By day, Justin Wilson puts on his lab coat and carefully tests components like semiconductors used in advanced space systems.
But by night, after he puts his kids to sleep, Wilson sits down in his home studio to arrange and create music.
As an arranger, a person who puts together instrumentation and the components of a song to create a unique version, Wilson uses his engineering skills to rework classic songs in his own style. His musical abilities caught the ear of Randy Waldman, a noted pianist, composer and arranger who has worked with Barbra Streisand and other stars. Waldman invited Wilson to collaborate on a jazz album that reworked famous superhero themes.
The partnership between the composer and the engineer, along with nine-time Grammy winner Mark Kibble, took home a 2019 Grammy award for “Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals” for a new arrangement of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon theme.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people I work with are all professional musicians,” Waldman said. “But when I heard the music Justin was doing, I was really impressed by his work. However he comes up with his ideas, they are probably coming from a different place because of his engineering background.”
Wilson is carrying on a twofold family heritage. His father was a self-taught computer scientist who worked for NASA in Huntsville, Alabama, and who played music all his life.
“The soundtrack of my childhood was listening to my dad, who majored in music, play the piano as I came home from school,” said Wilson. “At the same time, I would go into his office and there were computers everywhere. Because he would build his own computers I started doing the same, making my own computers.”
In the lab, Wilson normally tests components against prewritten data sheets to make sure they perform the way they’re supposed to. But occasionally, he will be asked to figure out what to test on a certain component.
“I have to look at the part and say, OK, how do I test it to make sure it can survive extreme heat or radiation or high voltage, and then present the data in a way that will give the project team the most information?” said Wilson.
For the Superheroes album, Waldman would send Wilson a song title and an idea, and ask him to write an arrangement.
“I would listen to the original song and try to figure out how to get from point A to point B,” said Wilson. “I kept the melody, so the song is recognizable. I would then subtract some elements, and I would add my own style, inspired by the lyrics or other songs or by what the song means to people.”
It's a classic engineer's approach to answering a challenging question.
“It’s definitely math-based,” Wilson said. “Just like engineering, you’re looking for a creative way to figure something out and trying to make it work. There are a hundred ways to do it and there is no right way, as long as you get the end result.”
The team-up worked well despite Wilson and Waldman's different approaches to making music.
“It’s funny, because a lot of people say that musicians have to be good at math,” said Waldman. “I am the complete opposite. I can barely add two plus two by using my toes and my fingers. I don’t see music that way at all; I see music not as numbers, but more as colors.”
Waldman and Wilson hope to get the band back together again for a new project.
“We talked about it,” Wilson said, before mixing his superhero metaphors: “We have to be the Dynamic Duo and do it again.”