Front-of-house engineer Bobby Lemons; the PreSonus ADL700 is the second unit from the top in the rack behind him.
If you’re a live-sound engineer who can handle the lifestyle, you might wish you had Bobby Lemons’ gig handling front-of-house for Willie Nelson. Nelson and his Family Band tour almost constantly, and Lemons loves it. But as hard as he works, he says he is doing his job right if you don’t realize he’s there. Indeed, that’s the biggest reason Lemons uses the PreSonus ADL 700 tube channel strip.
“One night an old man walked up behind me and looked at my mixing station,” begins 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. The same with the equipment, and that’s where the ADL 700 comes in. It’s like a rhythm guitar: You don’t notice it’s there until you take it out—but then you notice.”
Lemons got his start as a banjo player in a bluegrass band. He owned the P.A. and quickly figured out he could make more money renting out the system when the band wasn’t working than he made as a player. “It was easily as much fun mixing the shows,” he says. “I grew up with electronics; I was one of those kids who wanted a soldering iron for my tenth birthday, not a baseball glove. So after college, I got more PA gear and started mixing around Austin, and I got to know everybody. I did a show with Willie Nelson and Guy Clark before they were big, and I eventually hooked up with B.W. Stevenson, who was a hell of a singer.”
Later, Lemons became tour manager and front-of-house engineer for Jerry Jeff Walker. “We were the opening act for a lot of artists, and we all toured together, so everyone in Austin knew me,” recalls Lemons. “Willie had some dates, and his regular engineer was out doing The Commodores, so they called me. I lived right down the road. We went out for three days, and that turned into 12 days; then Willie asked, ‘Can we keep this guy?’ I’ve been with him ever since.”
Lemons mixes Willie Nelson on a Midas Heritage console.
Lemons could use any processing he wants on Nelson’s voice, and he has tried other solutions, but now he sticks with the ADL 700. “Willie has an incredible voice, with amazing control,” Lemons observes. “It’s a little bit peaky, and he wanders a bit with it, and I was looking for something that was unobtrusive—something transparent—but that also gave me choices. The ADL 700 turned out to be a great solution, and it still is.”
Nelson trusts Lemons to make the decisions about the mix, mic selection, and vocal processing. “Once you get a feel for what he wants, then he trusts you to do it,” Lemons explains. “Trust is the whole game. If you don’t have the confidence of the artist, no matter how technically good you are, it won’t work.” Part of that trust comes from Lemons’ deep respect for Nelson’s ears and preferences. “Willie listens to a lot of show recordings, and anytime I come up with something different, I’ll sit with him, and we’ll listen to recordings together. When I started using the ADL 700, he heard a difference, and he liked what he heard.”
The ADL 700’s FET compressor is a particular favorite. “I’m using more compression than it sounds like,” Lemons reveals. “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 explains. “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 insists. “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.”
For more information about the PreSonus ADL 700, visit www.presonus.com/products/ADL-700.
For more coverage of the sound reinforcement for Willie Nelson's 2015 tour, read "Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss and Union Station with Jerry Douglas" by Larry the O in Mix magazine's September 2015 issue.