Inside Butch Vig’s Home Studio
Butch Vig gives AT a sneak peek inside his ‘glorified bedroom studio’ Grunge is Dead where Garbage wrote and recorded half their latest album.
Album: Strange Little Birds
Butch Vig Portraits: Cameron Crone
Could there be a more credible flagwaver for the legitimacy of home studios than Butch Vig? This is a guy who owned a commercial studio for 30 years and recorded Nirvana’s Nevermind at Sound City. Now he’s making records in Dave Grohl’s garage (ignore the API console — little picture, people!) and records drums in the den of his Silverlake, LA home.
“It’s a glorified bedroom studio,” says Butch, describing the space he’s dubbed Grunge is Dead. Sure it has windows overlooking Silverlake and a fairly big Pro Tools rig. “But there’s really not much soundproofing, just a few baffles on the walls,” continued Butch, pointing out what’s in his room. “I’ve got a couple of small guitar amps, my drum kit is here, there’s a piano. It’s a good writing room. We wrote and recorded a lot of the new Garbage album Strange Little Birds here, but we finished it all in a proper studio.”
Oh, there it is; a proper studio. He’s talking about Billy Bush’s place, Red Razor Sounds. Billy has been engineering Garbage records since their second album, and has been married to lead singer, Shirley Manson, since 2010. Red Razor is like a home away from home for Garbage, and only five minutes from Butch’s place, in Atwater.
Part of the reason Butch could move away from his own commercial studio — Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin — over 12 years ago, was because of the variety of studios on hand in LA. “It’s easy to work here, there are so many studios and so many people I know in the music business,” he explained.
The actual breakdown of recording done at Butch’s home versus Bush’s studio is unclear. Both of them quoted about 60% of the record done at their place; let’s call it an even 50/50.
It’s funny to think of a rock icon having to work around the schedules of his neighbours, but that’s exactly what Butch does. He records all his drums at home during a four-hour window in the afternoon when “I can make as much racket as I want,” he said. “Around dinner time I have to stop. My studio has no soundproofing, it’s just a den, a rectangular room with dry wall that doesn’t even sound that good. You can hear the drums through the whole valley here. I’ll run into my neighbours when I’m walking my dog and they’ll say, ‘I heard you playing drums yesterday, what was the song you were working on?’ I really like my neighbours, so I keep it to that window.”
HOME STUDIO STYLE
While Butch’s home studio might be relatively untreated, the gear on hand isn’t exactly cobbled together. His “basic setup” includes API and Helios preamps, Neve and Harrison EQs, Chandler EQs and preamps, and his ‘secret weapon’ Roger Mayer RM58 solid state compressor, which “kind of f**ks the drums up.” He’s got a couple of guitar amps, Fender and Matchless, as well as a Line6 Helix and Kemper Profiler hooked up directly to his Pro Tools rig, his drums, soft synth controller keyboards and the upright piano that Duke likes to play. On the mic side, he has a 1959 Telefunken ELA M250 and a Cathedral Pipes U47-style tube mic. However, “Shirley just likes to grab a Shure SM58 handheld mic,” said Butch.
Butch has Grunge is Dead for the same reason most musicians have a home studio; to have a place where he can work on his own music at leisure, and in the way he likes working. “It’s wired so I can open a session and record anything instantly,” he said. There’s no distinction for Garbage between a demo and final master, said Butch. If grabbing an SM58 and singing from the couch gets the vibe Shirley’s after, then he could care less about which mic she’s using. “Once we start recording, that could turn into a master. Sometimes we get very meticulous in trying to get a sound that fits the track. Other times we don’t care. We just turn a mic on that’s nearby and record it, even if it’s 10-feet away. We just want to get the idea down. That’s been a tradition with Garbage since the first record.”
Garbage aren’t under any pressure to make a Top 40 hit. “Even if we wrote one, it wouldn’t get played anyway,” stated Butch. “Acknowledging that frees you up to do whatever you want.” Rather than bending over trying to contend with the latest pop generation, Garbage decided to return to the experimental roots of their debut, where nothing was off limits and anything could be sampled, recut and reimagined. It also meant an iterative approach to production that works better when there are no studio overheads. “We just started hanging out and talking, telling jokes, sometimes we’d listen to other music or watch a film,” said Butch. “Then we’d just start jamming. If it happens, great! If not, well let’s come in tomorrow and try again.”
NEVERMIND, JUST HAVE FUN
While this record may not be the cultural milestone that Nevermind was, or even the first couple of Garbage records, Strange Little Birds showcases the creativity of a true sonic mastermind in his element, surrounded by his most long-serving collaborators.
There isn’t one mode or style to Garbage on the album, while the song Empty has all the trademarks of a Garbage hit — slammed drums with complementary programming, eighth-note rolls, layered guitars that still punch through, big wall of sound chorus and a simple, catchy melody — other tunes feel worlds away.
