In our new series, Five Sound With..., we talk with world-renowned engineers and producers about how they got five sounds from your favorite records
Justin Meldal-Johnsen got his start as a bassist playing for artists like Beck, Nine Inch Nails, and more. Since he started his producing career around 2005, Justin has assembled an astounding catalog of visceral, immersive records, including a number of critically acclaimed and career-defining albums with artists like M83, Neon Trees, Metric, Young The Giant, Jimmy Eat World, Paramore, Tegan and Sara, Ken Andrews and more.
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Justin for our Five Sounds With... series. Check out our conversation below to learn more about how he created a signature sound for M83’s Junk, orchestrated an epic live performance piece with Jimmy Eat World, and recorded the loudest sound he’s ever heard with Paramore.
M83 - Junk
Junk was cool because we were able to indulge every fantasy. There’s this song called “Bibi The Dog,” which is this fun kind of post-New Wave dance track meets Star Wars cantina music or something. Anyway, a cool part of that was adding fretless bass on top of the synth bass foundation.
I’ve always dabbled in fretless, but it’s a little bit tricky. It’s obviously very distinctive and forward-sounding, so one has to be careful where and when to use it. We found these really specific synth sounds that would work well under the fretless, then the fretless could play something more melodic on top. That was a really important feature of that song and eventually became something we did here and there throughout the album.
Another thing we would do was record some interesting percussion parts in a really big room at EastWest Studio 2 with a long chamber verb. I copped this from the Beck song “Cellphone’s Dead,” a Nigel Godrich production, where the percussion is essentially the only wet element in the track. Everything is super dry but then you get this weird sporadic percussion, not playing fixed patterns but more jamming kind of stuff.
I tried a bunch of different permutations of that idea and it ended up being pretty cool. We had a cabasa doing something, then a bar later a clave would do something sparse and minimal that really excites the room and the chamber, but the rest of the track is super dry. It’s a fun textural trick where the percussion has this very different ambience and erratic panning, but not being the standard steady shaker or tambourine. A lot of my favorite records have this vibe going on with more performance-oriented percussion. It’s less of a foundation and more of a weird party.
Paramore - Self-Titled
Paramore is this ever-evolving thing, and they had made records prior to Self-Titled that were much more akin to each other. The band was ready to explore some different ideas. Taylor was also ready to get into his own space as the primary music writer and the main tonal architect. This was the record with which he was able to really start all of that—After Laughter even more so because he co-produced it with me. But Self-Titled, he was really coming into his own and really voraciously absorbing everything and becoming the producer he is today. I really wanted to engender that spirit, so we just experimented a lot.
When I have a band in front of me, I want to record a band. I don’t want to mess around with doing all the drums, then all the bass, and so on. That’s so boring and antiseptic, so I don’t do it that way. If it’s a band like Paramore, who can play their asses off, I want to get as much live stuff as I can, obviously. So, there’s a song on the Self-Titled record called “Future” that was a really important touchstone of the spirit of the project. It’s recorded in two phases, each equally important, then it was joined together with one big blurry crossfade.
The first section of the song was a bit of an accident. I had the band in the lounge of my studio and we were just messing around, working on ideas for the song. But it started to be a thing, so I recognized the imperative to act fast and capture what was going on. Jeremy the bassist was playing a Teenage Engineering OP-1, Hayley was singing and I think doing some random percussion, Taylor the guitarist was playing an old archtop hollow-body guitar. I was messing with some Ableton Live stuff in my laptop, but only through the shitty laptop speakers. You can also hear an iPhone text message sound at one point. I had my engineer quickly throw up a mic above us and another one behind us, and we just recorded what we were doing, sitting around the coffee table. Turned out pretty cool. One take, two mics.
The back half of the song is an instrumental recording of the band in Sunset Sound Studio 3, with Ilan Rubin from Nine Inch Nails on drums.
It was just the sound of them in the room, immersing themselves in brutal noise and chaos, amps on stun, everything bleeding into everything else. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything so loud in my entire life. It was really exciting to record that piece because it was so pure and emotional and unfettered. We had to get it all in one take. There’s no chance for anything else because you’ll never get them to reproduce it. I ended up only using a few minutes for the final piece, but the original recording of it is at least 10 minutes long.
I also have to say that Hayley Williams is one of the finest singers of her generation. You better just get that first take and maybe a second, because beyond that you’re wasting your time, she already nailed it.
The drum sound was a big part of that album too. On “Fast In My Car,” we were in Sunset Sound Studio 3, which is a really great drum room, but it tends to be on the dry and warm side. So we worked a lot to get things sounding lively and aggressive without much processing, eventually settling on setting the drums up facing the long side of the room, which is not the way drums are typically recorded there.
Then Carlos my engineer and I experimented with different sets of stereo and mono room mics set up at odd intervals, eventually blending them in a certain way to get a specific dimension and a kind of slap echo that I liked. Another cool part of the drum sound was two U67s, or U87s, I can’t remember, set up low to the ground behind a pair of baffles that were maybe 6 to 10 feet away from the kit, set to omni. They captured the sound drums hitting the sides of the room without capturing the direct sound of the drums as much. A very different thing, kind of hard to describe.
