Darude’s 1999 dance hit has taken on an extensive and often surprising life of its own.
Described by its creator Ville Virtanen AKA Darude as “one of the best‑known unknown tracks in the world”, enormous 1999 dance hit ‘Sandstorm’ may not be easily identifiable through its name alone. Nonetheless, its distinctively hooky and percussive, 16ths‑paced synth top line (Da‑da‑da‑da‑daa!) is recognisable the world over, not least through its heavy usage outside of the club scene, in films and video games and at sports events.
The wholly instrumental ‘Sandstorm’ was an international hit upon its release (reaching the Top 10 in 11 countries), but its appeal has proved enduring. More than 20 years on, its YouTube plays now top a staggering 190 million. However, the secret to its success remains something of a mystery to Finnish producer Virtanen himself. “My automated response for this is, ‘If you tell me, I’m gonna make a couple more,’” he laughs.
“There’s something about its simplicity,” he goes on. “Then there’s a lot of energy in it, and there’s no lyrics that could ruin it for somebody. It has very solid, good, easy drums. The beats are just strong. And, in the radio edit, from the first build on, it has the arpeggio that brings it tons of energy.
“So, I don’t know what the answer is,” Virtanen accepts. “It’s just some of those things I mention. But why such a big wide audience globally has taken to it, I have no fricking clue.”
Like many of the biggest dance hits of the ’90s, thanks to the proliferation during that decade of cheaper home programming setups, ‘Sandstorm’ began life as a bedroom‑made track.
As a teenager growing up in Eura, south-western Finland, Virtanen’s cousin had introduced him to the synth soundscapes of Jean‑Michel Jarre (particularly his 1981 album, Magnetic Fields). Virtanen’s interest in electronic music was further piqued when he discovered European dance music, particularly Italo Disco.
Then, when studying telecommunications at Turku Polytechnic, he discovered that it was possible to make electronic music of his own on a PC, using the rudimentary FastTracker 2 software program. “I was quite a late bloomer because I started making music when I was around 19‑years‑old,” he points out. “I sort of thought that I couldn’t make music because I didn’t have a live playing ability. But then I still loved music.
“So, when I started studying at this new school in Turku, a couple of new friends introduced me to tracker software. All of a sudden, literally over the course of a couple of days, I started hearing everything layered. I started realising that music is not this one big blob that you either like or not, and that’s it. I started hearing what it’s made of, like, single hi‑hats and claps and bass and piano. And I realised that I could do it myself.”
Virtanen took a scholarly approach to dance music, breaking down tracks by his favourite artists into their constituent parts. When it came to ‘Sandstorm’, the inspiration was a track by German DJ and production team, Sash!
“What I was doing in the beginning, I was taking other people’s tracks and studying them meticulously,” he explains. “I used to make these paper charts where I had four and eight and 16 or whatever bars. Like a DAW, basically, but on paper. I was analysing a track by Sash! and then recreating it with similar sounds, but different melodies.
“There’s a middle part on the track where there’s a rhythmic 16th‑type of similar thing that you hear in ‘Sandstorm’, except it wasn’t distorted. But the idea was sort of the same. I kind of copied the idea of the 16ths. The rhythm was different, but it was similar — like, short note, short note, long note, whatever it was.
“At that point, it didn’t sound I would say at all like the ‘Sandstorm’ lead because I was using a similar sound that the Sash! track had. It was a pretty crappy, dull 303‑ish, filter‑half‑closed mono eight‑bit sample, and quite unassuming.”
Virtanen filed the idea away with the many others he’d been messing around with and pretty much forgot all about it. “It didn’t go anywhere,” he says. “It didn’t inspire me at that point. I did end up creating the whole ‘Sandstorm’ riff, but I didn’t have chords for it. I just had the ‘Da‑da‑da‑da‑daa’ with a sound in FastTracker, and some other sounds, like a piano and a simple hi‑hat and clap.”