Green Day and Butch Vig devote serious time to preproduction and demos before recording 21st Century Breakdown
It’s late March 2009, and New York City is covered in a haze of dark clouds that hug the metropolis like a mask. Hunkered down in Sterling Sound overlooking the Hudson River, Green Day is working on the final mix of 21st Century Breakdown. Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, Tre Cool, and producer Butch Vig have spent months jockeying between Ocean Way in Los Angeles and Studio 880 in Oakland recording the 18-track follow-up to the band’s 12-million selling American Idiot.
Later that night, after the final mix is printed and the master placed under lock and key, the Green Day dudes get emotional. The album has taken almost three years to complete, and Green Day doesn’t know how to call it quits. So they start drinking, imbibing 16 bottles of wine and 40 beers before falling into a Chelsea recording studio to jam the night away.
They play a single song for six hours straight, juiced on adrenaline, booze, and pure inspiration. From 2:00 A.M. to 8:30 A.M., Green Day is just another band jamming like there’s no tomorrow with nothing at stake and no expectations. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Resisting the temptation to take a stripped-down approach after the pop-punk opera of American Idiot, 21st Century Breakdown takes bigger chances with songs that are more ambitious than anything the band has done before. Arranged in three acts (surprisingly similar to the musical version of American Idiot that will hit the Berkeley Repertory Theater in September), 21st Century Breakdown is the result of a deeper approach to songwriting, copious preproduction, hours of demos, and even a homegrown pirate radio station.
TAMING THE BEASTS
An inveterate walker who enjoys “writing in his head,” Armstrong often composed the songs for 21st Century Breakdown while driving, singing in the shower, and even sitting on the toilet. And before doing a single demo or enlisting Vig, Armstrong raised the creative stakes.
“It was about taking this thing that’s like a simple version of rock and roll, but making it sound more complex, and keeping it from getting boring,” he explains. “We didn’t have to make a record like this, but I felt it was an opportunity to take American Idiot a step further. On our previous records, we were gathering experiences and allowing ourselves to write songs from exactly where we were at that moment. With this one, I really wanted to go deeper than I’ve ever gone before. This is the first time I’ve written songs at the piano, which allowed me a lot more freedom to use falsetto, and experiment with chord progressions I’ve never used before. I also wanted to hear melody—a line could be inspired by a musical or something Randy Newman would write. I love songs that are based in some tradition from the Ramones to Simon & Garfunkel to the Beatles. My DNA is finding melody.”
Following Armstrong’s decree that the band should master the new material before hitting Ocean Way, Green Day demoed every track, in sequence, until they could play the songs in their sleep. Early on, rumor had it that Vig wouldn’t sign on to the project until Green Day produced a handful of demos for his approval.
“I didn’t force them to do demos,” Vig insists, “but the band wanted to have a really clear direction of what we were doing. When we began working together, the songs we were equally attracted to were called ‘The Beasts.’ They were untamable—overly long or complicated songs with lots of interesting ideas that weren’t focused. Doing the demos—which we recorded on their TASCAM 8-track—allowed them to rehearse a song until it sounded good. When you know what you are doing, you can go in and execute. Then, in the studio, you’re going for performances—not scratching your head and wondering what to do in a bridge or chorus. It makes the recording process a lot simpler.”
“I like using the studio as a compositional tool when we are doing demos,” adds Armstrong. “Recording to Pro Tools is like composing, as well, because you can shift things around and come up with a good arrangement. Then, when you go to track the song for real, you can just crank it out so it has a completely live feel to it.”
Green Day recorded demos from early March 2008 at Costa Mesa Studios, JEL in Newport Beach, and Studio 880 in Oakland. Later, the demos would function as the band’s reference tracks, and some elements would even end up in the final mix.
“We had the entire album mapped out with demos,” Armstrong recalls. “Then, it was just a matter of going into Ocean Way and making the songs sound gigantic.”
But the recording process at Ocean Way turned out to be more involved than that, as Vig wanted to push Green Day through a few barriers.
“After mega success, a band will often return to their roots to make a stripped-down record,” Vig says. “I was not into making that kind of record with Green Day. What I loved about American Idiot was that they were shooting for the stars. I was trying to push them to go into areas that were almost uncomfortable for them, but still make it sound like Green Day. How wide of a palette can they paint on? Where can they go in terms of style and execution, but still make sure it felt like them as a band? They would record, I’d make suggestions, then they’d go and rehearse for hours, and then they’d record some more. This went on for weeks. By early summer, we had a good rapport.”
