Study Hall

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Evolution Of The DJ: An Interview With Akira The Don

YouTube’s internet DJ discusses the journey towards finding meaning in the music.

I first discovered Akira the Don while searching for some mindless house tracks to occupy the other side of my brain while focused on editing. YouTube itself gets a degree of credit for mashing up my searches for self-improvement and philosophy lectures. Akira’s Meaningwave mixes found their way into my playlist and here we are.

Akira is a globally recognized artist and DJ based in Los Angeles who collaborated with Dr. Jordan B. Peterson for the 42 Rules for Life track on YouTube and sampled personally challenging tirades from the likes of Joe Rogan, Jocko Willink, David Goggins and many more. At the time of our interview, Akira shows better than 5,500 Soundcloud subscribers, 40,000 on YouTube and almost 90,000 on Spotify with no signs of slowing down.

Akira operates under the concept of “hyper-productivity” where the idea is to work as hard as possible, find the most efficient way to tackle each task and create routines that are highly productive, yet sustainable for years. He’s an interesting guy and gladly shared his story…

Erik Matlock: Tell me about the general concept of Meaningwave and what elements ultimately came together to develop it. You have a history of production, online anyway, going back several years. Tell us what got you interested in becoming a DJ and maybe some significant milestones that brought you here.

Akira the Don

Akira the Don: I’ve been making and sharing music for as long as I can remember. I used to make my own mixtapes when I was a tiny boy, and I’d share them with kids in school, and they got so popular I was selling them by the time I was about 9. I used to make my own little tracks by copying loops from one cassette to another, then cutting the tape with a knife and sticking it back together with tape, and dubbing over vocals. I’d perform and DJ at school discos from as far back as I can remember. So it’s always been the thing I do. And pretty much my earliest memories are of knowing that was what I always wanted to do.

As far as Meaningwave goes, I used to record my study notes over ambient music and then I’d play that as I went to sleep. That was my only revision. And I did very well in my final exams, before I quit school at age 16, just using that method. Meaningwave was a way to brainwash myself with messages that I wanted to integrate.

I came to the realization that I wasn’t ready to make the album I wanted to make yet, because I wasn’t smart, wise, or experienced enough at that time. So I made Meaningwave, and it worked. It really worked. So then I refined it, and started deliberately using it as a tool, as a delivery mechanism. I used Meaningwave to help turn myself and anyone that listens to it into the superhero versions of ourselves that I could see existed as potential.

EM: I’m assuming your DJ skills were developing long before YouTube. What gear did you start out with and what are your primary tools today?

AtD: I remember getting in a huge amount of trouble for trying to DJ with my dad’s record player aged around 7, because I was trying to scratch on it and broke the needle. I started with cassette players, because that’s what was around, then I experimented with record decks, then CD players, then digital. I had a Vestax MIDI controller in, like, 2001? Something like that. I learned a great deal from hanging in the DJ booth with my friend Erol Alkan and watching him like a hawk. Mostly about vibe, and how to create a real unique experience and a journey and an adventure for the audience, as opposed to the technical side, which is the least important thing, and the thing most people seem to obsess over.

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After some experiments with basic computer sampling, I started making music on Fruity Loops and Acid around 2000. I switched to Mac and Logic around 2009, after Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys, Blur, Bjork, New Order), who worked with me on my second album, showed me how powerful Logic could be.

These days, on the DJ side, I use Traktor, with a pair of D2 controllers, usually a DJM 900 NX2 Pioneer mixer, an F1 controller for triggering samples, and a DJ Tech Tools MIDI Fighter Twister for effects, and if there’s room in the booth, a pair of CDJs, mainly for backspins and a bit of scratching.

As for making music, I currently work in Logic X, and my favorite recent software innovations are…

— Atlas by Algonaut – the drum sampler I always dreamed of.

— Izotope’s suite – Nectar and Nexus 3 particularly.

— Sublab by Future Audio Workshop

— Loopcloud by Loopmasters, which has changed my life by making the homerian sample library I’ve built up over decades suddenly completely accessible to me in real time.

EM: You also cover vocals on many of these tracks. Even though it’s a lofi format, what tools are you using as your front end for vocals? Are you recording any of your own instruments or are these primarily samples?

AtD: I’m using the same AKG 414B I’ve been using since 2004 on every single track. That goes straight into a Focusrite Scarlett 18i20, and is then processed in the box via the ever developing ATD vocal chain that has been 19 years in the development. I tend to use a combination of Izotope’s RX stuff, Nectar and Neutron, with Fab Filter EQs, some Waves stuff, and Valhalla Delay and reverb.

As for the tracks, it’s really very dependent on what the project is. Some stuff is heavily sample based, and some is entirely organic. Some is entirely created with soft synths, some is entirely done with “real” instruments recorded live. Sometimes a combination of all that. It really depends on what sonic landscape I need to create for the individual project. I was heavily influenced by Morrissey’s Vauxhall, and I in that regard – that whole album had a very distinct and unique feeling, and I try and create that level of sonic cohesion and immersion with my albums.

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