Kuk Harrell and the Human Side of Vocal Production

Bryan Parys
March 22, 2016
Students gather in the Shames Family Scoring Stage to listen to a master class by vocal producer Kuk Harrell
Prince Charles Alexander, Kuk Harrell, and Simone Torres '15 preparing for the master class
Students pack out the Shames Family Scoring Stage for a master class featuring Grammy-winning vocal producer, Kuk Harrell.
The panel prepares a Pro Tools session to demo during the master class. From left: Prince Charles Alexander, professor of music production and engineering; Kuk Harrell; and Simone Torres '15, Harrell's assistant.
Bryan Parys
Bryan Parys

In a recent master class held in the Shames Family Scoring Stage at Berklee, Kuk Harrell and his apprentice, Simone Torres ‘15, spoke to a standing-room-only group of students about his road to becoming a five-time Grammy-winning vocal producer and achieving the kind of reputation where pop stars such as Jessie J say things like “I don’t record vocals unless Kuk Harrell is here.” The session was sponsored by the Music Production and Engineering Department and moderated by professor Prince Charles Alexander.

The 'Ears Behind the Plug-Ins'

Known for his work on chart-topping singles such as “Umbrella” by Rihanna and “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé, Harrell’s work ethic is more about full dedication to helping an artist achieve his or her distinct sound and vibe than it is about the technology employed to get there. So when up-and-coming producers want to know his technical secrets and ask, for instance, what kind of software plug-ins he uses, he defers back to humanity, saying, “It’s about keeping it simple—it’s the ears behind the plug-ins” that create the experience.

He’s quick to point out, however, that the technology is by no means an afterthought. That’s why when Harrell and his cousins, famed producers and brothers Tricky and Laney Stewart, first got their start in the '90s, they moved from Chicago to L.A., saying that they “had to get great at what we do.” While in L.A., Harrell looked beyond the control board and explored songwriting. “You need to know everything about the studio,” he said, speaking to the symbiotic relationship between the technology and the songs themselves.  

Let It Go, Let It Groove

While Harrell may seem as if he’s playing down his knob-twisting skills, it’s only due to the untold hours he put in to master the tools available in the studio that he’s able to move his focus beyond the technical details of the process. And it’s a mindset shared by Torres, who graduated from Berklee less than a year ago, and is now the sole person that Harrell trusts to fine-tune all of his vocal tracks, because she uses the software in a more human way. Torres advised the student crowd to not get caught up in the technical, saying that “All of that knowledge is necessary, so you can then let it go so that it feels good and makes it [the track] groove.”

For Harrell, “pop music is about evolving.” His definition is a holistic one, in that it’s easy to see that the way he listens to and enjoys music comes from the same place as his approach to working in the studio. And it also connects to his parting advice to the students charting their own paths: “When you get out of here, don’t stop evolving.”