Steve Aoki

Live sound, studio music and the power of Dim Mak.

Steve Aoki may have begun his DJ career throwing parties at UC Santa Barbara, but gifted with both an artist’s heart and true entrepreneurial spirit, he’s built an empire based on having a good time listening to music.

When you’re averaging close to 300 gigs a year, keeping a business empire going and still being able to concentrate on making compelling dance tracks can be a challenge. As Aoki says, “When it comes to all this managing, it requires a lot of cooperation from all the different teams. Just for Dim Mak alone, there are over 20 people on payroll, handling business development, whether it’s music-related events, festival-related, and the fashion business, which is really a growing sector of our business. It’s definitely massive. We just got into Forever 21. We’re launching eyewear and a denim line next year. So there are a lot of different moving parts. Then of course, I have other ventures, like a few restaurants, and I work really with just one guy. I trust him and he operates and manages all the money, and manages all the business side of that.”

On the music end of things, though, it’s definitely his taste and ears that get the job done. “When it comes to producing,” he says, “it’s more like I don’t really need anyone, other than sometimes an engineer, especially when I work with vocalists. For the most part, I produce most of my ideas, I do the majority of my final mixes at home, in my studio. I’ll produce most of the concepts and the melodies, the chord progressions, [building] out some sounds on the road. Today I flew from Germany to Ibiza. On the plane, I just started working, and worked out the main concepts for my remix to Unlimited’s “Y’All Ready for This.”

Like many other artists, it’s the software revolution that makes this possible for Aoki. The combination of powerful laptops, like the MacBook Pro he prefers, with a dizzying range of music software and the worldwide Internet connectivity that comes with modern mobile devices, means that wherever he is, he can be working. As he explains, “I’m on Ableton 9 and I really like its cool features. Sometimes, I just land off a plane and I’ll come up with an idea and start humming voice memos in my phone—I’ve got a million of them. Most of them are just rubbish, but some of them have something that I could possibly use in a song. With Ableton 9, you can actually put that in and it transcribes it for you. So that’s kind of neat.”

For the wide variety of sounds he uses, Aoki keeps a lot of arrows in his quiver, supplementing Ableton Live with a number of other software packages and plug-ins. He explains, “I’ll rewire Reason into Ableton [ed.note: must run in 32-bit mode for this to work] for one plug-in—the Målstrom [synth], which has incredible sounds. On Neon Future, my new album, a lot of the bass sounds and synth sounds are coming from Målstrom. I use Sylenth a lot, ever since I really started producing the bigger records. Massive [part of KOMPLETE 9], as well—I pretty much used Massive on every single track on Wonderland.”

With the dance music scene constantly looking for new beats and new twists, Aoki always keeps his ears open. “I like changing up the gears,” he says. “I want to try some new ideas. And [I like] another producer showing me some of their secrets on how to create interesting sound design, or finding more effective ways to create better sound.”

Aoki’s mobile studio is a scaled down reflection of his home studio. “I travel with a Duet 2 [by Apogee],” he explains, “and then leave the [Apogee] Quartet in my studio. I used to have an Ensemble [also by Apogee], but the Quartet is really all I need, because I’m not recording any live instrumentation. This year I bought a Virus [by Access] in January so I’ve been using that. I have some other synths, but I don’t really use those anymore. I’m pretty much ‘in the box.’ The only other thing I’ll have is a guitar I’ll plug in with Guitar Rig sometimes. I’m not really producing much guitar right now, although I do like messing around with it.”

While most mixing is done at his home studio, with vocals tracked using mics from Lewitt Audio, Aoki frequently tries out material he’s working on live to check audience reaction and make sure he’s on the right track with a piece. “I’ve actually been debuting a few tracks off of Neon Future that way as well and retooling the sound design,” he says. “I hear it live and I see how the crowd responds to the songs. There are a few collaborations I’ve been playing out live that are changing and evolving. I wrote this song with Knife Party called ‘Piledriver’ and I’ve been playing it out. I know those guys have been playing it out for over a year. When we drop the release we’re going to release a brand new version of it that’s never been heard before. So people are going to be like, ‘Yo, I want to hear the version that you’ve been playing out.’ We’re changing it because it’s just that the sound of now is different than the sound of last year.”

For his upcoming album, Neon Future, Aoki took some time away from touring and from his home studio to find a new perspective. “In January and February, instead of working in my studio, I rented out a cabin in Mammoth Mountain for two weeks and also one in Big Bear,” he explained. “I wanted to be completely isolated from every possible distraction. I would fly in and out of Mammoth to go do gigs, but I pretty much turned down most of my gigs for those two weeks. [It] was all just compiling all of these concepts and ideas that I’ve been diddling [with] and writing on the road. I was able to flesh all of them out in one go. So I recommend that idea that, if you can’t get anything done, sometimes your own studio is your enemy. You need to get out of it and find a new place. You need to do something in a new creative space and be away from the world, if you can.”

At live shows, while still based around the classic contemporary standard of Pioneer decks and mixer, Aoki has started to work with integrating video elements into his show, thanks to Serato’s video plug-in. “I can play a song that’s almost like a video MP3,” he says. “It’s all realtime so I can rewind it, and it’s playing right to the music. There’s no other technology that I’m aware of that does what Serato video does. I did a whole tour, a bus tour, with Ableton and originally I had it set up with a guy doing visuals with Ableton. I didn’t like that because I wasn’t DJing. So then I went back to Serato, and met up with Serato’s technical team and we worked out how to do video Serato in the most efficient way possible with my kind of setup.”

As Aoki was one of the first DJs to get involved with custom headphone designs, he stays on top of what’s available, and is not shy with recommendations. “One thing I do want to shout out is that I’ve been using the Sol Republic new Studio HD headphones and they’re amazing. As a producer, one of the most important things that you need when you put on a set of headphones is a very flat frequency response and the Sol Republics are great headphones to work with in the studio.”

With a new recording and new collaborations on the horizon, Aoki is excited and enthusiastic. “This new album is incredible,” he beams. “I’m so proud of it. I’m so proud of the music so far. There are also interesting collaborations coming out this year that I’m sure will shake up a couple of different genres of music because I’m working with artists outside of dance music. We’re going to be doing something really interesting and out-of-the-box.” Considering the size of the box Aoki works in, that will be something to hear.

Written by George Van Wagner / Photography by Ryan Hunter

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