While recording demos in Southern California, Green Day purchased a pirate radio transmitter and started broadcasting under the call letters KCUF. Vig, Green Day, and engineer Chris Dugan created playlists, recorded fake station IDs (“Listen to Rebel Radio KCUF!”), and flipped the switch. The bonus for unsuspecting Orange County commuters was hearing new Green Day material, live and unfiltered. Later, the band inserted bits of the pirate broadcasts into the final mix. The compressed, crunchy sections in “Christian’s Inferno,” “East Jesus Nowhere,” “¡Viva La Gloria!,” “Before the Lobotomy,” and “Last of the American Girls” are straight from KCUF.
“The band tried setting up the transmitter at their house in Los Feliz,” Vig adds, “but we weren’t getting a signal, so we turned up the power. It blew out all the power on the block! The next day, we found a note on the door from the FCC saying, ‘Maybe you should cease and desist before you get into any trouble.’ So we shut it down.”
“I like things that sound a bit lo-fi,” Armstrong says, “like the sound of Foxboro Hot Tubs [Green Day’s 2008 side-project album, titled Stop Drop and Roll!!!], which was recorded live on our TASCAM 8-track. In the past, we’ve always had a lot of midrange and punch on our records. But, for 21st Century Breakdown, we went for a kind of warmth and low end and top end that I don’t think we’ve ever achieved before.”
Even so, Vig’s goal was to keep signal chains as simple as possible.
“As high tech as we are with current recording technology, we did 21st Century Breakdown as old-school as possible,” Vig recalls. “We used signal paths with the least amount of EQ and processing involved so what was playing back sounded amazing. That is always a good step when you are starting to record an album—making sure everything sounds good dry with nothing done to it. As soon as you start over-processing, you will hit more problems down the line.”
Dugan brought his Barefoot Sound monitors, and Chandler, Vintech, and Neve mic preamps and EQs to Ocean Way, incorporating his setup with Studio B’s custom-built Dalcon 32x24 console with its API sidecar that offers 40 channels of API EQ.
“The Dalcon doesn’t impose any sonic coloring—what you hear is what you get,” Dugan says. “But we only used the console to listen back. All the mics would hit the external preamps, and then go directly to an Ampex ATR 124 tape deck and an HD3 Accel Pro Tools rig.”
Having worked with Green Day since 2000’s Warning, Dugan recorded the band’s basic tracks quickly and efficiently.
“For the kick drum, I placed a Shure Beta 52 inside the shell—there was no front head—and routed the signal to a Chandler Limited TG Channel MKII preamp. I also lined up a Neumann U 47 fet right next to the Beta 52. If you have the two mics in the same spot, and you don’t reverse the phase, you get a really nice sound with a lot of attack. In addition, I put a sub speaker/mic in front of the bass drum to add low-end thump.”
Dugan used a Telefunken Ela M 80 through a Vintech X73 preamp to mic the top snare head, and positioned a Shure SM57 on the bottom head, which was routed to a Vintech 473 preamp.
“I usually EQ some crispness into the snare sound,” he explains, “but the M 80 already had it.”
A couple of AKG C 12 As through the Dalcon’s API 550 EQs covered the toms, with AKG C 414s placed on the bottom tom heads “for more sustain.” Overhead, a pair of Telefunken Ela M 251s were Dugan’s ace in the hole.
“Bringing up overheads in the mix is about more than just cymbals—they bring up the entire kit and open it up,” says Dugan. “It’s like room mics, but on a much closer scale. You feel like you are in the seat with the drummer. And Ocean Way B is the room for drums— it’s amazing.”
One of the final pieces to the drumsound puzzle was a large, hat-shaped flying gobo that could be lowered over drummer Tre Cool’s kit to diminish a room’s natural reverberation—which the band called the “Happy Hour Sound.”
Another important aspect of the sound and feel of the basic tracks was that Vig created tempo maps to monitor grooves during the demo process.
“When they were jamming, I’d note if a tempo worked particularly well in a song,” says Vig. “There are also parts when we were recording where I’d move a tempo map around in Pro Tools to match how the band achieved what I thought was the best feel. Sometimes, I would recall the tempo to a song that perhaps sounded better than what they were currently tracking, and we would drop back to that. When we felt it was right early in the demo process, we made a point not to lose sight of that.”
