Ask four-time Grammy-winning producer and engineer Vance Powell (Jack White, Chris Stapleton, Danger Mouse), a question about mic placement, and you’re just as likely to get an answer about the final mix. See, for the laconic Missouri native and former front-of-house engineer, selecting and setting up microphones, and arranging how and where the players will stand during a session is all part and parcel of creating a virtual soundstage that’ll go on to form the basis of a song’s sonic image.
We caught up with Vance at the start of a session at his busy Nashville studio, Sputnik Sound, and talked about his favorite miking recipes, noisy drums, and capturing unintended consequences.
What is a typical kick drum scenario for you when it comes to miking?
I’ll often take a Shure Beta 52 and a Neumann U 47 FET, place them side-by-side, not split apart, a little way back from the head, maybe 2', so you get a little of the room and other stuff in them. I combine the two mics together onto a single track. This is for a solid, or two-headed, kick drum sound — no hole in the outer head, and no pillow in the kick drum, just tuned super-open, with lots of ringing, rattling artifacts.
You embrace all of the extraneous noise?
I like when snares and kicks rattle. I like when things make noise. I also don’t like good cymbals, so I have a big pile of broken, shitty pawn-shop cymbals, like the ones from those old Muppet Babies drum kits, and old CB 700 stuff. I like cymbals that are broken around the edges and the crown — those cymbals I’ll use. They’re more interesting to me than shiny metal things. I’ll often stack cymbals on top of each other so that the sounds are short and smashy, and much more percussive than your typical long-decay cymbal sound.
Your snare sounds have a lovely combination of woodiness, crunch, and impact.
For the snare drum, I usually just use a pair of Shure SM-57s, one on the top and one on the bottom. In this case, though, the bottom mic is an old Shure Unidyne 565. I like it because it doesn’t have as much gain as an SM-57, which means I don’t have to put a pad on it. The top mic is at more or less a 45-degree angle to the snare top, but the bottom mic is pointed straight up toward the middle of the bottom of the snare, which gives me more of the low frequency of the bottom snare pushing down. And of course, it rattles like crazy. I love that.
Do you do anything unusual to capture the rack toms?
Usually, the rack tom mics are pointed at the center of the toms, and the floor tom actually gets two microphones on it: a top and a bottom. I use a Sennheiser 421 on the top and a Granelli Audio Labs G5790. It’s a SM-57 that is modified at a 90-degree angle — which are really made for snares, so the connector is out of the way — under the floor tom, about an inch below the bottom of the drum, pointing straight up. For me, that actually gets the essential sound of the floor tom, because, contrary to popular belief, the top head is just not the whole sound.
"Mic bleed is nothing to be afraid of. I love unintended consequences."
Your productions always seem to exploit air and room sounds really well.
One thing I do is, I have a bunch of SM-58s on stands around the room, at least four of them, in no particular pattern, they’re coming through a little Studer Revox six-channel mixer, which has a very 70s sound.
This is because I always loved the sound of the talkback mics at Blackbird Studios [where Powell engineered for several years]. We had a particular talkback system that turned on talkback mics when players would press the talkback foot switch, and I always thought it was such a cool sound — I suppose I’m trying to emulate that. So those SM-58s come through the Studer mixer into channels 1 and 2 on my desk, which is an SSL-6000 6048 E.
But you also favor stereo microphones in the room, right?
Yeah, I actually have two independent room mic setups: there’s the Studer mixer with the SM-58s, and then for capturing a really strong stereo image, I also have an AEA R88, which is sitting roughly 8' in front of the drums, at approximately head height. The AEA R88 is a coincident stereo ribbon mic, an X/Y ribbon in a Figure 8 Blumlein pattern — or to be clearer, it’s two large ribbon Figure 8’s angled together at 90-degrees in coincident stereo.
Having the two setups is key: I can just hit a few buttons and switch between them for very different room sounds. The SM-58s are very wide and diffuse, and the coincident stereo setup is very focused, and it helps that the large ribbons are in exact phase alignment. And that could be the case with condenser mics as well. An AKG C24, for instance, is a coincident stereo pair. Their dual capsules are at 90-degrees, so they are exactly “phase-coherent” in a Blumlein X-Y pattern, if you will.
Why do you favor a mono drum overhead mic?
Sometimes I will use a mono drum overhead mic and sometimes I will use the R88 or a Royer SF‑24. Part of the reason for that is that I don’t want the cymbals to be all the way over on the right or the left. I don’t know anything about hip-hop, but I do know that I like that thing of having the main drums straight up the middle, then I can put the guitars way out on the sides, or even throw the bass over to the left. I want to have lots of space when I go to mix, because, hey, we still have a ton of vocals to do, and I want a good portion of those to be in the center.
So while panning the cymbals out to both sides sounds like a good idea, I’m going to put the hi-hat gently over to one side, and I’m going to put the mono overhead for the cymbals only slightly to one side. Basically I want all the drums more or less up the middle and just a bit of panning for the toms and cymbals.
I confess that I’m still a bit stuck on the idea that the drum kit, especially toms and cymbals, should spread out over the entire spectrum — I still expect those tom fills to move from far right to far left.
They don’t have to do that. Y’know, I have a few little rules. For starters: Drummer perspective, never. I never want to hear a live show or a record from behind the drums — all you can hear are drums!
I spent the first 20 years of my career as a front-of-house engineer, and this is basically how I sell my approach to an artist. I explain that, on this record we’re going to make, what we’re listening to is you playing live in this magical fantasy world.
