"Cathartic," is how Butch Vig chooses to describe the experience of hearing Nirvana perform either in concert or on tape. Add "intense passion," and he's talking about the writing and singing of Kurt Cobain.
"Very few artists have that kind of sensibility in their nature," says Vig, "and that's part of what made Kurt so amazing and also so much of an enigma at the same time. He didn't know what the hell he was trying to say but he was definitely trying to get it out."
It was while producing records for independent label Sub Pop that producer/engineer/ writer/musician Butch Vig first came into contact with Nirvana. The band just happened to be one of the acts on Sub Pop's roster and, having recently come off the road, was scheduled to record what was ostensibly going to be its next album for the company. Yet these were the days before drummer Dave Grohl had joined the band, and apparently all was not running that smoothly for the other members.
"I don't think they were necessarily happy with the line-up, or at least Kurt wasn't," recalls Vig. "Still, we recorded six or seven songs at Smart [the Wisconsin studio that Vig co-owns with Steve Marker and Duke Erikson] and they were going to come back and do some more, but this was right around the time when all of the major labels took an interest in them and they subsequently jumped from Sub Pop to Geffen. So really the stuff that I had recorded with them primarily became demos, and they got bootlegged real fast!"
Nevertheless, in spite of Geffen's desire to bring in a big-name producer, Nirvana held out to have Butch Vig at the helm when it was time to lay down new tracks in the studio. "I was lucky" is Vig's modest assessment. The result would be Nevermind.
"The only track that made it from the original sessions at Smart was 'Polly', which was a fairly stripped-down acoustic song," recalls Vig. "Then, after Dave Grohl joined the band, the new stuff was recorded at Sound City in Los Angeles. That's pretty much a no-frills studio. It has a big, live tracking room, there's an old Neve board, a 24-track analogue Studer tape machine, a good collection of tube mics, some nice LA2A compressors, but not a lot of outboard gear."
Recording was approached very much from the live perspective, with the drummer set up in the middle of the room and the bass and guitars isolated for separation. Nonetheless, Vig was determined to push the band in order to achieve the right results, and to this end he had Krist Novoselic redo some of his bass parts and Kurt Cobain performing quite a number of guitar overdubs. "He doubled a lot of the rhythm guitars," Vig recalls, "and he overdubbed clean and distorted tracks in almost all of the little solo sections."
Band and producer shared the engineering credit for the album, yet Vig confirms that this was hardly the truth of the matter. So, does this mean that Kurt, Krist and Dave were the only ones with their fingers on the faders? "Er, no... At the time almost every project that I was involved with had me co-producing and engineering," says Vig. "I had kind of grown up in the punk scene, when a lot of the bands wanted to have a say in everything, so I didn't particularly care if I had solo credit for that stuff. In fact, if you look at a lot of the records that I've done since then, many of them say that they are co-productions, whatever that means. The bands' input may be marginal, but I still like to collaborate."
Utilising a Neumann U67 and an LA2A, most of Cobain's vocals were recorded in the small Studio B at Sound City and ran straight to tape. The results alternate between a smooth, compressed, phasey sound and one of extreme dryness when the voice sits alone, yet minimal effects were employed. "Kurt really had an amazing voice," confirms the producer. "He could scream and it would have this great rasp and tone to it, and yet he could also bring it down really quiet and sound so world-weary and exhausted and intimate. It's hard to put your finger on it, but not many artists have that kind of voice or persona. Kurt had this brilliant pop sensibility in terms of melodic structure and phrasing, and yet he loved the attitude of punk, and those are the two things that collided and made Nirvana so special.
"In the studio I used a fair amount of compression on the vocals so that I could control his dynamics, and I also got Kurt to do some double-tracking. I'm a big fan of doubling, particularly on choruses, so he did that quite a bit on the record and that's part of what the sound is. Andy Wallace, the mix engineer, had a little bit of tight slap echo -- almost a double echo -- on a couple of the songs, and he also used a little bit of reverb and so on, but for the most part the vocals were left fairly dry. That really was the approach that the band and myself wanted to take. We didn't want to have it too washed out with reverb or echo, and it was the same with the drums and the guitars; we wanted everything to be fairly dry and in your face.
"I actually started getting more and more into recording everything very dry, and getting away from ambient mics, when I worked on Gish with Smashing Pumpkins. Everything would be really in your face, and then if you wanted to add reverb or echo later you could. You could put it farther back in the mix, but if we wanted something to be way up front in the mix you could also do that. That's how I've worked on pretty much all of the records since then. I don't really like to record with a lot of ambience, particularly on vocals or guitars. I will put ambient mics on the drums, but I also like to have tight mics.
