Above & Beyond on global success, production toys and Spectrasonics Omnisphere

Above & Beyond on global success, production toys and Spectrasonics Omnisphere

With a successive ranking in the upper heights of DJ Mag’s revered Top 100 DJs list (currently residing at number 5), a steady stream of gigs around the world and a brand new artist album about to drop, it’s safe to say Above & Beyond are enjoying immense success right now...

The Trance trio, who are known for their mixture of sleek dancefloor rhythms, epic hooks and songwriting sensibilities, consists of Jono Grant, Paavo Siljamäki and Tony McGuinness. We interviewed Tony about the group’s success, their production toys and techniques and their views on ‘VST Trance’…

Hi Tony, could you give us a bit of background info about how Above & Beyond came about?
We all got together to do a remix for Warners, Chakra Home, in 1999, I think. I´d met Jono through my brother Liam, who had been looking for sounds for his rare Yamaha sampler and had found this University student on the web who was selling homemade Yamaha sample CDs. That was Jono Grant.

Liam bought one of the CDs and was using it to finish his remix of a track we had been working on called Nitromethane "Time To Die". Or at least we were trying – the Yamaha sampler was a nightmare to program. I had an Akai, as did most sensible people, but Liam was staunchly PC (not Mac) at the time and the Yamaha used wavs so that´s the way he went. Liam and I had been in bands for years and had no trouble coming up with music, but we were learning about mix engineering from scratch at that point and having mixed results if you´ll excuse the pun. I could make a mix sound good from the floor up and had actually done a track (Nitromethane "Religion") that William Orbit had just used in his Essential Mix, but in the main, I found that if the mix went wrong I would find it tough knowing what to do. So I´d done a few good tracks and a lot of bad ones!

Anyway, being a canny chap, Jono had also sent Liam a demo CD of his own productions along with the sample CD and it was pretty obvious from listening to it that Jono was so much better at engineering than we were. So Liam suggested getting a remix from Jono to add to the package. Unbeknown to us, Jono had met up with a guy in the year above him at University called Paavo Siljamäki and they were working as a team under the name Anjunabeats. They´d pressed up their first tune "Anjunabeats Volume One" and hand delivered it to Paul Oakenfold one night at Home in London - and Paul loved it. I didn´t know any of this at the time, but when their remix of Time To Die came in, both Liam and I knew we had a lot to learn!

Whilst we both preferred the music in the original mix we´d done, Jono and Paavo´s mix sounded much more HIFI. So it seemed sensible to ask Jono & Paavo to oversee a new mixdown of our own versions as well. They came to my house one Saturday with some exciting outboard equipment including a multiband compressor, which I´d ever seen before. It was an illuminating session in many ways, not least how quickly they got under the skin of my Roland JP8000 - I was mostly a preset kind of a guy, but not these two! Jono was a professional sound designer even then, and Paavo was just as adept - and in no time at all we had Ferry Corsten in the house!

In many respects that mix of Time To Die was the first Above & Beyond production, but we didn´t realise that at the time. Meanwhile, I was still working at Warners and had played Religion and the pre-Jono mix of Time To Die to Jonathan Dickins who was then Warner´s main dance A&R man and had signed Chakra. To my surprise, he really liked my tunes and on the strength of them asked if I´d like to have a go remixing "Home" for the re-release. I was very excited: I´d actually been with Jonathan and the two guys from Chakra listening to Paul Oakenfold (for it was him) playing "Home" for the first time in Cream in Liverpool years before and never forgot that moment - it was my favourite record by miles. I said I´d love to do it, but inside I knew I´d ask Jono and Paavo to help, I had to make sure it would sound good. I hate failing. So for the next week or three, every evening and every weekend I would drive up to Harrow to work on the Chakra remix in the boys´ student house.

