Simone Torres Talks Vocal Engineering & Vocal Production

Photos by Cody Burdette, courtesy of Simone Torres.

Simone Torres
Simone Torres. Photo by Cody Burdette.

Simone Torres is a New York-born, LA-based engineer and vocal producer.

Since cutting her teeth in studios like Silent Sound in Atlanta, Torres has spent the better part of the last decade working on multi-platinum hits for a wide range of heavyweights including Cardi B, Becky G, Chloe Bailey and more.

An accomplished singer in her own right, Torres brings her own firsthand knowledge and experiences into her work with vocalists.

We sat down and spoke with Simone about the specifics of engineering and vocal production and how she balances technical skill with the emotional, often intangible skill required to coax great performances from her collaborators.

For starters, can you talk about what a vocal engineer does specifically and how that differs from other forms of engineering?

Vocal engineering and vocal production really go hand in hand, but the vocal engineer is just the person that's mainly focused on the vocals. A lot of artists have their go-to person that they want to track with—Beyonce has her person, everyone has their person—but their job is to be really fast at capturing what's necessary and making what the artist wants to hear a reality very quickly. I think it has a lot to do with people skills as well. I don't think that there's too much of a differentiator between the regular tracking engineer and a vocal engineer, but if there's a difference, it's that the vocal engineer has to be a little bit more empathetic and able to read people.

With a singer, they are their own instrument. There's no separation between their instruments and themselves. So when there are mistakes made, it's on them, so it's a lot more important to have that emotional empathy and to be really fast. Say they're coming up with harmonies: you have to be really fast to keep up or they're gonna forget. Same thing with punching and things like that. It's just about being really ready.

That's interesting. So, you have all of the technical skills required to capture this recording, but then there's another component where there's an emotional skill that you need in order to work with a vocalist through this performance.

Yeah, exactly. And it's funny because there's kind of like a tie between the artist and their engineer or the artist and their vocal producer. There's a tie there that's like, “Do you think this sounds good?” There's a trust there that really has to happen. There's a saying that I like: "It's your skill set that will get you in the room, but your personality and how you treat people is what will keep you there or not." Music is a really fun thing that we get to do with our lives. And if you're not a good hang… (laughs)

All right. Since we're talking about roles, working styles and skills, could you talk to me about the difference between a vocal engineer and a vocal producer? What separates those two roles?

With a vocal engineer and a vocal producer, one is technical and one is also giving your opinion, right? The only time the vocal engineer is gonna be giving their opinion is if it’s specifically asked for. But the vocal producer is brought in for their opinion, for their knowledge of not only the music production piece of it, but for the vocal piece and to know how to communicate to the artist, like “Okay, I need you to do this so that it will translate on the record this way.” They're guiding them through the performance and they're helping come up with harmonies and adlibs, and telling them “I need you to do this layer here, this layer here.” The vocal engineer is the technical piece. “What do I need to do to make this sound happen that the artist is asking for?”

It's a different kind of relationship and a different aspect of collaboration.

And there's a trust that has to happen in both regards. A vocal producer's gonna come in and push the artist sometimes past where they're comfortable because they know that's what the record needs. Like, if you need to hear some strain here or if you need the artist to hit something in their chest voice that they're not normally used to hitting—but you know that that's what's going to make that part of the record soar—it's getting the artist comfortable to do stuff that they're not normally comfortable doing sometimes. Trust is huge in both of them, setting that comfortable environment. 70% of the job is just being able to anticipate someone's needs and creating an environment where those mistakes and that magic can happen. If you're not comfortable, you're gonna hear it in the voice.

That makes so much sense when you talk about building trust with an artist. If a person likes you, then they can love you. If they love you, they can trust you. And if they trust you, they can push you to be a little bit better.

Absolutely. It's interesting because a lot of times as a vocal producer you’re going into a room with someone that you haven't met before. I think it's an art to build that together quickly and learn how the person wants to work, likes to work, and making sure that they feel seen and heard—but also you're there to do your job. Sometimes there’s differences of opinion and you are acting as that middle person to facilitate what has to happen. Sometimes they come in with stuff that they've been going through and I have to shut the session down and be like, “Okay, we're gonna wait for a minute.” This person needs to vent to me. Sometimes they cry with me, sometimes it's just a party and it's a good time, the whole time. I have to do a lot of emotional work so that I can go in and be a blank slate emotionally for them to put whatever they have going on onto me and I can just be a vessel.

Cardi B's "I Like It", engineered by Simone Torres.

I don’t want to ask if there’s a hierarchy, but is there a particular role that you play in your day-to-day work that you prefer?

I engineer, I vocal produce, and I have an artist project of my own that I'm gonna put out and I write—so, it kind of depends. I love vocal production so much. I think it's something that I kind of developed this weird skillset that fits this very niche thing that I'm very grateful to feel special at. I feel like I'm using all my skills when I vocal produce—sometimes I get to sing backgrounds on the records too. As far as engineering, I'm very grateful at this point in my career to be kind of selective about who I engineer for.

I really love my engineering clients too because our work is collaborative. It's not just that I'm a pair of hands. When I work with a client like Chloe Bailey, I do everything with her and she's an amazing vocal producer too. So, when I get to go work with her and I'm her engineer, it's really fun. So, vocal production and my artist project are probably at the top. But then engineering for people like that I love too. And then engineering, when my opinion is less taken into account, is probably far below that.

