Steve Albini

Lecture at Middle Tennesee State University, March 12, 2004

Originally published in MTSU Sidelines, March 16th, 2004.
This is the unedited final draft of the story, with unpublished material.

by Andrew Young

Recording engineer Steve Albini spoke to over 300 students in the LRC Friday afternoon, in a lecture presented by the MTSU chapter of the Audio Engineering Society.

Albini is a freelance recording engineer who is one of the most recognized names in the independent music business. He has engineered over 1000 albums, and is best known for his work with the Pixies, PJ Harvey and Nirvana. He owns Electrical Audio, a recording studio in Chicago, IL, and is currently the lead vocalist for the band Shellac.

Albini made his first recordings in 1978 on a rented 4-track. He moved to Chicago in 1980, where he majored in journalism at Northwestern University. He engineered his first album in 1981. During that time, he formed the influential punk/industrial group Big Black and recorded demos for his friend's bands. In 1986, he quit his day job, built a recording studio in his house and became a professional recording engineer. He opened Electrical Audio, a two-studio recording complex, in 1995.

As both a band member and an engineer, Steve has developed a unique perspective on the engineer's place in the studio, a philosophy which he spoke about at length: "It always offended me when I was in the studio and the engineer or the assumed producer for the session would start bossing the band around. That always seemed like a horrible insult to me. The band was paying money for the privilege of being in a recording studio, and normally when you pay for something, you get to say how it's done. So, I made up my mind when I started engineering professionally that I wasn't going to behave like that."

Albini spoke about the evolution of the recording industry from the late 1970s to today, giving particular emphasis to the heavy-handed influence of producers and engineers on the recording process:

"The bad part of the engineering culture of the 70s and 80s is that engineers would presume themselves to be the producers of every session ... The musicians weren't taken seriously. Bands and musicians were presumed to be 'dumb talent,' that is, their opinions didn't matter."

"Because the tastes and amusements of the engineers dominated the sessions," a few major technological innovations of the 1980s allowed engineers and producers to "horribly scar music," as Albini put it.

The introduction of drum machines and synthesizers allowed producers even greater latitude in determining the sound of a recording. "Records became more and more produced, and more and more layers of more abstract sounds were added. Generally speaking, this wasn't done at the behest of the bands," Albini said.

"The culture of recording engineers and producers was imposing this abstraction on the bands, and as a result, the music of that era sounds very dated. It sounds comical now, because there were always absurd choices that were made at the behest of the engineer. And he has saddled, for example, a hard rock band with this ridiculous Yamaha DX-7 keyboard sound," Albini said.

"None of those things came organically from the band, they were imposed after the fact." Albini notes that, in comparison, the albums from that period that people now regard as influential were "by and large, more simplistic, more naturalistic recordings." He emphasized that it is important for engineers to understand the experience and the reality of being in a band. "If you're not in a band, at the very least you owe it to yourself to understand that culture, that social organization which is a band."

Albini has engineered a number of popular artists, but he notes that those high-profile, major label albums are "very few and far between. I've made well over a thousand records, probably as many as 1500, and I've probably made six or eight that would fall into the category of major releases by major record labels."

He said that students should not focus on developing skills for use on big-budget, major label projects, which happen very rarely. "What you should do is spend your time and energy getting the nuts and bolts down. Learn how to do every basic task that's required of an engineer, and everything else will follow."

Albini's recording techniques are admittedly simple and utilitarian. "I'm often asked about mixing records 99 percent of mixing is moving the faders up and down until you find where it sounds good Not screwing with the sound, not dreaming up elaborate effects, not manipulating the sound The great majority of what you do is solving problems."

Working primarily with bands who have limited budgets, Albini points out that most recording sessions last less than a week, and sometimes a little as a day. "The longest I've ever spent working on a record is 4 months, but that was a unique and absurd set of circumstances."

While Albini emphasizes practical experience over whimsical experimentation, he notes: "I do think experimenting is important. You should read; there has been an awful lot written about the science and practice of sound recording. It is very important for you to read, study and experiment, in that order." He adds that it is important for engineers to learn why their experiments work, so that knowledge can be used later when necessary.

Albini has developed a reputation for being against digital recording techniques, but not for reasons of sound quality. "I don't use digital recording because it's inappropriate for the work that I do. I do permanent recording of records that are intended to last forever. They are the history of the band I am working for at the moment, and it is vitally important to them."

He notes that digital formats are relatively impermanent in nature compared to analog formats, and that he has "yet to come across a circumstance where I couldn't accomplish what I needed to do using analog techniques." He concedes that digital recording is fine for most uses, but mostly for "stuff that doesn't matter to me," an admission that brought laughter from the audience.

Another part of Albini's reputation is his opposition to the major label recording industry. "I am opposed to exploitation of anyone by anyone. I think it's crass that an entire industry has developed where such business practices are considered the norm I have done records for other bands who are involved in the mainstream record industry, and they and I both know that they're not getting a fair shake. And all I can do is have sympathy for them."

"I do choose to behave in a way which I am comfortable, and it has proven to be a very successful method in terms of my longevity." In his own business practices, Albini charges the same affordable rate to all his clients. He always deals with the bands directly, and he is still the guy that answers the phone in the studio. He earns a fee of $350 a day as an engineer, and draws a salary of $24,000 a year from Electrical Audio.

During the question and answer session, Albini responded to a question concerning the difference between major and independent labels: "Dealing with indie labels is much, much easier than dealing with major labels. Indie labels pay their bills, major labels don't When you're dealing with major labels, it's vitally important to get the money before you do anything else."

Another audience question concerned Albini's work on his most notorious project, the Nirvana In Utero sessions. The recording sessions themselves were "totally normal, it was just like any other record I've ever done. We go to the studio, we make the record, they're happy with it, they go home. After that, when the record label finally heard it, that's when it started. That's when the record label started to try and influence the band, and started to call me names. It didn't affect me on a personal level but it did begin an ugly period when I almost went bankrupt The core clientele eventually came back, and I lived."

When asked on his thoughts about the recording industry program, Albini offered some sobering advice: "Certainly it's there to serve the interests of the students. The students want to learn this stuff, so that's why they're in the program."

"There are virtually no jobs available in this trade. In recording, all of the giant institutional studios are going bankrupt. What exists now are a million little one-man and two-man studios that are operated on second-hand equipment in a rented space someplace." The recording industry, he continued, is increasingly composed of small, entrepreneurial studios which offer the best chance for students to find employment in the industry.

John Arnold, the student chair of the AES, is responsible for bringing Albini to campus: "I cold-called him. I picked up the phone, dialed his number, and he said he'd be into it. Four months later, we picked a date. He was really cool about it, he was excited about coming."

Albini routinely performs at public-speaking engagements for the audio industry, but it is believed that this is the first time he has spoken to a group of recording industry students.

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