Interview: AceMo on the '90s Gear Behind His New Rave Sound

AceMo. Photo by Alejandro Briones. Used with permission of the artist.

The next generation of dance music producers isn’t waiting around for the spotlight to find them. They’re running circles around gatekeepers who once might’ve released their music in favor of putting it out themselves, dropping albums and EPs on Bandcamp for eager audiences to gobble up. They’re starting their own platforms to get the word out about everything they’re doing. Everyone else needs to catch up.

The New York-based artist AceMo is one shining example of this movement. Although releasing music since 2014, the young producer first punctured the dance music consciousness with his 2018 EP for Vanity Press Records, full of raw but thoughtfully produced house tracks. Since then, he’s charted his own prolific course, self-releasing three albums and an EP that demonstrate the broad range of sounds well within his reach, from squiggly acid and banging techno to smooth deep-house and fleet-footed jungle.

He’s also formed a partnership with another young New Yorker producer, MoMA Ready, combining to form the hyper creative AceMoMA duo. In the last 12 months alone they’ve released a single, EP, and album (all on MoMA Ready’s HAUS OF ALTR label) that capture the sizzling musical energy surging through these enterprising black creators. And as I learned during a recent phone conversation with AceMo, this is just the beginning of his plans to go beyond the dance music world and bring about a new era of rave music.

To find more of AceMo's music, find him on Bandcamp, Twitter, and Soundcloud.

What was your musical upbringing like?

I grew up playing trumpet in Windsor, Connecticut, more of a jazz, marching band background. I went to an arts high school for jazz. The town and city where I grew up, near Hartford and Windsor, were pretty progressive with their audio and musical education programs. There was a recording arts program in my public high school that taught us how to use Fruity Loops, Reason, and some ProTools. At the same time at the arts high school, I was learning jazz and taking other arts classes, introductions to synthesis classes, photography, stuff like that. So, yeah, I had a great initial upbringing in a lot of different types of music and some production techniques.

As I was growing up I was listening to all different types of music other than jazz, and the stuff my parents were listening to, pop music and electronic music were always so interesting to me. But I could never put a finger on what artist was who. So I didn’t know what something like drum 'n' bass was until I got to college. It was a lot of gray area for me until I learned how to produce. Even when I was growing up, playing trumpet, writing music and reading music was more of an ear thing for me. I was listening and I could hear and play things out of my head, but sight reading was kind of difficult for me until I learned how to record MIDI and use a computer to write music, and that’s when it all clicked for me.

Photo by: Ameer Kazmi. Used with permission of the artist.

What artists influenced you to start making the kind of music you do now?

When I first started making music it was more of a hip-hop production standpoint. I was listening to a lot of Pete Rock and J. Dilla, Gang Starr, and wanting to learn how to make music on MPCs, learning how to sample and make beats. Also, since I was coming from a jazz background, it was really interesting to me because it was using jazz from a different standpoint, using chords and stuff that have already been written and using them to create new context for them. And then, when I started listening to people like Flying Lotus and other people like that who were bringing more of an electronic, experimental instrumental approach, I was trying to synthesize my own music like that. It was always a culmination of all that music. Wanting to create pieces of music and albums myself.

I was also inspired by musicians and producers like Quincy Jones, and even synthesizer pioneers like Bob Moog. Miles Davis was a big inspiration when I was young. Jackie McLean compositions and writing was a lot of my introduction to composition and songwriting. When I started getting into hip-hop that’s when the production influences started coming into play.

Can you tell me about how you approach composing music when you’re writing AceMo material?

I’m often going off a loop or a short idea at first. Maybe I have a chord structure in my head or... it definitely starts off with fiddling with small ideas—two to four to eight, 16-bar loops and sequences, and I’ll compose from there. Usually I’ll get as many tracks as I think I’ll need going, from four to 16 tracks on an MPC, and then I’ll come at it kind of from a dub standpoint and strip it all down into one or two things playing at once, and I’ll start from there. I’ll bring in things, muting, soloing, with delays on sends, coming at it from an improvisational standpoint and composing like that.

When you’re writing those initial loops and getting those ideas out of your head, what do you typically use in terms of gear?

I use an Electribe EM-1. I have an MPC-1000 that I have a lot of breaks and drum samples that I’m using. Also drum samples and synths from the Electribe. I have a rack synth, an E-Mu Audity 2000 and an Arturia MiniBrute that’s actually borrowed from Eartheater. It’s funny ‘cuz all my gear is from 1999 or something. I’ve been thinking about updating all my stuff this year and that will be a whole new thing for me. I also have a guitar effects send, a Yamaha GEP 50 Guitar Effect Processor. It's a really standard guitar rack effect. It’s a lot of low-budget gear, because my studio started forming once I graduated from college. A lot of stuff I was using during school was borrowed equipment.

