Too often people assume that those of us in the field of music recording had a distinct idea of what we wanted to do when we started. The truth is almost always that it's a wild and unpredictable path we end up on. Vance Powell is a perfect example. Starting off in live sound (from local bands to working with such diverse acts as Tammy Wynette, Martina McBride and Jars of Clay) he also had a parallel path in small recording studios along the way. When an opportunity came up to help build (what would become) one of the largest studio complexes in the world, he was there, becoming chief engineer for Nashville's Blackbird Studios. Projects outside Blackbird eventually beckoned. Vance started working extensively with Jack White III on his groups The Raconteurs, The White Stripes, The Dead Weather as well as many of Jack's production jobs, including Wanda Jackson's new album, The Party Ain't Over and a slew of 7-inch singles for Jack's Third Man Records, including a new release by Dungen (see their interview this issue). His work has earned him three Grammy awards (Jars of Clay, Buddy Guy, and The Raconteurs). Along the way he's recorded with a wide variety of artists, including Keb' Mo', Martina McBride, The Secret Machines, Karen Elson and even Jack White and Alicia Keys' over-the-top production of "Another Way To Die" from the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace. I ran around Nashville on a crazy tour with Vance for 11 hours one day and, near the end, we sat down to chat at Sputnik Sound, a fun studio space he shares with producer Mitch Dane.
Have you ever been "let go" from a job?
I've even been fired from a few jobs. I got fired from one job because they wanted their recording to sound raw and then they delivered me an album with 80 tracks! Both of those were Christian rock bands and, honestly, they're projects I'm glad I got fired from.
Have you done much work with Christian rock? There's so much in Nashville.
I recently worked with a group who's sold more Christian albums than anyone in history, but I had no idea who they were. It's not a religious thing, it's just that I like to wake up on Sundays and watch football. [laughter]
That's a good religion!
I did everything I could to lose the Christian gig — not on purpose, but scheduling around that time was hard. I was working on the Wanda Jackson record [The Party Ain't Over] with Jack White III. Then I was on the road with The Dead Weather, which was fun, but I'll never do that again. Then, when I got back, these guys kept trying to get me to do the record. They're a part of a huge church from Australia. Once I started to mix, I found out that the band was on tour and unable to listen to mixes. I ended up mixing the stems and streaming the mixes to them in Sydney. We closed mixes and communicated changes over Skype. Of course in 2001 I did that Jars of Clay record, The Eleventh Hour, which was a Grammy winner. That was my first one. Jack Joseph Puig mixed it. Umm...
There are a handful of mixing guys in L.A. that I'm not impressed by.
He was a fucking douchebag, at least at that time. He really fucked that record up and he was weird to the Jars guys... telling real off-color jokes about Christians and shit. We asked him to raise a backing vocal a bit and his response was to, "Take a minute and make sure you really want to do that, then come back and talk to me about it." Then, when we said we did want it up a bit, he stuck a [Waves] L1 limiter on the track, turned it up some amount then told his guys to print it and left the studio. Really? Maybe he's a better guy now; I don't know. I loved the Jellyfish records he did, but that was my experience. When I can play my Pro Tools in-the-box mixes from 2001 and then play the record, as mixed by him, and my no automation, no EQ, no effects rough mixes sound better (or at least more interesting), something's fucked. He got paid $92 grand and a point! That was the first time I said, "This is fucking stupid." But it won a Grammy and sold half a million records, so what does it matter, really?
But I'd give a big thumbs up for someone like Bob Clearmountain.
Clearmountain is my hero. And Chris [Lord-Alge] is great.
It's a weird game; it becomes so much more about fear. People fear the marketplace. I get so tired of seeing that end of the biz.
This new Buddy Guy record [Living Proof]? Same fucking deal. I recorded the whole fucking thing and then the producer used his guy to mix it. You had me cut it — why not let me mix it?
I feel that people can put a process in place that can suck the interesting parts out of an album.
This Buddy record, that's definitely the deal. I did everything in my power to put some soul in it. I went out, turned the bass player's amp up and made it distorted. I cut all of Buddy's vocals on an [RCA] 77. I tried my best to put as much funk into it as possible. I detuned the front [kick] head a little bit, so it had a funky sound on one song. But when it comes down to it, I'm not the producer. I just wanted it to sound good, but I wasn't being paid to produce. With Jack, he'll say, "Man that sounds great," or "Let's change that,...