LiveNIRVANA.com > Sessions History > Studio Sessions > May 2–28, 1991 - Sound City Studios, Van Nuys & Devonshire Studios, Burbank, CA, US

LIVE NIRVANA SESSIONS HISTORY:
May 2–28, 1991 - Sound City Studios, Van Nuys & Devonshire Studios, Burbank, CA, US View in Google Maps

Artist

  • NIRVANA
    • Cobain, Kurt (vocals, guitar)
    • Grohl, Dave (drums, backing vocals)
    • Novoselic, Krist (bass, vocals)
  • Canning, Kirk (cello)

Crew

  • Johnson, James (assistant engineer at Devonshire)
  • Sheehan, Jeff (assistant engineer at Sound City)
  • Vig, Butch (producer, engineer)

Set

  • [O] Smells Like Teen Spirit
  • [O] In Bloom
  • [U] Come As You Are (with scratch vocal)
  • [O] Come As You Are
  • [O] Breed
  • [X] Lithium
  • [U] Lithium (with scratch vocal)
  • [O] Lithium
  • [O] Endless, Nameless
  • [O] Territorial Pissings
  • [O] Drain You
  • [O] Lounge Act
  • [O] Lounge Act
  • [O] Stay Away
  • [O] On A Plain
  • [O] Something In The Way (Canning on cello)
  • [O] Get Together (part of; Novoselic a cappella)
  • [U] Sappy
  • [O] Old Age (with scratch vocal)
  • [U] Old Age (with scratch vocal)
  • [O] Verse Chorus Verse (with scratch vocal)
  • [U] Verse Chorus Verse (with scratch vocal)
  • [?] Song In D (instrumental)

Format

  • Audio: 2-inch 24-track analog magnetic tape (session tape)

Best available sources

Source Quality Complete Runtime Lowest Gen Tracks Featured Notes
SBD #1 10.0 No 0:46:18 Official CD (Nevermind, MFSL Gold CD, catalog#: UDCD 666) • Smells Like Teen Spirit
• In Bloom
• Come As You Are
• Breed
• Lithium
• Territorial Pissings
• Drain You
• Lounge Act
• Stay Away
• On A Plain
• Something In The Way
• Endless, Nameless
Mixed by Andy Wallace, 1991. Mastered by Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs.
SBD #2 10.0 No 0:05:01 TBC>FLAC • Smells Like Teen Spirit Mixed by Butch Vig, 1991.
SBD #3 10.0 No 0:03:07 Official CD (With The Lights Out) • Breed Working mix by Butch Vig, 1991.
SBD #4a 10.0 No 0:07:38 Official CD (With The Lights Out) • Verse Chorus Verse
• Old Age
Mixed by Adam Kasper, 2004. While Old Age is slightly more complete at the beginning here than on SBD #4b, this source is considered to be of inferior sound quality.
SBD #4b 10.0 No 0:10:23 TBC>FLAC • Old Age
• Verse Chorus Verse
• Lounge Act (alt. take)
Mixed by Adam Kasper, 2004. Old Age is missing some of the introductory noise found on SBD #4a, but is more complete at the end. Verse Chorus Verse is also slightly more complete at the end.
SBD #5 8.0 No 0:23:37 ANA(3)>DAT(1)>FLAC • Smells Like Teen Spirit
• Lounge Act
• Something In The Way
• Drain You
• Stay Away
• Lithium
Rough mixes by Butch Vig, 1991.
SBD #6 10.0 No TBC Official DVD (Classic Albums: Nevermind) • Smells Like Teen Spirit
• In Bloom
• Something In The Way
• Drain You
Deconstructed mixes by Butch Vig, 2004. Vig isolates tracks, highlighting various elements within the songs. All songs are incomplete, fragmented and feature voice-over commentary. Audio is lossy at 192 kbps.
SBD #7 10.0 No 0:02:52 Official Video Game (Skate) • Lounge Act Mixed by DJ Z-Trip, 2007.
SBD #8a TBC No TBC Official Video Game (Rock Band) • In Bloom Stem mix by Universal Mastering, 2007.
SBD #8b TBC No TBC Official Video Game (Guitar Hero: On Tour) • Breed Stem mix by Universal Mastering, 2007.
SBD #8c TBC No TBC Official Video Game (Rock Band 2) • Drain You Stem mix by Universal Mastering, 2007.
SBD #8d TBC No TBC Official Video Game DLC (Rock Band) • Breed
• Lounge Act
• On A Plain
• Something In The Way
• Stay Away
• Territorial Pissings
• Smells Like Teen Spirit
Stem mixes by Universal Mastering, 2007.
SBD #8e 10.0 No 0:05:04 Official Video Game (Guitar Hero 5) • Smells Like Teen Spirit Stem mix by Universal Mastering, 2007.
SBD #9 10.0 No 0:05:24 TBC>FLAC 96kHz, mono • Lithium (alt. take) ×8 Multi-tracks.
SBD #10 10.0 No 0:39:36 Official CD (Nevermind, Super Deluxe Edition, catalog#: 2777905) • Smells Like Teen Spirit
• In Bloom
• Come As You Are
• Breed
• Lithium
• Territorial Pissings
• Drain You
• Lounge Act
• Stay Away
• On A Plain
• Something In The Way
Alternative mixes by Butch Vig, 1991.
SBD #11 10.0 No 0:11:21 CDR(X)>FLAC • Sappy
• Old Age (alt. take)
• Verse Chorus Verse (alt. take)
Mixed by an unidentified engineer, unknown date.
SBD #12 10.0 No 0:04:20 CDR(X)>FLAC • Old Age (alt. take) Alternative mix by an unidentified engineer, unknown date.
SBD #13 TBC No TBC Official Blu-ray (Cobain: Montage Of Heck) • Territorial Pissings
• Something In The Way
• Lithium (alt. take)
• On A Plain
• Smells Like Teen Spirit
Mixed by Steve Pederson, 2015. All tracks are cut or abridged; all, with the exception of Smells Like Teen Spirit, feature voice-over and/or other extraneous sounds.
SBD #U1 10.0 No 0:03:49 TBC>FLAC (44.1kHz) • Come As You Are (alt. take) Unauthorized amateur mix.
SBD #U2 10.0 No 0:03:49 TBC>MP3 (192 kbps) • Come As You Are (alt. take) Unauthorized amateur remix.
SBD #U3 10.0 No 0:03:48 TBC>FLAC (48kHz) • Come As You Are (alt. take) Unauthorized amateur remix.
SBD #U4 9.5 No 0:03:49 TBC>MP3 (48kHz, Variable Bit Rate, ~113kbps) • Come As You Are (alt. take) Unauthorized amateur remix. Come As You Are (alt. take) is mixed without vocals.