Photo by: Ryan Dunn. Used with permission of the artist.

While I was in school, that’s where I learned how to use a lot of the hardware and software and studio flow, organization stuff through Phil Moffa. He was a big part of me learning all this stuff and MIDI and production stuff, making electronic music in general. A lot of stuff is exchanged. Something I use for different things, like sometimes I may use the Electribe for drums and sometimes I use the MPC for drums. It’s going to sound different every time I make something, but as time goes on and since I’m using the same things, it all forms into one sound.

One of the elements that’s common to a lot of your tracks is a really slamming percussion sound. Not quite blown out, but definitely banging and maybe a bit distorted. How do you get that crushing percussion sound?

A lot of stuff that I have out in the past couple years was recorded to tape using a four track or tape deck. I also run stuff through an analog mixer that has a spring reverb inside of it. And because it’s an analog mixer, if I have a good, hard signal going into that, it’ll create a saturation effect, just as a tape deck would when you’re sending a strong enough signal. That’s what gives a lot of the drums and a lot of the stuff coming from the Electribe or MPC that saturation and that hiss, all that stuff, it’s either coming from the gear or that mixer I’m running it through.

So you told me about your approach for making solo tracks, but what about when you’re working with Wyatt, aka MoMA Ready? How does that change how you compose music?

With Wyatt, it’s just like someone who’s coming in on my process. It’s more fun. It’s another brain to add ideas, another person to touch more knobs. It’s great—it’s an even faster process than when I’m producing by myself, so we get a lot of stuff done. We use all my stuff. When me and Wyatt first met a couple years ago, he didn’t have access to a lot of that stuff. And I just started producing with hardware.

I’m always eager and excited to show people how to use gear and hardware because I feel like it’s just as accessible, like everyone has a computer. It’s a great way to visualize how a lot of the music we listen to growing up was made. It’s... not a lost art because people are still making music on DAWs and everything, but it’s like playing and practicing an instrument, there are errors that happen and you have to practice to not get rusty.

What has collaborating with him, John FM, Phil Moffa, and others taught you about the different approaches that people take to production? And what, from that, have you applied to your own music?

The first thing that comes to mind is: Do it live. [Laughs] The live element, recording first takes, second takes, third takes, fourth takes—it's so important to do that and have "mistakes" and stuff [the gear] or you wasn’t supposed to do, and even the nervousness of trying to do that. The energy needs to be encapsulated somehow.

Recording live also instills the memory of making the song—it’s a strong mental picture for your mind. Even if it’s just a couple bars that you’re recording the automation of a filter or something, it adds that element of humanity, that element that we all know and have come to love from music we’ve heard and love. It’s like if you’re recording a band: They play, you have everything multi-tracked, you should do the same thing by yourself and with your friends making electronic music. It can be the same exact thing, actually. Just different, because it’s you.

AceMo - Get It From The Sound

Some of your biggest songs—I’m thinking of "Where They At????" with John FM—include vocals, even if a lot of your music is not vocal-driven. What is your setup for recording vocals?

It definitely varies and changes over time. I actually do have a bunch of vocal stuff coming out this year. Even the John FM track was done with him sitting right next to me with a Shure SM58 and some slap delay. He was actually going into the Tapco mixer I mentioned before. So he had a send of the guitar processor chorus on his vocals and the spring reverb on his vocals. He was just his own track going into the Tapco, and I EQ'd his vocals so they were sitting on top more than the rest of the track. The track is not even multi-tracked, it’s just a straight stereo dub into my computer, mixed and mastered by yours truly, also.

Even "Get It From The Sound" is where I kind of did the same thing, I actually recorded the track onto tape and then I recorded another track of me doing vocals into the SM58 and also EQ'ing that, specifically, and then putting it on top of it. I have some rap stuff coming out with a vocalist, Ize [pronounced "Izzy"], and we do a lot of the stuff where we’re both producing in the box—he’s shooting me ideas, in Ableton, and he’s rapping on top with an AKG C214. He’s doing a lot of yelling with those tracks.

But it varies for each artist. With the Eartheater stuff, she did a lot of her vocals in another studio, where I gave her a lot of stuff that I made inside the box also and she recorded vocals. Or… recorded scratch vocals with the AKG-C and then layered other things. So it’s kind of just using whatever I have and also using the same effects chains, which is also important to me. I use some Waves plugins, like the Doubler. But honestly now all that stuff is going to be retired because I just got a new computer with some new plugins.

You’ve spoken before about how with gear you can hunt for a specific sound that you want to make. What are some of the pieces you’ve hunted down, and what’s still on your wishlist?

