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Big Interview: Legendary producer Butch Vig talks home studio gear and the art of production

Daniel Gumble 2 August 2017
Butch Vig Nirvana

Legendary alt-rock producer Butch Vig has shaped defining records from some of the biggest bands on earth, including Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Muse, Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth and a great many more. PSNE editor Daniel Gumble caught up with him for a look back at his glittering career, and what the future holds for the role of the rock producer…

A fresh pot of coffee can be heard boiling quietly away in the background as Butch Vig takes his seat for the Pro Sound News Europe Big Interview. The legendary alt-rock producer is currently ensconced in his Silver Lake LA home studio, where he’s already been up for hours, despite it being just after 9am local time. Not that PSNE should be surprised to find its subject up and raring to go at such an hour – after all, we are talking about one of the rock world’s hardest working, most prolific producers.

The very briefest of glances at Vig’s CV tells you everything you need to know about his ferocious work ethic and the regard in which he is held by the alt-rock world and its finest exponents, reading like a veritable who’s who of virtually every influential alt-rock act of the past quarter century or so. While his distinctive production style – deftly balancing raw, turbo-charged punk rock with a shimmering sheen via a keen ear for melody and arrangements – will forever be synonymous with Nirvana’s era-defining Nevermind (1991), he has also applied his magic touch to standout records from the likes of Foo Fighters, Muse, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Jimmy Eat World, Sonic Youth, Goo Goo Dolls and, of course, his own band Garbage, with whom he has served as sticksman for the past 22 years.

He’s even found time this year to form new band 5 Billion In Diamonds with UK DJ James Grillo and producer Andy Jenks. Their self-titled debut, which is set for release on August 11, was co-produced by the trio and boasts a sound that spans genres gulfs apart, gliding freely from folk rock and pop one minute to pulsating, electro-driven soundscapes the next.

Studio gear

Having started his production career with the opening of Smart Studios in 1983, a joint commercial enterprise with fellow Garbage member Steve Marker, Vig has amassed an impressive and expansive collection of vintage and analogue gear over the years, plenty of which has made its way into his current home studio, after Smart closed its doors in 2010.

“The home studio I have now is pretty awesome,” Vig beams, affable and disarmingly modest for a producer of such calibre. “I do everything in Pro Tools (HD 12), I’ve got my Drum Workshop drums here and I’ve got a Baldwin Acrosonic acoustic piano and I’ve got a bunch of Line 6 direct input guitar modellers. I have a lot of virtual synths but I also have a bunch of analogue keyboards. I use Barefoot MM27 monitors, which I love, and a really good mic collection, some great Neumanns and AKG ribbon mics. That’s the first part of the chain, so the microphone is a key component, especially when recording drums and vocals.”

His current set up has evidently evolved significantly from his formative days at Smart working with lock punk rock bands.

“Our gear was pretty minimal at the start,” he continues. “We had an Allen & Heath console, JBL speakers, a Crown power amp, a Tascam 38 reel-to-reel eight-track, a Technics two-track to mix on to ¼” tape. We had very minimal outboard gear. We had a dbx 160 compressor, a Roland tape echo that we pretty much ran everything through and we had some sort of graphic EQ but I can’t remember who made it now. We didn’t have very much; we had a pair of Valley People Dyna-mites, which were great because you could use them as noise gates or compressors or limiters. We used those on drums a lot, and then we bought a Plate reverb, which was great.”

Evolution of producing

Today, the world of production, engineering and recording has evolved and mutated immeasurably, not just since Smart Studios opened for business 27 years ago, but even since it closed just seven years ago. And while rapid technological innovation has been the most obvious development in recent years, Vig also believes that quick and easy access to information online and the increasing access to specialist training courses has helped change the game.

“Digital technology has levelled the playing field,” Vig states. “It’s completely changed how we record music and how we consume music. When I started out there were very few recording schools, so how to get into engineering or producing was a mystery. I learned how to make records by the seat of my pants, I never had any formal training. There used to be a hierarchy, where you would start out as the tea boy and, if you could handle that long enough and take the abuse, then you got moved up to tape operator, then second engineer, then engineer, then maybe after years of that you could go into producing. That was the way it was for a long time. Now, a kid can write a song on his laptop and put it on the Internet and a million people can hear it within 24 hours.

“The digital revolution has empowered everyone with a DIY mentality. The young bands and artist are way more savvy and smart; there is so much more information and schools you can go to, there are tutorials online… If you want to figure something out, whether it’s how to mic a drum set or a bass amp, just click on YouTube and you’ll probably find hundreds of videos on how to do that. That kind of information was never around 20 or 30 years ago. It’s enabled everyone to take on their own role of being an engineer of a producer.”

Vig does, however, believe that the digital revolution has proved to be something of a double-edged sword, arguing that, while technological innovation has unquestionably opened up opportunities for people to make solid sounding records from the comfort of their bedrooms, it has in some cases diminished the art of production.

There used to be a hierarchy, where you would start out as the tea boy and, if you could handle that long enough and take the abuse, you could gradually get moved up into producing. Now, a kid can write a song on his laptop and put it on the Internet and a million people can hear it within 24 hours.

