In July 2009, Butch Vig and Jeff Tomei answered questions on the recording of Siamese Dream on GearSlutz.com's forum. There is not only detailed information on recording processes and equipment, but also behind the scenes stories. There is also information on the recording of Pisces Iscariot.
Q: On Siamese Dream, the song "Spaceboy" has mellotron strings throughout it, which are WAY sharp…I actually love how it sounds. I was just curious if there was a story behind that? Was it a happy accident? Was the mellotron not cooperating that day? Or did someone decide they wanted it to be out of tune?
Jeff Tomei: Mellotrons were notorious for their tuning problems. This was actually a really good one and it had 3 or 4 different tapes you could put in. I hesitate to call them cartridges because they were so big. The tapes were really old and some had been broken so they had less time and some notes did not work all of the time. You had to get in and adjust where the tape heads come in contact with the tape. I do remember Butch was concerned with the tuning but Billy just wanted to get it done. Also the tuning on them was hit or miss with one knob that was hard to get in and stay in the sweet spot. As a side note, James Iha bought that one. It belonged to Triclops studio where we tracked the record.
Butch Vig: Is the Spaceboy mellotron sharp? It could be…it was a very tempermental mellotron! The cool thing about that song is that is has a really cool vibe…it's kinda loose…but it feels really great. And I think Billy's vocals are breathtaking. Billy played the mellotron, and I remember that at the time I thought some of the parts he played were quite odd (he's not a keyboard player)…but now, they all make sense to me!
Q: Billy Corgan said it was a miracle that Siamese Dream was ever completed as it was a struggle at some points. Was this a fun record to make? Any standout memories?
Butch Vig: Making Siamese Dream was really hard, because we felt a ton of pressure, and the band was pretty fragile. But Billy and I made a clear decision to swing for the stars, and make an ambitious statement, and I think we nailed it. There we days were it was fun, days were it was tedious, and days where it was crazy! I think the album still sounds good today, it holds up really well!
It was one of the most difficult albums I ever made, and one that I am very proud of. After the success of Nevermind and Gish, there was immense pressure on us to deliver something special. I pushed Billy hard…and he pushed me. There WERE days when it was fun, but also days where we felt like we had gone into the abyss. At the end of the album, we were both physically and emotionally exhausted. Alan Moulder had to leave on the last day of mixing (after we had kidnapped him for 6 straight weeks without a day off!) and Billy and I finished the last song Luna about 4 AM. There was no champagne, no high fives, no cheering…we just looked at each other and said "holy shit, are we finished?" and dragged ourselves back to the hotel. I woke up at noon the next day a the Beverly Garland Hotel on Vineland with all the curtains closed, and listened to the album all the way through in pitch black. I couldn't see anything, I could only listen…and I knew we had something special.
Q: How did you get the guitar sound on Siamese Dream? How many tracks of guitar were layered?
Butch Vig: Oh yes, there were a LOT of guitars! Because we were using analog tape, and had most of the guitars on the 2nd reel, we had to punch in different parts in different sections, sometimes submixing 8 or 12 guitars down to stereo…(this is before Pro Tools)…I remember some songs like Hummer and Soma had so many parts, I had to make "guitar maps" for us to remember how to approach the mix. Alan Moulder asked "what is a guitar map?" He knew what a guitar map was after he'd been kidnapped for 6 weeks!
Q: How did you record Corgan's vocals on the CD. The just seem to…well work. Was there a weird technique used? Mics? Effects?
Butch Vig: I think we used an SM7 a lot…and I had an API Lunchbox that I used for vocals at that time for the pre…I would add a little air at the top, and usually cut a bit of mid around 800 hz…. And I probably used my Summit TLA 100 comp. But I seem to remember Billy used a large tube mic on a couple songs…hmmmm. Jeff will probably remember better than me!
Jeff Tomei: I do remember that we used a tube 47 on one or two songs but found that the SM7 was better for his voice. I remember the vocal comps taking quite a bit of time as all the vocals were doubled. Once we had the main comp, we then had to create the double.
Q: I was wondering about Billy's voice, in Cherub Rock and Hummer for example. Do you use an effect? Or was that the room or was it overdubs that made his voice sound great?
Butch Vig: There's very little effect on Billy's voice, I think we used a little bit of Eventide harmonizer as a doubler, set to around 30ms. Alan Moulder might have added a bit of room in the mix, but Billy and I didn't like reverb. We did dbl his voice and add harmonies when we recorded the song.
Q: Is there a story behind the cool sounds at the beginning of Quiet?
Butch Vig: The intro is 3 or 4 short guitar licks that we ran into the K2500 and processed heavily. We didn't use midi, so I had to "fly" the bits back to tape pushing the trigger button…it was tricky to get the timing right.
