCA so they can release the crossover singles," the Dutchman explains. "I put the more club tracks out on Heldeep. 'This Groove' was released on Heldeep, but RCA might take it over. They call it upstreaming. Heldeep has been growing and growing, and last year we did many Heldeep events, like hosting a stage at various festivals. I have two guys working for me at Heldeep, and we also work together with Spinnin'. I also have a company called Noise House, which produces radio shows. Together we do the Heldeep Radio show every week. My brother is really helpful with that."
With club and pop song releases, remixes, his own label, a radio show and live performances, Heldens has his hands in many projects. It's how he likes it, he says, "I try to do many different things at the same time, though in the spring time I'm often focused on creating specific edits for my DJ sets at Ultra and other concerts. I do this in Fruity Loops. I do a lot of mashups. It's really fun to take a cool underground record and edit it in a way that makes it sound even better, and that works live. When I am on stage I use Denon CD players and a mixer.
"The winter is a time when many DJs are at home, and take time off from touring. During that time, I tend to go more into the studio and create tracks. I've been working on some solo Heldeep club records, but I also created many songs last year that need finishing. I'm focused on singles and tracks for Heldeep, but I may eventually do an album or EP, because I have so much music!"
There's a lot of snobbery and confusion about the term EDM, which is despised by many, and its hundreds of subgenres. Oliver Heldens is said to make future house, which is related to deep house, which itself is a subgenre of house music. Future house itself can be split in future bounce and future trance, and so on, and on. So what does Heldens make of this?
"I know they call what I do 'future house', but I don't really think about that. To categorise music in genres is very human, it is kind of how our brain is programmed, trying to put things into categories. It helps a lot of people to make it more overzichtelijk [a Dutch word meaning clear, structured or uncluttered]. But I just try to make the best tracks possible. I just try to make music that really excites me. I don't try to put myself in a corner too much. I don't really think that much in genres. In any case, there is so much music nowadays that is a hybrid of several subgenres, and the things that don't fit in one genre or one corner these usually are the best tracks. It's also what I try to do in my sets. I would never do a set with only future house. That would bore me, even though I love future house, of course. But I also like to put in some more techno or more electro stuff, or more disco house."