Interview with Armin van Buuren

Ranked the #5 DJ in the world by the infamous DJ Magazine poll, Armin Van Buuren is touring the US to promote his new album "76." The album is completely self-produced with guest vocals from Ray Wilson (Genesis), Justine Suissa, Victoria Horn and rock band Krezip. Armin talks proudly of his studio work, radio shows and marathon DJ sets in his efforts to bring trance music to the people.

 

DJ Ron: First I want to ask you, why do you use all the different names - Armin, Rising Star, Perpetuous Dreamer?


Armin van Buuren: Well, basically these were all of different projects of mine. Perpetuous Dreamer was an act I did with two other guys who were the writers of the lyrics and I did the production of the "Sound of Goodbye," so I wanted to do that under a separate project. It is an Armin van Buuren track but it's under a different name.

DJ Ron: Very cool. Were you a producer first or a DJ first?
Armin van Buuren: I was both. I've DJed ever since I was very young, you know at school parties, but never professionally. I think through my productions, people ask me to play aboard as well. Internationally, I started in 1998, "Communication" got to the sales charts in the UK, so that helped my career a lot. And the rest is history as they say.

DJ Ron: How do the two roles work together for you?
Armin van Buuren: Well, I don't think there's much of a difference. I really like being a producer, because it gives you the freedom to go in your own mind and create what you like.

But I think all the top ten DJs in the world nowadays release singles and release albums as well as mixed compilations, so there's not a real big difference.

DJ Ron: For example, do you use the dance floor to test records you're working on in the studio?
Armin van Buuren: Yes, sometimes I do. I usually have one or two tracks I'm currently working on which I'm testing if the night is good, and I want to surprise people with something new.

But on the 76 album there's also some downtempo stuff which I obviously didn't test on a dance floor. So there is a difference between being a producer and a DJ, because as a producer I try to create a different sound that would be interesting for me as well, just a chill out track.

DJ Ron: How do you prepare for one of your massive twelve-hour sets?
Armin van Buuren: That takes a lot of preparing actually, I do a lot of special edits for those sets, make extended versions, put acapellas on top of existing tracks and stuff like that. So it does take a lot of time, a twelve-hour set, and it's something special. I don't do that every week because it takes a lot of energy to do that and to keep a crowd interested for twelve hours. You really have to come with not only the known and the hit tracks but also create a vibe in which you can basically play everything. That's very difficult, it takes a lot of thinking and manipulating records and building a certain atmosphere which can exist for more than twelve hours.

DJ Ron: Talking about numbers, where does the title 76 come from?
Armin van Buuren: Well actually I had several titles for the album. I was thinking about calling the album "Yet Another Day" because I really like that title.

But when I put all the tracks together for the album in February and it was about to go to the mastering, all the tracks together took 76 minutes. So I say hey, that's a coincidence because 76 is also my year of birth and the year Jean-Michel Jarre created his album Oxygene, which obviously influenced my album a lot. 76 was also the year the first Mac computer existed, the Apple I, which you could buy for six hundred and sixty-six dollars, I still remember that. And the Apple Mac is one of my favorite computers because I use that a lot in my productions and so forth.


Armin van Buuren:So, 76 obviously a number that has been chasing me around. So I thought other than giving the album a title in words, I just gave it a number which hasn't been done so far, so I thought I'd try to be original and try to do something different.

DJ Ron: Very cool. You mentioned your Mac, are you a Logic guy? ProTools, Cubase? What software programs do you use?
Armin van Buuren: I use Logic and ProTools.

Basically there's not a single way I work, every track has been made differently. I love Logic and its plug-ins but a lot of the sounds on the album are analog. I still use analog mixers because I think the sound is much warmer than the digital sound, and I still use a lot of old analog machines.

DJ Ron: Well, one thing which you're positively praised all the time is how clean and how tight all your mixes are. There's absolutely no midi delay of any kind, everything is perfectly on, like BT. How do you achieve this?
Armin van Buuren: Well basically I sample everything. So if I have a drum loop that I think is really nice, I try to sample it and go back into the audio and I try to mix everything in audio which is obviously a lot tighter. And your ears, I think you should use your ears. If there's any bass drum not in place then it feels out of time and it can destroy your track, and that takes a lot of time.

I don't work with an engineer, I'm one of the few producers who actually produces everything himself. Everything you hear on the album went through my hands. I mastered the album together with another guy who helped me, but basically I told him what to do. Other than that, I did everything myself which I think you can really say it's my artist album.

DJ Ron: That's very, very rare, I praise you for that, because you've done an incredible job. The technology changes, lots of people have moved to software-based synthesizers and digital mixing boards, but you're saying that you stay on the more analogue side of things. Do you use any soft synths are all?
Armin van Buuren: Yes, I do. I like the Atmosphere, Stylus, Trilogy from Spectrasonics, I really love those. I love the Logic plug-ins, they're great. I'm starting to switch more to plug-ins and software-based synths, but for me tweaking the analog synth is still the real thing.

DJ Ron: I've got one more techy question for you, it's simple, what's your favorite keyboard to use?
Armin van Buuren: I'm a big fan of the Access Virus.

