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Interview - Dec 9, 2003

"Teaching vocals is more than just telling people what to do; you have to motivate them as well."

picture Based in Orlando, Florida, Gerry Williams is a vocal coach, remixer, songwriter and producer who has coached Mandy Moore and LFO and remixed Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lopez, Céline Dion and Thalía. Here he tells us about important aspects of vocal coaching and remixing.

How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a musician, songwriter, producer, remixer and vocal coach?

Because my parents were vocalists, I was surrounded by music all through my childhood and I learnt how to read music in middle school under the direction of Lynn Putnam, who has been a major influence. During high school, I enrolled in the WHHS music programme in Winter Haven, Florida. I auditioned and went on to make the All Star marching band and the All State concert band four years in a row. I also marched in DCI (Drum Corp. International) for three years, and toured with orchestras. I performed in church choirs, talent shows and local events, where I ran into managers and songwriters.

I was fourteen when I first started my vocal training. I was a member of a barbershop choir in Tampa and the late Joseph Derosa was my vocal coach at the time. They called him the King of Barbershop and he taught me a lot about jazz and vocal expression. Soon after, I began to train mass choirs for churches and groups and I also did individual sessions with singers. I contributed my talents and skills to the community, the colleges, the high and middle schools.

While in college, I organised a choir of 100 members called the Spirit Lifters, for whom I arranged all the songs and vocals. I also assisted band directors from various high schools in Florida from 1990-1996; I was the drum line instructor and music arranger for Winter Haven High School, where I saw my students win the finals three years in a row. To know I was a part of that makes me really proud: I will always remember working with those kids because they had passion, and they worked hard as musicians for the love of music.

During that time, I moved to New York City, where I worked with vocal students and trained urban artists for labels like Sony, Arista and Universal. I got into that because I did staging at the Manhattan Center, where every night there would be a performance by a national artist or some big act, and I made many contacts there. I also worked with a producer in the Bronx; the company was called Blazemasters and we did a number of hip-hop productions for groups in the Bronx area.

Then I moved to Orlando to build up my own production company and I also began to do a lot of underground performing, acid jazz and what we called new soul, which later became neo-soul. In Orlando I continued to do vocal coaching and I worked with the Transcontinental Records groups C-Note, who were signed to Sony, and Innosense, and I also produced and did vocal arrangements for many other Transcontinental artists. Solid Harmonie, who were signed to Jive, were the first European group I worked with.

As a result of all this, my name got around a bit and I was contacted by Mandy Moore’s mother (click on artist or track names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.), Stacey Moore, who wanted me to work with Mandy, who was about thirteen at the time. I did different types of vocal training with Mandy and helped arrange the vocals on some of the songs on her first album. Right after Mandy, I worked with LFO. I flew to New York to help with their audition for Clive Davis at Arista. They did a pretty good job and got the deal, and I went into the studio with them to do the vocal arrangements.

I also started to write songs and arrange and produce music for commercials, radio, TV and film. C-Note performed "So Often", a song that I wrote and produced for the film Long Shot, which also features a cameo performance by *NSync, and featured Britney Spears’s debut as an actress.

The remixing came about through a friend of mine, Tracey Chisley a.k.a. Preacher, who is an A&R for Promo Only. He asked me if I wanted to get into commercial remixing, to which I replied that I had an open mind. The first project I worked on was a remix of Justin Timberlake’s “Like I Love You”, which didn’t make the cut, but shortly afterwards I was issued other songs to remix: J-Lo’s “Jenny From The Block”, Céline Dion’s “I Drove All Night”, Amanda Perez’s “Angel”, Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” and “Señorita”, and recently Thalía’s “Baby, I’m In Love”, which all made the cut.

What is GW-1 Music and in what respects does it differ from GW-1 Productions?

