When I visited Nashville and interviewed Vance Powell [Tape Op #82] years ago, I met his buddy, Mitch Dane, who shared the Sputnik Sound studio space with him. Over the years Mitch and I have spent many hours hanging out, and his calm, focused demeanor and wise thoughts always inspired me. I figured it was time to chat with this amazing, Grammy award-winning producer and find out more about my friend.
You had an accident when you were young that affected your throat, and you couldn't talk for two years?
Yeah, that's right. In general, I think people take talking for granted and forget the importance of silence for so many facets of their growth and life. Whether you call it a blessing or a curse, it was given to me. I learned how to listen to the way things sound and how sounds are put together, but also how to listen to people and what they're actually saying.
You were a teenager then, right?
Yeah. I remember my friends would take me to game rooms, put quarters in the jukebox, and play pool. I couldn't talk, but I'd listen and play. It was fun for me, even though I couldn't speak.
How were you interacting socially at that time, as far as communication?
Well, I didn't have a lot to say. When you break it down, you only have to say, "I'm hungry," and "I have to go to the bathroom." I learned to not have an opinion about where we'd eat or where we'd go.
So much of what we have to do in the studio is to listen to music and to what others are saying.
Even now, I have to force myself to keep my mouth shut. It's a challenge.
Amazingly, after many operations, you got your voice back. You started doing music and playing as a songwriter and a singer, with a voice that's limited. What were the circumstances?
It was a weird situation. My doctor publicly said that it was a miracle that I could talk, so I started getting these calls from churches saying, "We heard that God did a miracle in your life. Can you come tell us about it?" They would ask if I'd sing a song, and it developed into a career of playing. I performed at a lot of colleges, high schools, and youth camps. Through the process of doing that, >I made my own records and sold them. I didn't know much about the industry. I ended up recording to MIDI, printing that to a DAT [digital audio tape], and then going into the studio and recording my vocals and guitar on top of it. I made my own tracks and sang on top of them. I had an [Akai] MPC60 that I used quite a bit; I loved the old soul and "Motown" drum loops. I incorporated those with my acoustic guitar. Eventually I put in a little studio booth and had a place in my garage that I worked out of.
Did other people start seeking you out to record with?
Yeah. After a show, people would come up and ask how I got started. Occasionally they'd ask me to help them do a record. I didn't take long to realize that it's really where I enjoyed the music; in the making of it. Less of the performance, and more, "Let's figure out how to make this song better and get it down on tape."
What was your later studio like?
I had ADATs and a 32-channel Mackie board. I often threatened that if I had that console and 12 [Shure SM]57s I could make a record.
You slowly taught yourself how to engineer?
To call myself an engineer is a stretch. I can get good sounds, but there are so many great engineers in this town who know why the gear works, not just how the gear works. I don't claim to be that at all. For producing, I come from more of a musical background. I have a knack for melody and arrangement. I've grown into my engineer ears as I continue to grow into the production part. I'm always learning something.
One of the projects you were known for early on was Jars of Clay. How did you first meet those guys?
I didn't actually meet them until I moved to Nashville. I believe one of them went to one of those youth camps that I was playing at, saw me, and bought one of my records. Later, in Nashville, we were at the same church and started having lunch together. We hit it off pretty quickly, and they started asking me to do these one-off songs for endorsement deals or little things that weren't part of a record; just a single song. That morphed into doing a record with them. Steve Mason [guitar] from Jars had an unfinished basement, and I had a bunch of gear. I helped him finish out his basement, brought my gear over, and we started making music. We called it Sputnik Sound. That's where we did The Eleventh Hour, which happened to win a Grammy. You never think when you're tracking something that it's going to be Grammy-worthy.
What do you think were some of the factors that made that record worthy of a Grammy?
Great songs and great talent. Vance Powell was at the helm most of the time. I was the second engineer; I filled in a couple of times for him. That's when Blackbird Studios was being built, so Vance was going over there and working a lot.
What did that lead to for you?
I think I quickly learned how to make records fast, because those guys work really fast. They have short attention spans. If they come up with an idea, you've got to be able to get something down really quickly or else it's gone. Doing that led to another record with them, and then another. Just having my name on all these records, people started calling me up and asking me to help them. I'm very fortunate to have worked with Jars of Clay. They helped me carve out a career, and I'm very thankful.
Did you continue to run Sputnik Sound out of there for a number of years?
Yeah. I worked out of that basement for a good bit. Eventually they had to sell their house, so I took the gear and moved into House of Blues Studios with Jacquire King [Tape Op #88]. We were partners together for two or three years. Then Vance got the itch to find his own place, and Jacquire was moving out.
So, Vance moved in?
Yeah. It's always challenging renting a place and having a landlord. After renting for 11 years, it was like, "What am I doing with my money?" I found the opportunity to buy something of my own, and I had Vance jump in on it with me.
How long did this place take to build out?
About nine months. Vance and I have always been really great about taking a normal, existing building and turning it into something that's actually workable as a studio. It's fun working so closely with Vance. Even though there's some genre overlap, there's definitely a difference in our production styles. There have been records that have come through that Vance has been like, "You need to work with Mitch on this," and vice versa. I appreciate that relationship. It's been really easy. I'm not as strong a personality as Vance or someone like that. I'm okay with that; I'm quiet… doing my own thing and keep my nose to the grindstone. I'm just trying to keep my clients happy.
