Steve Albini – Sound Engineer Extraordinaire Published in SOS September 2005
Steve Albini has become a legend in the world of alternative music by championing traditional engineering skills, respecting the opinions of the artists he records, and doing business ethically.
The big cliché about Steve Albini is that he has a reputation that precedes him. Regularly described in the press as ‘controversial’ and ‘difficult’, he has against-the-grain opinions on studio technology and on the role of the producer, and he’s stigmatised as the Godfather of Grunge, the champion of heavily distorted, in-your-face, alternative rock. In person, however, he’s easy-going and forthcoming, and it turns out that many of the other myths about him are just that: myths.
Take, for instance, the received wisdom that Albini mainly works with hard-hitting grunge bands, and imposes his own uncompromising sound on records. This perception is perhaps unsurprising, since Albini’s most famous credits include Nirvana, PJ Harvey, the Pixies, Bush and Jimmy Page & Robert Plant. Moreover, the Chicagoan has been a guitarist in cult 1980s post-punk bands Big Black and Rapeman, while today he’s part of the grunge band Shellac.
“I’ve recorded 1500-2000 records, and I know they are all quite different,” protests Albini. “I’ve recorded acoustic albums hundreds of times, with acoustic guitars or strings, and so on. I can name hundreds of bands that I’ve recorded that have a completely different aesthetic than grunge. And I don’t impose my taste on the bands I record. To me it’s ridiculous to say that my records have a sound. I can understand why someone who has only heard three or four records I have worked on that are stylistically similar can make such a statement, but I think it is wrong.”
Indeed, a refusal to impose his own sound on other people’s recordings is a political issue for Steve Albini, as well as an aesthetic one. Here, the received wisdom is right on the mark: he has striking viewpoints on the machinations of the record industry in general and on the roles of the engineer and producer in particular. Type the name ‘Albini’ and the words ‘The Problem With Music’ into any search engine, for instance, and you’ll hit on an article written by Albini in which he mercilessly takes the relationship between band and record company apart. In typically graphic manner, Albini offers the image of “a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe 60 yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit.” He asks us to picture the band on one end and “a faceless industry lackey at the other end holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed. Nobody can see what’s printed on the contract. It’s too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody’s eyes water.”
The American clearly takes no prisoners on the subject of the music industry. But his opinions on what’s happening in the recording studio are equally radical and can be summarised as putting the artist’s interests before everything else. He’s averse, for instance, to the idea of a record producer, and thinks that taking royalties is “an insult to the band”. Albini insists on defining himself as an engineer and sees the essence of his work as purely technical, rather than artistic. For this reason he will work with anyone who calls, regardless of musical style or ability, and would rather not see his name appear on record sleeves.
“I think that my name appearing on people’s records is a little bit of a distraction,” he says. “I don’t think it’s important, and in some ways it causes public relations problems for the band, who then have to defend me or defend their choice of working with me. I understand that people want to give credit, and that’s fine. I’m not offended by it. But once I’m paid, I don’t really need anything more.
“The cases where I’m credited as a producer are the result of someone at the record company writing that on the back of a record. I don’t personally try to exert any influence on my credit. Whatever the band and the record company do with the packaging is their business. But from a position of accuracy, I don’t really do anything that a producer does. A producer is someone who is completely responsible for a session, but in my case those decisions are made by the band, so I don’t qualify as a producer in that sense. Ultimately what I’m trying to do is satisfy the band. Most of the time what they want is for me to record their organic sound, so that’s what I’m trying to provide. If I’m asked to do something fantastic, then I will try to do something fantastic, but I don’t start from a position that everything needs to be changed from what it was.”
Some of the more unusual rackmounting gear at Electrical Audio: from top, custom-built mid/sides matrix, Klark-Technic DN34 ‘Analogue Time Processor’, Dbx 500 subharmonic generator and Skibbe 5-9C compressor.
