Photo: Courtesy of Paul Womack
Producer/Engineer Paul Womack On Happily Making A Million Mistakes, The Value Of Affordable Gear & Not Being "Apologetic" While Making Music
In an in-depth interview, producer and engineer Paul Womack opens up about the arc of his career and how he made a litany of flubs along the way — only to get it right on the "million-and-first" time
For almost two decades now, Paul Womack has honed his craft as a producer and engineer. There's a knob he can turn, or effect he can fire up, for almost everything — that is, except to cover up cautiousness, insecurity or tentativity from the performer in front of the mic.
"If you don't believe you, I'm not going to believe you," the producer and engineer also known as Willie Green tells GRAMMY.com. "Heartfelt songs have to actually have that [self-belief] in there. That translates through the speakers — that intention, that believability, that earnestness of the music. There's no plug-in for that."
That's the very philosophy that the Brooklyn-based Womack brings to all his clients, who mostly hail from the independent hip-hop sphere. Working from Backwoodz Studioz and at his owned GreenHouse Recording Co., he may change up his approach for every artist — but he does so with one primary, immutable value in place.
"It's not about me doing the certain tricks I like to do," Womack says. "I think the goal is to find the right sound for that artist on that song." How did he come to this conclusion, and push through an infinitum of learning experiences to find his voice behind the board?
Read on for an in-depth interview with Womack for the Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing to learn about the arc of his postcollegiate career (he's a Berklee man), how he spent years learning the hard way, and the best advice he can offer a budding producer.
Tell me about how you developed your signature approach to production.
I was born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, and grew up in a musical family. My uncle — my godfather — is a musician, so he steeped me in the music industry early on. He gave me my first keyboard, my first drum set, my first drum machine, everything.
So, by the time I was 15, I was playing drums in his cover band and playing in clubs around Connecticut. I got pushed into the professional-musician part pretty early on, which has been huge — just knowing how to show up for a gig, how to be prepared. All of those little things that you learn about how to be a professional over time, I was very lucky to learn early on.
Then, in 1999, I went to Berklee College of Music, and I did the MP&E program there — the production and engineering department. That was such a great experience because the thing with music school is, you learn techniques and tools and how to use mics and all that, but all your classmates, later on in life, become your colleagues and clients.
I have people I went to college with who are still clients to this day, 20 years later. So, that's not just the beginning of your knowledge in production and engineering, but your entrance into networking in the professional audio world. All those contacts still carry over.
I did the Berklee thing and graduated in '03, and then I opened my own studio in Boston. I was hardheaded, so instead of going and being a runner or a GA at a big studio, I decided I was going to do it my own way.
So, a couple of buddies of mine and I opened our own studio and made a lot of indie records. And then, the opportunity came to move to New York, where I was a manager at Right Track — [a.k.a.] Sound on Sound — when it became Legacy [Studios] in Manhattan.
I did that for a few years, and then the economy crashed, and they did not need a second manager — I was the night manager then. So, I talked to my wife and I said, "Alright, give me eight months while I'm on unemployment to make this freelance-engineering thing work. If not, then I'll go get a job selling insurance."
Life would have been very different if I hadn't made it work in that seventh month. I really brought it all together and was able to get by. I had jobs just pushing faders, and that was the main thing. So, I built from there — built my studio and client base. And fast-forward to now, 12, 13 years later, I'm lucky. I get to make records every day, and it's a beautiful thing that I don't take for granted.
Building a studio can be extremely expensive and time-consuming, and I can think of a million ways it can go wrong. How did you work smart in this regard?
Oh, yeah, no, it went wrong in a million ways as well. It was that million-and-first way that it all worked out. I think the big thing with it is making smart purchases — things that will last over time, so you're not buying things every couple of years. You're buying quality things you have to replace over a much longer time than that.
The biggest piece of advice I can give on that: don't go into a lot of debt buying gear when you're 22, thinking, "Well, I have to have all the most expensive, finest things." Because gear is good enough now that even with more affordable things, you can make good records.
