Making of Blunderbuss with Vance Powell
Vance Powell has been White’s engineer on over 100 records in a three-year period. He talks about the making of Blunderbuss and how analogue recording doesn’t hold him back, but helps them make records faster.
Jack White may be old school, in the best sense, but on his first solo album, Blunderbuss, he appears to have taken his principles to new levels. The album has benefitted from being recorded with little noticeable compression, and mastered without any compression or limiting, which allows the music room to breathe. The album is not only a refutation of loudness orthodoxy, but in having been recorded on 8-track analogue and mixed to analogue, it also throws down a challenge to the entire 21st century record-making approach, that increasingly relies on a DAW’s endless tracks, endless editing and endless mixing capabilities. If these facts don’t give pause for thought, a listen to the album will. Regardless of whether the music is your cup of tea, there’s no denying the album’s sonic qualities, somehow combining the velvety lushness of bygone days with a 21st century presence and in-your-faceness. The mix is striking too: drums are centre-panned mono, and the wide sonic panorama has been achieved by very discrete panning of mono instruments.
At the controls during the recording and mixing of Blunderbuss, and therefore ideally placed to relate the full inside story of its making, was Vance Powell. The Joplin, Missouri, native had a background in computer programming, and live sound as well as studio engineering, when he was asked in 2001 to help set up Blackbird Studios in Nashville. During his tenure as chief engineer at Blackbird the studio expanded to one of the most important recording facilities in the US, with a strong presence of esoteric and analogue gear. In 2006 Powell joined Mitch Dane and set up his own Nashville recording facility, Sputnik Sound. Powell resigned from his post at Blackbird in 2010, because he “wanted to make records again,” rather than run a studio and train assistant engineers. Powell’s first contact with White dates from the same time he set up Sputnik when he worked on Danger Mouse and Daniel Luppi’s Rome album, on which White guested (and which was finally released in 2011). Following this White asked Powell to mix the White Stripes’ Spanish-language version of the song Conquest (2007). Powell and White clearly hit it off, and the former now divides most of his time between Sputnik and White’s Third Man Studio, which is also located in Nashville.
ANALOGUE ALL ROUND
Powell’s room at Sputnik has a Neotek Élan desk, and Studer A800s, with 16-track and 24-track headstacks, a pair of Studer A80s (½-inch and ¼-inch), a ¼-inch Studer A820, an Ampex 1-inch 8-track, and a very impressive 6-foot high outboard rack that he calls his ‘Wall of Rock’. Powell has recorded dozens of records with White at Third Man Studio, where the gear consists of a 16-channel, 1073-based Neve console originally from SABC in Johannesburg with labelling still in Afrikaans, plus two Studer A800 2-inch 8-track tape recorders, an ATR102 1-inch, lots of outboard and a choice selection of mics, many of them ribbons. So what motivates Powell, and presumably also White, to make their lives difficult and expensive with all those analogue reel-to-reels that are surely obsolete by now? There’s a whole posse of former analogue-loving engineers out there that will tell anyone who’s willing to listen that hi-resolution digital and the latest generation of A/D and D/A converters have become so good that tape has become an irrelevant relic from the past. Powell, however, is having none of it…
“Analogue still sounds better. Absolutely. I also have a ProTools rig here at Sputnik, because I’m pragmatic. I’m not some sort of crazy, throwback, retro analogue freak. In today’s markets you have to have an exceptional working knowledge of ProTools. And I like to have an exceptional working knowledge of analogue as well, because it’s my preferred way of working. People often come here with their projects on ProTools, or they need to take their project elsewhere, and so I have a very simple process of doing transfers between tape and ProTools. I can also switch between playback from tape and playback from protools at the press of a button, and I can tell you, there’s a marked difference. But for me it’s not only about the sonic texture of analogue. I think analogue is far superior for other reasons as well. Most of all, it has a far superior workflow. People sit around looking at waveforms, lining up kick drum and bass notes visually. But music was never meant to be looked at.