"In the case of Dave Grohl's kit I used an AKG D12 and a FET 47 on the kick, and then we built a drum tunnel consisting of old drum shells attached to the bass drum and extended out about six feet. That way you can move a mic back three to four feet, and the FET 47 was a little farther away from where the front head would have been. By having the drum tunnel, you isolate the room, so that you don't get all of the cymbal bleed, or whatever."
Otherwise the drum miking was fairly standard: a Shure SM57 on the snare, along with an AKG 451, Sennheiser 421s on the toms, AKG 414s and Neumann KM84s on the cymbals, and Neumann U87s for distant room mics.
The guitars, on the other hand, were a different story, often characterised by assorted types of distortion and, in some cases, a sound so overdriven that the end result bears little resemblance to the instrument that originated it.
"Aside from a Marshall on just a few things, the amps that we primarily used were a Mesa Boogie, a Fender Bassman -- which is one of my favourites -- and a Vox AC30 for the cleaner overdriven sounds," Vig recalls. "However, there's not a lot of processing going on. Kurt had a Rat distortion pedal that he used on a couple of songs, and on a track like 'Breed' we just DI'd the Rat, we didn't go to an amp. We split the signal and we ran it to an amp, and we also took the DI and ran it right into the board so that it had much more of a fuzzy white-noise kind of sound to it. Then we blended the two together to get something that sounded cool."
The extremely warm, fuzzy sounds f Novoselic's bass guitar also resulted from a combination of DI and miking. "I like to put a couple of mics on the bass, even though I usually only end up using one," says Vig. "On Nevermind we placed a FET 47 and a Sennheiser RE20, and we then just used the 47, which has more of a thumpy, mid-range sound to it. Krist used an Ampeg SVT amp, which I'm a big fan of, while in terms of the DI I don't like to use normal DIs. I use a customised Tech 21 Sansamp, and I have a live split, so you can use it as a DI but it produces more of an amp sound. You can dirty it up, you can add some tone to it, and it's just much more usable as a DI signal as opposed to a straight DI, which to me sounds really thin.
"As for that kind of washy sound on 'Come As You Are', that was an effect that Kurt had, called the Small Clone, which is basically just a flangy chorus box but with a very distinctive sound. It's really kind of wide and watery. Not subtle, put it that way. Then we double-tracked his guitars on that so it had even more of a wide sound to it."
In 1994, having become "kind of burned out on doing really long records," Butch Vig began collaborating with his old partners Duke Erikson and Steve Marker on remixes for acts such as U2, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails and House of Pain. Featuring different instrumentation, these remixes would also highlight new guitar hooks and bass grooves, and the effect of writing and playing together again served to inspire the three men to form a band.
"We wanted to take that remix sensibility and somehow translate it into all of the possibilities of a band setup," explains Vig. "We also thought it would be cool to work with a woman singer, and Steve saw Shirley [Manson] on MTV with her band Angel Fish. I think they played her video once, and Steve happened to tape it that night and showed it to us. I just fell in love with her voice, because instead of screaming or singing really aggressively, she took the opposite direction: really low and understated. To me it was much more intense than a lot of other singers who scream all of the way through songs.
"So we called her up and asked her to come and sing on a couple of songs, not really knowing what was going to happen. We thought that maybe we'd work with different singers or that this just wouldn't work out, and it was a little awkward at first, but we soon realised that there was this chemistry going on, and she ended up joining the band."
The name of that band, by the way, was Garbage. Signing to a deal with Almo Sounds, which is distributed through Geffen in the States, and Mushroom Records, which is distributed by BMG everywhere else, the newly-assembled quartet next set about making a record with the naive intention that there would never be any plans to tour... wrong!
"Not going on the road would really free us up to record tons of stuff," offers Vig when trying to explain this notion. "We ended up having 48 tracks of samples and loops, and all sorts of strange processed sound effects and weird guitar overdubs, and then through the mix process we'd add and subtract until we'd get to a point where the song still came across. However, we then also realised that if we were going to have a successful record we'd have to go out on tour and promote it..."
Fourteen months, 20 countries and 200 shows later, this appears to have been the right decision -- though, just a few days after said road show has come to an end, Butch Vig is describing it to me as "a long, long haul".
Recorded at Smart Studios, Garbage's eponymous debut album was conceived in the late summer of 1994, completed in May of 1995 and released the following August. Fairly free artistic expression was the general order of the day.
