DIY Muso Spotlight – Jeffrey Johnson

Welcome to  DIY Muso Spotlight, where I find out what’s going on in the home studios and musical minds of fellow DIY musos. On this occasion I’m very pleased to have a chance to delve into the wonderful world of Jeffrey Johnson. Another member of various online communities, I’ve always found his music full of soul and wit as well as being wonderfully produced. Be sure to have a listen as you read about his methods and madness.

Spotlight On: Jeffrey Johnson

Name: JJ Johnson

Age: Way past 21

Location: Lost Wages, Nevada

Facebook: Jeffrey Johnson; lots of links there to various places that make stealing music possible.

DAW: Reaper

Audio Interface: PreSonus AudioBox1818 VSL, M-Audio ProFire 2626 tied in by lightpipe

Monitors: Custom made, with PSB components, M-Audio BX-8, Yamaha NS, Altec Lansing, Phillips

Headphones: AKG K250 Sennheiser eh 2200, JVC

Controllers: Soundtracs 24 ch. Analog console, Oberheim/Viscount MC 3000

Instruments: 10 electric guitars, three acoustic, bass, Tama Starclassic drum kit, various percussion, small harp

Synthesizers/drum-machines: Controllers by Yamaha, Roland, M-Audio. Sound modules by Roland (Jupiter) EMU Proteus 2000, Kurzweil, Yamaha

Microphones: AT-artist elite 3000. EV RE-15, AT-37 pro, Apex 460, Rode NT2. GrooveTube FET-55, Audix, Sterling, Shure SM-57, Samson Q7.

Who are your biggest musical influences?

Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, John Lennon, Neil Young, Steve Winwood, Howard Devoto, Lou Reed, etc.

Which instruments do you play?

Piano, guitar, drums, bass, organ…

When did you first get into recording/producing?

I started thinking seriously about it in eighth grade band class, sitting in front of the trombones. I read something about George Martin, and what his role was, and thought that might be something to aspire to.

How did you get into recording/producing?

I had moved to Boston, after playing all over. I was asked by a local band there to help with their recording. Oh, and can we use your Princeton Reverb and Echoplex? From there it just grew, until I found an abandoned radio station and started the first of several studios.

What was your very first set-up?

Tangent console, Otari eight track, and a prayer.

I have learned this amazing secret that I am now going to share with anyone who managed to finish this novel.

Ready?

Make something up, and finish it, and don’t over-analyse it or be so self-critical that you can’t enjoy your own work. Ease up on yourself, I know that is hard sometimes, but it is really the key to being prolific, believing that you have something worth hearing…

Could you talk us through your usual recording/producing process?

These days I mainly work with solo artists and do the music behind their songs. So the first step is to suss out what the song is, and maybe lay down a guide with a guitar and voice to a metronome, hoping that the tempo is right, and the key signature…

Then I shoo them off to home, and start figuring out what the hook is, what sort of arrangement would compliment the vocal and message. Then I put down a slightly more refined template with maybe bass and some kind of keys, or steadier guitar. Then I sit behind the drum kit and channel various drummers and how they might approach it.

After I cut something I can build on, then I fill in the puzzle, and get behind the kit again so I am playing to a more complete arrangement. Then I start cutting and pasting for arrangement ideas, trying to get some kind of tension and release or a flowchart that takes the listener somewhere. Then I have the singer return to try to adapt to all the mess I have made, and usually they are very generous with their acquiescence.

When I do combos, I try to set an environment that we are just fooling around a little, to see if anything happens to liven up an arrangement, or even just adjustments in the rhythm section, or whatever seems to need a polish.

How do you handle your mastering?

Often, I mix without the client present, after they witness all the things I do that seem arcane and having very little entertainment value they eventually say, I would rather watch a knitting contest.

I try to create mixes that don’t need some kind of radical fix, I am not opposed to putting all sorts of things on the 2 bus, because I have found out that without knowing what a limiter is going to do to material, you leave a fair amount to chance.

Most people, I have found, have run out of budget far before mastering is attempted. I do have some programs I have found along the way, that are very informative in terms of average and peak levels, and then you just sort of trust your ears.

One thing that is so amazing about this age we live in now, if something needs a tweak, or a total reboot, calling up that which needs to be changed without throwing the baby out with the bathwater is such a luxury compared to the old days with hardware.

Which pieces of hardware could you absolutely not do without?

Really, the only hardware I use now is the console, and that is about the microphone pre-amps. I patch directly to the interfaces from there. I have some various tube compression and pre-amps, they are not even in the rack anymore.

Unlike a lot of people who started with analog, I am completely comfortable using my extensive collection of freeware VST as well as the native processing available in Reaper.