“Someone in my studio the other day said the greatest quote I ever heard: ‘having lots of tracks on a song is like putting a lot of stickers on your car to give it more horsepower’. If I have a mantra, it is, ‘Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should’. Just because you can put 20 channels of loops together, or can play Wurlitzer, Rhodes, piano, B3, and cheesy ’80s synths all at the same time, doesn’t mean you should. Just because you can make 50 play lists of the same solo, doesn’t mean you should. That is not good record-making. It is poor record-making. Your brain can’t hold all that information. By contrast, analogue forces the producer’s and the artist’s hand. It forces them to make decisions. It forces the engineer to put a lot of sound into a small space and make it sound large. You have to record things to tape that sound good, because there’s no endless editing or messing with the sound afterwards. What’s there is what’s there.
“The other thing is that you have a limited amount of tracks, and that forces the producer and the engineer to think ahead. If you have two tracks left and you still need to record background vocals and tambourine and a few other things, how are you going to do that? Maybe the background singers have to play the tambourine while singing. These decisions become part of the tapestry of the song. It’s not a limitation to not have endless tracks, it’s an opportunity. And you don’t really run out of tracks, because you can always copy to another machine. The Beatles had to make decisions. Somebody asked the other day what I thought The Beatles would sound like if they’d had 700 tracks. My thought was that they would probably have sounded terrible, although George Martin would hopefully have stepped in and forced them to make decisions.”
POT LUCK RECORDING
Moving on to the subject of working with White, Powell explains that Blunderbuss is one of many albums he has recorded with the singer/guitarist/producer. Other projects he worked on are all Third Man Records releases, and include mixing The Raconteurs’ Consolers Of The Lonely (2008, it won White, Powell and Joe Chiccarelli a Grammy for best-engineered non-classical album), the James Bond-movie song Another Way To Die (2008, also featuring Alicia Keys), The Dead Weather’s Sea of Cowards (2010), Wanda Jackson’s Party Ain’t Over (2011), and many others, totalling, says Powell, a whopping “100 records” in the three years of the studio’s existence. The beginning of Blunderbuss apparently was the outcome of a happy accident. Sometime in the spring of 2011, White had assembled a group of musicians for a session with RZA (Wu-Tang Clan), who cancelled the morning of. Rather than waste everyone’s time, White decided to use the occasion to run through a few of his songs.
Powell: “I had no idea at the time what we were doing. This often happens though. Jack will call me and say, ‘can you be here on Wednesday at 10’ and I’ll get there for nine, make sure everything is set up and get the tape machine aligned and then at 10 I find out what we’re doing. But I don’t need to know what we are doing. Whatever it is, we will make it happen. For the Wanda Jackson session, I knew that there’d be a rhythm section of guitar, bass, drums and piano, but I didn’t know that there would also be a steel guitar, upright bass, electric bass, a full horn section and a second guitar player. So suddenly I’m recording a 12-piece band in the studio’s 20 x 24 feet live room to 8-track tape! So nothing he’s asked of me has thrown me for a loop… yet! During that first session for what became Blunderbuss we recorded four songs. For one of them Jack sat at the piano and sang with the band playing along, and that became Trash Tongue Talker. The other three were not used on the album, though a couple were re-recorded later and may see the light of day as B-sides. After that session we worked in stops and starts on the album, a day or two at a time, but were also doing other projects. From the 1st of November 2011 through to December onwards we focused on Jack’s record, but again we didn’t work on it every day. I think in total the whole album took less than 40 full working days.
“All 13 tracks on the album were recorded with Jack and the band playing live in the studio. It was old-style recording. He was always a member of the band during tracking — he was never standing around while the band played. He’d play guitar or piano or Fender Rhodes, and on one song, I Guess I Should Go To Sleep, he sang and then later played piano and then played the drums to his own piano playing. So there were overdubs. When Jack’s recording his lead vocals and guitar it’s usually just him and I and my assistant Josh Smith in the studio. I remember that one day Jack came into the studio, and wasn’t feeling good because of having the flu or something, and he sang the vocals for Missing Pieces, Blunderbuss, and also played the guitar solos on Missing Pieces, and what he played and sang was so emotionally fantastic that these became the final takes. Every now and then a whole song would happen right there and then and it was done. This was the case with Love Interruption, which was two live vocals, live guitar, live Wurlitzer, live clarinet, and there’s a bass clarinet overdub, but done immediately afterwards. How often does that happen with music today? Ruby Amanfu was singing while still reading the lyrics! That stripped down version was recorded just after the full band version was laid down, which we ended up not using.
