The Audio Engineer behind the desk – Nathan Johnson

We interviewed Nathan Johnson in Sydney last week; the latest in our ‘Engineer behind the desk” series. Nathan has been passionate about music since he was 14 and we also found out that he was from rural Tasmania. His passion for recording and mixing didn’t stop him as you can read below. Again – amazing the things that you find out about sound engineers when you talk to them and Nathan is certainly no exception.

Read on to learn about Nathan Johnson.

mixing Audio Pros: How and when did you start your musical career? Can you give me a bit of background info? Who were you early influences and how did you start working at Damien Gerard and Festival Studios?

Nathan Johnson: I guess my audio pilgrimage is a fairly familiar tale to many other sound engineers and producers. I’ve always been a creative person, and I’ve loved music from as long as I can remember. My first instrument was a beat up old acoustic guitar, which I started torturing when I was around 14 years old. From there I joined some bands and at that stage it was all ‘Metal 101’…music for the disenfranchised youth! (Despite the fact I still lived at home and Mum did my washing and cooked for me!) More probably it was because the ‘oldies’ didn’t like all the noise. That said I still love my metal as much as all other music. Luckily for me I was introduced to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd et al not long into my exclusively metal axe wielding days, and that is when my interest in sound and audio began to develop, especially when trying to emulate those amazing guitar sounds I was hearing on my overplayed and stretched TDK cassette mix tapes recorded from the radio. Then the pioneering days of recording on the old 4 track in my bedroom kept me up to all hours, and the obsession has not stopped since. By the time I was 22 years old I owned and ran a small boutique studio in Tasmania, which I’d set up in the back of Mum’s garage, 2 ADATS, a small Pro Tools Project system, some outboard and a Mackie 8 buss console. At the same time I was cutting my chops playing in cover bands & working in the local pubs & clubs mixing live bands every weekend. At 25 I made the decision to pursue a recording career, packed up my life into a van, left my little southern island home and caught the ferry across Bass Strait and drove north to Sydney, where I still live nearly 14 years later. Before I moved to Sydney, I’d been hearing about the rock ‘n roll tales of fellow Taswegians who’d trodden the path before me to mainland Australia and ‘made it’ in the music biz, and one of those urbane gentlemen was Mr Marshall Cullen of Damien Gerard Studios. Six months or so before I left beautiful Tasmania, I started to email Marshall badgering him for an internship, coffee boy, anything, just to get a foot in the door. He gave me a shot, and to this day I owe him a debt of gratitude for looking after a boy from the bush! In addition to Damien Gerard Studios, Marshall at the time was also running a small audio suite located in the Festival Mushroom building, and I spent a lot of time there doing small mixes and mini-sessions, and finally got a shot at assisting some sessions in the now defunct world famous Festival Studio A when the studio’s regular guys needed some time off. I was lucky enough to work with some really good artists, assisting sessions with members of Cold Chisel, The Whitlams and many more. I also got the privilege to assist some top notch producers like Jonathan Burnside (JB). It was while assisting JB that luckily for me he saw enough potential and invited me to come and do some work with him. This was an opportunity to learn from a big hitter in music production circles, and I worked with JB for several years both as his assistant, his sound engineer, and as his in-house engineer at his then Razor’s Edge facility down on the beach in Coogee, Sydney. One of the more memorable gigs with JB was assisting him on The Sleepy Jackson’s debut EP ‘Caffeine In The Morning Sun’…JB was always very generous with his time & knowledge teaching me many aspects of audio engineering and music producing. There has of course been many opportunities since to work with some amazing musicians and producers, some well known, most are not. Meeting and sharing moments in the studio with all these artists from all levels of the biz is by far the best part of my working life.

mixing Audio Pros: When did you first start running your own recording studio and how and why did you make that progression from working in studios to running your own?

