Recording Vocals: Tips from GRAMMY-winning Engineer Brian Warwick
Brian Warwick shares tips for recording a great vocal performance in the studio and at home, his approach using tuning software, and more.
Brian Warwick is a New England based recording and mix engineer who has worked on some of the most popular albums, films, TV shows, and video games of the past decade. Also an assistant professor at Northern Vermont University in the Music And Performing Arts department, Warwick left Los Angeles to return to his roots and have easy access to New England’s year-round, natural beauty.
His credentials? Impressive to be sure. Warwick has had a hand in eight GRAMMY-winning albums, 12 GRAMMY-nominated albums, and 14 RIAA-certified platinum and gold records. His clientele includes the likes of Michael Bolton, Ludacris, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and others. Most recently, Warwick was the recording engineer for Nobody But Me, Michael Bublé’s 2017 GRAMMY-nominated album in the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album category.
It’s not often that you get the opportunity to pick the brain of a vocal production expert, so that’s exactly what we did.
In this interview, Warwick shares techniques for getting a great vocal performance in a professional studio or at home, his approach with using tuning software, and more.
“That's something that people often can't wrap their heads around: half the time you spend recording a project is probably going to be the vocals. It really is the most important part of a song.” —Brian Warwick
What are your favorite strategies for getting a great vocal performance?
I'm a mix engineer, but I really cut my teeth doing vocal tracking sessions. In most of the music that I’ve worked on, we would end up having a large tracking day, or maybe even a week dedicated to vocal tracking. That's something people often can't wrap their heads around—that half the time you spend recording a project is probably going to be on vocals. It really is the most important part of a song.
Some recording engineers forget about that. They start jumping into the minutia of individual sounds and mixing them together, finding a percussion part or a loop and putting it here or there. But they don't realize that the typical listener who is going to buy this album, the first thing that they're connecting with, is the vocalist’s emotion.
I had the good fortune of working with just some great producers, and I had some great mentors who taught me how important it is to spend time perfecting the vocals. One of my first mentors was Mitch Benoff, who is still a professor at Berklee College of Music. He has a great YouTube video that really helps me remember what I'm trying to tap into when recording a vocal.
I spent also a lot of time assisting for Glen Ballard, who produced Alanis Morissette’s "Jagged Little Pill" and Michael Jackson’s "Man in the Mirror." I still try to channel his attentive yet laid back demeanor while working with a vocalist on everything that I record. It’s the mindset of just knowing that you are going to spend the vast majority of your project, if you’re not making instrumental music, with the vocalist.
Do you build the arrangements as you’re recording, or are they usually already written?
It depends on the artist. When I was working for Michael Bublé, he would come into the studio and know the lyrics and melody of the songs, since he helped write them. But then he'll come up with a new harmony on the spot.
A lot of the hip hop and R&B that I've worked on has been very in the moment. The artist instantly comes up with a harmony idea and says something like, "Hey, give me another track." Then we're recording right away so we can capture the emotion that inspired them in that moment.
I think some people disregard pop music as being overproduced, but I don't think they realize that there are many things that happen in the moment when making a pop song. That harmony that comes up, that part that comes up, that really can set the song over the top, or give that hook a little lift, where it needs it.
I'm a hired gun when I go in; the artist, songwriter, and producer each have an idea of what they want to record. As my relationship with artists and producers grows, there may be that moment where I'm like, "Hey, check this out. Hey, maybe something should go here." Just trying to put that second ear on something.
There are some artists that really want that. I know when I worked with The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, they asked me for my opinion.
There are other artists who are like, "I am in my zone. I am in my moment." So I won't say boo until they want me to say something. I'm trying to be in that moment with the vocalist at that time, trying to anticipate, hopefully, where they're going.
Is that something that you’ve learned over the years? To get better at being “in the moment?”
I think it happened right away, and I think that came from my mentors—just to take those vocal sessions very seriously.
