Interview with Legendary Music Producer Warren Huart
Doug: People just don’t have the budgets anymore, the music industry took a dive, there’s a bunch of studios that closed on Sunset Blvd, we saw a lot of the dynamics change and for an up and coming engineer it’s like really difficult to find a way to get work doing the larger projects. What were the chain of events that lead you up to doing things like Modest Yahoo and Aerosmith, obviously, and a lot of these bigger projects?
Warren: I think the answer is really in that question. I came up as a musician. I didn’t go through the studio system. I wasn’t an assistant. I wasn’t a runner that turned into an assistant engineer that turned into an engineer in a studio. I didn’t have that.
Even though I’m probably “old enough” to have done that, I think now it’s almost impossible for somebody to come up through that traditional system, because, like you said, there’s not that many professional studios around that can train enough engineers to take over, so it’s a new paradigm. This is how we do it now.
My story is as a musician playing in bands. I was, frankly, that very annoying guy who was in the studio, leaning over the engineer or the producer, asking dumb questions. I just wanted to know.
I remember, as a kid, being frustrated when I first started playing music. I loved Queen, ELO, Zeppelin and the Stones and the Beatles, obviously, and all the classics. Even though it wasn’t my age group, it was before me, I grew up listening to that music because, to me, it’s the best of the best.
With the songs and the sonic aspects, like the Beatles and the Stones and Zeppelin, or the production of Queen and ELO, it was just unbelievable. It still sounds amazing. So it was frustrating as a kid, learning to play guitar and then getting a cassette four-track. My first recordings, like many people that started off with cassette tapes, was two cassette players.
I played guitar onto a cassette player, and then I took out that cassette and I put it into my parents’ stereo. I overplayed it through the stereo and recorded it back into the cassette, through the speakers, and recorded it back into my little cassette player. I would go backwards and forwards, trying to be Brian May. I’d figure out all these complex harmony guitar solos and parts like that, but of course it sounded like absolute crap because …
Doug: You’re overdubbing over overdubs over overdubs. You’re bouncing, bouncing.
Warren: All on a cassette tape.
Warren: And then, when I got a four-track cassette, which I didn’t get until I was in my late teens because I didn’t have any money, I hated it. The problem is I was in love with all these wonderful records, these incredible records, and these masterpieces of production, and here I am with a tiny cassette. My ears were trained to hear something great and I couldn’t get it.
My first real experience was working as a musician in a one-inch, 24-track studio. That was a place in England called Blah Street. It was run by some friends of mine. A couple of brothers had the studio, and they had a one-inch 24-track, which was an MSR 24.
That was my first chance to work with a 24-track, even though it was a one-inch and it ran at half — it was 15 ips, I think — and it had DBX noise reduction on it, which was atrocious. They made an SR later, but that version was the DBX. We used to turn it off because it sounded so bad. It pumped and made this weird compression thing. So that was the first time, and that was like a massive revelation, like the clouds had opened and suddenly I could do overdubs and punch in and fix things and try ideas.
I could be a one-man band, and I still like that. That big overplay, the fact that I can play multiple instruments, has always been a godsend to me. I’m not a great drummer, but I can sit behind a drum kit and play a beat. I can play piano pretty well. I’m a really good guitar player and I play bass, and that makes life so much easier, that I can put ideas down and I can talk to the musicians on their level because I understand how to play their instruments.
Warren: So that was my upbringing, and to answer your question in a sort of long-winded, roundabout way, that’s the new paradigm. That is what every engineer/producer/mixer is doing. We have to be multi-taskers. I have a bunch of guys that work for me. All my guys are skilled, but the ones that are irreplaceable are the ones that can play an instrument and can tune a vocal. Not go in there and graphically tune the crap out of it, but sit there and go, “Oh, that note, just for a second, went sharp,” and touch it in, as opposed to going new, new, new, and just Melodyne the crap out of it.
Warren: The one question I always get asked by engineers that work for me is, “How do you tune a vocal?”
Doug: Either it’s in tune or it’s not in tune.
Warren: Yeah. Exactly.
Doug: Either it sounds good or it doesn’t.
Warren: Exactly. But a lot of guys come up and they’re not musicians, they’ve never been an artist, so they have these fixed ideas of how you do it. For the longest time, up until a couple of years ago, we suffered badly all the way through the 2000’s. I mean, some of the worst, crappiest records ever came out. It was a really bad time. A lot of modern rock was coming out in that period that was just gridded drums, perfectly in tune vocals, and guitars that were completely and utterly perfectly in time. Everything was just like da dat dat dat [robotic sounds].
Warren: Robotic, zero feel. What I like in the last year or two, definitely the last two years, has been this kind of reaction against that, and how the indie world has become popular. Indie is always weird terminology, but bands that play instruments are coming back a bit. A lot of it’s a trickle-down from the top. The two biggest artists in the world at the moment are Adele and Mumford and Sons.
Doug: Right. Right. Totally.
Warren: There’s no need to grid the drums on Adele and Mumford and Sons. There’s no need to Melodyne Adele’s vocals. She’s a real artist. So it’s great for me, too. It’s an interesting career path. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, because the kids that have come up over the last 10 or 15 years don’t know how to record music like that anymore. They don’t know how to get a drum kit in phase. I get music to mix all the time where the overheads aren’t in phase with themselves, let alone in phase with the kit.
