VT Voices Q&A with Brian Warwick
Updated: Mar 22, 2022
Brian Warwick is a GRAMMY® Winning audio engineer and music professor at Northern Vermont University (NVU) – Lyndon. We had the privilege to sit down with Brian at Old Mill Road Recording Studio and speak with him about the lessons that he learned from working in the music business. His personal experiences with legendary musicians and industry icons helped him create a unique educational program at NVU – Lyndon, which prepares students for a successful career in the music business through innovative hands-on learning.
Sherman: Where were you born?
Warwick: I was born in Grafton, Massachusetts, right outside of Worcester. If you’ve driven from New York City to Boston, you’ve most likely driven through my town on the Mass Pike.
Sherman: Who are some of your early musical influences?
Warwick: One of my early influences is Weird Al Yankovic. The first cassette tape that I ever owned was Weird Al Yankovic’s Dare to be Stupid. I learned about popular music by listening to his records. My parents’ taste in music also influenced what I listened to. I really got into The Beatles through them. They continue to be a huge influence. In early junior high, I really got into alternative rock. I still remember a couple of early music videos like Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” when it first came on MTV. I thought to myself “Ok…that’s a cool sound. That’s something that I want to learn more about it.” Then there was Nirvana. I remember an early morning sitting in my parent’s den when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came on. I know in lots of documentaries people say things like “That’s when my whole world changed.” It really did. At that moment, it felt like there was a whole new music genre that wasn’t anything like the “hair-rock” metal of the 1980s. When Nirvana came out, I thought “That’s something I can identify with. That’s what I want to listen
Sherman: It’s interesting that Weird Al was such an early idol considering that you
ended up working with him. When you work with people that you admire so much, it can go either way. You can fall in love with them even more, or you can be totally disappointed and disillusioned. Tell me about your experience working with Weird Al.
Warwick: I’ve had both of those types of experiences. Luckily with Al, it was a very positive experience. I first worked with Al when I was as an assistant engineer. I used to work at a recording studio called Westlake Recording Studios in West Hollywood, California. He was a regular client of that studio. He came in one night, and he was mixing the last portions of the Straight Outta Lynwood record, which had the big single “White N’ Nerdy.” When I first met him, Al was really friendly. He wasn’t demanding. He was really polite. We did a couple different songs, including “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” which was a parody of “Trapped in the Closet.” We also worked on a parody of “American Idiot” called “Canadian Idiot.” I remember at the end of the time we spent together mixing it was almost time for the holidays. I needed to get something for my older brother, who got me into Weird Al in the first place. I had my wife run down to Amoeba records in Hollywood and grab a vinyl copy of Weird Al’s UHF. I handed it to Al and I said, “Hey, man…I’m a huge fan. This is for my brother. Would you mind signing this, so I could give it to him as a Christmas present?” He was totally approachable and cordial about it.
Sherman: Tell me how your relationship with Al has evolved through working on additional projects with him.
Warwick: After the work I did with him on Straight Outta Lynwood, his next album was Alpocalypse. He needed an engineer to do all his vocal overdubs for that album. I wasn’t used to working with a vocalist that produces themselves. Al walked in with a complete lyric sheet. He had a copy for him and a copy for me. Not only that, he had a track list. I’m supposed to make audio tracks with certain labels on them. As an audio engineer, it caught me off guard, because usually in the software that I work in I’ll just label the tracks “Vocal one,” “Vocal two,” and so on. Al wanted it in a very particular way—not because he didn’t trust me or anything like that…It’s just that he needed to be able to reference it when he was mixing it. At the time, I thought “Oh, wow! This is the most organized vocal session that I’ve ever worked on.”
Sherman: I think most audio engineers and producers start off as musicians. Did you?
Warwick: I became a drummer when I was 10 years old. My brother was a DJ, as well as a guitarist. He would come back after a DJ gig and I’d want to listen to, like, Nirvana or Metallica really loud on his DJ equipment in the basement and play some drums along with it. He’d come in really late, so he wouldn’t be able to set it back up. The way I got into the technical side of things was trying to set up his PA system through trial and error. I would take different cables and try to figure out which one went where through guesswork until I figured out how to get the PA system
working. It was all for my own benefit —I just wanted to listen to the music. My dad was also a HAM radio operator. I liked all the knobs and switches and developed a natural curiosity. I would always ask him, “What does this frequency selector do?” or “How do I get to this different channel?” I think the technical side came naturally. Being a drummer also really made me want to be on the musical side of technology.
