Lemons Talks Mixing Willie Nelson's Vocals

Bobby Lemons fell into his longtime gig handling FOH for Willie Nelson almost by accident. Known around Austin, TX, he filled in for the country troubadour’s usual engineer for three shows. He recalls, “That turned into 12 days; then Willie asked, ‘Can we keep this guy?’ I’ve been with him ever since.”
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Austin, TX (September 29, 2015)—Bobby Lemons fell into his longtime gig handling FOH for Willie Nelson almost by accident. Known around Austin, TX, he filled in for the country troubadour’s usual engineer for three shows. He recalls, “That turned into 12 days; then Willie asked, ‘Can we keep this guy?’ I’ve been with him ever since.”

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Lemons maintains he is doing his job right if you don’t realize he’s there. “One night, an old man walked up behind me and looked at my mixing station,” says Lemons. “He asked, Why do you need all this stuff for Willie Nelson?’ I told him, ‘So that 5,000 people can listen to Willie, and it sounds like he’s playing on their front porch.’ He just nodded and walked away. That’s when I realized that I’m trying to be invisible.”

A key to maintaining that illusion, he says, is his PreSonus ADL 700 tube channel strip. “I’m using more compression than it sounds like,” Lemons says. “I’ll put 7 or 8 dB of compression on Willie’s voice. With a lot of compressors, that would not be musical, but the ADL 700 compressor is still transparent. Any compressor can do a couple of dB without being noticeable, but if you can get 5 or 7 dB without it being noticeable, then it’s great.”

Although Lemons would rather not use EQ, he generally does use the ADL 700’s semi-parametric EQ on Nelson’s voice. “As much as I like the big console, I prefer to keep the input strip on Willie’s mic neutral and use the EQ on the ADL 700,” he notes. “With the ADL 700, I can reach over and turn the knob just an eighth of a turn, and I notice a big difference.” He also takes advantage of the ability to swap the order of the compressor and EQ. “The ADL compression is so smooth, I generally use it ahead of the EQ,” he says, “but sometimes I use the EQ first. It depends on how much EQ I’m using.”

Lemons repeatedly emphasizes that his job, and that of his gear, is to be invisible. “If Willie is tired or doesn’t feel well, the ADL’s input gain can help a bit, but I make no music here,” he says. “If the band is on top of it, I can hardly screw it up, and if it’s not happening onstage, there’s nothing I can do to make it happen. I’m a delivery system, and I try to make the sound as clean as possible; I don’t even use reverb. If nobody notices that I’m here, so the focus stays on Willie, then I’ve won. The ADL 700 fits that philosophy perfectly.”

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