They’re so used to just putting in samples and gridding everything that it doesn’t really matter how it’s recorded. So it’s great to see that come back and be important again. Not that it’s the most important thing, because don’t get me wrong, the most important thing is not a perfect recording. The most important thing is an amazing performance. You can play slightly out of tune, or slightly on top, or slightly behind or whatever. If it emotionally connects, that is all that matters. It’s a good time to do music again. We’re blessed that what is popular internationally is back to real musicianship.
Doug: I agree with you 100%. You know they want to do some technical stuff, so that for the audio geeks that are out there to latch on to, so we’ll kind of do this in three phases. So the question that they present is, I’ll just read it for you verbatim: how to record. And I think this is maybe something that you and Brian touched on, but he’s thought it was really good and would be readable. So the difference between using, you know, you mentioned Adele. Probably you don’t have to do 25 takes to catch Adele, and you don’t have to comp and you know a lot of these things.
Warren: My engineer, Phil Allen, who won a Grammy when he was 25, works for me on almost every project. He recorded Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which was the biggest song of the year before last. Number One in 13 countries. Three takes, a quick comp, and a piano take. Dan Wilson played piano, she sung against it, they did a couple more takes for safety, and then they comped it quick, like on the fly, in a couple minutes. They took whole phrases, like, “Oh yeah, that whole verse sounds great. Let’s just use the verse from take one.” “You know what, there’s one word in that second chorus; we should just slip it out from take two,” and literally set the comp for 10 minutes because they thought they were recording a demo. They finished writing the song in the studio. So they’re writing it all, they record it, they do a quick 10-minute vocal comp, no tuning, who cares? Sounds great, send it off to everybody, everybody loves the song.
An obviously massive, famous producer tracked the song, and it’s very powerful. Everybody knows the story. It’s about her breakup with her longtime boyfriend, that within a few months of them breaking up, he meets another girl, gets engaged and gets married.
She was doing the classic Alanis Morrisette “screw you” song. A girl power kind of song. She turned it around, and she’s like, yeah, I’m pissed off that he’s marrying this other girl, but he wasn’t a bad guy. She could be honest about it. The song is about wanting somebody else like you, which is an honest song, for a change. It wasn’t premeditated. She played it for her mother, and her mother apparently cried when she heard the song.
So then they do the big song and dance, massive production, tons of whatever, strings and band and this all over it. And she plays the new version for her mother, and her mother is like, “Yeah, this is really nice. The other version made me cry.” So they put out this piano/vocal track. I don’t know the ins and outs of how it got put out. I’m sure there’s a lot of spins on how it happened, but the reality is they put it out and it was a massive worldwide smash.
It was a song they wrote and recorded at that exact time. They finished writing the song and they recorded it as a demo, and all the feeling … I go through this with artists all the time. That is the best time to get a vocal — when you’re in this place and you’re having all these feelings and thoughts and you have all these emotions attached to it. That vocal is going to mean something because you’re thinking about it as you’re writing those lyrics.
In defense of the producer that did the big production version of it, when you come back, you’ve got to get your artist back into the headspace. “Well, how did you feel when you were writing this song?” You’re writing a song about a breakup. You’ve got to try to take them back to that place. It’s a very difficult thing to do.
You have to balance that with not destroying their vocals doing takes. You might get them in that place after an hour and a half of doing vocal takes. However, the vocals are going to be trashed and thin-sounding after three or four or five takes. It’s a law of diminishing returns.
So you have to be focused and you have to know how to motivate your artist. When it’s sounding good, I watch. As an engineer, I’ve watched so many producers chase takes and nothing is changing. You want to nudge them and go, “We’re after this word and this phrase. Why don’t we focus on that?” I think a lot of the time, artists get made to do multiple takes because it makes the producer feel like, “I’ve been doing my job properly by doing all these takes.” Sort of lack of focus, you know.
Doug: That’s the stuff they don’t teach you in recording school. I love what you said about trying to get the artist in that frame of mind, and especially when you’re new enough. You don’t think about that.
You’re so focused on trying to get the tech right and making sure that you don’t look stupid in the studio and things like that, that you don’t think about that. And then you get it home to mix it, and you’re like, that’s the way my, the first 10 things I recorded came out. I’d get it home and I’m trying to mix it and it doesn’t sound right and I’m trying to figure out. Then I’m adding more plug-ins and you know what I mean?
And it just, sometimes simplicity is the key, I think. You bring up a really, really powerful point. So let me ask you this. I think that a lot of what we see in the digital world takes away from those fundamental ideas. The fact that there’s four ways to do everything in the digital world. When I open up my compressor list for my plugins, I’ve literally got more than 60 plug-ins to choose from. You know what I mean?
And it’s like. So can you talk a little bit about the differences, you know, back in the analog days, or even still, you were forced to commit to decisions where now you can kind of [say], “We’ll fix it in post” and [have] all these types of adages.
Warren: I go through that all the time. I recently worked with a rock band where the drummer … the band were great. They’re an amazing band. The drummer is not a heavy hitter. He thinks he is, but he’s not. He doesn’t bring the drums to life in my big room. He’s a great drummer. He’s got an amazing feel. But he’s not John Bonham. So we do a mix and it sounds great. And I get comments back from him, “I want it to sound like John Bonham.” That’s just the world we live in.
