Vance Powell

The GRAMMY® nominees in this year's Best Engineered Album category are not strangers to Universal Audio, Jimmy Douglass, Joe Chiccarelli, and Al Schmitt have all been interviewed in the Universal Audio webzine. Vance Powell accepted the award for The Raconteurs album, Consolers of the Lonely. Vance shared the award with Joe Chiccarelli and Jack White. Vance admitted to being very nervous when he went up on stage. I interviewed Vance a few days before the awards from Jack White’s house during a break in tracking a new project.

Where did you grow up?

I'm from a small town in Missouri. Joplin, Missouri. It's on Route 66. It's about 40,000 people. It's very small. My father and my grandfathers are all engineers of sorts. One of my grandfathers was an actual engineer. He ran huge steam and diesel engines. My other grandfather was a masonry contractor, but he tinkered in electronics, and he invented a bunch of things. He actually invented and patented an electric eye for burglar alarms, which is actually pretty interesting. And my father is a master machinist. So I grew up around all these really talented, technical people.

How did you get started as an engineer yourself?

As I was coming up in high school, since my grandfather was so into electronics, I got into electronics, and I got into computers. I took part in a program where attended college classes while still in high school. I was that nerdy kid who went to college in high school, so I came out of high school with a technical school’s associate degree in electrical engineering.

I was going to college in my first year, taking computer programming for the IBM 360 series, and all this crazy, high-end programming for a college freshman. I had a really nice stereo and turntable, so people would come over to my house and listen. For a high-school/college kid I had nice stuff. It wasn't anything great, but people thought it sounded good. I had friend in a band, and he asked me if I could come and help him figure out how to make them sound better, because they were playing some club gigs. Now, this is 1983. In Galena, Kansas, which is right next to where I'm from, you, could drink at 18, which was awesome. So I started going to bars and seeing bands, and I just got bit by live music. I lived for live music! I got into running sound, and being a live-sound guy. I did that for a bunch of bands, and at some point I quit my day gig. I repaired computers at Radio Shack for my day gig, so I quit that, and I started working in a music store.

Somewhere in that period of time, I did my first professional recording session. There was a little studio in Joplin that had a pair of 16-track 1" machines, and an Allen & Heath Syncon B console, which was a big, 40-channel, in-line console. It was big to me at the time. … Still actually kind of big. … A friend of mine wanted to record, but the engineer that normally worked the studio was sick, so he asked me if I could do it. I went over to the studio. The owner of the studio was also an engineer, but he had other fish to fry. He ran another company, and he had this studio sort of on the side. I went in and started getting sounds, and recorded a few songs, and all of it seemed — I know this sounds goofy — but it seemed pretty easy to me at that particular moment in time. That evening, about five or six o'clock, the owner came in, he handed me a set of keys and said, "When you're done, lock up, set the alarm and come by and see me in the morning." I was like, "OK, great, I'll come by, I'll bring your keys." He's all, "Oh, no, no, no. You're the new engineer. You're way beyond all of us." So it's kind of a nice sort of thing. And I have, through my whole career, every time some little thing happens, I always thank him for just saying, "I don't know you, but here's the keys. You're the guy. You're better than us."

What studio was that?

That was Rick Massey’s Massey Studio.” Would have been about 1986.

Obviously you're a natural.

I don't know about a natural, but Rick gave me that opportunity. It was really cool, because he basically just said, "Here, here's the keys. You're the engineer, do what you want to do. Come in, use the studio for whatever you want to use it for, and I'm going to pay you five dollars an hour." And I remember thinking, "Five dollars an hour! Crazy!" I was also touring with a band as engineer/tour manager/grown up, the only adult in the band at that time, until the band split around ’88. So then I went full time with working at the studio. I worked at the studio, and during the day I repaired guitar amps.

Then in '90, another opportunity came up in a roundabout way. I got asked to go to work at a club in Springfield, Missouri. A bunch of really cool music came out of the area. The other person I always want to mention — because he's so brilliant — is a guy there who owned a studio by the name of Lou Whitney. Lou is well known for doing the first Del-Lords record. He worked on the first Roscoe's Gang record with Eric Amble. He's just a real roots-rock genius. Back in the early '80s and '90s, he was really doing some cool stuff. And still does, still has a studio there. So I went to work at this club, and my goal was to work at the club and get a gig in Lou's studio. Within about a year I had actually done that. I'd gone to work for Lou, sort of being his second. We toured with Dave Alvin, did a Scott Kempner record, and we made a whole bunch of records at his place. With Lou it was the same thing: He just gave me the keys, and said, "Come and go as you please. I'll pay you five bucks an hour." Actually, I think maybe he paid me ten. Either way it didn't matter. I was getting to make records. It was awesome.

