For over 20 years, Justin Meldal-Johnsen has been performing as a bassist for artists like Beck, Air, and Nine Inch Nails both on the road and in the studio. But around 2005, Justin began to assume the role of producer. Since then, Justin has produced highly-acclaimed albums from a wide range of artists such as M83, Wolf Alice, Paramore, Young the Giant, Metric and more.
When we recently caught up with Justin for our Five Sounds With... series, we continued chatting afterward and ended up with a 20 Questions interview on our hands. Read on to learn more about Justin’s go-to vocal chain, his love of pedals during all stages of recording, and his advice for aspiring producers and engineers.
1. How did you get started making records?
I had a good number of years of experience on the other side of the glass as a bass player, and I eventually started wondering if making records would be fun for me, and what I could contribute in that role. But before I ever got a job producing, either through enthusiasm, force of will, or a combination of both, I was always keen to make suggestions or ask lots of questions.
I was far more invested in what was going on than just the typical bass player vantage point, I guess. Thankfully, I’ve spent time with a lot of great producers in that circumstance, when they were generous enough not to kick me out of the room. It’s wasn’t a matter of me going in and blithely saying we should do this or that, more like just being in the moment and observing a lot.
Eventually, I started jumping in on records as a co-producer. Eventually, I realized that I had to have a place where I could do overdubs and basic tracking. It started out with a place in my house. Then I started renting a small room somewhere, and then I moved up to a commercial facility. Now, ironically, I’m back at my house.
2. Can you tell us a little bit about your studio?
My studio is basically a guest house and garage joined together that’s been taken down to the studs, then turned into a studio. It has a nice-sized control room and a smaller iso for drums, amps, vocals, and whatever else. There’s a bathroom and everything you need to hole up for a while on a project. The vibe is light and airy. It’s built sort of like a mid-century family room, crossed with a really efficient Tokyo apartment. Meaning, there’s gear everywhere, and it’s crammed into every usable space. But despite that, it feels comfortable.
I’m mostly in-the-box these days, but I use hardware judiciously at every stage. Not just on the front-end going in, but I use a fair amount for external processing during tracking and mixing. I’m big on spring reverb, tape delays, and I’ve become a pedal collector... Maybe “pedal hoarder” is a more appropriate description. I use pedals on inserts, during mixing, even as part of bus processing. Basically, I like to look into crusty, weird, even flawed pieces of gear as part of the process to make sure things aren’t kept too pristine and have an interesting character.
3. Which do you prefer, performing or producing?
Well, definitely performing. That’s just how I started. It’s something that’s part of my basic nature. I think that I can easily tire of the slow pace of producing records, just like artists can. I think I’m good at it, but it doesn’t mean it’s my absolute favorite thing to do. There’s a balance there for me where I need to do both in my life.
4. How would you describe your philosophy or approach to producing?
I definitely see my involvement in a project as very immersive. I want to get to the absolute basic essence of what we’re trying to do, both philosophically and musically.
I tend to take the whole thing very personally and emotionally, so it’s hard for me to be aloof and dispassionate about it. I’m not just “tracking” musicians, I get easily bored with that. I have a lot of ambition I suppose, especially when I get involved with people I really care about and a project I really care about. It’s hard for me to be just a referee or a technician.
I’d like to think I’m somewhat successful at spearheading a collective ambition to make something that we all really like. That’s what I do. Record-making for me is more visceral, which ties into the fact that I’m more of a musician-producer. It ties in more clearly with my production style or approach.
5. When you're feeling inspired, what's the number one piece of gear or equipment that you go to figure out what's in your brain?
Well, there are a couple of things. These days, I rely a lot on the Moog One. It’s become a real idea machine for me. I find it pretty intuitive and definitely inspirational.
I have these little stations set up at my spot, always ready to record, that have become semi-permanent: a few different synth areas, Wurli, Arp Solina, guitar, bass, vocals, percussion, drum machine zone, drum kit, and a pedal chain for inserts. These are meant to be performative and fun places for ideas.
