Billy Bush has made his love of music and technological curiosity into an already storied career. He has been a record thief, guitar tech, Butch Vig [Tape Op #11] and Garbage's utility wizard, producer, engineer, and, more recently, one of Rick Rubin's first call mixers. We sat down at his studio, Red Razor Sounds, in Los Angeles to talk path, process, production, and philosophy.
Your path to production and engineering was a little nontraditional.
It was never something I intended to do. To go way back, the first time I really became aware of production on records was when I stole my brother's Queen records; A Day at the Races and A Night at the Opera. I remember listening to those for the first time. It was like, "I don't understand this. How is this coming out of the speakers? What is this?" Then I started reading liner notes and saw all these things, like studios and peoples' names. "Produced by [Reinhold] Mack [Tape Op #81]." What does that mean? "Oh, Glyn Johns [#109] is on this record, and that record, and that record." That was probably the first time I got really interested in the idea of record making. It seemed like that would be like working on the Manhattan Project. There's no way a kid from Kansas, in the middle of nowhere... I didn't even know what a studio looked like or was, but I was sure there were no studios around. It seemed as far off as trying to be a pro basketball player.
How old were you?
I was probably nine or ten when I stole those records. I fell in love with music. Music was always a big part of our family's life anyway. My dad had a reel-to-reel and a Victrola. He and my mom really loved music. He liked jazz, and my mom liked country western and Elvis. My brother started buying records; I started stealing them, and getting my ass kicked for doing so. A couple of years later I was at school, around 1977 or 1978, and for show & tell a guy in class brought a Les Paul. It was the first time I'd ever seen a guitar. I'd never seen an acoustic or electric guitar. I was like, "What is that?" Then I bought KISS Alive! I heard Ace Frehley and was like, "I want a guitar!"
KISS Alive II was one of the first records that I bought.
You're right. It was KISS Alive II and Cheap Trick at Budokan. The picture of Rick Nielsen with those guitars and Ace Frehley with his Les Paul. After that I saved up money and bought my first guitar. I also had this parallel interest of how things work. My dad's an engineer – he worked at Boeing for decades, designing and building planes. When I got my first guitar it was probably a week before I took it apart on the kitchen table, to my mother's chagrin. I had every part laid out and I was trying to figure out how it worked. About the same time the Apple II came out, and my dad bought one. So I had a love of computers, playing guitar, and trying to figure out how things work. I graduated high school and had to get out of Kansas. I moved to Denton, Texas, and I started studying electrical engineering at DeVry Institute of Technology because I wanted to learn how to build computers. Denton was a real musical hotbed. Matt Chamberlain, Edie Brickell, and Andy Timmons were there – the music scene was incredible. I started hanging out with those guys and realized that what I really loved was music. I dropped out of DeVry and went to the University of North Texas to study music theory, composition, and business management. I was playing guitar, studying guitar, trying to go to school, and working at Texas Instruments, all at the same time. Andy Timmons ended up as my roommate. He's an amazing guitar player and was my guitar teacher back in the day. After a super long, convoluted story – with car accidents, medical bills, breaking both my hands, not being able to play guitar anymore, and ending up broke back in Kansas – Andy got a gig as the guitar player in a band called Danger Danger. He called me up and said, "I need a guitar tech. You've always fixed my stuff. You want to come on the road and make some money?" I needed an escape hatch, so I said, "Yeah, absolutely. I'll come and get paid $210 a week to be your guitar tech." We were going to Europe! I worked with him for a while, and then other bands started calling me. What I thought would be a cool way to spend a summer, and maybe a fall, ended up with me basically not going home for the next six years, touring with all kinds of bands. I started to get a reputation for being able to deal with difficult people, difficult situations, and complex guitar rigs. It was all Bradshaw rigs, with racks and racks of equipment, at that time. I was able to wrap my head around how all that worked and program them. Samplers started to come into vogue, keyboards started coming in, and people were using backing tracks. I'd get a call and they'd say, "Do you know how to use a Kurzweil K2500?" I'd say, "Yeah, absolutely." I had no idea what the fuck it was. I learned early on to say, "Yes," and figure it out when I got there. I got a reputation for being able to deal with really complex situations.
Did you end up in the studio back then?
When I was working with Danger Danger I got a call to come help them out in the studio when they were doing a record at what was Criteria Studios in Miami; now it’s Hit Factory. They were working with Paul Northfield [engineering]. This was the first time I had managed to get into a proper studio. They said they couldn’t get anything to stay in tune, so I fixed all the guitars. Touring is fun, but the studio was what I wanted to do. I was watching Paul Northfield creating these guitar and drum sounds. I’d hear it in the live room, then I’d come back [into the control room] and it was something completely different.
