Vance Powell at Sputnik Sound
By Paul Vnuk Jr.
It has been 11 years since The Raconteurs recorded Consolers of the Lonely, but sometime last year Jack White (vocals, guitar), Brendan Benson (vocals, guitar), Jack Lawrence (bass guitar), and Patrick Keeler (drums) entered White’s studio at Third Man Records to cut their latest LP, Help Us Stranger, which is set for release on on June 21st, 2019.
The album was tracked by Joshua Vance Smith (Vance’s former assistant) and it was mixed by Vance Powell at his Nashville-based studio Sputnik Sound. Vance
previously mixed Consolers of the Lonely at Blackbird Studio (Nashville) as well as numerous other Jack White projects at Jack’s Third Man Studio. Vance was kind enough enough to sit down with us and let us in on the process.
- The Dirty Knobs — Recording Wreckless Abandon
- Remixing John Lennon
- Vance Powell On Mixing The Raconteurs’ Help Us Stranger
- Steinberg Cubase Power Tips With Sound Designer Robert Dudzic
- On Mixing
- The Art Of Cooking Up A Good Mix!
- Tracking and Mixing for Solid Lows
- Observations On Mixing
- 10 Tips for Better Low End
- Multiband Dynamics
The kind of mouthwatering creation we want to make is the kind your listeners will remember, talk about and crave more of… Obviously you need the main ingredient (good songs!), but you also need the right condiments, the salt, the spices, and all that good stuff that elevates a dish from plain-tasting to incredibly delicious and full of flavor, rich in subtleties and aftertaste. Hopefully the artist has the main ingredient covered, which leaves you with the responsibility to make the songs sing, whether there are vocals or not!
For the sake of this cooking class I will assume that we are dealing with a standard rock band with drums, bass, guitars and vocals, but rest assured that a lot of what you’ll learn here can also be applied, judiciously and tastefully, to other genres as well.
For starters, tell me about Sputnik Sound.
Vance Powell: At Sputnik Sound I mix on an SSL 6000E console with the original computer automation and recall. It is pretty highly modded, and it has an API summing bus in it, so the SSL channels dump into an API summing bus. And then I have a sizable plethora of outboard gear. I call it the “Wall of Rock,” but it’s the normal stuff—I just have a bunch of it.
What monitors do you mix on?
I use the Studio 100 from ProAc.
Do you have other alternate monitors to check mixes on?
Those are pretty much all I have mixed on for the last 12–15 years, those and more often than not my Yamaha NS-10s. I also have a set of Atomic Industries Reactors, the big boys, for blasting the client.
What format did you mix from?
This record was initially cut on Jack’s 2″ 8-track, and then it was transferred over to Pro Tools for edits and overdubs, so the record came to me as a 24/96 Pro Tools session.
It was recorded using Burl converters at Third Man; I also have Burl converters here, so I mixed it with those as well.
So the initial tracking was just 8 tracks… how many tracks of drums?
With the exception of one song, the whole album came to me with just two tracks of drums.
Yeah, so if you wanted more kick drum, you just had to boost 80 to 100Hz, and if you wanted more hi-hat or
cymbals, you would add some 10kHz.
Josh did a great job tracking it, and Patrick’s a great drummer. He plays really balanced so it worked out really well.
You mentioned that your SSL still has the original computer automation. Do you still make use of that, or do you do do most of your automation in Pro Tools?
I absolutely use the console automation the whole time. I do not use any Pro Tools automation, unless it’s in a [pre-mixed] group, or something that I do not have enough physical channels for.
I know from our previous interview that you are comfortable working in a hybrid approach and are a fan of plug-ins, Universal Audio in particular. Did you use any plug-ins on the album while mixing?
On this record, Jack’s original edict was that he really did not want to use plug-ins for things. The reality was, though, that when Josh and Brendan were tracking the record, they put some plug-ins on things to initially sort of shape the tone, like adding brightness to a guitar or whatnot. In a few places, we left that, because it just ended up being the right sound.
Most of the time, however, we used the EQ from the desk, and anywhere they might have used a compressor plug-in, I took that off and re-did it analog.
As far as effects are concerned, it’s all just Fulltone Tape Echo or my Echoplate 3 plate, no plug-ins. On the song “Hey Gyp,” the drums are going through a MasterRoom 301 spring reverb.
When you started mixing, did you hear roughs or demos first?
VP: Nope, no demos. Everyone was here in the room, and I just thew up the faders and got a balance I liked on my big speakers. Then we just listened for what was missing, and everyone threw in ideas. Then I would go from my big speakers down to my ProAcs for mixing, and then end up on the NS-10s for automation.
We would fire up the FM transmitter and Jack would go out and listen to the mix in his car. Sometimes I would print a mix and make a 24/44.1 WAV file to put on a USB drive, and he would take that out to his Tesla.
They posted a video about that process on YouTube.
