Not content with being one of the most celebrated DJs in the world, Armin Van Buuren has also had a string of club and chart hits. We asked him to talk us through the production of a top‑notch trance anthem.
"I make what they call underground dance music,” remarks Armin Van Buuren, as we talk in a hotel prior to his set at London's Ministry Of Sound. You'd be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the 'underground' part of that description. After all, this is a man who has been at pole position in DJ magazine's list of the top 100 DJs since 2007, and has produced a string of hits since bursting onto the scene with his track 'Blue Fear' in 1995. His popular weekly radio show, A State Of Trance, also recently celebrated its 400th episode, so it's probably fair to say that Armin's particular brand of 'underground' is about as well concealed as London Transport's.
Unlike the Tube, though, Armin shows no sign of stopping. A variety of new remix and production activity is continuing apace at a newly constructed studio in his home town of Leiden in the Netherlands, where he frequently works alongside his studio partner Benno De Goeij, half of the production duo Rank 1. To begin with, I asked him how he typically sets about putting together a track from scratch; unsurprisingly, it's his wide knowledge of the music scene, built up through his DJ'ing, that informs the process from the earliest stages. "Usually we start by listening to other records. There's a few records around at any given time that have this hype around them, so all the producers listen to these records. A little while ago you had Deadmau5, with his sound, then you had people copying Deadmau5. We were listening to Deadmau5 as well, so our sound was a little influenced by that. And you can clearly feel the whole dance community shifting in response to the best new records.
"I'm a trance DJ, that's what people know me for, but I try to follow the trends as well. The bpm over the last couple of years went down, for example, and productions have a lot of influences from minimal and electro percussion right now. If we're making a track or a remix, we listen to the current sound a lot. You have to go on iTunes and listen to a lot of other records. That's really, really essential. You're not copying them, you're being inspired by them. The Beatles listened to Bob Dylan — it's that kind of thing. You kind of go with the flow. DJs won't play your record if it doesn't sound enough like the other records, because they're building a set and they've got to rock the crowd. So no matter how many hours of production you put into it, if it doesn't sound a little like the previous record or the record after it, then it's not going to fit, and they're not going to play it because it'll make their set sound really weird. So doing research is extremely important.”
The genesis of a new track is frequently a single main theme. "Usually we start with an eight‑bar main theme, with maybe a piano melody or some strings, and drums and a bass line going. In the studio we've sync'ed up the main Mac via MIDIoverLAN, which is a really quick way of working. I can be sitting behind the keys making a melody, and my sequencer's running, sending out a MIDI clock to Ableton or Logic. Benno, with the headphones on, can have a laptop connected to the system making loops, while I'm making a bass line or melody, and it's always in tempo. It saves us a lot of time because two people can be creative at the same time; sometimes we make a track in half an hour! In fact, the strange thing is that all my biggest tracks were written in under two hours.”
If the main eight‑bar theme is showing enough promise, the producers will create variations on it, as a precursor to building a longer arrangement. "We'll copy the drums to a new eight‑bar section, and that'll be where the bass line is more straight, almost like a 'verse'. So we have eight bars of 'verse' and eight bars of 'chorus', and then we try to make some interludes for it, to make it interesting — we copy the drum track again and start doing some freaky stuff to make the build‑up to the 'chorus' more interesting. Once I've created those three sections, I can start building from there, and the good thing about that is that you don't forget how you want the 'verses' to sound and you don't forget how you want the climax to sound. I'll then give the track four, five, six different sections, deciding where I want it to go in each section, and that's when I start arranging.”
The arrangement and writing approach remains pretty fluid, though, especially when Armin's working with vocalists, as he did so successfully on the recent album Imagine and is continuing to do while developing new material. "For my new album, right now I've got eight ideas going. Some are ideas where my brother comes into the studio and plays some guitar stuff, and I just put some Chicane chords and some drums on it, and spend 10‑15 minutes if it's a nice melody. Then I'll MP3 a two‑minute clip and send it to a couple of vocalists. That's how I did most of Imagine. Just send them random melodies — they're not even tracks yet, they're not even demos yet. Usually every singer will send back a vocal idea which inspires me again to go into the studio and maybe drop the guitar, add in a bass line, and mix the vocal on top before sending it back again. Then she writes the chorus.”
