by Steve La Cerra

After solidly establishing himself as one of the most influential producer/engineers in alternative rock (Nirvana's Nevermind, Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream), Butch Vig jumped into the spotlight himself when he formed the band Garbage. With a platinum album and major tour under their belts, Vig - along with bandmates Steve Marker (guitar, bass), Shirley Manson (vocals, guitar), and Duke Erikson (guitar, bass and keys) - are currently recording their second effort. Butch took time out to talk with EQ about their recording process.

Where are you recording the new Garbage album?

We're working in Madison, WI at our studio, Smart Studios.

What kind of setup do you have there?

It's two rooms. There is a tracking room downstairs with a Trident 80C console, a Studer A827, and a lot of old tube stuff. It's set up from years ago when Steve and I did a lot of punk records, so we have old guitar amps and analogue gear. Upstairs we have another room primarily designed as a mix room, with two Harrison 32-channel boards that have been linked together and fitted with Uptown moving faders. When we started this record, we bought a 48-track Digidesign Pro Tools system with Apogee AD-1000 converters that we basically use for editing and sound processing. We dump everything back to analogue tape eventually.

Do you track on the Studer, edit on the Pro Tools, and then bounce back to 2-inch?

Every song has been different. When we're cutting live instruments on some songs - like live drums - we track on the Studer. If we're working on some kind of noise loop, we might record directly into Pro Tools because more often than not we end up processing quite a bit.

What kind of processing are you doing in Pro Tools?

We have a lot of plug-ins that Digidesign has been kind enough to let us beta-test. There are a couple of new programs that act like ring modulators, weird digital filters, or new overdrive and distortion boxes. We'll insert an Eventide DSP4000 into the chain or run an output from Pro Tools through analogue guitar pedals and run that back to another track in Pro Tools. We're not concerned with whether a signal stays digital or analogue. We'll go back and forth to experiment as long as it sounds cool.

And you're using the analogue guitar pedals for more than just guitar-type sounds...

We run drums through them, bass, Shirley's vocals. Our main engineer and guitar tech Billy Bush started collecting them while we were on the road last year. Plus Duke and Steve had a pretty big supply of old funky pedals. They all have their own character to them and in some ways sound better than the digital stuff. Steve has also been using an old rack-mount Oberheim synth module that accepts external audio. He's been playing guitar through it and has been getting some very bizarre sounds, kind of like a mix between a guitar and a synthesiser.

When you're tracking a lot of guitars or drums - especially when you are doing a dense mix - tubes seem to be sonically more forgiving while still keeping the sound intense and in your face. To my ears, it sounds better. To me, everything sounds better when you go back to analogue.

When you go back to analogue tape, do you print hot?

Yes, to get some additional tape compression and just to keep the S/N high.

Do you think that adds to the density factor? It sounds like some of the mixes on the first Garbage record are quite dense.

It's that, but the songs also have tons of drum loops that have been submixed to mono or stereo. Some of the songs probably have eight to ten drum tracks going at any particular moment. I'd have a drum kick that originally might have been kick, snare, toms, ambient mics, and cymbals. I'd submix it all, and if I decided it was taking up too much space sonically, I'd mix them down to mono and pan the mono track all the way left, for example.

Were those loops played or sampled and programmed?

It's a combination. We might use a certain segment of something I played, but if I don't like the bottom end, I'll just keep the hihat, snare, and overhead mic, and then program kicks. Or I'll find another loop from somewhere else and put that underneath. Some of the drums on the last record aren't even drums - they are just noises that we would run through some kind of guitar effect or a Tech 21 SansAmp. Or we'd overload a preamp, noise gate it, and trigger it from the acoustic sound. We did that with a lot of the noise tracks.

Do the noise elements start as real instruments or just completely bizarre sounds that you have warped and twisted into using percussively?