Notes

In the last week of April 1991, NIRVANA journeyed down to Los Angeles to begin recording their major label debut, Nevermind. It was the band's own decision to have Butch Vig as their producer, choosing him over several other big-name producers, including Scott Litt, Don Dixon and David Briggs. Vig had built up a good rapport with the band through his work on the Smart sessions. It was such a great experience working with him in Madison, recalls Krist Novoselic. The label wanted us to work with other people, but it was kinda intimidating, and we were comfortable with Butch. (1)

At that point, I'd never done any work in Los Angeles, says Vig, but I knew that was where the band wanted to work, and I knew of Sound City's reputation. The studio is renowned for it's large live room and vintage Neve 8028 console. I worked out a deal so it was cost-effective for us to go there. It was sight unseen. We just booked it and went in. (2)

Before starting work at Sound City, the band spent a few days at a rehearsal space in North Hollywood. Vig visited them there several times and was immediately struck by the power of Dave Grohl's drumming: Kurt had called me up and said, I've got the best drummer in the world! I thought, Yeah, right. I've heard that one before. But the first time we went in that rehearsal space and started running through the songs, it was just amazing. Dave was incredibly powerful and dead on the groove. I could tell from the way Kurt and Krist were playing with him that they had definitely kicked their music up another notch, in terms of intensity. (2)

Vig decided not to pressure the band into practicing too much, Frankly, I didn't want to beat the songs into the ground. I just wanted to hear the arrangements and maybe tighten things up a little bit. (2)

On May 2nd, NIRVANA and Vig entered Sound City's Studio A for sessions that were originally booked for less than three weeks. (3) The band would typically shamble in at around 1PM and work till midnight. (2) If recording proved stressful or tedious, they would blow off steam by playing covers of old '70s favorites like Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath and Aerosmith (it is not known if these jams were recorded). (4) After work, the band would carouse with friends on Venice Beach till sunrise. (4) They were in L.A., they'd just signed a record deal with Geffen, they had a bit of cash, so they'd go out and do a little partying, says Vig. (2)

