From Flute to Fame: Justin Miller’s Journey from Grade School Instruments to Grammy Glory
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From Flute to Fame: Justin Miller’s Journey from Grade School Instruments to Grammy Glory

In the world of music production, Justin Miller’s journey is a testament to the transformative power of passion and perseverance. Beginning with a childhood curiosity sparked by his mother’s old flute, Miller’s path wound through the corridors of Rowan University, the studios of Milkboy, and into the company of music legends. His story, marked by a love for both music and electronics, culminated in a Grammy win for his work on Jazmine Sullivan’s “Heaux Tales.” In this exclusive interview, Miller reflects on his early influences, the pivotal moments of his career, and the unwavering dedication that led him from grade school fascination to the heights of the music industry.

I2R: Can you share a bit about your initial curiosity for various instruments during grade school? Which instruments did you start with, and what drew you to them?

JM: My fascination with music began at an early age. Many car rides with my mom listening to the likes of Michael Bolton and Barry Manilow. We’re talking late 80’s. I took a major liking to Michael Bolton at a young age. My infatuation for singers likely began there. The first instrument I ever picked up was a flute in fourth grade. My mother played the flute, marched in the rose bowl and she had her childhood flute stored in our attic. I began taking lessons immediately. All throughout grammar school I focused on my skill with this particular instrument. As well as learning various brass instruments such as trumpet and tuba. By the time I got to high school, I was dead set on being a music teacher. That’s all I cared about

I2R: While studying music education and performance at Rowan University, what sparked your interest in audio engineering? Was there a specific moment or project that made you realize this was your true calling?

JM: Moving on from being an education and performance major, I honestly wasn’t too sure what I wanted to do. College taught me a lot but I learned little in the classroom if you catch my drift. I had played in many bands throughout my adolescence. We used to use a Yamaha four track recorder to record our practices and use a 3.5mm cable to plugin it into the mic input of our computer to print and make CDs. Some real drawn out windows 95 type a thing. I’ve always loved electronics. I’d yard sale weekly with my mom buying receivers, speakers, 8-tracks, vinyl, anything I could get my hands on. While in the midst of uncertainty, a light bulb went off. I could potentially have a career doing both of the things I loved simultaneously. I could apply both my love and knowledge of music as well as gear and electronics. The idea grew and became even more focused with the thought of helping other artists bring their music to life.

I2R: How did your internship at Milkboy The Studio shape your career? Are there any memorable sessions or lessons from working with artists like Jazmine Sullivan and Gucci Mane that significantly influenced your approach to music production?

JM: Camden County College gave me a great foundation in the field of Audio Engineering. At Milkboy, I broke my teeth. I interned for three and a half years before I got my first real opportunity. Believe me, there were many times I thought I should walk away and give up over that process. Overall, I spent 11 years with Milkboy. They’re my family at this point and owe them for all of the opportunities I received by being in their four walls. In 2017 I quit my day job as I felt I could finally make music a full time endeavor. I got to meet so many fascinating people. Katy Perry, Patti LaBelle, Gucci Mane, Jazmine Sullivan, Jennifer Hudson, Common, Uzi, Zach Bryan. I’ll never forget the Gucci Mane session. He flew into Philly for some appearances and wanted to hit the studio after. He and his one security guard walked in the studio, they both eyed me up, Gucci goes to his man, “don’t worry, you can wait out here, I got this”. I was clearly not a threat. I just always find that interaction comical.

I2R: What were some of the most challenging skills to develop as an audio engineer, and how did you overcome these challenges?

JM: Some of the most challenging skills to develop to be a successful engineer are patience and relationship building. The technical stuff will come with practice and your “10,000” hours. But learning how to act and react in a room with various personalities took a little getting use to. You have to always be on. You can’t let your bad day show. You’re the conduit for these artists to get their work out and they feel all the vibes, both good and bad. If you’re not appropriately handling how you operate in a room, you’ll soon find yourself out of those rooms.

I2R: Having worked with both local and renowned artists, how do you approach the different dynamics and expectations in these sessions?

JM: I like to be as prepared as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. For any major label sessions, I’ll often reach out to the clients manager and sometimes prior engineers for insight not just on how they like to record, but some general do’s and don’ts. I like to get a grasp of their personality in that setting when possible. When you’re working with indie clients, you’re more often than not developing relationships and building with them long term. In Philly, with label clients, they’re usually one offs. So you want to really turn your “customer service” game to 10. I used to tell our interns, treat this studio like a 5 star hotel. It’s about the experience just as much as it’s about the work you’ll put in during a session.

I2R: What motivated your decision to move to Los Angeles in 2023, and how has the vibrant music scene there influenced your work and creative process?