The thing with a car is that it’s not a perfect listening environment, and the transmitter is not the perfect transmission medium, but what it does do is give you an idea of what the song will sound like in a real-world radio situation.
I guess the “car mix” is pretty universal, as most of my clients always check their mixes in the car.
Exactly. The important thing is that Jack knows “the sound of his car,” and he trusts it.
Let’s dig into the mix, starting with the drums.
I have a chain that I normally use for kick and snare, and I used the same chain here on the left and right stereo. It was an Empirical Labs Distressor for compression, and for EQ I have a pair of vintage API 550As. I would link the Distressors as a stereo pair, set it so about one or two lights would light up at about 4:1 compression, and just touch it. I would then add a little bit of EQ, and that was it.
How about Jack Lawrence’s bass tracks?
The bass tracks came in sounding really nice—a combination of DI and miked cabinet. I would mix those through a Retro Instruments reissue of the STA-Level and I also have a dbx 510 Subharmonic Synthesizer, called the the “Disco Boom box.” I would put the bass through that; some of Jack’s guitar solos went through that, too, as a parallel process.
For guitars, the sound of Jack White guitars is pretty specific…
It does not matter who records it, it does not matter the guitar he plays, or what amp he plays. It’s all in his hands.
How much leeway did you have when it came time to mix the guitars?
I kind of know from working with him that there are certain things he likes and certain things that he’s just not going to fly with. For instance, he always likes his guitar to be on the left and he likes Brendan’s to be on the right. He likes his vocal to be a little bit to the left and Brendan’s to be a little bit to the right. So we continued that working method from the last record, that’s how it was mixed.
Back to guitars, he likes to hear any added effects in the right channel. So if there is anything on the guitar—like echo that wasn’t something he played and I added—it will be in the right.
Overall on the guitars we did not do a lot and really just left them as is. Maybe a little plate reverb from time to time, and some 1176 on his main guitar channel, and 1176 on Brendan’s main guitar channel.
Did you EQ the guitars much?
I really tried to keep them as they were recorded, as much as possible.
Moving to vocals: what is the Jack White mixdown vocal chain?
That’s kind of an interesting deal; what we did was to set up two channels on the desk for Jack, and two channels for Brendan. Now you are asking, “Why two channels?”
Why two channels?
Because I don’t really use any EQ on the vocals. Instead I’ll use one fader with a compressor on it and another fader without it. So one is exactly as recorded, and the other is a little compressed—or even a lot compressed, depending on what it needs. I will then blend the faders, both panned exactly the same—again, Jack slightly on the left and Brendan on the right. I used a Retro Instruments 176 Limiting Amplifier on Jack and a Chandler RS124 for Brendan.
What about keyboards? I’m guessing it is safe to assume these are all real, with no virtual instruments.
Jack has a great Hammond B-3… actually, it’s a super-hopped up A-100, the red one from the White Stripes. He’s got a great piano, a Wurlitzer, a couple Moogs, a real Mellotron.
For the piano on this record, did you get one track or two?
Two, usually. He has a Steinway upright and he puts these weird Russian ribbon mics up behind it. I don’t know what they are, but they sound really good.
There is one song on the album that’s essentially a piano song, and we tried to get the piano to sound as much like a grand piano as possible. So I boosted the low end and put a little plate reverb on it. Then I kept the panning of the mics sort of 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock.
How about the organ tracks with the Leslie cabinet—did you pan those super-wide, or more mono?
It depends on the track.
Was the Leslie miked with three mics, say, stereo top and mono bottom?
Yes, but they always came to me already blended to stereo, because I taught my assistant correctly. It irritates me to no end when I get three channels of Leslie! [laughs]
It also irritates me when people mic the horn on opposite ends at 180足. Only one side of the horn works—the other side is plugged shut, and just there for weight balance. So if you mic it that way, it comes at you and goes away really irritatingly… [Vance hums a tone and cuts it off, and repeats to demonstrate]
I usually put the mics in the opening on the back side of the cabinet, at about a 90足 angle. That way, if you need to put it in mono, it still works.
Jack White albums in general have a grit or a distortion to them; did you add any of that during mixdown?
No, none, that was all done in tracking.
Did you do any 2-bus processing?
I have an API 2500 bus compressor that I really like for glue and a Mäag EQ4M mastering EQ.
Anything else we should know about this record, that I haven’t asked about?
Everyone was very focused, it’s very much a band record. Everyone had an equal say, and everybody had to agree. It’s been ten years since the last record—everyone has had kids and gotten married and grown up [laughs], you know what I mean?
There is a song that Brendan sings that to me personally is just wonderful—kinda one of the best songs I have ever heard—and Jack has a song that closes the record that is just fantastic.
The song writing is great, the performance is great. This is a very cool record, I think people will really dig it.
Thanks, Vance. We can’t wait!
Thank you, Paul.