How did you end up working with Garbage?
I was out on tour with Hole, and I spent a lot of time in Seattle and dealing with Eric Erlandson’s guitar rig. I got a call from a tour manager I’d worked with. He said he was going on tour with a band called Garbage and they needed some help trying to figure out how to do live what they’d done on the record. I’d fallen in love with their record before the phone call came because I’d heard “Queer” on the radio. I didn’t know how somebody made something that sounded like that. I fell in love with her voice. I said, “Butch Vig’s in the band. That would be amazing.” There were keyboards, guitars, lots of pedals, and playback gear. That was 20 years ago. I was doing guitars, bass, and keys on stage left. It became apparent to everybody that I was the only person on the crew who really had a grasp on how some of the studio gear worked. I could also help with the computers – this was the first time some of them had taken laptops on the road. I was only supposed to be there for six weeks, but about nine months into the tour Butch took me aside and said, “We’re going to start working on our second record.” He wanted me to find the best digital recording mechanism, whatever it was, buy it, learn how to use it, and then come show them how to use it. I studied all the different programs: Cubase, Sonic Solutions, and Pro Tools. At the time, Pro Tools had just become version 4.3 and the 888 interfaces had come out. Somehow I’d gotten ahold of Christopher Bock, the Executive Vice President of Digidesign. Sweetest dude on the planet, rest his soul. He said, “Come out to San Francisco. I’ll blow your mind.” I flew out there and he had a studio setup in his backyard. At the time, people were starting to use it; but nobody was making major label, high-profile, million dollar budget records on it. People were using it carefully, like, “Maybe we’ll fly our drums into it, do a little tweak, and fly them back to tape.” Nobody was saying, “I’m making the record on Pro Tools.” I bought the system, had it flown to Kansas, and I learned how to use it over Christmas break. We started working on writing the second record in Friday Harbor, Washington, at Jerry Moss’s house. We set up camp in his guesthouse. They didn’t really know what to do, because they never planned on being in a band and figuring out how to make a record. They made a record and all of a sudden it blew up. We had the Pro Tools rig and I was trying to show them how to work it. They were coming straight from tape and an Akai sampler, which they hated. They’d struggled with that so much, which is why they wanted a change. They didn’t have any concept at the time of using Pro Tools as a recording medium. Butch wanted to be able to do edits, vocal comps, and chop loops together so we could have them in sync. Then he started to see what the possibilities were, and it really inspired him. I think we were in Friday Harbor for a month, writing a bunch of songs. Then we flew to Madison, Wisconsin, and I got the band all set up and ready to record. I was going to be there for two weeks, to show them how the Pro Tools system worked, and then I was going to go back on tour with somebody else. After two weeks I felt like they still hadn’t quite figured out how to be efficient with it and use it really well. Back then it was a pain in the ass to use. We had to do shit that we shouldn’t have had to do. Butch took me aside and said, “I want you to be the engineer. I’ll teach you everything you need to know about recording, and you teach me everything I need to know about Pro Tools.” I was like, “Holy shit. How did this happen?” I’m a kid from Kansas, and all of a sudden Butch Vig takes me under his wing to teach me how to record.
Butch had a nontraditional path to recording as well. It's not like he did the hierarchical run of tea boy, to tape op, to second, to first, to producing.
I always had a love of it and tried to figure out how to record my bands when I was playing with 4-tracks and bouncing tracks. The rudimentary recording process. But the idea of, "Butch is going to show me how to record" was an opportunity that just doesn't come along. I think he related, because he comes from Viroqua; an equally small town in the middle of Wisconsin. To this day when I tell the story, I'm like, "Did that actually happen to me?"
How do you approach each job from production, versus a mix mindset?
