Vance Powell is well known in the music and audio industry with 4 Grammy Awards and has worked with artists such as Jack White, Chris Stapleton, Seasick Steve, Clutch and most recently, The Raconteurs latest record, Help Me Stranger.
Vance is based in Nashville where he works from his studio called Sputnik Sound.
However, Vance's journey wasn't as straightforward as you might think, having worked in live sound for many years with a goal of someday working in a studio. In this interview, Vance opens up about how failures eventually led him to where he is now, the early years, charging what you deserve, tricks to use if artists are not able to get good takes, and much much more.
I think you will find some really useful information here that you can apply to your own career. Let me know in the comments what you think.
You did a lot of live sound as well as working in many different studios. But it took you a while before the momentum picked up for you, with e.g. the Grammy for The Eleventh Hour. Working at Blackbird Studio and with Jack White. How did you handle those years and how did you stay persistent?
Since I didn’t grow up rich nor had a trust fund, and becoming homeless and starving didn’t seem like a good idea, I had to work to live and eat. I’m from a small town in Missouri and there’s not a lot of bands that had any national potential. But I was a good live sound engineer and people kept hiring me. You have to go where the money is and keep doing good work.
However, I never had a goal as in “I want to be a mixer or a producer”, but I did want to work in the studio. It just took a long time to get there. When I did go to Blackbird Studio in 2002 I more or less had to put my engineering career aside to build the studio. But after 5 years I said: “Hold it, I’ve spent 5 years building this studio. I got to get back to making records again”. I had done some records from when I started at Blackbird, for example, the Eleventh Hour (Vance’s first Grammy Award) and some other albums in between. The next thing was with Jack White in 2007, but my main focus had been building the studio for 5 years.
Were you ever thinking of giving up?
I figure out that being a live sound engineer is something I was good at as well as giving people direction. I have that managerial, type A, personality. If I decided to get out of the music industry, the only thing I would be good at would be to manage a McDonalds. But I’m not skilled in much else. Maybe I could have fixed guitar amps or worked as a repair guy since I studied electrical engineering in school. But I just kept trying to force my way through and persisted till I reached my goal.
What was the best way for you to gain clients/build relationships at the beginning of your career and how has it changed over the years?
You do something that people hear, see or interact with and if people like it they will ask you to work with them. It’s the same way you get clients when you are making records, they like what they hear and they want to work with you.
A bunch of things have changed since I started till now. But in the beginning, the requests weren’t as frequent and when they were, there were offering less money. Nowadays, since my clientele level has gone up and I earn more money, so has my expenses. For example, we built a new studio 3,5 years ago and before that, we were renting. When I went from renting to buying my costs tripled. Me and my partner Mitch, we used to share the electrical bill and it was maybe 500-$600 a month, now mine alone is almost $800 in the summer.
For example, a few weeks ago, in January, I was doing a session with a band called Clutch and it was 16 degrees out so all our five air conditioner was running. The costs go up.
With success you still want to make sure that you are doing good work and that you are not doing it for the money, I have done that but I don’t want to do it again.
What is hard for you, in the beginning, to be able to charge the money you deserved?
You can compare it to being offered a job with a certain amount of money. You might think that’s good or you think you are worth more than that. If so, you negotiate: “That’s great but it would be nice if I made x plus this an hour”. The employer might say, “Too fucking bad, this is the offer”. Or they may go “We really want you so yes we will pay it.”
The same thing happens in this business. It’s the same deal.
Also, in this business, there is always someone who will work cheaper than you. For example, there is a kid somewhere with his laptop who will either produce, record and mix your record cheaper than I would ever do it. It may be better, it may not. It may be exactly what you want it to be or it won't.
The second you believe you are irreplaceable in any position you have is the moment you are in fact replaced. I had friends back when I was on the road who went to bands and said, “Look you are paying me x1000 dollars a week but I think I deserve x1000 dollar plus three”. The band responded with a no and that was because there is another guy who will work for less. So, it’s a dangerous game.
