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Studio Legends: Bil VornDick

Studio Legends: Bil VornDick
Engineer/Producer Bil VornDick’s projects include acoustic imaging for the Fishman Aura system and Martin Guitars’ Retro series.

Engineer/Producer Bil VornDick, the master of recording acoustic guitar, shares his secrets.

Experienced acoustic musicians know that when it comes to making stellar recordings, there are only a few engineer/producers who get the call, and Nashville legend Bil VornDick is at the very top of the list. He’s worked on more than 40 Grammy-nominated projects and eight have been Grammy winners—to say nothing of the dozens of other awards his recordings have won. Starting as a guitar player in Virginia, he was encouraged by Chet Atkins to relocate to Nashville, where he found his calling as a recording engineer and producer. Though he is especially renowned for his ability to capture incredibly natural, lifelike, and detailed performances on acoustic instruments—with a particular love for acoustic guitar—VornDick can and does record every style.

He’s also well known for giving back to the music community, with his involvement in organizations such as the AES (Audio Engineering Society), the All Star Guitar Night charity concerts, the Audio Masters Benefit Golf Tournament, and many more. VornDick recalls how he went from his teenage rock band to taking advice from Chet Atkins, who introduced him to Nashville’s Belmont University, his alma mater and a place where he now mentors the next generation of engineers and producers through teaching.

You started as a musician in your teens?
Yes, I was in a rock ’n’ roll band. I was in the 7th grade playing lead guitar with a bunch of guys that were seniors, and then just kept playing. The bass player was Harry Dailey, who was the first guy Jimmy Buffett hired for the Coral Reefer Band. He wrote some songs with Jimmy.

How did you go from being in a Virginia rock band to connecting with Chet Atkins?
A friend of mine, Frank Grist, worked for RCA in the mid-Atlantic area, out of Washington, D.C. Chet was coming to the Stardust Lounge in Waldorf, Maryland, and I got to have dinner with him. Then Grist brought me to Nashville and I signed some songs to Cedarwood Publishing Company. Chet always invited me to stop by, to say hi when I was in town. He was the one who told me about Belmont [University]. He helped me get into Belmont, and shortly after I graduated I became Marty Robbins’ chief engineer.

How did you make that connection?
I used to hang out at CBS Studios when I was going to Belmont and many of those engineers knew me. Marty was looking for a chief engineer and he came in one day when I was doing demos for Loretta Lynn’s publishing company in his studio and asked me if I could meet with him the next day. I had no idea what it was about. He asked me to be his chief engineer. He was the best guy I ever worked for. Great sense of humor. A stylist … I mean, when you count the unique voices of the world, you’ve got your toes on your feet and your fingers on your hand and then everybody else kind of copies those.

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.

The 3:1 Rule

Bil VornDick always uses the 3:1 Rule when mic’ing instruments in stereo. Here’s how it works: If your two microphones are each one unit— for example, 1'—away from the instrument, then there should be three units (3' in this example) between the two microphones. VornDick also recommends keeping the two microphones between 90 and 120 degrees of each other.

Following the 3:1 Rule ensures that your recordings will be in phase, without danger of cancellation problems later in the mixing process.

Let’s talk specifics. How do you mic up Béla Fleck’s banjo?
I use a 3:1 mic’ing technique normally on Béla [see sidebar, “The 3:1 Rule”]. As to which mics I use, it really depends on what banjo he’s playing. It depends on the timbre of the instrument. With Earl Scruggs, I’d normally used a [Neumann] KM 84 and a [Neumann] U 87. I used the KM 84 on the high side and the U 87 on the low side. That’s what he liked. But every banjo is different. If it was a very mellow banjo, then I would probably put a Milab DC-96B on the low side or a Sony ECM-33P on the low side and a KM 84 or a Miktek C5 on the high—I’m using that one a lot. But you really have to listen to the instrument first before you just stick mics up.

How important is the room that you’re recording in to the final result you get?
Very important. I have the musician move around in the room to find the spot that translates best for the overtones of the instrument. The bass is very particular to axial modes [resonances caused by sound bouncing between two parallel surfaces] in the room, where the guitar wouldn’t be as much. So if I’m going into a new room, I’ll have the musician walk around and play, sit, and then move around some more. Find where the instrument sounds like the instrument to them, then the rest of it’s easy.

