Multiple Grammy-winning producer, songwriter and audio engineer Greg Wells (The Greatest Showman, Adele, Taylor Swift) talks about his work on John Legend’s latest Grammy-winning album Bigger Love.
The contemporary music industry tends to be a hyper-specialized place. At the highest levels of pop or R&B production, it’s common practice for one person to specialize just in vocal production; to create just certain parts of the beat; to be exclusively a topliner; or to focus only on mixing to the exclusion of other aspects of the music production process.
Grammy-winning producer, songwriter, musician and mix engineer Greg Wells does it all. This year, he produced, co-wrote, mixed and played piano on “Never Break,” the final song from John Legend’s Bigger Love, winner of the 2021 Grammy for Best R&B Album.
We talked to Greg about wearing these multiple hats, about the signature techniques he used producing and mixing the song – and which classics he didn’t produce or mix but wish he had.
Greg, congratulations on the Grammy win with John Legend! As a producer and mixer, where do you find your main inspiration?
I get inspired and excited to work on music that isn’t a natural fit for me yet I feel a creative pull towards. I’m not naturally a pop musician – I am originally a less commercial, much more “indulgent” musician. That kind of “unpopular” music comes out of me naturally, whereas pop music is a real struggle for me to chase and get right. But I love the opportunity to be part of a great musical team, like the “Never Break” team of John Legend, [co-producer] Mr Hudson and [co-writer] Nasri Atweh, where we pull things out of each other and arrive at a destination that maybe none of us would have reached on our own.
Were you ever tempted to focus on just one aspect of the music process more than others? Or has it always been natural to focus equally on songwriting, musicianship, production and mixing?
When I was a teenager I was heavily influenced by the autobiography of Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. In that book, he says the only way to become a great film director is to nail every element involved in making a movie, from holding the boom mic, to composing the music, to lighting the set, to learning how to act, to writing the best screenplay, etc.
I read that book over and over when I was 19 years old, and at that point I decided that was going to be my approach as a record maker, sink or swim.
“Never Break” is a HUGE-sounding song, even though it’s sparsely arranged. There’s your piano, John Legend’s vocal, a few additional layers – but each element, especially the vocal and the piano sound immense. How was that was achieved – whether in terms of the arrangement, the production, the mix?
It hinges on an amazing song performed by an amazing singer. John Legend is an unbelievable singer with a high level of both emotion and technical mastery. He could sing “Mary had a little lamb” and make me cry.
In the mix, I focused on every individual syllable of John’s performance, making sure it sounded the best it possibly could. I also used Michael Brauer’s multiple compression vocal balancing technique – the so-called ‘Brauerize’ approach – I highly recommend people research it and try it themselves. You can do it with both hardware and software.
The better the vocal sounds, the better everything else around it sounds. Once John’s vocal was totally dialed in, my co-producer Mr Hudson and I felt the track didn’t require a lot of bells and whistles. The emotional wallop was already captured, and our job was to protect and not to get in the way of it.
The use of reverb on that song – on the piano as well as the vocal – is really noteworthy for how it contributes to the sense of size and scale, without being too obvious…
Thank you – It’s interesting that I often get complimented about my use of reverb, because I don’t like most individual reverbs when I hear them!
It’s very important for me to not ever notice the reverb – I want listeners to hear it without noticing it. If you want to get a taste for my use of reverb in that way, my Waves H-Reverb preset is a good starting place. But what I really like to do, is I will often combine two or three reverbs at very low levels, to hopefully create something that feels complimentary to the song.
Learn how Greg Wells uses reverb in his vocal mixes:
Are any of your own signature plugins on the John Legend song?
Yes, Greg Wells VoiceCentric is there on John’s vocal – it’s my good friend for vocals, so it’s in almost every one of my mixes. It helps me find the exact focus of where I want to hear the vocal in the final mix. It’s got this ‘invisible’ reverb that is one of my all-time favorites.
And Greg Wells PianoCentric always goes on any piano track I produce. It’s such a huge help to me, and so fast to get a result with.
Watch Greg’s VoiceCentric tutorial:
“Never Break” continues a great legacy of soulful pop/R&B music. Which songs from the past – from before your time in the industry – do you wish you could have gone back in time and mixed?
Amazing question. I’d love to remix the entire James Brown catalogue, as well as the Jackson 5 and Aretha Franklin – yet at the same time I adore the way they originally sound. It’s fascinating to study how every record sounds so unique, just like every meal tastes different even from the same chef.