Producer/Engineer Billy Bush on Mixing Garbage's 'Not Your Kind of People' with Universal Audio
2012’s Not Your Kind of People continues the electronic rock legacy that Garbage began with their self-titled 1995 platinum debut release. Helping the group craft their sound is producer, mixer, and engineer Billy Bush, who began working with Garbage in 1995, initially to help with their live shows. Bush uses Universal Audio tools extensively while sculpting the band’s edgy guitars, driving percussion grooves, and glistening electronics.
Beyond Garbage, Bush has an impressive resume that includes collaborations with artists ranging from Snow Patrol and the Goo Goo Dolls to Neon Trees and Korn. Bush even contributes his studio chops to film and videogame soundtracks, including the recent Batman: Arkham City.
Here’s what Bush had to say about the joys of multiple vintage reverb models, tweaking vocal tones with Garbage singer Shirley Manson (who happens to be his wife), and using Universal Audio analog and digital tools to build Not Your Kind of People from the ground up.
What’s it like mixing for Garbage?
That band is unlike any other one — we basically mix as we go. We have a very specific aesthetic and sonic template that we’re going for, and that starts at the beginning of the songwriting process. When somebody comes in with an idea for a song, whether it’s just a groove, guitar riff, or lyric, we come up with a way to make that idea sound interesting and everything else falls into place from there.
So from the very beginning, we’re processing and crafting everything so that when we’re actually done with the song, it’s more a matter of getting final balances than anything else. It’s different from other mixing situations I find myself in where you record a song and then figure out what you can do differently in the mix stage to take it to another level.
How do ideas for specific vocal or guitar sounds come about?
It’s a collaborative thing where everyone contributes. Often, somebody will come in with a reference point that they want something to sound like, so we can start from there. One great example is the song “Push It.” At the very end, Butch Vig told me that he wanted a sound “like a dump truck in a tornado.”
Wow. How did you do that?
That track was on Version 2.0 and we were using a very early version of Pro Tools. I think I used GRM plug-ins like the Doppler, some crazy automated EQs, and the Antares Mutator. That was a long time ago. [Laughs.]
How do you approach keeping Garbage’s vibe as distinctive as it is — while still making new material sound fresh and current?
The band stays up to date with what’s happening in the music world, and I see Garbage’s music as a reflection of that awareness filtered through their own artistic vision. They’re always listening to something new and asking, “Wow, what was that? How was that done?” From the beginning of the songwriting process, the band always thinks about the sonic framework in which a song will be put forth. If they hear something that they particularly like, instead of sampling it, they’ll try to do something of a similar ilk and build the rest of the song from there.
“Pretty much all of the songs on the record were mixed with the Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Plug-In on all the drum channels ... We used the Ampex ATR-102 Mastering Tape Plug-In on the final mix.”
What were some of your go-to tools for mixing Garbage’s music?
Butch Vig mixed Version 2.0 on a Harrison desk coming off of a Studer 827s, and we also used an Ampex ATR-102. That combination of ingredients worked great together, especially since the filters on the Harrison are unlike anything else that’s out there. The UAD plug-in models of [the Studer] and ATR-102 both sound exactly like I remember those machines sounding — they bring out harmonic content and glue everything together, even when you’re dealing with sometimes hundreds of tracks. Using those UAD tape models helps focus everything and make it sound finished and polished.
You used those tools on Not Your Kind of People?
Pretty much all of the songs on the record were mixed with the Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Plug-In on all the drum channels to simulate how we would have hammered the Studer tape machine in the past to record live drums. We used the Ampex ATR-102 Mastering Tape Plug-In on the final mix — again, to replicate the process we would have used back in the late ’90s. Also, a lot of the reverbs on this new record are the Lexicon 224, EMT Plate 140, or the EMT 250 plug-ins. Being able to have one Lexicon setting for the vocals, one for the drums, and one for the percussion that are all a little different — that’s great. You’d have to have a pretty large studio to be able to do that with real hardware.
How do you treat Shirley Manson’s vocals?
It’s on a case by case basis. There are certain things that we do in the tracking stage which I know she’ll sound great on. I have a couple of different microphones that she loves and a consistent vocal chain, so I know that, whatever direction we take, the vocal is going to sound good or be easy to manipulate down the road.
When she comes up with a vocal part, melody, or lyric, she usually has a sonic reference point for how she wants it to sound. Everything in a Garbage song serves a specific purpose and has to fit together with everything else going on, so there’s no template that we use from song to song. If we’re working on a ballad, the vocal approach is going to be completely different than something that’s more electronic, heavy, and rocking.
