Armin van Buuren: A State of Trance

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Miami Beach, Fla. —By his own admission, Armin van Buuren rarely grants lengthy interviews. Nonetheless, DJ Times managed to connect with the mega-popular Dutchman for an unhurried talk earlier this year. After he’d touched down in Miami during his A State Of Trance 550 World Tour—he was co-headlining Ultra Music Festival with David Guetta—van Buuren warmed right up.

And small wonder. Aside from the massive Ultra gig at Bayfront Park, it was another notable week in South Florida for van Buuren. During Winter Music Conference, he scored five International Dance Music Award wins, including trophies for Best Global DJ, Best Global Label (for his Armada Music imprint) and Best Radio Mixshow DJ (for A State Of Trance, his internationally syndicated radio show, which achieved its 550th episode). Add these latest industry triumphs to his four-year run (2007-2010) at the top of DJ Mag’s annual Top 100 list/poll and van Buuren might sound a little disingenuous about his somewhat blithe attitude regarding the ranking of artistic achievements. But to talk with him, van Buuren is as down-to-earth as any DJ-giant, and one would suspect that his feelings about awards are more likely the result of having reached the pinnacle of one’s career, a place where there’s little else to prove. So, it’s back to business—apart from the accolades, as always, The Armin van Buuren Machine rolls on.

With the release of his massive mix comp—Universal Religion, Chapter 6 (Armada)—just on the horizon, we present our sitdown with the Dutch Tranceman. He discussed the technical aspects of his latest ASOT tour, the breadth of his deeply influential mixshow, the exciting changes in DJ culture/dance music, and clever ways a superstar DJ can keep close touch with his legions of fans.

DJ Times: Lately, I’ve been feeling old-fashioned as a lover of house music, trance and techno. With so many kids listening to dubstep, has trance become “establishment” music?

Van Buuren: Not at all. At the moment, these are very exciting times for trance. Even though the word has been around a long time, the sound is completely different from what it was 10 years ago. The average BPM has gone down. There is a lot more focus on basslines. If you go to McDonald’s 10 years from now and you order a Big Mac, it’ll taste the same. If you listen to trance 10 years from now, it’ll take a completely different direction!

DJ Times: What have you been seeing, then?

Van Buuren: It’s been fantastic and phenomenal for me to see the genre grow. Guys like Arty and Mat Zo, who introduced a new sound, the American sound from Tritonal, which is very energetic with a hint of electro basslines… it’s exciting times. Four years ago when I did A State Of Trance 400, all the DJs were playing the big records. Now, with trance, we’re allowed to play more housey stuff and we’re allowed to play banging stuff like John O’Callaghan. A little more housey, like Gareth Emery, and then you have the Markus Schulz Army with more of a deeper sound, more driving and energetic. If you consider trance to be Big Mac, then yes, it’s done.

DJ Times: But it’s changing for the better, you think?

Van Buuren: I think the genre has completely evolved; it’s fresh at the moment. I refused to move away from trance because I’m still passionate for its energy, its melodies. There are a lot of changes, but the euphoric elements are still there. I love this melodic stuff that comes from the heart. The sound has moved on, but the basic elements are still there. You can’t say the sound of Arty is the same as it was 10 years ago.

DJ Times: With this generation’s excitement for dubstep, somewhat embodied by Skrillex’s Grammy wins, can you ever see a day when that genre will overtake trance in popularity?

Van Buuren: I don’t see why they can’t coexist. Dubstep is just the birth of new genres. I feel America’s just embraced EDM by inventing its own genre, really. Skrillex has brought dubstep to the next level. It’s important to see that Skrillex is American and the Grammy is American and he wins. Not to take anything away from his accomplishments, but he’s the face of the new fresh start in EDM.

DJ Times: What, do you believe, has been the impact of this “fresh start” on other styles?

Van Buuren: What you can see immediately is that all the other styles are influenced by the sound of dubstep now. It’s fresh. The way I compare it is, like, The Beatles looked at Bob Dylan and Beethoven looked at Bach. Human beings have a strange habit of wanting to put labels on stuff so that we can understand things. There’s nothing wrong with labeling, but unfortunately trance is not stale. Dubstep will evolve and sound different 10 years from now.

DJ Times: Back to your music, what’s your process of choosing producers with whom to collaborate?

Van Buuren: For me, it begins and ends with the song. If the song is good, then I’m up for collaborating. If Chris Martin called me… if a song is not a good song, it’ll never be. For my new album, I tend to look outside again. I worked with Ana Criado again. I also did a track as Gaia focused on old-school trance and I worked with a French singer called Julie Bataille. I had an idea of a French vocal and I contacted her. Everything starts with the concept for a song, an idea.

DJ Times: What’s your DJ setup these days?

Van Buuren: A Pioneer DJM-2000 mixer with four [Pioneer] CDJ-2000s with two running audio and two running a timecode signal, rekordbox on a Mac running. I have all my tracks available. I have all my tracks from the last 10 years—you’re never done going through your music! I come from the vinyl age where if you bought records and you labeled them correctly, on a plane you could just sit and do emails. Now, it’s never-ending; it’s ongoing.