GW-1 Music is the music publisher of my songs. We are in the process of negotiating several co-publishing deals with a larger music publishing company, which will help with the administration of the songs. It will also allow GW-1 Music to offer co-publishing deals to other songwriters. GW-1 Productions is my production company. My fiancé Yolanda Guillen is VP of GW-1 Productions and she handles all of the promotion, networking, etc. We focus on the production of songs and sound recordings for use in films and soundtrack albums, and we work in various styles: r&b, pop, hip-hop, rock, Latin, world, countrybasically all genres of music.

I’m very open-minded and definitely into making music that brings different cultures together. GW-1 Productions does not handle management and artist development, but we teach artists how to communicate with the producer and the engineer, how to use the mic and how to understand studio language. We also teach students how to be real musicians.

Most of the kids I’ve worked with don’t play the piano or the guitar. As a rule, if you want to write songs, it certainly helps if you know how to play at least one music instrument that is capable of creating melodies. I know of a few notable exceptions to this rule, such as Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler in the early days of Atlantic Records, but such exceptions prove the rule.

What is the 2004 GW-1 Vocal Performance Workshop and Talent Search?

The event will teach artists different aspects of vocals and harmony and how to record a session in a studio. We’ll have live, mock studio-recording sessions on stage. A professional ear, nose and throat doctor will teach the importance of vocal health. Recording industry professionals will be in attendance and artists will get the chance to perform in front of A&R reps. It’s an eight-hour long workshop with a vocal session at the beginning and a talent search at the end.

We also have a one-hour dance segment, during which choreographer Tywan Jones of Making The Band will talk about performing on stage, stage presence, sound checks and things like that. Brenda Crenshaw of the Crenshaw School of Performing Arts in Orlando, where Justin Timberlake, Mandy Moore and others furthered their schooling, will talk about private instruction. I think it’s great to bring tutoring to the forefront for those who want to focus on a music career full-time.

Reinforcing kids’ education is an important part of becoming successful in life. An entertainment attorney will offer advice on the business and the laws applicable to it, and an ASCAP representative will be there to explain the function of performing rights societies. It’s scheduled for 29 February 2004 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

What do artists generally need to work on in terms of vocal technique?

How to gain full control of their voice. Most artists practise in the studio and then they go on stage, but studio training is different than stage training. Most artists should also learn stage performance techniques, such as mic placement, and how to sing and breathe while performing.

In the studio, it’s all about producing a sound and adding different expressions; expressions that artists often don’t pay attention to, like soft grawls, pause notes and other expressions that you can add to the voice in the studio.

I help build artists’ confidence and help them to understand the language between the producer and the engineer. I also motivate them and help them to set goals and, once they reach them, to set new ones.

How much is talent and how much is practice?

In general, talent is only fifty percent; the rest of it is proper diet, adequate rest and sleep, and the desire and discipline to practise at least three to four hours a day. You have to stay focused on your goals. Anyone can learn to sing, but there are different levels of singing. When you focus a talented person on his or her talent and style, and really inspire motivation and confidence, that person is very likely to go far beyond a basic level.

Do all singers benefit from vocal coaching?

Singers benefit from vocal coaching because it’s like anything else: if you’re into sports you have to exercise, and so too you have to exercise your voice. You can lose your voice; you can forget something that you knew how to do two years ago. There’s always more you can learn about music and ten different ways of learning it.

How you coach them depends on the type of voice and the background they have. If I get a classical artist with a background in opera, I won’t want to take him or her away from that: I would rather help that person create a personal style within that genre. If you’re singing country music, you’re using a technique that would be different than if you were singing opera, or r&b, or gospel.

Every artist should get proper training from the right people. If you’re going to sing Broadway-show music, you should get a coach to teach you that; and if you want to get into pop, r&b or hip-hop for example, you should use coaches familiar with those styles. Stick with what works for you. A vocal coach should never try to change the artist's voice because that’s what that artist has which separates that artist from the rest.

How much practice with a vocal coach is usually needed to improve the vocals of a typical new artist?

