Nashville-based producer, engineer and mixer Vance Powell has built an incredible resume over the past decade, one that features albums from Jack White, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, JEFF The Brotherhood, Kings of Leon and more. The multi-time Grammy winner sat down with us to talk gear, favorite eats, beard grooming tips and drum mic placement in our new series, 20 Questions.
1. What’s your favorite place to eat in Nashville?
That’s a tough one, man. So many good places here. Let’s do it like this. Where’s my favorite breakfast place? Waffle House is pretty awesome. There’s a place over on the eastside called Sky Blue, that’s pretty nice. For lunch, there’s a place right by the studio called The Yellow Porch, that’s great. For dinner, so many great restaurants in town, it’s hard to say what my favorite is. There’s a place in Franklin called the Red Pony. That’s great. City House is great. Husk is great. Too many to count.
2. What’s a piece of gear or plug-in that you use in the studio that someone might not associate with your work?
Manley Vari-mu. I love that. It’s a fantastic piece of tube gear. Smooth sound. I use it on the 2-bus, on overheads. I use it on piano. All kinds of stuff. I use it as a parallel bus. It’s really awesome.
I have a Klark Teknik DN780, which is an 80s mono-in/stereo-out reverb. I really like that a lot. Spectra Sonics 610 compressor, it’s fantastic. I have a Retro Sta-Level and 176, those are both fantastic. The rest of it all is just tape echo and spring reverbs.
3. How do you use your tape echoes in the mixing process?
I have two Full Tone tube tape echoes and I have a Little Labs PCP that distributes the signal to them. They come back in through this really super cheap ART Tube MP mic pre which goes through a gate. The gate kind of cleans up the noise. Sometimes I’ll run that Tube MP in +20 mode, which means it blows up the tubes. It really distorts the tape echo. Then I bring that back and do a left and a right thing. It’s part of my vocal sound on every mix.
4. What’s your favorite joke about working on records?
“There’ll be plenty of budget.”
5. How do you beat ear fatigue when you’ve been working in the studio all day?
If I’m tracking, I make sure we take an hour break for lunch. We leave the studio and come back. I try my best every four hours to take a break. For mixing, I just don’t mix very loud for any length of time. Maybe at tracking level for 25 to 35 minutes just to sort of make sure it’s kicking ass when I’m putting the whole thing together. I mark where I start on my monitor controller and then go down to a level below that and then I go down to the lowest one, which is really, really low, for final mix. About 75 dB tops, maybe less.
6. Who’s your favorite person to work with in Nashville?
I’ve got a lot of favorites, but Jack White has been really great. The reason why is obvious, he is one of the most talented people I’ve ever been around. He’s just amazingly talented. I also love the Dead Weather. I love Alison Mosshart. She’s awesome.
7. How long have you been growing your beard out? Any grooming tips?
I never cut it. I shampoo it every now and then. It’s been on my face since New Years Day 1990. I can’t cut it off. The skin underneath is like a baby’s butt. It’s pink and fluffy.
8. How do you mic drums and what microphones are you using?
My basic set-up is pretty much the same all the time. FET 47, a D12, sometimes a little plate mic inside the kick, but 98% it’s not. 57s on the snare. Toms are sometimes weird. It depends on the band. It depends on how we are tuning the type of drum sound. 421s are always a gimmie. I’ve been doing these Sony C48s, which are like a vintage condenser from like the 80s or something like that. I’ve used 87s on the toms, that’s cool. I use a Beta 52 on the floor tom and then like a 57 on the bottom of the floor tom. That’s a really nice sound or a 421 and 57 or an 87 and a 57 something like that. Then overheads I sort of waffle around. I use Coles in a sort of mono overhead set-up or a mono and then one over the floor tom and its kind of like half Glyn Johns thing. Sometimes I’ll use AEA R88 and then sometimes I’ll use 67s. It just depends on what the band is like. I usually have this weird little Ampex mic I use a lot or a copper phone pointing at the knee with some echo and delay and all kinds of stuff to create a weird ambiance. Sometimes I’ll do a Coles 4030, it’s a new Coles mic, out in front of the kick and in front of the snare. If you look over the rack tom and look down. It’d be out there about three feet or so. Kind of gets the bottom of the rack tom and the bottom of the snare and kick.
9. How often do you add new gear to the studio and what was the last thing you brought in?
I tell you what I just bought. I just bought one of Tim Mead’s Compex limiters. It’s fantastic. It sounds just like the originals without all the shitty pots. It’s built like the original should have been built. That and the RS124 from Chandler, that’s fantastic. I got one of those recently.