Sherman: Tell me more about how you got involved in music in your middle school, high school, and college years.
Warwick: Right when I got to junior high school, a new music teacher was hired by the name of Steve Trombley. It was his first year, and he took over the music program at the junior high and high schools. He was a great mentor to me from sixth grade until the moment I graduated. I also had my own punk rock band. At the same time that I was playing in the punk band, my music teacher opened my mind up to different types of music by giving me great recommendations. He helped get me into jazz, and I was really fortunate that the high school that I went to had a strong music program and jazz ensemble. Jazz gave me a musical outlet in which I came into contact with musicians that were much better than me. It motivated me to work harder to become a better performer. That got me into Berklee College of Music, where I realized that I was never going to be as good as some of the other jazz performers there. Some of the musicians that come out of Berklee are unbelievable. I’d go down to the practice rooms, and I’d be trying to jam on what would be considered a basic jazz groove, and I would hear these jazz cats just wailing on these grooves. They really owned it. I thought,“Okay…that’s not going to be me, but luckily I have the tech side. I really enjoy that, so I think I think I’ll pursue that.”
Sherman: Was it difficult to transition from the performance side to the technical side?
Warwick: I was already working as a techie for high school plays and doing all of the live sound for all of the battleof-the-bands events and variety shows. Technical audio work was already very much a part of me. It was a pretty seamless transition. With audio engineering, things are laid out more clearly—if there’s a thing I do well, and I do it step by step—I can succeed. In audio engineering, there’s also a clear progressive career track from student, to intern, to runner, to assistant engineer, to engineer and beyond. I liked that about audio tech.
Sherman: What happened after you graduated from Berklee?
Warwick: I graduated in December of 2003. Right after college, I moved to Los Angeles. When I got there, I needed to find a job to pay the bills. I didn’t have a car at first, because it was being shipped out west, so I started to walk to all of the recording studios and hand my resume out. On the second or third day of handing out resumes, I felt kind of dejected. When you’re doing that kind of job search hustle, you get tired of all the rejection that comes from walking into all of the different studios and dealing with people who are so busy that they just grab your resume and slam the door in your face. When I walked into the Record Plant, it was the last studio on the circuit that I had planned for the day. I nonchalantly handed them my resume and said,“Hi, I’m Brian. I’m interested in whatever entry level job you have. Here you go.” I just wanted to get the hell out of there. The person who was working the front desk came running out after me and said, “Brian, wait. We actually need somebody. Can you start tomorrow?” I said, “Yes. I’ll be here tomorrow. What time do you need me to come in?” That’s how I got into the business.
Sherman: After you got to L.A. and got that first job at the Record Plant, were you there for a while? What path did your career take from there?
Warwick: I was there for a year and a half. My first gig was getting people food. That gig was awesome, because it was where I made all of my industry connections. I was quickly promoted to the front desk as the receptionist for the studio. It was a tough and brutal job, but I was on the phone with people like Jimmy lovine and transferring them over to Ron Fair, who was in charge of A&M records. I became part of that chain of communication. Moving on from there, I started becoming a “third” on recording sessions. The main engineer is the person sitting on the board, twisting all the knobs. The second engineer is the person helping facilitate the setup, getting coffee for people, and making sure just everything technically works. They’re ready to jump in as the main engineer if the engineer has to go to the bathroom. The third is someone who works on a really large session. If you’re recording 40 string players in a large studio, the third is out in the studio with the string players. I actually got to do a really amazing session as a third. One early version of John Legend’s “Ordinary People” had beautiful strings on it. If you listen to the final version of the song, there are no strings, so the strings from the session that I worked on got muted. That was one great session that I got to be a third on—that no one will ever hear other than me! My work as a third led to me becoming a second engineer. At Record Plant, when the staff engineers who were normally assisting would step up to be the main engineer, I would step up as well and help assist some sessions. I assisted a Kanye West session, I assisted a Christina Aguilera session, and I assisted a Nelly session—which was super fun. He was a really great guy to hang out with in the studio. That’s how I got my feet wet in this business. The people I worked for first had to know that they could trust me getting filet mignon for the artists’ dog. Then I could go in and make sure that Nelly was comfortable in the vocal booth and make sure all the tech was working in that room.
