Born With A Love Of Music
"I am the worst guitar player on the planet and and an even worse keyboard player" says Powell in his typically matter of fact style. I played French Horn for about 2 years, but I finally got tired of carrying the thing home from school and having kids throw rocks at me."
Powell is a self confessed lover of music which started in his early teens after his grandmother took him to a Johnny Paycheck gig. "I was this kid who came late to music, it was probably 7th or 8th grade, then I discovered Led Zeppelin and thought 'what the hell is this'? Then I immersed myself in a long period of the Beatles and I started to ask myself how they recorded their stuff. I was blown away by all those recordings. Then I came to the Stones. But when I discovered the Sex Pistols I really started to seek out all those punk bands like the Dead Kennedys." Powell is already running away with himself as he lists all his early influences in a torrent of unstoppable enthusiasm, but spend any time with Powell and you find his passion infectious. If Powell loves or hates something then you soon know it. But thankfully his passion does not have him coming across as an opinionated know-all; he's rather like a kid who has just discovered a new trick in a magic set.
In his early years his parents wanted him to get a car and a job. Wise words. This meant after paying for the car Powell had cash in his pocket which he spent on top hi-fi gear. "When I was in High School I really got into stereo, like a great turntable. I had a Kenwood turntable that was made from a slab of granite and a Yamaha Natural Sound receiver and Boston Acoustic speakers. I had a car and money for stereo gear and enough cash left to take my girlfriend out."
"I'll be 50 next month, I'm an old f*ck!" It's moments like this that you realise that--for all his deeply held convictions about music and gear--Powell rarely takes himself too seriously.
For all his self deprecation Powell has an eduction that underpins his engineering talent. "I went into College at a bit of an advantage because I did two years of Electrical Engineering in High School. I could have gone one more year and had my Associates Degree, but I went into computer programming. It was 1982 and that was all blowing up and I thought it would be cool. It wasa lot of late nights and too hard for my 18 year old brain."
His love of music led Powell to be a live sound engineer and also to work in recording studios. Powell landed a position as monitor engineer with Tammy Wynette in 1992 when he moved to Nashville. Soon Powell was moved onto Front of House and Production Manager and in 1997 he joined Clair Brothers.
Studios In Nashville
Studio 1 at the iconic Blackbird Studios
In 2002 he met John McBride who asked him to help build a new studio in Nashville. At the start this was meant to be a one room studio for use by John's wife, country star Martina McBride. But soon that one room became two and in time exploded into the world-class eight room Blackbird facility. Now Blackbird is home to some of the hottest talent in the recording industry including George Massenburg, Blackbird is a combination of amazing rooms, dream recording gear (which includes a lot of vintage outboard and microphones) top instruments and of course talent like Powell.
"I was building those rooms and setting up the systems, training the assistants, you know just trying to make a studio that people wanted to come to. Trying to make things sound good and trying to make the right decisions." This led Powell to work on some projects that were Grammy Nominated, including the Jars of Clay album 'The Eleventh Hour', which got Powell a win.
The success of Blackbird Studios meant that Powell needed his own space to work. So he created Sputnik Sound along with producer Mitch Dane. It was during this time he began his long collaboration with Jack White, "We kept running into each other in the hallway at Blackbird and then one day he called and asked me to do some work on a record. We recorded some vocals over a couple of days on analog tape, which I had worked on my entire career. And then it just continued on lots of different projects and with me mixing the Raconteurs record." On the journey Powell has been involved in a James Bond track, 150 singles and many more projects including recording and cutting directly to lacquer and culminating in Powell and White recording in the fastest single in the world for Record Store Day.
“I don’t want to scroll through presets of 50 rooms, you know, like some Belgian cafes, churches and things.. You know what I mean? All that sh*t, as a matter of fact the pictures they show make it worse for me because I look at the picture and think, ‘why do I want to record a guitar in that room?”
Vances Adjectives For Verbs
We move the discussion onto how reverb features in Powell's recordings, "Ostensibly if you walked up to me and asked me what I thought of digital reverb then I would tell you that it sucked - it's always unnatural sounding because it's trying to sound natural. When things try too hard to sound real they often don't, I know that sounds weird. That being said I've always been a fan of all the classic 480, 224, PCM60, 70, even the AMS, which to me never sounded like reverb". He turns to Grammy Winning Engineer Richard Dodd who has walked into the room "Did the AMS ever sound like reverb to you?" and returns to the answer, "yes they were terrible. You know I would much rather put a speaker out in the room and put a mic up. But if you don't have a room that works, or is long enough, then I would always go for a plate first. The Lexicons however have some really interesting unnatural sounding effects." He underlines the point he wants to make "do they ever sound like the room? No, but they had some cool sounds."
