Mix It Raw

EQ - April 1992.

Capturing the high-intensity sound of Nirvana meant reevaluating the strengths and weaknesses of high technology

By Butch Vig

The first time I heard "Teen Spirit," the first single from Nirvanaís number one debut album Nevermind, I knew it was an incredible song. And thatís saying a lot, considering I was hearing a completely distorted demo recorded in a basement, on a boom-box, through a cheap PA.

I couldnít even hear the vocals on that version, but when we went into rehearsal with it I could hear ... everything. It was incredibly intense and loud. The first couple of times they played the song I was up and jumping around the room.

The entire recording of Nevermind was a tremendous experience. It was both Nirvanaís and my first time recording with a major label, although I had worked with them on some demos for Sub-Pop, an independent label. The band was concerned about "selling-outí and losing their intensity and raw energy. It was my job to capture them live and reproduce their energy and passion as best as I could.

We never expected this kind of reaction to the record, though. I mean, achieving a number one album on the same chart as new releases from Michael Jackson, Guns ĎN Roses and U2 ... itís still hard for me to believe.

I think one of the reasons that people have responded so well to this record is that it sounds honest and real. It doesnít have a real high-processed sound where everything is perfect and glossy. You have all these high-tech productions all over the radio, and hereís this band thatís passionate and real and you can hear that they gave everything on each and every track.

Despite the sound, this wasnít some basement recording. In fact, we recorded at Sound City, which is an older studio in Van Nuys, California, using this great old Neve board that gets in the way as little as possible when letting the sound through. I think that board had a lot to do with capturing the live sound. I also didnít use much signal processing when we were recording. No tape on the drums either ... I just tried to get the drums to sound as good as they could in Sound Cityís big room. I was going for the hottest sound I could get from microphone to pre-amp to tape.

The mics I usually use are Sennheiser 421s and Shure 57s and Neumann U87s, but we also use some great old tube mics, like Neumann U47s, U48s and U67s. I like the fatness and warm sound that tubes produce. I used EQ only when it was absolutely necessary. If something needed more bottom or top, Iíd EQ it, but I usually donít like to do a whole lot of processing. I try to make it sound as good as the original source.

Nirvana's Down-To-Earth Method

Working with the musicians was what really made it happen. In order to keep the bandís intensity, I tried not to bore them. Most of the time I was engineering, they werenít even in the studio. I didnít want them to sit around bored, waiting for me while I was trying to get a certain drum sound, or burned out on a song because they kept hearing it again and again.

Even when we were recording we wouldnít stay on one song for too long. Kurt Cobain, lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, told me he was very impatient. That meant that whatever was being played, whether a warm up or whatever, was always being recorded. If we didnít get something right away weíd just move on to something else and go back for it later. I think thatís why the band always sounds fresh ... they kept their spontaneity while recording.

Nirvana For The Masses

Kurt is an amazing songwriter. He has this knack for wonderful pop sensibilities, even though itís amidst all this heavy metal noise and chaos. He writes these really strong melodies with lyrics that are intriguing ... filled with rage and mystery. You may not always understand what heís thinking, but it draws you into the songs just the same.

Thereís a whole audience of young people who havenít heard stuff like this before. Sure, theyíve heard heavy metal and punk before, but here it is with this commercial-wide appeal to it. And besides, this is how music began and should be - people playing their instruments.

Itís refreshing to hear something that honest on the radio and see it achieve mass popularity. Iím sure weíll have more processed bands appearing on the charts, but at least Nirvana has made people turn their heads a little ... especially people in the industry.

Itís tough to say what Nirvana will do next. What happens next depends on Kurt. They might do a rawer album, or maybe something acoustic. Perhaps a real slick pop record. Kurtís a good enough songwriter to pull all those off.

Whatever they do, theyíre going to do it with energy and spontaneity ... and, of course, volume.