Since 1995, engineer Steve Chadie has been working on Willie Nelson’s (and other) projects at Pedernales Studio, 30 miles outside of Austin. Nelson’s latest, Let’s Face the Music and Dance, is a sweet, fresh interpretation of traditional pop songs, including “Walking My Baby Back Home,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” and of course the romantic title track, written by Irving Berlin and introduced by Fred Astaire in 1936.
“He loves to play these classic old-time tunes,” Chadie says of the material, which is mostly played in a spare, folk-leaning jazz style—warm and beautiful, with Nelson’s voice up front.
Chadie captures Nelson’s sessions in largely the same fashion he’s used for almost two decades: “They’re all primarily in the same room, except Bobbie [Nelson, Willie’s sister] is in the piano room. Willie is in the room with Mickey [Raphael, harmonica] and Kevin, the upright bass player, so I baffle them off and try not to worry too much about leakage. Things sound too sterile to me when they’re completely isolated and in-your-face anyway, so, I try to get a little space [between instruments and mics]. With the piano especially, I like to move the mics back and get a natural sound. You don’t listen to a piano with your ear up against the strings.”
On Nelson’s vocal, Chadie says, “I run a U47 into the Neve [console] and then run that directly out of the preamp into a TubeTech compressor; then I go into Pro Tools. I don’t EQ it; there’s no need. [Butch Carr] might EQ it when he mixes, but I was trained that rather than use EQ during recording, to move things in the room, and that’s been the winning combination with Willie.”
Nelson celebrates his 80th birthday this coming April, and a couple of developments on the business side will alter the outlook for his future work and Chadie’s. For one, Nelson has signed a label deal with Legacy Recordings, which will release his new albums and work with him on enhanced reissues with handpicked bonus tracks.
The other big development: Pedernales—the studio that Nelson has operated for decades with his nephew Freddy Fletcher and Freddy’s wife, Lisa—has closed for commercial use and is now a private facility; the gear has been moved to its sister studio, Arlyn, in the heart of Austin.
“Pedernales was Willie’s building with our equipment,” explains Lisa Fletcher. “For years, we’ve run both studios: Pedernales and Arlyn, the studio my husband built in 1984. For 10 years, we leased Arlyn to a recording school, MediaTech. But we had been talking about taking Arlyn back, because not only does Arlyn have these custom, Steve Durr-designed, great-sounding rooms, but downtown Austin is so vibrant. Also, Freddy is a partner in Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater and has a production company within ACL; they stream and film a series of shows and they can do post-production and editing here. It just seemed like the right time to bring everything under one roof.”
The Fletchers have spent the past several months refurbishing Arlyn. The SSL 4048 G+ from Pedernales now lives in a brand-new Durr-designed Studio B. And the ’70s Neve will arrive soon, as part of a unique hybrid console; it’s being connected to Arlyn’s existing API by Fred Hill, who also designed a custom center section. At press time, the one-of-a-kind, 56-channel board was set to arrive before the end of February, just in time for a grand re-opening celebration during SXSW.
“We told Willie that if he wants to re-open Pedernales commercially, we’ll help him with that, but we just put fresh paint on our parking spaces, and Willie has a space with his name on it,” Lisa Fletcher says. “Willie has always felt at home here. He’s owned the Austin Opera House venue in the same building, and he’s the person who initially convinced Freddy to build Arlyn.”