Both. As an example, take "Stupid Girl," which started in Steve's basement. We had an Akai S1000 there and an ADAT. Steve came up with the Clash sample from "Train In Vain" and started playing a bass line over it. While Steve was playing bass, I was manipulating the sampler and Duke was playing some of the ringy guitar riffs at the start of the song. Shirley was ad-libbing the vocals. I'm not sure what happened, but Steve tried to bounce something on the ADAT and started getting this digital feedback, this "keeech, chhooo" kind of sound. And we thought, "This sounds cool," so we printed it to DAT for about ten minutes - because it seemed to be doing this kind of random thing. In the B sections of the song (after the verse), we dropped the bass out and put that sound in its place. It gave the song a real tense quality in that section, like something is being stretched. In a way it almost becomes a hook. Even though it has no real musical character, it does create tension, especially with Shirley singing high in her range at that point in the song. It made sense for us to drop the bass out and put that in its place. I don't know why. [Laughs]

On "Stroke Of Luck," we again had these noise-guitar things we had done at the end of the song and they were fed into a Roland Space Echo. We were turning up the feedback and it was going "wchhhhooooo, wchhhhooooo, wchhhhooooo." We just let it feed back and ran that into some more effects to see what would happen. That sounded really cool so we printed it for five minutes onto analogue tape. While the Space Echo was still running, we flipped the tape over and printed it onto another track backwards. So we had two running side by side in real time, but one was running backwards. As a joke, we sent that to our management and said, "We have a new song we're working one." They called back a couple of days later and said, "That's fantastic."

We made a conscious decision to try and make a dense, saturated recording with layers of sound. Some of the songs have 20 or 30 guitar overdubs. As you listen to the song repeatedly, you might hear something the second time that you didn't hear the first time. Maybe if you listen in the car, you'll hear something different than on your home speakers. We try to create little pockets or niches in the music by radically filtering sounds. We mixed the first Garbage record on the Harrison, which has these great old high- and low-pass filters that are really severe and musical. If you have a distorted guitar tone that is a wall of sound, it's hard to fit in a track that already has pumping bass, all these drums, and many other guitars. But if you filter the distorted guitar severely, you can find a spot for it to sit in. If you listen to it by itself, it sounds really shitty because there's no top or bottom end. But when you put it in the track - because there's so much body in the rest of the track - it's a full-sounding guitar.

Is that how you managed to fit so many guitar tracks in a song?

Yes. I have to give Billy Corgan (guitarist/vocalist for Smashing Pumpkins) credit for that because we often did that when making Siamese Dream, trying to find little pockets for guitars. There's a lot of guitar overdubs on that record. Everyone wants the guitar to sound great by itself, but if you try to put four, eight, or ten guitars together, the bottom end becomes sludge and certain frequencies in the midrange and high end just smear out. You need to be really careful about where you allow a sound to speak.

For layered guitars like that, would they have been playing the same part or different parts?

It depends on the song. On something like "Only Happy When It Rains" there's a clean rhythm and a couple of distorted rhythm guitars, three or four backwards tracks, an acoustic, some lead things that Duke dropped in, and these "stun" guitars that Steve played in the chorus with single-note riffs. There's a sequenced guitar in the second verse and the end of the song. For that, the drums triggered a gate that opened up the guitar. Hopefully it all fits together and makes some kind of sense as a song! We felt at some points that we were in danger of overproducing the record to a certain extent, but we decided to err on the side of going to far with it. Luckily, Shirley's voice allowed us to really overdo it in spots and try to push it sonically as far as we could.

How do you manage to keep Shirley's voice front and centre with all of that stuff going on?

Number one, she has a great voice and a lot of persona. When I was doing Freedy Johnston's record a couple of years ago, I bought a 1957 (Telefunken) ELA M 250, which is an amazing microphone. It has a lot of high-end presence that comes from tube saturation. Sometimes I run that through a Summit preamp, but I have a tendency to use my API Lunch Box with the 512b mic pre. I've had that for a while and dragged it around while I made Nevermind and Siamese Dream. I know I can set those up and get a clean path to tape. My favourite vocal compressor is the Summit TLA-100 because you can kick the vocal like, 10 dB, and it still seems fairly transparent. It really allows the dynamics of Shirley's voice to move around within the track, but yet it still stays in your face. If the songs got too noisy or too busy in the mix, it was a conscious decision to pull things out so Shirley could be front and centre.

How do you record drums?

I use to get very meticulous with a lot of the rock records I made. I'd put a couple of mics in the kick, like a Sennheiser 421 in right and (Neumann) FET U47 ambient, a Shure SM57 and SKG C451 on the top and bottom of the snare, top and bottom mics on the toms, close and ambient mics like U87's on the cymbals... Now it's much simpler. I'll put one mic on the kick and one on the snare. A lot of times I don't even mic the toms, and I might put up a pair of overheads or I'll use an ambient mic on the drums. I try to get more of an overall sounds versus an individual sound. I think that's because on the last record I moved away from having all of the drums individually tracked - it wasn't as important to me to have a snare on a separate track. I'm more interested in the sound of the kit or the performance, and I want the ability to add another eight tracks to that. On this record I have been using a Calrec Soundfield mic, which is an amazing stereo mic. A lot of times it's just kick and snare mics, and the Calrec is the predominant sound of the drums.