Of course, the quality and inventiveness of the sounds a producer uses is also crucial in this particular musical sphere. "You almost have to be a sound designer right now, just as much as you have to be good at writing themes or good at producing beats. I come from the MIDI age, where you'd have a big mixer with all the S3000s and a big Atari running in the middle, but now everything's changed. You really have to know what you're doing.
"I can think in terms of arrangements because I'm a DJ, whereas Benno is a sound guy, he can think in sounds. The guy's crazy: if he hears a particular sound in a record that I really like, he knows how to make that sound. Let me tell you something: ES2 in Logic can make almost any sound you want. Maybe there's a few analogue things it can't do, but you can always emulate those in other ways. Benno has proved to me that you can make 95 percent of any synth sound you want with ES2. You don't really need more than one synthesizer if you invest some time in learning how to work it. I know it's really boring, but read some articles or buy a book about synthesis. It's even good to go into your synth's presets and see how they're built. Is it one oscillator or two? What does unison do? FM? Distortion? If I draw the envelope differently, what effect does it have? Listen to a record you really like and try to recreate the main lead. How did they make it? Is it a saw wave? Is a little detune going on? Why does it sound so wide?
"One of my biggest tips would be to restrict your gear choice, because there's so much out there; restriction is good! The technological possibilities available are humungous, and they're actually too big for your own good. Twenty years ago your Juno 106 had just 32 presets, so you had to be much more creative with what you had. Right now you can buy a Virus TI with 16 oscillators and 12 distortions, so you can press one note and it goes 'Reeeoh' and arpeggios are going everywhere, but it can actually very much limit your creativity. If I really look at the essential stuff that we use, it's all about ES1, ES2 and EXS24, and that's it! It's so amazing what you can do with stuff like that. I'm lucky enough to have a lot of other synthesizers here, but those are just for inspiration. Just as it was in the hardware MIDI days, you really have to invest time in knowing your equipment, so choose your plug‑ins carefully and don't buy too much. Every day I'm still learning, and I always read the Logic section in Sound On Sound. I'm just starting to use groups after reading one of the articles recently, for instance — I'd never used groups!”
Despite the practical advantages of keeping a certain sonic consistency between a each new track and the stylistic flavours of the month, Armin warns against simply duplicating settings between tracks. "You don't want to make the same record every time, which is what you hear a lot of successful producers doing. It's sort of sad when people have just one bass drum they rely on and they use it for every track. Fair enough, you know it works, so don't touch it; that's one way to go. But the other way to go is to solve the problem differently. For example, if you decide to use a different bass line, and it doesn't have the nice warm low end you need, just use a sine wave and put it underneath, layering it so that it sounds as warm as your other bass lines. That way the impact of the bass line is the same, but it's not the same bass line.
"We consciously do not want to use the same sounds all the time, and while I can understand that SOS readers want to know how I work and want to have some guidance on how to work, if you just recreate a track that's already there, you're not helping the scene. You've got to try and make a little difference, even if 90 percent of it is copies of other people's ideas.”
After the writing process is complete, mixing is typically tackled as a separate stage, stripping the track back to drums and bass and building from there. However, Armin stresses that much of the success at mixdown hinges on careful selection and arrangement of the sounds during the writing process. "Everything you do in your life is all about choices, and that goes for making tracks as well. You have to be conscious of the fact that you are making a choice — choosing that kick drum, choosing that bass line — and that you should make the right one at every stage. If you're cooking in the kitchen, you've got to use the right blend of ingredients. The individual ingredients you have might be perfect, but when you put them together the dish may taste awful. It's all about finding the ideal combination of sounds. It's pretty boring to go through over 1000 kick drums and over 1000 bass lines, but it's definitely worth it, and although we do get into side‑chaining the bass line from the kick drum, that won't necessarily make the kick itself any better. Sometimes people want to try to cram too much in, as well. Stick to one idea and finish that. Don't try to put four or five ideas in one track.”