"Basically the way we work is that someone will bring in a loop or a sample, and then we might jam for a couple of hours, find one bar that's kind of cool, load that into our samplers, jam on top of that, Shirley will ad-lib, and then we'll take that home, come back, jam on it some more, record some more things, add and subtract... Often, by the time a song was finished, all of the original ideas were gone, and the song had somehow mutated into something completely different."
The band's well-used samplers comprise two Akai S1000s and a pair of Kurzweil K2500s, while a recently-purchased Digidesign Pro Tools system may well make its presence felt on future projects.
"Our old samplers do have a certain sound to them," points out Vig. "I think it was good that we did some things in the Kurzweil and some things in the Akai, and we'll probably feel the same way about the Pro Tools, but even though there was a lot of digital processing with the samplers, everything gets flown back onto tape. We really like the sound of analogue tape -- it kind of glues everything together and is very forgiving in its sonic qualities."
More than many producers and engineers, Vig uses studio gear almost as if it is an add-on to the instruments. "We try to take that approach," he says. "I got bored spending so many years recording really fast, straightforward punk records, so that's why we didn't want to approach the Garbage record from the angle of a band playing live. Instead it was like, 'We can record 47 guitars on this song, mix it down to a stereo sample, then run it backwards, record another 20 guitars and process them so that they sound like a percussion instrument'. You see, the guitar is still pretty much the rock 'n' roll instrument that I love. Duke and Steve are primarily guitarists, and so, even though we used samplers and keyboards, there are a lot of things on the Garbage record that originally came from a guitar.
"We just wanted to see what we could do, utilising the studio and the gear there, to create something that sounded fresh. It's impossible, I think, to do something new in music, but the exciting thing is that you can take elements from different genres and try to combine, process and mutate them so that they sound new and fresh. That's kind of what we wanted to do on the Garbage record."
"Take 'Stupid Girl', for example. The whole song was written around that bass groove. We wanted to have a song with a very thumpy and repetitive bass line, with the bass line acting almost like a hook. Well, we actually recorded most of that song in Steve's basement on an ADAT using an Akai, a couple of small amps and a small drum kit. We had a bunch of stuff going on and Steve took a loop from The Clash, the bass went down, Shirley started ad-libbing vocals and came up with a mostly finished lyric, and then we started incorporating all of these noisy little mistakes. Like at one point Steve was trying to dub something from one track to another track on the ADAT, something happened digitally and he got this scratchy feedback. He thought, 'Oh, this sounds cool,' so he sampled it and managed to tune it into the song, and that almost became a hook. In fact, we're very into things that aren't necessarily musical but can still become hooks.
"The same applied to the start of 'Super Vixen' which has all of these stutters and stops, and which was totally an accident. We were working on some guitar part at the start of the song and we put the tape machine into a loop -- you know, pick up and rewind and play again -- and after a while the tape was parking and again we thought, 'That's kinda cool!' So then we decided to do that every time, but because a lot of things played through those pauses we had to do some extensive muting with the automation in the mix in order to get them super-tight. So basically it goes to dead air, and in a way it's just silence, but that also becomes a hook. A lot of people commented that they thought their CD players were broken when they first put it on, which is cool!"
All this improvisational trial-and-error multi-layering could be said to amount to a latter-day 'wall of sound'. Vig agrees: "Kind of! I mean, a lot of the bands that we listen to and who we love are doing very similar things: Tricky, Massive Attack, Björk... I think the Beck record is brilliant.
"The sampler is probably the thing that has changed music more than anything else during the past five years. Originally hip-hop and rap were the only forms of music to be really influenced by that technology, but now everyone's using it and it's really cool to see these different styles of music all intertwined. That's one thing that new technology can do for you."
Sample (for want of a better word) the creative process behind a track like Garbage's 'As Heaven Is Wide': Butch Vig's big, pounding, rock drum sound was augmented by Duke Erikson's fuzz bass and Steve Marker's blaring guitars. Then lyrics were written and Shirley Manson took a vocal stab at them, before making some amendments to the words and singing properly over the track. At that point, uncertain as to what the next step should be (but certain that there needed to be a next step) the band put the song to one side for a couple of weeks. Butch Vig takes up the story:
"One day we came into the studio and Steve got these icy, chattery techno loops going, using samples in the Akai and the Kurzweil, and slowly but surely we just got rid of all of the live drums and guitars, and the track took on this kind of cold, menacing club vibe. Sort of a punk techno thing, I guess. The only thing that remained from the original tracking was the fuzz bass, and then we went back and triple-tracked it -- we double-tracked the low bass and then did a high octave that we put down in the centre. They're all slightly out of sync, and that gives it this strange, flangey effect.