Nathan Johnson: Mixosmosis in it’s current evolution is about 5 years old now. I guess it has grown from the little studio seed that was my place way back in Tasmania. I’ve always owned varying studio setups in one form or another. Sometimes combining my equipment with what ever facility I was in at the time. In 2003 I started a small record label (456 Records) with a mate, and we put out a couple of dozen releases, ran a booking agency, delved into some feature film soundtracks, and generally lost a lot of money. The exercise did however afford me the chance to have a mid sized commercial studio attached to the label, and I’ve continued to push into that side of the business ever since.

mixing Audio Pros: Do you have any particular methods or preferences of note? i.e using certain gear for certain sounds? any preferences of ways if working or even preferences of musical styles etc? do you prefer producing live bands, jazz, classical etc?

Nathan Johnson: I really do love all types of music…well, maybe not the Wiggles…that shit stays in my head for days (I have a 2 year old daughter!!) I’m somewhat of a plug-it-in-and-go engineer. Of course there are lots of techniques & experiences I fall back on, especially when setting up recording sessions that have limited time & budgets and therefore I must get a good sound fast. Mics, outboard, pre-amps and all that to me me are all flavours and it really depends what the mood is at the time. Sometimes the first method doesn’t quite capture the vibe, so I quickly move on and try something else. It has to grab me straight away. I never leave a musician standing around in front of a mic while I fidget with knobs and outboard. It’s a vibe killer. Get it turned on, get it rolling, and hit the red button. Mixing FOH for literally many 1000s of live gigs has also helped me be quick. Make a decision and get recording. If you make a mistake, go with it. It’s often the way new sounds & ideas happen. I love Pro Tools, I love outboard. I love analog. Mixosmosis is a true hybrid digital/analog studio and both mediums integrate seamlessly. I have a great array of plugins, tube gear, class A gear, old and new FX units, expensive mics and a crappy things that look like they’re from the intercom system on Noah’s ark. I’ve been working very hard over the years on my own skill in understanding how to get songs to sound big, or juicy, or that depth great mixes have, by using arrangement rather than more tracks, or more microphones, more FX. When recording, I also like to do 3-4 takes, then move on to a new song, do another 3-4 takes, then move on, and so forth. When we’ve done all the songs once, go back and listen fresh, split out the keeper takes, trash the rest, and repeat the process again. It really keeps the sessions fresh, and musicians not having to deal with the pressure of continuous punch-ins, replays, over & over, really makes the whole process more fun. That shows in the end result. When I mix, I get a quick balance going, no processing, just the tracks, pan & faders. I literally spend 10-20 minutes until I can get a quick feel for the song. It’s all about finding what makes me feel good first. Just move shit around, louder, softer, what’s grabbing my attention? What’s cool about this song or sound? Once there, I usually then go straight to the main vocal and start getting into that next, even with rock ‘n roll. From there, it’s whatever happens next!

mixing Audio Pros: How’s the local music scene in Sydney. Any bands or current trends that you are enjoying?

Nathan Johnson: The live scene in Sydney has been going through a bit of a down turn over the last few years. There have been some seminal venues shut down, and all venues are doing it tough. Luckily there are still plenty of live music lovers out there, and I do my best to get to live gigs whenever I can. I find I’m often low on free time, something that is maybe the only down side to studio life. A small price to pay!

mixing Audio Pros: You have obviously adapted to the changes in technology and the music industry for some time, especially as you are offering online audio services. How do you feel that the industry is adapting to “‘remote services” such as online mixing and mastering for instance?

Nathan Johnson: I think the way technology is breaking down the distance between us all, the internet, communications technology etc, is really giving the industry a level playing field. In my circumstance, Australia is a long way from music epi-centres like LA, New York, London and the rest. It’s a real chance for sound engineers such as myself to have an inroad to these markets. When I do get approached by an international client, or even an interstate client here in Australia, I still like to meet them face to face if possible, using Skype for example. We chat, talk about the project, I give the client a tour of the recording studio by walking around with my laptop, and the client gets to see the person who in many ways they are trusting with a big part of their music. I think we are only just at the beginning of what is to come. Many musicians are collaborating, writing, mixing, and mastering via online avenues these days, and I think it’s very exciting, and Mixing Audio Pros is a great example of this which is why I’m glad to be a part of it.

mixing Audio Pros: We understand that you have done work for television and film audio post-production can you tell us more about this.