To answer your big question, he’s around 25. He has his own Pro Tools and records himself, so he’s grown up with that mentality of “It doesn’t matter how I play. I’ve got Pro Tools. I can just throw in a big snare sample and suddenly I’m John Bonham.”
I didn’t think it suited the band to have this huge drum sound. He’s a very, very busy drummer, and John Bonham was a big, open-space drummer. But, more importantly, it hit home to me.
It’s reinforcing what we’re saying. People are so used to the “fix it in the mix” mentality. That’s why the music suffered quite badly for many, many years, because that mentality was coming in: “Plug the guitar in, maybe use a DI, get the amp sound you want later. Play the drums down. Doesn’t matter if it’s too tight or too sloppy. Don’t worry about it. We’ll fix it. Doesn’t matter how it sounds.” This is the world we’re in.
So when it comes to plug-ins, you’ve got all the Digidesign plug-ins. You’ve got Waves plug-ins. You’ve got Mac DSP, which sounds amazing, if I may say. DSP — that’s the best-sounding EQs and compressors on the planet.
Doug: I have them.
Warren: They’re great. They sound like analog plug-ins. You can’t screw things up with them. You just put them on and you either like them or you don’t. And most of the time, I think it sounds great. So this too many choices that you’re talking about, the “fix it in the mix” mentality, is destroying music. We’re getting to a point where we have too many choices and nobody has learned the basics to learn how to choose. Does that make sense?
Doug: Sure. Absolutely.
Warren: If you’re thrown in the deep end when you’re a kid and you’re first starting off, you buy your Pro Tools, and you get tons and tons of plugs-in and incredible free ones, and then you buy some bundles and stuff like that. You’re sort of going from naught to 60 in a nanosecond, and it’s tough.
I was blessed. I started off with two cassette players. Then I went to a four-track, then ADAT, then one-inch 24. When Pro Tools came along, it was a godsend. Pro Tools is incredible if you know all the information leading up to it.
It’s terrifying if it’s where you start, because it gives you this illusion of how music is. For a lot of people that do Pro Tools, music is something they look at. They go, “The drums are out of time with the guitars.” And you’re like, “Why?” “Because look. It doesn’t line up.” “The vocal’s out of tune.” “Why is it out of tune?” “Well, look, you see. It bends up and goes over the note and comes down again.” “Well, isn’t that somebody going ‘ahhhhhhh’?” What would you do? You take Robert Plant, one of the greatest rock singers of all time. That “baby, baby.” It’d be like “baby baby baby.” It’d be like, “What do you do?”
Doug: Do you correct that?
Warren: Yeah, exactly. There was a whole 10-year period that there wasn’t a singer that could get anywhere near the radio unless it was absolutely perfect. There’s a lot of people to blame for that. It’s not just the people making records. It was the people putting the records out. They’re reinforcing a lot of the stuff. The way I’ve seen the music industry be, the problem — and the reality, I should say — is that “technology has always dictated the sound.”
In the 1940’s and 1950’s, it was a combination of live tracking and four-tracking. You had a band that could come in and just play, like a jazz band, leading up to the mid- to late ’50s, where you had four-track. They played live and that was it, so you got as good as the musicians could be. Then we had music overdubbing, which allowed us to maybe do two vocal takes and splice them. But it was just to make it for the lead instrument. Overdub the singer doing some backgrounds of himself, and that produced a certain set of music. Then, of course, we had the Beatles working on four tracks, and they’re two synced four-tracks, which was actually seven tracks the way they had to sync them.
Doug: Because they had time code on one of them.
Warren: Yeah. Exactly. Well, some of the original ones. I have a friend who is a BBC engineer, and he told me they used to print a 60-cycle hum on it, so that would turn on the other machine. It was really complicated.
Doug: Okay. Sure.
Warren: That technology was like you were pushing the boundaries. You had these incredible artists like the Beatles, and in America, of course, the Beach Boys. These two bands in the ’60s sort of spearheaded recording techniques.
What we see now as a limitation helped foster this incredible creativity, because they had to think outside the box. “How can we get this sound and this sound together?” They would do obvious things, if you think about it sonically. They would have the tambourine track on the same as the bass track. The bottom end of the bass and the tambourine are away from each other, so they’d put those two things together.
Doug: Yeah. I know it.
Warren: And the fact that all the vocal tracks have all the effects printed on them.
Warren: And they’re all in mono.
Doug: Yeah, I have the, I ran across the multi-track for the Sargent Pepper’s album, and I’ve studied those and listened to those, so absolutely.
Warren: Yeah. It’s incredible. It’s incredible what they can do.
Doug: And you think about it. So they’re just constantly bouncing down, right? I mean, that’s just the way they did that. They came up with three things they like, and then they print it to that fourth track, and then they’d continue bouncing things down. Because, I mean, you listen to that album, like “A Day in The Life.” There is so much stuff that’s going on there, like with the orchestra speeding up and slowing down, and I think about it and I’m like how did they do that with the technology they had then.
Warren: They’re all performances. I think it’s also important to understand they did bounce down a lot, however, there’s only so much you can do. The more important thing is not, “This is the way they were bouncing down.” They had to commit to things, and that’s what has been lacking for the longest time: the commitment. So you end up with so many ideas that it sounds homogenized.