With 24 bit recording, the need to squeeze every last drop of resolution has gone the way of ADAT machines, and with it the need to get married to a compressor up front. I have become quite a fan of Soundtracs, and for anybody out there who is looking for British-style analog sound without a Rupert budget, there are some absolute steals out there.

The difference between the sound of my console and the mic pres in your pro-sumer interface may seem subtle at first, until you start hitting things hard, drums, basses, vocals, instead of folding up these better quality consoles start showing their mettle, and it is the sound of voltage lighting up components that were designed to thrive with some gasoline poured onto the fire.

Which pieces of hardware do you love the most?

Microphones have always been my first love, and we are living in a golden age as far as the number of microphones that astound anyone who was used to paying 500 bucks for an entry level pencil condenser.

And these monitors I cobbled together from this audiophile speaker company’s components I found in the retail dustbin have made sitting and listening far less stressful. That is huge, really.

Which audio plugins could you absolutely not do without?

One I pray functions forever is the AZR3 organ, by Rumpel Rausch, no song can really be complete without organ, can it? I am very fond of the Bootsy Thrillseeker VBL, MJUC by Klanghelm, Sanford Reverb, Roughrider by Audio Damage, and the Melda bundle is making its way into everything I do lately, the EQ and compression are outstanding.

The JCM900 from the SimulAnalog guitar suite is something I use every day, as well as the Classic Delay from Kjaerhus Audio, as well as their other classic series VST. Limiter6 and Molot deserve a mention, I use them still although not as often.

And there are some ridiculously good native VST in Reaper, they don’t have a sexy GUI, but if you take the tiime to try each and every one out, you are going to find some really useful tools. The 1136 Peak Limiter, Event Horizon Limiter/Clipper, Reasamplomatic 5000, ReaFir, ReaGate, all find their way into all my work.

Which audio plugins do you love the most?

Before I upgraded to quadcore, the only plugin that kept me sane was EasyQ, a very good parametric EQ and filter that used barely a thimble-ful of CPU, I probably would have given up if not for that plug, so even though I don’t use it so much now, it allowed me to put EQ on every channel even with my Walmart computer that was all I could muster at first.

What would you say was the most significant upgrade/addition to your setup?

Well, I showed this local pawnshop manager how to identify fake Gibsons, and she rewarded that discussion with a huge discount on the eight channel Presonus interface. Which enabled me to start recording drums. Later that month I found the M-Audio eight channel unit there as well, at another ridiculously low price. The console was the final step in doing what I had done for years without a thought, multiple mic recording.

What would you say are the most significant recording/producing lessons you’ve learnt up to now?

I think the quantum leap for every recordist is becoming comfortable that what they are hearing at the desk is what is actually happening. That is a combination of experience, monitoring, and constant attention to how things are translating to other environments and listening devices. Again, this is a wondrous age in terms of the barriers that used to separate the mortals from those who made these great records. Now, everybody is working on similar gear, sure there are differences still, but the gap has shrunk to the point that someone who is diligent and keeps experimenting and trying things and learning and has musical ears can do really great work.

What’s next for your set-up in terms of new hardware/software and/or upgrades?

I guess on my wish list is better conversion, I don’t feel constrained by my current setup, rather I feel blessed, but there is a qualitative difference between the pro pieces and the pro-sumer gear. Once you get to a certain level of fidelity, the small differences don’t make a lot of sense from an economic standpoint, but to more discerning ears it matters,and they are becoming more numerous as the bar has been raised for even casual listeners.

What’s next for you as a DIY musician?

Right now I am writing songs for a blues singer from the Chicago scene that produced so many household names, and I am also starting a record with a promising songwriter that appreciates being freed from trying to record their own songs. And I am always writing songs, and recording, it gets easier as time goes on, because I have learned this amazing secret that I am now going to share with anyone who managed to finish this novel.

Ready?

Make something up, and finish it, and don’t over-analyse it or be so self-critical that you can’t enjoy your own work. Ease up on yourself, I know that is hard sometimes, but it is really the key to being prolific, believing that you have something worth hearing…

Any final words on being a DIY Muso?

Just that I wish to thank you, Stu, for all that you do to promote others and their art. Cheers to you, sir… JJJ666

THANKS!

And a massive thanks to you, JJ! Always a pleasure to hear your music and now know a bit more about what goes into it!

And thanks to anyone reading this DIY Muso Spotlight, I hope you enjoyed it and found it valuable in some way. 


Feel free to add your questions or comments below. If you would like to have the spotlight turned on you then don’t hesitate to ask!

Please pop over to the DIY music page on Facebook and give us a like. You should also definitely join our awesome community in the DIY Music Group for sharing great articles and ideas as well as discussing all kinds of DIY Music related stuff and helping each other out. See you there!

What do you think...?