In addition to being a member of his own multi-platinum band, Garbage, Butch Vig has brought his production abilities to enough acclaimed albums by the likes of Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Foo Fighters, to be firmly cemented in music history. His latest work, however, is not an album release, but a vocals plugin with Waves Audio. I was able to have a chat with him recently about it, among other things.
Your drum sound is something many audio people talk about. Can you talk to me about your approach to recording drums and what things you consider when working with acoustic versus sampled drums?
In the 80s, drums started to sound really weird to me, because the kick would be loud and clicky, like it was a foot away from your head, but the snare would sound like a canon-shot going off in an arena. Obviously, that’s not possible, but recording doesn’t have to be about purism. You should aim to create whatever sonic environment you want, and drums are an important part of that. To my ears, a song is defined by the sound of where the drums are, because it gives the listener the sense of the space that the rest of the song lives in.
When producing another band, determining what the drums should sound like is a big part of understanding their vision. It’s often determined by how the drummer plays. With Garbage, we tend to throw a lot of paint against the wall to see what sticks. A typical Garbage track will have live drums that I record in my lo-fi home setup. It’s just dry walls with no acoustic treatment. We’ll also cut up loops and program samples as well, and blend them. As you can imagine, that process is quite different from recording Foo Fighters.
When mixing drums, I hear a lot of people complain about balancing ambience with punchiness. Too much reverb makes things sound distant, and excessive distortion or compression can destroy dynamic range. How have you gone about juggling such things when mixing drums?
Hearing the room mics is important. To me, the mid-range frequencies define what the room mics sound like, though these frequencies are also what can clog up a mix, particularly in the 300 Hz – 500 Hz range. So you have to determine what’s important, be it the room or other sounds in the track. Sometimes I will push up the room mics in calm sections of a song, like breakdowns, and then pull them back when things get dense in the chorus.
When working with loops, I use a lot of filters. When I worked at Smart Studios years ago, we had Harrison boards that had incredible hi-pass and lo-pass filters, and I’d run so many of our tracks through those, and make them sound cohesive, which is how we made the first Garbage album. I realized that it’s helpful to filter layered sounds that contain a lot of sonic information, but normally might not have sounded good together. So I’ll carve out specific frequencies with filters. If you’re using live drum loops and samples that contain the full bandwidth of a mastered track, it’s going to eat up a lot of headroom and frequency range, so you have to pick what you want out of that.
You mentioned Harrison boards, which is a console that’s not as talked about as Neves or SSLs. Did you work with them a lot in the past? What’s your desk of choice today?
I only used them a few times in the 80s whilst working in Chicago. Garbage bought our first one around 1987, relatively cheaply, and then bought a second one which we soldered together, so instead of a 32 input, we had 62. Then we put flying faders in, and that became our main mix console for a long time at Smart Studios. I still have a couple of the modules, and really like the way the EQs and filters sound.
API’s are very aggressive sounding in a good way, especially for rock and roll drums. They’re one of my favorite EQs and pre-amps for drums. Neve can be a bit softer sounding. But regardless, I don’t want to get put in a corner of using the same EQ or pre-amp on any source.
What do you think people prioritize when considering what console to work on? Does it tend to be pre-amps over EQs?
It depends. I primary use boards for monitoring and playback nowadays. My pre-amps will be outboard ones, in a rack. That way I can toggle between APIs, Neves, Helios, Summits, GMLs, etc. They’d be routed to Pro Tools, and then routed back to a board for monitoring.
Occasionally, I’ll still use a console for everything. When we recorded at Sound City, the Neve was such a one-of-a-kind console that it was smart to use it. The left side would have all the pre-amps and EQs, and would go to the tape machine, which would then send the recording to the right side of the board, which was for monitoring. It had the most kick-ass monitoring.
As someone who’s been a part of the recording world for 30+ years, why do you think we haven’t seen as a many universally acclaimed albums emerge in the digital age, as opposed to the number of classics that came out of the mid-late 20th century?
There’s two things that go hand-in-hand with records from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Part of it is the sound of those records. Most of them were probably recorded in a proper studio that had a unique space and sound to it. The second is the songwriting, which would have had to be good as well, in order for them to stand the test of time. For a kid working in a basement studio, they have to figure out how to make their stuff sound interesting with digital tools. What’s going to set the new generation apart is how they use those tools. Anyone can get a decent synth and drum sound using plugins. Creativity is what will determine what happens.
Let’s talk about the Butch Vig Vocals plugin. How did your collaboration with Waves Audio come about?
Waves approached me about designing some plugins. Initially I had no idea what to do, so I went mad scientist and wrote down everything I could want in a plugin. At their encouragement, I also wrote down everything I’d used in the past. However, it got a bit overwhelming, because I couldn’t incorporate everything into just one plugin; it wasn’t going to work. So Waves reigned me in and said, “Let’s start with vocals“. So I started again, and wrote down all that I’d used on vocals in the past. With a focus on compression, EQ and saturation, which are the primary things I focus on when tracking and mixing vocals. From that point, the plugin took about a year to finish.
Have you been able to monitor the feedback it’s received?
I’ve received good feedback from Waves, and I’ve read good reviews. I know a couple of engineers that use it and like it. It’s meant to make the vocals sit properly in the mix, whether that means making it sit in the center and sound clean, or be processed heavily. I designed it so you can reach both extremes quite quickly.
Do you have any favorite Waves plugins?
I’ve got a pretty big Waves collection. Garbage was one of the first bands to embrace Pro Tools wholeheartedly, and digital tools have come a long way since then.
I use the API EQs a lot, the 550As and 550Bs. The new dbx 160 is great too. It was the first compressor I ever bought for $50, and we used it on everything, from snares to bass and vocals to guitars.
Occasionally I’ll pull up plugins in the Signature Series. I like Manny Marroquin’s distortion and reverbs.
The two things I’ve used more than anything is the Renaissance Axx, which I love on guitars and the RVox, though I’ve turned to my own plugin nowadays for vocals.
What does the future hold for you?
We’re currently rehearsing for Garbage’s 20th Anniversary Tour in September. We’re also done with a new Garbage album that we’re hoping to put out in January.