Vance Powell Interview - Part 1:
With Vance Powell about
Adrian Lucas Witaszczyk: Hi Vance! I'm very happy to see you. It's a real pleasure to talk to you.
Vance Powell: Pleasure to see you too Adrian! Thank you for inviting me here!
I know that questions like that aren't liked but the first one can't be different... Can you say a few words about your beginnings as a mix engineer? How did it start? What made you put on these shoes?
Well, first thing I started doing was doing live sound, you know, mixing bands in clubs and bars. And then clubs and bars turns into theaters and theaters turned into arenas and arenas turned into stadiums. I was a live sound, a front of house mixer for 20 years. And during that time I was also doing studio work on the side. So, basicly from the beginning, the very first thing I was doing really was mixing because in live sound, that's what you do. Your job is to mix the band. You have to do the work, so, it just kinda started with that. And then, sometime in the late nineties, I'd made quite a few little small records and in about 1999, 2000, somewhere in there, I was asked to make a record with the band that I was touring with, called Jars Clay. And we ended up making a record, came out in 2001. And that record was kind of my first Grammy Award, and then I've just been mixing and making records pretty much since. So, about 2000, 2001, something like that as a full time thing. That's what I've been doing.
Do you think it's harder to start today than it was when you started?
No, it's easier. It's easier because everybody has a computer, everybody has Pro Tools, everybody has a mixer and a huge arsenal of plugins and processing toys and things like that. They can just carry around with them. You know, you can do a record on an iPad or a phone these days. So, now it's actually easier. Does that mean it's better? No. And does that mean that people are better at it? Definitely not. I think the old school way of coming up to studios and learning from somebody who was doing the job that you wanted, is really a much better way to make records then the way that people are doing it now, if you know what I mean.
Yeah! of course I know what you mean! And I must say, you're so on point about this Vance!
Tell me something about your first professional mix.... What mistakes did you make? What was your biggest problem?
Oh, well, my first professional mix, and mistakes that I make, wow, I don't know. That was a really, really long time ago. But... the mistakes I made were just, you know, believing that I had it right from the get go. I don't want to say overconfidence, but,
I was just confident in what I was doing. The reality was, is that my first mix was pretty good. Is it as good as I do today?
No, because I've had too many years of learning and all. You know, I probably overcompressed the 2 bus, but actually, it still sounded pretty great, as far as I remember.
We live in times when practically everyone has a home studio. How do you look at this revolution?
It's a mixed bag to me. I love the fact that the music is becoming more democratic. In other words, more people have the ability to make music in their hands and put it out. The problem with that is, that just because people can make music doesn't always mean they should. That means also, that now there's a lot of... I would venture to say almost bad music out there.
It's hard to find a really good sounding music, as it used to be, So, for better for worse. You know, in the old days. people had to put up money to make music, to build a studio, and they had to put up money to put a band in this studio.
It was very expensive to make records. You see, I have a Studer tape machine back here behind me that was $50,000 and the console that I am sitting on was 309,000 American dollars in 1986. That's about one point $2 million now.
That means that they had to have clients who pay money, and now everybody gets their music for free on Spotify or whatever, however they get it. People don't want to pay for it. So, there's the good and the bad. The good thing is, that a lot of music being made that we would never get to hear, because it's too avant garde, too different or too off the beaten path.
And then there's a lot of bands, that's too avant garde, too different and no one wants to listen to. So, you know, it's a double edged sword.
Yes. And you know, everybody today believes that all this things can be replaced by plugins...
Yeah, you're right Adrian, but, plugins won't replace the knowledge. I can definitely tell you that!
What will all this revolution lead to? Bands don't earn money on records, recording studios being closed....
Yeah, it lead to exactly all those things you mentioned. Banks won't lend money and studios are going to close. There's no market. So, it's almost like it's going to end up being a niche market. Like you know, someone who does horseshoes, black smithing, used to be this thing because people needed things made out of metal to use in their thing. Now people just go to the store. Now there's people who make core shoes and there's still people who make things by hand. But it's a niche market. And I think that music studios will always be around because there's always people in record labels or there's always people who have a dream to make records, but they don't know how to do it. So I think that studios will still be around, but I know tons of people, especially in Europe and England who are just making their records on their laptop and Ableton. I took a song, last night from a guy from Nigeria and they bought a beat, and then they bought a music band to go with that beat online, and then they just made a song out of it. They just did the whole thing, in Garage Band, you know? And I mean that somebody had to create that music. Somebody had to do it. it's an interesting world...
