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Electric Engineering | Steve Albini

October 1, 2008
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Steve Albini

Steve Albini
Photo: Rich Markese

Over the course of his 25-plus years of studio work, punk icon and longtime recording engineer Steve Albini has recorded literally thousands of records in facilities around the world. To those who are unfamiliar with his work, he may most easily be described as the engineer who recorded the Pixies' Surfer Rosa (4AD, 1992), Nirvana's In Utero (DGC, 1993), and the Page and Plant album Walking into Clarksdale (Atlantic, 1998).

However, those are but a few bullet points on a very long list of accomplishments that contribute to Albini's renown. His first band, Big Black, along with other independent bands of the early '80s, helped string together the network of clubs and other resources, both in the United States and abroad, that created the underground culture we know today. (He also wrote widely for the underground 'zines of that era.) As a guitarist, he commands a singular sound and playing style, hair-trigger, full of treble, and instantly recognizable. For the music of Shellac of North America, Albini's current band, he grafts this guitar onto an increasingly stripped-down aesthetic and experimental arrangements, which together pleasantly upset the standard power-trio motif.

During practically every other spare minute, it would seem, he records other bands, and his regimen in the studio has remained essentially unchanged. Every recording is an entirely analog process from microphone to master tape, using the best available equipment, and with minimal gimmickry. (Although the studio is equipped with a Digidesign Pro Tools system, Albini himself doesn't use it.) The resulting albums share common aural attributes that have attracted scores of bands over the years: a naturalistic sound similar to that of the best jazz recordings, detailed and dynamic, albeit often with a more thunderous drum sound akin to that of, say, Led Zeppelin.

In 1997, with the completion of the Electrical Audio studios (electrical.com) in Chicago, Albini and his crew had created a world-class facility built to his specifications. The studio building is completely self-contained, with Albini's own living quarters located on-site, rooms available for clients to rent over the course of their projects, and a large lounge and kitchen area. The studios themselves are marvels of acoustics, flexibility in design, and thrift — the oak floorboards, for example, were reclaimed from the facade of the building itself.

The main purpose of this interview was to find out Albini's normal mode of operation in the studio for a variety of standard tasks. Although he touched on a few favored microphones for given situations, this was not the focus. You can find particular mic applications, and more, thoroughly documented on Electrical Audio's Web site.

During the course of the interview, we also touched on details of the studio's design and the building itself, both of which are, of course, integral to the overall sound of an Electrical recording. Additional text, as well as a short video tour of the studio (see Web Clip 1), can be found at emusician.com.

Fig. 1: Steve Albini uses a stereo mic in front of the kit and often mics both sides of the kick and toms.

What's the general approach of Electrical Audio?

The vast majority of the records that I make are performance-based records, where you've got a band playing their material essentially the way they would in rehearsal or live, maybe with a few overdubs. But the idea behind the studio is that you can do essentially any project here. We have 48-track analog available. We also have a Pro Tools system, and other external equipment can be strapped in very easily if necessary. We have multicore patch bays so that you can replace the multitrack machines with a Pro Tools rig just by changing one cable. Overall, it was designed to be as flexible as we could make it.

Let's start with a basic rock-band setup: drums, bass, guitar, vocals. Beginning with the drums, how do you typically mic them?

There's almost nothing that I do all the time. But normally I'll have close mics on all the drums, a stereo mic to pick up the drum kit sound as a whole, and then distant ambient mics [see Fig. 1]. The ambient mics are generally on the floor and triangulated from the seated position of the drummer, equidistant from the drum seat.

As normal practice, I combine multiple microphones for certain sounds. For example, I normally mic the top and bottom of tom-toms. I reverse the polarity of one of them because the two mics are pointed in opposite directions. But I'll sum those to one channel each, so there will be one track for the rack tom, and one track for the floor tom, for example. You just make sure the balance sounds good and then print that balance.

I'll often do that for the bass drum as well. I'll have a batter-side mic and a front-side mic, and I'll get a balance between those that sounds good and record that. I don't often use a snare drum bottom mic, but when I do, I'll do the same thing there.