Albini’s exhortations may sound almost naively utopian to some, but the man appears to walk his talk. The sessions for Nirvana’s In Utero provide the most famous illustration, because Albini refused the offer of a royalty percentage, at the time (1993) estimated to be worth about $500,000, and instead proposed a flat fee of $100,000. These days Albini doesn’t only turn down any royalty fees, he’s also prepared to forego his $450 daily fee (already peanuts in comparison with other ‘name’ producers and engineers) if a band say they can’t afford it. So how does he survive?
“Well, most of the time I do get paid,” laughed Albini, “but on occasion I do a record as a favour for a friend of mine, or a band runs out of money halfway through the sessions and it’s either leave the record unfinished, or finish and not get paid. And I prefer to finish the record. Basically, anyone who calls on the phone I’m willing to work with. If someone rings because he wants to make a record, I say yes. I’m sure that some people call me because relative to other people who have the kind of experience that I have, I’m very inexpensive. I’m perfectly comfortable with that. I’m happy to be a bargain.”
Before readers call their travel agencies to inquire about the prices for a round trip to Chicago, they might want to consider Albini’s working methods. He explains that he was very influenced by John Loder, “the engineer and producer who ran Southern Studios and Southern Records in London, and recorded a lot of the early punk rock singles that were really important to me. They also appeared on the Small Wonder label and Crass Records, and Rough Trade and so on. Those English labels had very distinctive-sounding records, and they were done cheaply and quickly in a small studio, and that really appeared to me. John Loder was the principal engineer on most of these records.
“When I was in Big Black we did a session with him, and I thought he was a terrific engineer. He showed me the potential for getting the most out of the equipment without making the equipment the focus of attention. He knew how to do things quickly and with great sensitivity to the band, and had a complete working knowledge of his equipment. In any situation he could snap his fingers and do the right thing, because he knew exactly how things worked and what to do.
“Working in the computer paradigm is much slower, because no-one knows their computer software well enough to be aware of every single thing it does. In the analogue domain you know what you’re supposed to do, you plug something in, and it’s done. Problems are solved instantly. In the digital domain you have to try lots of options and see if any of them work, and then you pray that your computer will follow your instructions and won’t crash and that you don’t need to restart or reinstall something.”
Albini says that he spends on average “four to 10 days recording an album, including mixing. Two weeks would be an extraordinarily long time for me. Most of the bands that I work with don’t have any spare money, so they have to work quickly to get the record finished.”
The American also pays homage to engineer Iain Burgess, from whom he learned to avoid 1970s approaches like excessive overdubbing and processing, click-track recording, and trying to keep the sound as dead as possible, and instead to focus on recording a band live in the studio, as naturally as possible. All this led to Albini’s current emphasis on the front end of recording — microphones, mic placement, mic preamps (see box) — and his love of analogue recording equipment.
“Anyone who has made records for more than a very short period,” commented Albini, “will recognise that trying to manipulate a sound after it has been recorded is never as effective as when it’s recorded correctly in the first place. Unfortunately almost all the recording software in digital recording is designed to manipulate sound, rather than record it, and so most digital sessions are primarily about manipulating sound, rather than recording sound.”
Albini’s recording preferences find their reflection in his Chicago studio, Electrical Audio, a place where he also lives. (“It’s a matter of making things more simple on a day-to-day basis. I don’t have to drive anywhere.”) Electrical Audio opened its doors in 1997, and its live recording areas are set up to cater for every acoustic eventuality. There are two dead recording rooms, two sizeable live rooms with high ceilings, and a huge third (1200 square foot) live room with oak floors and adobe walls.
“Adobe,” explains Albini, “is unfired earth brick. It’s very heavy but also very soft, so very good for acoustic isolation, with a lot of high-frequency diffusion. Most studios have made compromises in their acoustic environments with recording spaces that are neither very live, nor very dead, and I feel that they’re inappropriate in every situation. We’ve tried to create rooms that offer a range of big contrasts in their acoustics.”
