Steve Albini: Serve The Servants

Notoriously opinionated and obstinate Steve Albini, a guy ever vigilant and vocal about the wicked ways of the music business, showing up in Austin, Texas, at the annual South by Southwest festival? This I had to see. After a near-miss at his Austin hotel, we spoke the next morning on the phone.

"It was unspeakable on all levels, as bad as I imagined, and in some ways worse."

Any notion that he'd somehow softened, somehow accepted the music biz as it—

Wait. What the hell am I thinking?

"Bear in mind that I come from a punk-rock background where capitalism is sort of an awkward associate, and South by Southwest was always about naked exploitation. People who desperately want to make it, and then people who want to sell the fantasy of making it—those are the two classes of people that were there when it was more music centered. Now it's virtual reality, podcasting, interconnectivity, film, comedy, linoleum tile, so there's even less of a reason to tolerate it."

A virtuoso of curmudgeonly invective, the Chicago-based Albini is one of the leading audio engineers of his generation to support capturing natural sound, no matter how dense or delicate the music he's recording. He's also a resolute fan of analog recording and playback.

Once the proverbial guy in the band who "could explain to the sound man how loud we want the bass drum," Albini is a punk-rock guitarist who's plied his craft with Big Black, Rapeman, and Shellac. After graduating high school in Missoula, Montana, Albini moved to Chicago to attend Northwestern University, and became the engineer of choice for the crop of noise-rock bands (such as Big Black) and alt-rock acts (Veruca Salt, Urge Overkill) that sprang from the Chicago scene in the 1990s.

Albini began acquiring gear and learning sound engineering in the mid-1980s, gaining his first widespread notoriety when he recorded the Pixies' Surfer Rosa (1988). Another early highlight was The Wedding Present's Seamonsters (1991). In 1993, he engineered Rid of Me for PJ Harvey and In Utero for Nirvana. He opened his Chicago recording-studio complex, Electrical Audio, in 1997. Since the late '90s Albini has recorded at a blistering pace.

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"I've never stopped to count, but just doing guerilla math: 50 to 100 sessions a year, and one session correlates to one album, and it's been a long time. So yeah, it's gotta be a couple thousand records. I flatter myself that I've done a good job, and that's why I get the repeat business that I do, but I also know that, given the current economy, it helps that I'm a bargain. For the degree of experience that I've got and the sort of curriculum vitae, it's not that expensive to have me work on your records."

Asked about how many albums or singles that he's recorded that have become best-sellers or at least sold respectably, Albini, who I found to be extraordinarily articulate, resorted to that charming and uniquely American habit of reducing everything to a handy baseball metaphor.

"I may not have Barry Bonds's batting average, but I have a chance of having the most at-bats. I feel like I'm probably one of the more durable lineup spots. I don't hit a lot of home runs, and my batting average may not be above par, but just the fact that I've done it so many fucking times, I've probably solved all of the problems someone can have in a studio, and I probably know how to solve the problem you're having right now."

Widely renowned as an apostle of analog recording, Albini refuses to record digitally under any circumstances. "Every record I've ever made, 30-plus years, has been recorded on multi-track tape and mixed to stereo master tapes. There have been a few hybrid sessions where I've done the analog portion of the sessions, and then someone else has taken over and done the digital portion of the record."

What does he say to young musicians who want the Albini imprimatur on their records yet want to record in the digital domain?

"No one would ask me to do that. That's like going to a baker and saying, 'I want you to barbecue me a steak.' It's a different discipline. Electrical Audio is a full-function studio. We have two studios here and a half-dozen house engineers, and we also host freelance engineers on a regular basis. So there are digital sessions done here constantly, continuously. They're just not my sessions."

Largely a spectator to the genuinely disturbing but ubiquitous trend toward squashing the dynamics out of recordings in the service of almighty loudness—in a word, compression—Albini casually dismissed a question about pumping up the volume.

"I have friends who run mastering studios, and they say a lot of the loudness business has subsided. The main concern now is compatibility with all the different formats. There are many flavors of downloads, streaming, and file-delivery formats, so from a digital standpoint, people are much more concerned about sound quality across all of those different formats than they are about loudness.

"Audiophiles—and when I say audiophiles, I mean people who listen to music as sort of a recreation rather than as background, people who are active listeners of music—most of them want to build a collection of music, and most of them will have vinyl as a primary medium. For convenience listeners, people who just want to pop some music on the phone while they're doing yard work or whatever, the access to the music is the most important thing.