Doug: In that train of thought, because obviously you’ve come up with, you know, you’ve seen the progression of this technology. So in a traditional mix situation, is it a fair question something, like, do you ask yourself, “Is this taking away from the natural ability of this musician?” I mean, are those the kind of things that go through your mind?
Warren: Yeah. I think if it’s abused, like we’ve been talking about. It’s kind of a catch-22. When I was making the point about the technology dictating the music, another quick analogy is to think of the 80’s.
All through the 70’s we had Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzers, incredible-sounding electric pianos that you could either DI straight from the console, or you could put through an amp and mic. We had touch sensitivity and uniqueness, and every instrument had its own thing. Then, in 1981 or 1982, whenever the DX7 came out, suddenly everybody was using that. We went from this beautiful, bouncy melody and feel to almost no touch sensitivity and no feel, and an FM synthesis version of a sound. Everybody used it because it was new, and it was the latest and greatest.
To me, that’s a great analogy of what happens in recording and why the technology always dictates it. The ability to make drums be absolutely, perfectly in time and sound the same every single hit, which is what modern rock was turned into for 10 years, took away any ability for a drummer to develop any feel.
So, to answer your question, the problem for me now is that drummers come in playing like they’ve been gridded. When I was a kid, you could put on a record, and if a drummer was guesting on somebody else’s album, you knew it was him, for example, Keith Moon playing on Beck’s Bolero. Even though it’s a wash of cymbals and craziness, you know it’s him, because the fills in that crazy mix are insane. You only have to listen to a bar of John Bonham to know it’s John Bonham. Roger Taylor of Queen — the way that he would do that thing with the hat. Every time he hit the snare, he’d open the hat and give a completely different sound between the snare and the high hat. He had this version of a bottom swagger. Drummers had a feel and a way of playing that had a certain sound.
You’re a kid now coming up and listening to contemporary records, you’re listening to the last ten years of modern rock, and you’re hearing what may as well be the same drummer on every record.
Doug: Right. Premeditated kind of drum beat. Like midi sounding drumbeat.
Warren: Heavy rock bands aren’t using drums anymore. They’re using drums for live, and maybe their drummer’s programming it, but they’re using Addictive and EZ Drummer and that’s how they’re doing the drum tracks. The main writers in those bands are always the guitar players, and they’re sitting at the laptop programming drums.
I can think of a lot of heavy rock albums that are coming out at the moment that don’t have a live drummer on them. It’s sad, because they’re doing all these complex kick pattern kinds of stuff, and instead of recording it and editing it to be exactly perfect, and all this kind of stuff, they’re programming it. They’re cutting out the middle. They’re realizing that drum sounds sound programmed anyway, so why bother playing it, timing it to a grid, and then putting samples on it. They’re just using . . .
Doug: Straight sample from the gate.
Warren: Well, now they’re just programming it from the get go. They’re using MIDI drums or EZ Drummer and bypassing the drummer, taking that whole thing out. It saves having to go into a bigger studio and recording live drums. The point again: It really is the technology that’s dictating. What I like about all this is that people are obviously getting a little tired of it at the moment, and for every album that comes out like that, there’s a new album where people are referencing Adele and Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers.
Doug: The Lumineers. Right.
Warren: There’s a lot of good stuff out there that isn’t that world anymore, and to be honest, it’s some of the most successful stuff.
Doug: Sure, and I think people, it seems like people come back to that. You know, once they realize. It’s like you said, the feeling is taken out of the performance by the ability to use these technical things that make it quick and easy, you know?
Warren: I think you just said something I wanted to say. Here’s the thing. If somebody came to me and said, “Warren, I want to make a super-heavy rock album,” I would say, “Yeah, I love heavy rock.” I grew up on Zeppelin, Queen, and when I was a kid I was into Iron Maiden. I’ve gone through all the heavy stuff. I love all that stuff.
And you just said it: It’s easy to do because it is built around technology. It’s easy to make those records. It’s cheap to make those records. You bring the drummer in for a day, you cut the whole thing, and then you edit it and put the samples to it. You print heavy guitars. If the pre-production of the songs is done, you can make the record in a week, start to finish. A super-heavy rock album. It’s not a big deal anymore because it is all built around that methodology. However, the difficult thing is to sit there and get performances.
I’m from a Zeppelin mindset, which is to sit there and do what we did with Aerosmith. With Aerosmith, it was about performances. Of course they went in there and Joe would say, “I don’t like that fill. I prefer that fill.” Of course we did that. But when we were making records on tape, it was still like that. You would splice things in and go, “I like that drum fill and I like that verse.”
It was done during the Beatles’ time. It’s been done since time immemorial. It’s always been that kind of mindset; however, it was never arbitrary. It was never like those heavy rock producers who are in a room with one guy, and then they have probably two to three Pro Tools engineers. They do the drum track and it goes immediately to the guy in the next room, who edits and then puts the samples on. By the time they finish drum tracking over a couple of days, it comes back around in a full circle and they’re putting bass down. Then the bass goes into the editing suite and they’re timing out the bass perfectly. Then they come back around and do the guitars. They’re making records in a couple of weeks. I know the bands that have made records with those kinds of producers, and they feel completely disconnected from their music. But they want the success at any cost, so they’ll do it.
