Steve Albini's sound masterclass
He might be the last musician you’d expect to be found working for The Man, but here he is, at a recording studio in Lanarkshire. Steve Albini, famous for standing against the march of big business, and faceless oppressors of musicians, is at Chem19 Studios in Blantyre at the behest of Creative Scotland - the Scottish Government-funded body. And he’s loving it.
First on the agenda: training up the next generation of sound engineers. “I really admire your tradition of public institutions, the BBC and health system and your universities,” says the legendary engineer – never ‘producer’.
Albini is probably best known for his work on the Nirvana ‘In Utero’ album, when the band, rather than recording a unit-shifting shiny follow-up to seminal long-player ‘Nevermind’, instead opted for a back-to-basics recording – his trademark.
“The record label plan was to do precisely what was done on the hit record, again, so they could sell more of it. And the band rebelled against that, they just wanted to go into a studio and make a record on their own. Nirvana stuck to their guns... and as a last ditch effort to persuade them to scrap it and start again there was a public whispering campaign started by the record label to try to put pressure on the band and make the band capitulate and do the record over.
“Now if you listen to the record now all the controversy seems silly, because it’s a very good record and there’s nothing about it that seems extreme or excessive or absurd, it’s a fairly in many ways a rock band making a record to suit themselves.”
This extends to his principle of working for a flat fee rather than taking royalties, like many of his peers. “I’m working on (Dundee indie band) Spare Snare's record for what, five days, at the end of the five days they’ll have a record that’s going to last them the rest of their lives and I’m going to move onto another record.
“It’s insane for me to expect them to keep paying for life a job that I did over the space of 5 days, but that was a standard mode of compensation for the record business and I just refused to participate in it. You’re going to work for four or five days and then paid for 75 years.”
And what sounds like a somewhat old-fashioned approach to musical ethics extends to his recording process as well. “Tape machines, microphones and a desk” are the tools of his trade with computers not part of the analogue equation – an argument similar to that heard in the CD vs vinyl debate.
So it’s inevitable, if a little ironic that Albini was employed by Nirvana’s label, 25 years on, for the SIlver Anniversary edition of ‘In Utero’. “Better vinyl, flatter vinyl, cut directly into metal from the original master tapes, on two 12” 45 records, every possible thing that could be done to make the best possible vinyl reproduction was done.”
The point being that storing music on good-quality tape isn’t subject to hard drive crashes, software upgrades or computer obsolescence. “Unless you do something aggressive or set it on fire, the band can stumble out of the session drunk at 4 in the morning, and as long as they don’t throw their master in the trash they will have an archival master that will be good for 100 years.”
Like many of the course students, recording engineer is the day job. He gets to down tools every so often and play with his post rock three-piece Shellac.“Every moment in that band is a pure joy for me and I feel it’s like an escape from my normal existence, so I’m prepared to put up with a lot of bull in the meantime in order to have those experiences.”
However, there is an upside to the 9-5. “I have got to work with some of my genuine heroes like Cheap Trick, the Stooges, Fred Schneider, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, these people have been pivotal in music and I’ve got to hang out with them on a personal level and become acquainted with them and become friends with them and help them make a record.” he enthuses.
“I’ve been living on birthday cake for the last 30 years, and I shouldn’t complain that I didn’t also get pie!”