But debt follows you for a long time, and when you max out your credit cards like I did when I was 20 — trying to buy all kinds of good stuff — it takes a long time to come back from that and get your financials right for the rest of your life. And you don't want to be playing from negative yardage your whole life trying to catch up with bad debt.
It's important to get what you need, but stay within your means and you'll be able to keep growing. So, a lot of the gear I have in my studio now, I've had a long time. Some of these things I've had from when I first started buying gear; I was able to keep them. I take care of my stuff and can still use it, so I think that's really important.
What was your first truly memorable session at your studio?
The first project we had, right when we graduated — and this is my first professional project — was, we were doing some post[-production] for an indie film someone in town was making. I can't say it was the greatest film on earth, but we got quickly plunged into client relations and managing large projects — figuring out how to do that and being professional about it.
It let me know that post is not my favorite thing, and I do prefer records. It was feature-length, so it was a 90-, 100-minute movie. As our first time doing something, it had all the roadblocks, but we overcame them. It taught us how to be professional because all the unforeseen things will pop up pretty early on.
Aside from not overspending on gear, give me something you learned the hard way as a producer.
I think it's important to stay up on modern technology when you're making these purchases, and knowing what's coming up — where trends are heading.
We opened the studio in 2003, and we were doing everything in a DAW [digital audio workstation], but all of our video was still on VHS. So, we went out and bought a pro VHS deck. And then, by the time we were finished with the project, everything moved over to QuickTime because that's where the world was shifting to at that point.
So, we wound up with this big brick of a pro VHS machine that no one ever needed again. To this day, everything that I buy — whether it's a little cheap processor or microphone or anything in between — I do my research on and make sure that it's not only something I need, but going to last and worth having for a long time.
Technology moves so fast, and it increases exponentially. One invention means five more inventions. So, keeping an eye on where technology is headed is critical for modern ears, because things move so quickly.
How would you describe the ideal sound you get out of a client?
That's the goal, right? To find the ideal sound for that person you're working with.
I know that as an engineer and mixer, I do things that kind of make it my own, naturally. I'm a person, and I have preferences. But I think the goal is to find the right sound for that artist on that song. It's not about me doing the certain tricks I like to do.
If those things fit, then cool. But at the end of the day, what I'm trying to do is serve the song for that artist, and to serve that moment that they're creating. So, my goal is to pull the best performances and make them sound the best that they can in that moment.
The goal shifts based on the client's needs, but that's the whole idea — I'm serving the client. Engineering is very much client service.
Give me a recording that you feel represents the summation of your vision.
I would say one project that I think sums it all up would be the album Haram, by Armand Hammer, which came out last year, in early 2021.
Armand Hammer is a group from Brooklyn consisting of Billy Woods and Elucid — two phenomenal MCs and people I've had the pleasure of working with for a long time. I've been making records with Billy Woods since I moved to New York — so, now, for 15 years. He was the first call I made when I moved here, like, "I want to work with you."
Now, a decade later, the album was produced by the Alchemist, who's a legendary, top-tier hip-hop producer. It kind of all came together — all the work, recording in my kitchen and making beats at 4 in the morning — at this point with Haram. Everything we'd been doing before pulled together and coalesced in that album.
Any other advice would you give to budding producers who want to make the leap and make it happen sustainably?
The best way to do it is to enjoy the process. If you think about the end goal of things — "I want to make such-and-such money, or I want certain awards, certain accolades" — all those things are great and can come with enough work, patience, talent, and discipline.
But doing the job every day, and enjoying the process, and doing edits, and tuning vocals, and all the little nitpick-y things we do? That's the job. That's the everyday. You have to love that part of it, or you're not going to enjoy being an engineer.
Winning a GRAMMY isn't being an engineer. The path to get to that ultimate goal is the part that we have to love and enjoy, because that's life. That's every day. That's what we have to go through. So, if you're not into the ride and just into the end results, you're just not going to be happy in your day-to-day. And that's miserable. That's no way to live your life.
