Vance Powell

Engineer Chris Stapleton, The White Stripes, The Dead Weather, The Raconteurs

Vance Powell Interview with Rich Williams for Burl Audio 2011:

Rich WilliamsWe love what you guys are doing, you and Jack. We love the Dead Weather, the Raconteurs, and we love all the other side projects you’re doing, and the fact that you’re all analog and vinyl. We love it.  So I’d like to ask about the philosophy of what you’re doing. There seems to be a lot of excitement about your work. How are you guys keeping this excitement and momentum going in a music world that seems to be stagnant right now?

Vance Powell: Jack wants people to be excited about the concept of owning music. He remembers what it was like to wait for a record, then buy it at a record store the day it came out, and then listen to this creation. You’re looking at the cover and there’s this physical, tangible thing. Listening to music isn’t tangible, it’s an intangible.  It’s just out in space in between your ears, basically.  But owning it, holding the vinyl, holding the sleeve, holding it in your hand and seeing the craft work that went into it, that’s a big part of it.  I think that’s what Jack is looking for.  You know, music that’s interesting to people, and then to be able to keep that tangible part of it, that’s important.

I absolutely agree with that.  Especially the value.  It’s tangible, and it turns out that vinyl lasts 40 years, no problem.

Yeah it’s weird.  Finding a good playback medium (turntable) is the only problem with vinyl.  It’s not like it goes bad.  It’s not like a CD, that in 10 years, 20 years, is going to go bad.   It lasts and lasts and lasts.

Do you think you guys will be setting a trend that others will follow?

Not really setting a trend.  It’s continuing a trend that went underground, you know?  When analog tape recording and the live performance of a band where important. Instead of the highly produced, highly crafted, maneuvered, digitally-manipulated recording that goes on today.  It’s more about the performance, and the process of getting there.

What is it about your process that preserves this organic excitement and this tangible record that you end up with?

Well, what we’re doing is not easy. Interestingly enough, it’s easy to make records today.  Anyone can do it. And obviously everyone is doing it.  People in the dorm rooms or people making records out of the garage.  So it’s easy to make a record.  We’re recording to two inch tape, and that’s complicated and expensive.  Then we’re recording 8 track, 2 inch tape at 7 1/2, which creates it’s own sonic footprint, or sonic imprint, really, and it has its own set of limitations.

You know, I’m basically trying to record the mix.  I mean, I’m recording it so that it sounds as much as possible like it should when it’s mixed. You have to do it that way because there are so fewer options.  If you have a 24 track record, you have 3 times the options of 8 track.  If you record a song, and you have 40 tracks on the song, and you give it to 3 mixers, you’ll get 3 totally different mixes.  Totally different.  Now if you have an 8 track record, and you send those 8 tracks to 3 different mixers, oddly enough, what you get back is pretty much what you recorded.  There’s too little to change.  So Jack and I have to make decisions. And that creates a sound.

So what is it about seven and a half inches per second that appeals to you guys?

Well, you get an hour’s worth of tape on a reel!  (Laughter)

That’s handy!  And of course when you have 8 tracks you are going to get better resolution, but what is it in particular about the seven and a half that turns you on?

What’s interesting about it is that there’s this…. it’s kinda weird to say this… there’s something that happens with the low end and the very top end that changes the tone of it.  It’s really easy to make a loud record, that doesn’t hurt, you know what I mean?

Yup.

If you turned it up really loud, you know, it still feels full and everything, it’s not that the top end is rolled off, because it’s not.  The machine is actually flat within spec, which is +/ -.5 dB from 20 cycles to 20k, at seven and a half.  But there’s something that happens with the tape compression in the upper third octave, let’s say, which is what, everything above 4k and up?  There just something that happens there that is different from 15 ips.  There’s so much more density in the particles of the tape I guess, at that low speed, that some of the stuff that drives us crazy in recording like esses, things like that, we hardly ever have to do fix them.  Something about those esses just smoosh into the tape so much faster and kind of become part of the sound; instead of it just being a hindrance, it helps.  I have a few over at my place, and we’ve maybe used them 10 times in the last year.  It’s not something we tend to do very much.

