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Interviewing - Butch Vig

Brian Toye
September 07, 2011

Butch Vig is a world renowned producer and engineer. His resume boasts the Nirvana Nevermind mega album, as well as huge commercial hits by the Muse, Green Day, Smashing Pumpkins and the Foo Fighters. Butch also started the sucessful band Garbage and continues to write/produce and tour the world to this day.

Question: How did you get the Drum sound on Nevermind? Did you use any samples?

Butch Vig's Response:

Kick - D12 with a drum tunnel, FET 47 at the end, Snare - 57, Hat - KM84, Cymbals - KM84's and 414's, Room - U87's. Pres were Neve in the 8028 board (1290 based pres - 1073 or 1084 probably). Recorded at Sound City (nice big live room there)

Keep in mind, nobody but Dave Grohl sounds like Dave Grohl but I think that's pretty close to what the setup was...although I don't remember if we used a bottom mic on the snare. I saw Dave Grohl last week, I mentioned I'm doing a GearSlutz forum, and he said he has a picture of me setting up the drums, and if he can find it I'll post it. (note* was never posted). I'm pretty sure Andy (Wallace) had a bit of them (samples) mixed in the background on kick and snare. He would load them into an AMS, and trigger them from the sync head with a delay. He didn't replace the drums, just used the samples for ambience. I wanted to steal them, put them on a DAT! But every day when he finished a mix, he would turn the AMS off, then load them back in the next day.

Question: I heard somewhere that Kurt didnít like singing with headphones?

Butch Vig's Response:

I tried using the out of phase speakers with no headphones but I didn't like it (I could hear the weird phase bleed), so I convinced Kurt to wear headphones. We used a U67 on most of his vocals, I think it was the Neve pre, and probably an LA2A. I was lucky if I got 4 takes. Usually 3...I would get him to do a warmup and adjust levels (and record it) and then get him to do a couple takes. He did not have the patience to do more than that, and usually blew his voice out anyway, so I would take anything I could get! It's funny, I can hear the vocal comp on some Lithium. The verses are really obvious between the different takes.

Question: Tracking live off the floor vs. Overdubbing? A lot of producers say they like getting at least the rhythm section tracked together. With that said, there are a lot of people who track each instrument separately. If you do track groups together, do you isolate the amps, or do you just let it all bleed?

Butch Vig's Response:

Sonic Youth: tracked all in the same room, lots of bleed, kept all the basics, overdubbed more guitars on Dirty than Experimental Jet Set.

Smashing Pumpkins: on Gish, just Billy and Jimmy tracked, with Billy standing 2 feet away from Jimmy, only kept the drums, Billy overdubbed all the guitars and bass. On Siamese Dream, they were all set up in the live room, with cabs islolated...on some songs all 4 played, some just Billy and Jimmy.

Green Day: all 3 setup in the live room with cabs islolated, but usually I was just going for the drums. Both Billie and Mike like to overdub in the control room. There were a few songs were we kept Billie OG track.

One of the reasons I like to record the whole band is to hear how the drums will sound against the guitar and bass....if you record only drums, it's hard to make know you should eq them if they are not competing against other instruments. I also like to record the whole band for the vibe, I like to hear the big picture when tracking!

Question: How you are approached to produce a new band?

Butch Vig's Response:

Every situation is different, let me walk you through an example.

A couple years ago I got a call out of nowhere from Craig Aaronson at Warner Brothers. He told me about a group he had signed Against Me, and that they were great, really passionate young band. He was VERY enthusiastic on the phone, so I told him to send me some of their music.
A couple days later I received a package which had contained their previous album as well as several earlier EPs. I listened to the album Searching For A Former Clarity and really liked it, especially the song Don't Lose Touch. I called Craig and he wanted me to fly immediately to Florida to see a gig, which i couldn't do as I was in the middle of another project. I looked at my schedule and saw an open weekend about 3 weeks later, so I flew to Milwaukee to see them on Warped Tour.

The day of the gig, I went straight to the venue (a huge, hot, asphalt parking lot) and their tour manager took me right to their tour bus. We chatted for a few minutes, and I followed them onstage, and was able to watch their performance a few feet away (always good to see them that close, you can really see how they play together). After the brief set, I went back to their bus, and we sat down and talked for about 2 hours over a couple of beers. I asked them a lot of questions. They asked me a lot of questions. They played a few new songs for me (one of them Up Th Cuts, which I immediately loved, and I noticed they had played it in the set earlier). I really, really liked them, so as I shook hands and was getting ready to leave, I asked them "so, do you want to make a record together?" And they said "hell yeah!"