In late '91, I filled in for a week for a local sound guy there in Springfield — and this is going to sound really weird, but — I delivered some speakers to a theater in Branson, Missouri, where Tammy Wynette was performing. Delivered the speakers, and then after the show I went to pick the speakers back up, ended up going to lunch with some of the guys, and just ended up being friends. About a year later, while I was still working for Lou and touring with Dave Alvin, doing a lot of live sound and recording, I got a call to possibly take a job in Nashville, working for Tammy Wynette. I thought about it long and hard, and I thought, "Maybe this is the step I need to go to the next level … move to Nashville." I love classic country music, love Johnny Cash and thought Tammy Wynette was one of the best, coolest artists I ever worked for. She was great, even as goofy and sort of old school as the gig was, she was really great.

"The UAD-2 is the first plug-in set that replaces gear I own, hardware-wise, and that's a big deal."

So I took the job. I moved to Nashville, and tried to get a studio gig. I was 28, 29 years old, and I was told I could become an intern. That was a little tough for a guy who'd been chief engineer of a studio for four years, and engineer of another studio for three years — to be told I could be an intern and sweep up. So I just stayed out of the studio business for about five or six years. I still did stuff at my friend Lou's, in Springfield. I'd still drive back and do records every now and then, but I basically was just touring. In '97, I took a position with Martina McBride, left Tammy, and went out on the road with Martina. By the end of '97, she was pregnant, and she decided she was going to take a bunch of time off, so I took a tour with Nancy Griffith.

Now, why I'm telling you all this is that it leads up to something, I promise.

In the last part of '97, Nancy had a show in Nashville, with the Nashville Ballet, and the symphony. A friend of mine was there working on a show for this big, citywide event where they had all these big rock bands play with symphonies and things like that. It was really cool. He was doing Jars of Clay with the Nashville Symphony. I ended up meeting the guys in Jars of Clay and really hitting it off.

So in February or March of '98, as they were getting ready to go out on tour, they asked me to come out and be the FOH engineer. Martina had just had her baby and wasn't touring for several months, so I went out and I did a tour with them, which ended up being almost five years! In December of 2000 they asked me to make a “little Christmas record” with them. That little Christmas record turned into a ten-and-a-half-month process that became a record called The Eleventh Hour. That record won a GRAMMY® for Best Gospel-Rock album in 2003. So that was when I sort of got back in the seat, out of live sound, and back into recording. A weird coincidental thing that happened on that record: We finished recording The Eleventh Hour on September 10, 2001. I was supposed to go load out of the studio the morning of the 11th, but I did what everybody else did, watched it all day. The label put off the release until March of 2002 because of the title and the cover art, none of which had anything to do with 9/11. Just stupid.

At the same time I was still employed with John, of Clair Brothers, and Martina McBride. He called me and told me that he had decided to build a recording studio — basically a vocal booth in his garage. So that is what became the seed that grew into Blackbird Studio.

In January of 2002, John and I checked out this building in the Berry Hill area of Nashville. I had been helping him with some gear purchases: "You're going to need one of these, you're going to need one of these." He called me one day and said, "Hey, I really want you to be there to help build it, help to get the studio working." So I went to work at Blackbird, and basically have been the chief engineer there ever since, through all the building, and through all the craziness. We went from being a one-room, semi-private studio to an eight-room, world-class facility in five years! [Laughs.]

Vance Powell at Blackbird during a Raconteurs session
Vance Powell at Blackbird during a Raconteurs session.
What makes Blackbird such a great studio?

Well, from Day One, John never said, "No." The chief tech at the time, though kind of argumentatively crazy — I think he's crazy as a loon [laughs] — had some good ideas, expensive ideas, and a lot of those ideas made it into the building. And with John’s tour experience, we were saying, “OK, we want to do this better.” So most people who come in are freaked out by the amount of equipment and the mic locker — 1,400 microphones, in the mic locker. It's crazy.

