The Ditty BopsQUIRKY ACOUSTIC DUO REACHES FOR SOPHOMORE SUCCESS 5/01/2006 8:00 AM Eastern
The dreaded sophomore slump. So many bands go through it; not all of them survive. Los Angeles — based group the Ditty Bops — an acoustic combo led by Amanda Barrett (mandolin/dulcimer) and Abby DeWald (guitar), who lend their sweet vocal harmonies to a modern, cheerful blend of folk, ragtime, Western swing and vaudeville — put out a finely crafted self-titled debut for Warner Bros., earning them glowing reviews and a slick fashion spread in Interview magazine.
But when it came time to focus on the “difficult second album,” Moon Over the Freeway, which was released last month, the group had just hit their stride. “They've really taken a step forward with this record,” says Mitchell Froom, who produced both albums. “Their vocals are really good on the first record, but now you hear the increased force with which they sing. Just the power of what they do is great.”
The Ditty Bops' busy 2005 tour schedule helped build that power. When they recorded their first album, the group had only played live a handful of times (including one show at Molly Malone's in Hollywood, attended by Warner Bros. A&R rep Craig Aaronson). But after their debut's release, they assembled a solid touring band and worked themselves into one very well-rehearsed unit with a great theatrical sense. Barrett and DeWald's songwriting skills also improved; they wrote prolifically on the road and tested their new material with their audience.
Froom — whose best-known production credits include projects for Elvis Costello, Ron Sexsmith, Crowded House, Los Lobos and Suzanne Vega — wanted to capture the new Ditty Bops songs at their peak of freshness. During random breaks from gigging, the group recorded at Froom's studio (christened Coconut Guys by Barrett and DeWald), a mid-sized operation equipped with a 44-input Amek Media 51 console and Pro Tools|HD Accel rig (with an Apogee Trak2 clock/preamp/converter), among other items. At the time, no one even knew if there would be a second album. “My thinking was, ‘I love this band, it'll be fun to record them,’” says Froom. “Who knows what will happen with the label? If they get dropped, we'll have a really cool record for an indie.”
David Boucher, Froom's engineering partner for the past four years, originally thought those sessions would wind up as demos; if they were lucky, maybe a master or two would come forth. “But the band came in and everybody was so on top of things, we ended up with four masters on the first day!”
Subsequent sessions, spread over a year and a half, yielded similar results. Another tracking date produced two album cuts. On a third session, they got one more. Other times, they went back and re-cut tracks with new arrangements, but for the most part, Froom and Boucher left things as is. “The band was well-rehearsed from gigging a lot, but they hadn't been playing long enough to be ‘over it’ in any way,” says Boucher. “So capturing the band at that point was the best decision that could have been made.”
The core combo comprises Barrett and DeWald with touring companions John Lambdin (fiddle, acoustic guitar, lap steel), Ian Walker (upright bass) and Greg Rutledge (piano). Musicians Val McCallum (guitar), Davey Faragher (electric bass) and Pete Thomas (drums), all of whom played on the Ditty Bops' debut, also made appearances. After a short pre-production period to fine-tune arrangements, the group took their place in the main studio to track, with drums settled in one iso booth and one of the stringed instruments, usually fiddle, in a second iso booth. Upright bass, guitars, piano and the Bops stayed together in the main room with little baffling between them. “The spill between the instruments going into the microphones just makes the whole thing sound more realistic,” says Boucher.
Boucher chose small-diaphragm condenser mics and Empirical Labs Distressors for the acoustic guitars. Acoustic bass got miked with a 1950s-era Neumann U47 and a Royer ribbon mic run through Chandler EMI mic pre's and an EMI limiter.
Barrett sang into Froom's Telefunken 251, which Boucher says, “sounds better than any other 251 I've used.” DeWald used Boucher's custom Royer. “It's got a similar presence to the 251,” Boucher says. “It doesn't have an intense amount of low end, which makes it really good for vocals.” He continues the chain with API mic pre's and the Distressors.
The way the Ditty Bops usually work is they sing a scratch vocal with the band, “and then right after the take, we'll set up the mics and do a few passes of them singing together,” says Froom. “That seemed to be a pretty happy way to go. Some people sing better when they play and play better when they sing. With them, it doesn't seem to make a difference one way or the other. We never felt like we were losing anything. But literally five minutes after you get the take, they're singing. They're still right in it.”
Like the spot-on band, Barrett and DeWald recorded their vocal parts in minimal takes — and no Auto-Tuning necessary. “We'd get five takes out of the two of them in 20 minutes of recording,” says Boucher.
Froom will occasionally use a plug-in or some piece of outboard gear “if it sounds good,” but, generally, he focuses more on the sound going into the equipment than on the gear itself. Admittedly, he and Boucher will spend more time picking out an acoustic guitar than a microphone, and while Froom has an ample supply of equipment in his sunny studio, the instrument collection is, as Boucher describes, “without a doubt the finest asset.” The assortment includes a large collection of guitars, basses, drums and guitar amps, including an early '60s Gibson J45 “that sounds fantastic [and] all the little gadgets that go along with Mitchell's productions,” says Boucher, “like a beautiful set of concert bells, wacky things that he found in Paris.”
Oh, and keyboards. Lots and lots of keyboards. For example, on the intro to “Aluminum Can,” Froom rolled in a 19th-century “finger organ,” a foot-pumped set of flutes played with a keyboard. “It made these really cool, amazing designs that I liked the sound of, but I didn't hear it as an intro to the song,” says Barrett. “But once he recorded it, I had no doubt that it would work.”
Froom says that the Ditty Bops are “everything you would want to see as a producer. The group just gets stronger and stronger and, over time, your involvement becomes a little more subtle.” Their new material didn't require much restructuring, and though he did bring out some of his favorite odd and vintage keyboards, he added only small parts for color or to double an existing melody line, as opposed to guiding an entire track.
They also mixed the album at Froom's studio, again, with Boucher at the board. Boucher's passion for the project and strong familiarity with the music ensured continuity and helped bring the vision more clearly into focus. “David thinks about the mixing while we're recording, and usually for good reason,” Froom says. “He takes the concept to its fullest extent.”
Recording and mixing in the same studio also made for a more streamlined audio experience. Froom's VCA-automated Amek had enough channels to break out the tracks, and the Pro Tools|HD Accel rig served as an efficient substitute for 24-track and 2-track analog recorders. “Mitchell likes to work as if the 2-inch were still rolling behind us, so all the arrangements lay out on the desk pretty easily,” says Boucher. “There's never a compromise, but no headaches from the pitfalls of recording to a DAW.” They also sequenced the album, which helped make mastering engineer Bob Ludwig's job easier. He finished the album at his Gateway Mastering in Portland, Maine.
It's hard to predict how any album will sell, especially one from a group as innovative as the Ditty Bops. But if talent and sheer determination have anything to do with it, the Ditty Bops could certainly become sophomore stars. “They have too much enthusiasm for their music to go downhill,” Froom says. “It would feel really great to see them do well. It raises the bar for the concept that something different, if it's really good, is a good idea.”