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RSR041 – Jeff Powell – How To Prepare For Vinyl Mastering & Recording With Jim Dickinson & Tom Dowd

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RSR007 - David Glenn - The Mix Academy

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RSR041 – Jeff Powell - How To Prepare For Vinyl Mastering & Recording With Jim Dickinson & Tom Dowd

My guest today is Jeff Powell who got his start as an assistant engineer at Ardent studios in Memphis TN and steadily advanced his career over decades to become a multi faceted gold, platinum, and Grammy winning record producer, engineer, educator, and vinyl mastering engineer.

Jeff also chairs the Producer and Engineering wing for the Memphis Chapter of NARAS, and is an adjunct Professor with the University of Memphis Recording Program.

His career has allowed him to work with many greats in the studio like Jim Gaines, Glyn Johns, Rob Fraboni, John Hampton, Joe Hardy and Jim Dickinson. And Jeff has even the honor of recording six albums with the great Tom Dowd.

Finally Jeff learned the art of mastering vinyl, and has been cutting records under the name Take Out Vinyl for artists from all over including The Twilight Singers, Centro-matic, Mickey Hart, and Lucero.

Jeff has a long career in recording and a list of credits that include Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Tonic, Big Star, The Bottle Rockets, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sharon Jones, Centro-matic, Primal Scream, Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams, and The Afghan Whigs

“I’ve been through quite a ride as far as technology goes”- Jeff Powell 

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How to Premaster your Record for Vinyl

Larry Nick taught me: “This machine is going to tell you what to do, not the other way around.” There are parameters and limits for what it can handle. I cannot handle somebody just giving me a manufactured CD and saying put that on vinyl, I can’t do that as is. Number one I’d have to turn the volume way down, if I didn't it would just be a distorted mess full of overcuts and skips, so you have to ease it on there. That’s where the skill of cutting vinyl comes in is figuring out how to take what people give you and getting it on the vinyl as best you possibly can with its limitations. The first thing I do when I’m doing a vinyl project is listen to it. I think a lot of people when mastering just dig in and go, but I have to aesthetically think about it a little bit and see what the last song on the first side is going to be compared to the first song, all that matters.

I wrote a chapter in Complete Audio Mastering: Practical Techniques by Gebre Waddell. Its all about how to premaster your record for vinyl to get the best results because there are two different ways of looking at it. What I sell my services for is a direct transfer, to take what you give me and put it on vinyl as best I can. But what is happening is I’m doing more and more ‘mastering.’ I need to EQ it a little bit, compress or peak limit it a little bit. The biggest thing for the listeners to know, if you want your record to end up on vinyl, D-ess your vocals and watch your levels of your high hats and symbols; it’s high frequency information and that's something thats too hard for the needle to track

“Don’t ever think you have it all figured out, there’s always something to learn” - Jeff Powell

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General Rules of Thumb for Getting Things Ready for Vinyl

- D-ess High End
- Center the Bass

  • You want your low end information to be centered because it causes a larger excursion for the stylus to try and cut that and can cause it to actually skip out of the groove if it's not done right.

- Think about Phase

  • I’m thinking there’s a lot of plugins out there that are stereo widening or something to that effect. To me a lot of times when it's a band with huge guitars that are panned hard, I hit the mono button and they disappear, so they’re out of phase with each other. A lot of times the reverbs will disappear when I hit the mono button. So I think those are due to the desgin of the plugins and things like that so check your mixes in mono to make sure things don’t disappear. I love hard panning too, just be careful and check your phase. When things are out of phase the groove starts to look like an hourglass and get narrow and the needle again can pop out of the groove when it's trying to track it.

