RRI catches up with Jimmy Johnson
By Todd Houston
Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, making a recording of your band’s music wasn’t quite as easy as it is today. Sure, there were companies that made four- and eight-track tape recorders that you could buy and attempt to do it yourself, but these machines were expensive and cumbersome.
During the ‘80s we started seeing a number of recording studios pop up in and around town that offered professional analog recording at a fair price. Heck, most of the time the engineer would even offer up helpful suggestions and produce the music.
Sometime during the later part of the ‘90s, we saw home recording reach a point where anyone with a Mac or PC could produce decent sounding recordings right in the comfort of their own bedroom. It was that simple. All you needed was an interface (something to plug into) and the right software and away you went, thus leaving the professional studios and experienced sound engineers in the dust. (Or did it?)
Today, Rockford Rocked Interviews catch up with former Noise Chamber Recording Studio owner Jimmy Johnson for a quick chat about the ins and outs of music recording and the ups and downs of the industry.
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RRI: Good morning, Jimmy. What have you been up to?
JJ: I own and operate Forest City Service, a heating and air conditioning company that my Dad started in 1974. I’ve also been playing in a local band called Can’t Touch This for the last eight years. We are currently taking a break and may play again, but we’re not sure.
RRI: For those who don’t know, you owned and ran a very successful recording studio in Loves Park for well over a decade. Tell us why you wanted to go into that direction.
JJ: First off, I’d like to thank every band that recorded at the Noise Chamber—it was a great run from 1986 to 2006! Lots of great memories, and a lot of friendships with great people. Back in 1980 thru 1985, I was in a band called Agent, and I always recorded practices and shows and played with sounds. So when Agent called it quits, I had to start up a studio. The studio was first called the Underground Noise Chamber in 1986, and was first in the back room of Just Jamin’ (a local music store on North 2nd Street). At that time I was just doing it part-time. In 1991 [we] changed the name to The Noise Chamber [and] I decided to take over the whole space, complete remodel, and do it full time. I remember the first album we did after the remodel was for the band Ript. After that, we did an album for local band Essie Ecks and that one seemed to open the floodgates!
RRI: Tell us more about the band Agent that you were with. It’s strange now to think of a rock band playing a club on a Tuesday night like all you guys did. In your opinion how has the local music scene changed if at all?
JJ: It’s completely different now. Agent, back in 1984, started to see the crowds start to shrink. That’s pretty much why we shut it down. Today, you’re lucky to find live music on Fridays and Saturdays.
RRI: What type of recording equipment were you using in the studio early on? I started out with a Fostex Model 80 8-Track Recorder. I remember bringing it home and watching the lights in the dark forever—it was so cool! When I moved to N. 2nd Street in 1986, I upgraded to a Fostex B16. It was a 16-track half-tape. The Board was an Allen & Heath 24-track. Lots of tape splicing and punch-ins were really tricky. In 1991, when we took over Just Jamin’s space, I upgraded to a Tascam 16-track 1-inch and a 32-track Sound Tracs board (partially automated) and a bunch of new mics and other gear. About 1994, I upgraded to 3 – 8 Track Fostex ADATS, and a 4-track hard drive recorder. The hard drive recorder allowed us to edit tracks without splicing tape. After seeing how cool it was to digitally edit, I had to go to an editing and recording product called Protools. We started with a starter version, still synced to the ADATS, then went to all ProTools.
RRI: Some would argue that this new age of digital recording left the music feeling cold and brittle and took away a lot of the human aspects and nuances that made analog recordings sound rich and warm. New technology allowed you to “auto-tune” vocals and cut and paste whole sections of songs together, etc. I’m sure there are pros and cons to both. Thoughts?
JJ: For me, the pros far outweigh the cons. Being able to edit anything and cut and paste was incredible! As far as the cold sound, I found if you use good preamps and tube processing you can bring back that tape sound.
RRI: During your time at the studio I’m sure you came across a lot of talent. Was there anyone in particular that unexpectedly blew you away?
JJ: That’s a no-brainer: Robin Zander, Rick Nielsen, Bun E Carlos and Tom Petersson!
RRI: Over time you started to develop a reputation as being one of the best recording engineers in the Chicago and Rockford area. Rumor has it that you worked on the Cheap Trick album “RockFord” and even produced a couple tracks.
JJ: I did a lot of recording with Cheap Trick. The first time was in 1993 doing pre-production for their “Woke Up With a Monster” record on Warner Brothers with Ted Templeman producing. That was crazy! They pulled up in a Semi and there was equipment everywhere. I think they were there for 2-3 weeks and scattered 3-4 days stints over the next four months. One or two of the tracks we did ended up on the final CD. Then in 1995, they recorded a Pepsi Commercial that was first aired on the Super Bowl in 1996. Next up was pre-production for their next CD on Red Ant Records with Tom Werman producing. He signed them to Epic Records in the early ‘70s and Produced their second, third and fifth records. He came to the Noise Chamber for a week or so.
RRI: A lot of musicians are going back to the old school way of recording and mixing. Have you ever thought about coming out of retirement and building another studio?
JJ: I would never build a studio but I might get back into producing.
RRI: Last thing. I’m going to say a word and you answer with the first thing that comes to mind. Vic and Jim’s tavern in Loves Park.
JJ: Break time during recording sessions.
RRI: Gretsch drums.
JJ: The best! I still play on the same set I bought in 1979.
RRI: Just Jammin’ Music store.
JJ: Frank and Lynn Calvagna owned that store and it was very convenient being right next to the Noise Chamber! R.