The studio also has two control rooms, each featuring desks from the relatively smalle Chicago company Neotek — a 96-input Elite and a 36-channel Series II. “I was very familiar with these desks,” explains Albini, “because a lot of studios in Chicago have them. We wanted a number of custom changes made to our console, and some other console manufacturers weren’t too keen to do this. But Neotek was happy to make all the changes to the Elite that we wanted.”
Scrutinising Electrical Audio’s equipment list further, aside from the Flying Faders automation on the Elite, perhaps the most striking aspect is the complete absence of computers and the very limited number of digital boxes, even in the outboard gear department. Electrical Audio must now be one of the few studios in the world today that’s a computer-recording-free environment. Instead, pride of place goes to a number of analogue tape recorders, among them the Studer A820 16/24-track, an MCI JH16 eight-track, and Studer A820 and Ampex ATR102 two-tracks, which are “all refurbished, so effectively as new”. Does Albini feel like he’s holding the fort for a way of recording that’s increasingly seen as outmoded?
“There are probably quite a few studios like us,” objected Albini, “that don’t have Pro Tools, but occasionally host digital sessions. When someone brings a project into our studio that was started on Pro Tools, they’ll bring in a computer and carry on with it in here. And our studio is commercially available, so outside engineers sometimes bring Pro Tools sessions in. But for our normal day-to-day work it isn’t necessary. I have always done things with the analogue method, and I still think it’s the best method. So I have no reason to change. I’ve had a long time to accumulate equipment and microphones and techniques, and I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to say ‘No, I can’t do that, because we’re working on tape.’ If there were problems that I could not solve on tape, I might be compelled to use computers, but I’ve never encountered such a problem.”
Albini also prefers analogue to digital for sonic reasons, although he reckons that high-resolution digital formats sound “OK”. He adds “I like the high-resolution DSD/SACD consumer format, although SACD is now defunct as I understand it. I also think that from a convenience point of view, for people who want to play music in a boombox or in the car, or at work or something, CDs are great. The iPod is the same. It doesn’t sound great, but it’s wonderful for providing background music for people while they do other things. But for critical listening, or for music that means a lot to me, these formats aren’t good enough. A well-made vinyl record still sounds infinitely better than anything else.”
Having expertly demoted the once-prestigious CD to the status of the humble compact cassette, Albini carries on explaining that when working in his studio, he prefers recording to two-inch 16-track, which “sounds better than 24-track. There’s less noise, less distortion, the bass response is flatter, and the high end is clearer. I record without Dolby, because I don’t like the way noise reduction affects the sound. We do have Dolby HX Pro, which is a dynamic bias adjustment, built into our Studer A820 machines. When you modulate the bias dynamically, you can maintain headroom even with very bright, sharp transients. It doesn’t affect the amount of hiss, it just creates more headroom. I’ve never found hiss a problem anyway.”
Clearly, Electric Audio is an unusual recording environment rooted in an unusual philosophy. So what, exactly, happens there after a band arrives? “When the band arrives at the studio I have a conversation to find out how they want to make their record, what sort of sounds they want, how fast they want to work, who is in charge in the band, and then we get started. I’ll have everyone playing in the same room or spread them out over different rooms, as required. The important thing is that there is a clear line of sight for everyone. That’s more important than whether they are physically in the same room.
“I prefer to record as much of the band in one live take as possible. If you do it any other way, the band is forced into an unnatural situation from the very beginning of the process. They play together in the rehearsal room and on stage, so it seems normal to me that they also play together when they come into the studio. With 90 percent of the records I do, the singing is recorded after the band, unless the singing is what leads the band. With folk-type records the singing often has to be done at the same time, otherwise it doesn’t sound right.”
Electrical Audio is designed to offer a variety of acoustic spaces for recording.
