How'd They Get That Sound: Butch Vig and Masterminding Nevermind's Kick-Drum Sound
Nirvana’s Nevermind remains one of the most influential albums of all time, introducing MTV (and the world) to grunge and alternative and changing the landscape of popular music, essentially ending the popularity of “hair” metal. Aside from the vast influence of its songs, Nevermind remains a benchmark for sound quality, from a recording and engineering standpoint.
The drum sound on classic albums can sometimes stand out to engineers and mixers more so than other more obvious elements and, to me, that’s the case with Nevermind. Produced and engineered by Butch Vig (albeit with a slew of assistants), one of the sonic standouts on the album is the kick drum, which was obtained with a fairly uncommon technique.
Great sound starts with the source, which in this case was drummer Dave Grohl and the legendary live room at Sound City Studios, where it was recorded. The technique Vig incorporates on the kick is what he simply calls a drum tunnel: he extended Grohl’s kick drum (an ’80s Tama Grandstar) with a roughly 6-foot-long tunnel built from old drum shells. The kick was then miked with an AKG D12 close to the beater, and a Neumann FET 47 at the end of the tunnel. Thanks to the tunnel, the FET 47 was able to create an exaggerated “kick out” mic sound, basically extending the low end without picking up too much room sound or bleed from the cymbals. On the Gearslutz forums, Vig mentions that he believes mix engineer Andy Wallace incorporated some custom samples on both the kick and the snare, very low in the mix, for additional ambience.
While techniques like this are fun to talk about and experiment with during your own sessions, the importance of the drummer, properly tuned drums, and the sound of the room in which you are tracking cannot be overstated. When asked the best way to get the drum sound on Nevermind, Vig humorously responds, “…get Dave Grohl to play Drums at Sound City!”