From left: Carolina Chocolate Drops members/multi-instrumentalists Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Hubby Jenkins, along with beatboxer Adam Matta, recorded Leaving Eden in Buddy Miller’s Nashville home studio.
Twenty-first-century string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops—Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson—first connected through a Yahoo! group called Black Banjo: Then and Now (BBTN). Their shared love for old-time music spurred them to seek out living legacies like Joe Thompson, who was in his 80s when he and the trio became acquainted. A fiddler with a short-bowing style that had been passed down through generations of his family, Thompson shared his technique and his memories with the three young musicians. The Drops formed their own old-school folk band in ‘05, even donning Depression-era outfits when they perform.
Last year, Robinson departed the group, making way for two new members: multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins and beatboxer Adam Matta. And last month, the Drops released their sixth full-length album, Leaving Eden (Nonesuch), a high-energy collection of covers and originals, instrumentals and vocal songs, all perfectly cast as 1930s-style African-American string-band tunes. The band’s producer this time out is the Americana Music Association’s reigning Artist of the Year, Buddy Miller, who has also produced Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, Patty Griffin, Solomon Burke and more. As he does with many artists he works with, Miller welcomed the group, and guest cellist Leyla McCalla, to his Nashville home studio.
Engineer Mike Poole, who recorded and mixed the release, says the project started with “getting to know you” sessions about a year ago. A handful of tracks from those early dates made it onto the final album, but more importantly, Poole says the first round was invaluable as far as developing an MO for further tracking. “We were moving fairly quickly in those sessions,” Poole recalls. “It was mostly about figuring out the best way to record them together as opposed to splitting them up into rooms or booths.
“When you’re recording a more straightforward folk band, where everybody’s playing either a guitar or a mandolin or a fiddle, everything has a similar, equivalent volume, which helps with the leakage factor,” Poole continues. “Nothing is louder than anything else and getting into everyone else’s mics. That’s not the case with this band, because one of Hubby’s mandolins is a resonator [metal] mandolin instead of a wooden one, and Dom’s banjo tends to be strong and loud; he plays and sings as if there’s no P.A.
“The traditional music they’re playing would normally be played to a crowd outdoors with no amplification,” Poole continues. “So, everybody who plays this kind of music has probably learned how to project, instrumentally and vocally, so when you stick all of that in a room together, you’ve got this really loud, aggressive banjo that’s all over the fiddle and everything else.”
Performance was always put ahead of convenience, however, and the band recorded the bulk of their material live, vocals and all, together in the main room (Miller’s converted living/dining room), with Poole capturing them through an MCI JH-16 tape machine, into Pro Tools HD. “A lot of bands can’t afford to take two weeks mixing on an analog console,” Poole observes. “So Pro Tools gives us speed and ease of editing and easy mix recalls, but going across the tape first colors it in a way that doesn’t work as well when you try to go digital first and then go back to tape.”
Recording/mixing engineer Mike Poole tracked the band live through an MCI tape machine to Pro Tools HD.
Poole also set up some of the sessions in a more reflective, live room he calls the “veranda,” a concrete-floored, glassed-in porch, which is shown in a video made during the sessions. Filmed in the evening with a couple members in period garb, the Carolina Chocolate Drops look and sound like something out of a 1930s field recording by John Lomax—complete with the night-song of frogs and crickets—except for the modern miking setup: an AEA KU4 on Flemons’ snare and vocal, a Cascade Gomez and Miktek CV4 on Giddens’ fiddle, and a Coles ribbon on Jenkins’ banjo. Poole also set up pairs of Cascade Fatheads and AKG C-61s in the room. Mic pre’s used during the recording included Telefunken V76s (Miller has four), Vintech Neve emulators, API 3124s or occasionally the pre’s in Miller’s Trident B Range console.
Poole says he knew that when it came time to mix, he would have to embrace the leakage: “You know that what you’re going to get is: That’s my mic with everything but mostly mandolin; this is my mic that’s everything with mostly fiddle, etc. You will end up mixing the leak as much as the instruments themselves.”
During the mix, Poole made use of his analog summing matrix, mic pre’s and compression on the stereo bus. “For each song, I tried a few different pre’s for color and, to make up gain,” he says. “I almost always used a TL Audio into a Burl B2 [Bomber] ADC.”
Miller and Poole’s respectful approach to the music, coupled with modern-hybrid recording methods, resulted in an essential Carolina Chocolate Drops album that sounds as dynamic as it does authentic. As original Drops member Justin Robinson says in a quotation that’s blown up on the band’s Website: “Tradition is a guide, not a jailer. We play in an older tradition but we are modern musicians.”