That was an important part of the sound, and that strategy ended up working well for the whole record. I didn’t time-correct the tracks either, I wanted it to be a little phase-y and weird. Then I did some fun stuff in the box later to make things more crunchy, but that was basically it. There wasn’t a lot of thought that went into it, it was more experimenting with what sounded cool. I wouldn’t spend too much time on it, because I didn’t want the band sitting around and wanted to be thoughtful about burning too much studio time.
Jimmy Eat World - Integrity Blues
There’s a song called “Pass the Baby,” which is a very performance-based piece of music that has basically three distinct parts. The final section has this really heavy monster-riffage, kind of proggy, Sabbath-y sound. We spent a lot of time in pre-production getting it right because I really wanted this to sound like it was one big performance, without it feeling edited together.
It’s a pretty bonkers piece of music, with it not only being pretty long, but also having odd meters and elaborate phrase counts. But it wasn’t edited that way, it was performed that way. I tend to be very principled when it comes to that. I don’t want things to sound cobbled together. Also, it’s pretty satisfying to capture the results of a band struggling and persevering. I like the character that approach gives.
We recorded that in Sunset Sound 2, and the sonics of it came out very cool. Frankly, the song wasn’t really in the Jimmy Eat World wheelhouse, which is why it was so fun for all of us to do. It was cool to go through the process of making that and the pride that they felt in doing it in one massive take. Now it’s become one of their live show staples.
Wolf Alice - Visions of a Life
Wolf Alice was a real pleasure to record. I think the process was so cool because they were so ambitious, so smart, and basically up for anything. I loved doing the guitars on that record because many of them were recorded with the player, either Joff or Ellie, in the room with the amps. I like the results when things are so feedback-prone and intense... Definitely made the guitar performances that much more visceral and exciting. really liked the way we did that because it was so feedback prone and loud and intense, which made the guitar performances visceral and exciting. We also did a fair amount of synth experimentation, which was particularly fun because I definitely wanted the band to learn how to use the equipment themselves, which I like to think always makes that kind of instrumentation more “their own”, rather than something the producer imparts onto a record with his own overdubs.
There’s a track called “Yuck Foo” and it’s basically like a one-take full band scenario, with an inherent grimy, garage-y punk flavor to it. We recorded that track at EastWest Studio 2 on their beautiful Neve. I do remember having to push stuff pretty hard on the pre’s of the desk to get it to sound as gnarly and alive as I wanted because that console is so forgiving and sweet sounding. We started out with more standard mic choices, but ended up with more dynamics or oddball choices like Altec “salt shaker” mics or other off-brand stuff because I wanted it to sound more destroyed going in, rather than relying on post-processing too much. So the far room mics, which were C12s, didn’t end up getting used as much.
Metric - Art of Doubt
This was an album of reinvention for a band with already so much experience and capability. We had a great time going down any and every avenue. An interesting feature of the album is that we did a bunch of basic tracks at EastWest Studio 2, one of my favorite places to work. The tracks came out great, and the band was particularly happy because I had them playing more live together than they had done since their very beginnings. But then, there was another batch of songs that we had to record at a later phase of the album, back in Toronto where they’re from.
The thing is, they have this spectacularly well-done studio of their own there. We used it for another round of pre-production, in anticipation of going into another fancy studio in Toronto for at least a day to get some more songs cut. So we went to this pretty upscale commercial spot there, and spent almost a whole day trying to get a workable drum sound. I’ve never experienced such an utter failure getting a drum sound in my life. It was just void of any inspiration whatsoever. We tried everything: moving the kit, swapping the kit, a whole new set of mics, different pres, console, no console... It was awful.
Later in the afternoon, we discussed the fact that the drum sound we were getting at their little studio was so great, so why don’t we just track there? So we scrapped everything and left. Sometimes the answer is right in front of you. So we moved back to their place, set everybody up again, and did the rest of the songs there, with great results. Everyone was crammed in there at their little stations, but it worked out perfectly. The whole album actually ended up having killer drums top to bottom. It’s varied, sometimes quite dry, sometimes more aggressive and splashy. Joules Scott-Key is in fact a criminally underrated drumming talent.
Anyway, all this is just a reminder that more money does not equal better results as a matter of course. Many of us can default to the idea that you need to “Go to a great drum room,” when the stakes are high, but that position doesn’t always hold water. That was an important lesson and reminder. Going back to what I was alluding to before, probably the most important feature of this album is the idea that Metric is such a kick-ass live band and I desperately wanted them to record things live, all together. They hadn’t done it for a while, but I insisted, so we did. And they are all the better for it, I feel. We’re proud of our work together.
It’s funny, after talking about this stuff, I think I start to see a subtle theme in my work that repeats: the idea that giving your artists more ownership and empowerment is one of the most satisfying aspects of the job. Definitely gives me a good feeling.