How did you meet Jack White and what did you find in White Stripes? What delighted you the most in their music?
Well, I knew The White Stripes, obviously long before I met Jack, I liked It was just kind of unbridled passion. You know, his sense of the blues and rock and roll in a totally new sort of way. And he's a monster guitar player! I was totally impressed! How'd I meet him? Well, I met him because I gave a tour of Blackbird studios where I was working in about 2005, something like that. I give a tour to him and Patrick Keeler and The Raconteurs. in 2005, 2006, they'd just finished their first record and Jack had just moved to Nashville and I gave him a tour kind of late at night, walked him around, showed him the place, and then, they did a key thump there at Blackbird. I kind of saw him off and on, every few days and struck up a few conversations with him and then it just kind of went from there.
Did Jack ever tell you what convinced him the most about you? What made you get the job?
I think I got the job because I was fast. Jack doesn't like to wait around on things. He doesn't like to pause. He doesn't like to wait on people. He doesn't like people to tell him no, you know, things like, no, I can't do that.I never did that. I just figured out how to do whatever it was he wanted to do no matter how harebrained, how crazy it was.
How would you describe Jack in the studio? What's the most important thing, the factor that determines his sound?
Well, Jack is incredibly creative, he's one of the most talented people musically I've ever, if not maybe the most talented musician I've ever been around. He always has a plan. He's always thinking ahead. And I think that's really cool.
He has vision for what's going on. The key to Jack is everything in his hands. It doesn't matter what guitar he uses.
Doesn't matter what amp he uses, what cable, what piano he's playing, what organ he's playing, what drums he plays.
It always sounds like him. His brain, his heart, his hands. That's just that creative thing that is inside him. He's a really solid, massive talent. And he's a nice guy. A very, very nice guy.
When I think about Jack White, I strongly associate him with the sound of an old Neve. Did you manage to change the scheme and use your SSL during the mixes of the White Stripes albums or recent solo album of Jack?
Well no, the only record that's been mixed of his on the SSL here is the new Recounters. The help me stranger was mixed on the SSL. The last Rackontours record was mixed on an API, is recorded on an API with a Neve sidecar by Joe Ceccarelli. And then I mixed it on the API. Blender bus and last rhetto and bolt, the couple dead weather records. Those were all done at Jacks on his Neve console.
So, it looks like I was right about that Neve factor.
Together with Joe Chicarelli and Jack White you were awarded for the album Consolers Of The Lonely. In your opinion, what's decided about this award? What is the recipe for the sound point of view for an album that is so successful?
I think the people really liked how great a rock and roll record it was, in a time when that wasn't kind of really happening.
You know, that record is kind of a no holds barred record. It was like this... Jack did it and Joe recorded it on two 16 track two inch machines. It's analog all the way through. We mixed analog, to the one inch machine. Couple songs we mixed through a J37 , and record as an insert, as a mix insert, just to get the sound of quarter inch tape kind of compressing. Many shades of black I think is the one of the tunes that we did that with, and hold up I think. Apart from that, I think, it's just a really great sounding record. I mean, it was all luck for me because, I got to mix this incredible record at Blackbird incredible studio.
It was my home at the time and so I knew it really well. And we mixed the whole record in about eight days.
Wow, that's really fast work! You know, Jack, his songs,
Let's stop by the name Sputnik Sound. It's your place on earth. Place where you can be found on daily basis.
It sounds great! Original and unusual. Where such an idea comes from? Tell me something about the genesis of that name?
Oh, it's a funny little story actualy, well, the name started out because the original studio that my partner Mitch and I were working together and was in the basement... You know what Adrian, I'll tell you about it from the beginning....
The guitar player from the band Jars Of Clay. He built a studio in his basement. And at the time he was really fascinated with like bad, 50 Sci-fi movies and that whole sort of like, you know, Godzilla movies and things like that. And so, he fooled around with a couple of names and he thought he liked the way Sputnik sound, sounds. He Drew out a little drawing, that I still have around here somewhere. Oh there it is, you see, He drove this old drawing and it said Sputnik, right? It's funny. He drew it out and had some stickers made, and he stuck one on the window of the studio and that just kinda stuck.