Do you mic acoustic guitar the same way that you do banjo, using two microphones?
Yes, I do. Because I hear in three dimensions and you can’t get three dimensions with one mic.

Do you have go-to acoustic guitar mics?
Yeah, I have a pair of [Neumann] KM 54s that I like a lot. Then the Miktek C5s—I’m using those a lot more than the KM 84s. I used to use KM 84s all the time, but the C5, I really believe in that mic.

That’s great to hear because that mic is fairly affordable compared to the others you mentioned.
When it comes down to it, it’s the performance. You could record it on a Shure SM57, and if you’ve got the performance, that’s what the people driving down the road are going for. A lot of people use SM81s. The KSM141s, the new mics by Shure, a lot of people are using those. It depends on the budget that you have.

How far away do you place the two mics when you’re recording acoustic guitar?
They’re about 8" off. If you’re sitting with the guitar in your lap, there’s one coming in to where the curve reaches the neck; it’s not faced toward the hole. And the other one is off the player’s shoulder, the right shoulder coming down. If you look at the symmetry and the angles, they’re facing to the back of the hole on the guitar, which is where the sound comes resonating from.

You’re trying to capture the sound of the whole body of the instrument, not just getting the surface of it?

So you place the mics fairly close up?
It depends … if it’s a solo guitar, I move them back. But if it’s in an ensemble, with a bunch of people sitting around, it’s usually about 8" or so.

I use the 3:1 rule, then move the mics around with the artist playing the instrument. If you’re going to mic in stereo, put the headphones on and make sure that the left mic is left and the right mic is right and then move them around, and ask the player, “Does this sound like your guitar?”

You’d be amazed, if you move a microphone just a little bit in, a little bit to the left, a little bit to the right, what a difference that will make, depending on the overtone series of the instrument and the key that it’s in. And the instrument, of course, is going to resonate in different keys.

Do you end up panning those two microphones across the stereo field or do you bring them pretty close together?
I bring them to 9 and 3 o’clock. If you pan them all the way left and right, once it gets to a transmitter on a radio station you could have phase cancellation. I’m still old school, making records for radio. But if I were stacking a couple of guitars, I wouldn’t have them both panned that way. I’d have one at 8 o’clock and 1 o’clock and the other one at 10 o’clock and 4 o’clock.

Do you worry about bleed between the instruments when you record multiple musicians at the same time?
If you get your angles and your positioning of your microphones, and you have them pretty much out of phase with the mics on the other players, then there really isn’t that much problem if you’re in a cardioid pattern. A good example: I had Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, and Earl Scruggs sitting within three feet of each other on one of Jerry’s recent albums, and I was able to punch some stuff in fine.

You’ve been involved with some very interesting projects for Fishman, creating the guitar images for the Aura system, and also the new Retro series guitars for Martin. The idea was that you took guitars into the studio and recorded “images” of them, which are then embedded in the guitar electronics. Were those guitars recorded in a tightly controlled room?
Yes, I had them in an environment where there was a baffle behind the guitar, so I wasn’t receiving any environment in the signal path. All you were hearing was the guitar.

How did you get involved in the Martin project?
I got a call from Larry [Fishman], who said that Martin wanted to put out a series of the old famous Martins: the D-18, the D-28, the D-45, and the OM. He said, “They’re going to bring down the guitars from the [Martin] museum and we’re going to image them and try to get the new guitars—when someone plugs in with the Aura—to sound like the old guitars.”

We really didn’t know what was going to happen until Larry processed some of the signal into an Aura and actually plugged it in, to see if it would work. We were both amazed.

That’s a fun project!
It took a couple of days. They came to the studio here at the house and unloaded a million dollars worth of Martins. [Laughs.] Then I went out and got a slew of microphones—an Electro-Voice 639, I got that from RCA Studio B. It was one of [legendary Nashville producer] Owen Bradley’s microphones. I got a Telefunken ELA M251 from there, and Wes Dooley let me use some of his ribbon mics.