What about drums?
The drums are always recorded differently and processed differently, and they come from completely different sources. Sometimes they’re real, sometimes they’re electronic, and sometimes they’re a combination.
How does working in the studio with Garbage differ from working with them live?
There are time constraints live that you don’t have in the studio. Once a show is going, you’re just in it and you don’t have a lot of options when it comes to tweaking things. The studio lends itself to experimentation since it’s much more relaxed, so they’re really different beasts.
“Everything in a Garbage song serves a specific purpose and has to fit together with everything else going on, so there’s no template that we use from song to song.”
When Garbage plays live, though, we don’t try to make the live show sound like the record. We go for a different sound and try to do something that will be enjoyable for the band to perform every night, as opposed to something that’s very rigid. After we do a record, we start pre-production for the live show by deconstructing and reconstructing things from the ground up. There’s no template or style that we adhere to — we just try to find something that’s going to be interesting, fun, and hopefully exciting for a live audience.
In general, what Universal Audio gear do you use the most?
On the hardware side of things, the 1176 Limiting Amplifier, Teletronix® LA-2A Leveling Amplifier and LA-3A are mainstays when I’m doing tracking days or engineering. It’s great because they’re in every studio and they’re such useful tools that help you craft whatever sound you’re going for. I don’t ever track a bass without an LA-2A and I don’t ever track drums without an 1176 — and a lot of times I’ll use the 1176 for vocals. I would be hard pressed to live without them.
How do you use the LA-2A for tracking bass?
If I’m doing rock bass, I’ll take DI off of the instrument and go directly in to the LA-2A for compression, bypassing a mic pre. I rarely use EQ on the DI — I just bring up the gain and the gain reduction a little bit, so it smoothes out the sound and makes it sit well in the track. To me, that’s just the right finish for a bass sound. It’s easy and consistent. It sits in the pocket and sounds great.
What about software?
I find myself relying on Universal Audio plug-ins when I’m at the mixing board. They add a certain sonic character that isn’t there on any other sort of plug in, and I like that there’s such a variety of different options available. The Fairchild 670 Compressor is my favorite plug-in of its kind. Another one that stands out is the FATSO Jr./Sr. Tape Sim. & Compressor. When you record electric guitars digitally, they come with a certain edge to them, which is not the most pleasant thing to listen to. The FATSO is my favorite tool for warming them up. It brings out some of the harmonic content that isn’t necessarily obvious when recorded digitally.
What drew you to UAD plug-ins?
At first, I was most excited to check out the UAD reverb emulations. I remember thinking that it would be great to have plate reverb and a real EMT 250 and Lexicon 224 on my mixing board. But what really excited me was that Universal Audio had a reputation for making great-sound models, and that I would be able to use multiple, customized versions of the same reverb in the same session, which would be incredible.
What was your reaction when you started playing around with them?
I got a UAD-2 Satellite Firewire DSP Accelerator and started using it to work on some of Garbage’s music. I instantly fell in love with those reverbs, as I guessed I would. I started to delve into other plug-ins like the Little Labs IBP Phase Alignment Tool. I loved the IBP in the hardware realm and remember wishing that I could have a desk that had one on every channel, so it’s great that I can actually do that with the UAD software. It’s amazing how much you can change and craft a sound using tools like that.
Beyond Garbage, what are some of other exciting projects you’ve been working on?
I just mixed and engineered the new Neon Trees album in January and again, Universal Audio plug-ins were instrumental. Also, the 1176 and LA-2A were everywhere in a bunch of different permutations.
With Garbage, what’s it like mixing and engineering when your wife is the lead singer?
[Laughs.] When we’re working together, we’re working together. Because she and I know each other so well, a lot of times I’ll know what she wants to hear before she has a chance to articulate it. It also helps that our tastes line up when it comes to how we want vocals to sound. On “Blood For Poppies” on the new record, for example, there are all sorts of weird, glitchy vocal production elements that were all at her direction. Again, it was a matter of somebody giving me a point of reference and me figuring out how to make it happen.
“I don’t ever track a bass without an LA-2A and I don’t ever track drums without an 1176.”
It sounds like a smooth collaboration.
We started working together before we became involved, so we’ve always had a great working relationship. After getting married, that hasn’t changed at all. Bands in general are like marriages between a number of people, usually from different backgrounds, but you all have a common goal that you’re trying to achieve. There’s an intimacy that exists within that unit that doesn’t exist outside in any other sort of form.
Photos by David Goggin.
— Michael Gallant