Vance Powell: Transitioning From Live Sound To The Studio, Minimalist Recording Techniques, Working With Chris Stapleton + Jack White

Having begun his Audio career in live sound, engineer and producer Vance Powell transitioned to the studio and now operates his own recording studio, Sputnik Sound in Nashville. He has worked with Jack White, Chris Stapleton, Phish, Wolfmother, and Martina McBride. Chris Dunnett recently sat down with Vance to discuss his minimalist approach, some of his unique recording techniques, the hazards of live sound, and working for pizza and beer.

Chris: You got your start doing front of house and live engineering. How was transitioning from the live environment to the studio environment?

Vance: It was strangely kinda the same in a way. I never approached it any different until way later when I had to unlearn some bad habits. It taught me to be really fast and efficient. I get sounds really fast and efficiently. That’s been good especially with all the work I’ve done with Jack White. He’s not impatient he just doesn’t want to spend a lot of time on anything. He wants things to move because that’s where he feels he gets his excitement.

Chris: Do you spend a good deal of time on pre-production?

Vance: I’m not a huge pre-production person because every time I want to do pre-production I go “oh, let’s record that” and then we’re just kind of in the record…you know what I mean? I think for me the pre-production part of it is making sure we have the songs, making sure we have the arrangements right, making sure the band is pretty well rehearsed with the arrangement we ended on… and then we’ll change it or maybe throw curve balls. That’s kinda my thing. I’m not a huge “do a week of pre-production then we’re gonna go in and record the record. That’s not exactly my way of doing things. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong it just hasn’t really been my way of doing it.

Chris: So working with someone like Jack White, he’s got so many projects, does he come in ahead of time with what he has in mind or is he still experimental when you start working on a project?

Vance: I think it’s pretty experimental. I mean there’s definitely things he wants but he’s a guy who follows the things that guide him and that is, wherever we’re going, he’s going to make a left turn and try to yank it off the track. He’s always throwing curve balls.

Chris: How does that compare to other artists you work with say Chris Stapleton?

Vance: I wanna say his vision is pretty much finished when he and the band play it. There’s a “little” bit of outside stuff that changes like maybe a third chorus is half as long. You know just that stuff that happens in making records but it’s pretty much kinda there.

Chris: You have a very minimalist approach to mic’ing and recording Drums, can you tell me a little about that?

Vance: I don’t like to use a ton of mics. I’ve done records with as few as 4 mics. I did a couple of Jack White’s albums with 5 because we really just didn’t have the channels on the console left. But normally I’ll do a couple of kick drum mics, a couple of snare drum mics, a rack tom, a floor tom, maybe 2 mics on the floor tom, and then, either an X-Y coincidental pair of ribbon overhead or a mono overhead. If I do the mono overhead then I won’t do a floor tom mic. I’ll do sort of a half Glyn Johns thing and that’s kinda the floor tom mic. I’ve done that a lot.

Chris: Do you use room mics too?

Vance: Yeah, usually 1, sometimes 2. Sometimes a couple omnis, just depends. Overhead, room mics, and the floor tom mic I change all the time everything else is always the same.

Chris: Since you’re just using 1 room mic are you doing any special panning with the rest of the drums?

Vance: Let’s say you put on a pair of headphones or let’s say you’re listening to a record on a stereo system and you believe that stereo to be a stage, point at the drums. They’re right in front of you. They’re not over there (points to far side of the stage). So that’s why the coincident stereo pair works for me. The cymbals feel like a part of the kit, in the middle of the kit. Even though they’re stereo but they feel like there’s a center. Your kick and snare is in the center, your rack is a little off to one side. Floor tom’s off to the other side. Hi hat’s on the other side. I’m not a drum perspective guy, I’m audience perspective always. Drummer’s perspective never. A little bit of width on the cymbals to maybe get them out of the vocal but that coincident stereo pair does a really good job of keeping them together and apart.

Chris: What about mic’ing guitars, any tricks you like to do?