The thing I really love about how my career ended up is that I'm viewed as a producer, an engineer, and a mixer. Sometimes I do all three of those things on a project, and sometimes only one. They're all different schools of thoughts and mindsets, and it's really easy for me to compartmentalize. If you want me to engineer a record for you, I love that. It takes all the pressure of producing off. I don't have to worry about the song or budget. All I have to do is explore what's sonically available to me. Geeking out with musicians, producers, and exploring sound is one of the things I really love to do. Mixing is the most creative of the three mindsets. It allows me to put my musicality into it and to feel like I'm a part of the process in a way that engineering doesn't. It's a different part of the brain. I can sit here by myself and suddenly go, "What time is it? Oh shit, it's ten o'clock." I can take a song and try different approaches, what feels best, and explore what I can do. I love production too, because that involves working really intimately with musicians – extending trust and trying to figure out what it is that they want to accomplish really deep down. A lot of times people don't know, or they're afraid to express what it is that they really love to do. It gets to the point where I say, "I think we've got these songs in a place where they're good, and they're cool, but what else can we bring? How can you make this the defining record for you? How can you make this elevate who you are as an artist, who you are as a musician, who you are as a songwriter? Where do we go? Okay, let's go to the next level." That's equally fun. When you have those relationships with people – that bond you have in the studio with people who entrust you with their life's work – it's really rewarding.
Let's talk about the Grizfolk record [Waking Up the Giants] that you recently produced. I'm assuming you engineered and mixed it?
Yeah, portions. I mixed some that they produced, and I think I did five or six that I produced, engineered, and mixed for them. A couple I might have co- produced. That's a loose thing. They're really adept at making things sound cool and having an idea of what it is that they want to accomplish.
What was your role with the band if they already had a clear vision?
When somebody like Grizfolk sends demos over, and they sound really good, I have to honestly ask myself if I have anything to bring to the equation. What can I do to make this be better, without my ego getting in the way of it? I know some people who feel like they really have to upset the apple cart in order to feel like they've done something. By nature I'm a very collaborative guy. I don't feel like my idea is the definitive idea – I'm not a dictator in any way. What I want to do is get to the point where we're all really happy with the end result. Not that I'm happy and you guys are pissed off about it, or you guys are happy because it's exactly how you envisioned it, but I'm pissed off because I feel like you're at first base when you could be hitting a home run. I listen and hear if there's anything that can be improved and, if so, what? With Grizfolk the band had come together in a way where they hadn't played that much yet. I worked with them for quite a few months, and they started to gel as a band in the process. They'd go on tour for a couple months and come back and do some more songs. It was interesting to watch them evolve as a band during that time. In that situation it was very much like, "Well, I think that the structure of the songs could be better – the arrangements could be better. There are some things here and there caused by the cut-and-paste process. It sounds good, but we can't paste the same chorus in every time. It's not a band, and you guys are a band. We're not making a pop record where it doesn't matter if people can play the songs straight through. You're going to have to play these songs and make it sound real, so let's get performances. Let's not just ‘fix' it. Let's make it happen." Part of that was getting them in the studio, getting drum sounds that were unique and interesting, and merging all of that with the electronic elements that the dudes were bringing to the equation. Making it all fit together in an organic way. To me the biggest challenge was making it sound organic and unique – not just another bedroom production. Once we started working on it, they got that what I wanted to do was help them find their voice – what makes them sound unique – and not make them sound like every other band on the radio. It was to make them sound unique, like who they are.
As you were making this Grizfolk record, were you integrating electronics along the way?
I felt like the electronics and Swedish pop-production part of it was every bit as important as the organic, singer-songwriter part of it. When we would track drums I wanted to have the electronic elements in there so I could see how it all fit together. If there are electronic drums or synths, that is every bit as important as making space in the arrangement for strings, horns, or something. It's got to be there in order to make everything else fit together, so it doesn't feel like it's piecemeal. I think they liked that I valued that as much as I valued the quality of Adam [Roth]'s lyrics and the realism of his delivery.
From a producer's role, how do you approach the sensitive subject of lyrics with people? Is that something you roll up the sleeves on, or do you stay out of it?
If I hear something I feel could be better, if I hear something that doesn't make sense or sound right, I'll definitely have a conversation about it. This is probably largely due to being married to a singer, songwriter, and incredible lyricist [Shirley Manson], but at the end of the day the story that Shirley, Adam, or anybody is telling is the most important thing about the song. The groove can be good, and everybody can be dancing to it, or it could be a cheesy pop song and still be great fun and enjoyable. But I feel most people who sing want to convey an emotion. That's one of the really unique things about being a front person and a singer. What are they trying to convey? I've worked with some singers and songwriters who are vague about what it is they're trying to say. I can understand that. They want people to have to think about it and put their opinion into it. But are they getting away from actually saying something? There are plenty of times when I think a line doesn't make sense, sounds lazy, or is rather pedestrian. I'm being sensitive, because it's something that someone has put their lifeblood into. Sometimes they might have put that line in there, it worked, and they never really thought about it twice. Or maybe they put a lot of thought into it. I might ask, "What are you trying to say here? I don't feel like that comes across with this line. Do you have a different line? Would you be opposed to changing it?" Sometimes the lyric will be something that doesn't sing well. It's like, "Is there a way you can phrase it differently, or change a line a little bit in order to make it so that it sings better?" I have to be sensitive about it, because I'm critiquing one of the most personal parts. But critiquing a lyric or a melody isn't really any different than critiquing a drum fill or a guitar part. At the end of the day they have to realize that their best interests are my best interests. I'm not trying to do this to make them feel like they don't know what they're doing, or that I know better than them. I'm an impartial person telling them I think they can do better. If I build up the confidence to where someone feels like I'm not judging them, or trying to get some songwriting credit on it by changing a word or two, they might feel that they're getting to the point where they can explore a little bit deeper. It comes down to trust. Let's take the opportunity while we have it to make it as great as we possibly can. Explore every option and leave no stone unturned. Question every line and every phrase. Is it good enough? If the artist feels it is, I'm down with it. Just give me the killer performance.