So you didn’t just use the original vintage guitars, you also used original vintage microphones.
Yes, because there are a lot of traditional players that want—but can’t afford—an old vintage Martin, but they want it to sound like it would have sounded in the ’30s, ’40s, or ’50s. That’s how we were able to accomplish it.

How much does the rest of the gear that you use—the preamps, EQs, compressors—factor into the sounds that you get?
Quite a bit. On [the Retro series], I was shooting four microphones at one time and I went through APIs [mic preamps]. I needed a defined and uncolored sound on them, so that’s what we used.

What about when you’re recording someone like Jerry Douglas or Béla Fleck?
The Great River [MEQ-1NV preamp] and a pair of [Neumann] U 67s are normally what I use on Jerry. On Béla it would vary depending on the banjo. I use Neve preamps a lot or APIs.

How much equalization did you end up doing once you capture those sounds?
Mainly just high passing. It would be very good for the people who are reading this to know that they need to know the frequency range and the lowest note on the instrument that they are recording. Once you put that high-pass filter in, the instrument will feel like it is lifting itself out of the speakers.

Other than that, there’s no EQ?
No, not much, if any.

What about when you’re making a record?
Sometimes there are different hot spots in some guitars. The older guitars usually have a boom between 160 and 240 Hz that you have to taper a little bit. But usually that’s about it. It depends on what key they’re in.

It can vary from song to song?
Right. The key of the song is very important. It’s like tuning a vocal. If you don’t know what key the vocal is in, you could be searching all day for the right notes.

What advice do you have for someone who’s trying to record acoustic instruments at home, who doesn’t have an ideal acoustic environment?
Base it all on performance.

Don’t stress about the sound quality?
Well, sound quality is good, but the people that are driving down the road, I think they’re more interested in the performance than they are in, “Whoa, what microphone did you use on that?” I don’t know of anybody driving down the road listening to the radio calling anybody and asking them, “What mic are you using?” Well, I do get those calls, I guess. [Laughs.]

It’s all about the song.
It is about the song. The main thing is, if it’s not happening, walk away. Get something to eat, make sure your blood sugar’s right, and go in and try again. The hardest thing for most artists is knowing when to stop and walk away. In all the decades I’ve been doing this, usually when I have an artist who’s getting frustrated because they can’t play exactly what they’re hearing in their head and their fingers aren’t working with their mind, if you get them away for 10 or 15 minutes, they’ll go right back in and knock it right out.

That’s the psychologist part of being a producer … knowing when to have the artist step back.

What’s the hardest instrument to record?
Probably the hardest instrument to mic is the hammered dulcimer because of the overtone series it generates. The mics have to be perfectly in phase. I normally use KM 84s. I’m getting ready to do my 88th album on Craig Duncan soon.

Wow, 88 albums?
He does instrumental albums for the gift markets and tourist places that sell a lot of product. You’d be amazed how many people want to listen to the melody, but they don’t want somebody screaming at them. And pretty much in music today, it’s how loud can you make it and how compressed is the vocal? A lot of people say, “Why are they screaming at me?” So listening to instrumental music is pleasing and relaxing.

It’s an industry perception, rather than a listener perception, that a recording has to be made that loud.
I learned that a long time ago. My daughter had a birthday party and the girls found my collection of vinyl. They had never seen vinyl records before, so I showed them how to set the needle down. What I noticed was that when they put the needle down, they turned it up and listened to it. Then later, I came down, you know, delivering the pizzas and the Cokes and stuff, and they had the CD player out and they were playing a CD, pushing play and then turning it down. That told me a whole lot.

When you mic the hammered dulcimer, do you mic that in stereo?
Yes, in stereo, using the 3:1 rule. But I keep the mics up and away because the hammers are moving so fast that he doesn’t have a chance to hit any of the mics.

