To say that Gena Johnson has had one hell of a 2021 is the understatement of the year. The Nashville-based engineer and producer garnered a nomination from the Academy of Country Music Awards for Engineer of the Year, in addition to seeing several records she worked on grab 2022 Grammy nominations. Oh, and did we mention she got married?!

Prior to tying the knot, Vintage King sat down with Gena to give her the 20 Questions treatment. Read on to discover how she got started in the world of recording, learn about some of her favorite gear and find out the one artist that she's been dreaming of working with.

1. When did you first discover your love for music?

I have always been into singing and creating growing up. My grandfather sang in choirs and also sang The Lord’s Prayer at his high school graduation as a soloist. So when we would go over to their house, I would get to play with his reel-to-reel machine and I just thought it was so cool. I knew I wanted to do something behind the scenes in music, and it just went from there. Music is such a beautiful form of communication. It takes a lot of bravery to put yourself out there and capturing that vulnerability to me feels like catching magic in a bottle.

2. How did that lead to you to get into the recording industry?

I grew up singing in church, before I can even remember, really. I began classical voice lessons when I was 12. As I mentioned, my grandfather had a 2-track tape machine and he would record us as kids just having conversations with him. This was before I really understood how it worked.

I went to college for a Music Industry degree and prior to the start of my Junior year, I started taking audio production courses. I set up a recording studio at the university’s local radio station to give students who were interested in recording an opportunity to dig in further and record local talent. The whole process of putting that studio together just clicked for me. I loved it, and within the first class, I remember feeling a rush of emotions because I immediately knew it was where I needed to be.

3. What’s the average day in the studio look like for you?

It’s sort of changed over the years a bit, but as of late, I start around 10 AM. When I’m working from my place, I try to keep the hours reasonable, usually from 10 to 7 or so, that way people can still have a life balance outside of work. Of course, when I’m working with other producers, I’m on their schedule and that’s the gig. I love my job, just being in a studio makes me happy. Evening sessions can be magical. Some singers prefer to sing at night.

4. What’s one piece of gear you can’t live without?

I would say recently it’s been the Chandler Limited REDD mic. They’re brilliant on anything. I pair it with the TG a lot. The REDD has the sound characteristics of a vintage mic and is extremely usable in many situations. Both of those I tend to use on the majority of sessions I’m doing.

5. Aside from the Chandler mics, what are some others you reach for?
Other than those, the Coles 4038 or Sony C37.

6.What compressor do you find yourself reaching for most often?

I would say it’s a tie between the 1176 and the Distressor. Well, and of course, LA-2As too. All three of those are studio staples, and I have them in my studio as well. They’re versatile and create a killer vocal chain. Some day I’ll own a Fairchild and probably run everything through it.

7. What about EQ? Do you have a favorite?

The EQP-1A is still one of my all time favorites, I track and mix with it. I also really like the 500 Series CAPI EQs. They’re modeled after a 70s API. I love that vintage of API consoles.

8. Who makes the best cup of coffee in Nashville in your opinion?

I think I do [Laughs].

9. What’s the last good book you read?
Personal development is important to me as I’m sure it is with just about everyone, especially after the pandemic and isolation. I think it’s important to face the uncomfortable and to be able to really enjoy the next thing. Everyone I love and know has varying levels of insecurities and anxiousness, it’s how we decide to interact with those battles internally that helps us move toward healing and connection with others. Music does that for me. A book I’m into right now is by Brene Brown, The Gifts Of Imperfection.

10. What’s a favorite movie of yours?

There’s so many! I would say a classic – It’s A Wonderful Life.

11. What do you do in your free time, when you’re not working on records?
I love to be on Percy Priest Lake. We have a pontoon boat over there, and sometimes we’ll go camping on one of the islands. We’re minutes from our house but it feels like a getaway in the midst of busy life. Other than that, just getting to hang with my dog and my husband. We started a big garden out back during quarantine full of veggies making everything from salsa to craft cocktails.