How do you approach a mix where you were not involved with the production? Do you have someone who comes in and sets it up for you?
No, man. I envy that! I can't remember who I was talking to. It might have been Dave Pensado [Tape Op #111] or Manny [Marroquin, #109] who said, "My assistant comes in and does this setup." When I get a track, I'll easily spend the first two or three hours going through everything, cleaning tracks up, and putting them together in a way that makes sense so I can start mixing. I'll start with the rough mix, just seeing what it is they intended to do. But I'm not really paying that much attention to it – I don't want to copy it. If everybody's excited about the rough mix, I'm not going to throw it out just because it's not my mix. We're all trying to get to a point where we're really stoked and excited. If they like the rough mix and want it to be done better, I can use that as a jumping off point to see where to go. If you don't like it, I can at least hear what the arrangement is. I try to have communication with who I'm mixing with to see what they're trying to accomplish, where they're falling short, and what they really like about it. I spend a lot of time messing around with the track, listening to things, routing, and trying to get the basic session together to a point where I feel like I can mix it. Then I usually start with the drums. With most of the music, the groove I get sent is one of the most important parts. I'll get that to a point where it feels really good, cleaning up all the noises, clearing up drum tracks, and making sure samples are hitting at the right spot. I'll put the vocal in and see where it's at, making sure that I'm not going to have to come back and trim the drums back 10 dB when everything else comes in. Then I'll start putting in tracks. If it's a more electronic-based track, I'll start with electronics first. If it's a rock-based track, I'll start with the guitars. I'll start bringing the vocal in at different times to see how it all works together and make sure I'm leaving space for the vocals. They'll always be coming in and out. The final thing I'll end up doing is finishing off the vocal to make sure it sits on top consistently with all the vocal rides, automation, EQ and whatnot to make it really sit in the mix.
When you bring a session up, do you have a standard template you import where you always have your favorite "go to" aux channels and effects available to you?
I've got a template – I've only put it together in the last six months or so. Occasionally I'll get a vibe of the song and think, "This is more the Jake Bugg or an Angus & Julia Stone vibe." Then I'll go to one of those sessions and export out the effects sends. I'll use that as a jumping off point. Because I've got one of the Mac Pro cylinders, it doesn't seem like it chokes at much. That was one of the things before, where if sessions were massive and I brought in all the effects I might want to use, things would grind to a halt. I've got a large effects template now, with all the tracks inactive. I start to think about what might be useful. Having somebody coming in and set up a session for me; for some reason my brain doesn't think I could really convey what I want. In the same way, I can't really predict what I'll want in a mix until I'm into it. I want to make every record and song sound different, not cookie-cutter. I think that's why I've been resistant in the past to having set things. Granted, I have some of the outboard gear here set where I know if I hit it the right way, it'll sound cool. The Summit [LTA-100A] is set that way. I'll turn it on, hit it with vocals, print it, and turn it back off again. I know what that does, what the [Slate Pro Audio] Dragon does, what the Spectra Sonics [Model 610] does. I have all these things set to where I know they're going to feel good. But the rest of it, like the Bricasti [Design Model 7] preset and my Eventide [H8000] settings, change from song to song.
Do you use stompboxes when you're mixing?
Yeah, a lot of times. I've got a mono pedalboard and a stereo pedalboard. I can route music to the mono pedalboard, or to the mono into the stereo, or to the [Korg] MS-20 or the [Access Music] Virus TI. I can also route to the Audio Kitchen spring reverb, which is fucking badass.
You're using the Little Labs PCP for your routing, as well as to change the line level?
