Engineer/Producer Travis Harrington (Rod Wave, Drake, Justin Bieber) talks producing chart-topping records in hotel rooms while on tour with Rod Wave and drops 7 gems for mixing and production that you can use right now.
By David Ampong
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Travis Harrington is more than your average engineer. He’s the creative production professional behind some of the biggest chart-topping tracks by rapper/singer Rod Wave, including “Heart on Ice”, “Street Runner”, “By Your Side” and “Cold December”. Whether recording vocals, mixing or producing, Travis can play any role, take a song at any stage in the process, and see it to the end; whenever and wherever possible.
In Travis’ case, it’s not just inside the studio, but also the hotel rooms and rented Airbnb’s while on tour with Rod Wave.
“It’s not about where you make the music, but more about being in your comfort zone and capturing a certain vibe—that translates into a good song.”
We got the chance to chat with Travis in between dates on the SoulFly Tour and talk about how he produces hit records outside the studio, some insights into how he produces for Rod Wave, and we asked him to share a few of the techniques he uses to mix lead vocals, adlibs, vocal samples and more with Rod Wave.
Tip #1: Clean-Up Background Noise Before Processing
The #1 part of my job is getting Rod’s vocals right. Since we’re on the road so much, most of our creative and recording process takes place inside hotel rooms, rented-out houses or Airbnb’s — places that tend to be noisy and aren’t sound treated, or designed to make records in. We get things like electric hum, hiss, or ground noise all the time. The Clarity Vx plugin has been especially helpful for controlling all these types of noise.
In the case of hotel rooms—there are the occasional noises coming from outside the room, in the hallways, or from the room next door. Normally, you know, I would turn my preamp down, which isn’t the best for getting the most out of his vocals. We tried the Clarity plugin afterwards and it was game-changing for separating the background noises from Rod’s voice and getting the vocal tracks sounding clean.
Tip #2: Get Vocals Crispy with Dynamics and EQ
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After getting rid of noise, the next thing I do is pull up the plugin chain I use to get Rod’s vocals crispy. It starts with Sibilance to get rid of the ‘sss’ or, ‘fff’-sounds, and to keep those high-frequency peaks under control. Next comes dynamic control with R-Comp where I’m not gunna compress the sh*t out of it! I’m just catching those louder peaks as they’re pushing up. I like to set it by pulling the threshold down to the point where I just start to hear it kick-in and engage the vocals, and then I leave it alone.
Next, I EQ with H-EQ. I like this plugin because of the frequency and the key display. On Rod’s vocals, I tend to bring out a little 2K to add a little more presence and punch. After that, I might use a second deesser; if I do, it’s the R-DeEsser if I need more control in the top end. Then I use the CLA-2A to lift it up and glue it all together.
Tip #3: Use Your Reverb’s Filters
I like big and airy voices and vocals that have that monumental ‘awe’-quality to them. I’m a fan of artists like Coldplay and Imagine Dragons, and I try to exaggerate that vocal sound, and shape it into the way that works on Rod’s vocals. One of the reverbs I use to get that sound on Rod is the R-Verb. I typically insert it right on his lead vocal channel—which I know is typically against the rules. But my feeling is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be correct from a traditional mixing standpoint, it just needs to sound good.
The way I like to use it is, first I’ll bring the Wet control down to about 50%. Then I’ll take the built-in EQ and create a ‘U’ shape with the high and low-pass filters. I’ll then sweep with the filter point until I hit the right feel and depth on that lead vocal. A lot of times what I’ll do is use it in conjunction with a much larger spaced reverb on a send. I’ll record that as a track at certain parts, so I can use just that piece while the rest stays clean and doesn’t get all muddied up.
Tip #4: Spread Out Adlibs & Background Vocals
For adlibs and background vocals, I like to spread them out. For a long time, my secret weapon for that has been CLA Vocals. Say what you want about this plugin, but to me, making a job harder doesn’t necessarily make it better.
You gotta look at a mix like a stage. You’ve got your background singers on stage, and you got your lead singer on stage. Then you got the band in the back. You’re not gunna put everybody right in the middle of the stage. So, the same applies to the mix. You want to spread these out to different spaces in the stereo field. Sometimes I’ll automate the controls on the plugin to give it that movement and get certain words to jump out.
Tip #5: Treat Vocal Samples Like Instruments in the Mix
Vocal samples can mainly be used in two different ways. It all depends on the intent behind the sample. They can be in your face; like on “Street Runner”, where the Ruth B. “Mixed Signals” sample is right up in front in the mix with Rod’s main vocal. The other way samples can be used in a mix is as a texture.
An example of this second approach is on “Cold December”; it contains the Hank Williams Jr. sample of “O.D.’d In Denver”. The way I treated the sample in the track was like an instrument. I used One Knob Filter to tuck it back in the mix in the right spot where you can still hear the words and feel it, but it’s not up in front with the lead vocals. As the song progresses, I open and close the filter to give a sense of movement in the mix.
Tip #6: Draw Influences from Other Genres
One of the main reasons Rod and I click is that we’re both big fans of all different types of music, not just hip hop. We’re also big fans of music you might not expect, like Ed Sheeran, Imagine Dragons, Coldplay—I also love what they do in the mix.
On the road, we listen to everything from alternative rock to country, from 90s era R&B to old school hip-hop, and we’re always going back and doing things from other genres and putting that into our process. One time Rod and I were on a long drive back in between gigs. The driver had a 60s playlist going the whole way that Rod and I were just vibing out to, listening to all the psychedelic music and the soul music. That night when we got back, we hit the studio and made “Brace Face” – and you can hear those 60s influences all over it.
Tip #7: Create Templates
If you’re working with an artist, or there’s other producers or songwriters in the room, you need to be fast. You want to be ready to get the ideas down before you lose them. Any one of these people at any given time can drop an idea that completely shifts the whole session, so you need to be ready.
The artist isn’t thinking about the EQ or the reverb. You can’t just say; “Oh hold on, gimmie a second, let me get my plugins open...” Nobody wants to wait around for you wasting time to do all that! If you’re wasting time, you’re losing.
Build yourself a set of templates for whatever DAW, get the technical stuff up fast so you can keep the creativity and the inspiration going. The thing I like to say about capturing inspiration is: “Inspiration comes and goes like money, but if you do the right thing with it when you have it, you can change lives.”
The important thing about my tips is to lead you to try new things. If you continue to do things the exact way you learned them, then how will you get to that ‘new’? I think Dave Pensado said it best; “New beats good every time!”
These presets, the settings on the compressors or the EQ, or the reverb—these are just the spices. How you cook with them is on you!
Get more hip hop vocal mixing and production tips/tricks here!
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