Hardwell: Know No Bounds

It's a crisp November afternoon in Breda, Holland, about an hour outside of Amsterdam. This is the hometown of Hardwell – the place where he grew up as a lad. After the DJ extraordinaire greets us at his door with a smile, we make the descent down a staircase which leads to his main living quarters. Passing a pair of Pioneer CDJs and a plethora of awards along the way, we soon find ourselves at a purpose-built room which houses his brand new, state-of-the-art recording studio. It’s got more than a hint of the futuristic to it, with its bright white walls and floors. In fact, I’m half expecting a storm trooper or two to march in.

“[laughs] Yes, it is a bit like a spaceship, isn’t it? But I love that,” Hardwell says, and perches on his mixing chair. “Everything is always clean in here, and I like it that way. I went to Afrojack’s place recently, and it’s very homely, carpeted, and warm feeling, but I am so easily distracted, I needed white, so that my only distraction is my speakers; and that’s a good distraction!”

Hardwell played his first ever show here in Breda when he was just 12-years-old. It was somewhat unconventional, but enough to convince him that music was the future.

“It wasn’t even in a bar, it was in a dancing school! There were dancing lessons the whole night, except for the last hour, where I was allowed to play freestyle,” he laughs, reclining in his chair. “Then, by the time I was 18, I was studying at the Rock Academy, so I was always working on rock bands and singer- songwriter projects. That was some nine years ago, now.”

And a lot has happened in that time. Especially since 2009, when his bootleg of Show Me Love vs. Be raised more than a few eyebrows in the industry. The following year, he launched his own label, Revealed Recordings, which is the hub of his musical operation today, and caters for a whole string of musical genres. In addition to his own material, he mixes for bands, masters records, and works with many up-and-coming ‘bedroom’ producers. With all that in mind, I ask him if he fell into the EDM scene, and whether the long-term focus was somewhat broader?

“To be honest, I was always a fan of dance music, and the more melodic stuff,” Hardwell explains. “I grew up listening to Tiesto and Armin van Buuren, and then took a direction from there. I started producing my own music, and in the beginning, people couldn’t name it; and that’s one of the reasons why we are all EDM now. I wasn’t electro, I wasn’t progressive, I wasn’t techno, yet I was still groovy. It was like, ‘what is it?’ [smiles]

“But I like the term EDM, as it’s clear what we do, especially for the larger crowd, as people had no idea what we were really doing. The older generation still think we are those DJs in the corner of the club in a dark room, you know? But it’s quite simply electronic dance music; it’s what we do. If there’s one synthesiser involved, it’s still electronic dance music... [pauses] So then you could ask the question, ‘is the new Coldplay album electronic dance music?’”

A fair point. And if it is, EDM has done Chris Martin and co. no harm; reviews suggest A Head Full Of Dreams is their best work to date. I ask Hardwell about his own debut album, United We Are, which was released in March 2015. What took him so long, I wonder?

“[smiles] I suppose I really wanted to release it three or four years earlier, but at that point, I really broke through as a DJ, especially in America, so my touring schedules were enormous,” he explains. “I was doing up to 300 gigs a year, so no studio time for me! All the instrumental singles I’d been releasing from 2007 to 2013 were made on the road and in hotel rooms, and I just finished them off back home. It was just me and my MacBook, as I was always on the road.

“But I still had the feeling that I was growing musically; my taste in music was growing, and I was still trying to reinvent myself; and that’s one of the reasons I started working with vocalists. Most of the stuff back in the beginning was instrumental club tracks, and for an album, I wanted to make it more crossover, so I went to LA to work in the studio with singer-songwriters. You have to find your direction, and it all evolved organically, really.”

We regress some 18 months, when Hardwell put on a show in New Delhi, India. It ended up being the catalyst to him creating his own charity, and planning a record breaking show in Mumbai that would turn heads across the globe. It also shows just the kind of bloke Hardwell really is.

“I’d just arrived in New Delhi, it was pouring with rain, and the first thing I noticed was this really fancy big billboard of myself, and homeless kids were seeking shelter beneath it,” he says, and pauses for thought. “I felt really weird about it, and knew if I was going to come back to this country, I’d need to give something back, because they were so in need of it. Then, when United We Are was released, a lot of people came up to me and asked how I came up with the title. I was like, ‘music is uniting people; it’s the most universal language on earth; and that’s where I want to be with my music’, because I wanted to be as universal as possible. And the reaction was, ‘yeah, but that title is so much more than just uniting people through music’. I thought about that for a while, and decided to start my own charity, the United We Are Foundation; and India was number one on my list to give something back to. The support from the people in India has always been really great to my music, and it’s a buzzing scene; India and Japan are probably the number one and two for the next step in electronic dance music, so it made sense on all levels.”

The event, which took place on December 13th in Mumbai, boasted the world’s biggest ever guest list – 100,000 - and is part of a global endeavour to educate young children in different communities around the world. That sounds like a hell of a challenge.