Vance: My guitar thing is really super simple. I like to use a really great condenser like a U-67 and/or a great ribbon like a BK-5A that’s an RCA, a Royer 122 is pretty great. I have a U-87 I really like…if you kinda pad it it’s pretty great. Paluso makes a 67 copy that’s really great. I’ll do that and a 57 and that’s my guitar thing. Maybe into a pair of Neve’s, no EQ, straight to tape.

Chris: Both of them up against the speaker cone?

Vance: Right on the cone, on the edge of the cone. Not in the middle, right on the edge. Right together.

Chris: Do you use any Guitar amp simulators?

Vance: Only when I’m mixing. I wouldn’t use one recording wise, but I use them in mixing all the time. They make great snare drum re-amps. The UA Fender Twin, the 59 Twin, man that thing is AWESOME on bass, it’s great on vocals. It’s great on B3.

Chris: Using an amp simulator for vocals, that’s interesting?

Vance: Oh yeah, all the time!

Chris: On Bass, do you usually mic a cab? Do you run a DI?

Vance: I do a DI and I mic a cab and we figure out ahead of time, I’ve got a little clicker that sends out a Sawtooth wave and we run that through and I figure out how much delay’s in between them. Then I put a little sticky on my monitor and later when we go back and slide the amp, because the amp’s always late, to the DI. My DI is always dry. It’s Bass, DI, Tuner, Pedals, Amp. So whatever pedals he has it’s after the Bass DI. Then I’ll do a little compression on the bass and just record the amp. Usually use a Paluso 47 or a Chandler Red mic and we figure out the time delay. But every now and then I’ll just use the DI and then I’ll use the UA Ampeg SVT sim. Or, honestly sometimes I use that little Fender (referring to the UA plug in mentioned above) to get it good and nasty, sort of dirty sound.

Chris: Anything interesting you do when you’re tracking vocals?

Vance: There’s a couple of things I do that are a little outside the box so to speak. If I’m doing a Rock band or something where I want the vocal to have some dirt or some grit I’ll bring the vocal mic into my patch bay and then I’ll mult it. One will go to the preamp/compressor and that goes to input 24 on my Pro Tools rig. Then I’ll go through a Sans Amp or a pedal chain to get the sound I want and then that will go into 23 of Pro Tools and then I’ll record the vocal as a stereo track with both tracks in mono up the center. Then I’ll balance those two on my desk to get “the sound”. What’s great is they’re always in phase because it’s just a mult, it’s analog. But you make sure it’s in phase and in time. When you edit the track the stereo track always stays together. If for some reason you need to tune it, it’s easy, you tune it based on the right side of the track and the left side follows even with all the distortion or whatever you put on it. Then when you get to mic at the end you can split ‘em apart and do a dual-mono and have different levels if you want. So they stay together through the whole track. I’ll do that ALL the time.

I recorded a Stray Cats record a couple years ago and we recorded Brian’s vocal in stereo, but it wasn’t stereo it was this deal. One side was his vocal and the other side was a tape slap running all the time. 15 ips 1/4 inch one side of a Studer B-67 and the whole time I recorded the record I had that slap going. If we did any comping vocals I could just comp and the slap would move with it.

Chris: I know you have a lot of analog gear at Sputnik, do you prefer to try to stay analog as much as possible?

Vance: Yea, I mix on my console and I come out, I have a Burl Big Mothership 24 x 32, I bring that back into my desk and then I use every input the desk has so it’s 96 inputs total. I use every input for something.

Chris: Any favorite Plug ins you like when you’re mixing?

Vance: I’m a big UA fan! The 1176, the 1073, the 1073 Legacy. I love all the Valhalla plug ins. I love all the SoundToys. That’s pretty much all I use to be honest with you.

Chris: Any advice you have for young wanna-be producers? Do you recommend going into live sound first? Any advice you want to offer?

