Colin Cobb & Ashton Allen On Recording Dewdrops

Colin Cobb cut his teeth at Dallas Austin’s DARP studios in Atlanta, and has helped a long list of pop and hip-hop artists such as TLC, Outsidaz, and CNOTE score hit records. But commercial success couldn’t replace creative satisfaction. “Rock has always been my love,” says Cobb, “and I decided I needed to do what was in my heart for the first time.” This year, Cobb started Livewire recordings as an outlet for producing artists he admired. Ashton Allen played bass in the Gainesville-based rock band Big Sky for 11 years, but woke up one morning with the realization that he wouldn’t buy his own band’s discs. “I hadn’t been happy for a while,” explains Allen, “so I started journaling songs as therapy using my home computer.” Cobb and Allen’s actions would help them bring balance to each other’s existence.
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Allen’s girlfriend convinced him to play the demo for an attorney whose client (Cobb) had a new label that was looking for exactly this kind of material. Cobb swiftly contacted Allen about creating an album that would get their hearts pumping about music again. Dewdrops is an intimate acoustic guitar-based singer/songwriter record draped with a delightful tapestry of strings, horns, grand pianos, banjos, and mandolins. It’s timeless stuff recorded honestly with a mix of modern and vintage equipment by a couple of folk-rock rookies. Their collaboration is an odyssey of synchronicity, integrity, and judicious use of the studio as a paintbrush, rather than a production house.

How did your roles function in the recording process?
I played all the instruments on every pop song I produced, and I’m really trying to get away from that. I only played percussion on this record. When you play, you start thinking with a musician’s bias. I like to be able to focus totally on producing, and pull the performance out of the artist.
I sang, played acoustic guitar, some electric guitar, piano, and organ. A lot of singer/songwriter records wind up sounding like the producer rather than the artist. He told me he wanted to make an Ashton Allen record, not a Colin Cobb record.

What was the vision for the recording’s overall sound?
We both had a vision for a very classic, organic record that showcased the songwriting. At first, he wanted to do a stripped-down acoustic record, and I wanted to put some big production behind it.
We wound up with the best of both worlds.

How did you begin?
He has a soft, very melodic voice, and I really didn’t want to get away from the way he tells a story. So I said, “Let’s start with just you and the acoustic guitar, and use production only to enhance.”

Building a multitracked record off an original keeper guitar performance puts a lot of pressure on any player, especially a rather inexperienced one.
I was nervous, and I’m hard on myself musically, but one thing that was drilled into my head as I took piano lessons from age four to 17 was how to play with a metronome. I’m an inexperienced acoustic guitar performer, but my timing confidence helped get me through. Mostly, I played fingerstyle, and I was able to work around the click pretty well.

What was the workhorse instrument?
Other than a couple of parts where I used Colin’s Taylor, I played my Martin DC-28 with Martin Marquis strings throughout the record.
Cobb: It’s the best sounding guitar I’ve ever heard.

What mics and techniques did you use to capture it?
Cobb: I did a lot of X/Y miking using everything from AKG C4s to Neumann M 49s, KM 184s, and KM 84s. I would place one mic on the body of the guitar, and one right at the fretboard near the 12th fret, where I could get some soundhole information as well. I recorded dual-mono performances, stereo miking the guitar each time. I’d pan both signals from the first performance to the left, and then pan the other performance right. If there weren’t many other instrument layers, I would spread all four guitars out. One time I added a third guitar panned hard left and right. I would even mix in a Royer SF-24 stereo ribbon mic to capture low guitar rumble from the back of the room.
I just knew I didn’t want it to sound processed. I used old strings, and there were moments where I would even detune here and there because I didn’t want everything perfect.

How did the tracks evolve?
Colin would ask about my vision, and offer ideas about horns, or whatever. Some songs, like “Dewdrops,” stayed acoustic, some got drums, piano, or a trumpet, and a lot of songs were colored with full string and horn arrangements. It was really enjoyable to “paint” each song individually.

Colin, how did your extensive pop background inform the decisions you made for this record?
There are a lot of layers of guitar performances. If it was just one stereo guitar, then I’d have him layer inversions. I’d introduce another guitar with the vocal harmonies and we’d switch the triads.

Why did you wind up having to work in three different studios?
We cut strings and horns live at Treasure Isle in Nashville because the players and their conductor, Tim Lauer, were based there. We’d been at Colin’s Vintage Vibe studios for about six weeks, and it was good to change environments.
I thought the songs merited live strings and horns done in a huge room. We did the piano on “If You Leave” at Tree Sound in Atlanta because they have the darkest Yamaha grand piano I’ve ever heard in my life.

Did you encounter any snafus using different studios or different recording media?
No. That’s the story of my career: I cut to tape first, and then dump into Pro Tools for editing, mixing, and transferring from place to place. Now, Ashton’s vocals and some of the guitars we cut straight to Pro Tools for a crisp sound, while drums, bass, and some of the rhythm guitar tracks were cut to my Ampex ATR MM1200. Some of Ashton’s songs were recorded at 15 inches per second because I wanted a really fat low end. Pro Tools running at a 192 kHz sampling rate and 24-bit resolution can handle that. The mixer was a Trident ADB-16 console.

What mixing tricks did you use?
There are a lot of places where the left-side guitar is going through everything from Chandlers to Uries to Neve compressors, to achieve such a high-end guitar sound that you can really hear the fingers squeaking on the strings. The other side would be an uncompressed, bassy guitar. Having multiple performances and microphones gave me a lot of mixing options.

How do you achieve the right balance between live energy and overdubbed perfection?
Cobb: When you’re working with a solo artist starting with guitar and vocals, you have to overdub, but this is an honest record made of live performances done one at a time. In the end it’s all about the right vibe for the song.

Do you feel you ultimately got the sound you were looking for?
I’m thrilled. A lot of my singer/songwriter friends were shocked because I was allowed to be so involved in the process.
I needed to do what I wanted to do musically for the first time, and Ashton’s record is just that.