Doug: Right, and you know, that kind of leads us to another thing. Is even the artists aren’t making as much money as they were at one time. With iTunes and, so even the way we buy music has changed now, you know what I mean? Can you talk a little bit about that and what that’s kind of done to the industry of just making records?
Warren: That’s a big one. Obviously, I grew up at a time where I used to stand outside record stores waiting for the new album to come out. There wasn’t any way or shape or hope of downloading anything.
I love the thrill of buying an album because it’s something that I equate to being a kid. I loved that thrill, just standing outside the record store.
In England, the nearest town to my village where I grew up had this Boots the Chemist. It was like a pharmacy, and they had a record store in it. There was another store called The Record Box and it was tiny. It was like the width of two people. You’d wait outside for those stores to open. If it was a big album, there’d be four or five people standing outside. They’d open at 9 a.m. and you’d be the first to buy it, or sometimes you could reserve a copy if it was a cool album that didn’t have a high demand. They’d put it aside for you.
I have a memory and excitement attached to that, so when a new album, for instance when the Beatles released the whole catalogue on iTunes, I bought it. I believe it came out at 7 a.m. on Pacific Coast time and I downloaded it at 7 a.m. I know I have all those songs and I know I bought all those songs 100 times over, and I probably own the videos that were there. Most of it was probably released in some way, shape or form. But it was the thrill of having the whole Beatles catalogue on my laptop. It was two or three years ago that it happened and I’ve still got the same laptop. If I open it up now, I can tap in “Hey Jude” and up it comes.
I grew up with that perception, that feeling of purchasing music. I can’t judge anybody that doesn’t do that, because my feeling about music is preconditioned. It’s something that I grew up feeling. My son is 6 years old, and any music that we have is music that I get. But let’s say you’re 14 years old. You didn’t grow up with that experience. You were born in 1999. At what age do you first start buying music? I bought mine earlier, like 7 or 8. I was very little when I started getting into music. But I think most kids are probably 10 or 11 years old when they start getting their own music, even if it’s just pure poppy stuff.
So let’s say you’re a kid and you want to buy a single by whoever. They open up their computer and they type in the name of the artist and the single they want to get. A thousand different ways of getting it are going to come up online, which only one of them is buying on iTunes.
So my point is, I have no judgment, because I grew up with a different culture and a different way of doing things. As Bob Lefsetz says in some way in every single one of his blogs, as far as the old ideas that I grew up with, when people complain about it, he always says the same thing: “Get over it.” And he’s right. You’ve got to get over it.
Sure, I’d love it if every time I did a record, it sold half a million copies and I made a huge royalty check. But you know what? That’s not the world, and it’s never going to go back to that.
The culture is completely different. I can’t blame a 13- or 14-year-old kid for that because he didn’t grow up in a society where the only way to purchase a record was from a record store. And more importantly, when I was a kid, it was vinyl. CDs were just sort of happening and they didn’t mean anything. And 700 megabytes of information for a CD was like a mainframe computer in those days. It was like there was no option. You couldn’t put a CD into a computer and burn it, because half your hard drive would have disappeared.
The point is, it’s a whole different world. We’ve got to get over it. My feeling is that we’ve got to get creative. We have to think of ways for fans to want to spend money on the music that we make. That’s on us. We can’t complain about them downloading music for free, because they didn’t grow up in a culture where the only way to get music was to purchase it.
Doug: And well you know what else is that, you know like, examples like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails and these people that have gone away from the record companies and they’re still making records in the big studios. So they’re still employing engineers. But they’re selling their records in other ways. And so I guess now a days it’s kind of more about the live show, you know what I mean? And that was true, to some extent, in the past. You know what I mean? So there’s still ways to obviously make a living as an engineer or as a musician, for that matter.
Warren: Absolutely. I agree with that. I think it’s important, getting back to one of the things I was talking about early on. If you’re an engineer now, you can’t just be an engineer. I’m not trying to discourage people from becoming engineers. But become an engineer that is musical, understands songs, and can produce and play on things. Be able to help with the songs and mix and be a little bit of an entrepreneur.
The world is open if you’re an entrepreneurial spirit. It’s not closed down. Nobody’s getting paid $1000 a day anymore to be an engineer. If they are, it’s on a Rod Stewart album or something like that, and it’s only available to three or four people. That world doesn’t exist anymore. People aren’t making a million dollars a year as engineers.
If you really want to be successful in that world, you have to learn how to multi-task and be good at all of those elements, not just be strong in one area. Like I said earlier, the people that are irreplaceable to me, that work for me, are the guys and girls that can pick up the guitar and fix the part, or understand why it doesn’t feel good. Not just because it’s not on the grid.
It’s got to be like, “Yeah, but it swings there.” [Vocalizes rhythm.] I know this thing doesn’t translate in an interview. But it’s understanding why swinging isn’t actually thirds. It’s not going one two three, two two, because if you did one two three, two two three, it actually would be eighths in different ways.
Doug: It’s still a grid.