Again, I want it to feel like a somewhat casual space where people can feel free to try stuff. With that, one of the most useful things for me when I’m writing is a fairly intense guitar pedal chain going into a Kemper and a DI. I tend to rely on that a lot. That’s a really easy place for me to get ideas going. That, and probably my EMS Synthi AKS setup too.
6. What mics do you use most often?
I like Shure SM57s and 58s. There’s always a vintage Neumann U67 set up that I can record anything with. I have this cool new mic that’s made by Chandler Limited called the EMI REDD. I love the sound of it, and it seems to never need any EQ. That thing always stays up on a stand, ready to go as well. I’m also very partial to my pair of old Sony C-37As, as well as my Beyerdynamic M 88. I arguably use an M 88 more than I use 57s and 58s. I dig AEA ribbon mics too, like the R-84As.
That’s kind of a long list, but I’m always circulating amongst those mics. I like to use a blend of condenser, ribbon and dynamic. I’m not one of those people who only use ribbons. I like the really clear hi-fi sound of a nice large-diaphragm condenser when that’s called for, even though that seems to be somewhat out of vogue for some folks these days.
7. What EQs do you prefer?
I use API 550As and 560s every day. I’m so glad 560s have become such a standard. I remember when I was starting out, they were this kind of oddball EQ that you would use only on the kick drum or something. I tend to use them on anything.
Another one of my favorite EQs are the 70’s era Moog three-band parametrics, which I have a pair of. Those are great-sounding and still relatively affordable. They’re not subtle sounding, and impart quite a bit of character, which is cool.
8. What about compressors?
I have an Inward Connections TSL-4, which is a stereo limiter that’s vaguely like an LA-2A circuit. Have you ever heard people say “I just run stuff through it and it makes it sound better”? I had never really subscribed to that, it seemed like one of those glib, catch-all phrases like describing gear that “sounds musical”. But that particular box does something cool to signals even if I just have it on bypass. Transformers, tubes... I don’t know what it is, but I like it. It’s a fixed attack so it’s pretty slow but it sounds so good.
I also have some Overstayer Imperial Channels [Model 8776A] that have a compressor circuit in them that sound phenomenal. Those have a real sonic imprint. I have a Retro 176, that’s great for fast attack stuff. I have a Purple Audio MC77, that I also dig, though it does tend to make things very dark. Distressors, even. Super useful.
9. If you had to create a vocal chain for a genre outside of your wheelhouse, what would you pick and why?
I would probably just stick with what I typically use. I wouldn’t do anything special because I think what I use works for most people, with the exception of the mic choice. I think that an SM-7 or a Beyerdynamic M 88 could work on everybody. One of those two dynamics can usually sort anybody out. Maybe a U67, but not always.
Preamp-wise I guess I would go to the BAE 1084s. They seem to work on most singers. Then I would use a fast attack compressor like the Retro 176. Lastly, I would probably use that Inward Connections TSL4 on the back of the chain. All that put together seems like a solid basic chain.
10. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done to get a specific sound in a recording session?
At Sunset Sound in Hollywood, there are chambers in a separate area from the studios. From the control rooms, they have tie-lines, which access any chamber from any control room. I believe they’ve been there since the place opened, but I’m not sure. Anyway, they each have really cool sounds.
Studio 1 is a bit different though. It has this bizarre little chamber room hidden behind a wall panel right off the control room. Once you crack it open, you’ve got this small chamber shaped like a long rectangle which sounds pretty radical. I put a drummer in there once with a weird little partial kit. If memory serves, I believe that person was pretty bummed to be in there because it’s super smelly, dank, and claustrophobic. I got a good sound though. One mic, an RCA 44.
I’ve also done some recordings outside at night. Just acoustic guitar, percussion and vocals. I wanted to capture the sound of night birds and crickets and stuff. I think the space that one is in really influences not just the sound, but also the mood and the approach. Outdoor recordings seem like an interesting area to get into more.
11. What’s one piece of gear you can’t live without?
I don’t know if I have anything like that. I think that gear is just gear. There are certain instruments that are really personal to me, just like anyone has. My ‘66 Mustang bass, which is the same one my Fender Signature model was developed from, and also my Guild Starfire bass. Maybe I couldn’t live without those, but is that really true? Could I actually not live without them? I don’t think there’s anything that I’m that attached to.
