Shell Rock, IA — December 2018… Six-time Grammy award winning producer, engineer and mixer Vance Powell, whose credits include a dizzying array of superstars including, Chris Stapleton, Jack White, Arctic Monkey, Martina McBride, Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown, The White Stripes, Brad Prairie and others, is a Chandler Limited user and recently took time out to give us the low-down on producing the latest Clutch record “Book of Bad Decisions,” and his use of our EMI Abbey Road Studios REDD Microphones in the process.
CL: Vance, you’ve experienced the REDD Microphone for a while now, in fact you were an early adopter and own a pair at this point. Can you tell us a little about what has drawn you to it?
VP: Well...The thing I like about them is that, they sound like something I know, I know that sounds a little weird. They don’t sound like something I have to learn, they sound like something I know. Now, what is that, that I know…well, that’s a tough one! They don’t exactly sound like U47, they don’t exactly sound like a U67. They definitely don’t sound like a 251 or C12, they just sound right to me, and I don’t know the correct way to say that. I’m a big U47 fan, I really love them, it’s closer to that in my mind, probably than anything else. But, [with the REDD Microphone] I just didn’t feel like I have to reach for EQ or to add anything…it just felt right, felt like it sounded good, and it works! I love the fact that you don’t have to use a preamp with it, that is has the preamp built into it. I have used it with an external preamp [1073,] you know, with the gain all the way down…but normally I just run it straight into my RS124 compressor and that’s a pretty great sound.
CL: What sources have you been applying them to?
VP: At this point, obviously vocals…acoustic guitar—it’s really great—, overheads, kick drum, and I’d say electric bass amp.
CL: Have you found a certain sweet spot and or combination of settings you gravitate towards?
VP: Yeah, it just depends…I like the ‘Drive’, but not always, it’s cool on bass, but on vocals, overheads and kick drum I do without it; beyond that…it’s more of a gain thing. I try not to turn the PAD on, and I do like Low-Contour voicing for vocals.
CL: What’s REDD Microphone meant to your workflow?
VP: It’s just fast, it’s made things fast! I had a client last week, we were literally doing last minute overdubs right over the mix—because we didn’t have enough time to recall a mix before it had to be done—so, we did an acoustic guitar overdub over the top of the mix. It was great, we just had it out there and I just moved it down, put it in place, she played along with it and it just worked, it was great.
CL: You’ve been traveling with them too, how has that been for you?
VP: It’s been great, we took them up to Vermont for a project, I just took them up to Power Station for a record.
CL: Let’s talk about this amazingly rocking yet groovy—heavy groovy—Clutch album “Book of Bad Decisions”, that you produced, engineered and mixed. On first listen the tracks really hit you, the energy has been captured to a T, personal favorites so far include Spirt of 76 and Book of Bad Decisions, Sonic Counselor and Hot Bottom Feeder. Have you worked with Clutch prior to this album?
VP: I had not. This is my first time working with them; I went and spent three days on the road with them—rode the bus, did the whole deal with them—which was great; it reminded me of my old days. I spent the first night at front of house watching the show, and then the next two nights, one on stage left, one on stage right, because I wanted to hear what was going on the guitarist’s [Tim Sult] side, and the next night I wanted to hear what was happening on Dan [Maines] and Neil’s [Fallon] side of the stage. It was interesting because I was trying to hear what was happening on stage without all the amplification and things from front of house…and the reality is that they’re a really, really great live band. Neil’s a great front man, great pitch, sings great, they’ve got great words and songs. It’s funny, because they didn’t play Spirt of 76 on the road that I saw, they played Book of Bad Decisions once, there’s a song on the record called ‘In walks Barbarella,’ that was called ‘Top Box.’ They also played a song called ‘How to Shake Hands’; I was just watching the crowd with that. There’s a really cool song in there called ‘Emily Dickinson,’ and I love the fact that Neil’s up there in full rock fury mode screaming ‘Emily Dickinson’ at a bunch Clutch fans; which is great because I’m on this Clutch group on Facebook and it’s universally loved by their fans and didn’t think it would be, but it’s really funny how much people love this song. They appreciate the band, they appreciate Neil’s lyrics and I love that. It’s cool because they’re successful because of their fans, not radio, not hype or promotion or anything, it’s because the fans love them and because of that, they do well; that’s the best ever!
CL: How did you meet them, and I guess going on the road with them was part of pre-production?