Warren: Yeah. But take an eighth note click going one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight one two three. You can divide that into three or four or five or seven or eight. It’s still going to sound the same: dit dit dit dit dit dit dit dit dit dit. And if it’s a true grid play, it’d be like, tic tic tic tic tic tic tic tic tic tic tic tic. First of all, it has emphasis on notes. It would have a swing to it because the drummer would play with dynamics on notes. Secondly, when it feels good, it pushes and pulls the timing. It gets a little lazy, a little on top, a little lazy, a little on top. That is how swing feels. It’s not something that you can equate on a grid. You have to know when it feels good.
Doug: Even if you’re hitting that swing function in the quan type tool, in the Pro Tools, you know. Absolutely.
Warren: I’ve toyed around with those things, and what’s interesting is you get to hear it in different ways. I don’t mind playing around with the toys, but again, I feel I’m blessed because I grew up in the middle-age group. I’m not one of the old, old guys that’s been making records since the 70’s and 80’s. I started to make records in the 90’s. I was a musician right up until early 2000.
I’m blessed because I made records on tape and Pro Tools as a musician. I got the end of tape. I remember in 1998 or 1999, I made a record with Dave Jerden that we tracked as a musician. We tracked all the basics on tape, on an 800, and we transferred everything from Studer over to Pro Tools and did guitar overdubs and vocals in Pro Tools because it was easier to comp the vocals.
We didn’t have playlists then. You only could do a few vocal takes. You kept on doing, punching in, and then leaving a little bit of space so that you could pull the take over. That’s how you would do it — pull the take over and listen to all the different vocals.
Doug: Hmm, interesting.
Warren: I did a record with Don Smith in ’96 or ’97, which was entirely on tape, entirely on a Studer. The next album I did was on a Studer transferred to Pro Tools. It was a revelation because it was balanced. I had the sound of tape, but I had the ability to edit in Pro Tools, albeit in a more broad way. We weren’t going syllable by syllable on the vocal. We were choosing takes. But we were able to move so much faster and get multiple takes where we couldn’t before. On tape, you used to have three takes, three tracks left on your tape, and you’d maybe do two vocals and then bounce it to one. Or sometimes you’d do four, and you’d do three vocals and bounce it to one. The best vocals in the world were recorded like that. Tell me that “Hey Jude” isn’t one of the greatest vocals ever recorded.
Doug: No. Absolutely.
Warren: That’s two four-tracks synced together. When that first “Hey Jude” comes in, where does it go from there? Is there anything better-sounding than that? That’s a U48 hitting a two-inch tape machine, probably going through the EMI console and a Fairchild compressor. That’s the sound of a great vocal. The same way a great snare drum sound is going to be a Ludwig snare, probably with a 57 on it, going through a Neve and an 1176. The guitar sounds we grew up loving from the 70’s were probably done with a 57 and a Neve 1073 and an 1176. They’re things that are defining, and they shape the way that we hear music.
Doug: So I’m reading this guy Stavrou. Have you heard of him?
Warren: I don’t think so, but tell me more.
Doug: He wrote a book called “Mixing with Your Mind.” It’s an older book. It’s been around for a long time and in that book he’s talking about the 3 [mp]. I don’t know. He has some radical ways of looking at stuff. So he talks about mixing being a process that’s both creative and technical which is kind of a no brainer. So what I was thinking-
Warren: What did he mix?
Doug: You know, I don’t know what he mixed but the thing that impressed me and the reason why I read it is George Martin wrote his dedication and introduction. So that’s why I was like, “Woah.” So I started reading it and he does all this kind of, he has this like right brain/left brain kind of thinking. You know what I mean? And the way he sets up is he talks about handling everything technically first so that when it’s time to mix you can kind of- there’s nothing that inhibits that kind of creative flow. So, you know, it’s simple, no brainer stuff like doing all your routing and this kind of thing and doing it while you’re…
Warren: I totally understand. That’s what I do. I have a system how I have everything out, put it on my SSL. I’ll have my assistant do everything the way I want it to be. I don’t hear it until it’s completely ready for me to hear. Obviously, I designed the system after mixing that way for many years. But the point is, when I hear the song, I have everything fully prepped and routed, effects at my fingertips, all the options that I want to have. I don’t have to stop and think about it. It’s all set up on the console. I can start mixing it. It gives you a lot more freedom to actually mix the song. You don’t have to stop and re-patch things and route things before you start. All those decisions have already been made before you start mixing your music.
Doug: So what do you base- Is it like a template that you use or do you base some of those decisions on the type of project that it is?
Warren: Definitely the type of project it is. We just were talking about this last night. I was mixing a blues-rock artist that I’m producing, a guy called Jared James Nichols. Two years ago, he won the MI competition. He’s a Joe Bonamassa kind of guy. He’s a great singer and an amazing guitar player. He has his own three-piece band. I wrote and produced three songs with him. I was mixing last night with my assistant, Nico, and I had Nico go back and use a template that I like from an Aerosmith song I recorded and mixed, because I thought it was a good starting point. It was pretty much the same drum kit, because I use Ludwig drums. It was my Ludwigs and my Supraphonic that Joey Kramer had used.
Obviously, everybody plays with different inflections and hits in a different way. But I was working with this drummer to basically make him hit it evenly and sound close to something like Joey, anyway. So it was similar instrumentation. Even though it’s a three-piece, we doubled guitars, so you had a Brad Whitford/Joe Perry kind of feel with stereo guitars. He’s the lead vocalist and there weren’t a ton of harmonies. There was one particular Aerosmith song that I felt was kind of close, so we started with that as the template. It wasn’t exact by any means, shape or form, but it was a great starting place, as opposed to pulling it up from scratch. I’d say 75 to 80 percent of the basic sonics were already taken care of. So yes, templates exist, but they exist from project to project.