I wanted to ask you about Cardi B's “I Like It”. It’s interesting because her delivery on the verse is so percussive, but then there's other points where she slides into a sing-songy thing. Could you talk about working on that song and how you approach those different dynamics that can happen on a record?

So, that one I engineered and Kuk Harrell was the vocal producer there. He's the one that guided Cardi through all of that. I engineered and then tuned everything. We did it in Atlanta. I used to be based in Atlanta for five years and we did it at Silent Sound and we only had a few days that we were with her. But we did “Be Careful" and “I Like It.” And we did “Best Life". And French Montana’s “Writing On the Wall”.

You work out of your home setup and in the studio. What are some of your favorite pieces of gear that you use?

At home and in the studio, I use a Tube-Tech CL 1B Tube Optical Compressor and a Neve 1073 mic pre, those are pieces of equipment that I always use. Plug-in-wise, I use a bunch of stuff. I honestly am not as plug-in heavy in my sessions as some other producers because I'm more focused on making sure it's engineered really well and that the core of what's there is great when it goes to mix. I'm making great rough mixes, but I'm not mixing the record. So the plugins that I love—I love AutoTune, that's something I use on almost every session that I ever will open. And it's funny because people think that autotune means robotic or that autotune means T-Pain's effected sound, and that's just not the case—T-Pain is an awesome singer.

You can make AutoTune sound so natural and have no idea that it's there. In AutoTune Pro, the flex tune parameter is my favorite—it allows a certain amount of time for the wrong note to hit before the tuning starts. That's what our ears perceive as being in tune or out of tune.. it’s where the end of the note hits. So you can make things sound more natural by having the beginning of it just be wherever it was. I really like the McDSP plugins too. Um, I love the MC-404, the multi-band compression I think is really lovely on a vocal. I really like their P606 plugin. It's just an eq but it has a really musical top end. I love the FabFilter Saturn Saturation Plug-in, (Waves) R-Vox. I'll have my template set up so that I have each kind of delay already ready for me to go and a brighter reverb, a darker reverb so I can make a mix of them however I would like in the session.

I'm curious, how did you get into engineering in the first place?

I started as a singer and I had no recordings that I was proud of. I didn't know how to communicate what I didn't like about them. I just knew they weren't right, they didn't feel like me and I was so sick of it, honestly. There was a turning point that happened for me. I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, and I was studying voice and music business and we had to do scholarship portfolios. I had a partial scholarship for singing and I had to submit a scholarship renewal and I went to this guy and he charged me $400 to hit record and let me do one-take of two songs. I brought karaoke tracks and he would not let me re-punch anything. No reverb, no AutoTune, nothing. This was like 2012. I was like, "Screw this, I'm learning this on my own."

I started singing when I was nine and I had my first CD when I was 11. And then I had another one when I was 14. I had been through recording with different engineers and producers and I never had anything I was proud of. And at that point, I knew nothing about engineering, absolutely nothing. It's also a very male-dominated field, and at my school you had to apply to get into the major. It wasn't like you could just decide you wanted to do this, you had to do a thing.

It was a whole journey for me to even start doing it because there were a lot of people around me who were like, why would you do that? You're a singer. I was also gigging five times a week at that point. In the corporate bands that I was in, the wedding bands, the bandleaders were like, “You're not gonna be able to do that. Why are you trying, why are you gonna do that?” I didn't know anything at the time, but I just started doing it. I love math and science a lot, my mom is a calculus teacher and my grandpa was the head of the math department. So I was like, “This is really cool.“

Once I started doing the engineering program, even though it was hard, I loved it so much because it was like tying together two things that I really loved—math and music. I also got a job at the tech shop at school, which I loved because I learned how to build and repair gear, which was sick to me because I always loved to take things apart and put them back together and figure out why something works.

How does it feel being on the other side of that—being inspired to learn to engineer because you didn't have a good experience with the studio as a vocalist, now that you're on the other side and you're a master at this craft?

It feels kind of crazy to be honest, because you know when you keep your head down and you work towards something for so long and then one day you wake up and you realize…. Like I had always tried to be faster on Pro Tools for so long, studying the different key commands. I remember one day just being in a session and someone's like, “Yo, you're crazy fast!” And I was like, (laughs), oh, okay.

, I'm not thinking about trying to be fast anymore because it just is. I'm finally doing my artist project and everything's kind of come full circle. I started learning this 10 years ago and I feel so grateful, I feel so empowered now. I also feel like a responsibility to empower other young women to learn this and to take the power back in the studio, because I think as singers sometimes it's intimidating when you go in and you're like, "I know what's happening in my head. I don't know how to communicate what I'm not liking." You start to second guess yourself and your instinct. That's why I really love my job so much because I get to be that translator of what someone is feeling to what that means I have to do technically.

Nice. Speaking of your own music, could you tell me a little bit about your artist project?

I feel like my whole life I've always sounded like I was older when I sang. When we'd go have meetings with labels or whatever, it was always like, “You sound like you're 60, not 16.” My whole life I was like, “Okay, then I'll be more of this.” Try and fit in how they wanted me to be. Now, I'm feeling free to be the full version of myself and be unapologetic about that.

Genre-wise, I feel free to go between different things that I'm influenced by: soul music is something that's always been super dear to my heart. Etta James was the person I was mimicking growing up because I just thought she was so cool. You can always hear what she's feeling when she's singing. So, my artist project, it's a little bit of soul, it's a little bit of R&B. It has different influences of things that I've gone through, and so far I've made two EPs that I'm going to put out.

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