VP: Yeah sort of…Basically what happened was…their last couple of records were very successful and really great. The band wanted to do something else, the last thing producer’s want to hear is— ‘hey we want to go in a different direction,’ the reality is every band wants do that, even the Beatles did it, it happens. So, they’d decided they wanted to try something different. Their drummer Jean-Paul [Gaster] had heard The Dead Weather record I’d done with Jack White, Alison, Dean and Jack Lawrence a few years back and he’d also become a Chris Stapleton fan. He looked up who’d done Chris Stapleton and found it was the same guy that did The Dead Weather, So out of the blue I got an email from him. I’d been a fan for a long time and I said— ‘I’d love to, that’d be great!’ Michael [A.E. Michael Fahey] and I went to Louisville—around May/June of last year —and met them. They’re all very quiet—backstage at a Clutch show, the guys are reading books and J.P. practicing—, it’s just really low-key which is awesome and great. I’m sort of more outgoing and gregarious than they are and thought— ‘oh man, I’d blown it because I’m talking they’re ear full.’ J.P. and I talked more, and he asked— ‘How do you like to record?’ I said, ‘You guys are a band and you play live, let’s just set up and we’ll work and play, work on the songs and come up with ideas…’ he said— ‘Yes, that’s what we want to do.’
CL: How did you end up running the session, was it recording scratch tracks live and then replacing it all with isolated tracking?
VP: I’m not sure how they were working before, though, I think it was a little more constructed— like a lot of metal records are really tight, 8 bars, that’s the verse twice, a lot of editing— I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to capture what they were doing and capture it ‘live’. Now…I think people think ‘capturing it live,’ it’s live vocals, one take, that’s not how we did it. No, of course that’s not how we did it. What I did do is, I had everybody play at the same time, instead of— ‘okay J.P. plays, now were going to get Dan in on bass, over this part that I’ve edited into a million pieces, now we’re going to get Tim to play, even though they played it all at once, we’re going to throw all that away and record it again until it’s perfect,’ I just wasn’t interested in that.
I would get Neil out on the floor, out there—with a handheld mic—out in front of the drums with Dan to his right and Tim to his left. We put the Bass rig and the guitar amp behind a booth. We’d futz with the tempo and the arrangement a little bit—these guys came super well-rehearsed—so there wasn’t a lot of that, but there was little bit.
We’d get a take so we felt like— ‘okay, that’s a good start, here’s take one.’ The band would take a 5 to 6 minute break, and I’d just have Neil sing it once so we had an isolated scratch vocal. Now, I’d keep the intro—keep the count-off—and we’d take it again, then we’d be able to say— ‘I love the chorus from take 3, and the verses from take 5 and we’d put those together.’ We made the record like that, more of an analog style tape editing type vibe, rather than manufacturing each piece. After we did that, I’d have Tim, maybe put down a guitar double, with a different amp; I just want to get two passes of guitar, maybe later we’ll come back, try another amp, we’ll figure that out down the line. What I want to get— right now— is a version of the song as solid as possible. We’d then take another break, and I‘d have Neil sing six or eight passes, comp it, and we’d start another one; that’s what we did every day.
CL: It’s interesting, because when I was listening to it, it has that live feel— very rockin’ roll —from track to track it sounds like a band playing together in a room, or like an old AC/DC record, if it picks up a little, so be it.
VP: Amen brother… Now, we did use a click, but we used it as guide. J.P. was the only one who had it in his headphones, more than anything, it was a concept and he would just push and pull around it.
CL: Job well done…It’s amazing, when you listen to this record, each track is like this ball of energy, it’s a real rock and roll record you’ve captured and gift-wrapped for us; I can tell you really enjoyed yourself.
VP: I did!
CL: Coming into this project, had you already decided where you were going to use your REDD Microphones?
CL: Specifically, on Neil’s voice?
VP: We’ll, I wasn’t sure yet … to put a mic in front of ‘em and make sure it sounds good.
CL: How did the REDD Microphone contribute to the album?
VP: I used the REDD on kick drum and the lead vocal.
CL: Did you shoot it out against other mics for the vocal?
VP: I did, just a couple things…the REDD vs and SM7, I think maybe we tried a U67, but probably not.
CL: What was the SM7 going into?
VP: It was a 1073. An SM7’s a pretty good mic for that sort of thing. The think is, they have limited frequency range and that works really well for a sort of rock and roll vocal.
CL: What was the mic Neil Fallon was typically recorded with?
VP: I have no idea, though I think SM7 was one of the things I’d heard.
CL: Had he had any experience with the REDD Microphone prior to this?