I had to mix a Cher Lloyd song a couple of months ago. It was a piano/vocal ballad that had been produced by a hip-hop/dance music guy, so it had tons of beat-driven stuff. It was not a traditional piano/vocal ballad. It was Cher Lloyd, so it was dancing, and I didn’t have any frame of reference. However, I know how to make a piano and a vocal sit well. I’ve done that a thousand times. I know where to go and how to get those things in that space. It was a case of incorporating the dance elements around it. But to me, the essence of the song had to be that piano and vocal. So a lot of the time, yes, you can use a template from one thing to another and it is a great starting point. Another thing is, frankly, the template is your brain. Once you’ve done it hundreds or thousands of times, you know where to go on something. The advantage is I have an assistant, so I can go, “OK, set this up and set that up,” and then I can come to it and it’s ready.
I think, in the modern world, your assistant is a Pro Tools session. It’s a lot easier now for anybody to go, “I’m doing a new piano/vocal song with some dance music stuff. I did something kind of like that last year with this project,” and then you import the template from Pro Tools that way. It’s getting pretty quick and easy now to move swiftly around stuff. But it’s a catch-22. When you’re up and coming, I think that you do need to listen to things a lot. You can’t just make radical assumptions when you don’t have the experience.
I definitely understand with the routing, and with all that stuff, having it taken care of, but for a kid who’s up and coming, and who doesn’t have a console and outboard effects at their fingertips, it’s doing them a disservice to dismiss it and think, “You need to have all your routing done to free yourself up to be creative.” Yes, you do, but when you’re first learning to mix, you need to go through the process of learning what routing you need and what sounds you need to always have at your fingertips. And that’s all so individual. The way I hear drums and vocals is different to the way you hear drums and vocals. If you mixed the same song that I mixed, we could both make them sound amazing, but they’d be two different versions of amazing.
Warren: So I get that guy’s point in the perfect world of big studios, $1500-a-day studios, with SSL’s and racks of equipment and everything at your fingertips so you can just be creative and mix it. But that’s not the reality of a teenager, early-20’s guy, who’s learning to become a producer/engineer/mixer. Yes, once you’ve got a stock of stuff and you’ve done so many sessions, that’s the beauty of Pro Tools. You can look at a previous session and think, “Well, this would be nice to start from this place.”
That’s what I love about Pro Tools, and I think that’s an amazing thing. The point that he is making is great for somebody who has a vast amount of experience and can turn on a dime a little bit more. When you’re learning, there’s no substitute for just getting in there and trying out 15 or 16 different things. I would say the most important thing when mixing is don’t be precious. In fact, even when doing music, don’t be precious. But “don’t be precious” means if it isn’t working, it isn’t working. It’s fine. Try something else. Don’t keep digging the hole deeper. If the vocal isn’t sitting in the track no matter what you do, then readdress your track. If the track is getting so dense and you can’t make it in there, don’t try another 16 different combinations of compressors and EQ’s and distortions and delays and reverbs. Start looking at the track and going, “Why can’t I fit my vocal on this track?”
Warren: The vocal shouldn’t need to be so loud to be heard. It’s not just a case of always turning it up. That’s an easy solution, especially if you’re doing rock and roll, but there’s a way you can get a vocal to sit in a track and be audible and feel good as part of the track and feel exciting without it being 3 decibels too loud.
Warren: So not being precious is a big thing, because when I was up and coming, I used to spend three hours going down the wrong path. I’d made this amazing drum sound that was huge, but I thinned out my guitars to keep the drum sound. And before you knew it, I had this amazing drum sound with these tiny little guitars. But the band was this massive rock guitar band, so they would come back and go, “Where’s the guitars?” One thing shouldn’t compromise another. The great trick with mixing — you hear all the great mixers do it — if there’s a drum section where there’s no other guitars, yeah, give them the big drum sound there. Give them the huge drum sound so that they have the illusion that when all the heavy guitars come in, that that drum sound exists. Fool the mind into thinking, as opposed to trying to keep that drum sound going the whole time, because you’re playing a loudness war. You’re playing a game where, if you want massive guitars, you’re not going to have massive drums. If you want massive drums, you can’t have massive guitars. Listen to Zeppelin. When you hear those big, roomy drums, you also hear one guitar. You don’t hear four-per-side Metallica guitars.
Warren: It’s just physics. Anyway, I think “don’t be precious” is pretty important. I have to remind myself of that all the time in doing music, that if an idea doesn’t work, it’s fine to throw it out the window, keep going and try something else, as opposed to holding on to it with your fingertips, going, “No, we can make this work.”
Doug: I like that. That makes a lot of sense. Okay, let’s kind of switch gears here. This is kind of a separate note, but I thought it’d be really interesting to read because it’s funny how little some people that are coming through this school know about the music business in general. Right? So people don’t stop to think about how a song, like let’s say a guy’s at home which is good- he has a song, an idea for a song. So he sits there with his guitar, pounds out things, and he comes up with an idea for a song. If you could, walk us through the path of somebody getting an idea for a song, to getting a band, to getting a record deal, to that song ending up on an album on vinyl or on iTunes or something like that.