Albini has gone on record as saying that recording a band is purely a technical issue, in the sense that he’s doing little more than documenting what’s happening as faithfully as possible. “I would very happy if my fingerprints weren’t visible,” he said seven years ago. In this sense his approach to engineering can be likened to realistic photography, although, as Albini concedes, even a photographer makes choices in how he depicts reality. “The idea that you can have an objective perspective in the studio is insane. I think great music is not made to suit objective criteria. Great music is made by people who are obsessed with something. I appreciate it when someone says ‘That sounds good, but I hate it. I want it to sound more like this or like that.’ I think it’s an appropriate response for someone to say that they want something to sound strange in a specific way. And my job as an engineer is to make sure that the sound coming out of the speakers satisfies the band.
“But even at his most extreme, Brian Eno didn’t manipulate records as much as any sophomore in college does these days the moment he gets a Pro Tools rig. The manipulation capabilities of the digital editing programs are now so elaborate that sonic manipulation has become a cliché. I don’t see the studio as a laboratory as more important than the band as a performing unit. Anyone can do whatever he wants in the studio — I would never say ‘No, you’re not allowed to do this.’ But in the same way that not every movie should look like Star Wars, I don’t think every record should be manipulated to the extent that they often are. I don’t understand where the impulse comes from to make a record that doesn’t have any relationship to the sound of the real band. That seems crazy to me.”
But what, for instance, if in his opinion an arrangement of a song doesn’t work? Surely, many bands come to him because of his reputation and would therefore want him to comment or improve on what they’re doing? “It’s none of my business,” replies Albini. “If the band has decided to do something, it’s their record. I think it’s rude for an engineer or producer to say ‘You guys are wrong about your own music.’ I think that’s almost unforgivable. It’s like saying ‘Here, let me show you how to f**k your wife. You’re doing it all wrong.’ It just seems crazy.
“If a band asks me for my opinion, I’m happy to present them with options, but I’m not going to make their records for them. I know that my tastes are not the same as everyone else’s. My tastes are actually f**ked up. I like music that is in a lot of cases unpleasant. If I were to try to satisfy my own tastes with every record that comes to me as an engineer, I’d make a lot of freakish records that wouldn’t flatter the band in any way, and no-one would like them. So I could not possibly exert my own aesthetic on every record that comes in here.”
The advantage of dealing with a small, local desk manufacturer such as Neotek is that Steve Albini has been able to ask for numerous custom modifications to the Elite desk that’s in one of Electrical Audio’s control rooms. “One of the most important changes was to the stereo master output. In the original design there was a wide-bandwith power amplifier that was used as the output drive amplifier. The idea was that you would put your stereo outputs in parallel to this one output amplifier. We had separate output buffers installed for each stereo output, so if there’s a problem with the CD recorder or DAT machine or digital converters, it won’t f**k up your master recording. Isolating all the stereo outputs made for a safer system as far as the stereo master is concerned.
“The stereo master also has a pre-fader insert that wasn’t on the original console. You can assign an auxiliary stereo buss from any of the channels, and this allows you to have parallel outboard processing on some channels. By using the return from that auxiliary stereo buss you can have, for example, a side mixer or an outboard Pro Tools rig or any number of things that you can add to the stereo buss, without having to go through channel electronics.
“In the original console there were a series of mute groups that you could assign using the solo and play buttons on the channels. Because we were using the Flying Faders and the solo and play function wasn’t necessary, we had all of that removed just to avoid the possibility of muting parts of the desk.
“The subgroup outputs of the desk can be stereo submasters that go through a stereo mix or they can be submasters that go out of the desk as output busses. We had those converted so that there was an insert on each of those busses, again to allow for parallel processing. The subgroups now all have direct outputs as well. We envisioned that it would be useful for surround mixing if we were ever asked to do that. But surround mixing has basically disappeared, so I don’t think that will ever happen.”
Although Albini is willing to do something “fantastic” when required, it doesn’t come as a surprise that he’s reluctant to apply many effects at any stage of the recording, whether recording or mixing. He takes issue with those engineers and producers who like to fix it in the mix, and even with respected studio forces like producer Daniel Lanois, who has described the mix as a performance. “I think that’s a very egotistical statement,” opines Albini. “I don’t subscribe to the idea that you make a record during the mixing stage. That’s putting too much emphasis on it.