Vance: Well, I don’t know that I would tell them to do anything the way I did it because it took a long time for me to get here. I’m not a young guy. I spent 20 years on the road. It taught me a lot of things. There are a lot of things I would say that a lot of studio engineers could learn from the live guys and there’s a lot of things the live guys could learn from the studio guys. The live guys kinda hate the studio guys ’cause whenever the studio guys show up the live guys are sure that they know more than than them. “I just made the record blah blah” (laughs). And to be honest I have to deal with a little of that myself. I’m good friend’s with Chris Stapleton’s front of house engineer, Arpad Sayko and I’m sure that every time he sees me he just “hates” seeing me out there on the road (laughs) because he’s gonna get a report. Chris is gonna ask “how’d it sound”. I’m sure he just hates me (laughs).

I think the studio guys could learn a lot about being efficient from the live sound guys and appreciate that the live sound guys are often kinda putting their life in other people’s hands every night. You’re hanging 60 or 70 thousand pounds of s**t off the roof. You load it in the morning then tear it down and load it out that night. You know, s**t happens. In the studio, unless you do something REALLY REALLY stupid, it’s pretty hard to get killed or even injured. I mean you could cut yourself with a razor blade, I saw that happen once in a studio. But I mean what else can happen? But in live sound people get their finger smashed, things run over. Both of my big toes have been broken and they’re all mangled from road cases rolling over them. I got scars all over me, my shins are all chopped up.

The thing about live sound versus the studio is, in live sound everybody’s a “team” they have to be a team. If you’re not a team, people get fired, period. If somebody can’t be a team player … you know … in the studio world we kinda miss that. It’s a different mindset. Live sound it’s like, OK, we gotta load in, we gotta load out and then in the middle there happens to be a show. But really we’re loading in to make sure the load goes well. We know the show’s gonna work. We know that’s gonna happen.
In the studio, you kinda load in and everything’s “about” the load in, in a way, the set up and then the “show” kinda goes on and on and you get one chance at it forever! Whereas in live sound you’re on tour for 29 nights if the 27th show was kinda “mediocre” for you as the mixer, everybody still claps, everybody still loved it, and everybody left happy. But, that memory of what that show was is a “memory” now in their head and in your memories everything is perfect. I just think a couple of years doing live sound would really bring some humility to some studio guys. There’s a few guys out there I’d love to put out on the road cause they’d get their ass kicked (laughs).

The other thing I’d say when you’re coming up right now, it’s really important to make sure that somebody somehow pays for what you’re doing. In other words, if you’re gonna record somebody’s band, make sure they at least buy pizzas or beer. Because that’s the only way the artist, the band will be “invested” in the product you’re turning out. Every time I’ve ever got screwed in this business it’s because I’ve done something for somebody for free. EVERY single time, and that’s because people don’t have anything invested in it. If somebody’s getting paid, it’s coming out of people’s pockets suddenly NOW they’re more interested, believe me! Even if it’s just pizza and beer, that’s great starting out. I mean you’re buying gear? You know at some point when you’re buying gear … it doesn’t take a lot to get to 10 grand worth of gear. We know that! I bet easily I have 7 grand just in mic stands and cables. S**t’s expensive yo’.

Chris: Has the Covid Pandemic affected your business?

Vance: Not really. Not yet. The good news is going into this I had a lot of work on the schedule. I had to juggle some things around and do some stuff remotely in another studio over Zoom which was interesting, but it’s been OK.

Chris: Anything you’re working you want to let people know about?

Vance: There’s a new Old 97’s record we did right at the end of this. That was the one I kinda had to do half in and half out of quarantine. That’ll be coming around. I’m working on a Trey Anastacio Band live record which is really good. That will be out probably sooner than later. I’ve got a couple clients over in France called The Inspector Cleaseao. They’re awesome, a 2 piece, we did an acoustic record at Sputnik last year and they did an acoustic tour. They brought strings and a keyboard player, I literally just got the mastering for that this morning so that will be out in the next few weeks. New Chris Stapleton will be coming around here sometime later in the year.

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