Despite the late-night shenanigans, the rhythm section was tight and the basic tracks completed within 5 or 6 days. When we cut basics, it went pretty fast, says Vig. Dave was set up in the middle of the room. We built a big drum tunnel on the front of his bass drum, so we could mic it from a distance and still isolate it from all the bleed in the rest of the room. Krist had his SVT bass rig off to the side, but he could play in the room. His headphones were set up next to the drums. Kurt's amps were in a little isolation area, but he was also in the room and he could sing into a mic. We'd start running a song down and they'd usually get the basic track in two or three takes. If there was a missed chord or a bad bass note, we'd go back and punch in [the correct notes] right away. (2)

Novoselic had the least amount of equipment: two Gibson Ripper bass guitars and an Ampeg SVT 400T. By contrast, Cobain had a small arsenal of guitars: a 1969 Lake Placid Blue Competition Mustang, a 1965 Sunburst Jaguar with DiMarzio pickups, a Stella acoustic, a Mosrite Gospel and some new Stratocasters. (3) For the most part, Cobain utilized the Mosrite with his Mesa/Boogie Studio Preamp and Crown power amp, we [also] rented a Fender Bassman, a Vox AC3O and a Marshall stack, says Vig. (5) Grohl had his 3-piece Tama Granstar kit, (4) with cymbals and snares rented from Drum Doctors. (3)

One key piece of equipment that the band rented for the sessions was The Terminator. That's the one piece that really stands out when you listen to the album, remarks Drum Doctors' Ross Garfield. The Terminator is a 6 ½"×14" prototype of a Tama Bell Brass snare. (6) [It] weighs a lot, says Garfield, at least five times heavier than any other snare drum I've got. (3) Apparently, Grohl hit the drums so hard that they had to change the heads after every other song. (4)

Miking for the drums was as follows: An AKG D12 and a FET 47 on the bass drum, a Shure SM57 on the snare, along with an AKG 451, Sennheiser 421s on the toms, AKG 414s and Neumann KM84s on the cymbals, and Neumann U87s for distant room mics. (7)

After basic tracks were completed, the band and Vig migrated to Sound City's Studio B to record overdubs: We started adding the second rhythm guitar to songs, says Vig, and Kurt started working some more on his vocals. Dave did some harmonies. (2)

Cobain nursed a bottle of Hycomine cough syrup throughout the Nevermind sessions—partly for kicks and partly to preserve his voice. (4) As the singer was reluctant to do repeat takes of songs, Vig would often roll tape while he was warming up in order to maximize material. (4) Vig's previous experience of working with Cobain had prepared him to some degree: Kurt was very moody. I knew that from the Smart Studios sessions. He was very difficult to figure out because he could be in an elated mood, ready to play, then half an hour later he'd just sit in a corner and not say anything to anybody. Sometimes it would bring the session to a halt. He would be totally uncommunicative… I found out right away that Kurt didn't like to sing a lot. (5)

He really wanted to do everything on the first or second take, remembers Vig. He'd do a couple of takes and say, That's it. I'm not gonna do it anymore. The tricky part was trying to figure out how to motivate him to give really good performances. Sometimes his first or second takes were brilliant, but sometimes they needed work. They needed to be more focused. What I ended up doing was recording everything he sang, even the warm-ups. A lot of times, I'd actually be going for a first take, but he would think it was just a warm-up. Then I'd have the engineer flip to a new track and I'd tell Kurt, Okay, you're ready for your first take. If I was lucky, I could get as many as four takes out of him. Then I'd take the best pieces of each one and make a master out of it. (2)

Vig recalls that he and Cobain had some disagreements about how to record the guitars—Vig wanted to layer the guitars with different sounds, while Cobain preferred to keep it simple. I wanted him to double his guitars on some of the songs, especially on the choruses, says Vig, and he really didn't want to do that. My logic was, When you guys play live, it's just so incredibly loud and intense—it's larger than life and I'm trying to use some of these things I know in the studio to make you guys come across that way on record. A lot of times, he'd go I don't feel like doing that right now, but for the most part, when I asked him to do stuff, he'd eventually do it. There weren't any major arguments or anything, but I could tell when I was pushing him a little far and he didn't want to do something. A couple of times, he just put his guitar down or walked away from the mic and said, I don't want to do it anymore. And I knew I wasn't going to get anything else out of him. (4)

