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Justin Meldal-Johnsen - Keepin' Busy

The first thing you notice when you walk into Justin Meldal Johnsen’s project room, in the Los Angeles home he shares with his wife, is the clutter. It’s not that it’s messy – in fact it’s actually rather neat and organized compared to a lot of project rooms. It’s more the sheer concentration of stuff. There is literally no wasted space. Anything one could possibly need is within arm’s reach, and everything about this room – every cubic inch of it – is about making music. It’s a comfortable, unpretentious working space, and it’s easy to imagine lots of time and creative energy spent here, immersed in various musical obsessions.

And clearly there’s been plenty of that for Justin. “All kinds of stuff comes through this room,” he explains, “from Beck B sides to remixes, film music, songwriting…nothing of note, per se, but always stuff that helps facilitate a bigger working plan. Most of my time is spent in the (commercial) studio, but this room is where I can work and think stuff out. Sometimes I’ll go for two or three weeks without even turning it on, then other times I’m in here for days on end.”

Diversity clearly agrees with Justin. In addition to working as Beck’s musical director, and a major force behind what many consider his strongest works – Mutations, Midnight Vultures and Sea Change – he’s done three albums with Tori Amos, and toured and recorded with the French group Air. Interspersed between these have been projects with a range of folks like Courtney Love, Nelly Furtado, Nikki Costa, Marianne Faithful, Frank Black, Sean Lennon, Mark Eitzel, and Pete Yorn. Fill in any remaining gaps contributing to remixes for Bowie, Moby and Jamiroquai, co writing another album with Macy Gray, and then squeeze in some co writing on a bunch of television documentary scores with Beck drummer Joey Waronker for good measure.

And then there’s his current project, the band Ima Robot, also featuring Joey Waronker. Recently signed to Virgin, the band is presently ramping up their tour schedule and working on a video project. “We’re producing a ten minute short film, and we’re going to take thirty second clips and show them on our website in reverse order, from last to first. It’s a little confusing, but our fans are willing to experience that kind of oddity.”

Justin’s setup is based around a G4 tower running ProTools Mix Plus and EMagic Logic with a Mackie Control Universal. “Lots of times I’ll begin stuff here and then take the drive over to another studio, like Joey’s a block away, where he’s got a great live room. I use a lot of soft synths from companies like Native Instruments and EMagic, and I’ll do some basic rhythm tracks, keys, bass, maybe guitar, to get the genesis of the idea.

“ I’ve cut vocals and drums here a few times, but just because I can doesn’t mean I want to. I spend so much time in the studio, I like to keep my home as my home. What I’m interested in is a fully featured project studio I can do anything I want in, and that doesn’t necessarily mean tracking a lot of live instruments.”

Several older synths and drum modules from Roland, Korg and Sequential Circuits are connected to the first eight channels of a Mackie 1604 mixer, which show up at the inputs of the Digidesign 888 interface. The outputs come back on the 1604’s channels 9 16, and the mix is monitored through a pair of Mackie HR824 powered monitors. A collection of toys ranging from high tech to ultra funky chic tower in a large rack looming in the corner; API and Joe Meek compressors, TC Electronics reverbs, an Empirical Labs Distressor and various Line6 Pro boxes share rack rails with older spring reverbs, a Roland Space Echo, a Boss DM 300 delay and other less well known purveyors of sonic weirdness.

“ I pretty much keep all audio in the computer and mix out stereo,” explains Justin. “I used to really be against doing that, but there’s just no comparison in terms of the control you have that way. If I want to use something out of the rack, I’ll usually print the effect to the computer, so I can keep the whole mix on the disk.”

One of the biggest changes that’s come about with moving to a more virtual setup has been the addition of a Mackie Control Universal for running ProTools and Logic. “When I started doing all my work inside the computer, I realized I needed more control over what’s going on, especially since I sometimes have 40 or 50 tracks to deal with. I plugged in the Mackie, and basically it did everything I needed it to do immediately. I looked up and it was showing me all sorts of info about my tracks – stuff that I couldn’t see on screen without going through a bunch of mouse clicks. It’s a lot more satisfying to reach for a pan knob, or push a button to arm a track. The best part is that it’s weaning me off of drawing my automation, since I can use the faders and controls to write the automation instead, and it’s a much more natural and fluid process. I’ve been playing around with controlling some soft synths with it as well.”

Justin spends a fair amount of time in both ProTools and Logic, and is pleased with the Mackie Control’s seamless integration with both programs. “I tend to use Logic for more of the MIDI based basic tracks, and then move over to ProTools for audio. I love the way I can quit one program, open another, and the Mackie Control will know exactly what I’m doing. It makes it a breeze to switch back and forth.”

Another thing I was surprised about was how easy it is to work with eight faders. The banking control is so fast, I never feel like I’m waiting on the equipment to catch up with me. And I love it that it’s so small and lightweight. I’ve got a 17 inch Powerbook and an M Box I usually take on the road with me, and I’m thinking about bringing the Mackie Control with me next time. What a great travel rig that would be.”

Indeed, Justin’s schedule for the foreseeable future will likely see him on the road quite a bit. The current Ima Robot tour includes dates in Europe, Japan and North America. That, combined with various other writing, production and soundtrack projects, pretty much guarantee diversity as usual. Doubtless Justin will continue to crank out the kind of creative, edgy stuff that makes people dance, but also makes them think.


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