While it's inarguable that the artist's talent is the deciding factor in every album purchase, there's always a crew of unsung heroes behind each recording project. Label owners, album producers, and session musicians all do their part to make the stars shine, but it's actually the studio engineer who does the most work. From setting up equipment to rolling tape, the lowly engineer is there from start to finish.
In recent columns, this space has explored Easley-McCain Recording Studio, Willie Mitchell's Royal Studio, and the goings-on at Sun, Stax, and Jim Dickinson's Zebra Ranch, but consulting the liner notes of several recent Memphis releases reveals a list of less-celebrated studio engineers who are catalysts on the local scene.
If you're a fan of Cory Branan, you've heard Jeff Powell's work. He's recorded and mixed many of MADJACK's releases, including Branan's The Hell You Say, at his own Humungous Studios, sharing the duties with co-engineer Kevin Cubbins. "I have a digital setup at my house," Powell explains, "in a purposely stripped-down atmosphere."
Powell, who's up for a Premiere Player award next month for Best Engineer, immersed himself in the recording world years earlier. While enrolled in the commercial recording program at the University of Memphis, he interned at Kiva Studio (now House of Blues) in South Memphis, answering phones and "learning how things worked in a big studio." He then went to Ardent, where he worked the night shift before house engineer John Hampton tapped him to assist on the Vaughan Brothers' Family Style album, back in 1990. "I was working so much in the studio that I dropped out of school," Powell says. "I had to decide whether a degree really meant that much to me."
As a staff engineer at Ardent for most of the 1990s, Powell worked on albums by Primal Scream, The Afghan Whigs, and 16 Horsepower, as well as offerings from Eric Gales and B.B. King. "John Fry really helps the young engineers at Ardent," Powell says, citing the studio owner as a major influence alongside legendary producers like Glyn Johns and the late Tom Dowd. "I did six records with Tom Dowd, and as many questions as I could ask, he told me," Powell recalls. "I think about things he taught me every time I turn on a microphone."
Much of Powell's learning came by doing. He cites a session with the infamous Alex Chilton as a lesson he'll never forget. "Alex cut a vocal take in an isolation booth, but we'd recorded the band live on the floor," Powell explains. "He wanted to keep the vocals, but then he decided to change the lyrics on one line of the song. I was worried about matching the levels, but Chilton blew smoke in my face and said, 'Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.' When you think about it, he's right," Powell says with a chuckle. "I know that in my early career I worried about those tedious details, but now I know how to get it done and move on."
"I've really pulled myself out of the major-label game," Powell says, after working independently for the last six years. "I'm used to big studios where you have every piece of gear imaginable, but at my house, I've flipped that upside down," he says. "If I want something to sound different, I can't just flip a switch. I have to run downstairs and move a microphone. Every time I have the urge to add more I do what I can to resist it."
Powell will still take a band into a big studio, but he prefers to dump the tape into Pro Tools and do overdubs at home. "It's more about the music than the production," he says. "It's freeing. I look at things in a simpler way." He oftentimes combines the modern digital technology with a warmer analog sound. "On most of my work, I mix the two technologies," Powell says, adding, "a lot of times it comes down to the budget."
"You can edit anything in Pro Tools: fix flat notes, add a beat, whatever," Powell says. "I think it's overused. I like to hear the warts. If you remove all the imperfections, you're left with something stiff and sterile. I'll take a gut-wrenching performance over something perfectly in tune."
Two of his most recent projects reflect that off-the-cuff attitude. "I just finished a record on my wife, Susan Marshall," Powell says. "We had to record over the course of four years, whenever we had spare time to work on it. Producing Susan was not easy. We laugh about it now, but when we started, we were careful to treat each other as artist and producer, not husband and wife."
"Rob Jungklas' new album Arkadelphia is so different from anything I've worked on before," Powell continues. "It came from a real spiritual place. Chris Morris at Billboard named it 'number one independent record of the year.' I was pretty jazzed about that. The records that don't necessarily have a big paycheck associated with them tend to become the most special," he says.
"I'm one of the luckiest men alive," Powell says. "The recording process can be a tedious, boring, and repetitive thing, but it's exciting to realize that the final product will be around a long time." n
Local Beat will continue its look at local recording engineers next week with profiles of a couple of other Premiere Player nominees, Posey Hedges and Kevin Houston. You can e-mail Andria Lisle at firstname.lastname@example.org.