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Tracking A Record In A Day with Vance Powell

Grammy winning engineer explains how he breezes through instrumental recordings
Published July 2018
By Will Betts

For this month’s video feature, Vance Powell granted us access to his recording studio at Sputnik Sound in Nashville during an ambitious tracking session. On the other side of the glass were instrumental ‘Horror Surf’ band Go! Tsunami, and the objective was to track an entire 11‑song album, A Day At The Beach, in a single day.  

“Nobody has the time or the budget for extended sessions,” says Powell. “Nobody has three days to get sounds. Nobody has that time any more… unless there's something that I'm missing. Here in Nashville, when I started doing the first few country sessions, it was a 10 o'clock downbeat. Drummers came in at 9 o'clock and by 9:15 you had drum sounds, then you had to get everybody else — six- or seven-piece bands of session guys. They're not going to show up early to get sounds, so it should just work. You've just got to be fast.”

Conversely, the engineer can only move as fast as the musicians, meaning that “Being very well rehearsed is important. The most important part!” The band whose session we’re documenting here — hockey mask-wearing surf-rock band Go! Tsunami — are just that. Another factor working in Powell’s favour was the simplicity of the line-up: a single guitar, bass, drums and Hammond organ, with not a vocalist in sight.

It’s What You Know

Vance has his own studio at Sputnik Sound in Nashville, the recording facility he founded with producer Mitch Dane in 2006, and knowing the live and control rooms is certainly a critical factor in getting results quickly. “It's my room, so I know what it sounds like. And I've done this before, so it's not like I was trying out a whole bunch of new things.”

Go! Tsunami's Mr. Tentacles hits the skins but because of the gobos either side of the kit, there's virtually no bleed into the guitar amp mics.

One key aspect is the physical arrangement of the band within the live room. Vance used a technique commonly attributed to legendary recording engineer Glyn Johns: “I set up the drums and then put the guitars on either side. I read in his book where he's talking about it and I was like "Oh, that's cool, I'm going to try it" — and then, sure enough, it works great. It’s just putting the guitar amps on the same line as the kick drum, put a gobo between the drums and the amp, and close mic the amps. It just feels to me like everything's all sort of — and I know this is gonna sound weird — all played in the same time frame. It just feels like it's right.”

With this particular technique, bleed doesn’t seem to present much of a problem either. “If you were to solo the kick drum track or the snare drum track, there's no guitar in it. There might be a little bit in the overhead but not much. And the room mic — I did an XY pair so you hear both sides of the room. You hear an amp on the left side and an amp on the right side in the room so it's great.”

Spaced Out

In this instance, the two guitar amps, one either side of the drum kit, were played simultaneously by Go! Tsunami guitarist Ted, aka Riptide. “I wanted him to play through two amps to basically have the difference of tone between the two, and to have it spread out to have it wider in the room, since there was only one guitar.”

The guitar amp to the left of the drum kit was a Fender Princeton miked up with a Shure SM57 and a Neumann U67. On the right side of the photo, you can see the gobo separating the amp from the drums.Upon removing his mask, Keys player Stan Overboard ceased to exist.Each amp was close miked with a Neumann U67 and a Shure SM57. “It’s a tone thing,” he says. “If I wanted to be a little deeper and a little scooped in the mid-range and a little crisper with a bit more top end I'll use the 67. It's a little more ‘pretty’ sounding. If I want it to be a little more pointy and nostrilly in that 2k-3k range, a 57 has that presence boost, so I'll use the 57. I'll just blend those two together, try to get the best guitar sound but having either one a little louder or a little lower and figure out where the sweet spot is between the two. Sometimes if you pan them you get what I call a 'faux stereo image’.” (The dual amp setup meant that wasn’t required for this session.)

The Chandler Limited REDD Microphone was used for capturing the bass amp, situated in its own isolation booth due to the high volume.Although bleed between the guitars and drums may not pose a problem, both the Leslie speaker driven by the Hammond B3 organ and the Ampeg bass amp were, says Powell, turned up “really loud”. They both earned their own isolation booths, and the former was miked with two Sennheiser MD421s, spaced and pointing at the rotating horns, plus a Shure Beta 52 directed at the drum. The bass amp was miked with Chandler Limited’s REDD Mic — a large diaphragm valve capacitor mic with an integral EMI-designed REDD.47 preamp.

