We check into his Lake Michigan-based home studio to discover Justin’s top seven picks of gear from his own collection before hearing all about his gear-hoarding history and role at Reverb. We also hear about a recent synth purchase from Moby, how he once used a synth from iconic Chicago House classics, and we find out what the most “viscerally-impressive instrument” is that he’s played. Any guesses?
Hey, Justin! Glad to have you on for Show Off Your Studio. For starters, could you please run us through seven of your favourite items in your studio?
- Roland Juno 106 (KIWI Modded): The first synth I ever purchased. It’s got that sound. I also have a Juno 6 I play live – I prefer the WYSIWYG, no-patch memory approach for live performances so that the controls always directly reflect the sound the instrument will make.
- Sequential Prophet 5 (MIDI Modded): I spent years refurbishing it and it is worth it – that other sound. It’s fully functional with added MIDI input and output, but I still feel like a beginner learning it’s sound design features.
- Roland TR-707 (Sample Pitch Modded): This is my drum sound; the core sound of my band Replicant’s darkwave dance rhythms: A tight, punchy bass drum that cuts through big subby synths. It’s modded for sample pitch control by my buddy Danieldialatone that gives it even more punch.
- Rhodes Mk II Suitcase & Synthesis Pedalboard (Moogerfoogers, Whammy II, distortions, delays & reverbs): My all-time favourite instrument. It combines my foundational love of pedals and sound design / synthesis with my 10-year pursuit of proficiency on keys. The pure tone is the perfect platform for colourisation and harmonisation. I love the visceral feel and vibration of the suitcase.
- Pre-Depression Chicago-made Adam Schaaf Grand Piano: This beautiful instrument is on permanent loan to me from my buddy and Reverb co-worker Jim Tuerk. For many years, this piano sat as a focal point at the Chicago Music Exchange – one of the great guitar stores on Earth, owned by David Kalt, who later founded Reverb. The piano made its way through the Chicago studio scene until I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take possession of it as I was moving into my new home and studio space. This piano is a story of Chicago-made innovation. Adam Schaaf founded his piano company in the early 1900s in Chicago with the vision of bringing music-making to the masses by manufacturing high-quality pianos at a more accessible price. Which he absolutely did. This piano is almost 100 years old and still plays like new. Unfortunately, the Great Depression forced his business to close, but the piano manufacturing facility he constructed in downtown Chicago is now the cornerstone of a high-rise building. I’ve been with Reverb since early on, and it’s rad to have an instrument that ties back to our company’s history and the legacy of Chicago music and technology.
- Lefty Gibson Les Paul Custom: I found this on Reverb while I was on my honeymoon in Tokyo. I even carried it up Mt. Fuji!
- I also want to add my Stay Gold Customs Fender American Stratocaster, which was hand-painted by my bandmate/brother in a hotrod-grade gold fleck.
Can you tell us how your gear-collecting journey started?
I started singing as a young child and started playing the guitar at 17 – on an Oscar Schmidt acoustic that I still have and play. I’m a strong left-hander – the vast majority of available guitars are right-handed – so I’ve always prized and treasured lefty instruments because it can be so rare to find a left-handed guitar. Growing up on a lake in the woods of northern Michigan, finding any available music gear was special, so I quickly acquired a PA system with speakers and a microphone (that I still have), and started hosting shows. Once I got a guitar in my hands, I was transformed. I’ve been in love ever since and that’s why I do what I do at Reverb.
You’ve been a director at Reverb for almost seven years. What have you learned about the music technology market and its customers in that time?
To me, the clear trend is towards “hybrid” instruments and workflows. Companies like Ableton, Native Instruments, Akai, and more are creating products that combine the hands-on experience we love and supercharging a user’s creativity with the limitless potential of a computer/smartphone.
My hunch is that “the grid” will be considered the instrument of the 21st century, building on the legacy of the Akai MPC series (and their new Force instrument), through the Novation Launchpad, the Ableton Push, the Akai and other products that leverage the non-linear approach that a grid control affords. Apple even built a grid interface in Logic to directly compete with Ableton and Bitwig, and my hunch is that we will see further enhancements to this modern workflow approach across major DAWs and instruments.
Beyond the grid, we see guitarists who are learning how to record at home, and DJs picking up drum machines to start making beats. A new generation is rediscovering guitar and adding it to their digital-first aesthetic. Increasingly, the boundaries between categories and musical identities are blurring and so we work hard to support strong communities across the music-making journey.
Tell us a bit about your studio.
I live in Edgewater, an arts & architecture community by the beach of Lake Michigan in northern Chicago. My studio is in a dedicated space in my home, wired directly into my home’s Ethernet and audio networks so that I can combine smart home automations with studio creations. The idea is to scale up from seamless solo jamming into live band looping and recording and into rehearsal. Everything is built around a standing desk position (which I find crucial for avoiding fatigue during long sessions), and I rely heavily on MIDI sequencing via Ableton to control my vintage synths.