With LFO, I would work with them five days a week, one to two hours a day. That was enough to really hone the areas they needed to sharpen. Teaching vocals is more than just telling people what to do; you have to motivate them as well. A good teacher is someone who lifts the spirit of the artist. Sometimes artists come in with doubts on their minds and I have to help them focus, and make sure that I'm focused before I begin training. I try to get myself in the right frame of mind before the artists come in, so that the vibe is right.

As far as lifestyle is concerned, what is beneficial to the voice and what can damage it?

Exercising the voice, eating and drinking fruit juices and water, lots of water, are all good for the voice. Fruit like watermelon help prevent a dry throat; and soup is great, especially after or before singing, as is green tea with a touch of honey. Smoking cigarettes and drinking heavily, or even working in a smoky atmosphere is obviously bad for the voice, as are screaming and high-pitched laughter, although many people aren’t aware of this.

How much might a singer pay for a lesson with you?

Lessons with me start at one hundred dollars an hour, which is an average industry rate. That’s for basic training, and it goes up from there: it would be more for a group, for example.

What are the most important pieces of equipment in your studio?

The Manley Reference Gold Microphone, as I think that’s probably the best microphone there is. Every studio should have a Digidesign Pro Tools System. I like using the Akai MPC2000 for sampling live sounds. I also use different keyboards so I can spread sounds around. I like using the Korg Triton, Trinity and Karma, and the Roland XV 5080, which has great sounds. I still have an old Roland Juno-1. I use PMC speakers, which you can turn down and still get a nice clean sound no matter how low or loud you play. Then there’s my drum kit, vibraphone and Yamaha Clavinova keyboard. Being a musician helps you appreciate those moments when you are at one with your instrument. We are also planning on getting surround-sound mixing, and producing SACD, DVD- and DVD, which may require the relocation of the studio in 2004.

What styles of music do you work with?

I’m very open-minded and my whole focus is bringing different cultures together.
I’ve of course done hip-hop, r&b, pop, and dance mixes; but I’ve also done classical, blues, world, Latin, Asian, jungle, folk, country, rock, and heavy metal.
I don’t turn anything down unless it’s Satanic!

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working with a new female artist called Asia, who is Asian-American and thirteen years old. She’s very talented, a strong vocalist with a promising future. She’s also an actress who has been offered work by Disney, Nickelodeon and Universal. I’m developing a choir with several of my vocal students to perform live at the First Annual Global Peace Film Festival in Orlando. The Festival will present films and videos from around the world on peace issues.

I’ve also just completed a co-production deal of three songs for an artist named Fenggi, who is signed to Rock Records/Universal in Taiwan. The Céline Dion remix was playing in a club in Taiwan and I guess they liked it, because they decided to contact me to co-produce Fenggi’s music. I am also looking forward to starting work with Evelyn McGee Stone, former lead vocalist of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the best female jazz band of all time.

I used to scout artists and develop them, but we’re not focusing on that at the moment. Basically, we advise artists and guide them in the right direction and that’s as far as we go—we’re strictly production.

Do you accept unsolicited material from artists?

Yes. I try to listen to everything that comes in. You never know when you will find a diamond in the rough.

Should artists focus on finding a producer before finding a record deal?

Artists should focus on building a network and writing or finding the music that they feel is right for them in order to get a record deal. Having said that, I do believe that an artist should first find a producer, who would produce a nice professional demo to take to record labels and music conferences.

How might a producer typically get into the remixing game?

It just comes down to promoting yourself. The easiest way to get into remixing is to connect yourself with the hottest DJs because DJs usually have the latest stuff. First you have to get into the format of remixes and see how they work, how they are built. It’s very different from building a regular song. Most remixes are probably seven to eight minutes long.

What is Promo Only?

Promo Only distributes remixes of commercial music to DJs, radio, and clubs throughout the world. Record labels go to them to find producers to remix songs for the underground scene. It helps the artist and labels gain more record sales. The remixes have the potential to go retail depending on the feedback they receive from the radio, clubs and DJs. They have offices in Orlando, Los Angeles, New York, Calgary, and London. They also have music video compilations.

How did you get the high-profile remixes you’ve done?

