Steve Albini: Recording Analog in the Digital Age

SteveAlbiniSteve Albini, famed Chicago-based recording engineer, industry critic and member of rock outfit Shellac, has worked across genres with more than 1,000 artists, notably Nirvana, PJ Harvey and the Pixies. He launched his studio Electrical Audio in 1997. It’s a formidable space that’s managed to keep its doors open when comparable studios have not by holding overheads low and otherwise running efficiently. Perhaps most telling of his engineering philosophy is that he continues to record solely in analog.

It’s typical for Albini to begin work with a band with little or no introduction, due to the way that he books his studio. “I do a lot of sessions where the band is basically coming in cold,” he explains. “I’ve never met them or heard their music, but through reputation or reference they’ve decided that they want to work with me. My schedule doesn’t permit pre-production and I tend to book session after session. There’s no time in between for me to do anything other than work on the next record. That’s a function of the economics of the studio business at the moment. It’s not possible to earn a living unless you’re working constantly.”

SteveAlbini3ThingsAlbini asserts that it isn’t his job to impress his own mark upon a record. Many engineers, particularly mastering, have made similar observations. “I’ve been in bands myself so I have a lot of respect for the way they operate,” he says. “Most of what I do is facilitate decisions that the band has already made; they’ve already decided how they want their record to sound. If something’s weird or unpleasant, I’ll mention it. But I’m open-minded enough to know that I’m not always going to understand it. The last thing a band needs is someone telling them they’re wrong about their own music. I try my hardest to never say no.”

Albini is an advocate of trying new things on virtually every project on which he works. He learned this approach from an interview with recording engineer and Shellac bassist Bob Weston. As he explains: “On every session he did, he made a point of doing one thing that he was curious about, whether that was using a mic he’d never used before or putting it in a position he’d never tried. Gradually you build a vocabulary and if you’re ever required to do something, you can reach back into your memory. I totally stole that idea.”

Despite the technical advances of recent years, Albini still opts to work exclusively with tape. “I’ve never made a record digitally,” he explains. “I only use tape machines. It’s how I learned to make records. The fundamental problem with digital recording is that there’s no permanent master. Tapes are essentially permanent. Our dongle went missing for about eight hours one day during a digital session for somebody else and they could literally do nothing. Those are frailties of digital systems.”

As a man that’s run his own studio for nearly 15 years, he’s experimented with a range of gear. His favorite piece is the STC 4038 ribbon microphone made by Coles Electroacoustics. “It’s a very high-quality, versatile mic,” he asserts. “I use it on a number of things, especially the richer instruments like cello, viola and double bass. They’re not terribly bright, not crisp. But they have a very nice definition.”

Artists that he’d like to work with include Crazy Horse, Willie Nelson and AC/DC. “Like Crazy Horse, they do the same thing over and over again and it’s always awesome,” he observes.

Recently Albini completed a 7-inch record for Screaming Females. He’ll also record a live album for the band.

Contact Steve Albini/Electric Audio at http://www.electricaudio.com.

By Rob Putnam