Lead vocal sessions were generally done in a one-on-one setting, with just Cobain and the producer present. The vocal mic was set up in the main studio area, but it was basically like a lounge area, says Vig. There were candles in there, and a big rug on the floor. A pretty cool vibe. Dave and Krist were around, but they'd be off playing pool or watching TV. They'd pop in to the control room and listen every now and then, but Kurt kind of wanted to be left alone when he was doing his vocals. He also didn't really like to use headphones when he sang, so we set up a fairly elaborate system where he could use speakers. (2)

For most of Cobain's vocals, Vig utilized a Neumann U67 and an LA2A compressor, In the studio I used a fair amount of compression on the vocals so that I could control his dynamics, and I also got Kurt to do some double-tracking. I'm a big fan of doubling, particularly on choruses, so he did that quite a bit on the record and that's part of what the sound is. Andy Wallace, the mix engineer, had a little bit of tight slap echo—almost a double echo—on a couple of the songs, and he also used a little bit of reverb and so on, but for the most part the vocals were left fairly dry. That really was the approach that the band and myself wanted to take. We didn't want to have it too washed out with reverb or echo, and it was the same with the drums and the guitars; we wanted everything to be fairly dry and in your face. (7)

Recording Individual Songs

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Vig admits that Smells Like Teen Spirit was the song that appealed to him most of all: Even in rehearsals when they started playing it you know their guitar and bass rigs were so loud, so unbelievably loud and Dave didn't have any mics on him or anything and the drums were equally as loud in the room. And I remember literally standing up and starting to sweat and pacing around the room because the song was so powerful and so amazing and so hooky… I didn't even know what Kurt was singing at that point. (8)

When the time came to record the song at Sound City, Vig suggested a few changes to the arrangement. He moved the guitar/vocal ad-lib from the outro to a point after each chorus. (9) He then cut the solo down. I think we changed the chorus to six progressions instead of eight, says Vig. I wanted the song to keep building into this explosive release. (3)

Vig first recorded Grohl's drum part and Novoselic's bass, utilizing the first ten of twenty-four tracks. Tracks 11 and 12 were reserved to record the basic live band performance, Then I'd go in and punch in the corrections and tighten up the performance, he says, because Kurt was having difficulties getting the timing right on the effects pedals. (3)

For the guitar part, Cobain chose a Fender Bassman amp, (3) using an Electro-Harmonix Small Clone as one of the effects on the pre-chorus build-up. (3) Take 1 of only two takes was deemed the best. However, upon repeated listening, Vig decided to use both takes in the mix. He double-tracked the twin guitar parts and used them in tandem, panning left and right. Kurt did two passes on it, though he didn't really want to, says Vig. (3)

Vig was only able to coax three vocal takes out of Cobain. The best parts of all three takes were combined to create a composite vocal master which was then placed onto track 15. Vig then asked Cobain to isolate his vocal part, Hello, hello, hello, how low, for dropping in. The overdubbed Hello bridge was placed onto tracks 21 and 22. (3)

Having finished the main vocal parts, Cobain then double-tracked the chorus vocals as well. The last step for Vig was to select track 20's chorus as the hot one and move it down to track 15 with the master vocal take. (3)

In Bloom

During the In Bloom session, Vig tried meticulously to get a good lead vocal take out of Cobain, and to that end he ran tape during this entire part of the sessions. Kurt basically had no patience, Vig recalls. He wanted to do something in one take and then move on to the next thing. (3)

I just took the best bits from three or four vocal takes and sewed them together, says Vig. (3) Typically, he would sing sometimes really quietly and then really loud, so I was forced to change the input level as we were recording him on-the-fly! It's kinda scary because you've got to know the song really well. Then you have to hope he doesn't change the phrasing or do something different. (3)

A problem arose when the band attempted to double-track the chorus, Kurt was singing for couple of beats longer on one version verses the other, Vig explains. To remedy this, Vig pulled the fader down to cut off the longer take, so the timing of the twin choruses would match. (3)

