Nicky Romero: “I’m sure I can tell you 20 songs where proper music theory does not apply, but it sounds insane in a club”

Nicky Romero is something of a titan of the European electronic music scene. A producer of hit records, hugely in-demand DJ and owner of the influential Protocol label, the Dutch artist has collaborated with the likes of Rihanna, David Guetta and Britney Spears, and remixed countless others. 

He’s lent his name to several plugins in recent years, including Sonic Academy’s original Kick drum designer, and sidechain-centric Cableguys collaboration Kickstart. 

We caught up with Nicky late last year at ADE to find out more about his current studio workflow.

What’s your current studio setup? And which of that gear most inspires you?

“It’s pretty basic I think. My first one was of course in my bedroom, and that was the leanest setup ever, and then I changed to a professional studio. After that I built a home studio. And basically the gear that I work with is a Mac, plus Logic Pro for my arranging and composing. There are a few plugins that I use a lot, especially from UAD and my newest addition is the SSL AWS console for mixing recording and mastering. The most inspiring thing I use… well, really just playing real instruments. Bringing a grand piano or guitar into the room. It just gets you into a different vibe. And then of course you can transform that audio.”

If you could give your younger self one piece of production advice, what would it be?

“I would tell my younger self not to always stick to the rules. Just listen. If it sounds good, that’s the important thing. I’m sure I can tell you 20 songs where proper music theory does not apply, but it sounds insane in a club.”

When you sit down to write a new track, what’s your starting point?

“First thing is to use certain presets that I know sound good straightaway. I have a few kick drums that, depending on the key of the song, I know will sound good immediately as a reference. Then I pick a grand piano off Logic, the most easy one ever, play the melody with that. Then I use Serum and it has a few presets, and if it sounds good in that – it has a good melody or good riffs – then I’ll look for the right instruments. A great way of doing it is opening Native Instruments. They have very good organic, dynamic instruments and that can inspire you.”

What’s the best way to beat writer’s block, in your experience?

“For me the only solution is to walk out of the room, play FIFA and come back. If it doesn’t come back then try again tomorrow. You cannot force music. If it comes, it comes, that’s great, but if it doesn’t, there’s no way of pushing it. The greatest ideas will come in a few minutes. If you spread a session over two weeks, I think it’s too long. The idea needs to be done that day. Music is vibrant, it’s like water. If you try to grab it, it will just slip through your fingers.”

How important is music theory for producers?

“I think it’s trial and error. That’s the best way these days. You go and sit in a room and sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s not at all. A lot of times, I go for food and come back and listen to what I was doing before and say, ‘This is terrible, I need to start something new.’ There are a few good websites, like hooktheory.com which will tell you how to use chords easily and apply them to your way of working. And Splice which will help you with plugins. But it’s really about trial and error. There’s no way of doing it right. It’s your way, which is the only way which matters.”

Which one track in history do you wish you had helped produce?

“It would definitely be Eric Prydz, Pjanoo. It sounds so easy, but it’s timeless.”

Who is the most inspiring producer in the world right now?

“I get influenced by so many different artists, not just producers, like Charlie Puth for example. He’s such a musical guy, using so many instruments and creating cool sounds. London Grammar are very, very far away from the ‘I’m going to write a hit song’ mentality. Instead it’s pure emotion. For example, on their song Hey Now, if you watch that, all the cells in your body will be aligned. I like to listen to the underdogs of the scene and get inspiration.”

What’s your current DJ setup?

“To be honest, I’m very boring onstage. It’s just a DJ deck. I do the most work preshow. All that is done in the studio. I do want to use live instruments in my shows, for example pianos and synths or drums. That would be a wish, but we need to develop that. I think I got pretty fast with the Pioneer effects. I like to keep it simple.”

What are your next projects?

“Collaborations with W&W, Afrojack, John Christian, David Guetta. I’ve been working on one song with Trilane, called Bittersweet – a melodic, progressive house track that’s also radio-friendly.”

What would you save from your studio in a house fire?

“That’s easy, I’d save the hard disk because that’s what all the files are on. The rest I can replace. Some are on the cloud and some are not. It’s a 4TB disk. The rest I really don’t care.

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