Normally, I would wait a few days to make a decision, talk to the A&R person again, listen to all the new demos...but I really felt a good vibe from hanging with them, and just decided to go for it. The next step was pre-production, and I told Tom Gabel to start sending me demos. As the songs came in, I would give him very specific feedback..some of them were great as is, some songs needed a different groove, some I suggested chord changes to make the chorus better, etc...Sometimes I will suggest a reference point to a band, like "how about writing a song like this." iI had noticed a lot of the new songs were very social political (which is one of Tom's strengths, and one of the reasons i love his songwriting) and i suggested he write something more personal, maybe something that tells a story. I suggested "why don't you write a song that's a cross between "Rebel Rebel" and "Walk On The Wild Side"....a couple days later, he sent me an early demo for Thrash Unreal, which became the first single from "New Wave" and needless to say doesn't sound anything like the song references!

After I felt the songs were good, we booked studio time in Los Angeles, and I booked 2 weeks of pre-pro rehearsal. Andrew asked me a couple day beforehand "What are we going to do for the next 2 weeks?"....During rehearsals, I would deconstruct everything they were playing, have them play their parts solo for me (just the drums, just the bass, just the guitars) work on arrangements, and work on tempo maps (I also brought in a drum machine for Warren to play with as some of the songs were unstready...and at the end of two weeks, I knew, and the band knew, every part and note on every song they were playing!

Then we went into the studio and recorded the album!

Question: Whats your home studio like? (*note: picture posted to the right)
I'll try to take a picture tomorrow of GrungeIsDead and post it. It's nothing fancy, a bedroom which I use to record in. I can't really track a full band, there's no isolation. I do a lot of writing, and editing here. I also have mixed quite a few things here. Shirley did most of the vocals for Bleed Like Me (Garbage) here. I didn't do any acoustic treatment work in the room, I just hung some panels to absorb the reflections. Im running,

Pro Tools HD (w lots of plug ins and soft synths)
Barefoot MM27s
MAudio EX66
Chandler LTD1 into Summit TLA 100 for vocals.
Chandler TG2 for Pod bass and guitar
Culture Vulture
Roger Meyer RM58
Transient Designer
M Audio Keystation 88 Midi controller
M Audio Trigger Finger for beats
Fender Custom Tele/Fender 12 string/Fender Jazzmaster
Fender P Bass
Gibson Les Paul Jr.
Gibson J 45 acoustic
Elam 250 mic
Bock 507 mic
and a bunch of stomp boxes!

The Bock 507 sounds BIG and very smooth. I run it into the Chandler LTD-1, with a little eq, 80 hz hi pass, and a couple db boost at 12K, into the Summit TLA 100. It sounds pretty sweet! I mixed the new GD single "Last Of The American Girls" at the home studio, all in the box!

Question: Do you follow a certain philosophy concerning arrangements? I mean, every song is different, but what prompts you to choose a cello for "Something in the Way", a sampled and highly processed intro to "I Think I'm Paranoid" and the quarter-note silence in "Supervixen"?

Butch Vig's Response:

"Something In The Way" is a beautiful, dark song, and I didn't really feel like like it needed a lot of additional instrumentation. We decided to add a cello because it would add to the mournfulness, and the bendy sliding parts help make it sound a bit surreal, at least to my ears.

In "Paranoid" I thought the intro needed to sound sort of spacey and swirly, so you feel like the narrator is not quite sure what's going on in their head.

In "Supervixen" we originally had the drums playing through the holes where the guitar stops, and then decided to have the drums match the pattern, so I cut the holes out when we mixed by doing automation mutes. It became even more exaggerated when the mastering engineer went to digital black.

Looking back, I feel like those arrangement decisions all help to serve the song....which is a good thing to think about when trying to decide what a song needs.

Question: Do you use a lot of analog tape when recording/mixing?

Butch Vig's Response:

I don't use that much analog tape any more. For Green Day, we tracked to both Pro Tools and tape, but after a listening session, EVERYONE (myself, band, Chris Dugan the engineer, assistant engineers) agreed the Pro Tools sounded better. I think we used tape on a few tracks (Chris probably commented already on GS)...but I think the reason we chose Pro Tools is that we had a great analog chain going in, with the mics, preamps, and eq, and we didn't need another element to vibe the sound up.

If you had been there to A/B with us, you could hear what I'm talking about....the tracks sounded GREAT coming up on the console...and when played back on Pro Tools, they sounded EXACTLY the same. When we listened to the tape, I was missing transients, thought the bottom sounded mushy, and the top end sounded weird to me. I do still print mixes to 1/2" tape...although most of the projects I've done lately have come from digital..and a lot of the time I leave that choice to the mastering engineer.

Question: When your bouncing all those tracks to stereo, have you done most of your EQ and filtering to each take or is this something you'll give yourself options for later in the mix stage?

