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(Credit: Valdo Howell)

How Butch Vig harnessed Nirvana's sound in 'Smell's Like Teen Spirit'

Nirvana’s 1991 single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is still one of the most talked-about songs in rock. At the time of its release, the lead single of Nevermind burnt a clear path across the landscape of American music, and so many years later, it still casts one hell of a long shadow. It was the final nail in hair metal’s coffin and marked the beginning of a new age in American guitar music.

For a generation of young people, it became an anthem of disobedience and, even today, the track continues to capture the hormone fuelled angst of teenagers everywhere. It is also a perfect example of how Butch Vig, the producer who gave Nevermind its signature sound, was able to capture all the chaos and anger of Nirvana’s songs and wrap them in a radio-friendly package.

Vig understood bands like Nirvana better than most producers. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Vig performed with numerous punk and no-wave bands throughout the ’80s and knew how to capture the furious energy of those acts in the studio. In a video in which Vig breaks down the constituent parts of the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ master tape, the producer explains how he combined traditional studio techniques with more experimental methods.

For Cobain’s vocal line, for example, he utilised the double-tracking technique pioneered by George Martin on The Beatles’ early records, in which a producer layers a singer’s vocal performance with numerous takes to create a fuller sound. “The chorus we double-tracked,” Vig begins. “They [Nirvana] wanted to make it sound more powerful. And he [Cobain] was great at double-tracking. He would just run and do another take and another take, and they always locked up really well.” When you compare ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ to an earlier track like 1989’s ‘Blew’, it’s obvious how much Vig’s use of double-tracking heightens the emotion in Cobain’s vocal style.

In the studio, Vig wanted to push the singer to the very limit of his ability and would ask him to perform take after take after take. In doing so, Vig forced Cobain to produce the tortured screams that define the track’s last chorus. As Vig notes: “If you listen to the chorus, it’s starting to get pretty shot. He’s been going so hard, pushing so hard. Sounds like his vocal cords are starting to come right out of his throat – especially when he gets to ‘a denial’. It’s pretty powerful sounding.”

This was Butch Vig’s genius. He had a remarkable ability to embrace the extremes of Nirvana’s sound whilst also knowing when to reign them in. Vig would have been well aware that, without a polished sound, the songs on Nevermind would never achieve widespread airplay. In an interview, Vig once recalled hearing an early demo of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’: “I could hear the intro guitar riff very clearly and as soon as Dave kicked in with that drum fill it just flattened the sound of the cassette; it just went to complete distortion. And I could sort of hear the ‘Hello, hello,’ part; I could kind of hear the chords and things. They were terrible-sounding recordings, but it gave me a sense of where they were going.”

Vig knew that he needed to place some limitation on Nirvana or risk alienating potential fans with the group’s intense sound. One way he did this was to control the group’s use of guitar feedback. Describing the solo that sits right in the middle of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit, Vig said: “Instead of coming up with something punky or frantic or strangled like they usually did, we just copied the exact vocal melody, and it works really well. And at the end of the solo, he lets it feedback. We actually pulled it back in the final mix, but it would have been great to leave it in, it’s got great overtones.”

Butch Vig’s influence on ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ cannot be understated. Without his input, the song may never have become the era-defining track that it did. Whilst Cobain’s lyrics capture something universal, it was Vig’s ability to harness Nirvana’s sound that allowed those lyrics to be heard by so many people. So, the next time you listen to Nirvana’s seminal hit, remember to thank your lucky stars for Butch Vig.

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