Warren: Well, it’s a big question. I’ll start with the first part: walk you through the whole thing, from coming up with an idea and then getting to iTunes. I just wrote a song with one of the girls from the TV show The Voice. She’s a great, old-school R&B, 1950s or 1960s Atlantic/Stax-sounding girl. We wrote a song that had that feel. We finished writing it at my studio at my house, and she ran in to do the overdubs in the vocal booth and sung it down like the fresh song against the scratched stuff that we had done. We finished doing some overdubs, we put some strings on it, and she came in a couple days later to do the vocal. In the meantime, I had listened to it. I’d done the overdubs and everything and I was like, “Wow. This song sounds fantastic. This vocal sounds fantastic. It sounds fresh and exciting.” Exciting is the best word I could use to describe it. We came to do the vocal and it started to sound really uninspired, like she was going through the paces. She wasn’t in that place to remember why she wrote the song with me, and what she was feeling when she was coming up with some of the lyrics, and so the spark wasn’t there.
Warren: Now, it wasn’t about the vocal. It was in tune, it was in time. There’s some great runs in there, some beautiful tones, fantastic in so many places. But it just wasn’t special. If I hadn’t had the scratch vocal, I probably would have been like, “Oh, this is a pretty good vocal. Yeah, yeah, this will do.” But I had the scratch, and I’m pretty much going to use the scratch on the song. So as far as the process, I think one of two extremes works. If you look at the great rock and roll records of the 1960s and 1970s, they were either one of two things. The artist was on the road, touring for three to six months, writing stuff, going out and playing it every single night, then coming into the studio and recording it in three to six weeks, and then putting it out a week later. When they used to make records, they’d finish a song, give it to the label, and the label would put it on radio the next day. They were doing two albums a year in those days and putting out four singles a year. So there’s one aspect.
The other aspect was like the Beatles. They stopped touring in ’65 or ’66, started going into the studio, taking very rough ideas they had written — acoustic vocals or just smatterings of ideas — and then you had the other aspect, the “We just finished the song and it’s recorded.” So you had this freshness, like we were just talking about, where the first time that song was ever committed to tape was the first time it was recorded and is also the final version of that song.
Warren: It’s not been flogged to death over two years of writing and re-recording and 15 different things. So everything that’s special is contained. Listen to any Beatles song from 1967 to 1970. A lot of the time they probably had sung the song four times, and that was one of the four vocal takes. It wasn’t like they had re-recorded it 27 times. Of course, they did re-record songs two or three times, occasionally, until they got the right one, but in reality it was like, “There’s the idea. Let’s flesh it out. Let’s get the band in here. Let’s make it feel good. Oh my God, this is great. What was that take? Take 3. Boom. There it is. It’s done. Let’s do some overdubs.” Or go on the road. Tour it. Play it. Go into the studio. Everybody knows this song. Passionate. Boom. Do it. The problem is, anywhere in between is where we all fall apart, where we have demoed the song 15 different ways to Sunday. And you come in and try to recreate the passion of the original demo.
What I love about where we’re at now is that everybody has access to great equipment, and so you can pretty much demo your song and build it from there. If you just wrote a song, an acoustic vocal or a piano vocal of this great new song, if you’ve got a half-decent microphone and a half-decent mic pre and any version of cheap Pro Tools up, just record the song and then do some overdubs to it. You’ve got that initial excitement and you’ve got a way of capturing it. When I was a kid, you put it on a four-track cassette. There were exceptions, but there were never any albums that came out that were recorded on four-track cassette. But now it’s possible to get your initial idea down on Pro Tools and that be the idea, and that may even be the finished product.
Warren: [With Adele], the original writers were doing demos with her. It kept the essence of what was great. It didn’t go through the record company over-think. I mean, they did over-think it, but the artist and the British label that was overseeing it were able to push back against that attempt to re-record everything for the sake of re-recording it. I think that’s really, really, really important, to know from what we do, sometimes that initial feeling is what it’s all about. So when you’re asking me that big question, talking through the process, I think it’s important to record something well enough that it could always be used, number one.
Warren: It doesn’t have to be absolutely amazing. It doesn’t have to be a U47 going through a Neve 1073 into an 1176 onto a two-inch tape. It would be nice if you had all that incredible equipment at your fingertips. But if you’re a kid up and coming and you’ve got an Mbox and a 57, and you’re using a compressor built into Pro Tools, that can be good enough. It really can be. There’s a lot of stuff, especially independent stuff, that gets successful that’s recorded by people on their own.
I’m not advocating that you don’t need producers, engineers and mixers anymore. Those things still have their place. But we, as producers, engineers and mixers, should be learning from this stuff. There’s no right way to do anything. The only people I know that tell me there’s a right way to do things are the people that work for me.
Warren: The young guys coming in, they always know best.
Warren: I have one engineer who knows absolutely everything. He’s been working in the business for about 18 months, and if I have a problem, I should ask him, because he’ll know the answer. He does. He never makes mistakes.
Doug: Right. Well, Warren, I appreciate your time, as always. It’s always good to get to talk to you and just soak up everything that you’re saying.
Warren: We can always make time. That’s great.
Doug: Okay. Perfect, man. I appreciate it.