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Butch Vig on 5 Billion in Diamonds and his tips for recording drums at home

Since he first started his exploration into sound in the late 70s, Butch Vig has managed to keep one foot behind the glass, and the other in the live room as he treads the line between his roles as a producer/engineer and performer to great success.

Of course, his work on huge, genre-defining albums such as Nirvana’s Nevermind or Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish needs little introduction, and his continued ability to capture amazing sounds and performances from artists has led to a CV littered with alternative and mainstream rock royalty: Sonic Youth, Jimmy Eat World, Green Day, Foo Fighters, Muse to name just a few.

As a musician, most will be familiar with Butch’s role behind the kit for Garbage (who have also just wrapped-up work on a new record), one that saw him become an early-adopter of the use of triggers and electronics during a time when even considering using a click track live was enough to be labelled a sellout. But, outside of these ‘day jobs’ Butch keeps his hands (and feet) in with other musical projects, most recently 5 Billion in Diamonds.

Following the band’s debut, self-titled album in 2017, 5BID return on 20 November with follow-up, Divine Accidents. Fusing 60s B-movie soundtracks and psychedelia with modern grooves and sounds, the album features a number of guest vocalists, including Ebbot Lundberg (The Soundtrack of Our Lives, Union Carbide Productions), David Schelzel (The Ocean Blue), and Helen White, as well as Alex Lee (guitar), Sean Cook (bass) and Damon Reece (drums). 

We sat down with Butch to find out about how the dynamic between musician and producer works for him in 5 Billion…and while we were at it, got his advice for drummers who want to record themselves at home.

How did making Divine Accidents compare to making the first album - you’re all based in different parts of the world!

"The one thing I noticed about the new album was that the process of recording was sort of more tailor-made this time around. When we started the band four years ago for the first album, James, Eddie and myself wrote most of the music separately and we’d send files back and forth. 

Or they would come to LA and we’d work in my studio, or I’d come to Bristol and we’d work in Christchurch Studios. We knew that we wanted to have guest singers and musicians on each song, but we didn’t really have a clear vision when we first started. So I kind of feel like it was difficult making the first record, trying to see who would fit into what. 

So when we started recording Divine Accidents last year, we explicitly wrote some pieces for singers, because at that point we knew their range, their style and the vibe of the song. So I feel like it was a lot easier for the singers to take the tracks and put their imprint on it. Because of that, I think it sounds a bit more confident, everything feels a little bit more glued together.

It’s a little bit more diverse too: besides the 60s and 70s pop music and film references there’s a little bit of an 80s reference creeping in."

How do you divide the drum parts between yourself and Damon?

"Well, I love Damon’s drumming, and as much as we can we wanted him to play on the tracks. Him and Shaun on bass are like The Wrecking Crew from Bristol, they’re just so damn good. Most of the songs start with Andy and me programming a simple beat, or James may find a two or four-bar sample from a record and we’ll start with that. 

A couple of the tracks I did here because we didn’t really have time for me to go over to England. I have my Drum Workshop kit set up here with the mics set up, and then I also have my Roland TD-50. I’ve been playing that live too, and it has a lot of my custom samples in. So I can easily jump on one of those two, and I’ll just put headphones on and play. But I always sort of hope that Damon will play on it, because I like that the spirit that he brings. I also play keyboards and guitar on the record, so I’m not precious.

He’s got a bit more of a free flow, and he’s definitely got great chops. He can play more syncopated patterns that I couldn’t necessarily play that groovy. I consider myself a pretty solid 4/4 rock drummer, but if it’s got a lot of swing then I don’t know if I’d necessarily be the best drummer to do that. 

Also, I like approaching it as a producer - when someone else is playing then I can give them feedback on the performance. When I’m playing, it’s not always as easy to be as objective about what I’m playing because I’m concentrating on coming up with good parts."