Q: Did you literally sort of move up the frequency spectrum with successive guitar overdubs (ie, have a couple of guitar tracks with only low mids, then a couple more a bit higher up, and so on) or did you have a more full-range, "standard" starting guitar sound, which you then added to on a song-by-song basis? Also, was it all done with eq, or did you make use of phase cancellation between the different mics on Billy's cabs, (and if you could give us an idea of the recording chain too — I read you used C414s and Sennheiser421s, but what else?).
Butch Vig: We would usually record the guitars with their full sound, then filter them through and eq, sometimes the Neve, sometimes the API…ahhhhh, I think thwy had some pultecs there…and even some of the guitars went through my Akai sampler. I think we had 4 mics on the guitars…Jeff might remember…we'd make sure the phase was good, and then pick the best one or sometime 2 blended. I had this trick I would do when setting up mics…I'd turn the amp on full blast so there is a lot of static noise coming from the speaker, then I'd put headphones on and turn up the mic level to the headphone mix really loud. Then I'd get down in front of the speaker and listen to how the hiss sounded. You can hear the top, mids, bottom in the headphones depending on where you move the mic, and I would place it where I thought I found the sweet spot.
Q: I heard that Siamese Dream was tracked to tape but ADATs and Pro Tools were somehow involved as well. If this is incorrect and it was actually all tape, does that mean there was absolutely no sample augmentation of the drums or auto-tune in the vocals? Or were these tasks just accomplished differently (eg. drum head triggers to a module)?
Butch Vig: The albums was recorded to 48 track, using two Studers. There was one song Mayonaise, that had so many tape edits, we found a digital multitrack (mitsubishi?) and transferred the song to it as our new master, cuz we were afraid the tape would break! No auto tuning…Billy would sing until he got it right. I would usually do comps with Jeff, old school style, punching the best bits onto a new master track. It was time consuming! I think Alan Moulder used some triggers when we mixed to add ambience to some of the songs…but we never replaced anything, and if we did use a trigger on the snare, it was probably a 70/30 % blend.
I can explain why we did so many edits. In rehearsals, I was timing the band around 145 bpm (as far as can remember). When we tracked it, we used a click, and Billy though it sounded too fast. So we slowed it down to around 141 or so. After we recorded what I thought was the master take, I started to notice certain snare hits that dragged. So I measured where the kick landed with a china marker on tape, then measured where the snare landed. The bars that felt good to me, were in fact around 145 bpm. So Jeff and I went through and starting shaving any snare that dragged forward. And we went in kinda deep! There were probably 200 edits when we were finished! The song was recorded at 141 but ended up at 145! After 200 edits I looked at Jeff and said "Is it Sweet?
Jeff Tomei: I went through a few razor blades on Mayonaise.
Q: Is it true that Billy Corgan used as many as 13 guitar tracks on some parts?
Butch Vig: I think Soma and Hummer had closer to 40 guitar tracks. Not all playing at the same time, but there could be 8-10 overdubs in one section, then another 8-10 in a second section, etc. A lot of times we would bounce them down…like in the ebow part, I think that was around 12 tracks mixed down to stereo.
Q: Billy is obviously an immensely talented guitarist, and Today is one of the standout songs from this album, but my God that sounds like hell. Four notes, on four bars, for 12 hours? You deserve every bit of respect that you get.
Jeff Tomei: That amp was this old no name combo that Mark Richarsdon owned. I think it was something he put together. It had an old original Jensen 10″ or 12″ speaker. The speaker was later fried when, in a tired state, Mark hooked the power cable up to the speaker as he was doing some work on it. When he plugged it in…..zap, speaker gone.
Q: About the strings on the album: If live, how many players were used (ie. violin, viola, cello)? Were they all tracked at once or separate? How many overdubs each, if any? What mic setup? If synthetic components are there as well, what were they?
Jeff Tomei: We had 1 violin and 1 cello player. We stacked them about 15 or 20 times and had to record to a "C" and bounce stereo pairs back to the "B" reel. I think we used a tube 47 or a Neumann fet 47 for the Cello and maybe a Sony C37A for the violin. Nothing synthetic though, just many, many stacks.
Butch Vig: The funny thing is, we originally wanted to make the strings sound like a quartet, so we should have only needed a couple takes. But after listening to them double the first part, we realized the song was going to sound much bigger and dynamic with a LOT of strings. In hindsight, we probably could have got a 16 piece or 20 piece string section and done it live, but hey, what did we know…we were making it up on the fly!
Q: I am almost positive that the reason they even chose Triclops Studio was that it was all analog/tube (at least according to Billy). In a sound on sound article, it stated that "Billy would sometimes spend up to 8 hours on 1 song trying to get the vocals pitch perfect."