That said, as I think about it more, maybe I couldn’t live without my EMS Synthi. I actually only got it this year, but I’m already deeply obsessed and attached to it. The sound of it is so particular, soulful, almost haunted. It’s got a totally indelible personality that you cannot hide. It’s certainly one of the most beguiling and challenging pieces of gear I’ve ever owned, and it’s also expensive. So in the final analysis, I think at this point I probably couldn’t live without that one.
12. What’s an average day in the studio like for you?
Well sometimes, it’s almost like a pendulum that swings between two opposite extremes. One extreme being that everything is flowing nicely, plenty of viable ideas are happening, and the mood is right.
Then suddenly, the pendulum swings the other way to moments of stark, almost existential dread because you don’t know what to do next or how to solve a particular problem. I’m being overly dramatic, but honestly, it can be a bit of a roller-coaster throughout the day. I think that any producer who doesn’t share that feeling at times is either not telling the whole truth, or they are made of steel. Anyway, it can go like that sometimes.
In terms of the practical aspect of the day, I try to get in early before everybody else and listen to the stuff that was done the day before by myself. You know how you can be working on a song alone and it sounds one way, and then two other people get in the room and it sounds completely different? Almost like the song has changed, and you don’t feel the same way about it. We’re souls, and souls influence each other, obviously. So when I’m trying to be more analytical about something, I’ll listen alone before anyone else shows up and make a bunch of notes on what was done the day before.
So for the first couple hours of the session, I address things that were done before that need to have another look. We double-back just a bit, on an as-needed basis. I try to put the finishing touches on the prior day’s work with a more clear perspective.
Then after a solid three or four-hour session, we’ll have lunch. I don’t like to do two meals a day. I think that’s kind of impossible anyway these days anyway with budget and time restrictions, since last I checked it’s not 1990. After lunch, we’ll have a solid five-hour session of productive, fun work. Maybe interjected with something like a walk, or making a drink, or going outside. Something like that.
If we’re at my place, I usually try to duck out for half an hour and put my little one to bed. Then for the remainder of the evening, we’ll do another small session, maybe a couple of hours. We usually wrap around 9 o’clock or something. It’s usually about an 11 or 12-hour day.
13. What do you do in your free time, when you’re not making records?
I try to play bass and do sessions and gigs. It’s something that I need for my psychic and creative health.
As for hobbies, I like to spend time with my family. I’m kind of a baseball nut so I go to Dodger games, sometimes even just solo. Maybe baseball is a bit of a weird thing that many musicians aren’t into, but it’s turned out to be a really therapeutic and fun hobby for me.
I'm a music fanatic so I definitely love record shopping. I’m also an avid student of aviation. I do all of these online sessions and stuff to learn and I take flight lessons when I can afford to. I’d like to get my pilot's license someday. I spend some time exploring California backcountry and desert areas when I can, and I love hiking.
14. What’s your favorite place to eat?
In LA, we have this embarrassment of riches when it comes to sushi. There’s a place called Sasabune near me, which is insane. I’m definitely a food person so I guess I have my spots and I’m always looking for more. Bestia, Majordomo, Otium, Mozza, Baco Mercat. Those places are pretty solid. But I’ll always get down with more humble food, and will crush some great tacos any day.
15. What are some of your favorite albums of all time?
I’m a huge post-punk fanatic, but my faves are still all over the place. At the moment, I’d probably say:
Talk Talk - Laughing Stock
Wire - 154 and Chairs Missing
Cocteau Twins - Blue Bell Knoll
The Beatles - Abbey Road
My Bloody Valentine - Loveless
New Order - Power Corruption and Lies and Low-Life
Joy Division - Closer
Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life
The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin
Fugazi - 13 Songs
Big Star - Third/Sister Lovers
David Bowie - Scary Monsters
Talking Heads - Remain In Light
Pixies Surfer - Rosa
The Chameleons - Strange Times
Otis Redding - Live in Europe
Germs - GI
The Clash - Sandinista
The Cure - Disintegration
Marvin Gaye - What’s Going On
The Blue Nile - Walk Across The Rooftops
Prefab Sprout - Steve McQueen
Gang of Four - Entertainment
Can - Ege Bamyasi
This Heat - This Heat
There’s just so much, but those are all really important records for me.
