Sean Tyas On His Career & The Current State Of Trance Music [Interview]
Sean Tyas is one of the biggest names in trance music, and with his brand new single “Ascend” dropping on Monday, the 19th of May (premiered on EDM.com’s Trance channel), we thought it would be appropriate to have a little discussion with the Tytanium Recordings founder about the track. We also talked about his production process and his thoughts on trance music at the moment.
(SF = Sam Foxhill; ST = Sean Tyas)
SF: Thanks for talking with us, Sean. Where did the idea for “Ascend” come from?
ST: The point of “Ascend” was of course to follow in the footsteps of “Now You See” and touch base with where it was hitting, at 134bpm with a nice balance between new techniques and old techniques, fat drums, big bottom bassline, and of course, a very big uplifting melody on top to cover all the ground I wanted to cover on one track.
SF: And that goes along with the shift your sound underwent about a year or so ago, right?
ST: It was probably even longer. Production-wise, it was a situation where after doing over ten years of the same 140bpm trance, I needed to produce some more extra stuff to expand the range in the studio, because I wasn’t really feeling satisfied anymore when I would leave it. It was just the same, every track. I needed to make a little bit of electro, so I did that on the side, and I had a good fill. Along the way, I learned a lot of new techniques to take with me.
SF: Did you have an alternate alias when producing electro?
ST: I did for a couple of Armada Music releases, where I used my name backwards. For example, there was my track “NYPD” under the name Sayt Naes. It ended up looking a little bit like an Arabic name, I guess. Then, I started releasing the electro tracks under my own name, which was probably a mistake, considering the fans weren’t really feeling that. They claimed they were “confused.”
SF: Did you get many “selling out” comments from that?
ST: The thing is, people just see that something is not trance. The most painful thing was people coming up to me at shows and saying, “Stop making that dubstep.” I wasn’t even sure how to respond to that because I’ve never even made a dubstep track, or never even played a dubstep track. I wasn’t really sure that these were the people I even wanted as fans, because they don’t even know what genres they’re talking about.
SF: I’ve always liked to think that the best fans are the ones who not only don’t mind when you innovate, but expect you to innovate.
ST: That’s an amazing fan to have. Very rarely do we get those. It’s understandable; it happens in every genre. You go to an Aerosmith concert, and what do 99% of the people there want to hear? The old stuff. You go to a Rolling Stones concert, and what does everybody want to hear? The old stuff. It’s just the way it is. Trance music fans are no different. Familiarity is much more important to the fanbase than breaking new ground.
SF: If there were one or two things you could change about the music industry in general, or trance music specifically, what would they be?
ST: For the fanbase to be more willing to take trance in a new direction. We can keep the BPM, we can keep the drive, and keep the melody, but sound choice really needs to be updated big-time. Producers need to up their game, myself included. We all need to put a little bit more thought into what sounds are getting into our tracks. Stop using the presets. Stop using the same synths in every track. This will breed a new level of the genre. People talk about “trance 2.0” with its big lead stabs, but we could be on the brink of inventing “trance 3.0,” which is the new level of what we’ve been listening to for the last ten years. Maybe less focus needs to be put on the complexity of the melodies, and more into the production of the sounds themselves that are making it. You listen to a drum & bass track, and the melodies are relatively simple but the sounds and the basslines are of a complexity that you just don’t hear anywhere in trance music.
SF: Who would you credit as your greatest influences?
ST: In the past, it would have always been Moby, The Prodigy, and Paul van Dyk. Currently, my greatest influences would probably actually be drum & bass acts like Audio, Drumsound & Bassline Smith, and Metrik.
SF: How did you start producing and DJing?
ST: It was definitely production first, back in high school. It was just toying with “trackers,” where you write music on an MS-DOS-based program. It’s all sample-based, no synths involved or anything like that, and you write music in hexadecimal, almost like programming. It’s a really tedious process. At the time it was my friend and me writing gabber. We would show up at school one day and bring floppy discs with the project on it, and the floppy disc would just be a collection of kick drums, hi-hats, bass samples, and stuff like that which you would find on the internet. Programming snare rolls was really tedious, because you would have to type in the volume of each hit in hexadecimal.