Running a Recording Session Smoothly

  • Be ready. I’m always extremely prepared and use an assistant on pretty much every session I do. I think that’s something that starting to go by the wayside because of budgets and things, people can’t afford them. They either expect these young engineers to work for free or they just don’t use an assistant and I think that’s terrible because that's the only way they can learn, its invaluable experience for them just to be in the room with an experienced engineer. I just think the time that it saves and the way the whole session will run with an assistant is far superior than trying to save the extra $150 a day to do it yourselves, it just depends on the scope
  • If you’re not used to being on the other side of the glass. Go stand in front of the mic and just for a minute, don’t talk, just see how long a minute feels like when you’re standing there. You see people in the control room and you don’t know what they’re saying or if they’re talking about you. It seems like an eternity. I think another thing that is missing these days is rewind time. You just spacebar, spacebar, spacebar, again, again, again, you just wear them out, man! I don’t like that. Yeah you’re saving time, but there needs to be a breath or a thought, you have to know the difference

“I don’t want worry to ever set in on my sessions” - Jeff Powell 

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Jam Session 

Q - What was holding you back at the start?
A -I gotta say nothing. Nothing held me back, I was so determined, nothing could hold me back.

Q- What was some of the best advice you got early on?

A- I was so fortunate to work with so many great producers and engineers. One was ‘don’t get married’, but I ignored that. I’ve been happily married for 23 years. I met my wife in the studio, she's a musician as well. You do have to have a really special person that understands all the sacrifices you have to make like not seeing you a lot of times or leaving town, but it all works out in the end.

“You should only go into this business if no one can talk you out of it” - Jeff Powell

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Q- Share with us a recording tip, hack, or secret sauce.
A - When they’re running through the song on the floor and you’re in the control room, then they start playing the song again and they’re halfway through the song and you're going, they think I’m recording. So first thing you do is even if it's halfway through, hit record, then go out on the floor and move a microphone, even if you don’t need to. If you think, that they think you’re recording they’re going to ask you if you got the take.. Don’t be that guy. Go out there and move the snare mic an inch. If they think they’re recording they’ll be like what the heck?! Just tell them the mic went out and you had to wiggle the wire.

Q - Share a favorite hardware tool for the studio
I like weird stuff. Cheap mics that aren’t supposed to necessarily sound good. I like different textures of things. I don’t get upset if the singer doesn’t feel comfortable singing into my Sony 800G $10,000 mic, if he wants to sing with an SM7, whatever it takes to make them comfortable.

Q - Share a favorite software tool for the studio

A - I’ve been turned on recently to the Fabfilter D-esser and EQ. I love it, it’ll do what you need it to do and still be subtle with it.

“Ciblience is my enemy” - Jeff Powell

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Q -Share with us a tip for the business side of the recording studio

A - If you haven’t seen Tom Dowd and the language of music you have to. Get that DVD and go see it. I used to require my students to look at that. It's a great story about his life and how he got into recording. He’s just an amazing guy and changed recording.

Q - If you had to start over what gear would you need? How would you find people to record? And how would you make ends meet while you got started?

A - I’d probably hang out that the bars and try to get a feeling for what the scene was. What bands are cool, what bands do you like along with the local mag you can see who’s playing and what are the cool clubs to go to, probably start there and work back. Then what are the cool studios in town who are the studio cats in town. If I was just starting off I’ll make myself available. Can I intern here? Anything to get your foot in the door. I had a simple Protool rig with apogee quartet, a few good converters with mic pres built in. I bought two brent avril 1272s and API 312s. I had a 57, a 421, couple earthworks mic, and my sony 800G.

“As far as miking drums, I’m a minimalist now” - Jeff Powell

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Q - What is the single most important thing a listener can do to become a rockstar of the recording studio?

A - Being able to get into a session and work with an established engineer preferably someone you admire and think is getting good sounds and stuff. But just being in the room any way you can and getting used to hearing good sounds. Then whether you do exactly what that guy is doing or not isn’t really important, just getting your ear trained to hear really cool stuff and putting your thing to it, that's the whole trick.


Big Thanks to Alex Skelton & Merissa Marx for this week's episode!!