The following is the third of four excerpts from a Q&A I conducted with Butch Vig at Musicians Institute in 2008. Butch has produced albums for legends like Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Green Day, Smashing Pumpkins, Muse, AFI, and Garbage. He remains as active and relevant as ever, having produced the Foo Fighters’ Grammy-winning “Wasting Light” last year, and Garbage’s latest, “Not Your Kind of People”.
Greg: Do you have any particular “typical” approach to micing drums?
Butch: I like using a Fet 47 on kick drum; it’s really thumpy sounding and it takes a lot of high pressure, so you can put it inside the drum or just outside if you want less click or snap, or if you want more bottom end. I usually use AKG 451 or Shure SM57 on the snare. As of late, I really love using Josephson ES22 condenser mics. They’re really small and they have a 90 degree turn at the end of them, so you can put them close to the toms or the snare without taking up much room. It also takes a high SPL. If I’m getting too much cymbal bleed, I would use a Beyer M160 ribbon mic on the toms; I also like that mic on kick and guitar sometimes. Also, a Beyer M201 on a snare drum if the high hat bleed is really bad. Because I started out at Smart studios, and we didn’t have a great mic connection, I was never that picky. I like AKG 414s or AKG 451s on overheads, which aren’t that expensive. I also use B&K’s sometimes, which are more expensive, but are great for cymbals and hi hats.
Greg: So, for someone like Dave Grohl, who is bashing away on the open hi hat, how did you mic the snare without getting too much hi-hat bleed?
Butch: I think I used two mics on him. This is one of the things that I learned from the producer in New York that did the Firehouse record-who I hated his fucking guts. I use an SM57 and then a 451 really close. Then you check the phasing and then EQ the shit out of the 57-like add some major top-end. I did not use a bottom snare mic. I did not EQ the 451. What I did was I took a bunch of foam and I made what I call a hi-hat baffle. So, I built this whole wall around the mics, and luckily, Grohl’s hi-hat was high enough to do this. Eventually, he kept on knocking it off, so by day three I took an old pizza box, and duct taped it onto the stand. I was just trying to figure out a way so that he could pound the shit out of the hi-hat and minimize the bleed into not only the snare mics, but also the cymbal and room mics. It looked ugly as hell, but it worked.
Greg: Do you typically track with compression?
Butch: Sometimes I compress the rooms and the kick. Occasionally, if I have two mics on the snare, I might run the 57 through something that really pops, like the DBX 160; something that’s fast. But I would never do that with something that’s more open like the 451 because you can get some weird high-end bleed and that can start causing phase problems for the rest of the track.
Greg: Do you track with much compression on vocals?
Butch: Yes. I consider the Summit TLA-100 compressor my secret weapon. The first records I properly used it on were Nevermind, and [Smashing Pumpkins] Gish and Siamese Dream. From that point on, I used it for every project. I know that there are a lot of great compressors out there. For some reason I like the way it makes the vocals sit. I was in the studio for a month tracking with The Subways. When Billy Bush set up the vocal chain, in the first day of doing vocals, we put the Summit in line and the engineer said “whoa-there’s too much compression.” Literally, the second that Billy went “yeah”, it went down 10db, and when he sang louder, it went down 15db. And I said “Don’t look at the meter. You have to listen to it”. What I like about it is that if the vocalist stands in a good position with the band, when he really pushes hard, it does kick down, you hear the compression, but the voice sits there. And when you let up, it obviously lets up. And to me, that sounds way better than the LA2A or other compressors. Maybe its because I got used to it. They were building these units in Northern Wisconsin, and I got a call one day and they dropped one off for me to try it. I now own about a half a dozen of them.
Greg: Do you have any thoughts on the “loudness race”, where recordings are getting louder and louder?
Butch: I have to deal with this with every record I make because I feel competitive and I don’t want my records to feel quieter than others, but I also want to maintain a sense of dynamics. You don’t want to sound quieter compared to the song that was played before or after yours, but there is still a way to retain a sense of dynamics, and that’s part of the trick of recording, mixing, and mastering. Its to keep the music so that it feels like it has some flow to it and it’s just not getting incredibly hammered. Its not easy to do. One of the things that I do in mixing is what I call “tiering”, where I boost things right on an entrance; like I may push the guitar and the kick drum that comes in on the start of a chorus. And then over the course of however long the chorus is, I start to pull them back once the singing comes in. Sometimes I’ll pull them back as much as 2-3db, and wait until the next time you want it to hit, like the downbeat of the bridge, and then you ramp it up again. If you put it up and leave it there, you have no where to go later. But, if you start pulling it back, it’ll give you some room to push it up again. I do this to everything I mix: drums, bass, guitars, vocals, keyboards…some drastically, and some not so drastic, but if you see final mixes that I do, there are a lot of dynamics. Its not until the mastering that they start getting more leveled.
Greg: How do you approach the low-end when you’re mixing?
Butch: That’s the toughest thing in the mix. If you monitor at different volumes, you’re going to be able to get the drums and the vocals right. If you’re listening at very low volume, the snare drum should be loud, and the vocals should pop out. As you turn it up, because of the Fletcher-Munsen effect, you should start hearing guitars. But in order to get bass, you have to understand how you’re mixing it. And that’s tough. Listen to it at different volumes. Then take it out of the studio and listen to it in your car, your headphones, and at home, whatever, and try and get it so it sounds good in all of those environments. That’s the hardest thing to gauge, especially if you want a bass-heavy song. In terms of EQ, sometimes I’ll roll off the sub stuff, if I feel that below 40Hz is not making a difference. If the fundamental note is coming through, sometimes that extra stuff down there just messes the track up. That’s what’s great about some of the Pultec and Langevin EQs; when you roll off 50Hz, it creates a little boost at 60Hz. So it gets very musical. And those can be very helpful when you’re trying to find a spot where the bass sounds right or you’re trying to get rid of some frequencies that don’t sound right.Continue to Part 4…