T Bone Burnett’s talents as a music producer are many, but Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops sums things up in a way when she says, “He has such good instincts.”
When Burnett received a sort of gift from Bob Dylan—a packet of lyrics and fragments, handwritten during the Basement Tapes era (around 1967)—the producer knew instinctively how to turn those long-neglected words into songs. He brought together an ensemble of singer/songwriters with strong, albeit different, connections to American folk music, and invited them to flesh out the words and set them to music. The album they made, Lost on the River, is a collection that equally honors Dylan’s writing, and the individual talents of the interpreters.
Answering Burnett’s call, five artists locked out Capitol Studios: Elvis Costello, My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith of L.A. band Dawes, and Giddens, whose attachment to Dylan’s music is indirect, but deep.
“In the Chocolate Drops, I was always more focused on the source recordings [behind Dylan’s writing]—the old stuff. I deliberately didn’t do a lot of research on the Basement Tapes before the sessions. I wanted to offer a blank slate as one perspective among the five.”
Burnett and his engineer, Michael Piersante, saw the importance of making the group as comfortable as possible in the studio. They redecorated Capitol B, where much of the writing happened, with rented sofas and armchairs, homey lighting, and an upright Steinway from Piersante’s house.
Giddens says the artists came into the studio with “… a couple of different approaches. Elvis and Jim and Taylor came with songs fleshed out, and Marcus and I came more with ideas. It was a beautiful thing, and I can’t stress enough that both approaches were really valuable and important in songwriting. There were a lot of different ways to start writing a song.”
Recording the songs required an equal degree of flexibility. While the setup in Capitol was generally arranged so that writing would happen in the B room, and tracking would go down in Studio A, sometimes a song just wanted to be captured from a comfy chair.
“I put a couple of mics up—like an old Neumann CMV 563 lollipop mic over the couch—to capture the whole writing area, and then spot mics around—five mics total,” Piersante says. “There were several songs where the artists would say, ‘We’re rehearsing this tune, and we’re really comfortable here and it sounds good to us, so let’s just record it.’ So, we’d just record people sitting there in a circle. We also had the B control room available to us, so we’d patch through there. And we tied the two studios together, so they could share each other’s recordings.”
In Studio A, Piersante rigged a more conventional, old-school setup, with stations for different instruments and a dedicated vocal chain for each singer, all captured to one Studer A827 tape machine.
“I use a lot of vintage stuff, and we did bring in a whole stack of vintage Neve preamps,” Piersante says. “Everybody went through those. We added character where we could, because with all of those singers on the floor, singing in front of two drummers, a piano and a bass amp, we couldn’t use anything like a condenser mic—it would capture too much bleed. So, we ended up using a lot of [Shure] SM57s and 58s for vocals. I also had LA2s, a Fairchild, a Distressor; we used things like that on the singers, and then straight to tape.
“Also keep in mind, I had to set up fairly simply because we were limited to 24 tracks. So we put the two drum kits toward the back of the room, angled toward each other. We had Jay Bellerose’s kit and another kit that might be played by Marcus or by Taylor’s brother Griffin or Carla Azar—a roving cast of musicians. That second one was a Leedy kit with calfskin heads—a really cool, vibey set; Al Schmitt actually leant me his [AKG] D12, to use on kick, which was really cool of him to let me try.”
Otherwise, the auxiliary kit was miked with a 57 on snare, 67 on floor tom, and a Coles 4038 overhead. Bellerose’s kit had a vintage Beyer M380 on kick, a Beyer 160 tom mic (“little ribbon mics that take a lot of heat,” Piersante says), a Shure 57 on the snare and a Neumann CMV 563 overhead.
“I also had a drums mic between the two kits,” Piersante says. “That turned into a room mic for everyone who was singing, and that added some interesting character. Actually, in this kind of a situation, everybody’s mic was a room mic for the other guys, so we didn’t have any shortage of the awesome Capitol room sound.”
Giddens played her fiddle in a booth, but most everything else was on the floor of the main room, and there was a lot of maneuvering, as the musicians would change from guitar to piano or Mellotron, or from keyboards to drums or bass, for example. Piersante’s instrument-miking remained fixed (usually a combination of ribbons—RCAs on guitars and Wes Dooley models on pianos—with the Shure dynamics), but vocal mics would follow the singers.
“If it was Elvis’s song, he would sing lead and the others would sing background,” Piersante explains. “The next song, Elvis might go over and play piano instead of guitar on Taylor’s song, and every time we did a new song, we had to run out and follow the person with their mic to keep their vocal chain intact. They were constantly moving around from instrument to instrument.
“It was like a fun live rehearsal room kind of recording session,” he continues. “But you had to find a way to avoid worrying about the fact that these are all amazing artists working on Bob Dylan songs, and you’re trying to get a lot of songs recorded as well as possible in a very short period of time. If you could put all that aside, it was fun just trying to keep up.”