No. I'm averse to patchbays. Everybody comes in and asks where the patchbay is.
You use the I/O on Pro Tools?
Yeah. That's why I've got four [Avid] HD I/Os, for 64 ins and outs. Everything is directly patched to the I/O. I've had too many times where it's like, "Print the mix." You get to the point where there's a tom fill, and it's like, "Where's the floor tom?" Then you hit the patchbay and there's the floor tom. What the fuck? I probably should have a patchbay, because I do like changing the routing; but for the most part I feel like I'll just add another interface.
Are you doing analog summing?
Yeah, I use [Shadow Hills] The Equinox. I have 30 channels of that for summing. It comes out of that into the Manley Massive Passive [EQ]. Sometimes the EQ is on, and sometimes not. I use it mostly for the transformers. Then the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor into a Crane Song HEDD and back into Pro Tools, at whatever the native session rate was.
You're bypassing the analog to digital conversion in the HD I/O and taking AES digital audio out of the HEDD?
What pieces of gear are on everything, other than the ones you mentioned?
The Roger Mayer RM57 [compressor] is my secret drum weapon.
Not any longer.
It is, because you'll never find one.
I only know of a few folks that have one.
I've got a 57 and a RM58. But this 57, I don't know what's wrong with it, besides the fact that the meters are totally broken. It sounds broken but, as Butch says, it turns any drummer into Keith Moon. Kicks and snares explode in a glorious, incredible way. That's on every session, without question. The Audio Kitchen spring reverb is used a lot. I find that with spring reverb, I can really control the tone of it. It makes a vocal sit in the track in an incredible way without sounding like there's a ‘verb on it. It creates space. When I was doing mixes with Rick Rubin [I learned that] he's really effects averse. He doesn't like hearing any reverb at all, but he likes space. That was one of the few effects where I was able to get some space around Jake Bugg or Angus & Julia Stone's vocals. I've really gotten into these Standard Audio Stretch units. They do the old Dolby A trick. I kept looking for the Dolby A [noise reduction units] to get that Mutt Lange high-end sheen on vocals, so I use that to add a little extra zip and bottom to vocals in parallel.
What are they?
It's a weird thing. Do you remember the Dolby A noise reduction units? You'd use the Dolby to help control the noise levels. Somebody modded it so that it would just do the height-y thing to the top end. It would compress and boost the top end so you wouldn't lose it on tape, but if you didn't decode it on the way back out you'd get this incredible sheen to things. It would really bring out the top end. Those things are fun if you find them; but the guys at Standard Audio have really copped it, and it does the same thing with the low end. I put that on a stereo bus in Pro Tools. I'll send the vocals I want to be really prominent, or background vocals sometimes when I want a polished sheen to the top end, and blend it in. It adds a compressed top end that's really lovely. That's been on a lot of my projects recently. The Bricasti reverb is on something, always. I also have an old Studio Technologies AN-2, which I use for widening.
Where specifically do you use the AN-2?
Usually I use it on keyboards. The synths often take up a lot of space in my stereo image when mixing, so I try to put them further out as wide as possible. It does an interesting widening thing and I'm not really sure how. I'll use it sometimes on vocals to create something that's less bone dry – almost a doubling. You can't really hear it, but if you take it out it's like, "Wow." That gets used a ton, and the Eventide gets used a ton. Then the rest is all plug-ins in the box.
One of my favorite things you've done is a track on the Fink record, Hard Believer, called "Pilgrim." It has such patience in the arrangement, and sonically it's lovely.
I think that the mix exaggerated what we were trying to accomplish when we were tracking it. I had a vision for that song when I first heard it, and Fin [Greenall] and the band did as well. The original demo had elements of that to it, and I thought we should really expand on it. He has a tendency to write either on guitar or piano in a very linear way. The thing I've always tried to bring to the equation with him is to talk about songs as a journey. "We start here, but where can we end up? How do we get there musically?" The way he writes songs and lyrics, he's always telling a story. Let's not just tell a story. Let's create this atmosphere that'll change throughout. That song was a case of saying, "Let's get the basics down, and now how can we expand on it? What can we do differently?" That one's got a lot of different drum kits and drum parts on it, plus a lot of different guitar and keyboard parts. He had come up with a way where his vocal worked with the chord changes that I loved. "Okay, now how can we make it so that it changes again at some point, where the beat can change or something else can change?" We had it pretty dialed in by the time we were done tracking it over at [Sunset] Sound Factory. It was a matter of trying to figure out how to make it the best it could possibly be in the mix process.