Sherman: Creating a comfortable atmosphere for the artist is so important in order to assure a quality recording process. Can you talk about some of the tricks you use to help make an artist feel welcome in the studio?
Warwick: I start pretty informally. There’s a lot of conversation that happens. I realized early in my career that artists don’t walk in the room and run into the booth and start working. There is usually a minute or two of conversation. Sometimes as simple as “Hey, how are you? What’s going on? How’s your family?” It’s almost like you’re walking into a friendly party. If it’s a good session and the vibe is right, it doesn’t feel like a work day at all. I do have a sense of urgency when I work, but that’s almost to show people that I care. I even warn my artists. I tell them, “Hey…sometimes I’m going to move really quickly. You might see me hit a button really fast or hard. That is not me being upset. That’s just me trying to do something as efficiently as possible.”
Sherman: You also did some post-production audio work for various film and TV projects. What was it like working with composers and conductors on film score sessions?
Warwick: It’s not as atmosphere and vibe-centric as a live studio session. You’re moving as fast as you humanly can. You could have 30 pieces of music that you have to record in two hours. It’s actually kind of fun. Everybody works as a machine pumping out this beautiful music and we have to respect everybody. If it’s a two hour session, we can’t hold on to the string players for an extra 30 minutes, because they have another gig that they have to go to. We’re respectful of everybody’s time and how quickly everything has to happen. I’ve helped record scores for a gentleman named Bear McCreary, who worked on the newer version of Battlestar Galactica. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to work on Battlestar, but I did work on Caprica, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and I did a ton of music for The Walking Dead, as well.
Sherman: Tell me about your experience working with Michael Bublé?
Warwick: Working for Michael was just awesome. He’s just this raw talent. He wasn’t formally trained. He was a wedding singer—that’s how he got discovered. The first interaction I had with Michael Bublé happened at the Record Plant. I had no idea how to pronounce his last name at the time. To be honest, I was more impressed by the presence of his producer, David Foster, who has 16 GRAMMY ®Awards! David discovered Michael when he was singing at the Canadian Prime Minister’s daughter’s wedding. I didn’t really start working with Michael again until 2009. I got the phone call to be an assistant engineer on one of his records that was being produced by Bob Rock. Bob produced Metallica’s Black Album, and produced Dr. Feelgood with Mötley Crüe. I was so excited to work with Bob Rock. The session actually went terribly. Some prior session had broken a bunch of equipment. Bob kept on pointing at different pieces of equipment saying, “I want to use this, I want to use that,” but nothing worked. I went outside with Bob, and I told him, “I am so sorry. We’ll paint the room.” “Paint the room” in studio speak means that you’re going to get them a new studio and a new assistant engineer. I was basically firing myself, but Bob was just so cool about it. He just said, “Hey, don’t worry, man. We’re coming in tomorrow. We’ll just start all over. It’s all good.” I instantly knew that there was just great energy coming from this producer. I thought, “Okay…I’m kind of clicking with them.” We had a connection because he had been there. He had done enough sessions to know that the problem wasn’t my fault. They had booked the session to finish up some piano work for “I Just Haven’t Met You Yet.” During that session, I met Michael’s music director, Alan Chang. A couple months went by and we were coming up on the holidays. David Foster wanted to get Michael on TV for a Christmas special. He knew that he was a “made-for-TV” performer. Alan contacted the studio to record the pre-records of the rhythm section and strings for the special. The special was going to be shot live at Rockefeller Center, but the only live mic was going to be Michael’s. After that session, he called me up a few weeks later and said, “I’m building a small project recording studio, can you can you help me out with wiring it and making it work?” That’s really where I locked in with that crew. A lot of ideas that were formed in that guest house studio ended up being part of future Bublé recordings.
Sherman: Tell me about your experience working with another legend, Quincy Jones.
