What a cool studio! Had the chance to visit and interview the talented producer and songwriter Hudson Mohawke in person, who in addition to releasing his own music, has worked with countless legendary artists like Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, Four Tet, Drake and more.
He talks about his studio setup, new album Cry Sugar, and recent viral phenomenon, Cbat.
Synth History: Your studio is wonderful, so much natural light. Tell me about it?
Hudson Mohawke: I moved from London. I'd been in London for like 10 years, something like that, and I was in Amsterdam for a year or two and I've always had dark studios. I always was in studios that had no windows, had no natural light or anything, had one studio like that here [Los Angeles] and then I just had this realization, why would I move somewhere with beautiful weather and then sit in a dark room for ninety percent of the time. I had the opportunity to buy this little sort of bungalow and just have it as a studio. It was before the pandemic so it hadn't gotten crazy expensive. So I have this little space now. My original plan was to take down the walls and stuff and you know, maybe have a live room or a recording booth, but I got it like six months before the pandemic and there was no way to do any of that, but I’ve gotten used to it like this.
Synth History: Run me through your current go-to favorite pieces of hardware/gear?
Hudson Mohawke: I got this Alesis synth for $120 on Offer Up and this is all I've been using for the last two months. I wanted a MIDI keyboard that had weighted keys basically, and this has weighted keys but it’s also a weird synth with all sorts of bad presets in a very good way. I guess everyone's pretty familiar with a lot of Roland presets or like Korg presets or, you know, pretty common sounds from those companies. But this has its variations on it, a little bit different than the usual stuff. I mean, it's not great but for like $120 I've made so much stuff on it already. It just has a lot of very strange FM, ROM sounds, kind of a little bit cheesy, crappy sounding but in a good way.
What I’ve really liked has been these little tiny IK Multimedia speakers. They sent me a pair of them just to try out. I've never heard tiny speakers that are actually good. They look like they would be like little PC speakers or something, but they're actually really usable and I've taken them traveling and stuff like that. They're pretty impressive for a little tiny thing.
The Roland Juno-1 that I got from another Offer Up listing. Someone selling their Dad's stuff and he'd been in a band. It's one of the original rave synths, so it has a lot of the classic rave sounds from the mid-80s. It's pretty rudimentary, like, it doesn't have a lot of editing that you can do. That's where the original Hoover sound comes from and a bunch of real classic rave sounds. It has the card feature that lets you make any note into three notes. So when you hit one note, it hits three. That's where the sound of rave steps originally came from.
I really like this Hydrasynth. They just did a really good job. I think it was one person who worked for Electron or something like that, then started his own thing and made this Hydrasynth and they just nailed it. Very simple workflow, but sounds huge and it's not crazy expensive. It has this great random feature that will just instantly make totally randomized patches. So you can always get new sounds out of it. A lot of them are not usable at all, but it continually keeps making random, random, random sounds. That I use a lot.
Synth History: What about software?
Hudson Mohawke: Fruity Loops is still my go-to. Always has been. I just never made the jump to anything else. I got used to it and also it has this idiosyncratic way of working that doesn't quite make sense, but because of that you can make a lot of mistakes with it, which I think is actually kind of good.
Synth History: It adds character-
Hudson Mohawke: Yeah, there's so many little things that are, quote-unquote, wrong with it, but because they're wrong you can fuck around with it in a way that you can't do in Ableton. There's a lot of weird coding errors. I remember speaking to one of their reps last year, apparently the founders of the company, I think it's a Belgian company, have this chip on their shoulder about the fact that everybody's been cracking their software forever basically. I have a legit copy, but no one buys it because you can crack it so easily. I remember saying to them at the time the fact that you guys have a stranglehold on pretty much all rap production, a huge amount of drum and bass, garage, a lot of techno, well, maybe not as much techno because everybody fucking loves Ableton, but, you can't buy that sort of promotion, you guys have made such a culturally iconic piece of software and the reason it's culturally iconic is because it's so easy to get hold of!
Synth History: Plus the name is pretty epic!