There's so much space. I hear on a lot of your records where the cymbals are very controlled, but there's this mania inside the containment. It sounds like it's blowing up, but with boundaries.
I have a love-hate relationship with cymbals; more hate than love. A lot of the time they're just white noise generators, depending on the drummer.
How do you deal with that?
I work with the drummer to control that [situation]. I say, "Let's talk about the dynamics and the sounds." When I have the opportunity I work with a really good drum tech named Mike Fasano. He's got an incredible amount of drum gear and he's got a good ear. I'll explain to him, "I'm not hearing any definition between the parts. In the chorus section that needs to be much different." I'll go through and hand pick all the cymbals, all the hats, the rides, and the crashes in order to make sure that I can hear definition in between parts. That's one of the things I find most important about a drum kit. I need to hear the dynamics. He's playing the verse on the hat and it's grooving really well, and now he's going to go to the ride because it's the chorus. To me, a lot of the time, it's like, "Whoa. Where did all the energy go?"
The ride can be way too dark, or too wash-y, or have nothing going on. All of a sudden your drums fall apart when it needs to elevate. With the Fink record, Tim [Thornton]'s a great drummer, and he has an amazing ability to deconstruct his parts. I'd say, "Let's just do the kick drum." He'd play the kick drum, and we would record that. Then I'd say, "Okay, let's play the top kit." [He'd play] the snare, the alt snare, and the toms, with no cymbals. He had an amazing ability to play all that and groove, because he'd hit his thigh instead of hitting the hat. If you listen really closely, you'll hear a lot of him hitting his thigh. Then I'd say, "Let's do the brass." We'd layer it all in a way so that I had complete sonic control over the different parts of the kit. I could get the kick drum big and loud, he could be really graceful and play with brushes on the toms and the snare, and you can hear all the articulation of that without it being washed out. I could really control the cymbals that way. He was game for it. It's a challenge for him, and he loved the end result. We'd do that and then have different drum kits for one part of a song. We'd change things around.
When you're mixing, are you compressing and EQ-ing individually as well as in groups of low, mid, and high frequencies or instrument groups?
Yeah. I'll group items together in a way that makes sense for me to work on them, where they all have the same harmonic or percussive content. When I put a session together, I'll route things into certain groups. It'll start out as basic as drums, percussion, music, and vocals. It'll start there. I'll route all the drums to a drum bus, all the music to a music bus, and all the vocals to the vocal bus. I have a lot of control when I'm mixing really quickly. Then I'll expand on that. If I've got the drums sounding good, I'll open up a couple of parallel drum buses. Maybe I'll route cymbals to the Roger Mayer [RM57], or maybe I'll route tracks to another compressor.
All in parallel?
All in parallel. That way I have some control over the balances. I'll have an idea in my head about what I want the kit to sound like. At that point, I'll do whatever it takes to get it to sound the way I hear it in my head. Sometimes I can leave it, and sometimes there will be all kinds of crazy shit I do just because I hear something in my head. Whatever it takes to get to that point. I'll be EQ-ing and compressing channels. It wouldn't be uncommon for me to route the kick in and the kick out and any samples to one aux for the kick drum. The same goes for the snare, snare top, and snare bottom. I take many samples, compress them, then route them together to the drum buses, and also send them through parallel compression buses. If I feel a clean drum bus is a little spikey I might have the UAD-2 Studer [A800 plug-in] on it to smooth it out, and the Roger Mayer, which is on crush, to make everything explode. Then I'll take another compressor, like the Vertigo [VSC-2] or something like that for a more polite compression. Then I'll balance those three to get to a point where I feel like I have energy or vibe, but it's not too blown out. I've got the ability to run something up if I need a bit more height, or send something harder if I need to. That's how I do the drums. The bass is a similar thing. Bass guitar will go to one bus, sub-bass will go to another, and then I'll spend a lot of time figuring out how to get the sub-bass to work with the bass and the kick drum, to control all the low-end information, and how to get everything to sit. Maybe I'll do a sideband EQ on the bass and sub bass to duck down where the kick drum's hitting. Not in a really disco-y or dance music kind of way.
Not side-chaining heavily...
