Audio engineer/producer Jeff Powell has been working in the music business in Memphis for over 27 years. He got his start answering phones and running errands at Ardent Studios, working his way up the ranks to staff engineer, and eventually becoming one of the studio's go-to freelance producers. Along the way he got to work on classic recordings by folks like Stevie Ray Vaughn, the Afghan Whigs, B.B. King, Alex Chilton, and Big Star, among many others.
Powell's career took a dramatic turn in 2008, however, when he convinced Larry Nix to teach him the delicate art of mastering music for vinyl using the studio's lathe.
"I had been pestering him (Nix) to teach me for years because I had such a keen interest in vinyl records, the way they were made and the way they sounded, and he kept saying no. He just didn't want to mess with it anymore," Powell says.
"One day in the parking lot at Ardent while I was following him to his car talking to him about it and he was inches from a clean getaway, I told him if he taught me, I could cut records at night after he and Kevin [Nix's son] were done for the day, and he would start seeing a check for renting me the lathe on the turntable when he came in to work in the mornings. He stopped, turned around smiling, and said, 'OK, let's do it.'"
And so Nix taught Powell to use the lathe, and Powell (with help from his trusty assistant engineer Lucas Peterson) began cutting vinyl for clients on the side of his usual recording and mixing gigs. Little by little, as consumer demand for vinyl started to rise, mastering music for vinyl started to become his primary business venture and passion.
"I really kind of stumbled into this passion for cutting vinyl records because I care so much how recorded music sounds to the listener," says Powell. "If it's done well, it sounds so good and makes me feel the music in a different way."
Earlier this year, Powell made the decision to strike out on his own, and, as fate would have it, lucked into an opportunity to purchase a lathe from fellow vinyl mastering engineer Chad Kassem.
"Chad runs a huge vinyl pressing operation in Salina, Kan. called Quality Record Pressings, and they do really good work," Powell says.
"They had pressed some things for me in the past and had always done a high-quality job. So Chad and I had a nice chat on the phone, I wished him good luck, and that was that. The next day, I just dropped him a short email saying that it was nice to meet him and I looked forward to doing more business with him in the future. He wrote me back and said to let him know if I ever needed a lathe. I couldn't believe it. You have to understand that there just are not any lathes for sale out there anymore. I mean none. They are extremely rare, and if you do find one, it is probably in really bad shape. Nobody is selling a working lathe these days. I called him back immediately, and he said he had one in a church studio that he owned, that he didn't really want to sell, but was thinking about it. He told me to give him a number. I did, and he called me back the next day and said we had a deal if I could get him the money in 10 days. I scrambled and came up with the money and wired it to him on day 10 and became the proud owner of a Neumann VMS70 lathe."
Powell and Peterson quickly rented a 15-passenger van and headed for Kansas to retrieve the lathe — which had to be meticulously taken apart and packed for the journey to Memphis — with the help of expert lathe technician Chris Muth. Around that same time, he struck a deal with Sam Phillips Recording Services Inc. to install the lathe in the room that was once the control room to the B studio.
"It is a very fragile machine with lots of parts," Powell says. "It took four days in all to get it back to Memphis. It was a great feeling coming across the bridge into Memphis with the lathe."
Just last week, Powell, Peterson, and Muth finally installed the new lathe at Phillips — which, to say the least, was no small task.
"Lucas oversaw the building of the mastering suite and did a remarkable job," Powell says. "Again, I hired Chris, the best lathe expert there is, to come to Memphis to help put it all back together and go through every single electronic component and ball bearing on the entire machine. It wasn't cheap, but it was worth every penny." And now Powell and Peterson are back doing what they do best, cutting records to vinyl for a host of eager clients and mastering a once-forgotten craft. "The lacquers I have cut on it so far sound incredible," Powell says. "I know a lot about cutting vinyl records, but it is a mountain to climb to know everything about the art of it, the science of it, and how to do it well and be one of the best at it. I am constantly learning as I continue to do this and striving to become one of the best."