Drum Miking

The so-called 'knee mic' is an Ampex 1101 dynamic mic, designed for use with tape recorders. This mic placement is referred to by Moses Schneider as the 'wurst' mic.As far as drum miking goes, it helps to have a few tried-and-tested mic setups. “I have certain things in my room that I know I am always gonna use. The drum mics are pretty much always going to be the same,” says Powell. For kick drum, these are a combination of an AKG D12 and a Neumann U47 FET on the resonant head, while a Shure SM57 resides on snare top and an Ampex 1101 dynamic mic — referred to as the ‘knee mic” by Powell — is positioned between the batter side of the kick and the body of the snare. This position predominantly picks up kick, snare and toms, rather than cymbals, meaning it can be then be processed heavily to give the drums more character — a technique employed not only by Vance but by engineers such as Moses Schneider.

The underrated Sony C48s were used on the toms while the ubiquitous SM57 serves as snare mic.While this setup is Vance’s go-to for drum miking — a jumping-off point he uses when trying to track as much as possible in a single day — he still gives himself some room to experiment. “You know the thing that changes: tom mics change. Sometimes I use [Sennheiser MD]421s, sometimes I'll use [AEA] R92 ribbons. On this one I used [Sony] C48s. It just depends. I'll just get a wild hair and try something different. Overhead is a thing that changes for me too. Sometimes I'll do a mono condenser, sometimes I use the [AEA] R88 stereo coincident XY ribbon and sometimes I'll use a Coles — it just depends. If I feel like the drums just need to be kind of dark and old-sounding I'll use a Coles. If it needs to be like the cymbals left and right, if it needs some space I'll use a stereo mic, the R88. If I feel like it needs to be a little more modern-sounding I'll use a condenser for the overheads.” This time, the R88 made the cut.

Speed Of Sounds

Vance’s career has seen him riding the front-of-house faders for many large touring bands, giving him a cool-headed approach when time is short and pressure is high. “When you're in live sound, you’ve basically got about a song and a half to get your mix together.” In Vance’s live sound days, this meant guessing at mic preamp gains and EQ curves. “This is a little bit the same thing,” he says of the Go! Tsunami session. In essence, he performs a soundcheck with the drums, then the guitars and bass, and then gets the whole band to play together. We start working on the first song and I keep working on it as we go.

Riptide (left) and Stingray Jr. communicate only via the medium of plucked strings.

“If you're working this quickly, you should commit as much as you can, because we're trying to capture this moment in time. We are printing surf reverbs on the guitars and some echo on the organ, just try to make as much of the record as we possibly can at one time. That's the way I like to work. But, by the same token it's not for the squeamish because once you're committed, you're committed.”

Fortunately, committing in the DAW age doesn’t completely cut off the engineer’s escape routes. “If I don't get something, there's almost always a way to get yourself out of it. If somehow when you're tracking, maybe you compress the snare too much, well there are ways to get out of it. Try to find a snare from another session. You can always add a snare hit in just underneath it to put some transients back into it or something like that. It's not quite as serious as it was back in the tape days, but to me I think the sound of a record is in the tracking. It's not in the mix.”

Processing

Vance uses RCA BA-11A tube preamps for the guitar mics. You can make out the 'GTR II (R) 57' on the tape below the fourth channel.Part of being fast is knowing the sounds that you want and for this project, Vance knew the objective: “The guitars on this are all going through my old RCA BA-11As,  which are tube preamps from the late 50s early 60s. No EQ, no compression or anything like that. I'm using a little bit of the Manley Vari-Mu on the bass amp and bass DI. Then kick and snare go through 1176 [compressors] and API 550 [EQs]. Very simple, not a lot of stuff going on.”

On the left of the image are Vance's Polysaturator and Beardverb pedals that he uses on the insert for the so-called 'knee mic'.One of Vance’s signature processing tricks is to add some guitar pedal effects to the previously mentioned ‘knee mic’. “It's basically this Pigtronix Polysaturator pedal and this custom pedal that was made for me by a good friend of mine, Lowell Reynolds, called the Beardverb. It's an analogue delay distortion pedal. As the band's playing, I solo it and get it in time.”

