Producer/DJ Armin van Buuren on UAD Plug-Ins
In the world of dance music, few have amassed as stellar a resume — or rocked as many clubs and festivals around the globe — as Dutch superstar and trance pioneer Armin van Buuren.
The globetrotting producer and DJ has been crowned with the coveted number-one ranking by DJ Magazine five times in his career and his work has earned him fistfuls of additional awards and nominations worldwide.
In addition to releasing five albums under his name, he is the host of A State of Trance, a weekly radio show heard by over 33 million listeners via more than 100 FM stations around the world.
Here’s what van Buuren had to say about crafting body-shaking beats, collaborating in the studio, at his kitchen table, and across oceans, and how Apple Logic Pro X and UAD Powered Plug-Ins give him the sonic firepower to entrance audiences, night after night.
"Music is never a fixed thing. There are always new techniques, new sounds, new plug-ins being used — new ways to produce music."
A State of Trance, has been enormously successful. Did you expect it to still be going?
I always envisioned doing A State of Trance just for a couple years and then moving on, but the trance genre is currently reinventing itself. New guys like Mark Sixma, Jerome Isma-Ae, Orjan Nilsen, Andrew Rayel, and David Gravell are bringing new and fresh sounds.
It’s a lot of fun, as a DJ, to be in the middle between the audiences and producers, passing along the music and following the development of this sound that I like the most. I always told myself that I wouldn’t continue A State of Trance just for the sake of doing it. The music has to be inspiring. I’m very glad to say that, every week, two hours isn’t enough. I usually have enough music to fill three or four hours with good, inspirational tunes. I have to go through all of the new trance music for my DJ sets anyway, so it’s convenient. [Laughs.]
You collaborate with a lot of producers and musicians. How do these typically originate?
The most honest answer is that I don’t have a standard way of working. Sometimes people approach me with a good vocal idea, but every track comes together in a completely different way. A lot of times, I start on piano and send demos out. The song “This Is What It Feels Like” began with a Rhodes part in 6/4, which is a strange time signature for dance music, but the vocalist [Trevor Guthrie] was able to do a great job on top of it. And the track “Feels So Good” from my album Mirage started in my kitchen, actually, with my brother just sitting and playing guitar on a sunny day.
I like to be inspired by sounds and moments. I don’t always start with four kick drums and a bass line and build the groove and breakdown from there. Sometimes just hearing a good groove can inspire ideas. For me, there really is no “golden” way of working.
How often do you create your own sounds, as opposed to using pre-existing samples or patches?
For synths, it’s about 50/50, using pre-existing banks or creating our own patches. We record a lot of real instruments, too.The title track from Intense, for example, featured Miri Ben-Ari on violin. I had finished the track with a MIDI violin part and went to New York to record Miri there in Pro Tools. Then we took the raw files and finished the project in Logic back here at my home studio in Leiden, Holland. To finish things up, all of the files then went back to New York for mastering at The Lodge.
One of your longest standing collaborations is with producer Benno de Goeij (Rank 1, Jochen Miller). Can you describe your workflow when you’re tracking and mixing together?
Benno is a good friend. When we’re working together, we often start with a vocal or melody idea, or another track that has a good sound that we want to recreate. I do most of my work in Logic Pro X and, within that, I love the possibilities for using MIDI.
How does your choice of Logic Pro X for your DAW affect your and Benno’s workflow?
What I love about Logic Pro X is that you can import channel strips, including MIDI and bus routing. The way Benno and I work is, everything is hooked up to an old Apple server upstairs from my studio. That houses all of my samples and it’s fast enough that I can work from one server and have two projects open and streaming from it at the same time. Then Benno and I can each open the same project and, search for bass lines, import entire channel strips with MIDI or audio information, automation, or whatever, and efficiently combine our ideas.
How do you guys monitor during these sessions?
We like to have one of us on headphones at one DAW, and the other sitting on the main PA checking out a mix, working on a mixdown, or arranging another track. Both DAWs have the same settings, so it’s easy to open all projects in both DAWs. It’s heaven working like this. We usually route everything through buses — one for kick, one for bass, one for synth leads, one for vocals, one for effects. We do that to create headroom in the mix. You don’t want your leads to go above -10dB, and you don’t want your kick above -10dB either.
When you mix, do you compress the master bus?
For our own reference, we make a full version that we’ve compressed the hell out of it to make it sound really loud. When we send a track out for mastering, however, we give them a non-compressed, non-limited version that has headroom of at least 6 dB. That way, the mastering engineer can still add EQ and effects and have some space to play with. The loud reference mixes we make for ourselves are very useful for me on the road. As a DJ, I play every weekend, and those mixes are perfect for road-testing my tracks. That’s a golden rule — even if it’s just a draft of a track — if there’s something wrong with an arrangement, you will hear it on the dance floor.
What do you put across your master bus for your reference mixes?
The kick is such an important part of dance music. How do you craft yours?
I recently got into the Xfer Nerve software drum machine, which lets you combine sounds to make your own kick drum. Usually, we take the top of an existing kick drum and add our own low end, which is often just a synth filling out the oomph that we need. Then we put a compressor on there to make the kick drum more snappy, to help it blend, and to make the sound whole.
What are some of your go-to UAD plug-ins for sculpting low-end in a mix?
The Ampex® ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder plug-in and the Studer® A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder plug-in tape emulations give a nice edge to bass tracks.
Another favorite is the the Pultec Passive EQ Collection. I like to use it without any boost — just insert it and it gives you a wonderful tool for blending live elements with synths — just by going through the virtual circuitry.
Do you have favorite UAD reverb?
The The Lexicon® 224 Digital Reverb plug-in is just stunning on vocals. It brings dynamics, without smearing anything. It breathes magic into a track.
What do you reach for when you need dynamics processing?
I use the SPL Transient Designer plug-in on almost every one of my drums. It helps get a great attack on the sound. You want the transients to shine through and “wow,” that plug-in does it like no other.
I also love the Precision De-Esser plug-in, and those are usually on our vocal tracks. The Teletronix LA-2A sounds amazing on vocals as well. The FATSO™ Jr./Sr. Tape Sim. & Compressor plug-in is also a good one on drums specifically, to make the snare sound a little more crisp.
Do you marvel at how your workflow has changed over your career?
Yes. I come from the world of old-school MIDI production. When I was making tracks in ’96, I had a big Apple G3, a lot of outboard gear, a big mixer, and DAT machines. Now, plug-ins offer so many possibilities — but for some reason, I keep maxing out every system I have! [Laughs.] I love UAD because you can just keep adding plug-in after plug-in and really stretch the boundaries of what you’re able to do. They’re essential to me now. I can’t live without them.
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