Where do you place it?

It depends on the song. The tracking room at Smart is fairly tight, so I'll just put it ten feet away, aimed at the drums, and then dial in a pattern in to make it wider or tighter, depending on how loud or soft the cymbals are. For some of the songs we have been recording on location at an old warehouse on the east side, not too far from the studio. It used to be called the Madison Candy Company. It's vacant at the moment, so it's just a raw industrial space, and there I'm using the Calrec as an ambient mic. It might be very close, like an overhead or it might be 30 to 40 feet away, especially on some of the quieter, slow songs, where there's a lot of space. We can really open the mic up and use the sound of the room.

Do you find that the way in which you apply compression to that microphone is crucial to the balance between the cymbals and the toms?

It is actually. I have been using Geoff Daking's stereo compressor. I also bought a pair of his preamps a couple of years ago that I like a lot. The compressor is great because it has a variable attack and release and is very transparent. You can kind of duplicate some of the old Fairchild or Neve sounds. A lot of times by tweaking that around in the song you can really make the toms speak or make the kick and snare pump down the rest of the kit. It depends upon the style of the playing. It has worked very well so far.

How do you go about recording guitars?

Usually Duke or Steve will plug into an amp to get a basic sound without processing at first. Then they'll start chaining things up, whether it's an analogue fuzz pedal or bringing the mic up on the board and running it to a Space Echo or a '4000. Sometimes they'll plug in effect pedals before the amp. I usually use one mic on the amp.

I'm not a big fan of multimiking techniques for guitar amps, though there are a couple of songs that we have done that on. Typically we'll set up three or four microphones, listen to them, and pick the best one. Sometimes when it sounds good but it's not quite there, we'll just move the mic around so it sounds better. We usually put up a 57, 421 and a FET 47, which has a thick midrange. Occasionally I might use a (AKG) 414 or 451. We also have used the Calrec about two or three feet away for a stereo thing, but that's more for acoustic guitar or clean rhythm tracks.

What suggestions would you make to people who are struggling with their bass sound?

Bass is hard to record. And in the mixing process you're still tweaking it so that it sits in the track where it needs to. That's not easy. Depending on what you're adding or subtracting in the bottom end - especially if you have a lot of drum loops going - it can get very muddy. We tend to use an Ampeg SVT amp, which I think helps. For mics, it's usually either a (AKG) D12E, a FET 47, or 421, and I also like to use the original SansAmp. It has a little more character than a DI. I'll run that up to a separate track and tweak it up for a bit of overdrive. I had it modified so that I can run a line from the bass to the SansAmp and also out to an amp without loading down the pickups or the amp. I'll use the amp as 60 to 70 percent of the sound and bring in a little bit of the SansAmp to fill in a certain frequency range.

Do you compress bass much when you records?

I usually compress the bass pretty heavy when it's going down so that it kicks down three to five dB and evens out the bottom end. If it's a slower track and there's a lot of space or the notes are held long, I might use an LA2A or the Summit compressor. If it is a faster tempo, then I might use a dbx 160 or a UREI 1176. Sometimes you need a compressor with a really quick attack and a quick release. The Daking compressor works well on bass, too. We used that on one of the new songs and it seemed to really keep the bass even.

Do you ever run the bass directly through the compressor?

On one track we used the new Summit MPC-100A compressor/preamp. You can plug straight in and use the drive control to saturate the bass. We also used it on a couple of drum loops. It can thicken up the sounds and has a lot of variables.

What can we expect from the next Garbage record?

Some of the songs sound similar to the last album and some sound fairly different in terms of how we have approached the rhythm tracks and the arrangements - they're not quite as much pop arrangements. Shirley is trying a lot more things vocally. After touring all year and making the last record, she now has a wider range to her approach in singing. When it's all said and done - whether the songs are minimal and organic or dense and saturated - her voice will be front and centre. This record will make sense to anybody who is a Garbage fan. We hope!