“To reserve a spot on the guest list, you had to sign up on the website; we had over 700,000, and could only pick 100,000,” Hardwell explains, almost bashfully. Christ, so you’re already sold out seven times over? “[smiles] Yes, and that’s why we have a Pledge website, where you can donate your money now to the event, even if you’re not there. That’s gone really well. My foundation is teaming up with the Magic Bus Foundation, a charity in India which stands for the education for kids, so we are going to build schools and raise money, so parents can afford to get their kids into school. We have raised around 300,000 Euros so far, which is a great start.”

Staggered, and still trying to compute that information, I ask Hardwell what it means to him on a personal level, seeing his monumental fanbase back his every move. And what a move it is.

“Well, the whole situation in New Delhi literally broke my heart; I’m the guy getting put in a fancy hotel, being police-escorted to the event, and then you see that; the whole world is upside down,” he says, with a hint of melancholy. “But the feedback and support has been overwhelming, and this is just the first step I’m making with the charity. I have much more to do, and say.”

During the Mumbai event, aside from playing music, Hardwell played games with the kids, and handed out prizes in abundance to the competition winners. What a legend, and now a local hero.

As Hardwell pulls up a mix he’s been working on, I notice that there’s a certain softness to the whole sound. It feels easy on the ear. I quiz him about it.

“When I was a bedroom producer, I always worked on the small Dynaudio speakers; and then I switched to the Focal SM9s, which were very good for me back then. But recently, Jan [Morel, studio designer] played me the Genelec 1034s for the first time, as we were building this new room, and I fell in love with the sound right away,” Hardwell says, and turns the volume up a little more, allowing his Genelec 7073 subs to kick in a little. “I wanted to have a main monitor system, but not too big, because if you’re producing day in, day out, your ears will get tired. I spend 12 hours a day in this studio, and I can tell you I never switch back to my nearfields, because my ears never get tired. It’s a main system, but it still feels really close to you. The only things you crank are your ears!

“Also, these Genelecs are the most honest speakers I’ve ever heard. Besides being a DJ and producer, I am an engineer who does a lot of mixing and mastering for a lot of guys, so I want to have a speaker I can mix a really good pop record on, and a hard style record on; and when using these speakers, when you play your track, you can tell if the high end is not right in the mix, or if the kick is fighting with the bass line. It doesn’t matter if it’s a really dark underground track or a Britney Spears track, you can hear everything here.”

Hardwell doesn’t mix loud, yet he doesn’t mix quiet: “It’s listenable, but not at crazy club level,” is how he puts it. I ask him about his vocal production, as I felt the lead vocal on his latest single, Mad World (feat. Jake Reese), sounded particularly good.

“I use the Waves PuigTec EQP-1A plugin when I am EQ-ing my vocals; it’s really important to me,” Hardwell reveals. “First, you tune the vocals by Melodyne - it’s what everybody is using – and then it’s about EQ-ing the low end. I use the PuigTec to boost the vocal around 100Hz, and I also boost it a little bit around 8k. That makes it very warm in the low end, and crispy in the high end – and you really get the presence across in the vocals.

“Some plugins are definitely better than analogue, as you have more options. Look at the threshold on plugins like the Waves C6: the digital has a way bigger range; and the same goes for the [UA] Shadow Hill. Then for maximising, I use the iZotope Ozone 5, and the Waves L2 Ultramaximiser is also a very popular one; that’s actually my favourite transparent limiter.”

We move onto Hardwell’s life on the road, and the love he has for his four Pioneer CDJs. He doesn’t know where he’d be without them, he admits, and explains that he is working closely with Pioneer on developing the new CDJ model. I ask him where he finds the time and the energy, which brings us on to his all-important diet.

“It’s definitely a lot of coffee, but you have to get the right amount of sleep, too,” he says, with a smile. “When I’m on tour, especially when I do my first couple of days, it’s not about doing the after-parties, it’s about doing your gig, and going straight back to bed; and I always nap before my show, too. Food is also really important. You have to skip fast food; your body thinks you gain energy for two to three hours when you eat that stuff, and then you’re hungry again! It can be sushi or maybe steak, but I just try to eat as good as possible all the time.”

Before I leave him to prepare for his next show, I ask Hardwell how much bigger and better the EDM scene can get, now that it’s on such a global scale. In his eyes, there are no limits, it seems.

“EDM is a world phenomenon, and it will stick. It’s so big right now, and four years ago, nobody knew what it was in America, except in the underground. EDM nowadays is pop-crossover, radio friendly, a bit of everything,” Hardwell enthuses. “Nobody can predict the future, or where it’s going genre-wise, but what I know as a producer is that dance music keeps evolving. Four years ago, everyone was blown away: ‘Who is this guy, Skrillex?’ ‘dubstep – what is it?’ Then last year, future house arrived, which is a variation of big house; it’s not super-big room, but it’s not underground. So as long as genres keep evolving, it has a future."

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