Whoa, that’s amazing. So what’s some of the UA gear you have there?

Blackbird has thirty-plus 1176s.

Originals or reissues?

Mostly F revision Blackface originals. We probably have at six Silverface, three Blue Stripes, and I know we have six of the new reissues.

And then I think we have like 18 LA-2As. We have one of the really rare black LA-2As, from Cherokee. We have a couple of LA-1As. Around fourteen or so LA-3As. And four of your 2192 converters. We have five Cooper Time Cubes. We probably have four or five Little Dipper filter sets. …

Do you have any UA preamps?

I know we have at least a couple of the newer UA 2-610s. We actually have Niko Bolas' Western Recorders original 610 console, so it has the original ones in it.

I want a photo of that!

It's really cool. It belongs to Niko Bolas — he runs tracks through it all the time. It's on wheels, we made a little cart for it, and it's weird, because all the tube electronics have been taken out of the console and they're on an umbilical, and we bolted them on the wall. So they hang on the wall like a piece of art.

Let's talk UAD-2 …

Oh, I love it.

What are some of your favorite plug-ins?

I end up using plug-ins that go to a piece of hardware that I either don't own, or I don't want to patch up because I don't want to have to recall it. The UAD-2 is the first plug-in set that replaces gear I own, hardware-wise, and that's a big deal.

Your 201 — the Roland 201 — every time I hook up my real 201 to use in a mix, I end up going back to the UAD. It's so good, and so much easier, and so much faster, and so much more recallable, that it just replaces my 201. I also have a 301 that I think is the greatest-sounding echo device ever. It's really special. Now, if you take the UAD 201 and Dimension D, you can kind of get a 301. Both of those plug-ins are brilliant.

The 1176 sounds like my F revision 1176. Enough so that I could switch my F in and out and not really notice a huge "career-threatening” difference. (Thanks Lou!)

I love 1073s. That's my mic pre of choice. Given a session where I walk in, the very first mic pre I always go to is the 1073, so I really know the mic pre well. Now, obviously, the plug-in isn't a mic pre, but on the EQ side, the plug and my 1073, are very close. So if I want to dig the wool out, I use a 1073, I go to the middle, dig the wool out. I want to add some boom, I go to the middle, and crank it up. It's just really great.

I tend to use the UADs to replace gear that I own that I don't want to have to recall and patch, and go through all of that uncertainty of my recall. So the plugs I use in the UAD-2 all the time are the 1073, 1176, LA-2A, LA-3A, 33609, and the 201, the Dimension D, and the Chorus. I use that stuff. I couldn't live without it.

Oh, and there’s the EMT 140. Unbelievable. Love it. Use it all the time.

Do you have real Plates at Blackbird?

Yes. We have a stereo tube 140. It's brilliant.

Do you have any requests that you'd like to see in the UAD-2?

Yes. A Cooper Time Cube. That would be awesome. And a really nice EMT 250. A MicMix Master Room … My Ibanez UE400-405 … EQ3d…

Do you think your experience as a live-sound engineer has made you a better recording engineer?

I think it's made me appreciate the fact that nothing in the recording studio should ever kill me. There's no way when I'm sitting behind a console, in the studio, that anything life threatening is going to happen.

I think the live-sound world has made me very level headed about what's going on. I hate screwing up. Let me rephrase that. I hate fucking up as much as anybody else. But I also know that I'm not going to kill anybody by doing it. In the live-sound world, if you do that, you very well may kill somebody. When you're hanging 70,000 pounds of speakers above people, and you do something wrong, your world and their world can change in an instant, and it can be very bad for all of you. So when you load five semis of P.A. gear a night, and unload and load it, and unload it … you learn a lot of things. You learn to be organized, make sure you know what you're doing and what you're going to need for the gig, and make sure that you're careful in what you do. In the recording world, OK, yeah, there's a tracking session. We're going to cut tracks today, they're going to load in cartage, and just don't knock the mics over. And even if you do, a microphone gets harmed … it's a microphone, it's not a person.

And I think this is kind of how it is in the music industry. In the recording business, we make these little plastic disks — maybe we still do that — we make music that people may or may not like. We don't do brain surgery. We're not NASA, we don't shoot off rockets. No one's ever going to get harmed — I mean, maybe mentally they're harmed, or emotionally, by some of the music we make — but no one is ever really hurt in that.

