Louis Electric

November issue is here!
more... ArtistsMicrophonesHow-TosRecording TipsStudio LegendApril 2013

Studio Legends: Bil VornDick

A A
Studio Legends: Bil VornDick

How did you start to branch out to other artists?
When I was in college I used to go to bluegrass festivals in the mid- Atlantic area and I would get in for free and get cheeseburgers and French fries and Cokes if I did the sound. I figured, what a deal! The guy who had the sound company was [renowned bluegrass banjoist] Eddie Adcock, so I had pretty deep roots in bluegrass because of all of those festivals and meeting so many musicians. I loved the music because it was one form of music where everybody could play and sing or they didn’t work, unlike some of the other forms of music.

[Dobro player] Jerry Douglas and [banjo player] Béla Fleck were old friends, and when Marty passed, I guess around ’83, I built and was chief engineer for what is now Curb Studios on 16th Avenue. I helped with the construction of that and the design, and started working with Béla Fleck and continued through most of the Flecktone records, then Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, Claire Lynch, and some of the prominent names of bluegrass. It was not as lucrative as country music, but it sure was a whole lot of fun!


The session crew for David Holt’s Grandfather’s Greatest Hits. Back (L to R): Mark O’Connor, Duane Eddy, Jerry Douglas, Larry Paxton, Steve Turner, Doc Watson. Front (L to R): Steve Heller, Chet Atkins, David Holt, Bil VornDick.

Bluegrass was your primary area early on, but you branched out to jazz, country, Celtic, and rock.
Well, I’m doing a lot of pop music now, with artists from the past that were established on major labels. I’m working on Jon Pousette-Dart’s new album right now. He was on Capital for all those years. Tomorrow I go into pre-production with Lynn Anderson, who had “I Beg Your Pardon, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.”

But I guess we’re talking about guitar players ... I worked with Bryan Sutton early on, when he was doing his first album. And the tribute album for Merle Travis on Shanachie Records with Chet and Thom Bresh, who is Merle Travis’ son. They sent in Merle Travis’ guitars from L.A., from the vault, for the sessions, so anybody could pick up those guitars and play them on the session. I also recorded many albums with Doc Watson, and I’m very fortunate to have engineered an album [On Praying Ground, 1990] that won a Grammy for Doc. I will miss Doc a whole lot. He was such a kind man and I sort of started playing the guitar by listening to his albums when I was young.

When you’re working with an artist like that, who has a very established style, do you see yourself more in the engineer role or more as the producer?
A producer to me is a mediator. In the case of the Merle Travis thing, I was the producer and engineer. But with Doc Watson, [bassist] Michael Coleman was the producer—he’d been on the road with Doc for years. As an engineer you try and make everyone sound like they want to be heard. I’ve always felt that the producer was the person who could answer the question, “What do you think?” correctly … or as correctly as you can, within the political compound that you’re in.

As a producer or engineer who’s been hired for a project, do you start in pre-production or do things start for you when the project comes into the studio?
As an engineer, I’ve always been involved in the pre-production. As a producer, of course, you’re in it for months beforehand finding songs, going to meetings, and then helping the artist do the arrangements. And then trying to find the theme of the album, not so that all the songs are necessarily about the same thing, but so that the album has a motif—like a painter painting a picture where all the different elements come together.

How much, as a producer, do you have to draw performances out of artists?
A lot. Every artist is different and unique. Everybody has their good day, and everybody has their bad day, from musician to engineer to producer. Many of those artists come in and knock it right out. That’s one thing good about Nashville: There are so many great musicians and guitar players. But there are times when a producer needs to show the artist how to become the song—get inside of it and project it in their performance. That’s hard to explain, but when the artist gets there in emotion, and it comes out, that is when the hair goes up on the back of your neck.

You’re a big fan of guitar.
I love guitar so much that I volunteer to be the stage manager at the All Star Guitar Night at [Summer] NAMM. I guess I have for about 10 years. I do it to raise money so that children can get instruments, and that’s very important to me. I don’t charge; I let them beat me up on their scheduling for weeks ahead of time, “I want my soundcheck here.” Stage managing is mediating, but we all do it for the children with dreams of playing music.

A A