The most important part is that people don’t work for free. Free fucks the economy. Free screws everything up. If you are working for free you work is worth nothing. They can replace you in a heartbeat with someone else. Maybe they loved it and you put 12 hours in but because they paid nothing for it, it was worth nothing to them.
You have worked with many of the biggest artists in the world. What have you found works that get them inspired to perform if they are struggling to get a good take?
It depends. If you are talking about a band getting a good performance I try to keep positive and give constructive criticisms. I don’t tell people how to play things, I want them to believe that they, i.e. the band, did all the work. That they didn’t really need me. That’s how it should be. I should just be the guide. But if it starts to go wrong, I would suggest to take a break, go get a coffee, check out the coffee place down the street, have lunch. Basically, change the scene.
With singers, I kick everybody out so it’s only me and the singer.
My studio doesn’t have a studio glass. It’s all walls, but I have a door which I can look through into my tracking room. This is where usually I put the vocalist so that I can see them. But just their back because I don’t care to look at them directly, I’m listening, so that’s what I’m focusing on. I constructed it so if they wanted to see me they can turn around or I can walk out there.
Sonically, I’m trying to get it to a state where it sounds good to them. Giving them a lot of control of their headphones. For example, giving them reverb and echo-sends so they can do whatever they want to do out there. We run a few takes and if I feel that they are not getting it or it’s not as good as I think it could be, I’ll be frank and go, “Hey man, I just feel that were are not quite there. How do you feel about it?". I’ll ask questions. You got to realise it’s a partnership and you are both in it together, they need me and I need them. We have to work as a team to get this to work. Be positive.
Do you have any specific routines you like to follow before you are about to have a recording or mixing session. Enabling you to put your best work in?
If I’m doing a production gig, I listen to the band and the demos I got. Then I come in and make sure that everything I’m doing is a blank state. I don’t have any preconception of what gear to use for that sound or that sound. My goal is to come in and try to listen to whats going on and make sure things work together in the right way. Sometimes it’s hard. For example, with that Clutch record, we recorded five songs before I thought we got the drum sound I wanted. Sometimes you just have to do that. But the good news was because I set it up that way, that out of the 5 songs 3 of them of them were b-sides.
You studied electronics in high-school, how has this knowledge helped you in the studio?
This is how it helped me; I’m really good at troubleshooting issues and figuring out why something doesn’t work. Back when I was in live sound we would have very large and complicated audio system sometimes. When you were doing a tv-show or a festival you may have a 400 point all xlr patch bay for cross patching and all this stuff for multiple rigs to go here and there. You have video and audios plots, monitor splits and you have to know how to work all those things out. In the studio, we have a little tech shop and if a piece of gear is not working I’ll try to see if I can fix it.
Could you recommend any easy-to-grasp electronic concept beginners should learn so it doesn’t become overwhelming?
It does get overwhelming pretty fast, to be honest. But my grandfather who was a self-taught electronic genius, from a different time with tubes and stuff, gave me a set of books of basic electronics. It was about 6 books made by RCA. They were manuals for the first year of electronics for Navy signalmen in the 1950-60’s. Mostly about tubes, but I learned a lot from them.
There is a great book which I tell all of our interns to get. It’s called Modern Recording Techniques by John M. Woram and it came out 1976. It’s awesome because it’s all about tape and analogue technology. It’s such a good basic book on recording at its core level, which is still the same. It’s a really great book.
Do you have any techniques or tricks to get your creative juices flowing if you are in a creative rut?
Take a day off. Go do something you want to do. Creativity is directly connected with joy. So if you enjoy hiking go hiking. Or if you enjoy boating go boating. Go to guitar stores, travel, drink, etc. Do whatever that you enjoy. A lot of times we get caught up in deadlines and all that stuff and it tends to be the suck of joy and joy tends to go away.