DJ Times: What’s your take on the evolution of DJ and live-performance software/gear?

Van Buuren: I started with vinyl, then CDs. I’ve always been a fan of the CDJs and it basically changed the way I DJ. I’m working with timecode now. I can send timecode to backstage or the pyro/lighting department. So now if I want, I can time when a singer comes on. I can time it to count down for the singer. It’s a click track for the singer to count down. My view is that the music doesn’t stop, so that’s sometimes confusing for the singer. I have a CDJ-2000, in the middle is my mixer, so instead of doing a fader-start with one fader, I now start with two faders—so now the two tracks can time exactly in sync. For me, it opens a whole new world. My focus is much more on other stuff going on onstage, like the visuals, pyrotechnics, CO2, singers, and so on. Now I can sync it up.

DJ Times: Are you doing anything different these days on the road that perhaps is new for you?

Van Buuren: Well, I travel with a crew, which is new. I have two VJs, a sound guy and a light guy. We do have random visuals like logos and funny things, like for an encore song and tracks that I do, but there’s still a lot of interaction with the visuals as possible. I have some tracks I can loop and I have custom visuals where I can say, “Hey, what’s up Santo Domingo!” on the big screen. I like to stress beforehand when I’ll play. I have maybe five opening tracks I think I’ll wanna open with. I’m chatting with the visuals guys to tell them what the next track will be and what my timecode track is. Everybody can do it themselves.

DJ Times: Why have you gone so big?

Van Buuren: People expect more. The dance scene has evolved. Shows are bigger and DJs have to step up their game as well, especially for big shows like Ultra Music Festival. People expect a certain show. People want to be surprised. It’s entertainment.

DJ Times: Do you feel you have to work harder to stay connected with fans, the bigger you’ve gotten?

Van Buuren: I was touring in Brazil for Carnivale and I had one night off. I told my tour manager, because I have too much new music and I wanted to test it out for a new crowd. So, we called the local promoter and asked him if I could play this club. He said, “What do you want for money?” I played for 300 people and it was announced on Twitter in Sao Paolo! [laughs] You stay connected for your fans in that way. That’s what I love about our job. The best thing about my job is playing for 400 people. In Miami during Ultra Music Festival, I played Mansion the Sunday night after the festival. I think it’s really important to stress, it’s also important to keep doing the smaller venues.

DJ Times: Do you feel that using computers to compose music gives an artist the widest, nearly infinite palette of possibilities to work with?

Van Buuren: There’s nothing like the power of real instruments, the dynamics of a real string orchestra or a guitar. It is not the same as plug-ins, even though plug-ins are so advanced now. It’s so amazing having a real orchestra. There’s something about the trembling in the air of the sound waves; it trembles to your soul. There’s something magical about real instruments as a real guitar. I think it has to do with the harmonies.

DJ Times: Give me an example.

Van Buuren: If you sample a piano, say you’ll sample every note. If you press an “A,” the hammer goes up to the string, but what also happens when  you press that note is all the surrounding strings also vibrate subtly! You can’t reproduce that in software. That’s what the human brain picks up. If you play guitar, you’re not only hearing the strings you’re touching. You’re hearing the body of the instrument, the area of strings you’re touching… I think people have a really precise ear for these harmonics and distortion. It interests our minds. You appreciate those harmonics. Some software can come really close especially if you’re doing reverb or compression. If you have an untrained ear, you can’t hear the difference with some pieces of music, but there’s other music… that’s highly dependent on dynamics.

DJ Times: With Simon Cowell’s supposed plans for a DJ competition show, the Grammy Awards showcasing EDM and more, it’s a plain fact that DJ culture has reached a boiling point in America. What’s your take?

Van Buuren: I don’t understand the need for such competition in any talent, and I don’t believe in judging people for their creative output! If a painter paints a picture and the painter decides to hang it on a wall for people to see, two important things happen: one is that the painter expresses his/her artistic belief on a painting; two is when the painter decides to display it to the public. Then the public comes and sees it and has an opinion about it. Whatever the audience thinks about the painting and whatever the artist meant by the painting, it is two different things! I’m surprised. You can only judge a DJ from a three-hour set. You can’t judge a DJ if he makes two or three tracks. It’s an economical view [Cowell] that wants to make bucks out of. It’s a strange need in humans to judge other people and put them into awards. I don’t believe music is supposed to divide people; music is supposed to bring people together. That’s the essence of it. Music is supposed to connect people. If people wanna label me, that’s fine. I’m the painter. I didn’t choose to do it for that reason…

DJ Times: Easy to say when you’ve collected so many awards yourself…

Van Buuren: But on the other hand, I’m thrilled and excited that so many people go online to vote for me. [laughs] Do I think I’m better than other DJs on a list? No way. No way! It is weird. Music is really strange. If you don’t like the current #1 [DJ in a poll ranking] or anyone in the top 40, that’s fine. If you like #72 and that’s your favorite at the moment… it’s fine. It’s a strategy, in regards to Deadmau5, say, to create controversy. He’s also a great producer. He wants to be a controversial character.

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