JM: I decided in May 2023 that a change was necessary. I hit a glass ceiling in Philly and did all I could do. I love Philly, It’ll always be home but it comes with a special set of challenges working in the music business. The whole goal was reaching more commercial artists, more regularly. There’s just no better spot than LA to do that. Almost instantly I felt that impact. Coming to the west coast has re-ignited a fire in me to hustle like it’s 2012 all over again. There’s just so much talent and opportunity out here, you have to be active to seize it.

I2R: Winning a Grammy for your work on Jazmine Sullivan’s “Heaux Tales” is a significant achievement. How did it feel to receive such recognition, and how has it impacted your career?

JM: Winning a grammy was an extreme honor and felt amazing. The win impacted my career heavily and in hindsight, I should’ve made my move to LA directly following that win. Nevertheless, everything happens for a reason. To be honest, the virgo in me wouldn’t let myself really enjoy it. I almost immediately developed imposter syndrome. I flaunt it now more than I used to for sure but there was some time there I wasn’t sure what I did to deserve such a prestigious award. Jazmine is a generational talent. There is absolutely no-one like her. I’m so lucky to have spent a summer in the studio with her while we worked on wrapping up the album. I’ve now been fortunate enough to have 6 total nominations in the last few years.

I2R: Can you tell us more about your experience engineering the track “Pick Up Your Feelings”? What was the creative and technical process behind this award-winning performance?

JM: Engineering the track “Pick Up Your Feelings” was incredible. The first time I heard the production and Jazmine began to sing over it, I had goosebumps. That’s what we want in music, goosebumps. I knew there was something special there. With the majority of the production being done, we focused solely on vocals. The signal chain I used was a Telefunken U47, into a OG Neve 1073, LA2A, then I ran in through a channel on the SSL 4000 before sending in to the box (computer)

I2R: How do you approach collaboration with artists during recording sessions? Do you have a particular philosophy or method that helps facilitate a productive and creative environment?

JM: How I approach collaboration with artists is very different for each one. I remember my first session, the artist looked at me asking my opinion. I was flabbergasted. I wasn’t prepared for also being the one giving insight and confidence to the artist. Of course after working some sessions myself and getting more and more comfortable, I began to really tune in creatively with my clients. For the clients I’m close with, I’m pretty blunt and up front about what I may want or how they need to operate to get what they want. I always say, let’s throw all the ideas we can on tape, we can take away later, but we can’t always add. So for me, more is more than truncate.

I2R: The music production landscape is constantly evolving with new technologies and software. How do you stay updated with the latest tools and trends in audio engineering?

JM:This business is a forever evolving landscape. I’ve always lived by “always remain a student” even prior to getting into this industry. To me, that’s the way to evolve and stay relevant in this field. Winning a grammy and becoming complacent thinking you know it all will be a fast way to fall off.

I2R: What advice would you give to aspiring audio engineers and producers who are just starting their careers? Are there any specific skills or experiences you believe are crucial for success in this field?

JM: I usually will give several pieces of advice. First, put that 10,000 hours in. Find an artist/friend whose music you enjoy, and begin building with them. Be prepared to work for free, willingly, in order to develop your skill set. Second, be prepared to give up a lot. Weekends, holidays, birthdays, family time, PTO. You have to sacrifice to a degree to make this happen. It’s not a banker hours type of business to say the least.

 

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I2R: Who are some of your biggest influences and inspirations in the music industry? How have they shaped your approach to music production and engineering?

JM: Some of my biggest music industry influences, that aren’t recording artists, are the likes of George Martin, Sylvia Massey, Butch Vig, Derek Ali, Manny Marroquin. One of my favorite sayings in life is “variety is the spice of life”. I truly love all genres and prefer to work within as many as possible.

I2R: As an audio engineer, how do you balance the technical aspects of your work with the artistic vision of the artists you collaborate with?

JM: Balancing art and technology can be really tough. Oftentimes as an engineer you want to capture something as perfectly as possible and will have to give that up to let the artist do what they want creatively. An example being overdriving a preamp or using a mic for a source you typically wouldn’t just because it makes the artist comfortable. Sometimes the vision goes beyond the technical aspect and you have to let that go from within yourself. It’s like being okay with taking everything you learned and throwing it out the window. I can’t complain, the artists are right more often than not.

I2R: What are some of your long-term goals in the music industry? Are there any specific milestones or projects you aspire to achieve in the future?

JM: Future goals of mine.. I’ve been blessed to already achieve so many of my goals in the field. I’m 40 now, the end game has been something I’ve thought about a lot lately. I don’t plan on “retiring”. I often joke I’d be lucky to hit lights out while I’m sitting at a console. I’ve been transitioning to more of a project engineer than running one off sessions. I really enjoy this. You get to lock in with an artist for a month, two or three and really get to create some amazing art. The project album is coming back and I’m here for it! I’d like to wrap the career predominately being a full time mixing enjoy. 3 awards away from an EGOT? HAHA why not…