Album opener, Sometimes, alternates between modulated, tremolo noise and orchestration with a dark cinematic quality to it. Shirley’s voice, on the other hand, is starkly dry. It’s a startling album opener, and even more ‘in your face’ than Empty’s big rock chorus. “We wanted that juxtaposition because it felt nerve racking,” explained Butch. “It made your brain pay attention to it. We could have put it all in the same reverb space, but we wanted Shirley’s voice to have this otherworldly quality and be really confrontational, confessional and vulnerable. The way to do that is take the effects off, push it way up in the listener’s face. Because then you can’t escape it.”
Empty, like a lot of songs on the record, started out as a jam to a programmed beat, but it didn’t feel right until they humanised it. “We had the chorus so I put down a quick kick and snare pattern in Battery, but it felt stiff because it was just a constant tempo,” said Butch. “A couple of days later, Duke and I played the song without a click track. We did three or four takes and picked out bits that sounded good. Then I went into the Pro Tools session and looked at the tempo of the verse, 109bpm, then I’d look at the tempo of the chorus which was 111bpm, and noticed I was speeding the drum fills up to 115bpm. It’s okay, because it sounds good. Then I made a variable tempo map based on our jam without a click. I re-programmed the kick and snare to the new tempo grid and went back and re-recorded the drums over that. It was just a process to get it where the ebb and flow of the tempo felt natural.”
I’ll run into my neighbours when I’m walking my dog and they’ll say, ‘I heard you playing drums yesterday, what was the song you were working on?
BUILDING WALLS OF SOUND
The chorus of Empty features the classic Garbage wall of sound, which Butch puts down to being “very layered. There’s a lot of guitars with a specific tuning. We used a drop D, but tuned the high E string up a step to play the inverted note at the top of the chord. You get an orchestral sound along with the keyboard parts we played.”
At other times, the heaviness of the guitars came from dynamics, juxtaposing quieter parts against a sudden onrush of sound. While the verse and chorus for Empty came quickly, the bridge took three weeks on and off at Red Razor to get the power they were after. Butch: “We tried stuff that pushed harder and took off, and a couple of different time signatures, but it got really big so we decided to pull it back and drop it out. When Shirley drops down to that quiet vocal, the guitars have to leap out and really exaggerate the dynamic. Billy has about 100 stomp boxes, so we spent a lot of time trying to find the right amount of fuzz and how far we could push it. It’s a tendency we have with dynamics like that, to try and really oversaturate them.”
Magnetized is another song that elevates into a wall of sound, but wasn’t as simple as pulling up a Garbage preset. It was by far the longest birth of any song on the record, taking them a year to complete. “Steve’s initial demo was way slower and sounded like the Jesus & Mary Chain on drugs,” recalled Butch. “Shirley heard it and immediately sang, ‘I’m Magnetized’. This glorious vocal melody that sounded like a Roy Orbison melody.
“We tried it a couple of different ways: hyped and aggressive like how we’d play it onstage, and with a string arrangement. One day we plugged in a stomp box called a Glamour Box, which just makes noise. We’ve done that on previous Garbage records, when in doubt just record take after take of noise and see what you come up with.
“We started getting all these weird tones out of the Glamour Box that I cut into pieces to get more of a musical sense to it. Then when it gets to the chorus, we came up with this symphonic sound with all these fuzzed out, hyper-sounding guitars, and a lot of keyboards. It became a lot more orchestral and cinematic and a lot less rock ’n’ roll, which made sense.”
ARRANGEMENT BY ADD
Even if you’re not a Garbage fan, one thing you can say about their songs is they’re rarely boring. There’s always a new sonic element to sink your teeth into, sometimes every couple of bars. Butch: “All four of us have some ADD-ish tendencies. We’re always saying, ‘we need something new here to keep the song building’. That goes back to the very first Garbage record where we did tons of layering then defined the arrangements in the mix by muting and bringing other parts in.”
That proclivity for newness can produce some pretty dense arrangements, but occasionally keeping that ADD tendency in check is exactly what a song needs. Even Though Our Love Is Doomed was a track that went through stages of being built up before being stripped back to its original version. Butch wrote the song and recorded a few demo versions at home, none of which he liked. A month after he’d mentally shelved it, Shirley recommended he try record something simpler. Butch: “The next day, I came down to my home studio. All I really had was the melody line and some words for the chorus. I thought I needed to have a verse, so I picked up the bass and started playing a line that became the core of the song.” 45 minutes later he had a whole song; music, lyrics, the whole lot.
It was pretty spare, but that was part of the appeal.
“Shirley loved it,” said Butch. “She heard it once and sang the vocal first time. Being a demo, we thought we’d try add stuff to it — bigger drums, and Duke and Steve tried a few parts too. But we didn’t like them and the demo is pretty close to the final version. There was something about it that had a spontaneity or intensity to it because it feels like it’s holding back.”