Butch Vig

“There is so much music out there now and 99% of it is incredibly mediocre,” he sighs. “Everyone has these tools to get great drum sounds and keyboard sounds, so you really have to write a great song to rise above the mediocrity of the masses of music out there. But there are still amazing producers who go beyond just firing up a preset sound and a virtual synthesizer and saying, Hey, I’ve got a new song; they work with performances and arrangements. There is a lot more than just the technical side of making a record. A lot of what producers do is about getting inside the psyche of the artist and helping figure out what their vision is and focus them and steer them on that course.”

It is this psychological aspect of the producer’s role that Vig thrives on. That’s not to suggest that his focus on the more technical elements of producing records is in any way lacking, but his emphasis on truly understanding how to coax best possible performances out of artists and his knack for a knockout arrangement is virtually unrivalled among his peers or today’s contemporary knob twiddlers.

“When I started out I was very obsessed with sound,” he explains. “I was really looking at production almost from an engineering standpoint. When Steve and I started Smart Studios we were just recording bands, and it wasn’t until I’d been recording for a year and a half that someone said they wanted me as a producer, and I said I didn’t really know what a producer did, and they said, Well, you certainly steered us in the right direction and had a lot of opinions. And I am opinionated! I guess that’s one of the things that makes a good producer, that a band trusts the producer’s opinion. As I worked more and more with bands it became less of a technical aspect of recording, and more about the arrangements. Trying to help them play better and understand what everyone is playing: how you can support the vocal here, maybe you should play that part here, or move the end part to the beginning.”

 

He continues: “I always tried to bring a fresh perspective that the band might not have thought of because they aren’t as objective about it. The more I got into producing, the biggest aspect for me was the psychological aspect, and that entails understanding the band’s vision and trying to help them get there; getting them to relax, let their guard down and try things in the studio so they are uninhibited. Sometimes you have to work out problems with people in the band. Artists can be complicated beasts! I feel a lot of the time that 50% of producing is psychological – I’m a psychiatrist in the studio half the time!”

Early influencers

So who are the producers that helped shape Vig’s approach to the record making process during his formative years?

“The first record I ever really noticed the production on was Sgt Pepper’s, and like everybody else my mind was blown when I heard it,” he says. “George Martin completely raised the bar with what you could do in a recording studio. Many of the things he pioneered back in the day, everyone takes for granted now. Things like tape editing and automatic double tracking on vocals and running things in reverse, and just his clever use of arrangements; what he brought into songs was unorthodox and not necessarily live instrumentation, the studio became a canvas to paint on.

“When I started playing in bands in the late-‘70s/early-‘80s, I really looked at new wave and punk bands as my peers, and a lot of those records I really started admiring and analysing the production. Some of my favourite producers are Chris Thomas, who did the Sex Pistols and The Pretenders, those records still sound amazing. Steve Lilywhite – I love the XTC records and the tracks he did with U2; he got that great, huge drum sound that sounded incredible. Todd Rundgren, who was quite varied in his production techniques. There’s a band called Pursuit Of Happiness, he made a great record with them, like a power pop record. He had a great pop mentality, because he was a great artist himself.”

 

With the clock winding down on our time together, conversation returns to the present and Vig’s latest project 5 Billion In Diamonds. Despite being separated from co-bandmates Grillo and Jenks by the vast expanse of the Atlantic, the trio still managed to create a record rich in warm, analogue tone and featuring an array of acclaimed international instrumentalists and special guests, including guitarist Alex Lee (Goldfrapp, Strangelove, Suede), bass player Sean Cook and drummer Damon Reece (Spiritualized, Massive Attack, Elizabeth Fraser) and vocals from Helen White (Alpha), Sandra Dedrick (The Free Design), David Schelzel (The Ocean Blue) and Ebbot Lundberg of Swedish rockers The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. That it is such a triumph of musical diversity and versatility is a fitting testament to the talents and commitment of all involved in the project, but particularly its three co-founders.

Artists can be complicated beasts! I feel a lot of the time that 50% of producing is psychological – I’m a psychiatrist in the studio half the time!”

Butch Vig

“James, Andy and I all share co-production credits on the record,” Vig notes. “The biggest thing was that we really wanted to have an analogue feel to it, so we might start writing using a laptop or some synthesizers, but then we went back and Andy and I were really keen on making sure a lot of it was played by real people, so I did drums here and played guitar and keyboards there. Then we brought in a stellar band to play. We really wanted to get the human element in, we didn’t want it to sound like it had been made on a laptop. When I hear it I sort of see a dark fog over it, a little bit of noir floating around. Not on all the songs, but I think that comes from the presence of analogue instrumentation.”

In many ways, 5 Billion In Diamonds is emblematic of Vig’s career to date: a diverse array of artists from all over the world, encompassing a vast range of genres, all featuring the man himself on production and drumming duties. A veteran though he may be, with such a passion and voracious appetite for music that shows no sign of waning, somehow it still feels like Vig is just getting started.

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