Warwick: We were in Studio D at Westlake Recording Studios. I was brand new at Westlake, so I was actually the third on the session. They wanted an extra assistant, because it wasn’t only Quincy Jones— it was Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock! We were working on an album that was dedicated to Ennio Morricone, who does those classic spaghetti western film scores. Many of our listeners will know Ennio Morricone’s score work for The Hateful Eight. There were definitely moments that I felt like a deer in the headlights. Quincy is one of my musical icons. There are people who would have paid thousands of dollars to stand where I was, and I was getting paid to be there. It was just incredible.
Sherman: Different approaches to recording come with different advantages and different limitations. Would you agree that it’s important to know the artistic goals the musicians involved have for any project that you’re working on?
Warwick: I think going into it, knowing what your client’s needs are going to be— and knowing how they want the recording to sound—is very important. There are certain types of sounds that are going to have some limitations. For example, you can’t say, “I want the whole session to sound like Led Zeppelin, but for the mix I want you to make it sound like Megadeth.” Those are very different sounds. Communicating with your engineer on the sound that you’re going for—and being willing to say, “Hey, that’s not the sound I want”— is important. You really should be happy with the way the album is sounding from the very beginning of the process. You should be able to say, “Okay, yes. That’s what we were going for. This is the goal.”
Sherman: Taking all of your experiences into account, what should people expect if they’re interested in a career in the music industry?
Warwick: It’s definitely a “ham sandwiches” type of lifestyle in the beginning. It was tough at first. I was making minimum wage when I first got out to Los Angeles. I think for people that are going into the entertainment business, it’s important to know that you have to be an advocate for yourself. The way you do that is by observing and learning from others. It’s also important to develop confidence over time. For me, that confidence came from years of training and years of working with other people. I think having confidence allows you to see that you can continue to make progress even if it sometimes seems like it’s two steps forward and three steps back. It helps you continue to strive towards making that progress if you have a positive attitude.
Sherman: How did you make the transition into teaching here in Vermont at Northern Vermont University at Lyndon?
Warwick: When I was working in Los Angeles, I heard about an opportunity to teach at the Los Angeles Recording School. I think I left them a resume years before—and they gave me a call. I started teaching as an adjunct instructor there. I would teach night classes on mixing with recording consoles and outboard equipment. It was a really fun time. I was doing engineering sessions with Weird Al or with Michael Bublé’s team during the day—and then in the evenings, I would teach classes. Then the opportunity came up to work full time as a teacher there, which was great. I got to help develop their music production program. Then, I started looking into working for larger universities. I also wanted a different family life. I thought, “Okay…I’m working 16 hours a day. I need to change things.” I felt like if I stayed in Los Angeles that I would never
be able to escape it. Then, the opportunity came to work at Northern Vermont University at Lyndon. They put a national search out for a full-time audio production professor, and I applied. I got a phone call from them, and it was really exciting. One of my colleagues there is Professor Joe Gittleman, who is the bass player for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. If you’re a New Englander, you likely know who they are. They are a great band. They had a great hit in 1997 called “The Impression That I Get.” They were featured in a bunch of movies and had great success as a punk rock ska band in the late 1990s. They’re still performing today.
Sherman: What intrigued you about working at Northern Vermont University?
Warwick: What intrigued me about NVU - Lyndon was that Joe was an industry
professional. Working with another industry professional to design a curriculum and help design a program was important to me. My academic colleagues are great, but I feel that if you’re going to dive into the entertainment industry, you have to learn from somebody who’s done it. There’s that mentorship system and camaraderie that comes from years of experience, and I wanted to give my students that. I wanted to have another colleague that I could bounce ideas off of. It was fantastic. I think that’s what really drew me there. I was also drawn to Vermont because it’s definitely not Los Angeles. I do still have a 45-minute commute, but I go 40 miles now in that 45-minute commute to the university. That’s better than driving for 45 minutes and going three miles. I think I was I was just ready for a change, and that’s what brought me there.
Sherman: Based on your academic training as well as your professional training, how did you design the NVU - Lyndon program? What are its focuses, and how many students are in the program?