Grohl was enlisted to sing high harmonies in the chorus. I was laughing with Dave a lot because the part was just a little out of his range, and his voice kept breaking up, remembers Vig. He would finish one chorus and light up a cigarette to catch his breath. (3)

Track 17 of In Bloom was devoted to recording the guitar part. Cobain used his Mesa/Boogie amp on the verses, then switched to the Fender Bassman on track 18 to achieve a heavier, double-tracked fuzz sound on the chorus. (3)

Come As You Are

On Come As You Are the bass was triple-tracked: Novoselic played a regular bass, then an octave bass, then he tuned the bass strangely and ran it through a DBX sub-harmonic effect. We were trying to make the bass sound like a 12-string, Vig explains. (5) Vig also recalls that Cobain's guitar sound was the result of an old Small Clone guitar effects pedal. (5)

Cobain made just three vocal passes for Come As You Are, take 1 being the best. Cobain was then asked to double-track the vocal through the entire song. It was really close, says Vig. Usually, when a singer double-tracks his vocals, it's hard to get the phrasing the same. But I put both of them up on the monitors and listened to the two takes, side by side, and it just sounded great. (3)

Breed

Cobain made four vocal passes on Breed. As Vig recalls, each succeeding take kept getting worse because he blew his voice out. (3) Unique to Breed was Vig's use of a Neumann U89 microphone for Cobain's vocals. At the time, I thought of using this one [rather than the U67] because he was singing higher and pushing the limits of his voice up. I just thought we needed more body to it. Cobain's first vocal take was selected as the master. (3)

Guitars were tuned down to D or maybe even C sharp. (5) The really scratchy guitar at the start of Breed was produced by Cobain plugging his guitar straight into the Neve console. (5) Vig recalls: For the bass distortion we turned the amp up really loud and in the mix we also overloaded the board. We didn't use any pedals, just overloaded the channels. We went for a Ramones-type panning. Guitar hard right, drums hard left. The solo was played through a Tube Screamer [distortion pedal]. A lot of Kurt's solos had a simple melodic sensibility and he would record them very quickly. (5)

Breed predominantly features Grohl pounding away at the Terminator snare drum. (3)

Lithium

Early on, the band struggled with instrumental portions of Lithium. That was the only track we used a click track on at the start of the song. Because, for whatever reason, the band kept speeding up really fast, explains Vig. We decided that we wanted to keep it at a real even tempo. Dave had never played with a click track before, but it was not a problem for him at all. After three or four takes with the click, we nailed it. (2)

To achieve the thumping, darker sound on Lithium, the band employed an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff fuzz box through a Fender Bassman amplifier. As I recall, we used a U87 microphone on that, says Vig. We wanted something that was not so bright, a heavier sound. (3) Two tracks were devoted to Novoselic's bass part. An additional three tracks recorded Cobain's guitar. (3)

Only two vocal passes of the verse to Lithium were made. Overall, take 2 was the best performance and was the one that was used. Upon reviewing both takes side by side, Vig decided to take the second line of the second verse from Cobain's first vocal pass and drop it into the master vocal take. The vocal chorus was then quickly recorded live and double-tracked. (3)

The difficulties that day resulted in a classic recording of NIRVANA's epic Endless, Nameless. Vig recalls: I remember the first day we were cutting [Lithium], Kurt got really pissed off because it was taking too much time. Acknowledging Cobain's lack of patience, Vig decided to keep the tape rolling as the band launched into a jam. Kurt was really pissed off, thrashing and screaming, and he smashed his guitar in the middle of it. (3) At around 19:32 on track 12 of most Nevermind CDs, one can discern Kurt smashing his guitar. (4)

Polly

Polly was actually laid down during the April 1990 Smart Sessions. (9) That song was actually recorded at Smart, our studio in Madison and really quickly, says Vig. We actually thought about trying to record that again and make it sound better, but there was a certain quality in it that I think we captured the very first time we did it. (10) It's the same song, confirms Novoselic. Chad never got credit on Nevermind for that. (3)

One of the techniques Nevermind sound mixer, Andy Wallace, employed was to add a delay line effect, giving Channing's cymbal crashes their shimmer. It's not like an echo because the time span is shorter, explains Wallace. It offsets the time on the cymbal hit just a slight bit from the original, blends them together and then changes that offset. so there is a slight pitch wobble going on. (3)