“Ninety-nine percent of mixing is the balance. If you can hear what everyone is doing, and it all sounds flattering, then you can’t really make any mistakes. In most cases there’s a natural stereo balance that you try to duplicate. Panning is part of that balance. I’m not a fan of dynamically panning things, with things moving about. I tend to present things from the perspective of the musician: if you’re sitting at the drums, then the hi-hat is at the left and the floor tom on the right, if you’re a right-handed drummer.”
Given the omnipresence of compression on today’s recordings, particularly in grunge rock, it’s perhaps surprising to find he doesn’t actually like compression very much. “I’m not a fan of the sound of compression and I try to avoid it. I’ve used stereo buss compression on one of the hundreds of records I’ve made, and that was an experiment and I learned what I needed from that. There will occasionally be compression on individual instruments in the mix, but not often. I don’t normally try to get rid of wild dynamics. I try to incorporate them. If it sounds good, it sounds good, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. When I can hear compression working I’m kind of irritated by it. It bothers me because it seems like I’m hearing this machine rather than the band.”
Albini’s tune is much the same with regard to other effects and processors. “Occasionally I’ll use some EQ during the mixing, because you can have overlapping sounds that cause interference problems, and so you use EQ to open up the sound a little bit. I may use a gentle passive shelf equaliser rather than a resonant band-pass equaliser on the stereo buss, or on a stereo submix, if I need to brighten up the drum overhead microphones, or if I have a vocal that needs a little bit of brightening. I also sometimes put the NTI EQ3 or GML 8200 across the stereo buss.
“With regards to reverbs, we have the best in the world. We have a really nice, beautiful-sounding old plate reverb, the Echoplate, and we have a spring reverb tower, the AKG BX20, which in its day was the bee’s knees for long reverbs. It was a $5000-10,000 device when it was made, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It’s about six feet tall and has two spiral reverb springs and it sounds lovely. We also have the Quantec XRS XL, which for my money is the best digital reverb ever, and with the Klark Teknik DN780 and the Lexicon PCM70, PCM80 and Prime Time, we have all the necessary options for reverb.
“I nevertheless don’t find myself using reverb very often, because I don’t think it’s as necessary as most engineers and producers think it is. They use it almost a reaction, an automatic reflex: when a singer starts singing, they put reverb on it. It’s a thing that’s done pro forma a lot of the time. They put it on because they feel they’re supposed to. I’ve never had that response. I’ll wait until someone says ‘That sounds weird,’ and then I’ll try reverb. And if you do need reverb, it’s great to have really nice ones available and not to have to make do with lots of artificial crap.”
Albini lays down the final mixes at Electrical Audio on half-inch analogue tape, mostly using the Ampex ATR102. He’s happy to make CD listening copies for the band, but insists on analogue mixdown because he reckons that the problems with the durability of digital storage media are as unresolved as ever. But with all the recent upheavals in analogue tape production, doesn’t he worry about the longevity of the analogue medium? “I don’t think that digital tape will be manufactured for much longer,” reckons Albini, “but analogue tape is manufactured again as we speak.”
Indeed, after being shut down because of bankruptcy at the end of 2004, Quantegy has recently been taken over by a company called Discount Tape and is back in production. Albini also points to the British company Zonal, which used to supply the BBC, and apparently plans to produce tape again, to a Dutch company that has bought a former Philips cassette tape plant and the rights to Agfa and Mtech tape, and to ATR Services in Pennsylvania. The latter intends to begin manufacturing analogue tape later this year under the name ATR Magnetics. But the latest word from Holland is that with Quantegy back in the market, the PDM company has for now suspended plans to enter the professional tape market.
Albini is unconcerned by all this uncertainty. “To be honest, I saw it coming, and we built up a huge stockpile of analogue tape here.” In more ways than one, Albini remains ahead of the game.