I tend to use microphones as they were made and choose them accordingly. I'll put a microphone up, and if I like it I'll leave it, and if not I'll put something else up. Occasionally I'll think, “I like that, but there's a little low-frequency rumble in there that's not going to be helpful,” so I'll roll that off. Most of the time, though, I'm using things flat, no EQ. In a typical tracking session, I'll probably end up brightening the top mics on toms to get a little more attack out of the toms, probably brighten up the top mic on the snare drum.

Almost any microphone you put on the snare drum is going to sound thick and meaty when it's right up next to the snare drum, but it may not give you enough of the impression of crispness. So I would expect to have to use an equalizer to brighten the snare drum, to brighten the top mics on the toms. But that would be about it.

Also, most of the time, the drummer's in the room by himself — I'd say 80, 90 percent of the time. But it's not as if the drums are recorded and mixed on their own and then the band is added later. My normal working method is to have the whole band play, and then from the first playback, you have about 80 to 90 percent of the record. That way, you can tell very quickly if there's a problem, and if there is a problem, you can stop and fix it before you continue.

What do you use for the stereo-mic setup on the drums?

For the stereo mics, I use Blumlein or M-S setups for a lot of stuff, especially in front of the drum kit.

And the choice between the two is dictated by what factor?

Whenever I'm bored with one, I'll throw the other one up. I don't make a real distinction between them. Blumlein stereo is slightly hollow in the middle, so if I feel like the majority of the drum sound is going to be coming from the stereo microphones, I'll probably use M-S rather than Blumlein. Whereas if I feel like the stereo mic is going to be mainly an addition to the close-mic sound, then I'm more likely to use Blumlein. But that's a real subtlety.

Do you run into phase issues from using so many mics on a drum kit?

It's not really that much of a problem. If it starts to sound weird, I'll just move a mic. I'm not afraid of getting out of the chair and moving a mic. It can be more of a pain with more mics, but that would never prevent me from doing something that I thought was the right thing to do.

What's your method for recording bass?

Fig. 2: Albini combines two different mics on a bass rig in order to capture a wide frequency spectrum.

I tend to treat the bass guitar sound as it comes off the amplifier as “the sound.” I often use two different mics on the speaker; one will be a microphone that has a more generous low end, and the other will have more-detailed high end [see Fig. 2]. I'll balance those microphones in the control room to get what sounds like the most accurate picture of the bass sound.

Most of the time, the microphone that favors the low frequencies has a couple dB of compression on it. There's a compressor that I really like on bass guitar, a UREI LA-22. It's a dual-detector compressor — it has a peak detector and an RMS detector — and you can pan between the two to get the most flattering attack sound. I use that a lot on bass guitar, generally only taking a couple dB off, and generally only on the low-frequency microphone.

The reason for that is because in a lot of cases, bass players nowadays have distortion that they fire in now and again. That tends to not have much of an effect on the low frequencies, and in fact distortion often flattens the low-frequency information out. But it can give you a really big spike in the high frequencies and change the texture of the bass. I don't usually compress the brighter of the two microphones so that the effect of the distortion is more evident. It's a way of mimicking the way the bass sounds live, where clicking on a distortion pedal not only changes the sound quality but actually gets louder. Also, pick attacks sometimes trip compressors and make them start sounding odd, so it sounds more natural not to use compression for the microphone that favors high frequencies.

Fig. 3: Here, a pair of mics are aimed at the middle of the speakers of a guitar cabinet.

How about guitar amps?

It depends on the setup of the band. If it's a multiple guitarist scenario, I'll try to find out if there's one guitar that's more critical than the other, and I may keep them separate. I don't have any qualms about combining them together, though. If it's a band with one guitar player, sometimes it sounds better if you keep the mics separated and use them as a pseudo-stereo image. If the guitar player has a complex setup with multiple amplifiers, I'll try to keep those amplifiers discrete.

Normally for guitar amps, I just listen to the speakers to see which ones sound best, and pick a mic or two that sound flattering for the speakers. I've noticed that for close-miking, other people generally put the mics closer to speakers than I do. A lot of people take the mic and smash it up next to the grille; I've just had better results with microphones a little bit farther away — say, 8 or 10 inches away from the speaker cone. I'll usually position it on-axis, square in the middle of the speaker [see Fig. 3].

Fig. 4: Just a few of the microphones in Albini''s collection, which includes transducers from AKG, Josephson, RCA, Neumann, and STC/Coles.

