Steve Albini on his gear and recording know-how
30th Oct 2013 | 14:58
Revered engineer/producer Steve Albini talks ribbon mics and problem solving
PRODUCTION EXPO 2013: Steve Albini's CV includes production credits for luminaries such as Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Slint, Pixies, Jawbreaker and Manic Street Preachers (amongst countless others), and of course fronting legendary guitar noiseniks Shellac. Still producing, nowadays the independent music idol runs Electrical Audio studio in Chicago.
In this exclusive interview, Steve gives us an alternative perspective on rock production and a grounding in his collaborative 'less-is-more' methodology.
Do you have a particular 'production ethos'?
"Whatever the band wants to do with the record then my job is to facilitate that"
"There are trends and styles in music production as executed by 'proper' producers that are part of the tidal flow of style that encompasses all music. For my part, I've always seen my job as primarily technical; where, whatever the band wants to do with the record then my job is to facilitate that.
"I'm not up to date with contemporary productions to the extent that I would even necessarily be competent if I tried to execute things currently in vogue in production. Because I come from a band background myself, I've always approached it from the presumption that the bands you work with already have their aesthetic worked out and don't need any outside influence."
So what is a producer?
"Currently, the term producer has a slightly different meaning. In a lot of cases with electronic music that's based on samples and collage style backing tracks, the 'producer' is essentially the whole band. There are producers who are responsible for making every sound you hear on a record. That's not the aesthetic my clients typically aim for so I have no experience doing that.
"I would be incapable of making a pop music style record where the backing is done in that fashion… I wouldn't have the slightest idea how to begin.
"However, put me in a situation where there's a performing unit/band of some kind who have their aesthetic worked out and know what they want their record to sound like, and I'm pretty sure I can get through the session and get them an acceptable result.
"Trying to do it a different way at this juncture would be a big learning curve for me and, in the process, I'd make some terrible records!"
Steve Albini has had a hand in more than his fair share of great indie and punk rock gems, including Jawbreaker's 24 Hour Revenge Therapy
Do you think the rise of DIY home recording is a good thing?
"I had a long experimental phase, which I think is good in almost any practise. When you think of people who have accomplished anything in any discipline, they tend to have spent a long time tinkering on their own before anybody was paying any attention. I think that gestation period for any skill-set is valuable. In a way, it didn't used to be possible to be a one-man-band as efficiently as it is possible now.
"A lot of people in my position are opposed to the home-recording of music. They feel like it cheapens what happens in the studio - but I disagree "
"As technology has progressed and become more democratic, giving more people access to more powerful recording equipment, it's only natural that the carrying-on effect is that there are going to be ever-more bedroom geniuses creating stuff uniquely theirs that they autodidactly figured out.
"Like most technological developments in music, I tend to think of them as good because they allow for possibilities that didn't exist before. I know a lot of people in my position are opposed to the home recording of music; they feel it cheapens what happens in the studio to presume that someone can do it in their living-room but I disagree. I think it highlights the differences between those two things."
What's your opinion on using in-vogue production gimmicks?
"When things are overused in production, they come off as a clumsy cliché of an era. The blatant auto-tune was a charming gimmick then it became ubiquitous, then mandatory, then tedious and clichéd. All of these things play into my reluctance to take authorial control of the records I work on.
"I don't want to be saddling a band with clichés that are not of their choosing, you know? So I'm inclined to try and capture whatever is awesome about a band in their own dialect and not concern myself with trying to make it fit in with the current musical landscape."
You have a certain sound associated with your production work. Does that limit the bands you work with?
"It's obvious from the kind of bands I work with and some of the records I make that there are threads of continuity within those records, but I like to think a band could come here with anything in mind and end up satisfied. I guess you could call it a partnership, but my perspective is that I'm more of an employee."
Steve also had a hand in Welsh post-hardcore trio Mclusky's 2002 album, Mclusky Do Dallas
What advice can you give to aspiring producers?
"If somebody wants to be a Kanye West but they call themselves a producer for the moment, you don't really have any option other than to just try and be as big a version of yourself as you can.
"If somebody wants to be someone like me, just a working engineer who makes records for a living, I would say respect your clients, first and foremost.
"Make yourself useful. If you're just starting out, look in your immediate neighbourhood for people to work with; friends or people who think like you do. Make yourself available to them, which doesn't mean hard-sell pestering but just let everyone know that you're happy to help if they need it. Bands appreciate when there's somebody taking an interest in helping them."