“I would guess 80% of the songs are laid down in one take, to which other instruments were overdubbed. In 20% of cases there were some tape edits, like I’m Shakin we edited in the solo. The studio has a couple of small booths, and a small entry foyer, each one with a different acoustic, though almost everything was done in the main room. We had a small screen in front of the drums, but there was a lot of bleed. Almost the entire record was done with upright bass, and there was guitar bleed in the drums, drums in the bass, guitar on the piano, guitar in the drums, and so on. It made everything sound very cohesive. And, of course, recording like that and also going to tape raised the stakes for everybody. But shouldn’t that be what recording is about? You’d be amazed about the amount of bands that get scared when I start talking about recording to tape. They think they’re not good enough. Sometimes they aren’t, but that has never stopped anyone from doing it. And they may become better in the process of doing it and trying to get it right. For me it’s great when someone says, ‘f**k it, let’s record to analogue!’”
The electric guitar distortion on the solo in Take Me With You…I realised that I was blowing the 1073 up!
Unsurprisingly, the signal chains used by Powell to record Blunderbuss featured a collection of mostly old and vintage mics, particularly many ribbons, almost all of them going through Third Man’s 16-channel, 4-bus, dual mono 1073-based Neve desk. “Jack has an old Ludwig kit from the 1960s,” said Powell. “And I put an AKG D12 in front of the kick drum, and an SM57 on the snare, top and bottom, an AEA R92 on each of the toms, although I did not always use them, and an AEA R88 stereo ribbon over the drums. All of these were mixed to mono, and sometimes I’d keep the D12 separate. All the mics come into the Neve, and I’ll sometimes add a bit of 1176 compression on the snare top mic, very occasionally I’ll also use the 1176 on the kick or one channel of Jack’s Fairchild 670, just a little bit to get the meter barely moving. I’ll also put a Drawmer gate on the bottom and top snare mics, and set it so that the attack of the top snare mic is gating the bottom snare mic, but leave the gate off the top. I’ll set the depth to 10dB, so it’s just gating a little. All the drums go to a bus on the desk with either a Neve 33609 or a RCA BA6A tube compressor, depending on the sound we want. Jack also has an Ampex MX35 4-channel tube mixer, and I’ll mult the kick and snare to that, and sometimes all the drums, and bring that up on one channel on the Neve, so I can mix it in. Sometimes I’ll turn it way up, so it is distorting. That basically is the drum sound.
“Bryn Davies played the upright bass for most of the time, and I used an RCA 44 at the F-hole, and sometimes on the neck of the bass an AEA R92 ribbon, and we also had a DI and I had a Neumann U67 on the amp. These four channels again went to one track. I later used an RCA BK5a on the F-hole, which sounded better, but I wasn’t aware of that in the beginning. I compressed the bass to tape with channel two of Jack’s 670. The electric guitars were easy; I used a Neumann U67 going into the line input of the 1073. It was the same thing with the U67 I had on the bass amp. If you take a U67 and put it in front of a screaming 1963 Fender Vibroverb, the output level is too hot for the mic pre. People don’t realise that the U67 will take as much level as you can throw at it, and the output level can come up to 0dB. By the way, never turn the mic pad on — the pad sucks. When the 67 came out, most people’s mic preamps’ lowest gain setting was -35-45dB, which was too much gain for a loud amp.”
“The electric guitar distortion on the solo in Take Me With You was the result of me having an R92 in the room with the AEA TRP dual-mono ribbon microphone preamp. I moved the ribbon mic over to where the electric guitar was because I wanted to use two different mics for the solo, but forgot about the mic pre on the floor and when I patched it into the mic input of the console, and brought the fader up, I realised that I was blowing the 1073 up! But it sounded so great, we kept it. The piano was recorded with a Neumann FET47 and on I Guess I Should Go To Sleep a Neumann stereo SM2, and the B3 with an AEA R92 at the top and the bottom and that I put through a nice Neve 2254 compressor or an 1176. Jack’s vocal chain was an RCA 77DX going into the TRP, and occasionally I used a Neumann U47. Most of the other instruments were also recorded with ribbons, and I also used the TRP for recording quieter instruments, like the mandolin. Jack has one TRP and I have one, and I’d have it next to the mic, so it can go line level to the mixer. But I’d always run it through the Neve, because I wanted the sound of the 1073s. The mics I used would have been a Coles 4038 on the mandolin, a RCA 77 or a Coles 4038 on the fiddle, and an AEA R92 on the clarinet. The pedal steel is the easiest instrument to record on the planet: the venerable SM57 wins the game every day, just put it in front of the amp.