What was your vision for the overall drum sound on the record? There’s a definite 70s vibe…

"Definitely, and that’s what we tried to do on the last album too. That dead, dry, splatty snare sound where you can really hear the focus on everything. My drum room here is a small room, you’re not going to get a big natural reverb sound. The room at Christchurch where we track is pretty big open room, but it’s not super-reverb-y. That’s the kind of sound that we like. If you want it to be bigger you can always trigger reverbs or delay, or add samples if you want bombastic kicks and snares. But for this, we prefer drier sounds, you can really hear the syncopation between the snare, kick and hi-hat patterns."

You recently released the Butch Vig Drums pack with Native Instruments, did that come about off the back of 5 Billion In Diamonds?

"I used one of the kits from BV Drums on Let It Get Away From you, which is the song with James Bagshaw from Temples.. It was a cool project for me because it was a super-tweaky, nerdy, engineering kind of thing. I can tinker in the studio all day long - we just finished a new Garbage record and Shirley will leave me, Duke and Steve in the studio for what she calls ‘lab rat days’ where we just muck around and see what we come up with! 

So when Native Instruments called me and approached me about doing a Butch Vig Drums pack, I told them I wanted to make it like an old-school, 16-pad drum machine. I wanted to focus it more on tweaked-out rock drums. There’s already a lot of EDM packs and hip-hop packs out there, and I wanted this to be a little more electro-rock-sounding. 

We went into United Studios in Hollywood which is an incredible studio. I went in there with my drum tech Mike Fasano and Billy Bush for two days. We took a lot of my kits and Mike’s kits and we recorded four kits, basically and something like 15 snare drums. We recorded it into Pro Tools and then I brought it back here to my studio to process it." 

"I went total lab rat! I have a rack here with a bunch of analogue pedals, then some other outboard gear that I use. I’d run the sound through a chain in Pro Tools so that I could split it out to the hardware pedals or my hardware compression and EQs. I also had a big chain of effects in Pro Tools, but ultimately it would all end up running through a Neve 1081 and back into Pro Tools so I could print the final sound.

A lot of them are really tweaked - there’s a lot of compression, filtering, distortion, a lot of saturation. I dig the way it sounds, it has a definite flavour to it. It was fun, I’m probably going to do another one and I already have new kits that I’m working on. There’ll probably be an update to the BV Drums next year sometime. I’m doing more dry drums on the next version, really sort of intimate kits." 

That dead sound has become really popular again, but it can be more difficult than it sounds to get it right…

"It depends on the room - the tighter the room, the better. I think you have to kind of over-exaggerate it. When you’re head is up here and you’re hitting a drum, that’s one thing. But the mic is three or four inches from the snare, and it’s going to pick up all of those little buzzes and overtones and stuff like that. 

So you do have to go further than you think to get the drum to really deaden down and get that real full-splatty sound. I’ll tape the snare down, and sometimes I’ll do the old trick where you put your wallet on there, it works, man! 

Also, I EQ [on the way to Pro Tools] a lot when I record snares, and drums in general. I rarely record drums flat, sometimes I’ll record the overheads flat and cut out some low mid-range if it’s getting a bit boxy. But you’ve gotta deaden those drums down!"

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Butch Vig has been a fan of hybrid drumming for the last two decades (Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Butch Vig: drum recording tips

Get it right at the source

“I think the first thing is - it is the drum kit, and understanding the room you’re in. You sort of need to tune your kit, and set it up to fit the sound of the room. Once you know that the kit sounds good in there then I think you want to keep everything pretty closely mic’d. If there’s a good sound in the room then you can always put up a mono ambient mic or a couple of distant mics up by the ceiling. I usually use standard Remo heads - sometimes I’ll put on an Emperor. I generally like drums that are tuned medium to medium/low, including the snare drum. But it depends on the song. If you’re doing something that’s fast and the snare needs to cut more then you’re probably going to need to teak it up more. It also depends on the style of drummer: are you a light hitter? A medium hitter?” 

