Remembering the Johnson J-Station

The Johnson J-Station is one of the best pieces of gear I have ever purchased. I relied on this little box for well over a decade and it was the heart of my rig for playing live and recording. Even though it’s long out dated, it still holds up and sounds great today.

But first, a brief history

During the 80s & early 90s we saw the rise of a new breed of all-in-one, multi-effect units. They tended to come in either a rackmount or floorboards form factors. Companies like Digitech, Art, Zoom, Rocktron, Korg, etc released a plethora of products that were targeted all the way from beginners to professionals. On paper, most of these were really impressive, and for a relatively low price users received a ton of capabilities. ….but there inevitably was a catch, and many felt they sounded “fake” or “cheap”. Regardless, many of these were a success and units like the Digitech GSP 2101 and RP-1, Zoom 9010, and Art SGX-2000 were incredibly popular and had a significant impact on a lot of the music being released at the time. And then, just like that, all of these were made obsolete by a technology called modeling and a trend towards simpler rigs consisting of amps & a few pedals.

Enter Modeling

The 2.0 version of the POD was the first one I used. To me, it feels like the original even though it’s not. :)

In the late 90’s, Line 6 released the venerable POD. Rather than creating flavors of distortion and overdrive, the POD was legitimately emulating, or modeling as the name suggests, amplifiers. At a relatively low price point of ~$300, guitarists would have all the amps, speaker cabinets, and effects than they could want on a tiny footprint made to sit on the desk. This was a game changer because the sounds were *really* convincing of mic’ed sounds from the amplifiers they were modeling. Line 6 and the POD quickly became the Kleenex/Coca-cola for modelers, there was massive adoption, and it definitely created a shift in the guitar market.

Johnson Amplification was the PepsiCo of the modeling world and released their line of amps and the J-Station shortly after Line 6 hit the scene. The J-Station was clearly their answer to the POD and sported many of the same amps & cabs with high quality 24 bit processing an A/D & D/A converters in a unit that was built like a tank with a great user interface. I didn’t really care about any of the specs just the sound and that’s ultimately why I chose the J-Station and stuck with it for so long.

the internet archive still has a copy of the Johnson website

In the Summer of 2001 I got a new church gig and they were pushing hard for a silent stage. I was mic’ing a Fender Hotrod Deluxe off stage and had a small pedal board at my feet. The rig worked OK, but our sound guy suggested I get a POD and thought it would be an improvement over mic’ing my amp at a low volume. On his advice I went to the local Guitar Center to take a look. I went with a good friend and we A/B’ed the POD 2.0 with the J-Station and we both agreed the J-Station sounded significantly better. What made it an even easier decision is the store was blowing them out for only $150. I was so broke at the time I had to borrow the money for it. In hind sight, I’m really glad I did.

This is what cutting edge websites looked like during this era

Legit PC Editor

With very little effort I was able to dial-in several usable sounds ranging from clean, crunch, to basic lead sounds. This was sufficient to cover my church gigs, but the presets weren’t exactly inspiring. I felt there was more potential in the unit and was determined to find the magic combination of settings to get where I wanted to go. Johnson provided software called J-Edit that made the tweaking presets much quicker and they also had an on-line community for sharing presets. While primitive by today’s standards, it was perfect for the time and dramatically increased the value. It was also really convenient to able to properly backup & restore these units and the software made that simple.

J-Edit was absolutely brilliant software
A great clean
For when you don’t have a TS-9 available
I love this rhythm sound

The J-Station is also largely responsible for getting me back into computers. At the time I was rockin’ an ancient Pentium Pro 166 with Windows ’95 and wasn’t capable of running the wonderful J-Edit software, nor did I have any midi capabilities. Wanting to be able to take full advantage of the software created the impetus to save some gig money for a new PC. About a year after I got the J-Station I found the perfect combinations for my playing. Using the Blackface amp for cleans, the Brit Combo w/ Jennings Blue 2×12 for a thinner rhythm sound w/ slight breakup, and the Brit Master Vol pared w/ the ’65 Tweed 1×12 for Lead and/or rolled-off rhythms. Matched w/ appropriate amounts of delay, reverb, etc and it’s amazing the breadth of styles these patches can cover.

Adapting for Live Use

One of the many iterations of the board I left at the church

The only other gap was the desktop form factor wasn’t well suited for performances and bending over to change presets wasn’t really an option on stage. Johnson had several foot controllers to address this and I landed on the J-8. It’s just about perfect and in some ways better than the Kemper Remote I use today. There are three presets per bank, each with dedicated buttons for Mod/Pitch, Delay, & Reverb. The CC pedal defaults to volume and has a toe switch to activate a wah (or other optional parameters). The on-board tuner was fantastic and really the only thing missing was a tap tempo switch. There is a button for this on the J-Station, but to access it live requires bending over and pressing it. As seen in the above photo, I got to the point where I was augmenting the J-Station with some pedals; the DD-20 solved the need for getting a tap tempo directly from the J-8.

The Value of the J-Station

From 2001 to 2014 I was using the J-Station for recording and almost all low volume gigs (e.g. church, weddings, private parties, etc). At one point I owned three of these units and left one on my desk, one at church, and the other in my car as a backup. Maybe the coolest gig I used the J-Station for was the time I was hired to record the guitar tracks for ~20 songs for Chucky Cheese. The J-Station handled this beautifully and everyone was really happy w/ the results. Looking back I estimate that I grossed approximately $120,000 in gigs primarily using the J-Station and my Tom Anderson Strat. While that sounds like a lot, keep in mind that spread out over a decade, it’s really not nearly as much as it sounds. I consider the tiny investment I made into the J-Station one of the best gear purchases I’ve made and the ROI was incredible.

Unfortunately none of these clips are great quality nor properly mastered. The first is off the board at church and I’m pretty proud of the improvising. The rest are clips from some of the video game music I made for my brother-in-law where I think the J-Station shines.

I’ve noticed that parts of the guitar community have become polarized on modeling. Some are very anti all-things-digital and almost bigots toward tube amps, while others in the Fractal/Kemper camps are just as bad. My opinion is that modeling is a powerful tool that solves real problems for guitarists. While it doesn’t replace tube amps altogether for me, it does augments their short comings in a pretty profound way. I can’t imagine not owning and actively using both moving forward. (sorry for the mini-rant)

Final thoughts

Today, there aren’t a whole lot of resources available except some remnants of forum posts. Probably the most valuable site that’s dedicated to the J-Station is here: https://www.lakecountycomputer.com/j-station/ The J-Edit software can still run just fine in a Windows XP virtual machine and on Linux using WINE. In case anyone else is still using a J-Station, I’m posting several iterations my presets here: Click here to download them. Hopefully these can breath new life into yours, and you enjoy them as much as I did.

In my opinion this is still one of the best and most affordable backup rigs on the planet. I eventually moved on to the Kemper for several reasons but largely because I wanted my Naylor amp to be more portable and be able to record silently. I never intended to part with the J-Station, but my recent half-hearted attempts to embrace minimalism led me to sell my last one. Thank you John Johnson and the team at Johnson Amplification for making an incredible product that far exceeded anything I could have hoped for.

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