Territorial Pissings

For Territorial Pissings, Cobain wanted to plug his electric guitar directly into the Neve console. Kurt wanted to plug straight into the desk for a trashy punk sound, Vig recalls. But I didn't think the guitar had any balls. So we actually split the signal between an amplifier and plugged Kurt's Pro Co Rat distortion pedal directly into the Neve control board and blended both into the final mix. Cobain recorded three takes on guitar. Take 3 was circled as best on the producer's track sheet. (3)

The song opens with Novoselic hollering a line from The Youngbloods' Get Together. Kurt wanted to put some intro on the song. I said, Why don't you do some stupid hippie lyric in there? Krist went in and sang a bad a cappella version of it. Kurt died laughing. Then I thought, Do we have clearance on this? Is this going to be a problem? (11)

When Cobain came to record his vocal, he first sang a scratch vocal to warm up. He then got on the intercom to Vig in the control room and announced, Butch, I'm only going to sing one take on this. I'm not going to do anymore! (3)

Cobain's voice audibly goes to pieces on the song, which would have caused work to end on that day too.

Drain You

According to Vig, Drain You took some time. (5) Cobain tried several experiments with different guitars and amps before arriving at the right sound combination for the song. At first, he recorded two takes of the song using his Mesa/Boogie amp and different guitars. The early passes sounded scratchy and grating, recalls Vig. And the way he was playing didn't sound very good. Next, Cobain tried the Bassman amp and ran his Rat pedal effect into it for yet another recording experiment. Again, the first take was rejected, but the next two takes were keepers. (3)

Vig coaxed Cobain into singing three vocal takes for Drain You. Take 2 was chosen as the lead vocal on the verses, while take 1 was used as the master on the chorus. Take 3 did not go to waste, however, as Vig used Kurt's singing of the lyrics poison apple for the harmonies. (3)

Vig adds, Every time Kurt did a vocal pass he would run to the side of the room at that part of the song and pick something up—squeaky ducks, percussion things or an aerosol. It became an abstract part for 17 bars. We just left them all in on the mix. (5)

Lounge Act

Lounge Act was equally difficult, according to Vig: We struggled a bit on this one. Five or six takes. We changed a few of the fills. Kurt plays this through the AC3O and then added some Bassman guitars when the guitar picks up. (5) Cobain sang a scratch vocal, followed by three formal vocal passes. (3) The tape was slowed down at the end to get the effect of the song grinding to a halt. (5)

Pay To Play/Stay Away

Production notes for Stay Away indicate that the band used the same technical set-up that they used for Breed.

Cobain recorded two vocal takes of the song as Pay To Play, these takes were left abandoned on tracks 19 and 20. He then reworked the lyrics significantly and asked Butch to scratch out the old title and write in Stay Away. Two more vocal takes of Stay Away were cut, and Cobain thought he was finished. He was doing it live, singing and playing the chords, Vig remembers. He'd do the little [string] bends but always have a tough time singing I don't know why and then [getting] back to the chords and verse. So Vig suggested to Cobain that he overdub just that one line. The overdub was placed alone on track 15. Once Cobain had recorded the key line, he told Vig, Let's make this razor sharp. Just in your face and then gone! Vig took the overdub vocal part and put it into a sampler. I went in and shifted it around and got the vocal so it matched the guitar part perfectly. It's like someone goes in and pushes a button [singing], I don't know why, and cuts out, super tight and pinpointed so it hits you in the face. (3)

On A Plain

The lyrics to On A Plain were also penned at the last minute. (4) The line, Don't quote me on that came from an in-joke the group had that week, with everyone saying ad nauseam, [statement], but don't quote me on that. (4)

Cobain nailed the lead vocal in one take. Vig felt that the Grohl/Cobain double-tracked harmonies worked so well that he suggested an a cappella coda to round out the song. They did those harmonies another eight times, says Vig. I wanted to bring the music all the way down and leave those vocals in a cappella for four times, just by themselves. We actually mixed it that way, but when Kurt heard it, he decided he just wanted to hear one pass without music and cut out. (3)

Something In The Way

Something In The Way proved difficult to record. (4) We spent most of a day trying to record it as a band, working out different drum parts, remembers Vig. Kurt came into the control room and said, I can't get into this at all. I said, How do you hear it then? and he sat down on the couch and was hardly mumbling the vocal, playing the guitar so quietly. (5)