The headphone mix is crucial

"If you are a drummer and you’re at home trying to track your drums, one of the best things you can do is try to get a really good stereo headphone mix so you can hear yourself how loud you’re hitting the hi-hat, or how loud you’re hitting your cymbals. 

If you’ve got a really good mix then you can play dynamically. I remember when we first started Smart Studios, we only had one aux mix from our board dedicated to headphones. So everybody got the same mix, and everybody complained, it was a nightmare!

Now, everybody can get their own little personal headphone systems. I think it’s really important for drummers to hear very clearly what they’re playing so they can hear exactly what’s going onto the tape. That’s a very important part of recording so that you know how to control your dynamics." 

Choose your weapons!

Kick drum

I normally start with a Neumann FET 47 [on the kick], but they’re not necessarily that affordable. So my backup mic is an AKG D112 - that or an [Electro-Voice] RE20. The AKG D112 is a good alternative and it’s not that expensive. It works well whether you want to put it inside the bass drum or if you want to put it outside by the front head. It’s got really good low end and it takes a lot of sound pressure. But also it’s not too ambient. On the kick drum, you don’t want it to pick up too much ambience, you want something that is pretty directional: cardioid or even hyper-cardioid so that it’s not picking up a lot of bleed from around the room.

Snare drum

"My favourite snare mic lately, is the Telefunken M80. I don’t think it’s that expensive, but it’s got a little bit more body than a Shure SM57. I’ve used 57s tons of times, but this has more body and better rejection. I don’t think it’s hypercrdioid, but it definitely has a narrow cardiod path. So when you put it on the snare, it rejects the hi-hat better. I like to EQ the snare a lot [before recording], and if you start adding too much high end and the hi-hat is really noisy, an SM57 - or if you use a condenser mic - is going to pick a lot of that up. This seems to get rid of a lot of that, so it’s a pretty good mic for isolating the snare."

Toms

"For toms, I love these Josephson ES22s, but I think they’re probably going to be about $1500 a-piece. So, a lot of times I’ll go for a Sennheiser 421, WHICH ARE great on toms. I’ve used those my whole life. They’re not that expensive, you can normally find them used for around 150 bucks. They’re also great on bass or guitars too. They’re kind of utility mics, they’ve been around forever and they work."

Overheads

"For overheads I usually use one of two things. The Blue Dragonfly, which are condensers. They’re also designed to be used on snares or toms: you can bend the capsule so that they’re really easy to position. They’ve got great tone - they are condensers so they are going to be a little more open-sounding. I don’t use them on the snare because I feel like they pick up too much around the snare drum. But I love them on overheads. If you position them right you can usually get a pretty good stereo image of the whole kit. Sometimes I’ve done just a four-mic setup with kick, snare and these on the overheads, and they pick up the cymbals and toms. 

The other mics I like to use are Willow River ribbons. I’ve used a bunch of different ribbon mics in the past - Royer and Coles - and the great thing about ribbon mics is that they kind of soften the top end on cymbals. They have sort of a smoother midrange to them, so if you have a drummer who’s pounding on the cymbals, or cymbals that are very bright, these will soften them. I usually pick one of these two [Blue or Willow River] when I’m recording here at my home studio."

Think: phase

"One thing I want to say, though, is that with all these mics it’s important that you check your phasing. Because if you start putting mics up, they’re all going to be apart from each other. 

If the bass drum sounds good then you turn on the overheads and suddenly the bass drum doesn’t sound good, then that probably means there’s a problem with phasing. If you get the phasing wrong then it can really mess up the midrange,  you’ll have big holes or dips, or it could completely cut out the bottom. 

It’s pretty easy to check that these days. If you record it into your DAW, you can zoom in on the waves and see if it’s spiking up on the bass drum mic, then look at the overheads. If it’s spiking down then you probably want to flip the phase on those because you’re losing some of the bottom end.