"I think both ends of that spectrum—the purely inattentive, casual listeners, and then the purely intentional, active music listener—can be catered to without it being a compromise in the studio. I can make a nice-sounding master, and then that can be cut into nice-sounding vinyl record for the audiophile portion of the market. For the casual listener, it can be dumped into whatever is the listening format of the day.

"If questions arise . . . so nobody is listening to 16-bit audio anymore, everybody wants 24-bit, and so I guess all those masters that you did at 16-bit are useless? With an analog master, it's not useless—you can make a new, higher-resolution master. Or say nobody's using that format anymore, they are using this other format. Well, no big deal. You just play the master through whatever the converter of the day is, and you create the new format for them. Analog masters are exceedingly flexible in that regard. You don't have to do any number crunching. As long as that master tape survives, you can do that many, many times."

As for the impressive résumé he spoke of earlier, I was curious how several of Albini's most famous projects felt to him with the benefit of perspective, starting with Nirvana's In Utero. Like nearly everything else in the Nirvana universe, Albini's work on that album has been parsed, praised, and vilified in the 25 years since its release. Although the Nirvana classics "Breed" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" appeared on their major-label debut, Nevermind (1991), In Utero was arguably the trio's best album. The saga of its creation, and especially its sound, has filled innumerable web and print pieces, as well as Gillian G. Gaar's In Utero, a volume in Continuum Books' 331/3 series of books about classic rock albums (New York: 2006), and a good chunk of Michael Azerrad's still-definitive history of the band, Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1993).

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COMMENTS
rschryer's picture

...and great article. But WTF is an impressive rÇsumÇ??

DougM's picture

It's obviously a typo and is meant to say resume.

John Atkinson's picture
rschryer wrote:
...and great article. But WTF is an impressive rÇsumÇ??

Coding error on my part, Robert :-(

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

dalethorn's picture

Some of my friends in indie music from the early 90's regard Albini in unkind terms, as a tech whiz, but unpleasant otherwise. I'll hand it to him for working with Polly Jean Harvey, Veruca Salt, and the early Pixies, and staying true to his commitments to good sound.

m-sevs's picture

I'm surprised that his work with The Breeders wasn't mentioned. Title TK isn't just a seminal record, it sounds like rock'n'roll. Plus also, Shellac is, like, the dopest live rock'n'roll show around. And those Lp's sound amazing too.

dalethorn's picture

Kim got a nice boost playing with the Pixies, but there was some friction with Frank Black as far back as Surfer Rosa, so she left and did some things, but worked again with the Pixies. Some of the Breeders tracks I have are demos, but given all the low-res stuff I collected in the 90's, those demos stand up pretty well.

supamark's picture

like Big Black, Rapeman, etc it's pretty obvious why he likes analog so much more than digital. Just as some people are really into bass and love a rich bottom end in their music, Albini (and a few others I've met) really seem to love a treble heavy mix with a lot going on (like multiple gtrs playing harmonics into distortion pedals - generates a f-ton of treble info).

He started recording in the 80's and CD quality back then just didn't do treble well AT ALL. digital is much better now (both with moving to 24/96+ and with significantly better DACs), but still doesn't do treble the same way analog tape does (and I suspect he's pretty stubborn). Don't think he uses noise reduction (like Dolby SR) either, sure doesn't sound like it.

AudioMan612's picture

It is worth noting that Albini has said in other interviews that his reason for sticking to analog recording is not at all about the sound. He has stated that he prefers the workflow and that he feels that it's the best way to archive music, due to digital quality changing over time.

Also, as others have said, his work with The Breeders is fantastic. Also, Dude Incredible is one of my favorite rock albums in recent years.

FredisDead's picture

favorite "artist bios" I've ever read in S'Phile and it's been over a thirty year span. What I think is most notable about Steve Albini and only lightly touched upon is that he is famous for saying "yes" to virtually any band that wants his services. To this day, despite his palmares, he works with musicians who are just starting out and are therefor unheard of.

jporter's picture

Big Black was one of my favorite groups during my High School years. Steve's music was intense, angry, funny and honest. It was so different from the music that ruled the rock airwaves at the time (i.e., Bon Jovi, Quiet Riot). I'm glad he still is stubbornly authentic. Thanks for featuring him.

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