What about upright bass?
I usually mic it with a C5 up on the top and usually one of my Neumann U 47s on the low end. If we’re going more “organic,” I’ll use an RCA 77DX. The new Shure KSM353 is really nice, and the A440 from AEA, if you’re looking for a traditional thing. But on [jazz bassist] Charlie Haden’s album [Rambling Boy], I used a [Telefunken] 460 on the top end and a U 47 on the low side and ran them through two [Neve] 1073 preamps. Charlie [recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2013 Grammys] was in seventh heaven, which made me very happy that he was happy. Half of it is making the instrument sound like the instrument when the musician comes into the control room.

Have you done much bluegrass recording where you record everything with one microphone?
In the old days, but we still would address the bass, because the bass is usually nondescript back there. I did one artist … I was still going to Belmont, I guess, working on the weekends at the studios in Hendersonville that the Oak Ridge Boys owned. And a very prominent bluegrass artist came in. I think it took me 45 minutes to record that album. We went straight to 2-track. It was nice because the studio paid me for the day. [Laughs.] By the time I had the 1/4" tape edited and the box written on with all the information, it was probably 20 minutes after 11. We started at 10.

People don’t make albums like that these days.
I did an album like that with Richard Greene, a fiddle player. It was fun because I mixed it as we went.

If somebody’s putting together a home studio, where should they put their dollars? What should be the priority?
Interface and word clock. The word clock runs everything, and your audio interface is your converter. If you have some really good mic preamps—you’d be amazed what an SM57 and an SM58 sound like with a really good mic pre. If you’re a guitar player, save up and get the microphones that will last you a lifetime instead of just buying something that’s going to get you by. The same thing with mic preamps. I usually tell my students, have a good stereo signal path—mics and mic preamps—and then for vocals, have a good mic preamp and a couple of mic choices.

A lot of people still cut their tracks in the bigger studios. Most of your time is going to be spent overdubbing.

So keep the focus there rather than trying to set up a home studio where you can track a whole band all at once and have to sacrifice the quality of the gear to do it?
Exactly, because it’s cheaper in the long run to go in to a bigger room. Be prepared, be rehearsed. The Beatles went in and did their first album in 11 hours, something like that. If you’re prepared, you can go into a studio and rent it for a day for less than it would cost to buy a half-decent microphone.

Then you can take the tracks home and spend the time there working on the details and overdubs.
Exactly. What’s so funny is that I work with a lot of artists that should be just artists, but they also want to be engineers, and they don’t realize that there are two hats. The artist will waste a lot of time and their creativity trying to figure out how the computer works or the interface works or plug-ins work or what to use, instead of being creative. It happens with songwriters. A songwriter will write a hit song, then they’ll go out and buy a bunch of gear and have a studio in their house and then they stop writing songs. The same thing with artists—they stop singing or a guitar player will stop spending time practicing. For the hours of figuring out how to hook up a microphone and get the best signal, why not have somebody who actually knows how to do that and spend your time practicing and working toward that moment when you’ll be working with that engineer? You have to figure out what you want to be in life. Do you want to be an artist or do you want to be someone that has a really steep learning curve to become an engineer?

Have you noticed that lately with artists? Are they not able to knock it out in one or two takes?
No, normally they can knock it out. There’s a group that I work with called MilkDrive. They’re like a new New Grass Revival out of Austin. They can come in and they just knock it out.

Because they’re focusing on being artists.
Yes, they all have their Pro Tools 002s and 003s and they play around to get their ideas and their demos down, but not a master recording for release.

The Hillbenders is another group out of Missouri. They all go down live—vocals, everything. There are still groups out there that can do it.

Selected Bil VornDick Discography

Alison Krauss and Union Station, I’ve Got That Old Feeling
Rhonda Vincent, Taken
Charlie Haden and Family, Rambling Boy
Ralph Stanley, Clinch Mountain Country (featuring Bob Dylan, Vince Gill, Dwight Yoakam, Kentucky Headhunters, Diamond Rio, Marty Stuart, Ricky Skaggs, and many more)
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, Tales from the Acoustic Planet, and many more solo and with the Flecktones
Mark O’Connor, The New Nashville Cats
Doc Watson, On Praying Ground and many more
Shawn Lane, Power of Ten
Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg, and Edgar Meyer, Skip, Hop & Wobble
Jerry Douglas, Slide Rule and many more
Marty Robbins, Legend and many more