"We kept putting more stuff on, and the only time the guitar appears is at the end when you hear Steve slide into the song that we faded in. Yet one of the most surprising and interesting things about the process was that, even though Shirley had sung over the original rock track, her vocals now sounded way cooler against all of the new instrumentation. She didn't change the vocals at all, but suddenly they took on a whole different persona when we changed the music underneath.
"A lot of times we don't know what we're doing. It's like trial and error -- and a lot of error. I mean, we never really sit down and say, 'Here's a plan, let's do this.' We really do experiment a lot and it's... difficult, because we're a disfunctional democracy! All of us have opinions and everyone has an ultimate power of veto. If someone hates something then we'll discuss why. The good thing is that there's a certain sensibility that the four of us share, and so when something really connects with one person it's usually going to connect with all four of us. Not always, though! There were some great arguments in the studio, let me tell you! Still, with any band I think that kind of creative tension is healthy. You have to be able to put it away and not take criticism personally. That can be hard to do, but it's healthy when you can deal with it."
Located in Madison, Wisconsin, this commercial facility houses a tracking room and a smaller mix room. In the former, there's a 32-input Trident ADC Series console with Uptown flying fader automation, Studer A27 and Sony 3348 multitrack machines, B&W 801 and 808 monitors, and KRK 6000 and Yamaha NS10 monitors. "I also have a small pair of B&W 805s that I lug back and forth between my house and the studio," says Butch Vig. "I like the way they sound. They're very smooth at the top end."
The mix room has a 56-input customised Harrison console with Uptown flying faders, assembled from two old desks that date back to the mid-'70s. "We took the VCs out and we cleaned up the signal path, because I really like the way the preamps and the EQs sound on them. They're much more like an old English-sounding console." Other equipment includes a Studer A27, and the same large B&W monitor configuration as in the tracking room, together with a pair of Haybrook nearfield speakers.
Butch Vig first hooked up with fellow Garbage men Duke Erikson and Steve Marker in the early 1980s, while obtaining a degree in Film at the University of Wisconsin. Work there on electronic music soundtracks stirred Vig's interest in the manipulation of sound, and this found a further creative outlet when Spooner, the band that he and Erikson played in, released a series of three albums on independent labels. "We basically had to produce ourselves and that was kind of a trial by fire," Vig recalls.
In 1983 Erikson, Marker and Vig rented some warehouse space and launched Smart Studios. The then-hot punk scene in Madison, Wisconsin helped them to attract a lot of local bands and gain a reputation for making high-quality yet cost-effective records. Local success led to more regional work, while Vig's own solo productions for a number of independent labels eventually brought him into contact with Sub Pop, and artists such as Smashing Pumpkins, Tad, The Fluid and Nirvana. His first major project was the Pumpkins' Gish album in 1991.
"It was kind of daunting," reports Butch Vig. "We really had no idea how to use the technology and duplicate some of these songs live. Initially we thought we'd get some samplers, get a DJ, get a bunch of extra musicians and somehow keep it simple, and so we found a bass player from Los Angeles called Daniel Shulman, who joined the band for touring and is also going to play on the next record. He has a hip-hop background -- he's worked with Run DMC and other bands in Los Angeles. He helped right away, because I think he really glued everything together.
"I mean, we didn't do all that much live playing on the record, and I'm not necessarily a great musician either, so I was thinking, 'Holy shit! How am I going to go out and play some of these songs?' Anyway, what we ended up doing was getting a Ddrum, a pretty massive sampler, through trial and error I figured out what grooves I was going to play, and then I sampled some of the sounds from the album that I could trigger live, as well as sampled sound effects and loops that I could play along with. At first I tried to just use monitors, cranking them up, but in the end I basically had more of a studio setup, with a headphone mix enabling me to hear very distinctly what I was triggering and what I was playing along with.
"Duke and Steve took all their guitar pedals, as well as their Kurzweil samplers, and they loaded in all of these samples that they had concocted in the studio, while they were also able to trigger some new things and keyboard sounds. Steve did multiple things -- he played guitars as well as having a key pad underneath at the same time.
"As for Shirley, she just sang. We decided we didn't want to sample vocals or stuff extensively from the record. We just wanted to go out and have all five of us play as a band. So with Shirley, for instance, at the end of 'Fix Me Now' there are three or four parts all overlapping, but she just decided to sing whatever she thought was the main part. In fact, at some point in the song she sang all of those different parts separately. We just decided that we wanted one mic on stage, and Shirley kind of ran the show."
Audio files to accompany the article.
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