Let’s imagine that everyone who played on your record is on stage. Close your eyes and point to the drummer: he or she is always straight ahead of you. Now point to the floor tom: it’s basically in the same place, not all the way on the right or left. Where’s the organist? Well, he’s well over on the left or the right. Guitars? Here and here. Background singers? Far left or right. And you, the singer, are mainly in the middle.
In terms of imaging, you’ve been pretty vocal in the past about not using a hi-hat mic.
I used to be hardcore about not doing a hi-hat mic. And that’s because a lot of my work is with bands, not with session musicians. A lot of band drummers don’t seem to understand that if you beat the hell out of the hi-hat, it shows up in all the mics. And if you beat the hell out of the hi-hat, but you don’t hit the snare drum as hard as you’re hitting the hi-hat, it all becomes a big mess. So, very often when recording bands, even if I used a hi-hat mic, I’d never use that track in the mix — I just wouldn’t need it. Or I would only use it in the bridge. Lately, I’ve been miking the hi-hat because, well, I can, and some mixers definitely do want the option of having it.
"I don’t have ten 1176 compressors. But with Apollo, if I need ten, I’ve got ten!"
Your guitar sounds for Jack White and others are legend: What’s your secret?
No big secret. I like to always use two microphones for guitar. And that can be a condenser, or a ribbon, and an SM-57, but there’s always a Shure SM-57 involved. Sometimes it’s a a Sony C-48 paired with an SM-57. But often we’ll use one of the Neumann U-67s along with a 57 or a Royer 121— in fact, I’d say that’s my go-to: Those two mics, no pad, going straight into a line input of, say, a Neve 1073 preamp/EQ.
The reason it works because the C-48 or the U-67 both have this sort of wide, mild midrange scoop and nice even top end, and the Shure SM-57 has that characteristic midrange bump. If you hard pan those, you get a great balance. To balance the tone of the SM-57, I might also use an old RCA BK‑5A Uniaxial ribbon mic from the late-‘50s, or an AEA R92 ribbon mic, and those get placed basically right on the grille cloth.
How exactly do you place the mics for a guitar cabinet?
I point the SM-57, for example, directly at the part of the speaker that’s about two-thirds of the way from the cone to the surround, and then I place the U-67, or whatever my second mic is, right under that, in a sort of upside-down “L” configuration, but both are in basically the same space. I work to find the sweet spot, and get the very best sound from each of these mics that I can in mono. When I pan them on the board, they’re harmonically different enough in character that I get a kind of faux stereo picture, an image shift, and I also get a lot of width out of doing that.
The other advantage to miking this way is that if I do decide to combine the guitars in mono on one side of the stereo field, by simply turning one of those mics up or down, because of their very different timbres, I’m able do some real tone shaping without having to touch any EQ at all.
For the tracking of your recent Apollo Artist Session with Marty O'Reilly, you used Royer and Mojave mics exclusively. Do your miking techniques apply, no matter what mic you're using?
It doesn’t really matter, other than not using a ribbon where one would be damaged or something like that. If the mic sounds great — and the Royers and Mojaves do — I would use them just as I would use my mics at my place, although it might take a bit of experimenting to get the exact same results.
You’ve been an Apollo fan for some time; what does Unison Technology now bring to the table for you?
The whole idea of Apollo, and Unison Technology, is such a great thing. I have a couple of Apollo rigs, which I use mostly for remote recording: I can go to another person’s house, set up a mic, use a UAD Neve 1073 and a UAD 1176 on the front end, cut the vocal and we’re done. And the results are more or less exactly the same as if we did it at my place, or at least it’s so close to using the genuine outboard gear that it doesn’t really matter.
In fact, Apollo becomes its own element, like its own studio, which is really high quality. Sure, I think my studio, Sputnik Sound, is the absolute best; but if people can’t come to me, taking Apollo with me is like, “Well, I’m going to another really great studio!” Also, I don’t have ten 1176s, but with Apollo, if I need ten, I’ve got ten!
I see you have a microphone in the control room here for the singer. Is that the sort of Bono method of recording final vocals in the control room, or is that for scratch vocals?
Well, it’s for scratch vocals, but only in part. This is an SE V7 dynamic mic, which is really awesome. It’s basically there so the singer can work out ideas over the tracks, but also she’s in the room with me while she’s riffing so we can talk about the arrangement or what the band is playing. This way we can capture rough sketches of where the song is going, face to face. But something else is going on, too.
The SE microphone is going through a mic pre to a channel on my desk, fairly clean, and then I’m sending the signal out of the insert send of the console to a bunch of pedals, including distortion and delay. The signal from those pedals then comes back to the channel right next to the clean scratch vocal channel, in this case it’s channel 31 and 32. I’ll blend them and then bring those two mono signals together back into my Pro Tools session into a single stereo track.
This allows me to do two things: first, sure, it allows her to get some mojo going with a somewhat effected sound while singing in the control room, but it also allows me to capture unexpected stuff that might be really cool in the way that microphone is picking up stuff through the studio monitors as we work in the spaces when there’s no singing, and then that stuff is hitting the pedals. Think of it as a kind of extra room mic, with some dirt and dimension to it. That can be really useful at certain points in a mix. And it’s the kind of thing that you’ll never get if you’re obsessed with things like avoiding bleed. Bleed is nothing to be afraid of. Like I said, I love unintended consequences.
— James Rotondi