What are your thoughts about patience?
Nobody has any. I had a mentor and he had a couple of great sayings and one of them was, “No recording should ever be an emergency”. When people call me and got to get something done, I tend to back off a bit, “Do you really wanna mix this today and put it out tomorrow?”. There is no need for that. Unless it’s done as an exercise, where the goal is to come in and record, master it in the evening and take it over to the factory to cut the vinyl.
Jack White did that, when he did the worlds faster record, in three hours. From downbeat to delivery of the record.
How many tracks were on that?
Two songs. They were cut live straight to the lacquer.
How was that experience working on that? Did you do a lot of preparation?
It was fast. We rehearsed the night before, but it was very interesting.
What excites you about making records today?
Making records it’s like having children and putting them out into the world. It’s always exciting to see what happens. I like when I get to do a record and people come back to say how much they love the record and where the songs really mean a lot to them. That’s a feeling that you can't quantify.
I heard you encountered some rough situation while doing FOH. Where headliners Would mess with your sound as an opening act. For example, Leaving the talkback mic on but hiding it and therefore causing feedback. How do you keep yourself focused and calm in those moments to be able to solve it?
I don’t know if I was calm about it. The band that did it was a Christian band at a Christian festival that somehow thought it would be funny. If you tell the story here in Nashville people here knows right away who you are talking about. That tells you a lot about the people we are talking about. Other than the 4 guys in Jars of Clay and CeCe Winans, I rarely met anyone in the Christian music industry that has anything to do with the concept of Christianity. There was a lot in the contemporary Christian world that was complete bullshit.
This was a typical situation. So what did I do? I yelled, screamed and cursed till someone figured it out. I made a scene so that people would figure it out. I have done shows with them where the subwoofer just decided to stop working. They were fine but then it just stopped. They blamed it on a bad cable. But someone had kicked the cable at the back of the stage. But they do that to people all the time.
I heard you stopped doing live sound after having done a 14-day tour with The Dead Weather in Europe. What caused you to say “No more”?
I took too long for my ears to get back to normal. It took three months.
Do you use any kind of ear protection when you mix live?
Yes, I have them in my pocket the whole time.
Do you have the special moulded ones and would you recommend getting a pair of those?
Absolutely. I think every recording engineer should use them. I have the 15 dB pad. If you play the drums I would recommend the 35 dB pad. But the 15 dB Pad on a live show works perfectly.
If you don’t have any of these earplugs and you are mixing a live show, listen to a few songs without earplugs to get the mix right and then put yours in. Nothing is going to radically change really.
Do you have a Favourite failure, something that set you up for later success?
Every single step in my career was a step made because of a failure, either mine or someone else's. Perfect example, when I lived in my hometown I worked for a super nice man as his tech. I repaired stuff for him and he had a studio which I worked in. However, he spent a fall deer hunting in the morning instead of finding work for the studio. Therefore, he got to a point where he didn’t have any work. Because of that, he had to let me go. Consequently, me getting laid off and not having enough money to live on I went to find another job. This led me to move town and I ended up working for another guy. This time around, the guy I worked for turned out to be a cocaine dealer, so I left.
Later on, I went to work for John and Martina McBride, pre Blackbird. However, Martina got pregnant, so I went out on the road with Jars of Clay. After her pregnancy and when she was ready to go back to tour again, Martina asked me join her as a monitor engineer. However, I failed and got fired. That situation put me back in Jars of Clay which led to The Eleventh Hour. That then led me to work for Blackbird which in turn led me to work for Jack White. It’s all these events which go back to my friend letting me go at Christmas because of his mistakes/failures.
I have got fired from mixing gigs because I wasn’t into the band and I was just doing it for the money. But sometimes you are totally into a band but they are not into you.
You just have to know that failure doesn’t mean you are dead.
Best purchase for you studio under $200 or less?
Are there any ideas you will take away and apply to your work/career from this interview? Let met know in the comments below!