DJ Ron: Oh that's a wonderful one.
Armin van Buuren: Yes, and I'm a big fan of the Nord Lead because it has a certain edge to it. I still use the Yamaha TX81Z, which is a really old machine and it's out of tune with most versions, but the FM sound is just fantastic.

DJ Ron: Away from technology, let's go back to your music a little bit. How do you choose vocalists for your songs?
Armin van Buuren: Well, that's just about meeting people, and first I have to click with the person.

All the people that have worked with me on the album, I've had really nice evenings with dinner and everything. It has to click you know. Ray Wilson was the guy who I did "Yet Anther Day" with, is an ex-singer of Genesis. When Phil Collins left Genesis he took over, so he's a proper artist and also a very, very nice and humble person as well as somebody who you can laugh with - that basically created the vibe for that track. I think as a person, you can hear if the vibe for a track is alright. I think his performance, the vocal performance for Yet Another Day is amazing, as is Justine's performance for "Burn with Desire" and "Never Want This". And it's just about creating the right vibe, so it has to click on a personal level as well.

DJ Ron: Did you get really interesting vibes from the rock band Krezip when you worked with them?


Armin van Buuren: Yes. Well, basically it was an old track of theirs and we wanted to create something new but they felt well, it was a number one hit in Holland, the pop version, and they weren't happy with the vocal arrangement. So they had wanted to re-do the vocal arrangement and we ended up putting them on the album, so it's something different.

DJ Ron: You work with both male and female vocalists - do you find one gender works better with your style of music or are you open to anything?


Armin van Buuren: I'm open to anything really.

DJ Ron: Is there anyone out there like artist-wise, that you would like to work with in the studio?
Armin van Buuren: Yes, several people. I mean, of non-trance people I would still love to work with, Enya. It might be a weird choice but she has such a beautiful voice and I'm really into her sound. Of course, some old rock band artists, perhaps Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, I don't know. I would like to work with vocalists who have inspired me a lot and who I look up to.

DJ Ron: How do you approach a vocal remix, like say a Madison Avenue or Wamdue Project, as opposed to a more instrumental-edged remix?
Armin van Buuren: I don't have a particular way of working, it's not that I always start with the vocal and then put drums underneath it and stuff like that. Nowadays I just tend to create an instrumental and hope that the acapella would sit on top, and if it doesn't I'll create a different instrumental.

Sometimes when the vocal's very difficult, has a lot of harmonies and a lot of difficult chords, I try to put chords underneath it and then do a total separate drum programming and then try to fit that underneath the track. I see it as a painting, you know you have to use the sun in your painting but the rest is not defined yet, so you can basically paint anything you want.

But it takes a lot of time to just set it up.

DJ Ron: How did you approach reworking your debut record "Blue Fear" for the album?
Armin van Buuren: A lot of people asked me to rework "Blue Fear" because it sounded a bit out of date. When I created that in 1996, the only thing I could use back then was a Akai S-2800 sampler. That whole track had been made in one sampler without any EQ and the only effect on the whole track is a delay.

DJ Ron: Wow.
Armin van Buuren: So it was a big surprise to me that that track became such a huge hit, because actually it was written as a B side to "X Marks the Spot" which ended up being the B-side of "Blue Fear". So what I wanted to do for the album is just to keep the original vibe of "Blue Fear", the freshness, and I didn't want to change a lot. So I did the whole track in audio and basically bounced that. All the samples you hear are the original samples of "Blue Fear", the original sounds, but recreated with an updated and fresher sound. I've tried to remix "Blue Fear" but it's just such a personal track and it has been of enormous influence for my career that it was really difficult to remix. I know in the UK they're currently looking at some big names to remix the track and I'm really looking forward to hear those mixes because I think it's a unique track, especially for the building of the trance scene in general.

So it's very hard to remix such a track.

DJ Ron: Speaking about trance in general, it's been around for a while now, where do you feel the future is going with trance and dance music in general?
Armin van Buuren: Well, I think it's unfortunate and a bit of a pity the people call the music that Lasgo and DJ Sammy make trance. No disrespect to those artists because I think they are great artists, but that's not trance - it's not the trance that I call trance.


Armin van Buuren: Basically it's just giving it a label, and the trance that I call trance is the old trance sound from '95-'96, the productions of Matt Darey, Oliver Lieb, Oakenfold, you name them. For me that's the classic trance sound. I know that a lot of people think that commercial, formulaic music with a vocal. breakdown and big a riff, that's trance, but it's definitely not trance for me. I think the old classic trance sound needs some improvement but it's still working for me and for big crowds. I play for a lot of sold out venues every week, so I don't see the trance sound disappearing. As a matter of fact, I think it's really interesting that you feel that the progressive and trance are sort of growing towards each other, with the production of progressive far better than trance. So I see the future of trance as an ideal combination of the production of progressive with the upliftingness of trance records.

DJ Ron: Speaking about spinning to big crowds, when you spin live do you play on turntables? Do you work on a laptop? Do you play keyboards? How do you do a live DJ set?
Armin van Buuren: I work in key, so I try to mix a lot of records in key. Not every record of course because you have like twelve keys so it's impossible to mix all the records in key. I still use vinyl and I use the Pioneer CDJ1000 a lot. I tried to work with Final Scratch and add the tone live but the problem is, is that I find it too unstable.

