10 Lessons from a Recording Legend: Remembering Steve Albini

The news of Steve Albini’s passing has left me shocked and saddened. He was not only a true icon in my field, but also my favourite recording engineer and a mentor from afar. 

Despite never having met him personally, I feel like I learned almost everything from observing the way he approached making records. I’m not one to idolise easily, but I can confidently say that the only other person from whom I’ve gleaned as many life lessons is my Dad, who also tragically passed away at the same age of 61 and from a heart attack. Needless to say, today’s news has hit me hard on multiple levels.

In light of his passing, I feel compelled to share a multitude of lessons that I’ve taken away from Steve Albini. Some of these may seem obvious, while others are more nuanced, but each one reflects the profound impact he had on me and countless others in the industry.

  • 1. Embracing unique gear and techniques to stand out amongst a crowd

Albums should be intriguing and distinctive; I’ve never been one to follow like a sheeple and use trending gear just because everyone else does. My goal is for my work to be memorable and full of character, not to fade into the background unnoticed. When I create an album, I aim for ear candy, not ear kale. It’s a fitting analogy because, much like how people only ate kale briefly because it was fashionable, I believe music should be enjoyed for its flavour, not just its trendiness.

Steve didn’t rely on a rack full of 1176 compressors, nor did he automatically reach for Sennheiser 421s for toms or Shure SM57s for guitars and snare drums. One of the key takeaways I gained from him is the importance of seeking out overlooked, lesser known gear that may be more affordable and offer a more unique alternative to industry standards.

2. Seeking overlooked alternatives to industry standards.

The gear list at Electrical Audio was like a trusted almanack, a guide to what’s worth its salt and what’s not. If it passed muster with Steve, it was certainly good enough for a small-timer like me. I appreciated how he meticulously documented all the equipment on his website, offering detailed descriptions that gave insight like;

‘Lomo Microphones: a Russian alternative to Neumann, great for adding presence to a dense music’. 

When I first encountered the Electrical Audio site, you could snag a Lomo 19A19 for roughly £500, largely because everyone was chasing after a Neumann U87 (I never liked them and neither did he), people often overlooked the Russian counterpart. Over the last 20 years, people have finally caught on to just how remarkable these mics are, and now they’re fetching around £4000.

I followed Steve’s lead and opted for a Neumann CMV563 with an M7 capsule for around £1000, seeing it as a fantastic alternative to the unattainable U47. Similarly, I invested in an Altec M20/165, convinced by his endorsement of it as the ultimate snare mic. Back then, I believe I paid around £600 for it. But if you look at the prices for both of these mics today, it’s staggering how much they’ve appreciated. 

Inspired by Steve’s ethos, I adopted a mantra of seeking alternatives. For instance, I uncovered a variety of microphones with the same capsule as the classic Sennheiser 409 (“the Hifi SM57”), available in different packages like the 402, 403, 405, among a bunch of Grundig GDSM’s. Despite their lower price tags, they housed the same quality microphone inside—a testament to the value of exploring beyond the normal studio picks.

I continued my quest for affordable alternatives, finding gems like the Grundig GBM125 as a substitute for a BeyerDynamic ribbon mic, and stumbling upon a unique valve Sony SR2A preamp from an old Sony tape recorder, which performed admirably similar to the coveted Ampex model Steve favoured.


3. Rejecting the producer title in favour of guiding and facilitating the creative process.

Around the same time I encountered Steve, I also came across producers with the antithesis of Albini’s approach. It became increasingly common for producers not only to take control of the technical aspects but to dictate every facet of the band’s sound, even picking up instruments to reshape and rewrite the songs to fit the producers vision. 

Steve stood apart from this trend; he detested being labelled a producer. Instead, he saw himself as a highly skilled engineer who acted as a conduit between the band and the recording equipment, preferring to facilitate rather than dominate. He was a consummate professional in allowing others’ creativity to shine while still leaving a non pushy yet indelible mark on their recordings.

4. Preserving live band dynamics to capture authentic energy and cohesion.

One of the most peculiar trends in recording history is the urge to dismantle the natural cohesion of a band by tracking each instrument separately. However, one of my personal joys is preserving the essence of a band by having them play together during the initial tracking stages. There’s a magic in the movement and groove of a band working in sync, flaws and all, akin to a live performance. 

This authenticity is often overlooked in modern records. While it’s still possible to correct mistakes and maintain a natural feel without rigid adherence to a grid, the essence lies in embracing the dynamic interplay of musicians feeding off one another. Steve has always championed this approach, resulting in recordings that feel organic and inherently enjoyable to listen to.


