In our new series, Five Sound With…, we talk with world-renowned engineers and producers about how they got some of the sounds on your favorite records.
Vance Powell is a six-time Grammy Award-winning record producer, engineer, and mixer, whose impressive list of credits include everyone from rockers like Jack White to country crooners like Chris Stapleton to pop icons like Alicia Keys. Known for his creative and experimentative approach to engineering and producing, Vance currently works out of Sputnik Sound studio in Nashville.
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Vance about five records that he's worked on during his illustrious career. Check out our conversation below to learn more about his approach to tracking the first Dead Weather record, moonlighting for Radiohead while tracking Sturgill Simpson, and what it was like recording Chris Stapleton on the front lawn of the studio.
Chris Stapleton - Traveller
I was called in to do Traveller because I had done the first Sturgill Simpson record, High Top Mountain, with Dave Cobb. Chris really liked the way that record sounded, so we went in the studio to record. Initially, the plan was just to do a few songs, but we wound up doing 15 tracks or something like that. They were all cut live with Chris singing and playing guitar. All the vocals were live with the band playing in the room.
The drums were in a booth, as was Chris’ amp, but we left the door open a little bit to get some of that sound in the main room. We recorded at RCA Studio A, which is a very big room, like 40-feet by 70-feet or something like that. So there’s a lot of room for that music to float around in and you can really hear that on the record. It’s just a really well-rehearsed live band, and fantastic talent singing amazing songs. You don’t get much better than that.
For the mic set-up, I think we used a Neumann U47 FET on the kick drum with an AKG D12. We had Shure SM57s on the snare top and bottom. I think on that record we used Sennheiser MD-421s on the toms, up inside the toms, 70s style. I think we used two Neumann U87s for overheads, kind of right on the cymbal. For the bass guitar, we used a DI and another Neumann U47 FET, and on Chris’ amp was a Neumann U67 and a Shure SM57. We tracked on RCA’s API, which is a great discrete 32-input, 24-monitor console. Other than the background vocals and maybe a tambourine, there were hardly any overdubs. All the vocals on pretty much the whole record were Chris live.
There are two songs on the record that are different in that they weren’t recorded in RCA Studio A. There’s a song called “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” and a song called “Outlaw State of Mind.” Those songs were recorded at The Castle, which is an old studio out in Franklin that kind of looks like a castle.
We were booked in RCA Studio A, but they had a corporate event like a conference or something that was booked before we got in, so we had to leave for a day. We cut “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” in the studio at The Castle in the morning. Then we were getting ready to do the other songs and Dave walked out on the front porch and said, “Man, it sounds great out here!”
So, we put Chris out on the front porch, which wasn’t covered or anything, and we put Dave out there with him. We put the drums in the door, so the kick was like hanging out of the door. We put Chris’ amp in the back of the building by the driveway, and I ran a pair of Neumann U87s with 100-foot cables up the side of the hill outside the building down by the street out front. If you listen closely you can actually hear cars driving by and crickets and stuff because it was right at dusk. The sun was coming down and people were driving home from work. I think we cut the song once or twice maybe and that was it.
Sturgill Simpson - High Top Mountain
We did that record at Dave Cobb’s house. We tracked the whole record in like three days. We mostly used Dave’s gear on that record. I had a couple of mics with me, but I think Sturgill sang into one of Dave’s Neumann U67s. Everybody was in the same room, it’s kind of a small studio. The drums were in the big room, and we only took a DI on the bass. That was a really easy record to do.
I actually had to step aside and go to Third Man Records and record Radiohead. I go to Sturgill and tell him, “Hey man, I’ve been asked to record Radiohead. Is it OK if I leave for a day?” And he was like, “Shit, let’s all quit! I’ll go over there with you!” He was really nice about it. They finished the record with some overdubs while I was out, and then I came back and we mixed the record there at Dave’s house on the API.
The Raconteurs - Consolers of the Lonely
Consolers of the Lonely was the first Raconteurs record that I did. I had already done a little bit of work for Jack [White] at that point. I had worked on the Rome record, which was an album that Jack did with Danger Mouse, who had recorded all of these really beautiful orchestral tracks in Italy with the Ennio Morricone players. Jack had written lyrics and melodies for some of the songs, so we went into the studio.
Danger Mouse brought two-track mixes, which we put on a two-inch eight-track tape machine and cut all of the vocals with the effects. All of the vocals and effects are printed, which was really cool. We bounced the vocals to digital to give to Danger Mouse so he could dump them back into his sessions when he got home.