I see Blackbird as kind of an A-list client studio. I've seen engineers throw fits and throw things, and get mad and all that, and I just think to myself, "Relax, it's music. It's just music."

What kind of engineer would you consider yourself?

I try to be the whole thing. I want to know the technology I'm using, but at the same time, I want to be able to know technology from 20 years ago. I want to be able to use techniques from 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, because those techniques made the sound of records we all loved. I strive to know — I strive to be on the cutting edge. That's my job at Blackbird, to make sure that we are at the cutting edge, and making sure that we have the best recording-studio experience on the planet. That's my goal.

As an engineer, I want to be able to say, "I want to do this record on 16-track," and know exactly how to do it. Some of this stuff I'm doing with Jack White right now, we're doing it all on 8-tracks. So the fact of the matter is that music will continue to be recorded, whether it's on 150 tracks in Pro Tools, or 8 tracks on this 2" machine. And people will love it, or they'll hate it. But it'll get recorded either way, and I want to be able to do it right.

Rick Skaggs, Vance Powell, and Jack White
Rick Skaggs, Vance Powell, and Jack White
(with Brendan Benson and Ashley Monroe in the background)
What's it like to work with Jack White?

He's awesome. He's one of the best people — amazingly talented, and funny. He's just great, working with him is a joy.

What's his approach to recording and technology? Let's talk specifics about gear and signal chains.

He's not a guy who usually says, "I want to do this through this through that." If he does, it's because he's like, "Let's try this." and it's usually something that you wouldn't normally, as an engineer, do right off the bat. But oftentimes it's really brilliant. As far as specifics, he's very good at leaving the engineering part of it to the engineer. He'll say, "I really want the drums to sound more like this," or "I want them to be brighter or darker." Now, obviously, everything Jack does, he does analog. I only mixed The Raconteurs record, but it was all analog, two 16-track 2" machines, and we printed that to 1" 2-track. So no digital was involved in that. He's not a fan of digital recording. He doesn't like recording in Pro Tools at all, in any way, shape, or form.

Do you?

Do I? Given my choice, I would love to just record everything analog. But the opportunity and the budgets aren't always there to do that. My Pro Tools HD rig is a 4-card rig with a UAD-2 in a Mac Pro, a new 8-core, and it's just brilliant for those projects.

Joe Chiccarelli told me that Jack's all about the performance, and that in a certain way, he's really recording in an old-school, kind of '60s way.

Oh, absolutely. He's about the performance. He wants it to sound great, but to be honest with you, if the performance is there — I'll say this forever — if the performance is there, the recording doesn't matter. I hate to say that, but it’s true.

Or is it the other way around? Isn't there more pressure on you to really capture when that great performance happens?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. You have to rise to the occasion of the performance. Absolutely. There's nothing worse than knowing that the performance that you captured wasn't the best recording you could do. Nothing is worse than that! That's the thing that haunts you forever when you hear it later. But at the same time, that's the internalization of things that we do as engineers. We internalize all that, and remember it forever. Does anybody listen to "Good Vibrations" and hear the edits in it? Does anybody ever do that? No. They just listen to "Good Vibrations," how great it is, even though there's all these obvious tape edits in it. If we had Pro Tools you'd just cross fade them, it'd be awesome. They didn't do that. They took scissors and they cut them, and that was it. And that was the record. One thing I will say, Jack definitely pushes me to be as good as I can be.

Are you excited about going to the GRAMMY® Awards?

I am. I'm very excited about it. I tell you, I feel like the luckiest guy on the planet, because I was handed a record to mix, recorded by Joe Chiccarelli. That's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Joe did a great job on it. It was a frighteningly easy record to mix. I put the faders up, hit Play, and went “Wow, that really sounds great! So let me now just not screw it up.” That was my biggest fear on that record. I just didn't want to screw it up. And to be honest with you, Joe made rough mixes that were almost impossible to beat. They were so good.

A few days later, Vance checked in while on vacation in Mexico.

So, how was it to win a GRAMMY®?

Well, I can’t tell you how honored I am to be in such great company as Joe and Jack, and everyone else ever who has won this award. I feel very, very lucky. I know that there are plenty of other engineers out there who have worked as hard as I have and have made great records that haven’t or won’t ever get this honor. It just makes me that much more blown away by this award. Thanks to everyone for voting for this record! I’m voting for your record next time!