Hudson Mohawke: Yeah, exactly. Companies can’t pay to have the level of influence that they have, but they’re still pissed about it. Which, I mean, I can understand in some ways and that probably contributes to them not having a giant staff of coding people and all that, but I've never really found anything that I wasn't able to do in it and the way I have my own templates set up - everything's all in and ready to go as soon as I start it up.
Synth History: Do you remember the first synth that you ever got?
Hudson Mohawke: I used to have this thing, I got it for Christmas one year as a kid: Yamaha DJX.
Synth History: What happened to it?
Hudson Mohawke: Actually my parents house got flooded and I lost it, but it was one of those, not like a pro synth but had all these techno loops in it.
Synth History: So what do you run your synths through?
Hudson Mohawke: So everything goes into two of these Cranborne interfaces. They're a little English company, they make these ADAT interfaces. Basically, your 500 series modules, instead of coming out of the lunchbox rack and going into an interface, they go from that directly to ADAT within that. Basically, you're going direct from a preamp straight to the digital converter, rather than to a preamp then through another cable into another preamp on an interface. I have a mic chain, which goes into a Neve preamp. I got a bunch of different types of preamps, there’s some APIs in there and some SSL ones.
Synth History: I have to ask you, I read about this. Your song blew up on TikTok recently. I'm sure a lot of people are asking you about it. How did that happen?
Hudson Mohawke: Very strange. I mean this is a song that came out 11 years ago, and it's been out, and it's been used in a bunch of stuff before. It was in a Workaholics episode and some other random stuff over the years, but somebody made this really strange Reddit post about having sex to that song and their girlfriend hating the song and then him, turning the song off, but her still being able to tell the rhythm of the song. Very, very strange. It's turned into this big like, stupid meme.
Synth History: How do you feel about it?
Hudson Mohawke: I’m happy that I managed to put out a new album not very long ago, because if this had happened and then I was going to have to release an album, like, next week, or in a couple of weeks, I'd be fucking furious. In some sense, it's taking the spotlight away from the album that I'm actually trying to promote, but I don't have any control over that.
Synth History: What kind of synths did you use on your new album?
Hudson Mohawke: I used the Hydra a bunch, I used the Juno. I think I pretty much used everything but this Korg N50, that was the first “synth” synth I ever got, I got that one in 2007 I think and that I've used on just about everything I've ever done, basically. It’s not a particularly like, feature packed synth, it just has really good usable sounds and I like that. It sounds kind of cheap, as well. None of the instruments sounds realistic or anything like that. It just kind of sounds a little bit tacky.
Synth History: There’s something to that.
Hudson Mohawke: Yeah! Totally. It’s just a little bit different. I really like the Vermona. It really only does one type of sound, but it’s really fun to fuck around with.
Synth History: Do you have any tips for getting over writer's block?
Hudson Mohawke: I mean, I've had periods where I've gone years without making anything and just being permanently stuck with a bunch of half finished things and I don't know where to go with them. It sounds very cliche, but the only thing that ever got me out of it was to stop thinking that I was waiting for some lightning bolt of inspiration and realizing that anything I've done that I've been happy with in the past has almost exclusively been by accident. It's never been done by a crazy thought process. So I think getting into the habit of just making a few ideas a couple of times a week, whenever you have time, and just exporting them.
The amount of times that I've been working on something and been like, “Oh, yeah! This riff from this thing might work in that thing.” But for years and years, I wasn't exporting everything, I would just make things and I would just forget about them. Then I wouldn't know what they were called because all my files are just named randomly, so I got into the habit of exporting everything. Then, I’ll always have this batch of “Oh, this is just a drum loop”, or “This is just like a synth line” and it always seems to come in useful, even if I was like “this is garbage” at the time. Then I listen to it a couple of weeks later and have another idea for something. So I think exporting things.
It’s the same with any art. It's not sitting around, or not expecting inspiration to strike you but just doing it, and doing it sort of methodically, as much as you can afford to spend the time on it.
References: Synth History Exclusive, Photos - Danz.