I use ribbon microphones on guitars a lot; in particular, I really like the RCA 74. I've been using that a lot in the past couple years. It's got kind of a slight crispiness to the high end, which I think is due to the fact that it was originally intended to be an announcer's mic. It was basically the budget version of the 44 or 77, which are the big announcer's and vocalist's mics. The 74 is a dinky desktop version, and they might have engineered a peak in the response for articulation's sake. It sounds fantastic on guitar cabinets; I use that mic all the time. I also use the STC [or Coles] 4038. That's also a fantastic microphone [see Fig. 4].

Also, ambient mics sound really good with guitar, even in a dead room. Sometimes just having 10 or 12 feet of distance from the cabinet makes it sound a little more convincing, more familiar. When you're playing guitar, you're not normally listening to it with your head leaning up against the cabinet. If it's a distant mic on a guitar cabinet in a live room, I'll use a condenser mic, just because it picks up the sound quality of the room a little better. But if it's just a mic that's picking up a distant signal in a dead room, I'll normally use a dynamic mic. Sometimes I'll even just use the talkback mic that's set up for the guitarist.

And for acoustic guitars?

Normally I'll have a mic on the bass side and another on the treble, very close to the player's picking hand. Occasionally I'll have a stereo microphone out in front of the instrument, sort of from an audience perspective. The mics by the picking hand tend to sound more like the guitar does to the player, and the mic out front tends to sound more like it does in the audience. For more-detailed guitar passages, I'm more likely to favor the microphones close to the player's hand. The more strummy and noncritical the playing articulation is, the more likely I am to favor the mic out in front.

Generally I'll have the person play a bit and I'll move my head around until I find a spot that sounds good and stick the mic there. I often use either the Neumann SM2 or the AKG C24 stereo mics for that. For the close mics, I tend to use small-diaphragm condenser mics. The Schoeps M221 is a favorite for that. I also like a couple of Lomo microphones; Lomo was a Russian company that made interesting microphones in the '50s and '60s, and there's one called the 1918 that's particularly good for acoustic instruments.

How do you typically treat vocals?

If I'm in a situation, for example, where I have to do four vocalists in the last hour and a half of the session, then I'm just going to put up some sort of bog-standard vocalist microphone, like an AKG C12. I can just open the fader and it'll be okay. It may not be ideal, but it'll be okay.

Practical considerations weigh very heavily in a lot of my decisions. A lot of the bands I work with have extremely limited budgets; they're sort of spending their rent money to come and make a record at all. As a matter of simple human decency, I don't want to waste their time. I don't want to indulge myself in experimenting and trying to find some nerdy, perfect thing when the meat-and-potatoes thing is fine. [For a discussion of one such nerdy, perfect thing, see Albini's take on the Josephson C700A in the online bonus material at emusician.com.]

Does the approach ever differ from that?

Sure. For example, when I did the Stooges sessions [The Weirdness, Virgin, 2007]. The Stooges have always recorded with Iggy singing live along with the band, so that's the way we did the record. Iggy was set up in an isolation room, he had an [Shure] SM58 and a [Neumann] U48, and he could either go for the classy U48 sound or the onstage SM58 sound. He had a monitor playing his vocals back at him in the room. There were vocal speakers scattered around the rest of the band. So everyone could hear Iggy through the P.A., like always. That's not as common as overdubbing the vocals later, but I'm perfectly comfortable doing that if people want to do that.

Let's switch over to the mixing process. First, what do you use for monitoring playback?

I listen mostly on near-field monitors, and I've gravitated toward B&W near-fields. They're fantastic speakers. I can work on them all day and my ears never hurt, and that's not true of almost any other near-fields. My experience with monitors has been that after a very short amount of time, you get acclimated to whatever you're listening to. The choice of monitoring doesn't really matter in terms of whether you can make a good record with them. It matters much more whether or not they're going to be a nuisance. Like, if you turn them up to a comfortable listening level and you're clipping them, or if they have an irritating sound quality. Or if there's beaming in the high frequencies and where you move your head changes the sound quality a lot; that kind of stuff.

The choice of near-field monitors is mainly a matter of practicality. Genelec near-fields sound fantastic, for example; I enjoy listening to music on them, but they handle complex material very well. They tend not to make me think that there are problems that, intuitively, I think might be there. I'll listen to the Genelecs and think, “Oh that's fine,” and it sometimes makes me a bit lazy.