He moves to plug-ins; "Richard and I are huge fans of some of the EMT emulation plate plug-ins and the reason I love them is that they sound great but don't weigh 150lbs. Here's the thing for me though, most of the time those convolution reverbs just sound too convoluted, they are too complicated. The thing I want from a plug-in is that you open a preset and it says room and it actually sounds like a room. I don’t want to scroll through presets of 50 rooms, you know, like some Belgian cafes, churches and things.. You know what I mean? All that sh*t, as a matter of fact the pictures they show make it worse for me because I look at the picture and think, ‘why do I want to record a guitar in that room?'I don't want you to get the wrong idea, because i do use things like Speakerphone, but I use it to mess the sound up.. I can't tell you the number of times I've f*cked something up, like in a breakdown putting a drum kit through a walkie talkie, it is a fantastic creative tool. I will be the first person to say that I would use every tool in the wrong way."
Blackbird Studios have an impressive selection of vintage gear
One can't help wonder with Powell having such forthright views on digital reverb, Lexicon, convolution and plug-ins that Exponential would have little to bring to his party. "The first thing I noticed was that it didn't sound digital, all the reverbs sounded to me like a space, instead of sounding like the idea of a space. We think about what space sounds like and then someone makes a reverb that does it and that's normally different from actually being in the space. I used PhoenixVerb on a couple of records just recently on lead vocals which I would usually do on with my rig through one of my hardware units and some tape echoes. I would use a combination of tape echoes, three or four of them to make reverb, long before I would just pick a plug-in, but I instantiated a couple of plug-ins on an aux on my board. In other words I sent it from my desk out into a input of Pro Tools through the PhoenixVerb and back into my console, you know just like you would use a 480L. I put those on the auxes and, you know what, it was a real joy - they really sounded great."
"It didn't sound spitty, it didn't sound all digital. The one thing that annoyed me about some of the more recent hardware was it all sounded so super bright" He takes a moment to emulate the sound he is trying to describe by spitting out the sound effect from his lips "spisssh, spisssh, spisssh"
"The thing about the PhoenixVerb is that it sounded like something I wanted to use. I had to tweak it a little bit. But all I really had to do was take a little bit of the top end using the filters. It sounded like what I wanted it to sound like, which is the best thing that can possibly happen. If things sound like what I want to them to sound like, then we're golden." Powell takes a moment to qualify what he means by golden "this does of course come from the guy that has Burl Audio convertors." Point made.
Passing It On
With such a packed life in music production one would think Powell has little time outside for anything else. But he also takes time out to teach at The Blackbird Academy helping the next generation of young talent to grow. So what advice does he give them? "Don't expect to walk out of here and get a job in a big studio because there just aren't any: the only way you're going to walk out of here and make any money and make a career and make a difference is by making it for yourself. You're not going to walk out of any school and have your dream job. You're going to have to work your f*cking ass off to get it. You're going to have to do some long hours working on some stupid demo sh*t in some bedroom somewhere."
"I tell the kids, you need to slave away in your bedroom, you need to buy a rig. You need to buy a little console, and a little interface, some things that allow you to make records easy. If you buy a console and a cool interface, like an Apollo, then you're going to have an interface that will work with any system you want, whether it's Pro Tools, Cubase or Logic whatever, you can do whatever the f*ck you want and if you have a little console then you're going to have monitoring--zero latency monitoring. You'll be able to buss some things together and make some decisions."
“I tell em, please make some decisions, don’t give me 5 guitar tracks for every single f*cking guitar part, because I’m just going to turn em off”
This seems to be a central philosophy of Powell's recording. "I tell em, please make some decisions, don't give me 5 guitar tracks for every single f*cking guitar part, because I'm just going to turn em off." He seems to have found his stride and explodes into another moment of passion by being reminded of an interview he did for the Red Bull Academy the week before. "I said a lot of stuff but the only thing some guy was tweeting was that I said 'make a f*cking decision'. Be an artist and make the decision."
"What's the difference between an artist today and an artist back then? Everyone's f*cking scared of making a decision. They say 'let's just leave it for the mix he might want to tweak it.' NO! F*ck him, f*ck the mix guy. Give him one drum track and if he's worth his weight in gold then he'll make it sound good."
"The reality is that if the artist and the producer have any kind of vision then they should put it in as few tracks as possible, so that the vision they have makes it to the f*cking end. Otherwise some d*ck like me is going to f*ck it up!"
Spending time talking with Powell leaves one in no doubt about his views. He has spent years formulating them and preaches them like an evangelist trying to save the musical souls of those who cross his path.
If all this sounds tiresome, there's nothing that is further from the truth. Spend time around Powell and it's going to be a lot of fun. He has this way of convincing you that his ideas are right and yours are dumb. But at the same time he leaves you smiling and feeling good about yourself. Now that's a rare gift and perhaps it is what makes him such a well-loved talent in the industry.