BEATING THE MIX
Although Powell’s focus during tracking was on capturing everything exactly as White and he wanted them to sound, there nevertheless was more to the mix than simply running off the monitoring mixes to 1-inch. Powell: “We didn’t have an elaborate mixing process, but the idea was to mix the album close to the monitor mixes, but better. We took maybe 3-4 hours to mix a song, and would do up to four mixes a day. Only mixing Sixteen Saltines took a while. Jack has a custom 20-channel monitoring mixer made by Fred Hill here in Nashville, which probably is the best playback mixer I’ve heard in my life. It sounds better than the 1073s, and I suppose it’s because it has very little electronics in it. It’s all Neve components and simply sounds beautiful. Jack really loved the monitor mixes and wanted me to try to get the same sound, and so what I did was come out of the tape machine, bypass the channel strips of the console, and patch straight into the insert returns, so basically there’s little EQ or compression on the tracks in the mix.
“We really tried to stay away from effects on this record. There are few noticeable effects. The effects on Jack’s vocals in I’m Shakin’ and Trash Tongue Talker stem from the monitor mixes. The vocal in I’m Shakin’ was recorded with a small Ampex mic Jack used to talk to the band in the room, that went into a small powered Ampex 602 speaker. I put a Shure SM57 in front of that. I said to him: ‘it’s buzzing,’ and he said, ‘that’s OK, it sounds great!’ I also would always have a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo on the vocals for monitoring. We have five of them between us, Jack has three and I have two. At least one was running pretty much all the time, and on Trash Tongue Talker it gave just the right sound, so during mixing we tried to find the same setting again. In addition, there may be a bit of reverb from an EMT plate or from one of the spring reverbs (Master Room, Furman, Fender, Premier or SilverTone), or from a guitar amp. On Take Me With You When You Go there’s a tiny bit of spring reverb on the vocals, for example, and that’s it.
“There’s some compression on some of the vocals and guitars — typical mix things. This record isn’t very different to any of the other records I have mixed other than that is has less tracks and fewer effects. Jack’s Neve has Flying Faders and we used that a lot. When you’re mixing a normal record and you want to have more snare drum, you just turn the snare drum up a bit, but on this record I’d push up the fader a little every time the snare hit on the drum track. We needed Flying Faders to be able to do that, without having 20 [stuff-ups] in the mix. The same thing with vocals; you have to ride vocals. But there was not an enormous amount going on. One piece of gear that we really liked using was the Opticom XLA-3. It’s made by Al Sutton, of Acme Audio in Detroit, and four years ago he came down to Blackbird and he brought this half-broken-looking thing with him, that literally looked like an audio abortion of sorts. I checked it out, and I was immediately smitten by what it did. I bought one from him, and after five minutes of listening to what it could do, Jack also got one. It does what a Fairchild does, but almost better and considerably less expensive! I’m big on parallel compression and I took the drums, and sometimes the drums and the bass, put them through the Opticom, and then added a little bit back in the bus. I used it on every track on the album, apart from Love Interruption, because it has no bass or drums.
“The final mix went to the ATR102 Mike Spitz custom-built 1-inch at 15ips. I used an API 2500 on the bus mix, and that was it. I sequenced the album manually into an A-side and a B-side. The album was mastered by Bob Ludwig, and the CD and the vinyl versions sound exactly the same. Jack wanted no post-mix compression or limiting. So the CD is as loud as a 1980s CD. Bob was very excited about the concept of not having to play the game of trying to beat the loudest record out there, and instead making an artistic mastering statement. So he did a little bit of EQ and rode the levels and did whatever he did, and it came back the same, but better. Which is exactly what mastering should be. I was more fearful than Jack of the record not being loud enough and not being competitive and all that, but he was just like: ‘I think it sounds great!’”