After that, I got the call to do the Raconteurs record. They had been working with Joe Chiccarelli up until then, who did an amazing job with the recordings. They called me in to finish up the record and I sat behind the board and got to work.
That record is all on two 16-track tape machines. One of the reels was bad, so the first thing I did was lock up both machines and transfer everything to Pro Tools. I did all of the early mixes off of Pro Tools, through the tape machine electronics, which was really a very good deal. I put the tape machine on "input" and played Pro Tools through the tape machine, and then when we were ready to listen to it, I would put the tape machines back online and put them in "repro" for playback. It was a lot different but in a good way. I mixed that whole record in eight or nine days.
As for outboard gear, I mixed that record on a big 96-input API. I used Empirical Labs Distressors on the kick and snare, and a Teletronix LA-2A on the bass. The guitars went through UA 1176 compressors. I used a blue stripe 1176 on the vocal. The whole record was analog, so I used a bunch of Neve 1073 preamps and cool stuff like Space Echoes and a Lexicon PCM 42 digital delay. I used the plate reverb at Blackbird Studio, too.
The Dead Weather - Horehound
Jack and I worked really well together on Consolers of the Lonely, so that led to a bunch of other projects like the first Dead Weather record, Horehound. We were just supposed to record one song and it turned into 14 days of solid recording and we did a whole record.
We recorded that at Jack’s studio at Third Man Records, which has this beautiful 16-channel South African Neve console with a small monitor section, and a Studer A800 eight-track tape machine. We didn’t have remote for the tape machine, so I had to roll it over next to the console to be able to punch in. That thing weighed like 550 pounds. I did the whole record by myself, no assistants.
We cut that record with everybody playing live in the room. Lots of loud guitar amps, drums, and bass. We mostly used Neve 1073 preamps for that record. Jack had a pair of Neumann U67s that we used, one on the bass amp and one on the guitar amp. He also had a Neumann U47 FET, which we used on the kick drum. We used this weird Ampex H1390 mic to record [Alison Mosshart’s] vocals, which I had bought years ago. She actually sang live, just holding the mic in her hand, and we ran that through a Fender Deluxe Reverb, which gave it this really cool ambience. It was all pretty simple, but it’s a really cool sounding record to me.
We mixed it with all hands on deck. No automation, no Pro Tools, none of that. We had to write out a script for fader modes and pans and things like that. Little Jack [bassist Jack Lawrence], Jack White and I just ran through the script on the songs. We had six hands-on eight faders.
Clutch - Book of Bad Decisions
The Book of Bad Decisions record was an incredibly enjoyable experience for me, partially because the band wanted me to help them make a record that was radically different from what they had done before. I think in the past, their records have been a little more produced in a way. The drums were on the grid and they used a lot of loops and stuff. I wasn’t interested in doing any of that and they weren’t either. I love the last four or five records they’ve made, they sound great. They just wanted to go a different way.
My goal was to have them well-rehearsed when they came in (which they already were), and then set them up live so they could play and all be in the same room together. Tim, the guitar player, was in the main room and his amps were in a booth. Dan, the bass player, was in the main room too, with his amp in the booth behind him. I just gave Neil a handheld mic and told him to sing.
They’d get the tempo and the arrangement down, and then I’d have Neil go in and sing a scratch vocal. Then we would do three or four takes and comp them together old-school style. We'd comp the verse from take 1, chorus from take 2, cut it all together and we had the take. Once we had a take, I would fire the band for an hour and a half or so, tell them to go to lunch or something, and Neil and I would do vocals together. We usually did five or six takes and I would comp them together with him sitting next to me until we had a great vocal take.
At that point, I would run a rough mix off. I had a running Dropbox folder so the band could start thinking about overdubs. After we finished tracking the basics, we tore the drums down and moved the amps into my big room and started doing guitar overdubs. Then we finished the overdubs and added some other instruments like piano and vibes, which were really cool.
We recorded that at my studio, Sputnik Sound, on my SSL 6048 E Series console. It has no mic pres, so I use external mic pres and bring them back into the console, which I love because it allows me to mix and match and get different sounds in different spots. For vocals, I used a Chandler Limited REDD mic Serial Number 008 into a Chandler Limited RS124 compressor, which went straight to tape. I didn’t use any EQ on his vocal at all for the whole record. It was all just performance and mic placement.
Carina Frantzen - Blacklist
I also produced a record last year for a Norwegian that just came out. It’s a very strange, interesting, dark record called Blacklist by Carina Frantzen. I’m really proud of it. It’s a lot to take in. It’s a very deep, personal record with a lot of emotion poured into it. Everybody I play it for kind of freaks out.