One of the hallmarks of Armin's productions is openness and clarity, despite the lush synth textures and extensive delay and reverb effects, so I was keen to find out how he dealt with this mixing challenge. "How do you get your mix to sound open? Use your EQ. You don't want to know how many Channel EQs we've got going on, cutting bits away! Only use the sounds in the frequency ranges you want them to be active in. For example, you obviously want the kick drum to be at around 60‑70 Hz with a little top 'tick' going on. You can get rid of the other bits, even if it seems to make the kick drum nothing more than a hint of a kick drum. Delays as well: they work best in the mids and highs. Everything that goes on at lower frequencies, just filter it out.
"Likewise, a hi‑hat should be a hi‑hat, not a mid‑hi‑hat, or it will clog up your main melody. A lot of people love Kid Cudi vs Crookers' 'Day & Nite' at the moment, but it has a breakbeat that comes in which I can't stand because it's at the same frequency as the main vocal. You can't hear what he's singing any more, especially when a multi‑band compressor starts working on it. I would never do that. I want to hear what the vocalist is singing.”
Listening to Armin's latest album in particular, it's striking how the textures constantly shift from moment to moment, continually revealing subtle new programming details which help draw you into the track. "We do add a lot of hidden elements, because it's all about layers, especially with trance music. In Logic 8 you can create a new track with duplicate settings, which is great. For example, if you have a bass line going, you can have the same track going underneath it and then increase the attack slider a little bit so it makes it seem like a reverse effect, or put a little Noise Gate on it. That's what we do with a lot of things — just duplicate a track and adjust it so that for a different section it sounds more interesting. No part of the track can sound the same. Everything has to grow. We also use a lot of automation; it's essential.”
Distortion is also becoming an increasingly popular processing choice. "It's a little bit the sound of 'now'. Trance used to be very much about the sound of Roland's JP8080 — the very clean Super Saw, a little detune, a little delay, that was it. Right now it's all about distortion and the harmonics you create when you distort something. We use Logic's Guitar Amp a lot for that, even on bass lines.”
While a lot of home producers aspire to Armin Van Buuren's production values, few actually succeed. Why? Well, judging by the frequency with which the subject arises during our conversation together, a major factor has got to be the seriousness with which Armin approaches the subject of monitoring. "What a lot of the dance music guys do is set up their own studio in their mum's attic and then go to the music store and buy monitors, and the crucial thing I found out while making my last record is that that approach is completely wrong. Here I've been able to build my studio completely from the ground up, and while everything was still on the drawing board we got the monitor builder Mischa Jacobi in with us to design the speakers for that room. And it's completely changed my life, because now I can finally hear what I'm doing!
"People send me tracks where they say, 'I don't know what to do. I've done this mix a thousand times!”, and I can just grab an EQ and the whole problem's gone, because I can hear what I'm doing here. The problem is that a lot of these kids work not only with wrong monitors but they work in an environment that's completely wrong too. It's like if you decide to take a holiday to Paris, but you decide to go by bicycle rather than by plane, and then you don't take a map, so you don't know where you're going!
"Working with my music on NS10s doesn't really make sense either. A lot of pop records are obviously made for radio, but if you make dance music, 50 percent of what you're doing is actually supposed to be for clubs, so it's about low end.” However, although pride of place in his mix room now goes to enormous custom‑built 200kg Royal Sound Systems monitors, I notice that he still has a familiar pair of off‑the‑shelf active monitors up on stands too. He laughs: "I've mixed for years on the Mackie HR824s, so I still have them here. They have way too much low end, but, hate 'em or love 'em, they just sound really good and you sort of get used to them!”
So how did Armin judge the low end of his mixes before he had such a precision system? "Trial and error! For bass levels there's the 'feel your woofer' trick. If it comes out too far you can feel it. Listen to your record on as many different systems as you can. It should sound good on your mum's kitchen stereo, it should sound amazing in the club, and it should sound good in your studio. At one point we were car‑testing constantly: we'd make a quick two‑minute bounce, burn it onto CD, hop into the car, and listen to it there. A/B'ing with other records can also help, especially for club music. I compare a lot with other tracks in iTunes, and we have a special folder called 'This is how we want our records to sound'. That's how you do it — just use your ears.”
Speaking with Armin about his work, it's clear that he has taken an extremely patient and methodical approach to building his now formidable production skills, but as work on his new album continues he still seems keen to absorb fresh new ideas through collaboration with other musicians. "Every human being works in a different way. No matter who I've worked with, we've always learnt stuff from each other. There's always something to learn from someone else.”