The pieces that I’ve hunted down... I’m always hunting for something, honestly. The sounds are ever-changing and gear is ever-changing, especially now. I’m definitely looking for more technical, ease-of-use kind of gear, stuff that I can get stuff out fast and I don’t have to do a lot of menu diving or looking, it’s just there.

Some stuff that I’ve sought out recently is like the Elektron Model:Samples—it’s very small and very portable and you can put your own samples on it. I always have a hard time debating on buying old analog synths, but I actually do really like digital synths also. I just recently had a Casio CZ-101—shout out Peter Fonda—that was a great synth to sample and sequence. A lot of digital synthesizers and smaller synthesizers and rack synthesizers is what I’m into right now. Like Modor NF-1 are the sounds and size that I’m looking for—things that are small and I can get the job done really fast but still have a lot of old-school and rave elements that I like to alter myself and get to sound to my liking.

Other things that I’d like to look for are filter racks and filter delays, definitely a lot of that on the horizon. I actually just got gifted a mixer which I’m very excited about—the Soundcraft Signature 22 Multi-Track, which is gonna be kind of huge for me. I’ve never had the chance to multi-track my jams since I’ve started using a mixer and jamming with hardware, so that’s going to be really exciting. I’m definitely going to be looking and getting more effects, because I have the room and I have the sends for it now. For probably the next year I’m going to be searching for stuff, like the Akai filter rack, definitely some delays. For right now I’ve been using—as for delays and that stuff I told you—I have a Boss DD-6 digital guitar pedal, but I’m excited to start venturing out and getting new pieces for my studio.

Last year your releases showed off your musical versatility. What kind of styles are you still looking to showcase in future releases?

So much. [Laughs] I definitely want to do some live recording, making music how I do now but with just live instruments. That’d be really exciting—I’d love to do that. Doing a lot more stuff with vocalists, and instrumentalists. Experimenting more in the pop realm, honestly. Trying to get more of my production sound into the pop realm, getting it into everyone else’s ears that are listening to music now. It should be heard more. Other styles I’ve been wanting to make? I have an album coming out very soon that’s more drum 'n' bass and jungle-inspired and that’s really exciting, as well as scoring for films and installations. I’m still looking to trailblaze [laughs] through the musical spectrum, I guess.

I know you’re a big jazz guy and I know that obviously informs how you compose, but do you see yourself making more deliberately jazz stuff?

Oh, for sure! Me and my sister—she’s a vocalist and a saxophonist—we grew up playing jazz together and playing in ensembles, so it’s definitely always been on my mind. Writing and all that stuff will definitely take some time. I will never say no, so it’s probably on the plate somewhere. I’ve got to break out the horn, get some long tones going again. Definitely for the future, for sure. And definitely using my trumpet on tracks, definitely going to be a thing you’re going to hear, this year probably, and as we go forward.

Photo by: Alejandro Briones. Used with permission of the artist.

Most of your productions are fairly stripped back. Tell me about why you favor this approach.

I’ve always liked songs that’ve been more straight up, in your face. I’m thinking of old songs that I used to hear, like Cher or something. Usually dance tracks don’t have that many tracks, it’s just drum tracks, a vocal, and a couple of synth tones, and that’s what I’ve always loved. I think I try to introduce that to all the stuff I make, because I feel like people’s attention to detail when it comes to creating—it starts to get nitpicky. I think it’s important to be simple. I try to bring that into pretty much all the production experiences that I get into. I know that it doesn’t need that much. It just needs you. I remind people of that, and I remind, when I’m in collaborations, that usually if it sounds good and you like it, it’s because it sounds good—it’s because you actually do like it. I feel like that gets in a lot of people’s ways. Yeah, not limiting yourself but being OK with what you have.

When you and Wyatt are DJing together, tell me about how you're interacting, and what gear you're using to do that.

When we’re approaching a DJ set, we both use a lot of music where it’s made in the same way I’m describing, so it does have this live-recorded element because it was recorded live. We’re trying to find a lot of music with the feelings that we also put into the music. It comes out when you record like that.

It probably does feel like the music is jumping out of the speakers, because the person was probably jackin’ while they were making that shit. It’s exciting—I’m imagining what would happen if we take all the stuff we are producing out. Imagining if we just had two MPCs and maybe an Electribe and effects send hooked into a DJ mixer, imagining the stuff we could do would be really exciting and fun. The music that we’ve made and that music we haven’t even put out yet is so expansive and open, a live interpretation of that would be a whole experience.

There’s not a lot of people doing that kind of improvisation with electronic music. I want to get there. Coming from jazz, I feel like it’s only necessary to do that.

