Exclusive: In the studio with Steve Aoki
Steve Aoki gives us an exclusive look at the tech he relies on to produce records in his Las Vegas studio, the Neon Future Cave.
Picture Credit: Caesar Sebastian
Don’t be fooled by Steve Aoki’s 5.9 million-follower Instagram account.
From the private jets and celebrity friends, to his signature cake throwing stage antics, it may look like his life’s a party, but he’s one of the hardest-working people in music.
As a producer, musician, record label owner and superstar DJ he has a tower of hats to balance every day and has spent the last 20 years developing a personal brand rooted in DIY ethics and an artistic output that never remains static.
“I don’t really care what people think about me on the internet,” he tells me over the phone from his Nevada home studio, the “Neon Future Cave”.
“I’m changing my game so much. I still have a lot to do. I think one of the most important things to do as a musician and as a creative artist, is that you always want to surprise people and change things up. You want to show them that you have more than four colours in your crayon set.”
Aoki’s colourful life in music really has been one of constant innovation, which can be seen in the evolution from his involvement in hardcore punk as a teenager to running independent label Dim Mak Records, which he started when he was a 19-year-old college student in California, to becoming a household name and one of the highest paid entertainers in the world.
The adoption of a “by any means necessary” ethos has seen him build Dim Mak into a successful entertainment and lifestyle empire, incorporating publishing, clothing lines and events, while the Dim Mak label itself has served as the launch pad for numerous notable acts across a range of genres, such as Bloc Party, The Bloody Beetroots and The Chainsmokers.
Once you get to that place where you have a good sensibility of the tools in front of you on whatever DAW you are working with, then it’s about harnessing your own interests in music and bringing that to life
- Steve Aoki
His most recent (fourth) studio album, Kolony, features guest appearances from some of hip hop’s biggest stars, such as Migos, 2 Chainz, Gucci Mane and T-Pain. Aoki is currently on tour promoting the album, kicking off the UK leg at O2 Academy Brixton on January 26.
Aoki explains that he’s got “two different modes” when it comes to music producution. “My go-to mode is more of an insular way of thinking about production,” he says. “When I produce songs for my world, the EDM world, I’m producing it for my set and what’s going to be effective at my festival and club shows.”
The other mode, according to Aoki, is about broadening his output as a producer and “building bridges with other genres and crossing into different worlds”.
“It’s just to make music and expand as a producer,” he adds. “With concepts like Kolony, [it’s about] being able to step outside of how I normally look at production.”
Having collaborated as a producer with so many different artists across so many genres, from Blink 182 and Fall Out Boy, to Lady Antebellum and former One Direction member Louis Tomlinson, the role of the producer in today’s music business, as far as Aoki is concerned , “is honestly about being free”.
“I’m really there to build the emotional landscape for [the artist] to be able to be 100% free,” he says. “My role is to give them that morale and to let them write the hooks. I need them to feel creative and to write whatever it is that they need to write. And give them guidance, a general vision, but just let them do their thing.”
Commenting on other producers, Aoki cites the likes of Max Martin as a “genius” and Hans Zimmer as the “G.O.A.T” (Greatest Of All Time).
“I know that there are producers who are there to cut hits,” he says. “The Max Martins for example. Everyone aspires to be a Max Martin. There’s also the Hans Zimmers, who are just like the G.O.A.T of G.O.A.TS, you know what I mean? They really know how to exemplify feeling and make you shed a tear from a few notes.”
On the note of renowned producer and film score composer Zimmer, Aoki talks of how he’s tried his hand at composing music to accompany visual art himself, having recently partnered with fitness brand Zumba to produce the music for a training programme called Strong that was released by the brand last year.
He says it’s a “bucket list goal” to be able to score a whole film. “I definitely dabbled in that world,” he says. “I haven’t full on done a score. I realise how much time is necessary to be involved in a large project like that. I haven’t had the bandwidth and time to be able to do that. It’s a completely different skill set than just making a song.
“When I remixed the Ghosts In The Shell theme song, I pretty much scored it to a scene that they sent me. They sent me the trailer of the film and I watched the scene hundreds of times.”
Aoki warns that “production takes a long time,” when asked what advice he would give to aspiring producers. “It’s an endless, tireless skill set,” he continues.
“It’s something you have to love or else you will just get burnt out. It’s so meticulous. Practice makes perfect. You have to put in the time to get to where you want to go and you can’t beat yourself up if you’re not getting there either.”
The best way to get into electronic production and to hone your craft as a producer is by making as many of your own remixes as you can, suggests Aoki.
“You can remix anything that’s out there nowadays,” he says. “When I first started electronic production, I started with remixes. Before I even made my first original song I had probably remixed 40 or 50 songs and you know, it was like training wheels.
“You have the stems and you can learn your sound design, you can learn your drums. Build your sample library up, get as many different kicks and drum sounds and build your sample tank up. That way you can go to that and reference styles that you really like.”
Aoki explains that designing your own sounds should come much later and that using samples shouldn’t be looked down on. “You can build out a song with just samples. A lot of producers do that, just with existing samples. Plenty of big A-list producers do that. Maybe some people think that’s a bad thing to do, because you are not designing from scratch, but I mean, use your samples to help your creative outlet.”