OK, and I heard you talk in Nashville about you guys not really doing much in the way of mastering, right?

Well, yes and no.  George Ingram over at Nashville Record Production does Third Man’s vinyl mastering.  Jack bought a second one inch machine and parked it at George’s place.  We send the one inch tapes over, he takes them and does whatever he needs to do to make sure that it goes on the vinyl at the right level.  Not at the loudest level, but at the right level, and then makes his judgment about what the record needs, if it needs a little top end, or a little less low end, or a little more of this or a little more of that, and then he cuts it.  It’s basically a one inch transfer to the cutterhead.

And then when you guys do digital transfers, what are the considerations because of course your music will end up in some digital form eventually?

We have become very pro-active about the digital transfer.  We digitize everything at Third Man, off of 1 inch right after we cut it.  So we print the mix to the 1 inch, and once I edit the 1 inch, which means cutting the tops and tails, you know, cleaning it up, putting some leader on it, so that the song starts at the proper time,  we do a transfer right then and there straight from the tape, through the B2 Bomber into a Tascam hard disk recorder device, 96k, 24bit.  And that file, we export to a DVD.   Then we give that to Andrew Mendleson, over at Georgetown Masters, and he does the digital mastering for iTunes. And that’s basically it, ’cause Third Man doesn’t often make CDs.   They actually just made their first CD, and that was the Seasick Steve record, which I mixed in London and Jack is distributing here in the United States.  That was cut to 1/2 inch in London and John Davis at Metropolis Mastering in London did the cd and vinyl mastering straight off tape through his mastering chain. Sounds great! You can get it on iTunes.  It’s really cool.

So what are some of the recording techniques that you guys are using specifically like micing, and tracking, which makes you guys different than your typical meat and potatoes recording?

I think the big thing is that we never use more than 2 tracks for drums.  And that’s a big deal. Because we do 8 track, I usually get 1 track for the kick drum and one for the “Drums”…   And “Drums” can be snare, toms, cymbals, a room mic, maybe some other things in there, but basically two tracks on drums.  Often though I only get 1 track for the drums… so that’s a different animal altogether. Can’t print as much low end.. needs more compression. And distortion, which adds energy and excites the track a bit.. recently Jack bought one of the Ampex MX 35 mixers.  It’s an old Ampex tube mixer, really cool.  It has 4 inputs that mixes to 2 outputs, and I’ve been using those to blow the drums up a bit.

Wow.

Jack’s console has pre and a post fade insert sends, which are really cool.  I’ll come out of the Snare top (and sometimes Snare bottom and Kick) post fade send, which is after the eq or any compression that I might use into the mic pre in on this Ampex, which creates basically tremendous amounts of distortion.  And I’ll just take that and add just a little bit of that distortion into the drum mix.  And that’s really it.  We don’t use a lot of mics, a D20 kick drum mic, and maybe a sub like an MS10 mic.  57 on snare, and then a couple of ribbon mics on the toms.  And that is, if we even need them.  Sometimes I don’t even use those.  Sometimes I’ll just use the AEA  R88 stereo overhead that we use mix together in mono. We could use a mono ribbon, but I like the way the the stereo AEA ribbon sounds with the X-shaped figure of 8 pattern.  I get a little more out of the room sound, more “roof” sound.  So it’s just part of a minimalist thing.

Jack only has a 16 channel console over there.  So, for example when I recorded the Wanda Jackson record, we had a 12 piece band with a 16 channel console.  That’s not a lot of inputs for that size band.. You have x number of inputs and x number of tracks, so make your choices.  We had horns with 3 mics that went down to one track.  We had two bass players, upright bass and electric bass, and those two went to one track.  Drums went to one track.  Steel guitar went to one track.  Piano and organ went to one track.  Jacks guitar went to one track. Acoustic guitar went to one track.. We  had to keep it to 7 tracks so that she would have one to sing on.

Those are the things that hardly anyone is doing.  We do no Protools playlists or editing. We just edit the tape, which can be pretty daunting at seven and a half.  But so what, you know? You do it, or you do it again. No undo, just redo.