When we finally finished it we were running off the DAT and we realised we´d need a name: I glanced up at the wall and saw a web page Jono had printed out. He´d put his own name into Alta Vista and found this American training guru called Jonathan Grant and his slogan, written across the top of his website, was "Above & Beyond". As a Warners employee working all hours to do a mix for the same company it seemed instantly appropriate, but like all good names, its greater meaning soon became apparent. It described exactly what the mix sounded like to us, like some Mission Statement from the gods. Jonathan Dickins and the guys in Chakra loved the remix, made it the A-side on the promo and after two plays on Pete Tong it got to number one in the club chart. The rest, as they say, is history. The two guys from Chakra went on to open the download site Audio Jelly, Paul Oakenfold kept being Paul Oakenfold and Jonathan Dickins now manages Adele, who´s already sold 4 million albums. Good for him!

How has your sound changed over the years?
The original Above & Beyond sound was in some ways a synthesis of the trance sound at the time. We liked the punch of Paul van Dyk, we loved the musicality of Ferry Corsten and adored the arrangements and little sonic tricks of Matt Darey. I´d met Matt through work - I´d asked him to remix one of my signings, Hysteric Ego, and had sat in the studio with him one afternoon glued to the screen to see what he did. Matt had a very economical approach to remixing, using much of the last remix he´d done in the new one, so his Logic sessions had loads of muted tracks so it was hard to keep track of what was going on! Jono, Liam and I had gone clubbing with Matt the night we met up for the first time and quite often after that we´d call him up and ask how he did some of the tricks – reverse reverbs to cover a transition, for example. By the time we´d done a few remixes the Above & Beyond sound crystalised into its own thing and the influences were less obvious.

Ultimately what we were always best at was taking a song, either an existing one we were remixing, or one we had written ourselves, and creating the best possible club music environment for it. And I have to credit Jono and Paavo for this one thing in particular, quite apart from their brilliant engineering ability they were so good at re-writing the chords underneath a song we often outdid the original mix. Delerium used the Above & Beyond remix of Underwater as the radio mix and when, eventually, we remixed Madonna she used our mix in the video instead of the original. Even now, when we write a song we´ll usually scrap the backing track and start again, changing the chords completely to eek out every last drop of emotion from the song. If you listen to the original "Tongue" mix of "Liquid Love" and the mix that ended up on the album you´ll see what I mean.

Fast forward to our new album "Group Therapy" and the recent single "Sun & Moon" and there´s been quite a shift in sound, in groove particularly, reflecting the change in the scene around us and our desire to keep ahead of things. The wall between house and trance came down a few years ago and we were fast through the breach, firstly with our sub-label Anjunadeep (which defined housey trance/trancy house for quite a while before it became normal) and then with our own productions. For the last year, Andrew Bayer has been helping us keep things moving in the studio - he´s an inspirational young producer from the USA who was signed to our label, first as one of the Signalrunners and later as a solo artist. I think we´ve all really enjoyed the freshness of his input and it has helped all of us to update the sound of Above & Beyond whilst keeping the essential elements of what we do, namely the emotional delivery of a song to a big dark club full of people.

What´s your current studio set-up?
We use Logic for all our productions, Ableton Live for the radio show and for the odd groove based thing. We have a whole bunch of outboard gear including the Sequential Circuits Pro One that made that dark sound in the Madonna remix, a Moog Prodigy and some new synths as well, but to be honest we mainly use plugins as they are so fast and recallable. Key to our enjoyment is two Apogee DA/AD boxes (even I can hear the difference they make) and some gorgeous Klein + Hummel speakers.

What´s been the biggest technological change for your studio since you started out?
The enormous leap in the power of the Mac and the number of plugins you can run now, especially reverbs. Along with the internet and what that means in terms of moving files around, it’s computing which has really changed things.

Are you still using Logic these days? Why do you prefer it over other platforms?
Loyalty! I´ve been using it for eighteen years in one form or another, the guys are much the same I think, so I guess because we´re used to it, but it does allow you to do so much. There are lots of annoying recent bugs, especially automation chase issues and rogue cache pops and stuff like that, but it is so incredibly powerful and, with the key commands and multi-window thing, really fast.

