Aesop Rock’s Home Recording Methods

Coming out of the same scene as Cannibal Ox and Company Flow, Ian Bavitz, a.k.a. Aesop Rock, writes and produces his own dense slices of hip-hop, and is generating quite a buzz doing so. With his gravely “Noo Yawk” baritone voice and his loping beats, Bavitz is clearly approaching hip-hop from a different angle. And the kids love it. But Bavitz, for all his critical acclaim, sighs when the subject of recording is brought up.

"Recording music, to me, is a deep process,” he says from his home in San Francisco. “I get caught up in the details. I comb over songs for a long time—probably too long. I think I got that from art school, where I was taught to constantly re-look at my work in an attempt to see it in a way that I had never seen it before. Because of that, I’m never afraid to scrap a beat or a lyric, or to cut a song down and then rebuild it. That’s a blessing, but it’s also a curse.”

Bavitz’s latest release, None Shall Pass [Definitive Jux], is the first recorded in his new studio digs, but it doesn’t lack the fidelity of his past albums—all recorded in decidedly more posh surroundings.

“I just moved all of my old gear into a room in my new house, and started laying down tracks like nothing had ever changed,” he says. “I wanted to try out a new mic, so I splurged on a Neumann M 147. I fell in love with it—it’s so warm sounding. But, besides that, it’s just my old gear, and I’m recording my old way.”

Rising at the crack of noon, coffee in hand, Bavitz says he starts his daily sessions by digging through his crates of records, sampling source material into his Ensoniq ASR-10.

“I’ll always start with a drum loop run off a Technics 1200 turntable into my ASR-10, which I then use to trigger and manipulate the beat,” he explains. “Once I get something I can work with, I put the loop into Pro Tools, because you’re working with more than 2MB worth of memory there. I could never cut the ASR-10 out of the loop, though. It’s much more intuitive for me to construct the beat on the ASR-10 than it is to cut and paste in Pro Tools.”

The next step for Bavitz is recording his bass lines, which he does with “an old Fender P” into a Radial JDV Super DI through a Mackie Onyx 1640 16-channel mixer. After laying down his rhythm section, Bavitz spends the rest of the time writing lyrics to match his loops.

“I can be pretty scattered, so I make a point to sit and write to a loop for the rest of the day, and into the night. Sitting down and just doing it is the only way it will ever get done.”

Thankfully, the majority of Bavitz’s gear manages to take up just a few corners of his bedroom.

“A Mac G5, a Roland Fantom, an ASR-10, a Technics 1200, the Mackie board, and my Event 20/20 monitors are pretty much my entire set-up,” he says. “But I put a WhisperRoom [isolation booth] in the middle of the room, and ran an extra computer monitor and a mouse into it. That way, I can engineer and perform at the same time, and I’m not rapping in an office chair.”

Although Aesop Rock is certainly part of the “personal studio overground” that produces hip-hop and dance albums at home, he is scrupulous about not following the crowd.

“There has always been a norm in the hip-hop mainstream,” he says. “Nowadays, it’s all Roland TR-808s and fake-ass soft synth strings. I’m not into all that. Thankfully, there are a lot of people now who are trying more interesting things. You have to dig deep to find them, but they are out there. They are not just taking a canned beat and rapping on top of it. They are using Theremins, collecting found sounds, and playing the instruments themselves. Besides the drums, I make sure everything else is live. I like blending the samples with the live elements to get a hybrid effect. I like to be able to actually compose a song—even if I’m sampling. Don’t get me wrong���I appreciate a great loop as much as the next guy, but I’ll never leave a loop untouched. It’s too much fun chopping it up, and adding in your own instrumentation. That’s what makes the difference, I think, in songs that get played once, and songs that get a few rewinds.”