Butch Vig's 10 Essential Pieces for the Smart Studios Sound

Last week, Reverb ran an interview with Butch Vig and Steve Marker, founders of the legendary Smart Studio in Madison, Wisconsin alongside Wendy Schneider, a former employee at the studio who directed the recently released documentary about the studio, The Smart Studios Story.

We were fortunate enough to get Butch to write us a list of all of his favorite gear used at Smart Studios, giving us a unique glimpse into the sound heard on records by Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, and so many more. Who knew we’d get stories about Bob Mould’s love for compression and an insanely valuable amp bought dirt cheap at a pawn shop?

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1. Roland RE 201 Space Echo

Steve owned this when I met him, and when we started jamming in his basement late at night, we ran EVERYTHING through it: vocals, drums, guitars, bass and percussion. It gave those early jam sessions a super lo–fi vibe that sounded awesome, sort of a fuzzed out Cramps style rockabilly. We continued to use in on almost every session we did at Smart for 30 years!

2. DBX 160 Compressor

We bought this for $50 at a pawn shop and since it was the only compressor we had when we started, we used it on a lot of the sessions. I would track drums and use it on the snare. It has this cool, aggressive “thwack” that really helps the snare pop. We also used it for overdubbing bass and vocals. It is not subtle. It’s still one of my fave compressors.

3. Shure SM7B Dynamic Microphone

This was our first “real” microphone. We had read it was Quincy Jones's favorite mic. He used it to record Michael Jackson. That was good enough for us. It was a real workhorse, sounded killer on vocals and guitars. The first session we used it on was The Dwarves. The lead singer Blag burned a hole in the pop filter.

4. 1965 Blackface Fender Bassman

One of our engineers Mr. Colson brought this to Smart. He bought it at a pawn shop for $75. He had modified it, disconnecting the capacitor for the bass control, which added like a 10x boost to the gain, so the thing just roared. He also triode connected the power tubes, which lowered the power output and warmed up the tone. We used it on a lot of sessions. I would suggest a band use it if their amps sounded crappy. They would always be dubious… until they plugged it in.

5. Ensoniq Mirage Sampler

We had a bunch of synths at Smart Studios: Oberheim, Roland, Yamaha. But the Mirage was our first sampler. I think it was 8–bit, so it was sort of crunchy, but it had a vibe and some truly unique sounds. Used on everything from The Singing Irishman to Garbage.

Ensoniq Mirage Sampler

6. Oberheim DMX Drum Machine

Our first drum machine. Somewhat limited in what you could program, but it sounded great, warm and punchy.

Oberheim DMX Drum Machine

7. Plate Reverb

We bought an actual plate reverb from a guy who hand built them in Chicago. I think we paid about $500 for it. It was soooo smooth. We had to suspend it from the ceiling with shock absorbers because it picked up trucks rolling by on East Washington. Now you can get plate reverbs as free plugins, but nothing quite sounds like the real thing.

8. Valley People Dyna-Mite

This was a multi–tasking piece of outboard gear: stereo limiter, gate, ducker, de–esser. We would compress the drum overheads with it when we tracked. It has a very aggressive sound. Bob Mould was the producer on one of the first Tar Baby sessions we did. He REALLY liked to compress the overheads. Then we would gate the plate reverb through it for a gunshot snare sound when we mixed. Used on a LOT of sessions.

Valley People Dyna-Mite

9. Lexicon PCM 70

My favorite digital reverb. I had a bunch of custom presets I made that I used all the time. ”Pelvisman” (named after a song by Knerble Knerble) was a huge, bright hall sound with a lot of pre delay, and “Anti-Pelvis” was a super fast gated snare sound, used on a ton of sessions.

10. API Lunchbox 512b, 550b

I bought this in 1990, it was pricey but well worth it. I used it on almost every session we did. I love APIs. This is the drum sound, bass sound, guitar sound, and vocal sound on “Gish.” I still use it here at my home studio in Silver Lake.

API Lunchbox with 550b, 560a, 560b

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