In case you missed it, here’s the most recent column I wrote for Center Channel magazine about Producer Johnny K. Bon Appetite.
Walking through the lounge at his studio, one can see Producer Johnny K has been piling up the accomplishments in the music business. The walls are covered with Gold and Platinum record certifications. When Johnny comes out of his session to visit, he has a big smile on his face and mentions he’s just received a Grammy nomination for “Producer of the year”. “I’m honored to be in such great company with my fellow nominees,” he says. That company includes Rick Rubin, Danger Mouse, Nigel Goodrich, Sergio Mendes and Will.IAm. The nomination stems from his work in 2008 with rockers 3 Doors Down, The Plain White Ts and Staind.
For the past 14 years, Johnny has been working out of Chicago based Groovemaster studios. The studio he largely built himself. It has become the epicenter for many great records over years by Disturbed, Machine Head, Kill Hannah, Soil, Black Tide, among others. The key to Johnny’s success is his extensive experience as engineer, studio owner, studio musician and songwriter. He can deftly wear all the hats that a producer must wear these days.
A lifelong musician since his youth, Johnny’s path to success was forged by old fashion hard work. He had played in bands in high school and college, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in Economics, Johnny found himself broke and working in his family’s restaurant on the south side of Chicago. Using the business skills he picked up in college, Johnny took advantage of a business loan program for college grads and bought a townhouse. He quickly realized he didn’t like the house and sold it for a profit. With the extra capital, he bought recording gear and another house (“a crusty dump”) that was converted into a recording studio. The house was where Johnny enjoyed his first success; after years of recording local bands, he produced the track “Fly” for a band called Loudmouth. The track made it on the “Varsity Blues” soundtrack and earned Johnny his first Gold Record. When the band was signed to a major label, Johnny was dropped as the producer. Undaunted, Johnny kept working with a wide variety of artists including a loud hard rock group called Disturbed. He recorded the demos that earned the band major label deal; the band convinced label executives to keep Johnny on as the producer. Their debut record, “The Sickness” went on to sell more than 4 million copies and launched Johnny’s career as a music producer. Subsequent projects with a diverse group of artists such as Soil, Finger 11, Stanid and Black Tide further showcased Johnny’s skill as an engineer and producer.
From the house on the south side of Chicago, Groovemaster Studios moved to an industrial loft on Chicago’s near northwest side and then again to its current location on Chicago’s near south side. The latest incarnation is a six story, 40,000 square foot converted brewery. The building’s construction is ideally suited for housing recording studio. The thick brick walls are insulated with six inches of cork (originally built with the intention of keeping beer cold) and the floors support a whopping 400 lbs per square inch. The sturdy structure features a panoramic view of the skyline of Chicago; was important to Johnny to have plenty of natural light. The building currently houses four studios, each room with a distinctive character.
The 3rd floor houses The Neve Room, where the control room is built around a gorgeous 48 channel Neve 8128 console in pristine condition. While console’s superb sound is reason enough to get excited, the control rooms tight acoustics and vibe-y aesthetics make one feel right at home. Other amenities include a bountiful rack of vintage outboard gear, large open tracking room and over eighty guitars and dozens amps housed on the premises. The most popular guitars for recording are a 1968 Les Paul and 1969 Telecaster. He also likes to use a 1960 Anniversary Strat. With the in house guitar and amp arsenal, there are plenty of choices for achieving the perfect guitar sound. Many famed guitar sounds have been tracked in The Neve Room, including Johnny’s signature Disturbed guitar sound where he uses a Bogner and Mesa Triple Rec head tracked separately using MD421 and SM57LC mics.
While the Neve room is both an excellent tracking and mixing room, the SSL room on the 5th floor was conceived as the ultimate mixing room. Built around an SSL 4080 G+ and a massive six bay custom rack of outboard gear, the room looks out to a jaw-dropping vista of Chicago’s skyline. The SSL was picked outstanding sonics, specifically its “size and width” on the stereo buss. In addition to well equipped, the 6000 Square foot SSL room has excellent amenities for artists. In the lobby area sits a perfectly restored 1937 Cadillac outfitted with reference speakers for listening to mixes. There’s also an ornately decorated private bar which evokes a classic Chicago speakeasy vibe where clients can relax after a long day of work. Should artists need further relaxing, the third floor lounge is complete with a large Jacuzzi, kitchen, workout center, entertainment center and most importantly, a large foosball table.
Groovemaster clients have the advantage of a fully staffed studio. Handling the day-to-day responsibilities of all the rooms is a full time staff of interns and Crystal, the studio manager. The engineering staff consists of Tadpole, Justin Wilk and Josh Shapera; all with many years of experience and credits under their belts.
In addition to working at Groovemaster, Johnny clients take him to non-traditional recording environments across the country. For instance the on the most recent Plain White Ts record, Big Bad World, the band recorded the album live in a house with a room over looking the ocean in Malibu. Every track was recorded live with the full band. The band rehearsed for a month prior to recording; all the tracks were recorded without a click to capture the feel of the band live. Once the initial tracks were recorded, the sessions were brought back to Groovemaster in Chicago for mixing and overdubs.
As for the gear he likes to bring with him in his travels, Johnny has a few favorites. For a vocal mic, Johnny is fond of the Neuman M149 mic; this has been used on many of the hit singles Johnny has recorded including, Finger Eleven’s One Thing. As for his “desert island” pre-amp selections – Johnny’s first choice are vintage Neve 1073 preamps. He also likes the Amek 9098 modules and the Avalon VT737SP Channel Strip.
With shrinking recording budgets in this era of music, the role of the music producer becomes vitally important to maximize every dollar and guide a project to the next level. Johnny’s extensive experience as a Grammy nominated Producer, musician, engineer, studio owner and songwriter make him uniquely qualified to serve the each project dynamic needs. Furthermore with a faculty like Groove master, each artist can be guaranteed their album is handled with expert hands.