Designing Tunes

John Johnson’s musical genius draws aspiring singers and songwriters to Newton County from all over the world.

by Brian Knapp

A 1969 Gibson SG guitar hangs on the wall in John Johnson’s studio, the flashpoint in his self-professed obsession with music. Despite the passage of time and countless hours of wear and tear, it gleams with nostalgia as if it knows its importance. It belonged to Johnson’s father, Standing Bear, who died suddenly at the age of 52 in 1989. The youngest of Standing Bear and Quntiss Johnson’s three sons was just 17 years old at the time.

“My earliest memory of music is my dad playing this guitar, that white electric guitar, and just sitting down and enjoying him singing his old songs and playing the way he played,” Johnson said, occasionally running his fingers through his salt-and-pepper beard. “That’s what influenced me to do what I’m doing.”

Now 46, Johnson today owns Tune Designer, a music mecca in Covington to which aspiring singers, songwriters and musicians flock to have themselves recorded and produced. They have come from as far away as New Zealand to work with the affable Newton County native, who has been described as the “Mutt Lange of the South.” Johnson started his business in 2000, founded Tune Designer in 2014 and moved into his new 3,500-square-foot studio in February. He sees it as a fulfillment of a longtime vision. 

“I became obsessed with music when I was young,” Johnson said. “When I got to middle school, I really started focusing on music. I mean, I couldn’t get enough of it. For some kids it’s sports, for some kids it’s other things, but for me it was Gospel music. I just fell in love with church music. My dad would take me around to all these concerts and stuff, so I became obsessed with it. I always use that word because I think you have to be obsessed with something.

“I remember in middle school—I was in seventh grade—I wrote a theme about what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said, ‘I want to have a recording studio and I want to produce records.’”

John Johnson, Tune Designer Owner

“I remember in middle school—I was in seventh grade—I wrote a theme about what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said, ‘I want to have a recording studio and I want to produce records,’” he added. “From that point on, God allowed me to turn that obsession into what I do. It’s something I truly love. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Johnson does much of his business online through his Tune Designer page on Facebook. In short, he provides musicians with the means to have their songs professionally recorded. The process begins when a prospective client sends Johnson a rough demo to be studied and analyzed. He then asks the songwriter questions regarding the desired sounds and instruments that are to be used. From there, Johnson hires musicians, provides the instrumental portion of the song, requests vocals—he provides them when working with strictly songwriters—and produces a final cut. The process typically takes a week to complete and requires Johnson to call upon all of his musical skills.

“Anytime you make a living making music, you’ve really just got to know how to do a lot of stuff,” he said. “In my case, I had to know more than just how to play the piano great. To me, the biggest thing you’ve got to know is how to make people feel comfortable recording. It’s really about how you interact with people. That’s almost more important than playing the actual music part, making them feel comfortable enough to do their best, where they’re feeling like they’re doing a good job in the studio. I want people to know I’m rooting for them. I want the song to turn out great.”

Johnson’s producing experience runs the entire spectrum, from established recording artists like award-winning country music singer Brantley Gilbert and powerhouse contemporary Christian group Casting Crowns to first-time singer-songwriters. Tune Designer has connected him to musicians from Ireland, Scotland, Australia and across America, providing the married father of two with a creative outlet and the means with which to support his family.

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“I meet people from all over the world that trust me with helping them with their song, and you just get to know these people because their song is so personal to them,” Johnson said. “It’s like you’re taking care of their kids. They are very serious about their song. It’s rewarding to me to know that somebody would trust me with that. We deal with a lot of first-time songwriters who have never heard their song come to life. That’s a real big thing for them to finally hear their song in a professional way, the way they’ve always dreamed about hearing it.”

While Johnson utilizes freelance session players with whom he has grown familiar over the years, he does have one full-time employee: his 25-year-old nephew, Rhett.

“He is my right-hand man,” Johnson said. “He does all my mixing, plays a lot of instruments. He’s great on all of them. He’s obsessed with music like I was, which is why I hired him.”

Johnson admits he has his hands full but ultimately wants to branch out into the promotional side of the music business, where the rubber meets the proverbial road.

“We do a lot of awesome songs that I want to put into the right hands,” he said. “I haven’t really explored that like I want to. Eventually, I would like to see Tune Designer be a place where publishing companies and record labels come and say, ‘Hey, I want to see what songs you guys have.’ We sort of do that now, but it’s not an official thing we push. I would like to establish some good connections with reputable publishing companies and have them know this is a place where [they can come for songs].”

Johnson has been married to his wife Ginger for 23 years. They have two children, daughter Skye, 19, and son Jonathan, 17. Interests outside of Tune Designer include his loyalty to the Georgia Bulldogs, his love for pecan logs and leading worship at Stewart Community Church, where older brother Jason serves as senior pastor. Still, the music studio remains his domain, and whenever he returns to it, the faint drum of his obsession can almost be heard beating in the background, that white Gibson guitar paying quiet homage to the man who inspired his walk.

“We use it all the time here,” Johnson said. “I just had it restored, and it ends up on a lot of recordings. My dad still influences me so much today, more than the music, in the way he lived his life and treated others.” 

Click here to read more stories by Brian Knapp.

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