Jeff Tomei: Triclops studio was used because of 2 main reasons, it was not LA and they had a beautiful sounding Neve 8068. I believe Butch sought the studio for the board and wanted to keep the band away from distractions like there would be in LA.
Butch Vig: Exactly, that's why we chose the studio…that Neve was a kickass sounding, and we thought we would be isolated enough to keep the distractions low. However, within 24 hours Jimmy new every drug dealer, hooker, bookie, and nut case in Atlanta…so that part of the plan didn't work!
Q: Was each one of those tracks actually played? Or were they different channels of the same take? (with different mics?)
Butch Vig: All the tracks were played individually!
Q: When you are layering this many guitars, do you use lots of different guitar amps? I guess I figure there are three or four but I can imagine with 40 tracks you could have 12 or more amp sounds on one song.
Butch Vig: We didn't change amps a lot, most of the time we would change the mic for a different part. Billy also used a lot of pedals which would give each part a different tone
Q: How much you'd say the guitar sounds come from Billy's playing per say and how much you'd account that to gear, recording techniques and technology itself? I know this might be a bit tough question to answer, but I was just wondering if Billy always sounds so damn good regardless of amps and mikes and stuff. Was he patient with finding sounds or was he wanting to move along? How much he had planned ahead concerning those guitar maps and armies or did you create it as you went along? How open was he to experiment in the studio at that time? Was Billy always ready to commit the 8 hour sessions to getting it right or was there some tension when things got difficult when recording vocals? Any special ambience/reverb treatments to get that special sound or is just Billy's unique voice that's working there?
Butch Vig: Billy has a really good ear, and he was just as opinionated about the sound as I was. Most of the time, he knew what he wanted, but sometimes it took a while to get the sound. A lot of experimenting. Sometimes I would suggest and idea, and it would take hours to get the right sound.
Billy is a GREAT guitarist….some of the parts came really fast, others were a struggle: the intro for Today took a LOT of takes to get the perfect sound and feel. Remember, this is before Pro Tools, and that guitar is naked at the start of the song…I think we worked on that 4 bar intro for about 12 hours!!!!
Vocals were time consuming. Billy would do a lot of of takes, I would give him feedback and keep notes until I was satisfied we had the right performance. Then Jeff and I woud do a vocal comp, bouncing the best bits to another track. We didn't use auto-tune (it didn't exist!) so I just went for what I thought had the best feel. There are spots on the album where the vocal is not pitch perfect, but that's not the point…I was looking for an emotional quality in his singing….Billy has this ability to open his heart, so to speak, and sing with a vulnerability that draws you into the song. That was more important to me than technical perfection.
Siamese Dream is a very dry record, very little reverb used on guitars and vocals. And we seldom used ambient mics on the guitars. The one efx we used a lot on Billy's voice was the Eventide harmonizer, to add a slight double effect. Usually 20 or 30 ms delay, with about a 10 cent pitch offset.
Jeff Tomei: I remember the intro guitar that James played (and he played very little on the record) on Mayonaise took even longer than Today. The main problem was the band was pretty insistent in playing their instruments. This guitar James had was a Kingston he got in a pawn shop. The intonation was terrible and we had to do a lot of tuning for the chords. The bridge was kind of like an old tele where each 2 strings share so you had to compromise on the intonation I seem to remember. The feedback guitar the you hear in the pauses in the song was a Kimberley. The pickups were so microphonic and we had Billy play in front of the cab. As a side note, it is also the guitar we used as a drum room mic on the song "Pissant" from Pisces Iscariot.
Q: Could you elaborate on this? I always assumed the BIG guitar sound of SP was the result of a dual Corgan and Iha attack. Are you saying Corgan did most of the guitars on SD? If so, why?
Jeff Tomei: It is pretty well known that Billy played most of the guitars on SD. He played bass on every song but "Luna" I believe.
My opinion as to why, is that Billy knew pretty much what he wanted. In all fairness to James and D'arcy, there is no way to get inside someone else's head and play exactly what they envision. I also don't think that they were as prepared for the record as Billy. Again this is just my opinion. I am sure Butch can elaborate more on this.
We did track all songs as a band with the exception of some "B" sides. Billy would go in after we had the final drum edit and put the bass, guitars and vocals on. I recall we would work on 2 songs at a time and get them to about 80% before tracking more basics.
Q: How was the acoustic tracked on "Disarm"? Was it doubled or just one layer? Stereo/mono miced and what mics? When bouncing down the strings, how did you pan? Did you hardpan doubles for width?
