Johnny K is a Grammy Award-nominated producer and mixing engineer based out of Chicago, Illinois. Best known for his work in the hard rock and heavy metal scene, Johnny K has a long list of impressive credits under his belt, including Disturbed, 3 Doors Down, Staind, Finger 11, Plain White T’s, Sevendust, Megadeth and more.
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Johnny K for our Five Sounds With... series. Read on to learn more about how he crafted some of the heaviest guitar tones, made one of his favorite records in a barn, and gets DIY making his own gobos.
Disturbed - The Sickness
The Sickness had some interesting sounds. For that album, we really tried to layer our guitar sounds and come up with some fat, heavy tones. We recorded the first performance with a MESA/Boogie Triple Rectifier through a MESA cabinet. We layered that with another sound, so there were two different amps. Then we doubled them both really tight, so there were four performances with two different tones on the left and the right.
But where it got more exciting was adding that fifth or sixth layer that we felt took the main sound over the top. And a lot of times it was a fuzz pedal or a different amp. In "Down with the Sickness," I remember using a fuzz pedal, a Fender Princeton amp, and a small diaphragm condenser... I think it was a Beyerdynamic. We wanted to get something different than what we had done the rest of the guitars with big closed-back 4x12 cabs and stuff, so we used a 1x10 combo amp with a fuzz pedal and it sounded giant! It was the deepest, heaviest sound on the record. It just had so much low-end. We were literally laughing at how deep and fat that sound was.
It’s interesting, everything that goes into creating these different tones. Some of it is experimentation. You may be looking for something, like you want it to sound heavier or fatter or unique in some way. Sometimes you don’t even know what you’re looking for, you just want to find something to make it stand out. You’ll know it when you find it... And that’s where the idea for the “Down With The Sickness” combo amp and pencil mic setup came from.
Megadeth - Super Collider
I recorded Super Collider at Dave Mustaine’s studio in California without any EQs. I had done a record out there before and brought a bunch of gear. This time, I brought only preamps and left my EQs at home. It was no problem capturing vocals, guitars and bass, but to get the drums sounding good without any EQ was a trick. I had to spend some time tuning the drums, and positioning the mics.
We used API preamps and an eight-channel Universal Audio 8110 preamp. That thing is great, it has three different shape controls, as well as impedance matching on each channel. I also shipped out a 500-series rack with some BAE 312A preamps, it was really more of an API kind of record than a Neve record. I generally use one or the other, depending on what I’m recording.
For kick, we used a Shure Beta 52 on the inside and an Electro Voice RE20 on the outside. I used a Shure SM57 on the top and bottom, and Sennheiser MD 421s on the toms. For overheads, we used Blue Kiwi microphones, an AKG C 451 on the hi hat, and a Neumann KM84 on the ride. I used AKG C 414s for room mics, about 15 to 20 feet back from the kit, with about the same distance between them.
We actually recorded everything in a warehouse. They have a control room inside their storage warehouse where they keep their touring rig. Half of it was set up for rehearsals and the rest was stacked from floor-to-ceiling with live cases for the tour. We threw a rug down on the concrete floor and set up the drums, and we lined up the bass rig and the guitars in there too. There was an office-sized room that we used for a vocal booth. I thought that the record sounded really pure. Tracking with no eq forces you to take time with the setup, and capture good sounds from the source.
Staind - Self Titled
Most of that record was recorded in a barn up at Aaron Lewis’ house in western Massachusetts. On his property, there’s a big barn with 20-foot ceilings. We set the band up in that main room to rehearse and work out their ideas during the record-making process. There was a little loft bedroom on the second level where we set up the control room.
We ended up building a whole studio in there. Vintage King actually put together a package for us. We bought a really awesome Neve sidecar. On the right side, it is a Melbourne, and on the BCM10/2 on the other, although it only had eight 1073-style slots. They still have that console, it’s awesome. We had some Amek 9098 modules, some 500 series Neve modules, some API modules. It's kind of a smorgasbord of my favorite mic pres.
For the vocal chain, I used a Neumann M149. I remember digging through a box of their stuff and I come across this old Neumann box with a pristine vintage U48 in there. So I asked the guys, "Hey, what’s up with this?" They said, "We got that with our first record advance, it never worked. It’s just been sitting there, we never used it." I looked at the power supply and there’s a little window with a switch that was set to 240v. So I switched it over to 120v and we used it for the last song on the record. It sounded magical, I loved it.
3 Doors Down - Seventeen Days
We tracked that record at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville, which is in a big, beautiful church. They have an 80-input Neve 8078 that has been put together from two 40-channel 8078 consoles, built by Allen Sides. To me, that’s one of the best sounding Neve consoles ever. There’s just something about that board and that room.
We hired an ensemble in Nashville to come in and record a string arrangement for the song “Landing in London”. They brought in a Stradivarius violin and a cello from the 1700s. We used a Royer 121 to record the violin and some vintage Neumann M49s for room mics. I used a U47 FET for the cello.
For Brad’s vocal on that track, I used the M149 again, which I’ve used on a lot of records. I still try out other mics on different vocalists just to see. Occasionally, the Blue Bottle will make its way on a track. It’s a little warmer than the M149. I’ve used a Peluso-modified U87, which sounds better than it ever has, also very warm sounding. I have an AKG C24 that I’ll use with one capsule to record vocals with occasionally. To me, that mic sounds like it has all the punch and fullness of an SM58, but all the clarity and detail of a high-end condenser microphone. Those are some of my favorite go-to vocal mics.
Plain White T’s - Big Bad World
The band wanted to record that album at Morning View Studios, which is this mansion with a giant living room for a live room. Among other notable artists, Incubus recorded their Morning View Drive album there.
For that record, I brought my 20-channel Neve sidecar, which I got from Vintage King. I love the sound of those boards, and had two of them at the time. At that point, I had one set up with Staind in Massachusetts and the other set up with the Plain White T’s in Malibu.
For the Plain White T’s record, I had set the guys up in that big live room. It was just a giant echo chamber, so I went to Home Depot with a couple of guys and bought some two-by-fours and carpet remnants and we whipped up some gobos. We set the band up live in that room together and just had them rehearse day in and day out while I recorded everything. The guys had vocal mics, wedges and everything. Most of that record was recorded live and you can hear a lot of the room ambiance in those songs. Some parts had even changed, if you listen hard you might hear some old lyrics bleeding into the room mics from the wedges.
I really enjoy finding unique places to record. I think it gives a record personality or a signature sound. Sometimes the perfect studio isn’t what you need. You read these stories about Led Zeppelin recording in a house or the Rolling Stones recording in a castle, and in my experience, it can really contribute to a great recording.