16. What new music have you been listening to lately?
I listen to current music when I can. I go through periods of being deeply frustrated with sorting through bullshit like everyone does, mainly due to option paralysis. Everyone listens to music these days on subscription platforms so it’s like, where do you start? I generally get into stuff because someone I know and respect suggests that I check it out. Anyway, some current loves are Penelope Isles, DIIV, Angel Olsen, Deafheaven, Trautonist, Weyes Blood, Yves Tumor, Wild Nothing, Ezra Furman, Drab Majesty, Protomartyr, Preoccupations. I could certainly go on.
17. Who’s someone you look to as a constant source of inspiration, whether on a personal or professional level?
I’m very susceptible to inspiration. And what I mean by that is, I’m very easily inspired by even the small details I notice in somebody during a creative interaction. I guess I really do thrive on collaboration with others. I don’t really enjoy working alone as much. I’m always inspired by whoever is around.
But I would say both Beck and Trent Reznor are hugely inspirational to me, and obviously I have them to thank for a fair amount of my career. I’ve spent some good years with both of those gents, mostly just in the touring circumstance with Trent, and both touring and recording with Beck for quite a long time. I’m very grateful for those interactions, to say the least.
18. Name a "dream artist" that you'd like to work with someday. What would you do differently than their previous records?
I don’t really have a good answer for that. If I name one of my favorite bands, I think it’s probably better if I don’t work with them. If I work with one of my favorite bands, like Wire for instance, I could easily mess it all up because I would fanboy all over it. So it’s probably better to just remain a fan. Otherwise, my dream artist is someone new that I just haven’t met yet. M83 in a way is a dream artist because of the level we collaborate at, and now I’m on my fourth LP with them. It’s just all about who I meet, I suppose.
19. What has changed most about your production style or technique over the years?
I think just a larger toolset, and a greater ability to solve problems. I’m simply learning more about how to do it. I also don’t really have a particular production style, and I tend to want to change things all the time in terms of how I approach something. I just have a wider range of experiences that I can draw from. There’s not a lot of specific techniques that I always stick to. I just kind of absorb stuff and learn from people that I work with.
20. What’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring producers or engineers?
Honesty is the thing that trumps everything else that you can learn or do. And when I say "honesty," I mean not only in terms of your relationship to the artist that you’re with, but honesty as it concerns what we’re here for. Like, what the goal with this project, and how does that relate to what everyone’s capabilities are. That’s very, very important. It sets the tone for success in a project.
I think that we need to try to be crystal-clear about the parameters of the game that we’re playing. As in: here’s our budget, here’s our time, and these are our goals...and not ever mincing words about that stuff. This also includes how much understanding and clarity you have with the people on the outside, like a record company that might be involved. Having all that stuff pinned down, nor not pinned down is, in my opinion, the difference between the overall success or failure of a project. It’s all part of the preparation.
I think it’s also important to never take gigs just for the sake of taking gigs. It’s very important that you’re honest enough about your relevance to a project and your capabilities. There’s nothing wrong with getting in over your head a little bit—everyone has to do that. But not being clear about what we’re all doing in this room together or what the goal is and how we’re going to achieve it? That’s a pretty shaky foundation for making records.
Don’t take gigs just to take gigs, is the thing. There’s a big caveat to that which is that this may not apply when you’re starting out, because the stakes are different, and you’re trying to learn things, establish relationships, and hopefully start making some money. I’m just saying to avoid that as a strategy for your career. It needs to not be a job...more like a dream or an ambition that you’re constantly chasing, in conjunction with other creative folks that you connect with when you find your lane and your people. I’d like to think that if you look at your career that way, then we’re all potentially getting the benefit of more lasting art.
If you want to hear of some Justin's production work in the studio, check out the tracks below from Jimmy Eat World, M83, and Liza Anne.