Garbage: Recording 'Strange Little Birds' - EMusician

Garbage: Recording 'Strange Little Birds'

How Shirley Manson, Butch Vig, and crew created the cinematic, shape-shifting sounds of Strange Little Birds, their latest antidote to corporate rock.
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What is the sound of Garbage? From the quartet’s 1995 debut to its follow-up, Version 2.0, from the drama of Bleed Like Me and Beautiful Garbage, to their latest, Strange Little Birds (Stunvolume), the sound of Garbage is unmistakable: heavy saturation, noise-as-effect, measured compression, the guitars of Steve Marker and Duke Erikson mauling your brain like a mad jackal; Butch Vig’s natural drums delivered with synthetic attack; synthesizers that sound like guitars that sound like electroshock therapy. And at the heart of it all, the lip-curling, defiant, tender, sexy, and accusatory vocals of Shirley Manson. So when the band got round to recording the successor to 2012’s Not Your Kind of People, what did they have in mind? For Shirley Manson, only original Garbage would do.

Butch Vig's Grunge Is Dead studio “With this record we wanted to reinvestigate all the themes we were obsessed by on the first record,” Manson says. “So we used a load of guitars. We wanted to hear dark, cinematic sounds. We yearned for the sound that we’re not hearing much these days. That was the driver behind this record and why there is a connection to our debut record. Your first successful record sets the trajectory for your career. Then you want to learn and be curious and explore different avenues. As a band we’ve really tried to do that. Sometimes successfully, other times to our detriment, but we’ve never stayed still.”

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Recorded at Butch Vig’s Grunge Is Dead studio and engineer Billy Bush’s Red Razor Sounds, and mastered by Emily Lazar at The Lodge, Strange Little Birds revels in shapeshifting guitars and morphing samples, in a production aesthetic unique to the band. It’s the sound of digital filth and oily analog, of menacing software synths and pounding virtual drums. It’s the sound of four brains pulsing at a frequency out of sync with the corporate model of record making, 2016.

“Generally we’re all suffering for the homogenization of songs and production that are essentially written and produced by the same people and sung by variety of young talent,” Manson says. “But we are aching to hear perspectives from people who are not entertainers, but artists who are looking at the world and reflecting that in their music. There’s a dearth of that in mainstream culture. It exists, but those records lurk in the shadows. They’re made by people not fortunate enough to talk to Electronic Musician or get their songs played on the radio. I’m longing to hear more variety and eclectic voices and tastes and perspectives.”

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Citing influences Roxy Music, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Bauhaus, and Television, “all these bands that deeply affected us when we were growing up,” Manson says. Garbage wanted to make music that was unimaginable relying solely on computer-based production.

“Anybody can record at home on a computer now,” she adds. “But for us there was a lot of fascination with analog synths and the music of our heroes. Strange Little Birds is not a machine record; it’s the sound of people in the world.”

Vig chimes in: “Even if we tried to not sound like Garbage we would sound like Garbage. A lot of it is the sensibilities we share and the way we play. It’s more a vibe, how we approach things. There’s a sensibility to how I like things to sound when mixed, how I like drums to sound whether natural or processed. There are older pieces we still use, like the Roger Meyer RM58 Limiter. We used that a lot on the buses, especially on the drums; it has that trashy quality. We like to saturate things using a lot using stompboxes. Sometimes we use plug-ins like iZotope’s Trash. I still have the original SansAmp stompbox with the chips you had to move with a pencil. We used that on the very first Garbage record in 1995 and we still use it sometimes.”

From the rumbling Reaktor loop of “Sometimes” to the howling Skychord Electronics Glamour Box noise of “Magnetized”; from the Rob Papen Predator-sequencing of “So We Can Stay Alive” to the Arturia Solina-filled “Teaching Little Fingers to Play,” Garbage use effects like some bands use guitar picks. “There’s a lot of analog synths from Billy Bush’s arsenal at Red Razor,” Vig says. “A lot of the guitars go through effects. Sometimes they sound like keyboards, but the actual guitar lines are processed. We wanted to feature more stripped-down synths to give this record a cinematic feel. And it’s a dark record. We wanted Shirley’s voice to sound very exposed. Some songs are bone dry like ‘Sometimes’ with no reverb on Shirley’s vocals. We wanted her to sound vulnerable and confrontational.

“When we recorded the first album we ran things through samplers and stompboxes,” he adds. “There was a sense of freedom that made it really fun. We embraced that approach for this album too. It felt very much like the same kind of experimental vibe as on our first record.”