VP: Nope, but he liked it.
CL: What else was on the vocal chain, was there compression or EQ on the way in?
VP: I recorded the vocal—kind of an interesting deal—to Pro Tools using REDD Microphone #8 into the RS124 Compressor and multed the RS124 output to a distortion pedal which was recorded to a separate track and I’d just turn it up or down if I wanted it.
CL: You’ve been using the RS124 Compressor since the last Stapleton record, where it was on the vocals for that record too. What is it about that piece that you dig, what does it give you? You use for tracking and mix right?
VP: I use it on both. It’s part of my go-to vocal-chain, that and a Pultec. I like that it just sounds good— what does it give me? It gives me something that sounds good.
CL: Do you live with the RS124 on Superfuse?
VP: I used to, sometimes it’s a little too much of a good thing; on the Clutch record I did have it on.
CL: How much were you compressing on the way in with the RS124 Compressor?
VP: I don’t look, if it sounds good it doesn’t matter.
CL: Because the needle scares you?
VP: No It doesn’t scare me…I don’t look, it’s just if it sounds good, I like it, but probably more than I should.
CL: Did you stick to a certain mic setting for the whole record, or were you varying between the gain and switching between Norm and Drive?
VP: Nope, same mic setting for the whole record. It was a couple steps back on the Gain, probably +27 dB an in Norm.
CL: Did you use the Low-Contour voicing?
CL: What is that you like about the Low-Contour setting compared to the standard voicing?
VP: I don’t need all that [low extension] for vocals; It’s a really great high-pass.
CL: How far was Neil Fallon off the mic?
VP: He was about 6-7”, pretty close.
CL: Oh, some people like to give it a little room…
VP: Well, the cool thing is you can give the mic room and it doesn’t…we cut all these vocals in my big room, so, there’s a bit of ambiance that’s a part of it, it’s not in a booth.
CL: So, there’s room around it, though he got up closer for this?
VP: He could get up closer on it if he wanted, but he could also move back a little bit. On the first song on the record “Give me the keys,” when it goes to that big— really kick-ass chorus part— “great planes hardcore scenes…” he’s back a bit for that, which is cool because, you get that ambiance.
CL: With vocalists, there’s always this psychology to capturing—to quote you—“lightening in a bottle”, do you think that kind of freedom helped Neil feel more comfortable or inspired?
VP: If he’s hearing it and it sounds good to him, that’s all that matters; if it feels right, then he’s going to be gold.
CL: Did he adjust any of the settings himself?
VP: Yeah, I’d say “hey, give me one more click, just turn it up one, or down one...”
CL: And he was okay with that?
VP: Yeah, of course.
CL: After he laid down his first take, did he immediately get to hear it back and what was his response to the REDD Microphone?
VP: He thought it sounded great! What we did was, we set up the handheld mic and routed it through a channel on my console. Then we had the REDD Microphone on the same channel, and because my console has dual line-inputs, we could go to the REDD immediately using the same chain [RS124 Compressor multed to a distortion pedal]. I think his response to it was…it’s on the whole record because we liked what it sounded like; he dug it.
CL: You produced, engineered, mixed this one. It’s your aesthetic and that’s why you get the gig because you bring your love and attention to it, whatever that is…
VP: It definitely sounds like a record I’ve done, I know that sounds weird, it’s taken me a long time to get comfortable with saying that, but it sounds like a record that I’ve done.
CL: Alright let’s talk about mixing the vocals recorded with the REDD Microphone, can you tell us how you processed Neil in the mix?
VP: The only thing I used on him—on the whole record—was I always use these two Fulltone tape echoes on vocals, and then I happened upon this setting in my old [Lexicon] PCM 70 that I just tried and thought it sounded really good; it’s a dual echo thing. There’s always something else going on, maybe reverb here and there, there might not.
CL: When you were doing this ‘stacked echo’ thing, were they stereo?
VP: It’s a mono send, multed out and two of them come back into the stereo bus.
CL: Were you also using the Fulltones at the same time?
VP: Yes, the Fulltones are on the vocal for everything, same mono send, mult setup and using one of Jonathan Little’s Little Labs PCP boxes.
CL: Jonathan Little makes great stuff!! Was there compression on the vocal for the mix?
VP: Yeah, but it’s a parallel mix thing I do.
CL: This album, the tracks are wonderfully thick. Knowing you were using the REDD Microphone, had you already factored in an approach for the mixes, or did the raw track sit right more or less where you wanted it to right off the bat?
