The Making of H.E.R.'s Volume 1 | Finer Notes

H.E.R. (2022). Photo by: Rich Fury, Getty Images.

Before H.E.R. was born, Gabi Wilson was the star of the show. Under her birth name, she was a teenage internet sensation from covering Aretha Franklin songs at the famed Apollo Theater, starring in Nickelodeon TV film School Gyrls, and performing at the BET Awards—all before signing her first record label deal in 2011 at age 14 while managed by MBK Entertainment.

Around 2008, in the middle of her ascension and before she officially signed to MBK, Wilson met producer David "Swagg R’Celious" Harris—a diligent producer/engineer who helped her shape her breakthrough 2016 self-titled project beyond just production credits. "Singing in the studio is different from singing live. I helped with articulation and making sure certain words cut through properly while still keeping the emotion of the song," Harris told me. "That emotional connection is what you want to preserve, but there’s also a technique you have to do in a certain way in the studio for it to translate."

H.E.R. - Losing

Harris did more than give her studio singing tips—he helped her cultivate a sound all her own, by any means necessary. He spent sleepless nights working on music the world may never hear in song form, but can definitely hear through the refinement it gave H.E.R.’s musicality. He also helped construct a dream studio most artists would spend their entire recording budget on. Harris is one of the most instrumental figures in the legacy of H.E.R., and in his chat with Reverb, he discusses the evolution of H.E.R’s recording style, how Drake inspired the making of her breakthrough self-titled project, the unreleased song that created the H.E.R. moniker, and more.

In December 2011, after years of refining her sound in a basement studio and months after she officially signed her deal, Harris and H.E.R.’s team began building a new studio in New York City on West 30th St between 8th and 9th Ave. H.E.R’s fellow longtime engineer, Miki Tsutsumi, and Harris decided what equipment would work best, and the two machine alchemists cocooned the blossoming talent in the right environment to foster growth.

By August 2012, the studio had a Solid State Logic Duality mixing board, ProAc Studio SM100 monitors, Augspurger Duo Main Monitor System, a Pro Tools HD I/O 16x16 audio interface, and a wide enough array of equipment for H.E.R’s developing musicality to flourish. "She was ecstatic. We had live gear, some vintage gear there. She’s a musician, so we made sure we had some guitars and [a Fender] 1964 P-Bass."

Over the next few years, Harris and H.E.R. worked on hundreds of songs, molding the sound of Gabi Wilson, until Drake surprised the world with the release of his fourth studio album on February 13, 2015. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late featured the smoldering R&B song "Jungle," and H.E.R. was so moved by Drake’s ode to a lost love interest, she told Harris the next day that she wanted to cover the song.

Harris sprung into action, recreating Noah "40" Shebib’s minimalistic production, from resampling it to rearranging every single sound. Harris calls the finished product "kind of the start of the H.E.R. Volume 1 era," as H.E.R.’s manager and MBK Entertainment founder, Jeff Robinson, was so moved by the song that he asked Harris to work with H.E.R. as an executive producer to put together an EP collection of songs.

H.E.R. - Jungle

The H.E.R. Volume 1 era started with experimentation. For the recording of "Jungle," Harris and Tsutsumi tried out four different mics—the Sony C800G, Neumann M 149, Manley Gold, and a Telefunken—but ended up mainly using the M 149 and C800G running through an AMS Neve 1073 and Tube-Tech CL 1B Mono Opto Compressor, all feeding into ProTools with ProAc Studio SM100 monitors.

Thanks to her sultry vocals, the result was a more tender depiction of pining for a love connection and was a near picture-perfect recreation of Drake’s song, in part thanks to H.E.R and her recording team leaving nothing to chance. "She has such a warm tone, we had to find the right mic for her voice that captures her tone but still has a little air at the top."

H.E.R. and her close knit team had access to nearly any plugin you could think of. Antares Auto-Tune, Soundtoys TDM Effects Plug-in Bundle, Waves Mercury TDM Bundle, Lexicon PCM Native Effects Bundle, and Synchro Arts VocAlign Pro were all at their fingertips. But, when you listen to H.E.R. Vol. 1 or some of her Grammy Award-winning music released since, there’s one effect that trumps them all.

"The main effect we used is one we call ‘Revive,’ which is this combination of reverb and delays. When you listen to Vol. 1, it’s very 'verb-y and delay-oriented. She already has a low voice, but we would do octaves under her vocals. We’ll pitch her vocals down. A signature thing for a while was you knew a H.E.R. record when you heard that octave under her."

Outside of the sound, a signature of H.E.R’s music is how each song sounds like it was ripped out of a diary you didn’t even know you were subconsciously writing. Harris remembers most of Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (also produced by Harris and released in 2017) came from conversations they had about life.

Working with H.E.R since she was a pre-teen, Harris watched her mature from the middle school girl who couldn’t fathom how girls get caught up in boyfriend drama to the high school girl who began to have the experiences to make deeper songs. "We would have those real conversations about what’s going on in life, what’s going on in her relationships. I told her, ‘You’re not the only one who feels this way.’ That’s how the whole concept of how H.E.R came about. We’re all her."

Harris was a producer in the purest form, manipulating the final musical product with his keen understanding of the equipment but also helping hone the most important instrument: H.E.R’s voice. Thanks in part to Harris’s meticulous attention to detail and intimate knowledge of H.E.R.’s growth from child star to burgeoning adult powerhouse, he helped her convey this yearning from the record while still milking every lyric.

H.E.R. - Focus

"That’s what we really stressed—every noun, verb, and word is important. Nothing is throwaway. The story and narrative were so important, that was one vocal technique we really wanted to dig into and make sure every phrase mattered and every breath was intentional." They did roughly 60-70 songs during the self-titled sessions, but one unreleased song written late 2014, in the middle of the making of the project, is arguably the most important song to H.E.R’s entire career.

"We did a song called ‘H.E.R.’ that never came out. The narrative of the song was she was in a relationship and realized the dude was giving the other guy more attention. In the second verse, she was like, ‘Maybe my name was Lauren, I wish I was her,’" he remembers. "After that, we were like, ‘We should just name the project H.E.R. Then we were like, ‘You should personify the project and just be H.E.R.’"

Finer Notes is a series that looks into the equipment, techniques, and untold stories that went into shaping classic albums, where engineers and producers discuss how they used the equipment of the time to make a body of work that’s timeless.

About the author: Keith Nelson Jr is a seasoned music journalist who followed his innate passion for knowledge to interview some of the most influential figures in the music industry. He's a journalist who connects the dot to see the bigger picture.

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