10. All time favorite compressor in the studio?
1176. It can do everything.
11. Do you ever try to bring new techniques to your workflow? If so, where do your ideas come from?
The good news is I get to hang out with a bunch of really great people here in Nashville. F. Reid Shippen, Ryan Hewitt. I was just hanging out with Sylvia Massey. Ken Scott. You talk about things and people ask questions. Reid and Ryan have both multiple times asked, “How’d you do that?” or “What are you doing there?” I’ll do the same thing and then be like “Oh maybe I’ll try that.”
The thing is we think that we are going to try all of this stuff, but the reality is rarely does one trick or technique work anywhere other than when it happens. We’re not really inventing the wheel. We’re just doing the same thing people have done for years and years and years. The thing we do now that they didn’t do in the 60s was put microphones right on amps and drums. We close mic everything now. People didn’t do that back then.
12. What do you like to do when you’re not in the studio working?
I like to hang out at home. Chill. Travel. I like to see places.
13. Where’s your favorite place you’ve traveled to in the past few years?
Brussels. I did a record over there. The city is cool, the people are cool. There was a pub 100 feet from the studio and they had really great Belgian beer.
14. If you could go back in time and work during any era of music, when would it be?
There’s a part of me that loves all that like mid-80s English rock, you know, Mission UK, Chameleon, The Cure. There’s a part of me that loves that overblown production, but I think all of us would say the same thing. We want to make Exile on Main Street. I take that back. I, personally, would rather make Beggar’s Banquet. We all would like to do Sgt. Pepper’s, but I’d like to do Beggars Banquet.
15. What’s one of your most memorable sessions in the studio?
When you were asking about my favorite person to work with in Nashville, I would say that Chris Stapleton is equally a part of that. Every now and then when I’m recording Chris, I just sort of look up and I’m watching him sing and I think “I need to remember exactly this moment.” Because this is a huge moment.
When we were recording Traveller and they were doing “Tennessee Whiskey,” which is a cover, but they’ve been playing it for so long. The track that is on the record, he screwed up the guitar solo and laughed and I kept the laugh in. By the time he came in, I had moved the note he had screwed up cause he just rushed a bit. I moved it to be in place. I remember him laughing and the look on his face during that solo and I said “Oh yeah, I’ll make that happen.” He came in and said, “I totally screwed that up,” and I said, “What do you mean? No, it sounds good. Listen.” He said, “I thought I played that wrong. Oh, you edited it.” But it was so good anyway. That was pretty special.
16. What’s your go-to vocal chain?
Depends on the mic. I’ll pick a mic based on what the record needs to sound like. Sometimes it’s a 58, sometimes it’s an SM7. I’m not a huge fan of them, but sometimes it’s the right sound. A 67 is my go-to. I have one of those new Chandler REDD microphones. That’s a really good sounding mic. Really, really, really good. Very sort-of 47-esque. Then, I have a 1073. I’ll either hit my 176 if I want it to be a little softer, a little more tube feel or go through my Vari-Mu. 1176 for straight rock vocals. SM7, 1073, 1176. Bada boom bada bing.
17. Which do you prefer, recording or mixing?
I like both of them. I like recording and I like mixing other people’s stuff.
18. It seems like you have a lot of them, so what’s the key to picking out a great hat?
Make sure that you understand the shape of your face and what works best. If you have kind of a round face, a pork pie will look real nice. A fedora won’t. You’ll get a little Humpty Dumpty thing going on. You don’t want that.
19. What’s your favorite recording of all time?
“Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” Possibly the most emotive song with no lyrics ever. It’s just amazing.
20. What’s a day in the life of Vance Powell like?
I wake up, hopefully. I do the shower thing. I get coffee. I wake the wife and sit out back and just enjoy nature. Then I get to the studio sometime between 9:30 and 10. Make more coffee. I’m not a huge coffee fan, but I have one or two in the morning and one in the afternoon and that’s it for me.
If I’m mixing, I’ll start working on a mix and work from 10ish till noon. I’ll take a little listen break, come back, change speakers, clear my head a bit. Work until 2. Then have the artist come over if they’re in town and we’ll listen, we’ll tweak, we’ll change things and do whatever we need to do. Then we’ll print it. Then we either go through the whole thing again if we’re working on another one or if it’s just a single, I’ll get done somewhere between 4 and 6 o’clock. I’ll hang out a little bit, wait on traffic and go home. Try and chill out. If it’s summertime, maybe take a swim.
If it’s tracking, it’s a lot longer day. I’ll get here by 10, band gets here by 11. We’ll track till about 3 o’clock. We’ll take a break and get some lunch. Come back, track till 7 or 8 and take another break. Then we work till about 11 and then go home. For me, tracking, I can last about eight or nine hours and that’s about it. Mixing, I can go a little bit longer. I pretty regularly do 10AM to 7 or 8PM.
Unfamiliar with Vance Powell's work? Check out a few tracks Vance has worked on from the likes of Chris Stapelton, Old 97's and Jack White.
Photo Credit: Sundel Perry