VP: I record everything to the mix, in other words…I could re-mix any song on the Clutch in about five minutes, by just putting all the faders at zero, panning things where they need to be and hit play.
CL: Because you recorded it as it was meant to be?
VP: Exactly, that’s the goal. It’s funny because there’s a part of me that’d like to send it to Ryan Hewitt or Andrew Scheps— just to see what they’d do —but I don’t think they’d come back much different than what I sent them. I mean, faders at zero, you hit play and go— well shit, there it is.
Every time we do a rough mix, I set all the faders to zero and I just hit record; I record every rough mix. Anytime I’m working, I always have the rough mix right here next to me so that I can switch between it. Because there’ve been times where I’ve been mixing, I have this idea and have gone down a path, then I switch to the rough mix and go— oh, that’s so much better…
CL: That’s an interesting tip because often times the rough mix has the magic you can’t reproduce, and that becomes your reference to see how far you’ve gotten from the truth.
VP: Yes. This record we did last week, we’d spent about five days at Power Station in N.Y.—on the VR, not my favorite desk—I put the faders up, they have ProAcs, it sounded like I expected it to. But, one of the songs, we made some edits and I ran a rough mix of it—this song was long, eleven and half minutes—I just put it up hit record. Then, we went down this path with the center section of the song that has a sort of a Raggae feel to it, we put some stops in it, echo throw, the artist was going down that path. Two days later he comes back and says “I was totally wrong, for giggles, can we cut the Power Station mix into your current mix, because there’s something about this mix I really like.” So, we did it and the great thing was, the tone changed a little bit, it was like walking from one building into another, it was cool. It was okay that the tone of the console changed.
CL: It was like an effect in of itself.
VP: Yeah, it was an effect in of itself. There’d been an overdub with some Wurlitzer, He’s like “man I love that Wurlitzer,” I said, let me just put it in over the top. He’s says “you can do that?” I said “yeah, we’ll just do this, and let’s see what you think.” He’s says “That’s great, how do we make that done?” I said
“well, it is done, print it.”
CL: So, you’re recording to mix, the mix is always happening.
VP: Yeah, and we just cut it in.
CL: Let’s double back to the Clutch record. You’d mentioned using the REDD Microphone on kick drum, how did you apply it and was the for the whole record as well?
VP: Yes, it was for the whole record. It was about a foot and half out in front of the kick drum, in cardioid and ‘Normal’, then straight in; I don’t think I had any EQ on it, unless I had some on the desk. I also had another mic, a Coles , out in front of the first rack tom, looking between the tom and hi-hat and pointed at the snare. I blended the two together on channel to one track.
CL: What were you looking for from the REDD Microphone in that position and combination?
VP: I was looking for the front of the drum kit, out in front of it a little bit where low-end gets away; It’s big 26” kick drum, so the note is pretty low.
CL: So, you’re using the REDD Microphone’s low extension to capture that information?
VP: Yeah. Then the Coles is the bottom of the snare and rack tom, filling in the other stuff.
CL: Did you use the REDD Microphone for other stuff on the record?
VP: No, on this record that was it. I have been using it on electric bass; just like I’d use a U47 on a bass, about 6” back from the amp and let it fly.
CL: Cardioid, Normal or Drive?
VP: Drive, for a little more attack…
CL: Low-Contour, PAD?
VP: No low contour, I want all the big bottom-end; I try not to use the PAD.
CL: Is not using the PAD an overall thing for you?
VP: Yeah, If I was doing electric guitar amp, I wouldn’t use the PAD, I’d just turn down the gain and run it into the front-end of an 1176; that’d be a great sound!
CL: You’ve had a TG1 Limiter for years, did that make an appearance on this record?
VP: Yeah, I used the TG1 during tracking on drum rooms; I set it on limit and turn it up to where it works. J
Assistant Engineer’s Sidebar: Michael Fahey
CL: Mike, how long have you been assisting Vance now?
MF: I’ve been at Sputnik Sound for more than six years now, and have specifically assisted Vance for about four years.
CL: How did you meet Vance and get the gig?
MF: I attended a tech school in Bangor, Maine called the New England School of Communications and Vance visited our school. He broke down a Raconteurs song that he mixed and gave a lecture. His approach had a big impact on me and I decided that I wanted to go to Nashville to intern at Sputnik Sound. I was the first student from NESCom to ever intern there and it was a huge opportunity. I had only been at Sputnik for two months when Vance’s assistant at the time went freelance. I was subsequently hired on by Mitch Dane as an assistant and a couple years later Vance hired me.