Your tracking rooms are as far away from each other as they could
It is intentional. We tried to separate the foundation of what we built on his side. Even since we've been here, we've had to tear down some walls and pack in rock wool. If Vance is tracking, especially in the hallway or close, I can hear it in my control room. Luckily, I can't hear it in my tracking room; it doesn't bleed into my tracks.
People don't realize that it's practically a myth that you can separate rooms acoustically.
You can with millions of dollars, which we didn't have! [laughs]
Your start was mostly through the Christian music world in ways, I assume?
Yeah, I would say so. I never was known as the Christian "radio" guy. I think labels skirted around me. Most artists really liked what I was doing and thought it was vibe-y. There are some "label" records where I might do the six songs that aren't the singles and have someone else do the singles. Whatever. That's fine. I do very little Christian music now. Not that I don't like Christians, [laughs] but Christian music has become somewhat of a stylistic thing.
Which seems weird, in a way
Yeah, it is very odd. I don't particularly enjoy that "style." But there are a lot of artists who come to me – folk artists who sing about their faith – and that's great. Or a rock band that might have some spiritual overtones; that's awesome. Being pigeonholed is never fun. Even if it's great music, you're still pigeonholed for it. It's still limiting. It's still telling you that you can't do something else. No one wants to hear that.
Most of your jobs are album projects at this point, top to bottom?
Yeah. Albums or EPs. I've done a couple of singles, and I don't enjoy it as much. I feel like you don't get to know the artist as well. For me, that's so much a part of how I treat the record; to get to know them. Even when I'm mixing, I know who they are and I'll think, "Oh, they'll love this," or, "They won't like this, so I'm not going to do that."
As a producer and engineer, do you ever feel like you get something out of a session that you weren't expecting?
Oh, yeah. I'm 52 years old. I've used every production trick that I know. When an artist comes in who doesn't know the rules, or has a different set of tricks, I'm quick to listen. At first, I might hear something that really throws me off, and I'm like, "Wait, can you play that chorus again?" It takes me a little bit to be like, "Oh, that's really great. I never would have thought of that." I guess my pop instincts would be to change it. I try to listen, and if it rubs me the wrong way, I ask myself, "Why? Is it wrong, or is it just different?" If it's different, is it a good different or bad different? I don't want to ever "fabricate" the music. But if their music is a forest or wilderness, my job is to carve pathways through it to make it accessible. I don't want to lose the raw wilderness of what they're doing, but I want to make it accessible for their audience. I worked with an artist a couple months ago who was reluctant to change anything. They wouldn't let me do anything with it. The verse sounded like the chorus; I couldn't tell where they started and ended. No dynamics. I ended up saying, "Let's just do one song." It was tragic, because there's a great talent there. But the wilderness was too thick.
Do you find yourself doing mixing jobs very often?
I very seldom do just mixing. There are so many other, great mix people who are in my price range. That's what they do. They mix. I can mix, but if I'm mixing it needs to be a 24-track kind of record. If it's 98 tracks, I don't know what to do with it. I don't have a lot of interest in sorting through all those tracks.
When you're doing pre-production, are you also spelling out arrangements and instruments to use?
Yeah. I came up with this production sheet that has the song title and spots I can fill in. It has the typical instruments at the top that I can circle, like drums, bass, and electric guitar. There are some oddball things, like strings, which has their own space on the sheet. It also is a mark-off sheet, so once I do the background vocals, I can mark them off. It's really handy.
That's pretty awesome. How many records a year do you think you are producing, as far as full albums or partials?
I probably do six or ten a year. The rest of the time is either filled in with small, two- or three-song deals or EPs, or I'm out on my motorcycle doing trips. I try to save time for that.
Someone told me that you typically work nine to six on weekdays.
Yeah. Most artists really like it, especially if they're from out of town. They get to go and enjoy Nashville. I'm really focused when I'm working, and I require the artist to be focused. When six o'clock rolls around, we're exhausted. It's nice for them to relax and grab a drink and dinner.
Does it also help with family life?
Oh, of course. I have two kids and a wife. Keeping a family together takes a lot of work and intentionality. Consistency helps with that, greatly.
How do jobs come to you?
I don't have any management. I get lots of artists who come through my email. I check out a lot of demos. Some are good, and some aren't.
What do you ask for when a client wants to send you a demo and work with you?
Sing into an iPhone; that's all I need. There are so many tricks one can do now where I can't tell if they have talent or not. I can hear [Antares] Auto-Tune obviously, but I don't know how much of that is put together. I want to hear them sing into a cheap microphone.
How do you select what you work on?
I try not to make the budget the key factor as much as their talent and work ethic. If they're out there working hard, they'll sell some records. Of course, budget is a factor, but I'm more willing to flex if they're really hard-working artists.
Is there any money from points these days on the projects you're doing?
Yeah, the way I work my contracts is there're no points unless they sell a certain amount of records. If they're going to sell a couple thousand out of their trunk, I don't need to be part of that. To be honest, most of my records sell maybe only 3,000 to 10,000. It's not worth even the conversation. But I get to make really cool records. That's my niche that I've carved out; I'm grateful, and I love it.
What does the future hold?
The future? If it doesn't change from now, I'll be happy. Let's make something fun and new!