Yeah, but for that moment when the spike of the kick drum hits, maybe it cuts out 100 cycles really super quick on the bass and the sub bass. You don't hear that go away, but you hear the kick drum come through for a nanosecond. To me that's the most important thing to the groove. The groove is of utmost importance to me. It has to feel really good, energetic, vibey, or however the song is. That needs to come across first. Those items to me are the keys. Then I'll look at whether it's keyboard-based or guitar-based. I'll start breaking that up into different subgroups so I have a little control over the mix. All the clean guitars to one bus, all the super-saturated guitars to another, all the riffs to another place, all the percussive keyboards to one group, pads to another group, noise tracks to another group. I have the ability to control the mix [with the buses] there. A lot of the mix will be on aux groups. It's almost like live mixing at that point, where I've got all the basic instruments. I've got the drums, the bass, the keys, the guitars, and the vocals. It's all there and able to be blended and tweaked however I need. If necessary, I'll do some group processing over everything to control it all, or give it a vibe so it has some zip. For saturated guitar, it wouldn't be uncommon to run them through a [Universal Audio] LA-3A or something like that to get them to gel a little bit, if that's what they need. Sometimes they don't, but other times it's good for them to be like a wall that comes in.
One of the things you hear a lot of people talking about lately is clocking.
I approach a lot of that with a certain element of skepticism. It really requires me spending time and testing it, really seeing how it feels when I'm working. Even with the summing... Butch doesn't have a summing box at his house, and he can mix projects that sound fucking amazing with nothing. It's all in the box; nothing special, just his ability to make something sound incredible. Analog summing, maybe it's not that important; but for me it's how it feels when I'm mixing. I feel like I struggle more when it's all digital, especially when it's organic rock music – something heavy where you feel like the most legitimate version would be analog console or tape. If I use The Equinox from the get go, it sounds great. To me, clocking is a similar thing. I have the Antelope [Audio Isochrone] Trinity and the 10M atomic clock. I found when I had that on, mixes would come together quick. I didn't have to fight a lot of stuff I used to, and I didn't know why. Things would clear up, like the stereo image was good and I could hear details, like the reverb trails and delays. I'd turn it off and put it back on a normal clock, and it was a little harder for me to get the mix to gel. It's not scientific at all; it's how it feels when you're actually in it. Maybe it's because I have so many interfaces. I've talked to them about it and it's above my pay grade. I tracked the Fink record with them; it always made it easier to sound good from the get go. I have a natural aversion, as one should, to buying expensive digital gear that will end up being a paperweight in a couple of years as opposed to something like a microphone that you can use forever. But they really work for me.
How do you integrate new pieces of hardware or plug-ins when you get them? Is it something you do on your own time or while you're on a mix?
I'm always trying plug-ins. People send me equipment all the time. Or I'll read about something. One of the most important things to do is always keep learning and keep up-to-date. I'm always exploring other digital audio workstations, plug-ins, or systems. I never know what something could bring to the equation. I'm always checking out new plug-ins, probably to my own detriment. If you look at my plug-in list, it's ridiculous. With hardware gear, it's the same thing. If I find something I think would be interesting, I'll swap out a piece of gear. If it's a stereo thing, I'll swap out stereo gear with it and try it. If I really like it, I'll find a place for it and route a few more cables to it. Or I'll get a new interface and I'll think, "Now I can add eight more stereo items." Sometimes the compressors get swapped out for other things. I change out preamps a lot. I try to keep exploring. One thing I never want to do is get to a point where I feel like I'm running sound through a cookie cutter. I don't want it to feel like a sausage factory, where you spit it in and everything comes back exactly the way it's supposed to. I want everything to be unique and different. I change my process up all the time, partly out of my own boredom.
What are you listening to that we might not expect?
The Weeknd record [Beauty Behind the Madness]. They do sub-basses and vocal treatments, and I always think they're really creative and interesting. Trying to do that same thing in the music that I gravitate to, which is a lot more dense and has a lot more instrumentation to it usually, is something I find an interesting challenge to try to accomplish. How can I make something have that modern production feel, but put it in a context that's not quite the same thing? It's super easy to get sub-bass. If you have a really good sounding Moog bass, it sounds fucking incredible. But try to put that in with a really dense mix. That's a challenge unto itself. The Weeknd record is one record I thought was extraordinary sounding. I listen to a lot of music. I find it hard to listen to other things when I'm mixing though. I find that I don't really enjoy it that much. When I'm mixing a record, I have to be immersed in it. Occasionally, if there's a specific vibe we're going for, I'll use something for reference and flip back and forth in Pro Tools. But recreationally I won't really listen to much, for whatever reason. I'll leave here, and whatever I'm working on is still going through my head. I don't want to derail it. I'll come home and be talking to Shirley about the mix. She'll have some notes, and I'll be lying in bed thinking about it. I'll wake up in the middle of the night with an idea to try. I want to stay in that mindset as much as I can until the record's mixed.