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Vig tracks drums. The bulk of the Strange Little Birds was recorded at Grunge Is Dead with overdubs and “improvements” at Red Razor Sounds. Vig used a Crane Song Avocet controller, with Barefoot MicroMain 27 main monitors and Focal CMS 65s as his smaller reference monitors. The songwriting process involved band improvisations or songs written solo, then fleshed out in studio. Synthesizers were pushed through stompboxes, guitars were re-amped. Pedals included EarthQuaker Bit Commander, Hoof Reaper, Pitch Phase, Rainbow Machine, and Eventide Space and Time Factor Delay pedals for textures. “No one in the band is excited about a natural guitar sound,” Billy Bush says. “It’s really about creating a sound we’ve never heard before. That’s where the fun is for us.”

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Billy Bush describes his Red Razor Sounds facilities as “a hybrid analog/digital studio.” Red Razor Sounds is based on Pro Tools 12 and the latest Mac Pro Desktop Computer, Avid HD I/Os, and an Antelope Audio atomic clock.

“I use an Avid ICON D-Command ES for fader rides and automation,” Bush adds. “I own every plug-in known to man. I also have a wide range of outboard gear, which I use during mixing and tracking. My mixing process involves summing out a Shadow Hills Industries Equinox dual-channel mic preamp. From there into a Manley Massive Passive, then a Shadow Hills Industries Mastering Compressor, then I print back into Pro Tools via a Crane Song head. I have a computer-networked DiGiGrid so I can run a Logic computer and an Ableton Live computer routed into Pro Tools.” Bush’s go-to effects include Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere and Trillian, Vengeance Sound Phalanx and Metrum, and Native Instruments and Universal Audio effects.

“When we got off tour in 2012,” Bush says, “I bought everyone in the band a laptop, a Universal Audio Apollo Interface, and got everyone on Pro Tools 11 and Native Komplete 10. So they were all on the same page and had interchangeability for working on Pro Tools sessions. My and Butch’s studio are both decked out with HDX and IO systems, and a bunch of Universal Audio Thunderbolts and Octo cards. The plug-in list is ridiculous.”

Bush has been recording and mixing the band’s albums since Version 2.0. From North Texas State to recording a top selling rock act! “The Garbage sound transcends anywhere we record,” he says. “It’s the combination of the four of them and their influences and approaches. Whether it’s been recorded at Smart or East West or Grunge Is Dead or my studio, it always ends up having that Garbage sound. At the core of it is how they approach making music, which is very unique to anyone I have ever worked with. Everything is constructed in a way that it all fits together, and all the pieces are very specific. None of the sounds really sound like the instruments. The guitars are always very filtered and processed. And they’re layered to fit in specific way. All the parts and all the sounds are formed with that in mind.”

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MANSON ON THE MIC

Bush’s vocal recording arsenal includes UA 1176A, Plug-in Alliance Maag EQ, FabFilter Pro-DS, Waves L1, SSL EQ, Bricasti M7, Eventide H8000, Soundtoys EchoBoy and Decapitator, Little Labs PCP Distro, Audio Kitchen spring reverb, and Avid Expander/Gate III.

“At my studio, Shirley sang into a Telefunken 251 and a Neumann M49B,” Bush explains. “A 20/80 ratio of those two microphones for vocals. They went into a Chandler Limited LTD-1 preamp and a Retro Instruments 76 or Retro Instruments Sta-Level to Pro Tools.”

As with the drum set and a portion of the guitars, a good portion of Manson’s vocals were tracked at Grunge Is Dead. “Shirley likes to sit on the couch or stand on the balcony when singing,” Vig explains. “We tracked a third of the vocals at Grunge Is Dead on a Shure SM 57. I used a Chandler Limited LTD-1 as a preamp into the Summit TLA 100A—still my favorite vocal compressor, which I have had for 25 years. When I get the setting right on the TLA 100A, I can put the fader on the vocal and get it in the mix and it sits in the perfect place. It controls the dynamics well. You hear dynamics, but in the quieter parts the TLA 100A still keeps them in your face. But if it gets too loud, it pushes them back enough where it always sits in a really good spot in the mix.”

Manson is more concerned with performance than sound toys. “I go for complete takes,” she explains. “I much prefer that to piecemeal. There’s a performance element involved when you approach it like that. I did some vocals differently this time in that I wanted to get very close on the microphone so it sounded very intimate. Some songs are more whispered or spoken. When I put vocals down, we all have an idea where the vocal sounds best in the landscape.

“I use the Neumann ’cause Butch likes it best,” she adds. “But as a singer, you’ve got to feel confident enough that you can bring something to any old f*cking mic! If you’re relying on your mic, face it, you’re f*cked!”

