Justin Meldal Johnsen has seen a lot of travel in the past decade or so. As an indispensable ingredient of the critically acclaimed (and Grammy winning) sonic stew that makes up Beck's unique sound, he's accompanied Mr. Hansen on several world tours. Add to that numerous projects with everyone from Tori Amos, Marianne Faithful, Garbage and Air, to Nelly Furtado, Courtney Love and Nikki Costa, plus world wide treks with his current project Ima Robot, and you've got a guy with an abundance of frequent flyer miles.
But lately Justin's been spending lots of time close to home. With the imminent arrival of a new baby and a boat load of production projects, the prolific bassist/producer has been doing a lot of work in the small but highly efficient project studio that occupies every square inch of a spare bedroom in his Silver Lake home. The modest ProTools setup is complemented by a collection of great mics and several racks of killer front end gear, along with a collection of Mackie gear including a Mackie Control, Big Knob and some HR624 monitors.
Justin admits to being a band person at heart, and is certainly someone who understands the importance of the live dynamic in creativity. "I think great records that are 'player records' require great rooms to render them in their ideal magical form," he opines. "The sound and character of the room, and the magic of having everyone playing together, ensemble style, that's something that can't be re created; it's impossible to quantify. The Beck albums Mutations and Sea Change are good examples. Those albums were done live at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood, in the room where Good Vibrations was recorded. I don't think I need to say any more."
That said, Justin is no stranger to the magic that can be created a track at a time. "There's also a lot of music, more electronic based, that can be done top to bottom in a home studio. I've heard records that are stunningly fully realized and have all the emotion and dimension to them that you would expect of a great studio recording. The gap is very narrow, and is really dependent on the music and the people involved. But for some projects, given the right people and the right gear, it's amazing what can be done building a track from scratch."
Looking around Justin's workspace, it's clear he's a bit of a gear freak. A pair of ceiling high racks house an eclectic collection of pieces ranging from high end professional to highly esoteric flea market, offering up everything from pristine sonic purity to other worldly convoluted distortion.
One of his more recent acquisitions is a Mackie Onyx 800R mic pre, which he cites as one of the more surprising new toys he's played with. "The day I set it up, I recorded my bass straight into the instrument inputs. Then I recorded the same bass into some early 70's vintage mic preamps I use all the time. I've always used those vintage pre's as a benchmark, because they're very fat and a little dark. They've got a bit of grit and are a tiny bit noisy, and I really like that."
"When I put the bass through the Onyx, I have to say I was completely shocked and almost appalled, because I love my vintage gear, but the Onyx had all the fatness, and also this little extra 'thing' the vintage pre didn't have. It was like 3 D. I studied the bass sound really carefully it had a sort of broadness to it that filled the space in the song more, and didn't sound hype y or bright. Most of the modern channel strips and DI's I've listened to have this clinical, glassy sound. I don't know what Mackie did when they designed this thing, but somehow they avoided all that. It was amazing how rich and wide it sounded. I think a lot of professionals with high end project studios will be in for a surprise when they A/B this with their expensive preamps."
It's clear from speaking with Justin that he's very attuned to the unique beauty of classic equipment. "As musicians and recording artists we've all got a bit of a bias toward vintage gear. Certainly, it's really obvious when you play into a great old tube amp, versus a newer solid state one. The character speaks for itself." At the same time, he's equally aware of the pitfalls of judging a piece of gear based on age and pedigree alone. "It becomes easy to dismiss something new just because you've got a pre conceived notion that something old and expensive is necessarily better. Particularly when it comes to recording, all that stuff just goes out the window and it becomes a case of what works for the track. I know some amazing sounding records, one of which I made, that were recorded top to bottom on a Mackie 24x8 console. At the end of the day, you choose the best tool for the job, regardless of the price tag."
The 800R is more than just a nice bass preamp, as Justin will attest to. "Keyboards sound amazing through it. I also did some acoustic guitar with it, and it was tremendous super quiet, lots of space. And for vocals, the older pre's aren't known for having a lot of air on top, but the Onyx pre's put it right back in there.
"it's hard to communicate a dimension like sonic space. Sometimes you can hear it when you listen to things that have a very articulate top end, like maybe an acoustic guitar played very lightly. Does it breathe? Does it have a sense of being slightly compressed, slightly tamed? If you're going to record into ProTools, a good preamp with a sense of space can really make the most of the potential of an HD rig."
Justin is also very complimentary with regard to some of the 800R's other features. "There's a lot going on, yet it's really easy to use. It's got tons of headroom I'm overloading the mics before I'm overloading the pre's. It's great that it's got two instrument inputs in the front. And I love the impedance selector on the first two channels, because I've got some rather weird mics. The digital converter and the sample rate selector is a nice touch, something I'm intending on using a lot with ProTools."
One suggestion Justin offered was the idea of expanding the Onyx line. "It's got a great look and a great feel. There's real potential for something like a DI, or a stereo parametric, or maybe a stereo compressor other products with the same sound quality and visual design. It would make so much sense to expand the line. This is definitely more than a consumer product. This is really a sleeper front end for digital recording. This pre is going to get used every day."