Another way Butch keeps the arrangement from getting overcrowded while maintaining interest in the song is by using the stereo field to create dynamic and change. Butch: “Initially, it’s good to have a space where your brain hears the song and settles in. As the song goes on I like to hear things that move around a little, spatially. Maybe the second verse doesn’t need a new part, maybe we just need some panning or a filter. It’s the remix mentality from the first record; what can we do with the same parts?
“I never listen to the panning in headphones until we’re pretty much done with the mix. The nature of how headphones isolate things to your left or right ear means you hear panned elements much sharper and you’re more conservative with how you build effects. If you’re sitting in a room with stereo speakers they’re still blended in with the sound of the room, so you can push up stuff crazy loud and do crazy things with them. Later, when you put the headphones on, you think, ‘shit, that’s really loud in the left ear!’
“There are a lot of different ways you can pan things in a mix, whether it’s organically by recording it stereo, or using outboard or plug-ins to put it in that space. There were so many layered parts on the first Garbage record that were panned left and right. We’d pan a dry sound in the verse to the right and have another part in the left channel that we’d filter really tiny so you could barely hear it. It was just trying to keep your brain moving, so every time a new section of the song came up you’d get some new ear candy.”
MIX ’N’ MATCH
Over time, Garbage mixing duties have moved from a partnership between Butch and Billy, to Billy primarily mixing with Butch helping tweak it towards the end. They’ve developed a trust that allows Butch to stay in the songwriter/band member mode for longer. Billy: “My goal with a Garbage record is to have something that sounds immediate, but also on subsequent listens, discover layers you haven’t heard before. The mix also has to channel the emotion attached to the song as much as possible. I ask myself the question, ‘Am I getting the emotional response off it I should?’”
Once everything is laid out in the session, with all his routing intact. Billy always starts with a combination of the groove and the vocal. He’ll start with the loudest section of the song and get it to be as loud as possible, then work the dynamics of the rest of the mix around that. “A lot of it is finding out what are the most important moments that need to come across,” he said. “Getting the chorus to hit really hard is about getting all the melodic and harmonic information working. I find how to approach the frequency range of all the elements of the song, which allows you to have multiple layers of drums and kick drums, synth basses and guitar bass and all the guitar tracks. We try to figure out where it’s going to fit ahead of time while we’re recording. Rather than just having one super saturated guitar that takes up all the frequencies, we figure out combinations that add weight in different areas.”
Because Garbage demo recordings can filter right through to the final master, there are times when Billy has to make things fit. Billy: “The chorus vocal of Magnetized is the one Shirley originally tracked with an SM58 on Butch’s couch. It was in a different key and tempo to the final track, but it had the right feel to it. Besides having to make it fit into the structure and key of the song, I also had to tonally match it with the rest of the vocals recorded with my Telefunken ELA M251. Trying to make an SM58 sound like 251 has its challenges, but I managed to get away with it.
“Conversely, on Even Though Our Love Is Doomed Shirley wanted to take one line of one verse she sung in my studio and try make the Telefunken sound like a 58! I would sometimes slide over into Logic and use the EQ Match feature or just use radical EQ and compression. I had to try and find the elements that were working in the mix for the rest of the song and make the microphone fit into that.”
Sometimes it’s not just one part Billy has to manipulate, but an entire section.
Billy: “The band want to get ideas down quickly, but invariably the tempo and key almost always changes. They write a lot of songs from the chorus or the bridge, then write a verse much later. It might make the chorus uncomfortable to sing, so they change it. Still, they might really like the tone of the original take so we might drop it down a whole step and speed it up 8bpm. It’ll be a combination of Serrato or Melodyne, and sometimes cutting it by hand to get it to the proper tempo. It’s not to say they’re lazy, it’s about keeping the magic.
“The most we time stretched something was 18bpm. They’re always relaxed and super chilled when they write, so it tends to be a much slower tempo. I’m always speeding it up. Sometimes we’ll already be in mix mode and someone will suggest one bpm faster, then I’ll have to Elastic Audio the entire song!
“A lot of that stuff used to be a real nightmare on tape. It’s a lot faster now, and allows the band to stay in a more creative place for longer because they have a computer to create 65,000 takes on. It used to be, ‘Can you speed this up 2bpm?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, okay, go to lunch and come back in an hour and see how it turned out.’”
Butch: “A lot of Garbage songs come together in the final mix. We have a tendency to record a lot more ideas than necessary and not discard them. Once we start an idea for a song — whether it’s a jam or a demo — we just keep adding. Most of the songs are defined by what we take out.
“It can be a stressful experience in the mix. It usually takes us two or three days to mix a track because we’re often making the final decision of what the final arrangement is going to be. The four of us argue about all those things, and we don’t always agree. More often than not a Garbage song has a path it goes on, and none of us are really sure where that path is going to go until we print the final mix.”