Which plug-ins do you find yourself going back to time and again?
It changes all the time, but I´d say The Logic EXS24, the Logic ES1, Spectrasonics Omnisphere and the Arts Acoustic reverb are probably the most used things on our computer over the last few years.

The EXS 24 could be better, but we all know it so well you can get up and running so quickly. A lot of our pianos are just the Garageband Piano sound running in an EXS24. We occasionally use other samplers but the NI stuff is so buggy we get bored of the inconvenience. The ES1 is just fabulous, it’s in almost all of our productions somewhere.

Omnisphere does synth strings so well its hard to wean yourself off that thing (we used real strings on the new album, but layered with samples from Omnisphere) and the Arts Acoustic Reverb is transparent and fabulous. We went UAD/powered for a while and still love the LA 2A compressor, we´ve done Waves and still use the L2 (who doesn´t let´s be honest!) and their Q EQs to take out resonant frequencies in vocals, we were fond of Sonalksis EQs for a while and have used lots of software synths from Korg (their Legacy stuff is great) and others, but our current favourites are the PSP Vintage Warmer (sex in a box!), Melodyne (just incredible - you can be god for a day!) and the FXPansion Strobe (as good as hardware????).

In a former interview, you used the term ´VST Trance´ to describe copycat trance sounds ´made on a computer that sound like old trance records we made from 5 years ago´. What tips would you give our computer music customers to avoid this in their own productions?
Oops, sorry about that. There are some fabulous software synths (e.g. the Nexus) that can make all the classic trance sounds instantly, and we use them from time to time, but if you only ever use presets from these things you´ll only sound like the people whose sounds inspired them. That´s great when you start out (we were clearly influenced by other people and still are) but you really need to be different if you´re going to stand out and have your own sound. I think the key is to mix up your influences a bit, ideally from as wide a palette as possible, be it folk, dubstep, house, techno or classical music, especially since all the walls came down.

Moving on to your live performances – what does your typical stage set-up consist of?
When we DJ we play on two linked CDJ2000s and use an SD card pre-programmed in Rekordbox, the world´s most clunky but essential software. We like the DJM800 the best, it is simple, battle proven and just works. The DJM-2000 is no good for our kind of mixing (we don´t scratch or fuck about with the records too much, it seems so disrespectful) but the new 900 looks interesting. You can get an accurate BPM reading out of it via midi which we can use to drive our visuals, so we´re looking forward to that appearing in front of us in a DJ booth somewhere!

When we play live we play the spine of the track in Ableton and add live bass, drums, guitar and vocals the old-fashioned analogue way, and synth sounds via Mainstage, the live Logic programme.

Have you had any particularly bad technological disasters while playing live?
Of course! We used to be so scared of things going wrong but now we love it. What´s the worse that can happen? A bit of silence never hurt anybody. The key is to look like you meant it to happen.

Over the next couple of months you´ll be appearing in the UK, Brazil, USA, The Netherlands, Spain and Canada – when do you get the time to make music?!
As DJs we have three in the squad, two in the team. It’s all about rotation! The odd one out is back home in the studio.

You´re about to release the first single ´Sun & Moon´ from your forthcoming second artist album ´Group Therapy´ – what should we expect from this album?
Radio 1 playlists! Top of the Pops! International pop stardom! Well by now (sorry it took me so long to do this interview!) Sun & Moon has been out and that is a pretty good marker for what you can expect from the album. A song about one of our ex-girlfriends over some gorgeous music and a slamming, flare-wobbling groove!

What else is in the pipeline for Above & Beyond in 2011?
We have a massive US tour about to start which will do wonders for our career but wreck all our marriages/friendships, we have Group Therapy Stages at all the big festivals (SW4, Global Gathering, Tomorrowland etc), we´ll be putting out Anjunabeats Volume 9 and a slew of amazing releases across both labels (check out Stephen J Kroos´s new stuff to see how far we´ve stretched ourselves in the last ten years!) and I´ll be starring opposite Keira Knightley in a remake of Blade Runner directed by Paavo. Or am I dreaming that?

Thanks, Tony!