Realizing he was on to what could be a master take, Vig quickly set up some microphones: I turned off the air conditioner and everything else and had the phones shut off. He was playing and singing so quietly. But we got it down on tape. Later on, we overdubbed drums and Kurt added some harmonies. But it was all built around the acoustic track. (2)

Recording the vocals and guitar ahead of the bass and drums posed a challenge for Vig. Novoselic's bass and Grohl's drums were overdubbed in Studio B. It took quite a bit of time to get the drums right, Vig pleading with Grohl to play whimpy in order to match the mood of the song. Kurt and I wanted the drums to be very understated, explains Vig. Dave was used to playing much louder; plus, it can be very difficult to go back and lay drums over an acoustic guitar track, as the meter may vary a bit. In the end, Dave came up with a great performance. (3)

Novoselic recorded two takes of the bass line. Even that was hard to sync up with Kurt's part, says Vig. We had to punch in spots, just so Krist would get the languid feel on the bass to lock up with the acoustics. (3)

The cello on Something In The Way was one of the very last overdubs at the Nevermind sessions; Cobain explained the idea for the musical arrangement on Nevermind: It's An Interview: I knew I wanted cello on it, but after all the music was recorded for it, we'd kinda forgotten about putting a cello on. We had one more day in the studio and we decided, Oh geez, we should hire a cellist, you know, and put something in. We were at a party and were asking some of our friends if they knew anyone who could play cello, and it just happened that one of our best friends in L.A. is a cellist. So we took him into the studio on the last day and said, Here, play something. And he came up with a part right away. It just fell in like dominoes. (12)

From a technical standpoint, however, it wasn't all that easy. Kirk [Canning] is a good cello player, says Vig, but we had a hard time getting his instrument in tune with Kurt's guitar. That old five-string acoustic of Kurt's was tuned down a few steps and wasn't really tuned to any standard pitch. I remember I fretted over the whole track. (2)

Outtakes

Sappy

The band took another stab at recording Sappy at Sound City. (3) Cobain played lead guitar while attempting to sing one live scratch vocal. He also made one formal vocal pass. After overdubbing the lead fuzz guitar with his Rat pedal, Cobain laid down his guitar and walked straight into the control room. I don't want to do this, he insisted. I'm not into this song right now. So let's leave it. (3) The song is in a different key to that of previously recorded versions, it opens without instrumental intro and features a few lyrical changes, the guitar solo is also subtly different. (13)

Verse Chorus Verse

The band recorded this track live, with Cobain providing a scratch vocal. Cobain then overdubbed three guitars to complement the bass and drums. Although the song was finished instrumentally, Cobain never recorded a formal lead vocal part. (3)

Old Age

The band recorded this track live, with Cobain again providing a scratch vocal. It was quickly dropped after a guitar overdub was completed. (3)

Song in D

Though Vig remembers Song In D being rehearsed at Sound City, there are no track sheets to reflect that it was ever formally recorded. Kurt was a little leery about this one because it was really jangly, recalls Vig. I wanted Kurt to finish the words. It was like On a Plain or About a Girl, this jangly arpeggio thing in the key of D. I thought I could turn it into another single. (11) When asked whether the mysterious outtake could have been an early attempt at All Apologies, Vig responds, No, Song in D was it's own beast. We attempted to track it, but Kurt decided to stop working on it cuz it sounded too much like R.E.M., which is exactly why I wanted to pursue it! (14)

Mixing

Between Sound City's Studio B and Devonshire Studios, the band and their producer completed several mixes of the album tracks. The first mixes we did, before Andy Wallace came in, were really raw, which is how the band wanted them, Vig explains. (3)

At one point Vig remembers Cobain telling him, Take all the high-end off the guitars. Vig argued back, That would make the guitars sound too muddy. Cobain also wanted to bury the vocals more. [He thought] they sounded cool and were more punk that way. I would argue with Kurt: Your voice is the most intense thing about the songs, and it deserves to be right up there in your face with the music! (3)

For Endless Nameless, Vig turned the mixing desk over to the band themselves, Krist, Dave and Kurt mixed that song, they got behind the board and ran the faders up and down. (3)