When you’re writing tunes, do you think about how they might translate live?

For sure. Ever since I started listening and going to dance music parties and clubs and going out, I’ve consciously made the decision that I want to make music for the dancefloor. It doesn’t always have to be for the dancefloor, but for a soundsystem—for a speaker. I want it to have that energy that you were talking about that sounds like it’s live. I’m always thinking of a crowd or a scenario or a place that music is going to be heard, so I’m trying to construct the song in a way that it can be utilized in different ways. I feel like a track is useful if you can use it in different types of contexts.

AceMoMa | Boiler Room Philadelphia: Subsurface Warehouse Party

The AceMoMA Bandcamp page has this line on it: "Ready come together to showcase the New Rave." What does the New Rave mean to you?

[Laughs] The New Rave is, people who look like us, our generation and younger making music, like us. Introducing this new way of sound, this new way of going out, and this new way of community to the world. It’s not just older people doing this stuff, it’s not just people in Europe doing this stuff. It’s people here. There’s a lot of people trying to make a difference, you know? We’re introducing a new generation of electronic music to the world.

All of the music you’ve released over the last year or so has been self-released or on HAUS OF ALTR, the label you and Wyatt work on together. What have been the benefits of doing that versus working with other labels?

We have our hands in as much as we can—we want complete autonomy with our music. We noticed that sending it to other people, it left our hands and we were waiting on different things. We realized we could do everything ourselves: We can make the art, we can release the music, and we have our friends and people to promote it, and it’s gotten to where it’s gotten because of that. Because of the faith and the trust that we have. And I think people have really noticed that and feel that.

I feel like more labels need to be coming out in general, and more people like us need to be releasing music, people our age need to be starting these labels. There needs to be more than just us. I’m actually going to be starting a label myself this year called Sonic Messengers, that’s going to be more experimental music, techno and beyond. More collaborations with people I’ve collaborated with over the past few years, more short EPs, hopefully some physical releases this year.

When you’re in control of everything, what do you do to maintain high quality control when you have the option to do literally anything and everything?

I guess it’s more of a gut feeling thing. It shouldn’t be tended towards any audience but yourself first, and that’s what I feel like we’ve done. We saw how we both could benefit from releasing everything ourselves and we do it with good intentions. It has to be something we want to do first, before anything. The thing is, we’re doing it with our own music, me and Wyatt’s, and we want to start doing it with other people’s music. It’s a personal thing and it’s definitely easier to do it when it’s yours. I definitely encourage that with other people, if you have that feeling of you really needing to put something out, just do it with confidence. I think that’s what we’ve started to do and learned from doing that.

Last year you put out the sample pack called Liquid Artifacts. What can you tell me about that?

Liquid Artifacts

That was really fun to do. I basically had my studio up the way it was and I did my best and did an all-around go with some of the sampling. In 2014, when I started making more hip-hop, field recording sample stuff, I was doing stuff with Yamaha keyboards, like the Yamaha VSS-30 and the Yamaha PSS-270. They’re these really crappy, all-digital synthesizers. [For the sample pack] I was doing resampling with those and running it through my mixer and the Tapco and doing hits from my Electribe and doing some sequences from—I do this thing with the MPC where I put it on arpeggiation mode and I control the Electribe’s synths and do sequences and arpeggiations, because you can’t control the synths like that on the Electribe itself, but controlling them with another sequencer makes it more of a sequencing synth.

So I did a lot of that, made a lot of sounds that I felt like were a lot of the classic sounds people heard me make. I just approached it like, I would make a cool sound and stop and sample that and use it for the pack. It was really interesting doing that. It was fun, because I knew people were going to be using it. It was a fun way to use my gear—it was like collabing with the world, with sounds.

Have you heard anyone you know or don’t know using those sounds in a song?

Yeah, a couple friends have sent me some tracks, people and fans have sent me tracks. It’s awesome to hear people use my hi-hats or something. I called it Liquid Artifacts because a lot of the stuff that I included has some kind of noise or clicky sound in the background from the gear... it was nice to hear that in other people’s tracks. Because I feel like I’m looking for that when listening to other people’s stuff. That is what makes my music different from other people’s.

You’ve already released the AceMoMa album so far this year. What are your plans for the rest of 2020?

My next release is going to be, well, maybe it will be out by when this [feature] will come out, but my next release is the drum 'n' bass, jungle album called Mind Jungle. That will be self-released. As for the next releases, I have some remixes coming out and definitely some more stuff from me and Wyatt. Hopefully also stuff from launching Sonic Messengers—[NY-based producer] Savile will be helping me do that, and he and I have some tracks that we made together. A bunch of collaborations to be released this year.

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