Nathan Johnson: A funny story! My mate whom I started the record label with is actually an award winning television producer. He was always at me to try my hand at some audio post. “Nah….I hate television” was my usual stock answer. It took him a couple of years of nagging and he eventually wore me down when he showed me the latest show he needed audio mixing was a one hour special on bikini models….”Okay, okay, I’ll do it. But how?” “Listen to the television” he said, “do it like that!” And it wasn’t so bad after all. That was about 2003 I think. Now probably 50% of my business is audio post. I’ve built up quite a reputation in that side of the industry, and have mixed lots of award winning & high rating projects. Not only do I work from my facility, but I freelance around all the big production companies here in Sydney, and those relationships have developed enough and those same companies now utilise me &Mixosmosis for their overflow as well. Reality television and TVCs can at times be very ‘factory line’ and a little soul sapping – limited time, down to the bone budgets, just get it done, don’t be too creative, just get it to technical specifications and on air. Audio post is crucial to the success of my studio. Mixosmosis is also fully 5.1 spec’d & Dolby E capable, and I love it when I get the chance to mix documentaries, feature docs or short films, especially in surround. It’s a whole other way of telling a story or creating a feeling with sound, and when synchronised with vision sound & music can be very powerful.

mixingAudioPros: What is the most rewarding aspect of the running Mixosmosis?

Nathan Johnson: Definitely the people I get to work with is the best part. Reward also comes from challenge, and being self employed is a challenge every single day in any industry. The studio/audio biz has to be one of the hardest for sure. The overhead costs of running a business are due every week/month, and it does take two sides of the brain to do both the art & the commerce. A full day of recording or mixing, then 2 hours of accounts at midnight. Some days things go wrong, some days I should just go fishing. But as a colleague once told me, you only really have a bad day at work if you’re a pilot or a surgeon! The rewards of running Mixosmosis are many, but the most rewarding is that satisfaction of a great mix, and the joy I get meeting and working with creative people. Sometimes they buy me beer too!

mixingAudioPros: What has been your biggest challenge in the industry so far?

Nathan Johnson: Getting that crucial first start was a big one, especially growing up literally at the farthest end of the World. I get so many emails from a young eager persons wanting to come and intern in the recording studio, work for free and all that. It’s really hard always saying sorry, no positions available. I’ve been there and it’s a hard pill to swallow. Of course there’s always the ongoing challenge of attracting new clients, compounded somewhat with the accessibility of technology. So many home studios, it’s very competitive. Evidence of this is of course the demise of many large format studios, especially in Sydney. Budgets are tight too, both in music and audio post. You just can’t cut corners in the studio biz. I must always deliver the very best and the proof is always in the pudding. Mixosmosis must be profitable in order to grow, that’s not my motivation, it’s just the reality, and this challenge will always be forefront in this biz. What I don’t find challenging is always cracking a smile & having fun in the studio!

mixingAudioPros: Simple but extremely complex. Favorite band?

Nathan Johnson: Arrrggghh!! Okay – so many….Here’s a few I always come back to; The Black Crows, The Rolling Stones, Hendrix, Beethoven to name just a few. New stuff at the moment; Muse, Cosmo Jarvis, First Aid Kit, Daft Punk, The Black Keys. Check out Aussie band Kingswood – loving them!….High rotation at my house; Hi-5 and the Wiggles.

mixingAudioPros: What is the single best decision you have made in your life so far?

Nathan Johnson: Always back yourself!

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