Audio engineer Jason Powers is a “cool guy.” No, really, that’s what everyone says when they meet him. He’s not fawningly nice, or the quippy class-clown dude, just pretty assertive and relatively calm, even when everyone else in the room is getting shit-faced drunk and singing karaoke. It’s possible this just comes with the territory of constantly being the problem solver in loud clubs and bars wherever you go, because that’s basically his job. You can’t make someone or something sound great, until you’ve analyzed all the possible scenarios of how it could all go so wrong, which I can only assume is a way of life that doesn’t translate so well to a person’s dating life. He spends a great deal of time touring as the sound guy for Matthew Dear, but he also owns and operates the studio Type Foundry in Portland, which has recorded everyone from 31 Knots and Grails to Spoon and Portland Cello Project, and Powers is also apparently a master of organization, because he was the single-most prompt interviewee I’ve had, despite the fact that he’s on tour and probably doing sound checks right now with Matthew Dear.
VICE: Did you start out working the soundboard for clubs, or did you hopscotch over that and immediately work for bands?
Jason Powers: I started out doing studio recording, and started doing live sound sort of by accident. I actually never wanted to do live sound, but a friend recommended me to a now-defunct club in Portland to fill in for a night. That was like the second time I'd ever mixed live sound. But they liked me, and kept me on. So it was a trial-by-fire learning period…just figuring out how to do it on my own, with little guidance. For about the first year, every time I went in I was scared something bad was going to happen that I couldn't fix. Then over time, things did happen, and I had to go up onstage in front of the audience and fix them, with everyone looking at me. The most notable one was a packed show at Holocene. This old Portland band called Euromotion was headlining. About halfway through their set the board just shut off in the middle of a song. Nothing coming through. I had to scramble around trying to figure out what the hell just happened with 350 people waiting and watching me….checked the fuse box…all good….it turned out someone bumped a plug where all the front-of-house gear was plugged in. It wasn’t really that bad. I still do work in a couple of venues in Portland, but try to mostly do recording and tour when it comes up.
You tour a great deal with Matthew Dear. How do you decide that you're going to work exclusively for a single artist for long periods of time?
It wasn't so much a conscious decision to do that as much as it was something I started doing, and it was good, so I kept on doing it. Those guys are great to tour with, the music is good, we're treated well, and I enjoy the travel opportunities it presents. He keeps asking me back, so I keep going. Also, I don't work exclusively with Matthew Dear, by any means—I have toured with other bands in the last couple of years—but I mostly tour with his band.
You were able to buy a house in Portland, so I'm going to assume that you make something like a professional working person's salary. When you're working on people's albums at Type Foundry, do you ever get the feeling that you'll be the one making the most money off of the deal?
I get by, but I'm certainly not getting rich doing this. Sometimes I do get that sense, yes. It depends on the record. But I am providing a service involving a fairly specialized skill level, expensive audio equipment, and studio overhead. That should cost a reasonable amount of money for my time investment, skills, and access to the gear and space.
Were there other professions in the music business you've wanted to be in?
Not really. I don't actually like the music business much, in spite of how much I like music.
What's your budget for purchasing music?
I don't really have one. I was on a record buying frenzy a couple of years back, but I've really cut back. If I really love a record, though, I'll buy a hard copy. I do have a confession to make, I download a lot of music for free, and I don't feel bad about it. For one thing, a lot of stuff I end up getting would be hard to find on vinyl. I also have some pretty active trades going on with friends, which keeps new, interesting music coming into my life. And there's just something about paying for data…no hard copy…that just feels weird to me. I feel that most bands ultimately benefit more than are hurt by music trading. It can work like free publicity. If something really spreads among friends (if I like something, I may give it to ten people, and if they like it spreads out from there), there's a potential that thousands of people all over the world could know about someone's music who otherwise wouldn't have…which means more potential people to come to your shows and buy your records who otherwise wouldn't know who you are, all this at no cost to the band (aside from the initial recording and production costs, which they would have spent anyway).
Have you ever turned bands down who wanted to record with you, or have you master their album, because you didn't like their music, or do you take work when you get it?
I haven't turned them down so much as convinced them that working with me probably wouldn't give them the results they want. I mean, if someone sounds like The Dave Matthews Band, or something like that, then I'm the wrong person to be working with. My aversion to the music would probably do their record a disservice. Luckily, that doesn't happen much because the people that come to me usually know me through other work I've done, or work coming out of our studio, so there's a bit of self-selection that happens automatically. But generally, if I have the time, I do take work when it comes my way. You're a freelancer, you know how it works. Its a trade-off—you get a lot of freedom, but also you never know what next month is going to look like.
What do you think most sound engineers get totally wrong when they first start working a live show?
Pushing things to the point of feedback both in front of house and monitors. Usually the issue is that they didn't eq the system properly, or ring out the monitors before they started.
Are all audio engineers obsessed with the magazine Tape Op?
Yes. I'd say they probably are. Its hands down the best audio engineering magazine out there, and the only one really worth reading, in my opinion. And they give out free subscriptions. If its something that interests you, you can't really turn that down.
When a new Pink Floyd remaster comes out with a bunch of hype from super-fans, how much of it is bullshit, or does the remaster actually matter?
It's funny you ask that, actually. Just the other day in the van, Danny, Matt's bass player, played the remaster of The Jesus Lizard's Goat. It was so good to hear it. We both have a lot of love for that record, and I hadn't listened to it in years. Thing was, he only had the first seven songs on his phone. We listened to those, and finished the record off from my iPod, which was the previous master. In this case, the difference in fidelity was striking between the two. The new master is just so much bigger and open sounding. So, like with most things, I think it depends. A remaster can be something that significantly improves the sound quality, revealing a whole new dimension in a record, or it can be bullshit marketing hype, or even both simultaneously. Think about when CDs first came out, and how many records we marketed as the new, improved, digital remaster. In that case, it was mostly about trying to create a market to move units in a new media format than improving the sound quality…the result was actually often that the sound quality was worse because digital audio technology at the time didn't have the fidelity of analog.