Part of it, though, you really have to use your ears. As the mics get farther apart then you’re going to see them start to shift. You’ll see the bass drum here, but you’ll see the overheads 20 or 30 milliseconds back, depending on the size of the room. So, you want to check that. There’s usually some sort of phase meter [in DAWs], so just use your ears and listen."

Get your overheads right

"Around four to five feet is generally pretty good. If you’re using the snare as the centre of your kit and get the overheads really close, I think you’re going to be pretty good with your phasing issues. You might have to move the mics around if you want the snare to be centred so that you still get the toms ok. 

The other thing I’ll do sometimes is put the mics in an XY pattern right over the drummer’s head, almost from right where a drummer would hear it. You might have to go a little higher because you don’t want to hit it with your stick, but that can work really well for overheads."

Room: make it or fake it

"You can experiment in small rooms with using ambient mics, putting them up in the corner as far away as you can get. Or if you have a hallway, leave the door open and put a mic back there. I sometimes do that here - my drum room is just a rectangular room with dry wall, it’s not even treated. So it’s pretty splashy with a lot of reflections. But down the hall there’s a bathroom, and sometimes I’ll put up a mono ambient condenser mic in there. It gives it this natural sound versus adding reverb.

But if you don’t have something like that then there are so many great plugins now that can simulate real-sounding rooms that don’t have to sound gigantic. You can dial up different plates or chambers or small rooms or convolution reverbs. You can get great-sounding things to add to the toms or snare." 

It’s ok to use samples!

"You can also trigger things. I use a couple of different triggers every now and then, I’ve got a huge sample library so if I want to add some sub on the kick or a more gun-shot sound to the snare I’ll search through my samples and blend it in. But I like to leave the acoustic sounds in and embellish them with the samples so you still have the actual sound of the acoustic drums."

Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic/Getty

Butch and Dave Grohl first met when recording Nirvana's Nevermind (Image credit: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic/Getty)

…and sometimes they can save the perfect performance

"One other thing I do which can be helpful: when I’ve finished tracking I’ll have the drummer hit all the drums three or four times. I like to have those in case I have to replace anything. 

If you do a take and listen back and find there’s something wrong - maybe the snare flattens out, or the tuning went bad - if you have those samples, you can go back and replace it if you need to. I’ll go through and replace the top snare mic with the sample, but I leave the bottom mic in. 

So the raspy, roll-y stuff from the bottom snare mic is still live, but all the individual backbeat hits are the sample, except for if there’s a fill. I leave that live because you don’t notice if it’s getting doink-y or something’s happened with the tuning. But when you’re going back to the backbeats, if the tuning has gone bad, just swap it out with the sample. No one is going to know, in fact it might even make it easier to mix because you’ll lose any hi-hat bleed.

I don’t do it with a sound-replacer. I’ll go through and literally line it up and drop it in. It’s going to take an extra 15 or 20 minutes, but I want to know that it’s locked in exactly to where the original snare was. It really cleans up the snare in the mix and makes it a lot easier to really hype the snare with compression and EQ or reverb."

Use all the tools available to you

"I don’t think you should be elitist about anything. I understand it - especially some of the great drummers I know. Like Taylor in Foo Fighters, he doesn’t like triggers, he doesn’t like gridding on Pro Tools, he’s like ‘This is how I play, man, I want it to sound like my performance!” And I totally get that. 

But in modern record-making you have to use all the tools you have to make it sound great. There are no rules these days, and there so many tools that can really amplify and bring up your game in terms of sonics, I don’t see why you don’t make those tools available to you. 

At the end of the day, you want a song to connect with a listener, and part of that connection is the sonics, and a lot of that is the drums. So make the drums sound as cool as you can. 

That being said, lo-fi drums can sound amazing! You can do tracks that have one mic, and if they’re crunchy and compressed and played right, they can sit in the mix and sound amazing.

So, there are no rules, and I think as a producer, it’s up to you to figure out the best way to make them sound great in a certain song."