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SYNTHS AND GUITARS

Though guitarists Duke Erikson and Steve Marker reside in Wisconsin and Colorado, respectively, they don’t bring guitars to Garbage sessions. Bush has multiple guitars from which to choose. “One guitar I picked up was a Fender Custom Shop La Cabronita,” Bush says. “Duke played that quite a bit. And a weird Japanese baritone guitar called ‘The Fender Jaguar Bottom Master.’ We used older Stratocasters and Jazzmasters and Les Pauls. They went through one of my two pedal boards to a Little Labs PCP Instrument Distro 3.0 guitar splitter feeding an Audio Kitchen Big Chopper amplifier. We also used an old Silvertone amp, a Fender Blues Junior amp too. Duke and Steve like stuff that is strange. They would pick up a guitar to try to come up with something different. And I would mess around with the pedals, looking for an interesting combination. [Line 6 Pods or the Kemper Profiler Guitar Amplifier Modeler were used at Grunge Is Dead.] Then they’d find a part. Or they’d come in with a part and try to make it fit it into the track by experimenting with sounds.”

Bush has Korg and Novation analog synths at Red Razor; soft synths were also employed throughout Strange Little Birds. “Steve likes to use Ableton,” Vig recalls. “When programming kick and snare, I like [Native Instruments] Battery. It has a ton of kick and snare samples. I used Rob Papen’s Blade and Predator synths on some songs; they sound very analog. I got into using Predator’s sequencer; you can change the notes, the volume, and the velocity. You can write in your own melody and then heavily process it. That’s on the start of ‘So We Can Feel Alive.’ One of my favorite soft synths is the Arturia Solina. I love its sound, its rich emulation. That’s the keyboard on ‘Empty.’

“I also like Reaktor Skrewell,” he adds. “It just makes noise. It has a ‘randomize all channels button’ that is fucking cool! It produces these ambient textures and tonal colors in the background that are all over the record.”

Bush’s bass-creation rig includes Audio Kitchen Big Trees, FabFilter Pro-Q, Avid Expander/Gate III, UA LA2A and Pultec EQP 1A, and McDSP ML4000. For Strange Little Birds he recorded Eric Avery’s Fender Jazz and Jaguar basses direct and live. A Little Labs PCP Instrument Distro splitter managed the direct signal into Bush’s copious bass pedal board(s), to a Fender Bassman 15 amplifier miked with a Neumann FET 47, an API 512 preamp, and API 550A EQ.

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DRUMS: POUNDED AND PROGRAMMED

Vig played his Drum Workshop kit with his Yamaha “Gish” snare drum and Zildjian cymbals. Microphones and preamps included Shure SM57/API 550/Chandler Little Devil EQ on the top snare head; Neumann M80/Helios 550 on the bottom snare head; Josephson ES22s/Chandler TG2/Harrison Great River EQs on the toms; Neumann FET 47/Helios 500 on the bass drum; Audio-Technica AT4041s on the cymbals; and Bock Audio 507 as a mono room mic (in the bathroom) through a Roger Meyer SM58 compressor or the Summit TLA 100A compressor. “The Bock 507 makes a big sound,” Vig says. “It really picks up the kick drum; a punchy sound. The room has a midrange, trashy vibe, but the Bock picks up the bottom end. Between the cymbal and guitar there is lot of hyper fuzz happening so in the end we turned down the cymbals.”

Vig programmed drums as often as he played them, using his vast sample library. But often, as in opener ‘Sometimes,’ what sounds like a drum loop may be a guitar loop or a synth through a stompbox. “The record is 50/50 live versus programmed drums,” Vig says. “Sometimes I will program Battery using my custom library of sounds along with the live drums. Or I will take the live drums and print that to a mono submix and run that through stompboxes and filters and further chop that up and blend that back in with the live drums. So it becomes trashier and has a more interesting sound. It’s rare when the drums are clean-sounding or au naturel.”

EMBRACING “STRANGE”

Two years in the making, conceived after a successful global tour, created as a retort to a shiny, happy record industry fixated on corporate songwriting teams and same-sounding production scenarios, Strange Little Birds is the perfectly strange new Garbage album, delivered precisely on time.

“This time we focused more on shifting the chi in the room,” Manson says. “Nowadays you can tart up anything. Everyone in the band understood the importance of capturing something that felt urgent and vital and really authentic. More than any record we’ve made, there was a lot of competition in the studio. We wanted to impress one another. We didn’t want average—we wanted excitement.”