East Portland musician makes melodic magic for movies and recording stars

Unless you run a do-it-yourself recording studio – or are a Hollywood movie soundtrack mogul – you probably have never heard of this fellow. But, you certainly have heard his handiwork …

Working in his East Portland studio, John Lehmkuhl makes music and sounds used by other musicians all over the world.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Many musicians, just jamming in a garage band today, are hoping that someday their name will become a household word when millions around the world hear their music.

While the music and sounds produced by John Lehmkuhl, a professional musician with studios located in the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood, have blasted on countless boom boxes and trickled into Ipod earpieces, the fact that his name is still pretty much unknown is okay with him.

Over the last few months, Lehmkuhl has contributed to a new Mariah Carey recording, played on new Boyz II Men songs, and participated in a remake of the song,  “I’ll Melt with You” originally recorded by the group Modern English. But, over the decades, he’s contributed his synthesizer artistry to hundreds of songs you’re heard.

“Years ago, music was recorded in a big studio; all of the musicians would play their instruments, and the vocalists would sing the lyrics,” Lehmkuhl explained. “Now, in the age of digital music production – and thanks to high speed Internet communications – musicians can contribute individual sound tracks. An audio engineer then ‘builds up’ and mixes together as many as 300 tracks to create a finished song or motion picture score.”

Many of Lehmkuhl’s “gigs” come from music producers and production companies with whom he worked during his years living in the Los Angeles area. “Instead of hauling racks of synthesizer equipment into the studio for recording session, the producer sends me an e-mail telling me what’s wanted, and some reference MP3 files of the project. I’ll build up all extra tracks they’ve requested, here in my Southeast Portland studio, and send it back.”

One of Lehmkuhl’s contacts is Randy Jackson, a judge on American Idol. “We’ve been friends since long before he was famous. He’s an incredible bass guitar player. He’s managed bands; he toured as Mariah Carey’s musical director. He’s now a ‘music supervisor’ for many Hollywood projects, including themes for a new Anime-based cartoon series.”

Lifelong love of music
Growing up in eastern Oregon in Ontario, Lehmkuhl recalled spending after-school time in his parent’s combination music shop/Christian supply/gift store. “I’ve been around all sorts of musical instruments all of my life.”

After attending community college, Lehmkuhl got a job in Seattle in a music store, primarily demonstrating digital keyboards.

“I discovered how to make new ‘voices’ or sounds for instruments I sold at the store. That gave me a leg up – musicians would buy from me, because I’d include my extra sounds with the keyboard that they couldn’t get anywhere else.”

A factory representative for Korg Instruments, an electronic keyboard maker, took notice of Lehmkuhl, after hearing his new, unique sounds. “I guess it blew him away, because soon, I was in New York doing a dog-and-pony show for Korg executives. They liked what they heard, hired me to program new sounds for them, and then they moved me to Los Angeles in 1988.”

His specialty isn’t trying to reproduce orchestral sounds, Lehmkuhl demurred. “I create ‘You’ve never heard these before’ kinds of sounds. I start with natural sounds, and present them in unique ways that help spark creativity in other musicians.”

Because of his energetic presentations during management meetings, his ebullient style earned him a nickname. “I get very animated and excited when I’m presenting a product. After one of my first meetings, one of the guys said, ‘You don’t act like a guy named John. You act like someone who should be named Skippy!’ The name stuck.”

As much a musician as a computer programmer, John Lehmkuhl adds special audio touches to TV commercials, movie soundtracks, and recording stars’ hit songs from his SE Portland studio.

Longed for the Pacific Northwest
While in Los Angeles, Lehmkuhl got married, and was living in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles when his daughter was born in 2000.

“My wife had grown up in Northern California. We weren’t keen on our daughter growing up in the culture of Los Angeles. It’s a superficial environment, where 12-year-olds want to wear makeup and dress like 18-year-olds. We moved to Portland in May of 2005, and we love it.”

Now, Lehmkuhl works with Korg on a contract basis from his home, still producing innovative sounds for their new keyboards. This freedom has allowed him to produce and market – via the Internet (CLICK HERE to view it) – his own line of products for digital musicians, including Skippy’s Big Bad Beats and Skippy’s NoizBox. In addition to the special digital files, he provides his customers step-by-step tutorials how to use them. “I have customers as far away as Italy and China. It makes it really fun.”

Movie producers, TV commercial producers, and song producers all continue to call on Lehmkuhl for specialized sounds for their projects. For these gigs, he formed “Real Kuhl Productions”. Because he’s successfully contributed to so many projects, recording engineers tell their producers, “We need ‘some Skippy’ on this track. It’s actually called ‘sound design’ – but when they specify Skippy, I get the project.”

Photography provides fun outlet
Although he doesn’t earn money with photography, Lehmkuhl confided that that’s his other creative passion.

“Living here, I am surrounded by beautiful places to go to be with my camera. Every couple of months, you’ll find me standing in the ocean, or in a river, taking pictures – not on the shore! I have to be in the environment, not just looking at it. It’s my ‘Ying’ that balances out the ‘Yang’ of being in the studio, looking at dual computer screens all day long,” he said.

“This is the perfect place for us to be.”

Even though one of his digital products is a computerized drum simulator, John Lehmkuhl says he still enjoys playing “real” instruments.

© 2010 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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