SF: How did you do mixing and mastering with that, or could you even do mixing and mastering?
ST: Mastering, we just didn’t do. We were more or less just doing this for jokes. After a while, it became a little too tedious. I started asking around, and people kept telling me Cubase. I didn’t even know what Cubase was, so I asked more, and people said, “You have to go to Sam Ash, and you have to check out some keyboards.” I went out and bought my first keyboard, expecting it to be an amazing one-stop shop for dance music creation. It was a Yamaha AN1x, this big, blue beast. I was a little disappointed because when I came home, I realized it could only do one track at a time, so I went back to Sam Ash - trusty credit card in hand - and bought myself a drum machine. I was a total gear whore for a couple years, not really getting anything done, just learning how to use all these machines. By 2002, I was finally getting stuff put together.
SF: Your first big hit was “Lift.” Where did that one come from?
ST: I did that one in a bedroom on PC speakers when I first moved to Switzerland. It was definitely my most “ghetto” setup ever. The song came from trying to recapture a mood that I used to feel back in New York City’s Twilo on the dance floor. It was very simple pluck melodies, even to the point where it was a monophonic melody, with pure drive: big kick drum, off-beat bass. It was definitely inspired by the Twilo days when Paul van Dyk used to play there once every two months. That was what that track was for.
SF: What prompted your move to Switzerland?
ST: My wife is Swiss. I moved to Germany in 2004 to do studio work, and over the 10 months I spent there, I met her while she was visiting a friend. We hit things off immediately, and we were doing long-distance dating for a few months, so we decided to move in together. Obviously, this is the type of the work where you don’t need to be in a certain location anymore to do production.
SF: What do you find is different about the trance community today compared to when you first started?
ST: That’s an easy one. They’re far more fanatical and militant, to the point where they’re aggressive. That can be really good, like when you go to an all-trance event like [A State Of Trance]. It’s really a magical feeling. The people are totally up for it. You’re going out there, and you know what you’re going to be playing. You know you’re going to absolutely bang it out. That kind of thing is amazing in the fact that the people are going to be up for anything you throw down, because that’s what you’re there for. On the same token, when I say they’re militant and fanatical, I mean they’re very aggressive toward other genres, and I don’t think it’s always been like that. The trance community has always been very much in-line with the raver mentality, and very accepting and very harmonious with everybody. I think the fans are getting pissy because the other genres seem to be taking more of a position of stature in mass media, maybe. But this is what people want! They want trance to be underground, so I really don’t understand what everyone is mad about. That’s exactly where we are now.
SF: Would you say it might have something to do with some popular trance producers moving to house?
ST: Maybe the fans do feel a little bit left behind, but it goes back to that other question you asked where the fans want you to make what they’re familiar with. If artists are switching over and changing styles, the fans are not under shackles. They don’t have to go with them every step of the way during this little style change. They can do whatever they want, and there’s plenty of new names out there. People control the internet and complain, but music changes. Art changes. Things change, and if they’re not changing, then I think the artists are doing something wrong.
SF: What do you like more: production or DJing?
ST: I still like producing more than DJing, absolutely. I think it’s because I’m in my own little world in here. I’m closed off to the world - there’s no windows in the studio - and I have everything I need here. I just like to sit here, whether I’m making music, cutting loops, programming new patches. This is my element. It’s how I started, and it’s how I will always end.
SF: Do you have a pretty extensive studio setup?
ST: It’s pretty minimal now. Back in New York, when I was going through my “gear whore” phase, I went through so many keyboards, and racks of gear. They were crazy and really cool times, and it looked really cool, but now you don’t need it. Computers are powerful enough to run all of that in the box. Basically, it’s my laptop plugged into an external monitor and keyboard and mouse. There’s a Virus TI controller keyboard, an Akai APC for Ableton Live, audio interface, a couple external hard drives, big speakers, a microphone, and foam all over the place.
