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.
“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’ 33>1>/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).