The creative side of being an engineer
Justin Stanley is a producer, recording engineer, musician, and composer based in the Los Angeles area. The list of outstanding artists he’s worked with includes names like Eric Clapton, Prince, Sheryl Crow, Beck, The Vines, Jamie Lidell, Snoop Dogg, Daniel Merryweather, Jet, Nikka Costa, Robbie Robertson, The Heirs, Cold Cave, Paul McCartney, and Patti Smith, to name just a few.
Justin’s production and engineering work and compositions have also featured in movies like Friday Night Lights, Spiderman III, Blow, Zoolander, and Wolves of Wall Street, as well as on TV shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, Nip/Tuck, Ugly Betty, Bones, and The Bernie Mac Show. What’s more, he’s composed and produced music used in commercials for Nike, Gucci, Ford, Eveready, Mercedes, and Ana Sui, not to mention the internationally awarded ad for Chipotle Mexican Grill featuring Willie Nelson.
[LEWITT] Tell us about your background and how you got into the music business...
[Justin Stanley] I actually started out as a drummer, back when I was a kid. I was just obsessed with everything music. So when the first Tascam Portastudio came out, I got one of them – and that got me intrigued with the recording process, too. I got my first keyboard a little later on, learned how to play enough chords to write a song and then joined a band where I spent ten years playing keyboard. That band ended up signing to a label and that’s when I got introduced to what an actual studio was and what a producer and engineer do. Coming from the musician-side of things, I was always asking the producer and engineer a million questions … I was just a really inquisitive person. And that’s kind of stuck with me; I’ve always been in search of what sounds good in my head, and I’m always looking for new things. Obviously, I’m a lover of vintage stuff because of the clichéd viewpoint that “if it’s old, it’s gonna be warm and have character” and all that. But as I went on, I learned more and more that it’s really just how you use a mic with the source you’re trying to record and what chain you go through and how things add up.
I’ve been lucky to have some great mentors along the way. Early on Chris Kimsey [The Rolling Stones, Peter Frampton—Ed.] was recording the band I was in and Chris Thomas [The Beatles, Sex Pistols, Pink Floyd—Ed.] was downstairs recording INXS. I would ask both of them a million questions on their techniques and what they used. Before that, I’d always thought there was an over complicated process and you had to put a ton of mics on something to get the best sound – but eventually I realized it's quite logical.
Later on when I was laying and recording with Beck, Nigel Godrich was producing and engineering and Darrell Thorp was also engineering and their approach was really simple: with one microphone in front of the source, you go into the room and listen to how it sounds in the room, and then you go back to the control room and see what it sounds like there. And the sound can be different in lots of cool ways, but it's valuable to go out there and figure out what the microphone itself sounds like first. It really helps build your knowledge of microphones and their placement.
So that’s kind of my background in terms of discovering music and becoming a producer/engineer – and I’m still asking questions, so being inquisitive is kind of at the heart of what I do.
[LEWITT] How did you get what you’d consider to be your first big break, working with other artists instead of your own band?
[Justin Stanley] My first kind of real crazy experience was in 2000. Nikka Costa and I were making a record in New York, and she was signed to a label called Cheeba Sound. The only two artists signed on that label were Nikka and D’Angelo. The engineer who was working with D’Angelo at the time was Russell Elevado, who is a real artistic and musical mixer and engineer. We were doing a record at Electric Lady Studios, and Russell was there as well, working on D’Angelo’s record Voodoo, so Russell stepped over and helped us finish the Nikka Costa record, which was called Everybody Got Their Something, and then he mixed it. Russell showed me the creative side of being an engineer. He really uses the desk like playing an instrument, and a lot of that experience stuck with me. Through that record, Nikka got a simple email that said “Come and play!” coming from Paisley Park, and we figured that it had to be Prince. So in 2001, we went to Paisley Park and met Prince, and that was the start of a long friendship and working relationship with him – he was an amazing mentor to both of us! I think that was the first break in America … having someone like him believe in us kind of gave us the confidence to do whatever we wanted to do.
And how did that lead to working with artists like Beck, Eric Clapton, and Sheryl Crow?
You know, I’m originally from Australia, which is an incredibly creative place … but it’s also an island, so when I was first starting out anyone who really wants to do something in the music world has to go beyond its shores. Nikka and I lived there for five years, and then we decided to move to America – and I think just coming to America led us to opportunities, because I was completely naive about how I’d go around asking people to get a job. I’d just go to them and tell them that I loved their music and was interested in working with them, and that actually did open a lot of doors. Later on, through the records I did with Nikka, I met a lot of great musicians including Beck and Prince … and then my friend Doyle Bramhall, who’s a wonderful guitar player and producer, asked me if I want to engineer and produce with him on the Eric Clapton record, and that led to Sheryl Crow’s record and through playing with Beck I met Jamie Lidell, who’s a genius electronic soul master … and from working with that group of artists it kept the ball rolling... one thing leads to another.
Let’s get back to the microphones. Can you tell us what you like about your LEWITT microphones and how you use them?
Well, in my studio I have a vocal booth and a live room, and I have basically everything set up there, ready to press record. I believe that when someone walks into the room, it has to be a really creative environment. I want them to be inspired, and the point of that is that I want to capture something really quickly: what I want to capture straight away are the musicians’ initial thoughts and feelings towards what they’re trying to express in their music. So the thing I love about the LCT 940 is that it’s got what it takes to basically be a constant in my vocal booth – it’s set up there right now, in fact. I have the blends where I can decide if I want to use the FET or TUBE-side or something in between, and I have my low cut and attenuation settings right in front of me. That mic really works on every vocalist I put it in front of. When I have a nice silky-soft and intimate voice, I love the tube setting … and when I have a singer like Nikka, who can go from a sudden whisper to a powerhouse, the FET side really captures her voice amazingly.
I use the LCT 550’s on various instruments in the room; at the moment, I have them set up on the drums as overheads. But I’ve also used them on toms and on snare drum – it’s actually a beautiful snare mic – and I’ve used them on strings, which sounded stunning. We captured the strings on Nikka’s new record Underneath and in Between with the LCT 550: their noise floor is very, very low, and it all sounded very open and sparkling – they really captured some magic for that record! But the LCT 550 has a lot of different characters, like when you use it on a snare drum: when the diaphragm is sitting just above the snare rim and pointing down, let’s say around 45 degrees or a little less, you get a perfect all-around sound ... but if you need more wood to it, you can get it by lifting the mic a little bit more into the drum, facing down a bit, and you get more of that thud. On toms, I’ve found it’s best to position them quite close to the skin – around 2-3 inches. Generally, I just love how the LCT 550 makes everything sound so clear and detailed!
All microphones work differently, which is why I always tell everyone to go in and try them out in different positions until they’re familiar with the mic. Because until you’re familiar with a mic, you might be getting only half of what you could be getting out of it, if you’re just putting it in the same generic position where you always thought a mic should go. So it’s good to try and play a bit with positioning the mic – maybe at the side of the drum, maybe above it, or below it – and once you get to know the mic and the different details of what you can do with it, you can just jump to it when you have a session, and things will go really quickly.
- Blend tube and FET circuit at any ratio
- Studio centrepiece
- 12AX7 tube
- Remote control and power supply in one
- Multi-pattern design