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What I learned from producing a hit record in the early '90s

What I learned from producing a hit record in the early '90s
This photo was taken 20 years after the fact: bigger and balder.

I was only 19 years old in 1992 when I produced an international hit single. It only took a crazy idea, an Akai S-950 sampler and an Atari sequencer to write the "song."  This "song" was then released on 12" vinyl by a small but ambitious record store that started a label. The combination fueled the fire that spread this music style across the globe.

The Dutch Top 40 of August 1st 1992.

Lesson 1: my track is not a real song

I put the word "song" in parenthesis because it's funny if you consider the Oxford dictionary definition of a song: "a short poem or another set of words set to music or meant to be sung".  By no means is my "song" poetic, musical or even meant to be sung. It's not really musical since it was just a series of beats with a single pitch jew's harp sample on top. It was also not meant to be sung, even though I know that people tried. Particularly at the record store when they went: "Do you have that song that goes poing, poing, poing?" This is interesting, as there are no lyrics to the song. Later I learnt that this was not a smart move. The music rights are divided between composer, lyricist and publisher. If there are no lyrics, the performance rights organisation withholds 1/3 of the payout. In this case, this is a significant amount of money. Had I known before, I would've written some lyrics in the intro or outro.

Lesson 2: technology is a factor, not a goal

The development of music can be linked directly to the technological advancements of that era.  The '90s is what I consider to be the sampling era. There were samplers available in the '80s, but they were the price of a house. The Fairlight and the Synclavier would set you back over 100.000 euros back then. The '90s brought us "affordable" Akai samplers. Starting at around 5.000 euros, they sold at the price of a second-hand car instead of a house. You would also need a sequencer to trigger the samples via MIDI. The Atari was great for that, as it has a built-in MIDI interface and "only" cost about 1.000 euros. Once you got both, you could make "music" without any musicians. It's all I wanted, to have my own sampler and sequencer to play with. Once I got them in 1991, I got addicted to creating music that sounded professional, all by myself. That is also my problem. When writing music, I like to work by myself. I like to play around with samples, make loops and tweak them for hours. I'll get bored and shut down the studio at the end of the day, often without saving anything. This was as true in 1991 as it is today.

Lesson 3: collaborate with others

There was one time when I successfully collaborated with others. It started with my friend Danny Scholte. We both worked at the local clubhouse, where I was the DJ, and he was the bartender. One night we watched people dancing and noticed that they were jumping more than they were dancing. All that Danny said was: "we could use that". Six months later, I came across the cartoon-like "Poing" sound while I was diggin' for samples. I mapped the sample across the keyboard and played it randomly. We had a good laugh but no clue what to do next.

Me (left) with Danny Scholte (right) in 1992.

I loaded many TR-909 beats that I had programmed over the past months and copy/pasted them across a 5-minute timeline. I placed a couple of "Poing" samples in 1/4 notes and distributed them strategically across the song, every 32 bars or so. This sounded a lot like the final record we know today, except for one important detail that we would add after meeting our next collaborator: DJ Paul Elstak. Paul was already an established DJ. He had worked with Peter Slaghuis and had a modest hit record himself over a year before we did. He did three important things for us.

  • He advised us to put the "Poing" sample across the track without too much interruption. Paul said: "just put it on 1/4 notes over the complete timeline, except maybe for the intro, outro and a break where you can mix the track." So we did, and that is the final arrangement we know today.
  • He took us to his studio, where we mixed the track using a decent Soundcraft console, big speakers and a real Roland TR-909 Rhythm Composer (drum machine). This was the actual TR-909 that once belonged to the legendary Peter Slaghuis, which made it even more magical.
  • He signed us to Rotterdam Records, the label that spawned from the basement of a local record store called Mid-town Records.
Me (left) in the studio with Paul Elstak (right) producing "Mix The House 2" (1993).

Lesson 4: save your money

Let's be honest; it didn't take hard manual labour to create the "song". I spent a lot of money on equipment, but that's fine because producing music was my hobby. You can't expect your hobby to make money, so it's a bonus when it does. Most creators spend their earnings on their craft. This goes for any creator; you want better gear and materials. You probably don't need more or better gear if you could create a hit record with what you have now. Most people become less productive with more gear, and I do too. You need to pay your taxes too. Many of my peers from the Dutch rave scene eventually got hit hard by the taxman, including me. They can take your gear, leave you devasted and in debt. If there is anything to learn from this story, it's this. Save your money for something useful, like a house.

The "Poing" Museum at my house, including a gold record and the original TR-909.

Lesson 5: release a follow-up

If you have a hit record, the first thing you need to do is to create another one that sounds just like the first one. Often, this will become a hit, too, sometimes even bigger than the first one. We failed to release a follow-up right away. We tried, but we felt we could never do better than the first one, so we didn't. Truth be told, the label was already treating us poorly, so we weren't exactly motivated. You should create that follow-up though, it will be the first step towards longevity in your career.

Lesson 6: your hit will be forgotten

I managed to ride it out for over 15 years. Friends and co-workers would call me "Poing" instead of Maurice. I was approached every time there was a radio show or a book that talked about the rave scene and its hits in the early 90s. I happily answered every single time. One of the reasons I still answered was because of my business. I hadn't released a record in a while, but I did produce music videos. Almost every interview ends with the same question: "So, what are you doing now?". This is where I would always plug my production company. The last time I would really use the "Poing" legacy was when I released the "Oldschool Renegades" documentary in 2013. There hasn't been a single request or mention of "Poing" in the media since I retired from my entertainment company in 2014. I'm fine with that, and creating music is still a hobby.