And for the rest of us, there's a lot to learn from Armin Van Buuren.
Although a lot of electronic music producers seem tempted to master their own tracks, Armin is cagey about following this trend. "I'm too insecure about it,” he admits, "so I leave it up to a mastering engineer.” He's also disinclined to mix through mastering‑style multi‑band processors. "The problem with multi‑band compression over the main outputs is that it usually clogs up the mix very fast. I get sent lots of promos, and now all these kids are using multi‑band compression to get their music to sound like my radio show. But that goes through a broadcast compressor, and if you heard it that way in a club you'd walk out of the club a half hour later screaming because there's no dynamics in there. It's really important to have some dynamics left.
"So we don't really use compression in that way. If we use a compressor we use it for sound design rather than for the overall mix. For example, I really like the Wave Arts multi‑band dynamics plug‑in — you can put some little noise in there and it really pulls out a lot of information. Using compression to create the ducking effect on a bass line is really important too, to give the kick drum and the bass space. We do a lot of side‑chaining.”
"In my new studio I can use my outboard gear now as well within Logic, which is heaven. Heaven! But — and this is going to sound really bad to the analogue freaks — I'm otherwise mixing internally now, because it's easy and you've got total recall. Computers are fast enough now, finally. If people want an analogue mix, I have a Toft mixer and I can still do an analogue mix. Sometimes I still do, but I'd really say 95 percent of the people I'm playing for do not care if it's mixed analogue or digital. Songs are much more important. I don't even hear the difference between a 192kbps and a 320kbps MP3, to be brutally honest with you! What matters is the music, your ideas — you're an entertainer.”
Armin Van Buuren's rise and rise in the DJ field has allowed him to finance the building of his own dream home studio, and he has strong views about creating a workspace that encourages and allows him to concentrate on the creative aspects of the production process. "This studio is built more for sound and comfort than it is for the equipment. In reality the rack effects are way too far from the mixing position to actually use them. I just use them if I want to use a preset that I made before. That's why I've put them that far away. There's a lot of daylight in my studio as well, which I find really important. Creating your own working environment is essential. Switch off your phone! Don't install email on your studio computer; put that on a computer in your house so you're not distracted.”
Other infrastructure also helps maintain the smooth running of the studio. "We have climate control and complete acoustic isolation, because if you're irritated about the fact that you can't go really loud or that you don't hear your low end, you feel less free to be creative. Plus, everywhere in the studio I've built these little boxes, which have MIDI, audio, Ethernet and mains connectors. I put all my old synths on the wall in my attic, so if I want to have a tweak with those I can pull one down, have power immediately and can get the audio from it. I'm not restricted by having to unplug other synths in the studio to make room. A digital clock unit is so important too, because it's great that I don't have to worry about clicks and ticks any more, and I always have a RAID storage system going now — I've lost so many tracks just because of crashed hard disks. The factories that make hard drives get bigger and bigger, but the drives themselves aren't becoming better and better.”
You can see pictures of Armin's new studio in this very article, but the man himself sounds a cautionary note to anyone examining his synth collection too closely: "I was a little bit in doubt about whether I should give you pictures of my new studio, because people will think 'He's got a V‑Synth! He's got... He's got... I need to buy that!' No, you don't need to buy it. I mean, it looks really cool, but usually we have two or three things in analogue at best. Plus it's just great to have knobs to use sometimes, for creativity. I love the TR909, for example. I know I could sample it, I know the hi‑hat even is a sample, but I keep it there for the sake of having it and for fooling around. But you don't really need it.”
That said, Armin clearly keeps each of his hardware synths for specific reasons, and passes on some of his experiences: "I've used the Moog a lot for creating bass ideas. The JD800 isn't necessarily a very good synth, but I've created a lot of my own sounds in there, and it's very hands‑on. The Alesis Andromeda sounds amazing, but that thing can go a lot further than the presets tell you. If you look on the Internet now you'll find a lot of amazing stuff as MIDI SysEx files. The TX81 is the one I used for 'Blue Fear' — I got it from my Mum and Dad, when I was about 12, I think! The FS1R is great for strings, and I love that Roland 2080; a lot of producers have that still.”