Will you be able to retire with your career? Do you have a plan to retire?
Retire? What is this thing you speak of?
When was the last time you had to yell at someone that they weren't wrapping a cord correctly?
Never underestimate the value of the over/under technique for keeping your cables unkinked and untangled!
What's one thing you had to learn when mixing a live show in Europe that was different from working in the US or North America?
It’s pretty much the same, except sometimes the language barrier makes it more difficult to convey very specific things that you need to happen. Ninety percent of the time, though, that's not an issue, because most of the sound engineers in Europe tend to know English pretty well. Plus I know Spanish and some French that I can use in a pinch. Oh, and everything brought from the U.S. needs power transformers.
The bigger difference is going from mid-size venue to bigger (1,200+) venues, or outside. The closest thing I can compare it to is getting used to driving a different kind of vehicle. Smaller systems respond differently than bigger ones, and bigger ones have so much power behind them. It’s like driving a semi truck vs. driving a car. And gain balance is a bit different in every system, so there's getting used to that. Outside can be weird because when the wind blows, the high frequencies move around and it can be hard to tell what you're doing.
What would you tell someone if they came to your studio and said, "Why are you doing this? Major labels killed the music industry, and nobody's going to pay for MP3s from indie bands when SoundCloud and downloading sites exist."
Well, that all may be true, to some extent, but people are still making records…arguably more now than ever since digital technology has massively increased the ability to record and distribute music from anywhere. But people still pay me for what I do. The landscape, in terms of business models, and distribution, and whatnot will continue to change, but people will always make and listen to music. It’s in our blood.
When the "bedroom pop" phase expanded with bands like Wavves, did you have an influx of bedroom-recorded albums that needed mastering? For novice home-recorders, what is the most unfixable audio dilemma that musicians fail to think of?
Well, I don't do mastering, just recording and mixing. But there's been an overall trend towards people going back and forth between home and the studio to do different phases of their record. Some will record at home, and decide to mix in the studio, others will track basic tracks in the studio to take advantage of the mics, preamps, and rooms, and then do time-consuming overdubs like vocals at home, maybe mixing it themselves, or bringing it back to the studio. I think, apart from different lo-fi aesthetic trends, which seem to come and go, that the major driving force for this is budget and the ease of going back and forth allowed by digital recording technology. This was never possible before Protools, unless you had a $10,000 24-track tape machine and console sitting in your house. It really has, for better and for worse (mostly for better, I think), democratized the recording process in that anyone with a computer and a microphone can make a record. Because of this shift, there is a lot more music being created, good and bad, but everyone can do it if they want to.
Do audio people have audio engineer heroes?
Definitely. I know I do. Growing up, like many, I was a huge fan of Steve Albini recordings. He recorded so many of the records I grew up listening to, and they always sounded so raw and great. Two of my favorite recordings ever were done by him: Run to Ruin by Nina Nastasia, and Ocean Songs by the Dirty Three. He really does the "band in a room" sound better than anyone, and I admire his approach technically and philosophically. I'm also a big fan of Guy Fixen (My Bloody Valentine, Laika, Dog Faced Hermans), Nigel Godrich (Beck's Sea Change), John Congleton (Bill Calahan's Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle), Thom Monihan (Vetiver, Brightblack Morning Light), Rudy Van Gelder (recorded most of the Blue Note catalog, and countless jazz records from the 1950s-2000s), John Agnello, and Brian Paulsen. There are so many…that's just off the top of my head, and not even getting into electronic music producers.
How much of the audio engineer world is comprised by men? Has that been changing?
Too much of the audio engineer world is comprised of men, but that does seem to be slowly changing. I have a few women friends that are audio engineers, both live and recording, but most people I know that do it, by and large, are men.
Is there ever any tension between you and the house sound person at a club when you're touring? Any territorial weird moments that have happened?
Mostly not, but that has happened a few times. Usually people in venues are professional enough to realize that their job is to help bands' engineers, not hinder them. One weird thing did happen at a venue in Seattle for my first touring show. I was doing sound for the headlining band, and the engineer there, very protective of the little swath of the world where he had control, was hanging over my shoulder telling me where to set gain, telling me how to lay out the inputs on the board, and basically just being up in my shit. I put up with it that time, because the whole thing was new to me and I didn't feel confident shutting him down, but definitely wouldn't now. As far as I'm concerned, as long as I'm not breaking anything, or asking for help, or maybe they have helpful suggestions about the room or system, then they should keep out of it. The band hired me for a reason. The reason they are there is to help me when I need it, and make sure nothing gets broken. This is also my attitude when I'm the house guy aiding another band's engineer—be welcoming, help when they need it, and other than that stay out of their way.
What advice would you give to people who want to do what you do, and will the industry sustain more eager audio engineers?
I honestly have no idea what the industry can sustain. In Portland alone I feel like I hear about a new recording studio every few weeks. It feels oversaturated, yet they all seem to stay open somehow, and charge pretty low rates! We're in a weird, tumultuous time for the music industry and recording industry…a lot of things are shifting, and the dust hasn't yet settled. I'm really curious to see where it goes from here. As for advice to newbies…this is a weird work world, and you really need to find your own way within it. You don't just go out and get a job being a recording engineer anymore. You either start a studio, or go freelance and slowly build something. And with live sound—learn to mix with earplugs in!