Promo Only via Tracey Chisley presented them to me. Record labels ask Promo Only to do remixes of certain songs and Promo Only contact the remixers they have or are in contact with. The J-Lo and Céline Dion remixes came from Sony, the Justin Timberlake remixes from Jive, and I landed all of them through Promo Only. We’re not under Promo Only, we’re just affiliated with them, but they have provided great opportunities for me to get into commercial remixing.

Can your remixes be found in stores?

None of my remixes have gone to retail yet, but certain DJs and remixers, like for example Hex Hector’s remixes go to retail. My remixes have been pressed on vinyl and sent to DJs to be played in the clubs and on radio. Also, the remix I did for Céline Dion is an audience pleaser in her Las Vegas show.

What is the purpose of your remixes?

Our remixes of mainstream music target clubs as well as radio. Clients will usually ask for two versions, a club mix and a radio edit. As a remixer, you always have to push what you make for radio and hope they’ll like it. I’ve done hip-hop remixes, like the ones I did for Amanda Perez and Thalía, so it’s not only dance music that I do, just club-oriented. The trick is to be inventive and original while not venturing too far from the mainstream; if you want to make retail, your music has to be commercial, and not too far removed from the public taste.

What is the market rate for a remix?

Some people start out at fifteen hundred to three thousand dollars if it’s for promotional use only and not for retail. If your songs go to retail then you’re talking five to twelve thousand per song. The more remixes you do, and the more the industry knows you, the more your price goes up.

Some of the top remixers get royalties from the songs that are on an album, and they are also given money up front. On the whole, however, if you’re getting five thousand for a remix you’re doing well, even if you don’t get any royalties. If the remix is put on the album, the price goes up and you can negotiate, depending on the label and the producer, or get a flat fee.

Are remixes often done on spec and the remixer then gets paid when the remix is taken?

Remixes are often done on spec and if they take your remix you might not even get paid for it when you’re first starting out. That’s why you have to establish yourself.

Is remixing a good way for an aspiring producer to get into the business?

Absolutely, it’s a great way to get into the business; it really helped me, and it’s fun. If you really love music and you want to get noticed. Remixing is one of the ways to go about it. You’ve just got to keep in mind that there’s a long road ahead. If you prove that you can really make hip-hop or dance tracks commercial for radio, then they’ll look for you in the future. It takes a while to get started though and to get to the level at which the labels come directly to you. It takes some people a hundred remixes, but through the hard work I put in the past, it only took me six remixes to get those calls coming back. I got a lot of calls from the Céline, J-Lo and Justin Remixes.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

There are many great moments that I will never forget. But I have to say that the latest was doing the remix for Céline Dion, because I’m very fond of her. As a vocal coach and a vocal arranger, I love Céline’s voice and it was an honour to work for her.

What would you change about the music industry?

I would urge the music industry to use a different strategy to stop the drain on profits caused by music downloading. To sue your customer when there are other alternatives is not the best idea for any business. Since downloaded files are compressed, they do not sound nearly as good as the new cutting-edge formats SACD and DVD-A. The music industry should be concentrating more of its considerable resources on the marketing of these new formats. Audiences are already hooked on the surround-sound systems in movie theatres. Consequently, DVD-based home movie theatre systems are selling in large numbers.

Why the music industry is not doing more to hitch itself to this winner is a mystery to me. My team has many ideas in this area, and we are going to be seeking corporate sponsorships to put them into practice. I would focus on that and also on bringing different cultures together and creating authentic cross-cultural music with different intertwining grooves. I would also bring underground hip-hop back to the forefront.

What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?

I see GW-1 Productions doing big shows across the world, helping the poor and bringing cultures together, throwing big concerts and doing a lot of charity work, and mentoring kids and really becoming involved in the community. I love what I do, and I hope to have the world experiencing my music. I consider myself to be very humble, and although winning a Grammy one day would be great, to be given the chance to bring cultures together through music is priceless.

Interviewed by Jean-François Méan

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