Butch Vig's Response:

My second is that I've seen or read interviews where you like having guitars in the L and R, but also up the middle, which is something I've started doing. Do you have a particular tone you like to hear up the middle: perhaps something darker or brighter than in the sides?
Usually when I bounce, I try to make it sound like it will in the final mix, so I will eq/compress and sort of "pre-mix"...

When I put a guitar up the middle, it usually has more mid-range crunch, or try to find a eq pocket that gives definition to the chords or riff...and it's usually in the mid-range, 500 hz to 2k...

Question: Siamese Dream, one of the all time great rock records. I read once that Billy Corgan said it was a miracle that the record was ever completed as it was a struggle at some points? Was this a fun record to make from a producer point of view? :) Any standout memories? I will never get sick of this record. Those guitars and drums sound so amazing.

Butch Vig's Response:

It was one of the most difficult albums I ever made, and one that I am very proud of.
After the success of Nevermind and Gish, there was immense pressure on us to deliver something special. I pushed Billy hard...and he pushed me.
There WERE days when it was fun, but also days where we felt like we had gone into the abyss. At the end of the album, we were both physically and emotionally exhausted. Alan Moulder (assistant) had to leave on the last day of mixing (after we had kidnapped him for 6 straight weeks without a day off!) and Billy and I finished the last song Luna about 4 AM. There was no champagne, no high fives, no cheering...we just looked at each other and said "holy shit, are we finished?" and dragged ourelves back to the hotel. I woke up at noon the next day a the Beverly Garland Hotel on Vineland with all the curtains closed, and listened to the album all the way through in pitch black. I couldn't see anything, I could only listen...and I knew we had something special.

Question: How did you get the Guitar sound on Siamese Dream ?

Butch Vig's Response:

Oh yes, there were a LOT of guitars! Because we were using analog tape, and had most of the guitars on the 2nd reel, we had to punch in different parts in different sections, sometimes submixing 8 or 12 guitars down to stereo...( this is before Pro Tools)...I remember some songs like Hummer and Soma had so many parts, I had to make "guitar maps" for us to remember how to approach the mix. Alan Moulder asked "what is a guitar map?" He knew what a guitar map was after he'd been kidnapped for 6 weeks!

Question: How did you recording Corgan's vocals on the CD. The just seem to...well work. Was there a weird technique used? Mics? Effects?

Butch Vig's Response:

I think we used an SM7 a lot...and I had an API Lunchbox that I used for vocals at that time for the pre...I would add a little air at the top, and usually cut a bit of mid around 800 hz.... And I probably used my Summit TLA 100 comp. But I seem to remember Billy used a large tube mic on a couple songs...hmmmm Jeff will probably remember better than me!

Question: How and when do you employ panning and fading?

Butch Vig's Response:

I tend to like things pretty wide if they are panned...hard left and right, or down the center. It's not a hard/fast rule, but if something is slightly panned, like a shaker, I find it distracting. For some reason, i always put hi hats down the bugs me if they are panned wide...

When mixing, I do a LOT of rides...mostly on vocals, but also on drums fills and downbeats of sections if you want to have more impact.

I do what I call "tiering" where sometimes I will take the whole mix at the start of a quiet section and boost it 2 or 3 db on the sub groups...then over the course of 16 bars or 32 bars, whatever the length is, I lower it back down to 0 db where it started, so when the chorus hits I can pump it up 3 db, then ease it down, and pump it up for the next change where you need impact. If you looked a a WAV file, it looks like steps...and the dynamics are usually pretty extreme, way more than you hear on the final mastering because I don't use buss compression.

More tips from Butch Vig:

When I started working on the 1st Garbage album, I realized quickly that a lot of the songs were going to be very, very dense sounding, so I would do a lot of filtering as we built the songs. The board that we mixed on was a custom Harrison, and it had the most kick ass HP/LA filters! And I would take the filters and sweep them around on a guitar until it sounded like it had it's own "pocket" in the song. If you soloed the track, it sounded like s**t, but in the context of the mix, it sounded perfect.

I started doing a lot of eq filtering when we recorded Siamese Dream, as song of those tracks were also very very dense.
I also remember when we started Smart, we were doing records so quick that we didn't have time for working on a killer drum sound. so as soon as had the drums set up, I would listen to the drummer play for about a minute and adjust levels...then I would insert eq on all channels at once, which typically had some top boost around 5 or 6 K,
some bottom boost around 80 or 12o hz, and a big cut (-8 db) at 300-500 hz.
That was out 5 minute drum sound. The only channel that I would tinker with a bit more was the snare drum.
Steve Marker and I had that eq set up fro about 2 years. I think the board back then was an Allen and Heath. Most of the albums were done in 2 or 3 days. Record all the basics on day one, overdubs vocals and guitar solos day 2, mix day three.

Man oh man I did a lot of albums like that!
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