THE BOTTOM END
Dugan knows what it takes to get a raunchy, ripping bass sound, and Dirnt’s Fender Precision was routed to an Avalon U5 direct box and an Ampeg SVT miked with a Sennheiser MD421 and a Neumann U 47 fet. The Avalon and U 47 were sent to a Vintech X73 preamp, and the 421 was patched to a Neve 1073 preamp.
“I like the 1073 for its bite and cool low end, but due to their age and inexact specs between modules, the sound isn’t always consistent,” says Dugan. “The X73 is a remake of the 1073, and it has the 1073’s characteristics, but with more smoothness, clarity, and consistency. All signals hit tape first before going to Pro Tools in order to fatten up the bass sound with tape compression/coloration. I used the 421 to capture the top end, while the U 47 got the bottom end and warmth. I kept the mics close to one another and aimed at the same driver, back about ten inches from the cabinet. Regarding placement, I always start at the center of the cab, and then I move the mic around, listen in different positions, and go back and forth between listening in the live room and monitoring in the control room to gauge the final sound. I tracked each mic on a separate track, so if we needed a little more attack out of the amp, we’d raise up the 421. If we needed more warmth or a softer sound, we’d lower the 421, and bring up the U 47. Most of the time, we would have the Avalon U5 blended in, as well, even though I personally like to hear an amp tone over a direct sound.”
Dirnt typically did a couple of runthroughs while Dugan dialed in levels, and then the performance went to tape.
“He always hits it by the third take,” says Dugan. “Although, we’ll sometimes piece together a comp of his different takes for the final mix.”
Armstrong sweats his songs, but when it’s time to record, he cuts guitars and vocals fast and furious. After the band records each track live in the studio— primarily to capture Cool’s drum tracks—Armstrong and Dirnt will often head back to the control room to overdub parts. But capturing Armstrong’s live sound is paramount.
“I have a Park/Marshall plexi head and two 4x12 cabinets, a ’58 Fender Twin, a Victoria Victorilux combo, and an old Gibson Les Paul GA-40 amp and a Gibson GA-19RVT Falcon amp,” says Armstrong. “Those old Gibsons spit out a killer raunchy sound—clean, but with a lot of attitude. I used the Falcon on the breakdown parts, because it made the dynamics jump out. I also plugged a ’52 Fender Telecaster into a Divided by 13 amp for pretty much the entire record. My ’56 Les Paul Junior was typically used with the Park, along with a reissue Les Paul sunburst and a Slash signature Les Paul, and I played the solos with a Jimmy Page signature Les Paul.”
Dugan used a mic-blending approach for Armstrong’s various amps.
“For the Park/Marshall, I miked one cabinet with a Shure SM57 and a Royer R-121,” Dugan explains, “both running through a Chandler Limited Germanium preamp, and then summed together and dumped to one track. Blending the mics together at different levels can create a cool, unique sound that gives you the best of both mics. If you can do it without adding much EQ, you’re in an even better place. On the other cab, I used an AKG C 414 and a Shure SM57 through a couple of Neve 1073 pramps, also mixed down to one track. For the combo amps, we used Royer ribbon mics.”
“Billie is the fastest singer I’ve ever worked with,” Vig says. “We’d usually do one take to make sure the headphone mix was right, and the mic preamp settings would depend on how hard he pushed it. Then, he would do a couple of more takes, and that was it. He would walk out of the room. I’d look at my notes, and maybe we’d comp a few parts, but that process would be really fast, as well. I’m not used to that. It usually takes a lot longer to get vocals down.”
“Billie Joe loves the Telefunken U 47 M,” says Dugan, who did a minor mic shootout with Armstrong to determine the best mic for the vocal sessions.
“I like a little crispness on the top,” Armstrong says. “My voice has a natural compression to it, and I just want enough EQ added to make it pop out of the mix. The U 47 captured my voice in the right way. In the past, I would always hear my vocal back in the studio, and I’d want to add compression and some slapback echo, because you are so naked when it’s hitting you dry. But with the 47, I’d hear my vocal back dry, and I loved the sound the microphone was capturing.”
Dugan ran Armstrong’s U 47 through a Chandler Limited LTD-1 into a Retro Instruments 176 Limiting Amplifier.
“The Retro has an asymmetry switch and another switch that engages a transformer,” Dugan says. “I went with the Interstage setting, which delivered a warm, clean, rich compression—nothing jumps out at you. It’s one of those compressors that you don’t really hear, but you know it’s working. Then, I simply rolled off everything from 80Hz down, and notched a little bit at 110Hz. It scared me at first that nothing else was done for Billie’s voice, but it was the right thing to do.”