Jeff Tomei: The Acoustic was Billy's Ovation (not my favorite to record). I really don't remember the mic, it may have been the tube 47 or even an AKG 414. I know we spent a long time getting the sound because Ovations just don't record well for me. Billy actually got tired/frustrated because of the time issue that he had James Iha play for a bit. When we finally were set on the sound, Billy went back in the booth and the guitar sounded totally different. The thing I learned with that was because Billy is a big guy and James was not, the guitar resonated more with James. By Billy hunkering down over the guitar, it made it darker and less resonant. We had dialed the sound in for James' playing style. Very frustrating in the end and I still don't like the sound of that acoustic on the record.
I can't really help you out with the string bouncing…I really don't remember. There were probably 2 stereo pairs and 2 mono but I'm not sure. Though the record came out in '93, we tracked it in '92, so 17 years later, my memory of all details fails me.
Q: What I wanted to know was how you guys got the snare to sound so freaking amazing on this record? I know that Jimmy used a lot of different snares and that samples were triggered when mixing, but what specific effects were used on the snare during mix-down?
Jeff Tomei: Actually I remember we mostly used Jimmy's Radio King snare. The biggest thing to the sound was how well it and all of the drums were tuned. Butch was absolutely amazing at tuning the drums. As far as the snare in the mixing, Butch can shed some light on that. I was not around for the mix.
Q: I heard Jimmy Chamberlin has quite light touch when he plays. Did this cause you any problems when getting the drum tones/tracking etc?
Butch Vig: Jimmy is a GREAT drummer, he has some amazing chops. He does not hit the drums really hard, but he has excellent dynamic control over the whole kit, and sort of mixes himself. We probably could have used 4 mics and he would have sounded amazing.
Q: I absolutely love the delicate yet aggressive snare sound you had going on Siamese Dream. Do you remember which snare(s) Jimmy used?
Jeff Tomei: It was a Radio King.
* According to Jimmy Chamberlin, the 1939 Radio King and Pearl 6.5″ Chrome Free-Floater were used on "Today".
Q: What console was the album recorded through and what was it mixed on?
Jeff Tomei: It was recorded on a Neve 8068. The history of that board (at least 1/2 of the board) is that it came from A&R studios in NY and John Lennon recorded on it. I have seen the picture of Lennon behind it.
As far as the mix, Butch would know as I was not there.
Butch Vig: The album was mixed at Rumbo in Los Angeles…the studio owned by The Captain and Tennille (the Captain used to practice fly fishing off the roof)….I think the console was a Neve VR. That board at Triclops was really big sounding!
Q: What mics/chain were used for the acoustic guitars (on "Disarm" especially)…any compression on those?
Butch Vig: I think we used 1176 or dbx160 on the acoustic…Jeff, didn't you talk about Billy's acoustic earlier? I was not crazy about how it sounded…it was kind of dark. It sounds good on the album, but we had to eq it a lot.
I also remember Billy wore a bracelet most of the time, and sometimes the mic would pick it up. I can hear it a little bit in "Spaceboy"…almost like percussion. I can hear it distinctly on Gish in "Daydream".
Q: I was wondering what kind of tape was used on the album and what kind of noise reduction if any?
Jeff Tomei: Ampex 456 30ips no NR. I believe the Studer was set up at +6 @185. We went through 40 reels of 2″ between "B"Reels and safeties.
Q: Was Mike Mills playing piano on Soma something that was planned or did he just happen into the session? Also, can you tell us a little about the intro to Hummer; there is quite an unusual/distorted electric sitar sound. How was that achieved?
Jeff Tomei: Billy or Butch one, planned on Mike playing. The studio had a beautiful sounding Steinway that once was at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. Skynyrd used it on "One More From The Road". The sitar was a coral sitar that belonged to a musician named Jeff Calder in an Atlanta band called the Swimming Pool Qs. We never recorded the real Sitar Billy brought in. I seem to remember Butch making a Loop in his Akai S-1000 but don't remember the details much. I think Billy played it through an amp to get the distortion.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the track Hello Kitty Kat? It turned up on Pisces Iscariot, but was supposedly originally intended to appear as an album track on Siamese Dream. What happened?
Jeff Tomei: I'm sure Butch knows but it probably just did not make the cut for the final. It is sometimes difficult to know what goes on and what does not. We tracked 26 songs I believe during that time. 13 made it on SD and 6 are on PI. One interesting thing is that we cut a "B" side song that was just Billy on Mellotron and Jimmy on drums. I remember asking Billy what the title was and he said "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness". Somewhere on a 2″ tape box is that song title years before that actual record came out.
The video below has footage of the band recording Siamese Dream at Triclops Sound Studios in January of 1993. There is also an in-studio interview with Butch Vig.