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GAIA: How I Play Live

We go behind the scenes of Armin van Buuren’s collaborative project

Armin van Buuren’s outstretched arms behind the decks are a staple sight in electronic music. But his feel-good, trance-laced, vocal-heavy sets are only part of Armin’s musical output – his GAIA project, alongside long-time production partner Benno De Goeij, is a chance for the former DJ Mag number-one to explore less commercial sounds, and step out from behind the deck with some of his and Benno’s favourite hardware. Incorporating synths, sequencers and FX, the duo’s live show also brings in impressive visuals that they control from the stage with custom-built hardware. We spoke to Benno and Armin to find out more about how they play live.

Why did you decide to create GAIA and why did you want to make it a live show?
“GAIA is the ancestral mother of all life: the primal Mother Earth goddess. It’s a reference to our roots as producers. The sound of GAIA is the sound that inspired us to start producing music ourselves. We wanted to make a live show because we wanted to create music live on stage, rather than playing pre-mixed and arranged music. It’s a different dynamic than DJing.” 

What were the main challenges in deciding on the setup for the show?
“The wish list was super big: a 909 MIDI-style sequencer with an easy hardware interface to program drums with the touch of a button. Separate channels for percussion loops, bassline channel and no more than four synth channels. For arranging we wanted to be able to filter these elements rather than just switching loops on and off. And on top of that: apply reverb effects to all these individual elements to glue the transitions. We had another challenge too: it’s impossible for our crew to know when we do what since we decide everything on the spot. So, we wanted a connection to the visuals and lights. This way the rhythm patterns can actually trigger the lights. The filtering we do can change colour or light intensity for example, but can be way more complex. This was all unexplored territory, and we even designed our own hardware controllers for it.”

"This was all unexplored territory, and we even designed our own hardware controllers for it"

How did you decide what kit to use and what would be played or sequenced?
“It’s all very organic. We can both manipulate the same parameters but I won’t touch the faders for example if I see Benno is working on them and vice versa. We mainly choose the loops based on how we feel the night is going and add loops as we go. It’s a whole new way of creating music and you’re sure you’ll never hear the exact same GAIA set live.”

What’s the current setup in the show?
“We run Ableton Live with Max for Live on two laptops. One is simply a spare if the other one quits. We only use one soft synth, namely Native Instruments’ Massive, but several instances on different channels. Program changes are used to switch to different patches for the loops. We wanted to make sure we didn’t have too many plugins in one project. Then we have all kinds of MIDI controllers like the APC40 and some custom-built stuff. Additionally, we have two Access Virus TIs and two Arturia Matrixbrutes and a Norddrum.”

Do you feel like the crowd appreciates a live show over a DJ set? Do they understand what’s happening, or does it matter?
“Good question! At the end of the day we feel it’s all about the music people hear and if they go crazy to it. But we feel the excitement of us doing everything live generates a certain energy on the dancefloor. People can hear it’s organic and the music breathes. We like being nerds on stage!”

Do you find a live show more liberating or more restricting than a DJ set?
“No, it’s just a whole different approach to making music. If you have been a DJ for over 20 years, you need to change it up a bit sometimes, also to keep inspired. The whole concept of doing a live show BEFORE releasing the album was very exciting for us. We basically made the album in front of a live audience. We’re not trying to be uber cool by doing everything live or something. It’s just about the excitement of doing something different and being inspired.”

What do you think is behind the increase in electronic music acts playing live, and more manufacturers making equipment for it?
“It’s a good thing! All part of the evolution of music. People always want to hear and see something different. If we would still play the same music and DJ in the same way it wouldn’t be very exciting now would it?”

What does GAIA offer you separately to what playing as Armin does? Why did you feel you needed that outlet? 
“GAIA is purely instrumental music. Armin plays vocal tracks sometimes. GAIA is only our own stuff. Armin plays tracks from others too. GAIA arranging and mixing live. Armin plays as a DJ mostly pre-mixed and arranged tracks. When Benno and I are working in the studio we often come across great sounds that normally don’t fit into what we’re working on. We don’t throw away those sounds but save them for a GAIA track.”

"The digital age is opening up more and more possibilities for exciting new gadgets"

What do you think is next for performance in the club?
“I think you’ll see more and more DJ’s incorporating live elements into a DJ set, also to make DJing more exciting for themselves. The digital age is opening up more and more possibilities for exciting new gadgets. That can only mean new sounds and new live performances and that is amazing for the evolution of music. We need music to evolve to keep it exciting!”

How would you like to expand the show in the future? 
“We’ll keep adding more and more gadgets that will enhance our show. But most important new music! Cause in the end, it’s all about the music.”

GAIA’s debut album ‘Moons of Jupiter’ is out now