I was involved with assisting Butch on the initial mixing of Nevermind, recalls Devonshire Studios' in-house engineer, James Johnson. They were at Devonshire for 3 or 4 days before they decided to move the mix to another studio. No real tracking occurred at Devonshire, however I recall Kurt doing a few guitar overdubs and I think he did a few vocal fixes as well. Kurt carved the word NIRVANA on the underside of a wooden chair rail in the back of the control room. (15)

Though Vig had originally been hired to both produce and mix the record, the sessions had fallen behind schedule, and the band's management and label were keen to draft in a new engineer. It wasn't any big deal, says Vig. We all agreed to get another mix guy in with fresh ears. (3) Geffen's Gary Gersh sent over a list of possible names: Scott Litt was on top of the list, Vig recalls, but Kurt said, No, I don't want to sound like R.E.M.; Ed Stasium was also on the list, to which Kurt said, No, I don't want to sound like the Smithereens. He went all the way to the bottom of the list and Andy Wallace was there, it said Slayer next to his name and Kurt said, Get this guy. (2)

The mixes were done at Scream Studios in nearby Studio City. Basically, I'd let Andy go over the tracks by himself for a few hours, Vig recalls. When he got everything up, he'd call me in, and I'd bring in the band and we would nitpick stuff. Basically, we mixed a song or two a day. The whole record took nine or 10 days to mix. (2)

[Andy] gave some real wide stereo separation using some doubling and delays on guitars and things, says Vig. He put a little gloss on the voices but I don't think he went too far with it. If anything, we wanted to make sure the mixes still sounded fairly organic. Part of reason why the album sounds so slick is that the room miking of the drums didn't work out well and so Wallace used digital reverb to fix the sound and further pumped up the drums with equalization and some samples that he blended in behind the kick drum and snare. (4)

Despite the fact that Wallace was Cobain's own choice, and that the band participated in the mixing process, Cobain would later complain to the press that Wallace's mixes made the album sound too slick: Looking back on the production of Nevermind, I'm embarrassed by it now, Cobain told biographer Michael Azerrad. It's closer to a Mötley Crüe record than it is a punk rock record. (4) Grohl also seemed slightly miffed at Wallace's treatment of the drums: He did a lot of tweaking of the drums, making them more digital-sounding. Everything had a produced weirdness. (4)

After accounting for the extra lodging, extra studio time and Wallace's fees, the album's costs doubled. (4) The budget to produce the album had originally been $65,000, but by the time the project was done costs had reached $120,000. When asked about the total expenses for Nevermind, Cobain later joked to Guitar World's Jeff Gilbert, I don't remember, I've got Alzheimer's. (3)

References

  1. Classic Albums: Nevermind, 2005. [DVD] Eagle Vision.
  2. diPerna, Alan, 1996. Nirvana: The Making Of Nevermind, Guitar World, [online] Available at: https://www.livenirvana.com/sessions/reading/gw1096.php.
  3. Berkenstadt, Jim & Cross, Charles R., 1998. Classic Rock Albums: Nevermind. Schirmer Books.
  4. Azerrad, Michael, 1993. Come As You Are: The Story Of Nirvana. Doubleday.
  5. Henderson, Peter, 1998. Titanic! The Nevermind Recording Sessions, MOJO, [online] Available at: https://www.livenirvana.com/sessions/reading/mojo54.php.
  6. Garfield, Ross, 2008. Personal communication with Alex Roberts.
  7. Buskin, Richard, 1997. Talking Garbage, Sound On Sound, March 1997.
  8. Entertain Us: The Nirvana Story, 1999. [Radio] BBC Radio One, April 5, 1999.
  9. Gaar, Gillian G., 1997. Verse Chorus Verse: The Recording History Of Nirvana, Goldmine, [online] Available at: http://www.nirvanaclub.com/articles/02.14.97.html.
  10. Essential Albums: The Making of Nevermind, 1999. [Radio] BBC Radio One, February 1, 1999.
  11. Fricke, David, 2001. Nevermind 10 Years On, Rolling Stone, Sept. 13, 2001.
  12. Nevermind It's An Interview, 1992. [CD] DGC.
  13. Gaar, Gillian G., 2006. In Utero, Continuum 33 1/3.
  14. Vig, Butch, 2006. Personal communication with Alex Roberts.
  15. Johnson, James, 2010. Personal communication with Alex Roberts.
© Alex Roberts. August 28, 2011