I'm the kind of record buyer that always reads album credits, and starting in the early 1990s, with the Pixies' "Surfer Rosa," Nirvana's "In Utero," and PJ Harvey's "Rid of Me" I noticed that all of these great sounding recordings were engineered by Steve Albini. The man is extraordinarily prolific, and to date has worked on 2,000 albums! I reached out to him a few weeks ago to talk about his work.
Albini's Chicago, Ill., studio, Electrical Audio, is always busy, not only because of his talent but also because his rates are extremely reasonable. Other than Albini it's rare to find engineers with his level of experience recording bands that are just starting out. Most bands he deals with pay their own way, or have outside funding of some sort, and not too many are bankrolled by record companies. Few bands arrive with outside producers -- they produce themselves. And Albini prefers it that way. He certainly doesn't think of himself as a producer, he's purely an engineer and technical hands-on guy -- musical and creative decisions are the bands' territory.
Microphones play a major role in determining the sound of each instrument for the recording, and Albini's years of experience lead him to select specific ones, but once he starts listening he might change the mics to better zero-in on the sound he wants. As he put it, "You're trying to make a flattering and accurate portrait of the band. Realism is a good starting point, and then the band will make some adjustments." The band is the final arbiter of the sound; Albini is there to serve the band, not tell them what to do.
Albini records to analog tape, not because he's in love with the sound of analog. No, he's concerned that as digital formats continue to evolve, today's digital recordings will be unplayable in the future. I loved the way Albini put it: "I feel it would be irresponsible to give my clients digital files as their permanent masters, knowing they would eventually disappear or become unusable, so I won't do it. Some of the bands I work with don't appreciate the difference, or take seriously the notion that music should outlive the people who make it, and I understand that." Still, Albini feels that analog tape offers the best chance for recordings to survive. I agree, and analog tape can be used to create great sounding high-definition digital masters. That's not true of the vast majority of recordings that are being made today; most are limited to 48-kHz/24-bit digital.
Albini feels the biggest advance in recording technology is the wide availability of affordable but high-quality mics and gear, so there's less of a need for bands to use studios. Albini actually thinks that's a good thing, and then said, sure, it was easier for him to make a living in the 1990s. Nowadays he's competing with bands recording themselves for free. But then he said, "The majority of recordings will be crappy, low-quality recordings, but there will always be work for engineers who can do a good job, because there will always be people who appreciate good sound." Back in the day, that happened "by default," because most studios were operated by engineers who knew how to make great sound. Sadly, the number of professionally run studios in the U.S. is in steep decline.
When I brought up the issue of dynamic range compression, Albini said, "That's why most music is so dull, people don't want to be gripped by music that's being played in the background in the office, they don't want something that will draw their attention away from their jobs, phone calls, or their boss." He went on to say that some folks still want to be totally engaged by music, but they're in the minority, most just want sonic wallpaper. The overuse of compression flattens the sound, to make it more palatable to the biggest possible audience.
When I asked Albini to name a few favorite recent projects, he was hesitant, but then mentioned The Bottomless Pit, which was mastered at Abbey Road, and he's pretty happy with that record. He also cited Nina Nastasia, and he's recorded a bunch of her albums.