SF: With the rise of software instruments and the amount of complexity that’s appeared in plugins like Massive, are there any you really love using or that have a lot of potential?
ST: Massive is like a bottomless pit that you can just get lost in. It can do anything, or very close to it. The possibilities with that synth are pretty much endless. Sylenth is great but I think people have moved on to Spire by now. FM8 is a really nice synth. I was using Logic for years and years and years, so most of my synth work came from their proprietary stuff. At this point, as I’ve switched over to Ableton Live, I can’t use the Logic stuff anymore, so it’s a matter of finding replacements for those, but Massive seems to be doing all those things. I’m trying not to use freakishly fancy mastering stuff like Ozone and trying to concentrate more on the mixdown. When I hit the mastering stage, I’m trying to leave it now so it’s just a simple glue compressor, limiter, and be done. The point of the master is just to get it loud; I don’t want to change anything else. I don’t want to do any stereo spatial-enhancements on the master, but rather do those in the mix. You have a lot more control based on that.
SF: Why did you create Tytanium Recordings in the first place?
ST: The idea of the label was to get tracks out on time and quickly, more on my own. I got frustrated with label release dates. A lot of labels are great to work with, but one thing that always rears its ugly head is the fact that sometimes you make a track that you won’t see released for 11 months. Tytanium was my way of rectifying that problem.
SF: How long is the time between when you finish a track and it gets released, then?
ST: “Ascend” was only done about a month ago, so that’s pretty good. The average on Tytanium right now is probably three months. I’m trying to speed it up a little bit because we have a lot of material to go, and I don’t want to keep these artists waiting, so I’m speeding up the release schedule a little bit.
SF: Tytanium recently went under the umbrella of Black Hole. Did that make the promotion aspect of running a record label any easier?
ST: We’ve switched over to the FATdrop promo system, which is a front end for handling all the promo mailouts, mailing lists, what DJs are getting tracks. It looks nice. When we get promos in our email every day, we’re looking for ones that are on a system you’re familiar with, that you can get in and get the tracks and get out as quickly as possible. It makes things really easy. The guys at Black Hole are all easy to work with, and everything is just done; like, if you have a question, it’s answered in minutes.
SF: Assuming you get a ton of promos as a result of your status as a DJ, do you have a problem finding really good tracks in all the noise?
ST: At the end of the day, it’s not about the name on the track. I’m just trying to play good music. If I get to break a gem of a track that no one’s played before, from an artist that no one’s ever heard before, that’s awesome. Whether I’m playing it on my radio show or releasing it on my label, I love that. But now, to find those tracks, it really has become more like a needle-in-a-haystack than ever. We’re basically janitors. We clean the sewers. We sift through shit all fucking day, and then every once in a while we find that diamond ring.
SF: How long do you think you spend digging for tracks?
ST: When I wake up in the morning on a Monday or Tuesday, I probably have 25 tracks in my inbox, and I’m sure there’s another 25 loaded up and ready to go by 5pm. You have to listen, or you need somebody to do it for you. I could have a friend do it or have another trusted producer do it, but at the end of the day, I’m always worried that something’s going to be missed.
SF: How do you manage demos with Tytanium?
ST: I’ve brought Darren Porter on board. I trust his music choice, and I trust the suggestions that he will make to the artists, and we both discuss things daily anyway here. He is handling the demo and A&R sections of Tytanium alongside me.
SF: Do you have any memorable tour stories?
ST: Yeah, but probably none that I’m actually allowed to write about! There’s always memorable stuff. I just love being on tour and meeting people that you’ve looked up to for years, and being able to chat with them. A good example would be at Trance Fusion over in Prague, just a few weeks back, I actually got to have a chat with BT about production and pick that guy’s mind. We nerded out, and everybody was staring at us because we were talking languages that nobody got. It was just so nice to see somebody who really knew his trade.