Rolling with the punches is important — especially during those long hours where nothing's sounding good. What are your hacks for when you can't get the music where you need it to be?
That happens more often than we want it to — when it's not coming together. A great answer to that, for me, is just to walk away. Whether it's 15 minutes, 20 minutes, go watch a little basketball, take a walk, whatever you're going to do. Come back, hit "Save As" and get yourself a new version, strip it all down and try to find your way.
But don't lose that work you did before, because you might come back tomorrow and be like, "Oh, I really went left there at the end, but I can get back to the point where I can reapproach it and try something different." Or maybe it was a simple tweak that I wasn't catching at 5 in the morning, but with a little sleep — "Oh! It makes sense. I just have to do this thing."
Try and find something. Pull up a plugin that you've never used, or haven't used in a while. It seems wrong: maybe you're doing a gentle ballad, but throw an amp simulator on that vocal. Why not? Just see. It's probably not right, but maybe it'll spark another idea.
Ideas come from somewhere else. You do one thing and it might set off a lightbulb in another direction. So, just try stuff. Why not?
Is the barrier to entry lower than ever before? I feel like tools that were once prohibitively expensive are now bundled with Logic, just a click away. There's almost no excuse not to dive in and start making music.
I totally agree. The days of having to have a million dollars to have a proper music-producing setup are long behind us. It's simple: you don't even have to have a computer! I know a lot of cats who just make beats on their phone. It's easy to get started and start generating those ideas.
Obviously, the super-high-quality gear is lovely, and we'd all love to have it. But you don't have to have it to create. You can work very simply and just generate ideas. It's so easy: we could write a song right now over Zoom; do a quick, little mix on it; shoot it over to DistroKid or whatever, and it's on the internet tomorrow.
We can upload it to Bandcamp right away. We can create, release and share our art in such simple ways that are so much easier than before, that — you're right — there's no excuse not to be creative and experiment and try. The internet's a big place, and there's enough room for everyone to hop in and share what's on their minds, heads and hearts.
That makes for a lot more competition, and there's a lot of music out there. But it doesn't mean that for whoever's just getting started, that music can't also be yours that's out there. That's the only way to get started: to start, put something out, build from there, and develop yourself as an artist.
I feel like there's pressure to come out of the box immediately and sound like Drake, Timbaland or any of the greats. But just sound like you, and put it out there! That's what they did when they started.
Nobody comes out of the gate perfect, and that's not really how it works. That's not the artist's journey. The artist's journey is to keep developing and keep reinventing yourself. But you can only do that if you start somewhere, and you've got to invent yourself the first time to reinvent yourself over your career.
While recording my own music, I like very dry vocals and hard-panned instruments. I have no idea if other people will like that, but someone must. That seems to be the throughline with successful artists — they did their idiosyncratic thing confidently, and it landed.
You've got to have confidence in yourself. Because if you don't love your music, nobody else is going to. So, you've got to make it sound the way that you feel best about it. Because, then, you're going to present it the best. You're going to feel great about everything that comes with it.
There's nothing worse than feeling bad about something you didn't do the way you wanted to. Because, then, all the what-ifs start to pop up. "What if I did just go for it?" You don't want to have those regrets, like, "Maybe I should have just done the thing I wanted to." Do the thing you want to, because at least you have that, if nothing else. But that's the most honest music, so it's always going to translate the best.
I say it to my vocalists if I'm producing vocals, [and they say]: "I sound a little lackluster," or "I sound a little tired." I just say to the artist: "Look, it sounds like you don't believe yourself. And if you don't believe you, I'm not going to believe you."
Heartfelt songs have to actually have that in there. That translates through the speakers — that intention, that believability, that earnestness of the music. There's no plug-in for that. There's no knob I can turn to make you truly sound like you know what you're doing. That has to come from the artist.
No one likes apologetic music — like, "I don't mean to bother you with my crappy guitar playing." Play that guitar. Strum that thing. Let me hear what you do.