I've read often that the Garbage sessions are massive, in terms of track count. It's obviously something you've been able to get your head around. I guess if they had a purpose, then they need to make the mix...
And everything is getting mixed as it's going along?
By the time you get it, I'm assuming the architecture of the mix is already there.
I guess that would be different than you grabbing a session from someone who sends it and asks you to mix the record. How much is changing from inception?
The funny thing about the Garbage sessions is that it is an evolving thing. They'll start writing a bunch of songs and getting a core idea of a song. It wouldn't be uncommon for them to write 30, 40, or 50 songs in the process of making a record. I think, in a very natural way, that they start gravitating toward the ones they feel strongest about and work on those. We'll start building on them. Part of the thing about the track count is that they'll try every idea they can come up with and see what works. We never throw anything away, because someone might go back to an early rough mix and ask, "What happened to that guitar part?" I'll have to go back and pull it out if we change the tempo, fix it, redo it or whatever. I never throw anything away until I get to mix mode, and then I'll throw away all the inactive tracks, which typically is two-thirds of the tracks. The sessions are still massive, because we don't record anything in a really linear way. It's rarely the same drum kit through a song.
Intro drums will be different from the verse, to the chorus, to the bridge, or whatever. The drums could take up 60 tracks easily, but it all fits together. Once you wrap your head around it, it's balancing everything in sections and making sure the sections are cohesive. It's the same with the guitars. One thing Butch taught me early on was to record things the way you want them to sound. Think of it like a jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces have to work together, so figure out how to make it work. If the guitar's in the way of the bass, cut out some low-end from the guitar, or high-end off from the bass. It seems daunting, at first. If we were sitting in a session with somebody, put everything at zero, and just said, "Good luck. Mix it," it would take them a long time to wrap their head around it. They would hopefully see that there's some method to the madness of how it all works together. We re-released the first record last year, and that required a lot of archival work on my part. I had to go back to the original half- inch tapes, which we hadn't seen in 20 years. They went missing forever. I had to transfer them, get all the multitracks, and load them into Pro Tools for posterity's sake. When I did that, I listened to the tracks and would be amazed how I could put everything at zero, like on "Stupid Girl," and that mix is almost there. To me, that's engineering. That's some fucking incredible skill at recording everything and making it all work together. That's the key to how we've expanded. It was like that on 24-tracks, because those were the limitations. Now, with an infinite number of tracks, we don't have to bounce everything down. But the result is that when you put the session up, it should sound like the song – aside from some basic ear candy – if it's put together well. The other side of it is that when somebody sends me a mix session, and I feel like everything they've given me in that session has intent to it, it's my job to figure out how to find a place for it. I think that's one reason people have gravitated towards my mixing style. They know that I'm not going to make them sound like a kick-snare-guitar-bass rock band. If you put ear candy in there, I'm going to find a place to put it, and hopefully you can hear everything. That's one thing I really like in mixing. The creative thing I find about mixing is, "How can I create a mix where, every time you hear it, you hear something different?" I love people who send me tracks who have that already embedded. There's always something lurking in there that's a little bonus.
It's clear you enjoy this job. Where do you find the inspiration on the days when the mojo isn't there?
Well, what inspires me is being married to an artist, and knowing how hard it is for artists to make a living and to be an artist. It's hard to be in a band, and be a musician. It's basically taking a vow of poverty these days. The economy's so fucked for people in the creative arts. I'm in a really lucky position, in that I still get to do what I love to do. When I feel frustrated with a track, or something comes in not well-recorded, or I'm not feeling the song that much, I stop myself and think, "You know, you need to be a little humble and realize that right now you're the caretaker of this person's life. This record might be the most important record, or the last record, that he ever does." I have a responsibility to that artist to give them the best I possibly can. I could ruin someone's career, end someone's career, or make it really hard for them. I try to remind myself that none of this is about me, my genius, or my talent. It's about their talent, their genius, making sure that people can hear that, as well as making sure they have an opportunity to continue being an artist and grow as an artist and as a creative person. I feel like I'm more of a caretaker than anything else. When I have those moments when I feel like, "Fuck, I'm really struggling," I'll walk outside, go down to Starbucks, get a coffee, take the dog for a walk for a minute, and come back. Then I think, "You have a responsibility to do a fucking good job." Regardless of what the budget is, or who the band is. You have to give everything a hundred percent. If you don't feel like you can give a hundred percent, you should pass and give it to somebody who will. There are plenty of people out there willing to do good work. You have to do your best work, all the time.