The effect is akin to the tape delay used on Led Zeppelin’s ‘When The Levee Breaks’ drum sound and can be dialled in to create a triplet effect. “It just adds a little bit of distortion and grit and strangeness to the drum track,” explains Powell.

Vance is the proud owner of a highly modified SSL 6000 E-series console. His specific model is the variant designed for film so it doesn’t feature built-in console pres. For this reason, Vance uses exclusively outboard preamps, “I'm using the UTA four-channel mic pre, Eric Valentine's mic pre. It's fantastic. And the Classic Audio Products of Illinois (Jeff Steiger’s) CAPI mic pres. They are really great. A few others, Rupert Neve Designs mic pres, some Burl mic pres and I've got a couple of AEA mic pres in play here.”

He does, however, use the desk not only for all of his tracking EQ, but also for summing tracks for recording to Pro Tools: “I use the desk to sum the two kick drum channels to one channel, two snare drum channels to one channel. and three B3 channels to two channels. And that's it.”

Playing Together

When the musicians are well rehearsed, as Go! Tsunami were, only two or three takes of each song need be captured. These can be edited together later to form composite performances, but it’s vital to make sure that good takes of each song section have been captured. Vance Powell does this in old-school fashion: “I had a little notepad… and I just have a checkmark note system.”

By keeping a note of which A section, B section and C sections are good, Vance has a quick visual reference for when a whole take can be comped and the band can progress to the next track. Working on this level meant that he could make rapid edits as soon as the band finished their last take. He describes his use of Pro Tools for editing as “sort of like a tape machine — you cut sections.”

The Mix

Thanks to the preparation and experience of Vance Powell and the band, tracking was indeed completed in a day — as was the bulk of the mixing. “I think I mixed eight songs in one day the first day and then [three the next].” The reason for that, explains Vance is because he was in control of the whole process from start to finish. “It’s because I recorded it, I printed things as we went — I created the sound of it as we went. And then they're instrumental. There's no background vocals, vocals, all the riding of that stuff. You just get it to sound kind of badass and then the mix is done so, great! I love instrumentals. I think I need to do just instrumental records from now on!

“The only thing I wanted to do for the mix was to make it a little tougher-sounding. Meaning, to push the distortion on the bass a little more, push a little more of the growly noisy elements. The rough sounded really good but I wanted it to sound a little tougher, so I may have pushed the band into parallel bus compression a little more. I don't want to say ‘smashing it’ because that's not the point by any means. That's not what I did at all, but just getting it more forward, getting everything closer to you in the mix.”

Vance’s Powell’s console doesn’t have the well-known SSL bus compressor; instead, his mixes feed an ‘API-style’ CAPI mix bus with Scott Lieber's Red Dot 2520-style amps and transformers.

Vance Powell at his modified SSL 6000 E-Series console.

Beyond making it sound “tougher”, the mix was mainly a case of finding a space in the frequency spectrum for each instrument, as Vance explains. “The bass drum was down at the bottom, the bass guitar was right above it and the snare’s in there. You're just finding a place for everything so there's not a lot of frequencies masking over the top of each other. I may push certain frequencies on the left side guitar amp and then I'll take completely different frequencies on the right side guitar amp just to make them feel wider, to put them in different places.”

Trade-offs

Mission completed, then; but does Vance Powell advocate working this way for preference? There are, unsurprisingly, pros and cons. “You try your best to not trade off quality and you try your best to not trade off good decisions. Time always makes better decisions. The good thing is that by just doing it straight up and just cutting it and being done with it,  you are in fact just done with it. All those decisions are made.”

Another drawback of recording an entire record in a day is that, with so many different parts being recorded, occasionally something will get forgotten. “We pretty much got everybody done the first day except for Ted, the guitar player, or Riptide as we call him. We overdubbed on the whole record and we forgot in a song that there was a solo. Like, we totally forgot! I had him come back for me to mix and we did that solo and we did some other guitars because we weren't so stressed out on time.”

Vance’s parting advice for recordists everywhere is this: “I would suggest everybody try it once and then that's it. Don't ever do it again. Sometimes bands come in and they're so well rehearsed you can actually pull that off. And if that's the case, then why not try it?”

The product of these sessions, Go! Tsunami's brand new record A Day At The Beach, is available now from all the major download and streaming platforms.

Published July 2018