What about guitar, because obviously that’s Jacks main instrument?  What are you doing with that that’s different?

I gotta be honest with you..  It’s funny because I’m really not doing anything different.  Everything that Jack plays, sounds like Jack and sounds fantastic.  It’s one of those things where people say it’s all in the hands.  It really is.  I mean, if he picks up a Tele and plugs it into a Bassman cabinet, it sounds like him.  If he plugs one of the Gretsch’s into the Vibroverb , it sounds like him. Over there, we have a couple of things that are very cool.   We have two of the best sounding U67s I’ve ever heard.  We cut all the bass through one of them, with the Bassman, and we do all the guitar on the other one.

Really? With a U67?

A U67.  And I go U67, no pad, and I don’t go into the mic pre. I go into the line input.

No shit?

Yeah, no mic pre.  It doesn’t need a mic pre.

Wow.

So, you know maybe we’re overloading the capsule a little bit, but I don’t think so.  I’ve done a U47 on the kick drum, right into the line input on the console, and then basically you don’t have to do anything to it.  It sounds great.

Wow, that’s fantastic.  I’ve never heard of that before.

Yeah, just don’t use the mic pre.  Every mic pre seems to have at least 15 dB of gain, and that’s too much gain at that SPL.  So then you’ve got to pad it.  And once you pad it…

It kills it

Yes.  I never use the pad on a mic.  Ever.  Never pad a mic.  Bad idea.

I would completely agree with you on that.

Basically what I do, I don’t have any complicated mic-ing schemes, I don’t do anything crazy.  I use either the 1073s that are in the console, or we have the Skibbe Electronics built  736-5 Flickinger Preamp modules. We use those often, they sound great. I’ll use the Burls every now and then, but about 70-80% of the time, it’s 1073 in the line input.  Because basically, at the SPL he plays at I don’t need all that gain.I’ll put the U67 right on the grill, right on the speaker, you know, not even an inch back. And it’s great. I see a lot of people do all these complicated things… but this really works for me. Sometimes I’ll will use two mics, a U67 and an SM57 right on top of each other. Both of them are similar sounding, but yet so different.  And you know, if I have them on separate tracks, I can pan them, and it sounds like stereo guitar even though it’s one amp and that’s pretty cool, if you know what I mean.

So when I was talking with you in Nashville, you said you have been digging the Burl B1.  What have you been using that for?

We use the B1 a fair bit on piano. Jack has an old upright Steinway and I’ve fiddle farted around with all the different variations of how to go about micing it.  And of all the different variations, we’ve found that just micing it from behind the sound board is best. It’s against the wall, so we just squeeze a FET U47 between them, and that provides isolation and the wall makes the piano a little louder, it just works.  It’s weird. I put it inside, put it above it, put it where the player is… none of them sounded good.  But Josh Smith (my assistant) put it in the back one day when I was gone on an other session and it worked. I’ve done that before on other pianos, but I just didn’t think that this one was going to work, but it was good, so go figure.

So what about the B1D?  Have you been using that?

We use that quite a bit on bass.  It’s been kind of cool on bass and acoustic guitar.  I think I used a U47 and that with acoustic guitar.  You know, it’s kind of one of those things… One thing I would say is that we work really, really fast.  So a lot of times its hard for me to experiment and quantify an opinion. We just don’t get take a lot of time to futz about with gear.

Do you have anything else you want to add?  What kind of music are you listening to right now that you really enjoy?

You wanna hear something really bad?  You want to know what I listen to?  I don’t even know if I want to say it!  I listen to things that are absolutely mindless.  I listen to so much music all day every day.  You know, I just get in my car…  I listen to NPR. And, you know it’s kinda like, I read this thing once that said, “What do hookers do on their day off?  Type?”  If you’re making music all day long every day, what’s the last thing you want to do when you are in your car? Listen to music?  NO!  Someone, just have an intelligent conversation!  I’ll listen to that. Or nothing. Now when I am not working.. it’s all over the map.. New rock, old blues, old country, electronica, exotica, classical, bebop … I really love music.

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