And then, we made a discharge of Clay record that I was talking about earlier at the studio in his basement for about 11 months. It's a long time. And after that, I kind of went back to my old gig on the road and my partner Mitch Dane, who was a producer engineer, had moved all his stuff to the studio. So he started working down there and that lasted about six or eight months before basically Steve's now ex wife kicked us out. And so Mitch moved to Nashville with all the gear to the old house of blues, which is down the street here. And Steve was like, well, I can't have a studio if I don't have any gears, so you might as well take the name too. And so, Mitch started basically sort of re invented at the corporation and all that. And then,
I sort of moved in with Mitch in 2006 and we've been together as a studio partners ever since, so yeah. A long time now.
Wow, it's a great story Vance! Thank you for sharing it!
You have a lot of analog equipment, but as far as I know you don't approach it very personally. You see your hardware only as a tool...
Yeah, sure. I have certain things, I mean, there's certain things I can't do a mix without. But, I don't really... You know, I've mixed, In The Box a lot, but what I use In The Box, usually, it's almost all UAD pretty much a UAD and Soundtoys those two things I can't live without in any mix, to be honest with you, cause I use my UADs in the computer here, as they're meant to be used and not a lot of patches on my desk. So, there are some things that I can't do without. I have a pair of Fulltone Tube Tape Echoes. Those Tube Tape Echoes are really stellar. And I can't really do without them. I mean, they have gone back to Fulltone because I've worn the heads out on them. I'm just getting my second one back right now. So, we have full all new heads and fully rebuilt. So I mean, I think I've bought these things now three or four times because I just keep sending them back to get them repaired and have a spare one. So, as you see, it's hard for me to do records without those units.
I'll take this opportunity to show you my studio, if you want?
Of course I want to! I was just about to ask you to do that! To be honest, that's what I was about to ask you to do...
Sure, be my guest, just let me turn the lights on here... This is my main rack... SSL patchbay, Fulltone Tube Tape Echos. Binson Echorec... all kinds of stuff... Up here on the top, old Hoc Tape Echoes... Aside from that, some broken digital reverbs, I'm missing a PCM 42 here. It's broken. These are all tube mic pre's, two Neve mic pre's, Neve 33609 Compressor... Some really old gear here...
I see the beautiful Chandler RS 124 Compressor as well!
Yup. I love this stuff. It's great. And then, the Distressors EMI, a couple 1176 which I truly love... this is my pedal loops... Velcro here stuck to the plasma rack. That's really cool. Sans amp, and then these are the rest of the mic pre's. I don't have any mic pre's in my console, So, I have four 500 racks at the moment, but I actually have five and three lunchboxes...
And that's the SSL. As i said, without the pre amps...
Yeah, I heard your console doesn't have microphone preamps.
As you can see, it's true. No, it doesn't. So, that's kind of a little tour around here. And then back behind me here, there's a big cabinet and it's a big a bunch of copy holes, full of tape and memorabilia and things like that. It's a diffuser.
Amazing thank you!,Impressive, your working space is very impressive! Very, very beautiful place...
I have a question about a, I don't plan to ask this questions about it. If you're telling me about the advantageous about the pros of UAE, eh, in conjunction with eh waves.
Well, I only have one Waves bundle, I have the Abbey Road bundle. I use also an L2, you know, for sending out elevated level mixes for people for their car. So, I don't have a lot of Waves really. To me the UAD sound like unlike everything else. The UAD is the only 1176, that sounds like my hardware 1176 , and the UAD is the only 33609 that sounds like mine. The only LA2A that really sounds like an LA2A...
Yes, and there is the UAD 1073, which is also great in my opinion...
Yeah the Neve 1073! Yes! I actually use the old one. I use the legacy one a lot. But, I use the new one a lot too. It's, pretty intensive, processor intensive, so I tend to just use it sparingly, but the legacy ones are fantastic. They do exactly what I want them to do. You know, I go to a hundred, I turned to low, end up a little bit and kick sounds great. I go to 3.2 K, turn it up a little bit and guitars come out a little bit, a little bit of top end, like a little bit, just like my 1073. And the vocal clears up, they do exactly what I want them to do.
And they start to saturate in a similar way to the hardware...
Oh yeah! As I said, Now I use the new one, the current, the regular one. I throw it over all the time. You know, 35 DB, put the fader way down and just it's like the front end of a real Neve. That's a real common thing that I do with Jack White a lot.
if you were to point out two devices without which you wouldn't be yourself...
Oh, API 2500 Stereo Bus Compressor and Fulltone Tube Tape Echo. I can pretty much mix any record on any desk, anywhere at any time with those two things! With those units, I Can get what I want anytime!
Going back to SSL... Why did you choose this brand for your main console?