BREAKING IT DOWN
21st Century Breakdown’s themes of revolution and apocalyptic doom seem out of place in a nation still psyched at a new presidency. But political context aside, Green Day has recorded the most epically melodic and stylistically diverse album of their mega-Platinum career.
“Rock and roll is supposed to be flamboyant,” says Armstrong. “It’s supposed to be ambitious. But something has happened in the last 15 years. A lot of bands aren’t hitting the potential of how rock is supposed to move people. I think rock music can change lives. At least it can inspire someone to change their life, and create a soundtrack for it. That is really important, and it’s not easy. One thing about Green Day is that we second-guess ourselves more than everybody else does to make the absolute best music—to reach that bar we set for ourselves.”
The Billie Joe Vocal Method
“I’ve always been quick at recording vocals,” says Armstrong. “It’s about warming up, getting my throat and chest in the right position, and then emotionally preparing to go for it. When you go through the demo process, you know what kind of emotion the song will need, and when to scream and when to whisper. This is why I like to take time and really get all the arrangements done and know what kind of vocal take I am going to end up doing before I start recording the album tracks. At the vocal session, I start softly and try not to overdo it, so I don’t ruin myself for the day. I get myself in the zone, and eventually, my voice just starts to happen. I sing about eight inches from the mic, and throw down around three takes. We’ll comp performances if necessary, but, most of the time, it’s all pretty much live takes.”
Try This at Home!
You may not be lucky enough to record at Ocean Way with producer Butch Vig and Green Day engineer Chris Dugan, but that doesn’t mean you can’t steal a few of their licks and adapt them to your project. Let’s look at a couple of the techniques employed to record 21st Century Breakdown, and see how we might reorient them to work within the limitations of the typical home studio.
You don’t need fabulous gear or a magnificent studio to work your songs until they’re lean, mean, and full of impact, but you do have to jettison any tendencies to creative laziness, malaise, and mediocrity. In Billy Joe’s own words: “One thing about Green Day, we work harder than everybody else does.” That may or may not be true, but Armstrong’s fervent commitment to honing songs until they are the best they can be is a lesson all musicians should inject into their RAM buffers. So before you start tracking, take a good look in the mirror and determine whether the songs you plan to record are 100-percent brilliant. Then, look in the mirror again, because a significant number of musicians lie to themselves about the “studio readiness” of their material.
How lucky are you that Green Day went with a very simple signal chain to track 21st Century Breakdown? Now, you don’t have to complain about having a crap mixer or lessthan- audiophile processors. All you have to do is find some good-quality mic preamps and a decent interface, and route your signals direct to your DAW. The goal is to document the source sounds as organically as possible without inviting audible hiss or other noises, and the less devices fighting for space along your audio chain, the cleaner and more robust the sounds will be. You can do this!
If you’re recording an acoustic drum kit, your mic cabinet is probably not as hip or as fully stocked as Dugan’s. But Dugan’s approach to the overheads gives you an opportunity to track huge drum sounds with minimal mics. “Bringing up overheads in the mix is about more than just cymbals—they bring up the entire kit and open it up,” he says. Brilliant advice! You also get a chance to explore your inner Beatles and document a drum kit as simply as the engineers of the early ’60s. Here’s the basic recipe: Position a dynamic mic over the top snare head, place a large-diaphragm condenser just outside the kick drum and pointed towards the beater, and then put two small-diaphragm condensers about two feet over the drummer’s head, one pointed left and the other pointed right. (If you’re shy a mic or two, you can use one smalldiaphragm condenser, but the stereo spectrum will be limited.) Listen critically, and move the mics as needed to capture a natural, beefy, and dimensional image of the drums. At this point, try to keep your hands off the EQ knobs—it’s better to tweak tones when the drums are heard in context with the other instruments as you dial in the final mix.
Yeah, Billie Joe plugged into a raging Marshall half-stack, but he also used two small Gibson combos. A big amp doesn’t necessarily translate to a huge amp sound on tape. You can dial in extremely aggressive sounds with a cranked, lowwattage combo, and save your ears (as well as the sanity of your neighbors and/or housemates). For mics, a dynamic (such as a Shure SM57) placed right on the speaker grille is one of the classic positions for achieving punchy and articulate mids. Want a warmer, more natural sound? Buy or borrow a ribbon mic and position it about a foot or so from the speaker. If you want less room tone, move the mic closer to the amp. As always, listen critically, and don’t be scared to keep moving the mic around until you hit the spot where the tone explodes from the monitors and zig-zags up your spine. —Michael Molenda