5. The warmth and limitations of Analog Tape recording

Oh, the allure of tape—it’s a beauty to behold. In an era where true analog signal paths are a rarity, experiencing the raw power of analog recording is akin to witnessing a classical orchestra in its purest form: just the unadulterated resonance of sound waves enveloping you. 

While digital converters have reached impressive heights, there’s a unique emotional depth to analog that’s incomparable. Analog recording preserves the integrity of sound, eschewing the quantization of waveforms found in digital. It’s a seamless exchange between infinite sound waves and electrical impulses, a true embodiment of sonic purity.

Moreover, the limitations of editing on tape force a reckoning with small musical imperfections that might easily be edited out in digital. Inspired by Steve, I even invested in an Ampex ATR102, and I’ve made a promise to myself to one day own a Studer 827. 


6. Embracing the structure and commitment of linear workflows.

Working with tape imposes a linear workflow, guiding you from the beginning to the end of a song without the luxury of jumping around as easily as in a DAW. This process fosters a deeper focus on the evolution and continuity of the recorded piece, minimising distractions and honing in on the flow of the music.

Despite the unlimited track capabilities of modern DAWs, the constraints of analog recording offer a refreshing alternative. By limiting options and forcing decisions along the way, it encourages commitment to a specific sound or structure. There’s no safety net of an “undo” button—once a performance is captured, it’s there to stay. 

With perhaps only one or two compressors at your disposal, you’re compelled to achieve the desired sound and commit to it during recording. The end result can be immensely satisfying, knowing that each decision made along the way has contributed to the final product.

7. Achieving natural, unprocessed soundscapes without sacrificing clarity.

The Albini sound stands out as the epitome of naturalness in my experience. It never relied on hype yet retained absolute clarity, rendering even the most challenging and abrasive bands with a mellow and enjoyable quality. There was never an excess of compression or squash; instead, the sound had an inviting depth that could move you as if the band were performing live before you. Steve always managed to capture the essence of music without imposing artificial enhancements, resulting in an immersive sonic experience that resonated deeply.


8. Maintaining professionalism and humility while delivering exceptional results.

The punk rock world that Steve emerged from indeed celebrates music that can be abrasive and even outright brutal. Yet, what sets him apart is his refusal to impose that aesthetic onto someone else’s recording. His motto, “Your taste doesn’t have to be my taste, to get the job done well,” epitomises a level of professionalism that transcends personal preferences. 

It’s remarkable to consider the dedication it takes to craft impeccable records for music that one may not personally enjoy. This level of professionalism is rare; not many people can honestly say they do their best work when faced with projects they dislike. Steve’s ability to set aside his own musical preferences and focus on delivering outstanding results speaks volumes about his integrity and commitment to his craft.


9. Cultivating a relaxed and enjoyable studio atmosphere.

Steve’s dry sense of humour was one-of-a-kind, I can only imagine the laughter that must have filled the studio day to day. From his legendary ‘King Silly’ move of gaffer taping his guitar to his waist instead of using a strap, to the perfectly timed comedic quips showcased on the Electrical Audio YouTube channel, his wit was a joy to watch.

And then there are the legendary tales of prank phone calls during the Nirvana In Utero recordings, offering a glimpse into a different side to what people must imagine of those sessions. It’s clear that amidst the serious business Steve knew how to inject a healthy dose of fun and levity, making the studio experience not only productive but also thoroughly enjoyable.

In addition to refraining from overshadowing the creative process, I learned from Steve the paramount importance of fostering a comfortable environment for the musicians I record. Creating a space where artists feel at ease allows them the freedom to tackle the challenges of recording in their own way. Steve’s philosophy taught me that there are countless paths to achieving the same result, and that rigid, one-size-fits-all approaches have no place in the studio.

10. Remaining approachable and supportive to artists of all levels.

Absolutely, Steve’s lack of a “holier than thou” attitude is one of his most admirable traits. Despite his impressive resume working with iconic bands like Nirvana, The Pixies, Page & Plant, and PJ Harvey, he remained accessible and approachable. The fact that you could call him up until a few days ago, and he would personally answer and book any band no matter who was calling, also at a very reasonable price, speaks volumes about his life in service to music.

This humility allowed him to connect with artists on a personal level, fostering an environment of collaboration and trust in the studio. It’s this dedication to his craft and his unwavering commitment to supporting the creative process that truly sets him apart as the best recording engineer EVER!…EVER! The world is a worse place without him. 


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