The vocalist is a living instrument. I'm a drummer, and I remember having the stomach flu one night when I was playing a show with my punk band, yet I was still able to get through the forty-five minute set because I could hide behind my drum set. A vocalist on the other hand is very exposed. They're up front. They're the thing that everyone is listening to, and they know that. They could be having a bad day. They could've gotten into a car accident, a fight with their significant other, they could have a cold. There are all these things that affect that instrument, and if you're an engineer or a producer and you're not sensitive to the feedback that you're getting from your vocalists, you're doing them a disservice.
A lot of it is about making the vocalist comfortable. A studio is a really weird place, and we don't realize that anymore. Vocalists are used to singing in front of maybe a hundred people, or a thousand people. In a recording studio, they’re out in a fish tank, singing to a dude behind a recording console and somebody sitting on a couch. You have to figure out how to get that big performance out of your vocalist.
I've worked with vocalists, many of whom in R&B and hip hop genres, where the recording sessions are a party. As the engineer, you're the DJ of that party. The music is loud, people are loud, people are having drinks. It's a good time. But that's because the music lends itself to that—it's party music. We're trying to have a good time, so why not go to the club until two in the morning and then bring the entire club back into the control room so you can see how they're reacting to your music? It makes total sense. I think some people would possibly consider that unprofessional, but I don't. You're trying to see how people react.
With other vocalists, I’ve been kicked out of the studio; only the producer and the vocalist are allowed. So I set up, I get a sound, and I step right out of the room. I go sit in the lounge for a little while and have a coffee.
Those are two extremes, but in any case, it’s so important to figure out what the vocalist needs to conjure that proper emotion.
How can recording engineers help vocalists perform the best they can in the studio?
Can the artists hear themselves well? Almost more important than the microphone is how the headphones are sounding and feeling. Is the artist going to enjoy wearing those headphones for the next three, four, five, twelve hours while they sing? Take a moment to make sure that that artist is comfortable.
I'll ask my clients, "Hey, how are your headphones? Is there anything I can do to make them better?" Because I really want them to be like, "Yeah they’re great. I can hear everything." Really make sure that they're just right.
I’m not exactly a vocalist, but I know what I should sound like through a nice microphone and vocal chain, including headphones. I'll get something set up and sing whatever songs I can think of to hear how the reverb's reacting. If I have that opportunity to play the track that we're going to be working on, I’ll sing that to make sure I can hear enough of myself.
When the vocalist first starts singing, they're going to be cold and not projecting as much as they will be later. As the session progresses, they're going to get warmed up. You have to be watching your signal and monitoring your level the entire time. So it's very dynamic, from an emotional standpoint and a technical standpoint.
Talk about your favorite vocal capture chain. I'm sure you have a couple?
I'm an expensive date [laughs].
The first thing that the reader needs to know is that you've got to work with what you have. And I'm not picky. If you have an SM58, we can record your vocal with that. If it works for Bono, it'll work with anybody.
But some of the music that I work on, you need a little more fidelity. The Neumann U87, love it or hate it, is a standard. It's at many studios, and you know what you're getting. If I'm not familiar with anything else in the mic closet, but they have an U87, I know what that sounds like, and I know what I can do with that microphone.
Other microphones, the Telefunken C12 or Sony C800 have their own sound. But if I'm working on a project where we're going to spend a week or two just doing vocals, I will try to get the artist to do a quick microphone shootout, where I put up four microphones and we try to choose one.
Additionally, if we want to keep getting more expensive: a Neumann U67. I would be happy with that mic, probably happier than with the U87. For a lot of the ballady stuff that I've worked on, the Neumann U47 works well. I’m very comfortable with the Neumann large diaphragm condenser and tube condenser line.
The same thing goes for mic preamps. I'll work with what anybody has, but it's nice to have a few standards. The standard that everybody likes to use is some kind of Neve 1073. Those are fantastic. I've had really good luck with Avalon 737s. Those are really great microphone preamps.
I do compress to tape, or compress to DAW. I usually add just a little bit of compression that the artist won't notice. It's really weird for a vocalist to go for that high note—that really loud moment—and all of a sudden something grabs their vocal and turns it down.