The B&Ws, on the other hand, are just nice, neutral, “nothing special” speakers. But they can handle whatever abuse I can throw at them. I can play them at any volume I can stand to listen to them, and the speakers are going to be fine. And they're not fatiguing at all, which is an enormous benefit.

For mixing in general, you like to combine signals and keep the overall track count low. Does that mean you can usually stick to 2-inch 16-track?

Yes. For most of the sessions I do, 16-track is an ideal format. It's the perfect balance between flexibility and sound quality. For really involved sessions with a lot of extra musicians and a lot of overdubs, no, but for a straightforward recording of just about any performance ensemble, you can probably do it on 16-track. And the sound quality is outstanding. Having said that, 24-track doesn't suck.

As far as mixing is concerned, I've always treated it as an extension of the recording process. I don't record stuff that I know sounds bad thinking that I'll make it sound good later. And I don't record stuff that I know is useless thinking that I might erase it later. A lot of people record stuff not knowing whether they want it or not, thinking that they will have an infinite amount of time later to sort it out at the mixing stage. But I know that at the mixing stage, you're going to be making a million critical decisions.

So why record five microphones on the guitar if only one of them sounds good? Or why do ten versions of something and leave them all sitting there when you know that in the end you're going to have to pick one? Just pick one. If you take care of all the trivial details in advance, the more accurate you can be with the more important decisions at the mixing stage.

Like a lot of people, you started by recording yourself on a 4-track. And before Electrical, you had a recording studio in the basement of your house. What are some of the things you've learned along the way about the process of recording?

There's an analogy about recording that came to mind not that long ago. Think of three types of movies: a normal character/content/dialog movie; a super-high-tech movie, like The Matrix; and something technically bone simple, like The Blair Witch Project. Those three kinds of movies pretty much cover the spectrum of the technology of moviemaking.

Now, not every movie can be made on a camcorder. But a lot of movies can. If you took a character-driven film and made it more simply just by using camcorders instead of with big Hollywood production values, you wouldn't lose much of the movie. You'd still get the important aspects. But if you took a movie like The Matrix and tried to fake it with a camcorder, you wouldn't convince anybody.

With audio, it's similar: it's a matter of trying to make your production environment suitable for the music that you're recording. If you're recording music that has certain technical demands on it, and you can't satisfy those demands, you should move the job to another studio. Just be honest with yourself.

As far as the basement studio, it's where I learned how to do almost everything I do now. The whole attic of the house was a control room; the playing areas were in the basement. There was a dead room and a live room, and, while they were quite modest, they both sounded good. But if I tried to do a session with 20 people there, it would be insane. It would be completely inappropriate.

The critical factor for any kind of small studio setup, though, is that no matter what you have, make sure you can get the most out of it. Before I had a 24-track machine, when I was first doing sessions in the basement studio in my house, I used an 8-track machine and a 16-channel board with four subgroups. I got the most out of that desk because I had to be inventive, I had to figure out how to solve problems one after another.

I think it would be good practice for anyone to start small. Start with a 4- or 8-track machine and a couple microphones and a modest mixing desk. Work your way up piece by piece, and learn everything as intimately as you can. And as you gradually accumulate equipment and gradually improve your recording environment, you'll have that same level of comprehension of everything in your studio, because you didn't try to attack it all at once; you've learned it one thing at a time.

When I was first starting out, if I had had a 36-channel board and a 24-channel machine and a raft of microphones and outboard gear and assistants and stuff like that, I would never have learned how to be as resourceful as I have. And I think that that resourcefulness and that willingness to solve problems in unconventional ways, that helps a lot when you go into bigger environments. There, you may be confronted with fewer issues, but the problems you do encounter generally require abstract thinking to solve.

It's very good to get yourself in the frame of mind that you can solve problems. Once problem solving becomes second nature to you, you'll know that you can work through any issue. Rather than coming at it from the mind-set of “There is a solution that I need to ask somebody for, and then I can do it,” you're accustomed to thinking things through yourself.


Rich Wells oversees the Supreme Reality, a recording studio in Portland, Oregon. Visit his Web site at thesupremereality.org.

ONLINE LINK

Feature article on Mid-Side stereo recording
emusician.com/mag/emusic_front_center/

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