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Top Pop Trumpeter Talks Signal Chain

When Shania Twain, BTS or Duran Duran reach out for a trumpet track, UK-based session player Johnny Thirkell often gets the call.

Johnny Thirkell. Photo: David Harrison.
Johnny Thirkell. Photo: David Harrison.

London, UK (August 31, 2023)—When Shania Twain, BTS or Duran Duran reach out for a trumpet track, UK-based session player Johnny Thirkell often gets the call. He’s worked for decades to hone his sound, and accordingly is passionate about how it’s recorded.

Thirkell, whose bread and butter comes from playing trumpet on popular music recordings, racked up his 36th No. 1 record this past January, playing on Shania Twain’s “Queen of Me.” He also contributed to BTS’ “Dynamite” and George Michael’s “Older,” has recently been working on tracks for a project by Duran Duran and has toured with Level 42, Swing Out Sister and others.

Thirkell’s home recording signal chain comprises a Royer R-121 feeding a Solid State Logic SSL 2 USB audio interface into Logic X on a MacBook Pro. He monitors on Audio-Technica ATH M50 headphones.

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“I discovered the R-121 about 10 years ago, when it was recommended to me by my friend the great — and best — trumpeter Jerry Hey,” Thirkell reports. “Since then, I have used the R-121 exclusively, not just in my studio at home, but also taking it with me to sessions at other studios in case they don’t have one. I use it on every recording I do, irrespective of the project type.

“The R-121’s accuracy of sound is what I absolutely love about the mic, and that’s as important to me as anything else, whatever I’m recording. Having spent a lifetime trying to develop trumpet sounds that I’m happy with, hearing it play back as musically and accurately as possible is extremely important.”

“Monitoring loudspeakers aren’t that crucial to me, as I don’t really do any mixing,” he says. “Ninety-five percent of the work in my studio involves a producer emailing me a rough mix of the track. I then import that track into Logic and record the trumpet tracks over that. Once I’m done, I export each trumpet track as a WAV file and send it back.”

Thirkell comments, “I’m not an overly technical person. In my case, it’s very much ‘monkey see, monkey do’—but what I love about the R-121 is its musical feel and accuracy. In almost 45 years of recording trumpet, I’ve played into pretty much every microphone there is. Some of them are great, but to my ears, none of them give me back the sound that I feel I originally put in. There’s always some degree of ‘color’ to the playback sound — but with the R-121, no matter what I play into it, what goes in, comes back out. It’s really that simple.”