“If you’re stuck, just get your sample library out and just toy around and experiment. I always say that all the in-the-box plugins are the best way to go, especially Ableton. It’s got incredible plugins that are already there that you can use. Everything you need is there. The same with Logic, Logic has got some great plugins already in there that you can use. “
True to the DIY ethics that have fueled much of Aoki’s career, he’s also an advocate for teaching yourself production techniques using videos online.
“YouTube tutorials are really good and really crucial,” he argues. “If you are stuck on something or want to learn how a certain sound is designed or how you want to try and emulate a sound, it’s up there on YouTube.
“Once you get to that place where you have a good sensibility of the tools in front of you on whatever DAW you are working with, then it’s about harnessing your own interests in music and bringing that to life,” he says.
Aoki has two studios, with his Dim Mak studio in Los Angeles serving as a place to track vocals and “be completely in the box”.
“I have no outboard gear there,” he says. “All my stuff is in Vegas. I call it the Neon Future Cave because it’s in the bunker of my house and I wanted to enter into this room where I was transporting myself into the future,” he says.
“When I work, I work full blast, all lights on,” he continues. “I don’t dim the lights. I don’t mood it out. I only mood it out if an artist wants me to. Otherwise I want that shit lit. That way I can work 12 hours. I don’t want any clocks in the room. Like Vegas style, casino style.”
Aoki’s reasoning for his preferred method of working is that you’re “locked in, you’re there, ready to work your ass off and be totally energised by the room”.
“It works,” he adds. “You set your studio up in the way that you want your environment to be, and you know the way you think creatively is going to be part of the process.
“It’s not just about what plugins you’re using or how high-tech your gear is,” he concludes. “It’s about what’s in your head and how to get that out in a way where it makes sense and translates into your sets, or translates in a way that defines your sounds.”
Steve Aoki has given Audio Media International an exclusive insight into the gear he uses to produce records in his impressive, futuristic-looking Nevada-based home studio, which is aptly named the Neon Future Cave. The studio is centred around a large workstation housing an “epic” Slate Raven Z3C digital mix rack and Focal SM9 monitors.
“There are a lot of mics that I used in the past but I have just got the microphone of all microphones, the Sony C800G. That’s the one I had been looking for and it’s been really difficult to get.
“But before I was using the Neumann TLM 103 (pictured, right). I’ve worked with them a lot and they’ve sent me a bunch of mics. I’ve used that on most of my sessions in the past. All the Neon Future sessions [were] done with the Neumann TLM 103.
“All the new stuff was with the Sony C800G. That’s a vintage tube mic that sounds incredible. It’s definitely one of the highest-level mics in the game, there’s no doubt about that. And it looks sick. It’s just this dope, futuristic looking mic, which is perfect for my studio.”
“For my interface, I’m using a Universal Audio Apollo 16 with a DSP Accelerator, which helps when I’m using my UAD plugins, and I use that for everything.
“As far as preamps and compressors go, I’ve got an Avalon VT-737SP in my Dim Mak studio. The Avalon gives me a warmer tone. In my home studio here [in Las Vegas] I have a different set up. I have a Universal Audio UA 6176 (pictured, right), which is a combo of the classic 610 preamp and the 1176 compressor/limiter.
“The UA 6176 has a really nice crisp sound to the unit and I run pretty much everything through it, including all my guitars and my bass. In a lot of my new productions I’m going back to my roots and adding guitars and bass and not just [working] in the box.
“I do a lot in the box as it is. A lot of my productions are in the box. I’m not really going too far out. But now that I have this sick studio, I’m definitely utilising other stuff.”
“I have a good amount of Waves plugins, like the CLA Vocal (pictured, right) and the JJP Vocals. I think that most people use those. These are all basically one vocal engine that includes compression, EQ Boost, Delays etc. Soundtoys is another plugin that I use, Echo Boys for delays, Crystalliser, which has some cool stuff with pitch shifting and reverse echo.
“Then I’m adding some inbox compression with the Universal Audio 1176LN compressor and the Teletronix LA-3A Classic Audio Leveler. The LA-3A helps keep levels at a good place, while still giving the vocals enough room for dynamics.
“I’m also running some de-essers like the Manny Marroquin Triple D to get rid of some of the unnecessary sounds. Then I’ll also slap an EQ in front of my chain, maybe one in the middle, one in the end. Obviously the chain changes depending on the vocals.”
“For playback monitors, I have these massive Ocean Ways. They are taller than me actually. They’re huge club kind of speakers and they are custom made for the studio. They are a really cool company. They don’t make that many speakers, so having these is really cool.
“The colour scheme on the speaker matches the studio. For my mains I have Focal SM9s. They are great, really incredible monitors. I have a pretty big room here in Vegas, well it’s like a standard room, but my studio in LA is really small and it works in both small and bigger rooms.
“For reference, I have my Bang & Olufsen speakers in my car. That’s the first place I go outside my studio to test things. Everyone is either going to hear it in the car, or computer speakers, so you’ve got to give credit to those speakers too. Lastly, I check my mixes on my Avantone MixCubes (pictured, right), which emulate most laptop/computer speakers. You can really tell if a mix is level through those.”