Some artists struggle in headphones because they can't feel the air moving. They're used to moving a lot of air in space, and so sometimes I'll ax the headphones and throw a pair of speakers in the room, so it's like they're singing, and they just have a wedge or something. They feel like they're doing a live show.
And actually, I've done it where I've recorded them in the studio, if they're using the studio monitors, I'm on headphones, and we can stop and there's no talk back button or anything. They're actually just talking to the producer and to me directly. There's not that moment of “Oh, is the button down so they can hear what I'm saying?” We're in that moment, and the line of communication is open. It's like singing in somebody's living room.
What are other ways to make sure vocalists are comfortable in the studio?
Always have some water and tea around, especially for a high end client. Some clients may be used to staying in a five-star hotel and having their needs met very quickly. It's usually going to be a long day—more vocals than they're used to singing, even in their show.
Then it comes down to the speed at which you operate your DAW. You have to be ready to go at a moment's notice, and use the tools within that machine to make you as fast as possible. If the vocalist has an idea, you want to be ready to record immediately. There is no time to make a new track. That track should already be there. There is no time to create a delay on that vocal. You should have created it before the session started.
It’s good to have a couple reverbs and a few delays that are synchronized with the BPM and ready to go. When they put on that headphone, you've already been out there, you've listened to the headphones, you know what it sounds like on you. It should already sound like the way it's going to sound when it's mixed.
How do you decide to use tuning software or not?
I am a proponent of tuning, but it's like good compression: if you hear it, you’ve done it wrong. But before we start manipulating the vocal, you need to make sure you’ve recorded the best take you possibly can.
In pop music, things are supposed to be perfectly in tune. I don't think you can have a vocalist sing a wrong note in a pop song these days. Everything has to sound intentional.
Unfortunately, our listeners are not used to hearing mistakes anymore. Mistakes sounds old, out-dated, because everything that we're putting out from a vocalist's standpoint is pitch perfect. I'll occasionally have to tune bass guitars, cellos, and bass pieces, stuff like that. Rarely anything other than monophonic instruments.
I do want to be sensitive to vocalists out there, though. It's not because they sang it incorrectly. I'm trying to use the technology to bring it to another level. I'm trying to make it sound like that evening that they had a year ago, where the crowd was into it, the band was into it, and they were spot on. That's hard to recreate in the studio.
Sometimes it comes down to timing. I may only have three hours with a vocalist before they've got to get on a plane and go to a different country. Maybe the reason why that artist has to get on that plane is because they have to do a show. So I don't want to make that artist try to sing one note for three hours. Maybe they're having a tough time hitting that note today.
We all have those moments where we just can't do something, physically, considering the pressure, considering the environment. I don't want them to exhaust themselves or injure their voice. I want to assure them that it'll be totally fine.
A well-tuned vocal is also easier to mix than a vocal that hasn't been tuned. It seems to fit in better. Your bass guitar has been tuned with a tuner, your guitar has been tuned with a tuner. A piano tuner has probably come in a tuned the piano perfectly, right before the session. All these things are perfectly in tune. Why shouldn't the vocalist have that same consideration?
Any tips for recording vocals at home?
Blankets! Lots of blankets.
One of the best things to do is get a few boom mic stands and hang blankets behind the vocalist. That's what we would do in the studio. We used gobos—movable walls—and would put them behind the artist. Go to the U-Haul store and grab some packing blankets. Get two cheap boom microphone stands, put them behind you, and hang those blankets behind you. Make a comfy little nook for yourself.
Closets can be really good too. Depending on where you are, you could take the microphone and you could put it in the closet. Hopefully you have a bunch of clothes hanging in there, right? So you've got all this absorption material behind the microphone, and then you've got the two blankets behind you. You might spend fifty bucks, and I think you'd have actually a pretty decent vocal booth.
And if you're living in an apartment, know your neighbor's schedule! Know when you can record and not annoy the crap out of them.
You've also got to remember the polar pattern of your microphone. If you're recording from home, I have to say, a hypercardioid microphone is your best friend.