Because I have so many bookings and different places to play, I find it too much work to actually set up final scratch and everything. I mean, I heard that Paul Van Dyk's laptop crashed when he played in Central Park in New York.

DJ Ron: Oh Lord.
Armin van Buuren: So I don't want to let my audience wait for a few minutes when they're listening to an uplifting set.

I find that the Pioneer CDJ-1000s have proven themselves, because they have never skipped so far in my career even when the rain was dripping down on them. I find that the CDJ1000, three of them combined with three Technic 1200s - Mark 2 or Mark 3, is the ideal combination for me to work with, combined with my CD case with special edits and everything. I think for me this is, for the moment, the right way of working. I'm really interested to see where the software development is going, because I really see myself working completely from digital formats in the future. But for now I think the vinyl has such a beautiful sound and I know it's limited in sense of frequency range and everything, but vinyl's got magic, and I think it's just a force of habit that I'm still using vinyl.

DJ Ron: You do a live radio program every week?
Armin van Buuren: Yes.

DJ Ron: How do you chose the songs or that versus how you'd program a night at a club or a festival?
Armin van Buuren: Well, I consider the State of Trance a little bit like my backyard. A lot of people don't know that I don't get any money for the show and it takes a lot of time to produce the show. I don't have any producer nor any engineer that helps me with selecting the show.

I basically have to drive to Amsterdam to the studio of INT. I sit down with the latest records I've bought and the show exists of the latest tracks that are in my case. I don't make any secrets of any tracks that are in my show. If there's an unknown artists, I really don't know the title as there is nothing I want to keep secret or anything. It's a cross section of records that are out at the moment. I really enjoyed listening to a lot of radio shows when I was younger and I really want to give something back to the younger crowd who don't have nay money to buy vinyls, but want to be updated on what's good and what's not. So what I do, I just play a lot of tracks, some of the tracks I'm not really sure that I like.

By playing them on the show, I get a really good review of the tracks that I play, so that helps me to create a better DJ set in a way. I think the radio is essential for my DJ sets because it really helps my DJing as well. It also helps the crowds to make a selection of their vinyls they want to buy because everything I play is not off my label or my productions, it's a good cross section of everything that came across my PO Box or in my record store or whatever. So I can play it and people can make their own choice and it's not a music director that tells me what to play, it's just purely the latest releases.

DJ Ron: What are your biggest records when you play that have the best response?
Armin van Buuren: At the moment my remix of "As the Rush Comes" from Motorcycle.

DJ Ron: The Gabriel and Dresden track?
Armin van Buuren: Yes. That's getting really good response. On the progressive side, I really like the Roland Klinkenberg track "The Melting Point" which is on DJ Remy's label Taste Records and distributed through Combined Forces. There's a lot of good records out at the moment. The new Marco V is really good, called "The Relooped", Marco V versus Jens, I like that a lot. The tracks on my album are really working. I did an up tempo mix of "Burn With Desire" which is obviously working on the floor, so there's a lot to chose from. I'm actually really glad at the moment that I've got a really good filled record bag with lots of new stuff that's really pumping.

DJ Ron: Do you prefer playing the shorter sets and having many DJs in a night, say like in a festival? Or do you prefer to do the more journey thing a playing at longer sets?
Armin van Buuren: I like them both actually. I don't like to do long sets more than four or five times a year, because I want that to be special and I want to create an atmosphere which takes a lot of time like I said before.

Doing shorter sets is a big advantage sometimes because you can just play the best that you've got in your create. But that has a disadvantage as well because if you're in a festival and the festival takes let's say eight hours and every DJ plays his best tracks, then you're very likely to hear Motorcycle more than once in an evening and I don't think that's good, because I think every DJ should play a unique set. But, on the other hand, it can be interesting for the atmosphere to see what happens when that happens. So I don't know, I don't have a preference really, I really like both.

DJ Ron: Your group that you are part of, United Recordings, has some of the most amazing people in it - Signum or Riva - how did you become part of that grouping?
Armin van Buuren: Now actually the situation is like this, my album is something I did for United Recordings. This year I've set up Armada with two of my best friends. That's a totally new company and we have several labels like A State of Trance, Armind, which is my personal label, and Bandung which is a label with Harry Lemon. We signed artists like Signum, Harry Lemon, and Motorcycle, in just a period of four months.

DJ Ron: Looks like it has been very successful.

Speaking of success, what was your reaction when you found out that you were ranked number 5 on the DJ poll?
Armin van Buuren: Oh man! That was an amazing experience. I knew I did well with the poll, and then a friend of mine called me to say I was number 5 and I just couldn't believe him, it was just incredible. Since then, a lot of doors have opened. But I've really tried to stick to my sound and whatever position I may end up this year, it doesn't really matter. I'm really grateful to all the people that had voted for me and I know they voted for me because I've worked the way I work. So I don't want to change that, I want to try and stay loyal to the music and the sound that I've been bringing the people and the audience. I think that's the most important thing to me.