SF: What are some areas you think you could improve?
ST: The sound library that I use. Especially now that I just started using Ableton Live, I feel like I took a step back with the amount of sounds I have at my disposal, because my go-to synths--the ones that were built into Logic--are no longer available to me. What I want to improve are mixdowns and sound choice, and when people listen to my music, I want them to say, “Holy fucking shit, how did he do that?”
SF: How bad is piracy in trance music?
ST: It’s probably the worst thing in the world. We don’t make any money from tracks. Even if a track does well, we don’t make any money on it. Everybody seems to have a copy of it, but we don’t see a penny. But we make tracks for promotion, and we make tracks to get gigs. It’s something we’ve all come to accept, I guess. I feel bad for the new guys, who come in and get their first couple of statements, and they realize, “Oh my god, I thought this track was really big.” You definitely chose the wrong business. You get paid more working for McDonald’s, to be honest. If you want to make money, you have to be on tour.
SF: You’re working on your first studio album. When do you think it will be done?
ST: I have no better answer for that than when it’s done. I have about 25 projects that I’ve started now, and I think that’s enough to start running with the ball. It’s just too much fun to keep starting up new ideas. I’d rather start as many ideas as humanly possible, go bang these tracks out, and hope to god I get it done quick enough. There are some days where I’m sitting here and I go, 'What the fuck did I get myself into?' It’s very peaceful and simple and very non-stressful to be releasing singles every four months, but I have to prove this to myself, and it’s a good way to get my work speed up. For example, when the album’s done, it’ll be a piece of piss to go release singles.
SF: Do you have any plans for EPs between now and when the album is released, or are any of your current singles going to make it onto the album?
ST: I think for the album, I want all-new, unreleased stuff. If there is a track that’s already been out, there’s going to be a new mix of it, like a 2014 or 2015 “revisit” of an old track of mine. I think I still have all the rights or most of the rights for my old tracks, so there shouldn’t be any problems.
SF: Are you collaborating with any other producers or vocalists at the moment?
ST: Yeah, I’m going to do a couple of collaborations for the album, of course. One of them will be with Tomas Heredia. One is planned with Eximinds. One is planned with of course Darren Porter. I started one with Photographer, but we’ve been just prancing around and not getting it done; we need to do it. Of course, we have to get Fisher as vocals on one or two of the tracks, as well as other vocalists.
SF: Do you have a sequel lined up for “Lost My Logic” with Noah Neiman and Fisher?
ST: Yeah, there will be a sequel to it. I’m actually supposed to be doing something with Noah pretty soon more along the lines of what I normally do, and it’ll be more of a trance banger with him onboard to contribute the weight of his sounds, in a genre which he’s not traditionally known for. We’re looking forward to seeing what comes out.
SF: How do you balance a DJ lifestyle with having a family?
ST: It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. It’s never easy. The studio is home, and I’m here for every meal of the day. It’s like the reverse of most dads. Most dads go to work 9-5 or earlier, and stay later every weekday, and they see their kids on the weekends, but I’m just the opposite. I go away on the weekends, but I’m here all week, and the kids are in and out of the studio all day. It’s not for everybody; a lot of people do bite the dust.
SF: Why is trance your go-to genre?
ST: Ever since I was a clubber and a raver back on the dancefloor, to see the responses when tracks blew up with everybody’s hands going up in the air has always been magical to me, and it still is.
SF: What’s something you love about trance?
ST: For me, it’s always been the interplay between the kick drum and the rolling basslines. It’s something very unique to trance, because the other genres don’t really do rollers, or at least not at that speed. I like how mid-basses and sub-basses meet the kick drum to create a drive that’s superb and very hard to match in other styles.
“Ascend” comes out on Tytanium Recordings on the 19th of May at Beatport.