Steve Albini is a well-known engineer, mixer, and studio owner who lives and works at his Electric Audio studio in Chicago, Illinois. He is also the guitarist and main singer of the grunge band Shellac. Stating these basic facts about Albini is straightforward, but describing anything that goes beyond them is not. The reason is that almost everything Albini does, and says, is at odds with the mainstream. In fact, many of his working practices and public stances are actively controversial. As a result, the adjectives “notorious,” “contrary,” “provocative,” “difficult,” are never far away from media descriptions of Albini, even as the man himself is mild-mannered and unassuming to a fault.
Albini’s preference for continuing to work almost entirely in the analogue domain, at a time when the digital revolution appears close to hammering the final nail in analogue’s coffin, can arguably be described as “contrary.” The same can be said about the fact that the Electrical Audio web site openly lists the daily rates of both studio and owner, a rarity in the hard-pressed pro audio world. An indication of Albini’s more divergent side comes from a glance at his actual daily rate ($500), which is a fraction of that commanded by other big name engineers and mixers, as well as the statement that he’ll work with anyone who calls. Things become even more radical when his public declarations are taken into account that he’ll work for free, if the band or artist really can’t afford to work with him otherwise.
Albini’s ethos can be summarized as always putting the interests of the band/artist and their music first, uncompromisingly, without any concessions to fame, fashion, money, record, publishing and management companies, and even engineers, mixers, and producers. Obviously, the facts of life in the music industry are rather different and Albini has, in interviews, letters, blogs, and essays, vociferously attacked many common music industry working practices. The most famous occasion on which Albini articulated his ethos was in an essay called “The Problem With Music,” as well as in a letter to Nirvana, in reply to their request for him to record and produce their third and final album, In Utero (1993).
The essential points of Albini’s letter have long been known but, but the entire contents were finally published in 2013 as part of the 20th anniversary edition of In Utero (1993). More than twenty years later they still give a good summary of Albini’s values and philosophy. Putting his money where his mouth was, Albini refused to be paid in points because in his view “paying a royalty to a producer or engineer is ethically indefensible.” The letter also laid down “no interference from front office bulletheads” as a condition for his participation, argued that “Most contemporary engineers and producers see a record as a ‘project,’ and the band as only one element,” and emphasized, “My approach is exactly the opposite. I consider the band the most important thing.” Albini also stated, “If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody’s fucking up.”
Today Albini still strictly works according to these principles. His dissenting views would have been dismissed as the ramblings of an irrelevant outsider if it had not been for the small matter of the enormous success of his studio work. Despite his preference for not being credited at all, and objecting to the role of the producer as a musical supervisor, he’s received a producer credit on albums by PJ Harvey, The Pixies, Cheap Trick, Bush, Manic Street Preachers, The Jesus Lizard, and many others. Because of his open-door policy at Electric Audio, Albini has worked with a huge amount of artists, ranging from the very famous to the completely unknown. He estimates that he’s worked on close to 2000 recording projects. Allmusic.com lists 780 credits, mostly for engineering and mixing.
It may seem odd that someone with such maverick views became so successful in an industry with which he is to such a degree at odds, but the explanation lies in the fact that Albini loves musicians(as long as they have integrity), music and recording gear, and is unquestionably one of the world’s most-skilled engineers and mixers. Albini objects to the idea that he has a sound, but many of the records he has worked on, regardless of the genre, have a recognizable honesty and directness that comes from him closely listening to what’s happening in the room and knowing what microphones and preamps to use and where to place them. Because of his explorations as a musician in the grunge genre he has a penchant for working with loud, noisy alternative rock bands, and in many cases he enhances their music with his trademark panoramic, transient-rich, sparsely treated, almost lo-fi sound.
Albini’s aesthetic originates from his first steps in music in the late seventies, when he was still a teenager, playing bass guitar and listening mostly to punk music. After completing high school he obtained a degree in journalism, and became active as a writer in a number of zines in Chicago. Around the same time he also began recording music. In 1982 he founded his first band, called Big Black, and began work as a retouch artist in a photography studio. He formed the band Rapeman in 1987, and Shellac in 1992. His skills as an engineer and mixer were strongly influenced by British engineers like Iain Burger and John Loder. When the latter recorded a Big Black album, Albini noted how Loder was an expert at “getting the most out of the equipment without making the equipment the focus of attention.”
Albini bought Electric Audio in 1995, and continues to work there to this day. The studio has a unique collection of mostly analogue equipment, though the digital revolution has even infiltrated there in the form of a Pro Tools rig. Electric Audio has been hailed as one of the most affordable top-quality studios in the world. Outside of engineering and mixing, Albini continues to work with Shellac, and write articles and blogs expressing his views on music, musicians, and the music industry, as well as on cooking and food. Albini is also active as a poker player, coming 12th in the 2013World Series of Poker Seniors Championship.
In February 2017, Steve Albini’s activities will become even more wide-ranging when he will be conducting his fourth Mix With The Masters seminar. Given Albini’s extraordinary pedigree as an engineer and mixer, and the many thought-provoking views that he articulates with great clarity, this promises to be an exceptional and not-to-be-missed seminar.
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Q&A with Steve Albini