How do you use your studio?
It’s a hybrid creative/professional space, built around a standing position for good posture and active energy, including multiple perspectives and workflows: a horizontal monitor, a vertical monitor, and a projector.
I’ve got an i7 iMac w 32gb RAM, 500gb SSD, 26 channels I/O via firewire/thunderbolt from Allen & Heath ZED R16 with ADAT from MOTU 828x. That gives me plenty of power with flexible I/O. I love a hybrid workflow, a mix of audio, MIDI, in the box, out-of-the-box, reprocessing, etc.
You’ve got some gorgeous vintage gear in your studio. What draws you to those old-school artifacts?
I’m a child of the 80s: sci-fi, adventure; the first generation to consider the tradeoffs of technology, the balance between the optimism of the cosmos vs. the dystopia of the day. I grew up in Michigan, adjacent to the dance & house electronic music revolutions of Detroit and Chicago, and I’ve always appreciated the first wave of electronic instruments.
I’m still fascinated by the idea that someone sat down to map 100s of years of human drum percussion onto a box of buttons and lights and invented the 808/909/707/etc. Bob Moog, Dave Smith, Buchla, Oberheim, Vangelis, and so many more that invented new sounds and music in parallel to new technologies and instruments.
What was your most recent purchase, and what made you get it?
A Korg SQ-64 sequencer (a great deal on Reverb, by the way). I’m always fascinated by hardware sequencers. I think there’s still a lot of innovation in the interface, especially around polyphonic sequencing.
Does your job get you up close and personal with rare gear?
Probably the most viscerally-impressive instrument I’ve had a chance to play is the vintage Moog Modular at Roosevelt University in Chicago. We had a chance to interview the repair tech and it was such an incredible time capsule back to an era of exploration, when a brand, new to the world of modular synthesizers, could be appreciated and studied both for its creative and academic potential.
I’ve also played a real Yamaha CS-80 and jam on a modded original TR-909 featured on classic Chicago House records. Plus, I bought an awesome quirky 70s Roland pitch-to-voltage synth from Moby. Not to mention I’ve had a chance to meet heroes like Sequential founder and MIDI creator Dave Smith, John Bowen, and Ableton CEO Gerhard Behles.
Alright, enough about hardware – what software can’t you get enough of right now?
NanoStudio 2 on my iPad Mini really got me through the pandemic and became a productivity superpower. I was able to just strip away everything down to a hands-on MIDI piano roll and just write music and songs. I was able to publish 222 tracks, written over two years, on Tuesday, 2/22/2022 across piano trio, synthwave, and dance music all exclusively written, produced, and distributed directly from iPad.
If we left you on a desert island, what one item would you take with you to make music with forever?
For maximum productivity (and assuming there’s a way to charge the battery on this island), I would take an iPad mini with NanoStudio 2 as my endless music notebook.
If I could have an instrument, I would take the Korg Wavedrum. It’s got an insane amount of expressiveness and sound design. After spending a decade on the guitar and a decade on the piano, it feels like hand and finger drumming is the final horizon.
What is next on your shopping list studio-wise and why?
Back into Eurorack – exploring probabilistic trigger sequencers for generative beats and inspiration.
Speaking of shopping lists, what’s new at Reverb and why should traders head to your marketplace?
This season, we are working closely with our Shops, Brands, and Makers to bring a wide range of exclusive items and great deals to the Reverb community.
Additionally, we recently refreshed our Price Guide, which now includes even-wider coverage of 1,000s of items across every category and year of gear. We also used that work to launch My Collection, which is the easiest way to keep track of the value of all the gear you own.
What is your top piece of production advice?
Trust your instincts and first impressions. Music is about immediate emotion, so don’t forget how it originally made you feel. In that spirit, move quickly, don’t overmix, release often, and keep the creative flow going.
And be your own biggest fan. If your band isn’t your favourite band in the world, making the music you wished existed, then write different music or find another band.
What is the one piece of advice you would give someone building a studio?
Go slow, learn one piece at a time. Read the manuals. Get your latency down and as tight as possible. Eliminate ground hum and track down noisy gear and connections. Watch lots of YouTube videos.
Don’t spend a bunch of time downloading plugins and tweaking presets. Do spend a lot of time letting the DAW record extended takes of your playing and performing – this creates excellent raw material for practicing editing, arranging, mixing, and mastering without the pressure of a rigid song format.
What advice would you give to people wanting to land a job at a music technology company?
Lead with passion. Recognise that music is life for millions of people around the world, but demonstrate an understanding of music tech as a business and global market. Music is a small world, and it’s crucial to build relationships.
For more information, check out Reverb.com.
Get the latest news, reviews and tutorials to your inbox.Subscribe