CL: What had you been doing prior to your stint with Vance?
MF: I didn’t have any prior experience in the music industry before my internship and employment at Sputnik. I was a line cook serving up lobsters for ten summers back in Maine and went to college for mechanical and audio engineering. Music has always been my biggest hobby—I play guitar and was in a band in high school—and I’m so thankful that I managed to turn that hobby into career.
CL: So, you’ve seen quite a bit of action with Vance now and have been around a lot of great mics, having worked with REDD Microphones for a while now, what was your first impression?
MF: My first impression of the REDD was: What a smart piece of gear! It’s a great idea to have a preamp built-in, right at the source. And the sound was amazing, the smoothness and clarity really makes it stand out.
CL: Was there an ah-ha moment for you on a session when using the mic?
MF: When we used the REDD on the Blind Boys Of Alabama’s final record for vocals, it really stood up to three other vintage Neumann U67’s we were using. But again, what really blew me away was the built-in preamp design; it enables the artist to be anywhere, to go direct to any recording medium, and it’s going to sound the same. You can do punch ins and multiple takes in any studio and they can all be a part of the same comp track with linearity—that’s unheard of.
CL: Have you experimented with them on your own?
MF: The REDD has been at the top of my list for microphone choice when doing overdubs. I’ve recorded strings, vocals, and acoustic guitar, all with excellent results. I’ve also used the REDD while re-amping electric bass and guitars, it really helped bring those tracks to life.
CL: Outside of Kick and Vocals, what other sources have you applied them to?
MF: The REDD has performed great on electric bass amps. Since we have two microphones at the studio, we usually put one on the kick and one on the bass amp while we track. Once we get the main tracking done, we swap one out for vocals. I’ve had good success on acoustic guitar in tandem with a SDC microphone, with the REDD on the body and the SDC on the 12th fret. It’s very full and detailed and complements other microphones. It’s a great choice for a mono overhead as well.
CL: There are multiple sounds available from the REDD Microphone’s settings, have you gravitated to certain ones?
MF: I really like the drive setting for rock vocals, it adds that extra bite without sounding too distorted. That was our primary setting for Neil Fallon’s vocals on the latest Clutch record. We always engage the “Low-Contour” function on the output knob of the PSU during vocals, as it cuts down on all the plosives and sub information you don’t need. We usually have the output knob wide open for vocals as well, but it’s nice to have the option to dial it back for higher SPL sources like a kick drum. For all instruments we disengage the Low-Contour to keep all that low-end goodness.
CL: How has it been for you work-flow wise making adjustments at the mic?
MF: At first I would make adjustments to the microphone as necessary, and show the artist how to turn the preamp knob up or down. If Vance needed a change made later on, he would simply ask the artist to turn the microphone up or down a click, and it was just as easy as that.
CL: How have artists—vocalists for example—reacted with being able adjust the gain or from norm to drive, when asked?
MF: We haven’t had any problems in that department, it’s been easy and the controls are very user-friendly. If anything, it has made the artist feel like they were more involved in the technical process of recording.
CL: Have you noticed reactions from the artists to the sound of the mic they’re getting back?
MF: Everyone has loved their voice through the REDD. Trey Anastasio commented that he dislikes the nasally tone that some microphones capture and emphasize. He was really impressed with the smoothness and overall representation of his voice.
CL: Which sources do you like the REDD Microphone on most?
MF: Vocals. Kick drum is a close second, but the vocal is the most important part of a song and the REDD captures it perfectly. Ultimately, it’s the best choice for any artist to own this microphone personally and take it with them on the road to record anywhere, anytime. It’s pretty much a vocal chain in one unit.
CL: Is there a specific chain you like to set it up with i.e. Microphone -> Comp -> EQ -> converter or directly into the converters?
MF: REDD -> RS124 -> Pro Tools (Burl Converters). Usually requires no EQ!
MF: I was amazed by the TG1 on drums. When mixing I like to put it on the insert of the Room tracks or Overheads, it really adds a lot of excitement and tames washy cymbals. It can make a dull and poorly recorded drum track more focused and fits it into the mix perfectly. The RS124 is our go-to Vocal compressor when tracking or mixing. We use it on the inserts of the vocal when mixing and right in-line with REDD when tracking. It’s really amazing how much gain reduction you can get away with and the compressor still sounds transparent. All of the Chandler products are top notch and we always recommend them to our fellow engineers and clients.