Multi-platinum producer and songwriter Erik “Blu2th” Griggs, member of Dr. Dre’s in-house production team, hits you with his top 5 vocal production tips – including the best tip he got from Dr. Dre himself.
By David Ampong, Waves Audio
As a songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist, Erik “Blu2th” Griggs has done it all, from co-penning and co-producing Chris Brown and Jordin Sparks’s smash hit ‘No Air’, to recording with Aretha Franklin and the Dreamgirls ensemble, to collaborating with Anderson .Paak and Eminem as part of Dr. Dre’s in-house production team.
We asked Blu2th to name the top vocal production tips he relied on when creating his latest anthem ‘Is It the End or the Beginning’ featuring L.A. rapper Hopsin. He gave us five tips – including the most important piece of advice he got when he brought the original demo to Dr. Dre.
Tip #1: Let the Vocal Complement Rather than Mimic the Music
“When I initially recorded my vocals, My approach to the first half of the first verse was a bit more aggressive than it is now. But when I later took it over to Dr. Dre, his approach was to create suspense by using a more whispery tone – I thought it worked perfectly. Check out the first verse of “Is it the End or the Beginning” and you’ll see what I mean.
So we re-recorded a bunch of vocal takes until we got it right – it helped create a vibe that was more mysterious as well as more urgent. Intensity can be created with softness as will as loudness.
Also, when you record vocals, try switching up the emotional nuance of your delivery, depending on where you are in the arrangement. Change it up during the song, don’t be static. This is a powerful way to create a sense of tension and buildup, and keep your listeners connected with you the whole way through. This is what Hopsin liked the most about “Is it the End or the Beginning” – what made him want to be a part of this song; he said, ‘The way you keep changing up your flow is dope.’”
Tip #2: Capture Attention Right from the Beginning
“You want to build your tracks in a way that makes the listeners listen to the whole thing start to finish; they need to feel they HAVE to hear what’s next. With ‘Is It the End or the Beginning,’ I wanted to start with a whimsical vocal-driven effect that doesn’t sound ‘normal.’ My preset for OVox gave me that vocal synthesis sound that grabs your attention right away – something that makes the listener ask, ‘Whoa! What was that?’”
Tip #3: Add Movement to Backing Vocals
“On ‘Is It the End or the Beginning’ I backed up my rapping with some singing in order to create that sense of stimulation on certain words and keep the listener interested as the song progresses.
Here’s a trick I used to keep it interesting: Since I keep the leads right up the middle, I used MetaFlanger on background vocals, with the stereo image set on the widest setting, and without syncing it to tempo – I don’t want it to be in time! I want the texture to sound constantly changing randomly, in order to get that buttery but unobtrusive chorusing and phasing effect. Anything that creates perceived movement creates interest. Just like when something moves it catches your eye, the same thing happens with the ear. This way you make the backing vocals do something interesting, without taking focus away from the lead.”
Tip #4: A Little Vocal Verb Goes a Long Way…
“Here’s one of my main tips for the lead vocal. In my Pro Tools template, I always have a minimum of two, sometimes three different reverb auxes, one of which has the TrueVerb plugin with a very low decay time. I’ll dial in just a touch of it – and I do mean just a touch – to make the vocal sound bigger without being overbearing. It isn’t meant to sound like reverb, it’s just there to give the vocal more body.
I typically start with TrueVerb on its default setting, pull the decay time all the way down, and then pull the send level up until I can hear it, then I’ll pull it back to the point where it’s there but not noticeable. You don’t hear it when it’s on – but if you were to turn the reverb off the vocals would suddenly sound thinner.”
P.S. Yes I definitely use this on more than vocals.
Tip #5: Use Vocal Effects to Enhance the Drama of the Song
“If you’re going to use vocal effects in your mix, use them with creative intent!
‘Is It the End or the Beginning’ features a series of musical movements, each different in feeling, which gradually build to a climax. In the beginning of the second verse, sort of intended as a pre-verse, I included a vocal intended to feel like a ‘calm before the storm’ – a lyrical dedication to important historical figures that drove the struggle for civil rights in America. I was asking the question: Where are we today in this struggle? Is this the end, or just the beginning?
I wanted this part to sound almost like a recitation, but in a futuristic way. To achieve this feeling, I stacked multiple vocal takes and used Vocal Bender to enhance them and exaggerate the dramatic effect.
Even when you’re rapping or speaking, and not singing, your vocal still has a pitch. On this part, I layered my voice with eight different vocal takes – two variations (high- and low-pitched), four of each. On the high-pitched tracks, I used Vocal Bender to raise just the formant a semitone. On the low-pitched tracks, I lowered just the pitch a semitone or two. The goal was to embellish the changes in tone I was delivering on each take, to slightly exaggerate what I did vocally when recording.
By self-altering the tonal character of my own voice, and then going back and making very slight pitch and formant changes on each track with Vocal Bender, I was able to create another type of soft intensity that captures your attention and has somewhere to go intensity wise. It makes the second movement of the second verse feel like the verse started again because there’s such a difference in intensity and delivery when it comes in. What I’m saying is important, but no one will hear it if it doesn’t command attention sonically. You can’t be satisfied with good informational content. This is music, not a book. Figure out ways to make it sound like what it is. Delivery and effects work together like coloring in a movie. They suggest to the listener what the mood should be and support the emotional content. Check out the video for, “Is it the End or the Beginning” and look at how it’s colored. That’s the visual equivalent of what I’m speaking here about doing sonically.
I appreciate Waves for providing we the artists with tools that enable us to make our records compelling. Make no mistake. At the end of the day it’s the sonic package that draws the listener in. Without it they’ll never get a chance to enjoy the content. Your sonic choices have every bit as much to do with the success of your records as the lyrical and musical content. The trick is learning to make your sonic treatments match the artist’s delivery. Hats off to Waves for being the biggest in the plugin game. Whatever choice you need to make, they have a plug in for it.
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