Warwick: We usually have about 90 students in the program depending on enrollment. Our entire program is based on the experiences that Joe and I had in the music industry. Our classes are project-based. The students are constantly making recordings. It starts with paint-by-numbers style projects (at first). They have this one annoying project I assign them that’s become kind of legendary where they learn the basics of the technology. It’s a project where they have a collection of audio and they have to put it in specific spots. There are only three tracks, so it’s very simple. but it gets them comfortable mixing those three tracks and watching the levels that they’re outputting for the final mix. After establishing some common terms and some common techniques, they’re creating something from nothing. They’re coming up with a creative piece of music that they can show somebody.
Sherman: You’re a GRAMMY® Award Winning engineer. Do you keep your GRAMMY in your office at Northern Vermont University?
Warwick: It is in my office at the school. It’s really weird having one of those. There’s some baggage that goes along with having that trophy. The reason why I keep it in my office at the school is to motivate my students. I was no different from them years ago. We all have the same passion. I want them to see that if they are proactive in their education and have some confidence in themselves, they can do whatever they want. It can be in entertainment. It can be in business. Whatever they want to do, they can do it. I want to show them that it’s totally possible, because my story is very similar to theirs.
Sherman: Earlier, you mentioned your music teacher in high school as a mentor. Can you tell me about any other mentors of yours—and how working with them helped you to accomplish your goals in the industry?
Warwick: Mitch Benoff was a great teacher and a great mentor of mine. He taught a vocal production specific class at Berklee, which taught me a valuable lesson about vocalists that I still apply in every single one of the sessions that I run and classes that I teach. When I’m teaching my students, I try to bring attention to how sensitive we have to be to the vocalist. I remember one time I played a punk rock gig when I had the stomach flu. Even though I was sick, I could still whack on my drums and get through the performance. Mitch taught me that with a vocalist, they’re living in their instrument. That instrument has emotions, that instrument could have had a fight with a significant other that day. Mitch really changed my perception of how to record vocals. I also used to do a lot of assisting for Glen Ballard, who produced Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill. He also wrote “Man in the Mirror” for Michael Jackson and did production work with Katy Perry and No Doubt. He taught me a lot about gratitude. I remember being in session with him and Annie Lennox. We were sitting there. Annie went to Glen and said “I want to do a couple vocal takes. Is that okay?” And Glen didn’t just say, “Yeah, okay.” He said, “Oh, that would be amazing! Thank you so much.” We were really happy to be there recording that amazing person. Glen Ballard was a huge mentor of mine. I always try to bring out the attitude, the feeling, and the relaxed atmosphere that Glen brought to every single session. Glen, Mitch, and my high school music teacher [Steve Trombley] are probably my top three mentors.
Sherman: Have you had any negative experiences in the music industry? If so, how do you move forward after those bad experiences?
Warwick: I think the thing what people need most in any business is a support crew, whether it be parents, siblings, friends—whoever! I’ve used all of the above to get through the difficult moments. Having those people take time out of their lives so I could vent, ask their opinion, or try to find a tactic to get through that difficult moment was very important to me. My wife, Ashley, is just amazing at that. When it was really crunch time and I was ready to give up, she said, “Nope, you can do this. You’re going to do this. Just try to slowly break it down.” It’s that same philosophy that we talked about in regards to the big recording sessions. You don’t just walk in and start. It’s a step-by-step process. I think it gets overwhelming when you try to take it on all at once. It’s the same thing when we have technical challenges in the studio. You have to take it one step at a time. You have to own it. At some point, you have to be the one to say “I’m the person who has to solve this problem.” I think that applies to other areas in life as well, that acceptance of the fact that it’s nobody else’s job but yours to figure out the solution to your challenge.
Sherman: How does it feel to live and teach in Vermont—and still work with all of these incredible artists? Do you really get to enjoy the best of both worlds?
Warwick: I’m fortunate to be able to continue working in this business. I really enjoy Vermont. It makes me appreciate art on a level that I don’t think I appreciated it at when I was in Los Angeles. When you’re in L.A., you’re driving down the street and there’s beautiful architecture and there’s billboards for albums, television shows, and movies and all these beautiful people walking around. You get to the point that you can become a little jaded about it. Now that I’m in Vermont, I can go to a show in Burlington and feel awestruck again by an artist and really live in that moment. In Los Angeles, there was too much to think about. I can really stay in the moment here in Vermont. Living in Vermont allows me to clear my head and to focus on the art.
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