12. What’s your favorite local restaurant? Do you have a go-to meal?
I love sushi, so probably Virago.

13. What’s an album you’ve had on repeat in 2021?
That’s a good question. I am all over the place, listening wise. I’d have to say Patty Griffin’s Flaming Red. I listen to that one a lot. I’m working with an artist right now that loves that record, so we’re really taking a deep dive on that one.

14. If you had to name a few of your favorite sounding records, what would they be?
Dusty Springfield’s Dusty In Memphis. I love that record. You listen to the panning on that and you think “I would’t expect that.” I like to hear things that you don’t hear on other records, gets me to think different and encourages me to push boundaries. I also love Donny Hathaway, so much. I went on a huge Prince trip a few years ago, too.

15. Do you have a particular engineer that you look up to?
My first answer would be Michael Wagner. He is one of my very best friends and he’s been a great mentor to me throughout my entire career so far. The way that he approaches music in general; it’s exactly the way that I now work. The energy, the setting, the scene all has to be right, and you don’t really start until it is. He taught me that the best part of the job is that we get to learn something every day. I love that. It allows you to be vulnerable and creative and fun. His overall perspective of music inspires me a lot, too. He taught me to get it right at the source; making sure to grab the right mic on the right instrument, making sure it sounds right on the front end instead of committing to “fixing things later.”

16. Who would be your dream client to work with?
Bonnie Raitt. She is an absolute force. I met her when I attended the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in New York with John and Fiona Prine as John was being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Bonnie did the honors of giving a speech about John and his legacy. They performed together the song that John wrote that Bonnie made famous, “Angel from Montgomery.” When we were in rehearsals, Bonnie took control as band leader and made sure everyone knew their parts and that it was perfect for John, it was true friendship, love and professionalism. Other than her incredible vocals and musicianship, she’s a kind kind human. I left that experience feeling so full. It would be incredible to work with her.

17. What’s your favorite part of the music making process?
Collaboration is my favorite part. I’ve been working on a new album with Caitlyn Smith. We’re both from Minnesota and we just seem to speak the same language. However, we are very different people as well, so the challenges that present themselves are fun to work through together. We have pushed each other in musically creative ways that I haven’t explored before except for in times with Ashley Monroe mixing her record Rosegold. She is not only an insanely talented songwriter but also an insanely talented singer and it was a thrill and beautiful challenge to find the perfect vocal chain to capture her dynamically. I’ve never heard her sound this open on a record like this before. It’s next level and super vulnerable.

18. Are there any pieces of gear you consider “dream equipment?”
I mean, yes [Laughs]. I’d love to have a REDD desk or a BCM10. I feel like the BCM10 would be perfect for my place with the way everything is set up. I really love Neve and the old API consoles. The desk that was in RCA Studio A when I was working there was awesome. It had the red, white and blue EQ knobs for the Bicentennial. I love that desk, helped mod it and all that. So any of those would be nice [Laughs].

19. What’s a piece of advice you’d give to someone looking to get into the industry today?

Good question. Don’t have an ego – that would be a big one. I know that seems impossible, everyone has one, but check it at the door. Be patient with yourself. If you are looking to be an engineer and come up as an assistant, get good at anticipating needs and troubleshooting. There are a lot of things to learn and soak in while on the job so be open to learning and be patient with yourself.

Another good piece of advice; we are in a customer service job, remember that. It’s not about you, it’s about the artist. It’s about their investment, and they are trusting you with their investment. You have to treat it with huge respect and professionalism. Be kind and just be a good person. It’s about their art at the end of the day.

20. If you had to use one song or album as an example of your work, what would it be and why?

This one is really difficult. I’m sort of all over the board. I’m really proud of Ashley Monroe’s Rosegold album that came out this year. I’m proud of her and our work that brought it to life. She is constantly pushing the envelope. It was one of those things where there’s not a single reverb I would change, you know? Her writing is so phenomenal, it can be so deep and yet so simple at the same time.

Then again, there is John Prine’s "I Remember Everything." It’s so authentic. I mean, you can literally hear the chair creak. Of course, we have Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton in between all that. I think as an album, at the moment I’d have to say Rosegold.

Stephen EarnestIf you have any questions about the gear mentioned in this blog, we're here to help! Please contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.