How did you go about developing your knowledge base and what could other producers do to develop theirs?
"Like I said, there was a long experimental phase where I tried out a lot of things on my own and made a lot of the same mistakes other people have made historically. Also, whenever I ran into a professional engineer I would grill him: I'd set up a scenario and ask him how he would solve the problem. Or I'd get him to go over some equipment or techniques he'd used, get advice on solving some acoustic problem. Literally, whenever I came across someone who was doing what I wanted to do then I'd just annoy them with questions.
"There's also a remarkable amount of material available in the public library about acoustics or audio-electronics and sound recording. There are also self-identified internet communities for people who are into recording, like the Tape-Op message board that's all about home recording. I don't always find the stuff on there useful but the enthusiasm is great.
"You learn things by having someone set up a scenario then having to go through the mental exercise of solving the problem yourself. Over the exposure to many different scenarios, you develop a vocabulary of techniques for problem solving. More than anything else, recording music is a long string of problems that need to be solved."
Lots of people will want to know, what's your secret to recording guitars?
"There's no one secret. I guess the most important thing is to listen to the sound the guitar player is making, then go through your mental image of what different microphones do with different sounds and try to make a pairing in your mind that would be flattering to the sound you're hearing.
"Sometimes you'll have contradictory impulses. For example, there's a band I've worked with several times called Mono, a Japanese band with an enormous dynamic range. Their music goes from tiny, ghostly little melodies through to full roaring rock band plus orchestral instruments.
"The key is not to expect one tool to do everything"
"When the guitar players are playing the quiet stuff, that's one sonic character. When they're playing the loud, brutal stuff, that's a different sonic character. Be prepared for both extremes and, just to cover yourself, have something to handle the transitional period.
"I guess the key is not to expect one tool to do everything. There's an old carpenter's expression that says, 'If the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything has to behave like a nail'.
So respect each band's individuality?
"Each band likes to think of itself as being quite distinctive so you have to take seriously their concerns about their individuality. More importantly, you just have to pay attention and listen to the sound and adapt your technique to the sound.
"When you're first starting out you won't have a big vocabulary of technique and you won't know how to solve certain problems. Just experiment with things until you find a solution for a specific problem."
Albini also engineered this indie staple, for which - as usual - he refused royalties
Do you have any favourite mics?
"I tend to like mics that I can get a lot of different uses out of. I'm very fond of a British ribbon microphone that was originally made by STC but is now made by a company called Coles Electro Acoustics. It's the 4038. It was a standard, general-purpose BBC microphone. I use the 4038s a lot - as drum-overheads, on guitar cabinets, string instruments and brass, or if you have a really weedy-sounding acoustic guitar they add a lot of body.
"I'm a big fan of the 4038 and it has a lot of disparate uses. You wouldn't think that a mic that sounds great on an electric guitar cabinet would also sound good on an acoustic guitar close-up or a cello.
What about cool mics for recording drums?
"I really like the Josephson microphones. David Josephson was an engineer who worked on measurement capsules for a while then made music-recording mics. He has a line of really versatile microphones.
"There's one that we, Electrical Audio, helped him design called the E22S. It's a cardioid condenser microphone with a small capsule that makes it unobtrusive and makes it really easy to fit in around different drums in a drum kit. Again, we use them on guitars and acoustic instruments too.
"He also has a range of omni-directional microphones that use Gefell omni-capsules and the Neumann Gefell measurement capsules have remarkable low-end. He has a head-amplifier called the Josephson 617 and that combination of the Gefell capsule and the 617 is just about the best combination I've ever heard over a big piano.
"I'm definitely not one of those engineers that has racks of outboard patched in on everything. I try to keep the signal-path simple and to be as utilitarian as possible about all the choices I make for equipment."
What's the key to recording good rock vocals?
"There's one thing that comes up more often than you might expect. If you're working with a singer and the singer is having trouble staying in tune, often people like to compress vocals quite heavily from an aesthetic standpoint.
"That's fine but my experience has been that some singers, if their voice is being dynamically modulated outside of their control they tend to lose control of their pitch as well. I've found that singers can often sing more in tune if you're using little or no compression on the vocal feed going to the headphones."
Shellac will be appearing at this year's last ever All Tomorrow's Parties festival.
Interview by Hamish Mackintosh