*Steven Frank “Steve” Albini
- Born – Chicago July 22, 1962
- American singer-songwriter, guitarist, record producer, audio engineer and music journalist
- In 2004, Albini estimated that he has engineered the recording of 1,500 albums.
Steve Albini is referred as one of the foremost admired figures within the international freelance music scene. A musician, music journalist, trade commentator and recording engineer, Steve is a champion of the freelance music business. He’s often quoted by music media for his views on topics starting from piracy to crowd funding to royalties and recording.
He has over 1500 albums below his belt, operating with a number of the world’s most seminal and pioneering rock acts like Nirvana, the Pixies, PJ Harvey and also the Stooges.
As an Engineer, his distinctive philosophical and technical approach is affirming for freelance artists – his preference for analogue over digital recording and a “punk-rock” perspective has ensured him an enduring signature across the business.
I didn’t know that he produced/mixed some of my teenage angst fave albums such as Fugazi – In on the Kill Taker (1992), Helmet – Meantime (1992) and Bush -Razorblade Suitcase (1996) .
The way that Albini has been making recordings has been by being secondary to the band. In an article I found Steve says:
“The band are producing their own record. I don’t pass judgement, it’s good or bad music, weather I think they’re a good or bad band, weather I enjoy or don’t enjoy the music. I taught myself to suspend my taste as a listener or fan while I’m in the studio, so I can more readily be acceptable of the bands ideas and expectations of their record.”
So a quick overview of how Steve Albini got started as a record engineer….
Steve started playing in bands as a teenager, in the late 70’s, got serious about it in the 80’s, got involved in the punk scene in Chicago that was at the time very popular. Being in a band, they wanted to go the next step in recording what songs they had, so Steve learnt the trade independently and borrowed the equipment occasionally to do that. Conveniently his friends were in other bands too, they wanted recordings as well.
Once he developed that skill set in the punk rock community, he got asked to do more recordings in a very gradual way over the course of 8-10 years. It went from a thing of doing it occasionally to his profession. It was never an ambition of his to be a professional recording engineer. It just so happened he was able to generate enough work as an engineer to go full time.
In the first ten years, he didn’t have a studio or equipment. So he had to go to other studios. Working as a freelance engineer, he had to adapt to different studio setups. There’s always that disruption in the workflow when anyone works somewhere different on a regular basis, and not a lot of studios are equipped with analog recording. If the recording session is starting on Friday, he likes to be there early Thursday, spend as much time as necessary to make the studio suitable to his tastes.
He eventually built a recording studio at his home, bought a building, which later became Electrical Audio Studios and built a second studio in that building.
A lot of people think the reason behind his archaic nature of recording is simply because analog has a warm sound but he has been in the practice of recording music a long time, he has seen some of the technological changes roll through the recording business. Starting in the 80’s it was inevitable to eventually make everything digital. At that point in time, every time their was a development in technology, it had associated some sort of proprietary system. This digital tape machine couldn’t play any other digital tape other than it’s brand name. Then, that company stopped making that tape machine and became obsolete, which would happen a lot during the 80’s. When digital workstations took over from the tape machines, their was still the notion of proprietary technology. So again if you had a workstation from one software company, it may not open in another software, or the plugins may not survive, if you have an older session that’s stored on a CD, most new PC’s now don’t come with CD drives. Even now computer recording is a fragile thing in a sense of something surviving a very long time.
In the 80’s and 90’s a compact disc was about as good as it got, 16 bit, 44.1kHz. There were records that were released in only that format but if the master tapes had survived, they could be released now in a much higher resolution format if they had an analog master which is much higher resolution than a digital format.
Steve Albini thinks that the principle of a recording engineer is to preserve the recording so that in the future anyone who listens to the record knows what they are all about, and he won’t compromise on his ideals.
It was a practical matter when he started with an 8 track tape recorder in his basement with micing techniques.
He started using mic techniques to enhance and make the sound of the basement sound more flattering. Then he later adapted those to any studio he would go. He would test out the acoustics of a studio he would work in, by listening to any clues he would get, by hitting a drum, clapping his hands or whistle around the room to see what the reflective sound was like in different places.
By doing this he quickly learnt what rooms were ideal for different instruments, like with a drum kit, with a spray of sound in all directions, you’ll want to have the drums where there is a symmetrical reflection.
With micing the drum kit, he’s go to response would be a spaced A -B pair, fairly wide at each side of the drum kit. Like we did for the Oasis instrumental a couple of weeks ago. But then he would also add a single stereo mic in front of the drum kit for some of the work that the overheads would normally do, to pick up the top of the drum kit, such as the cymbals.
A typical set up for a rock band would be close mics on the individual drums, a stereo mic in front of the drums, then sometimes overheads if there is a lot of cymbal activity and then a spaced pair of room mics if the room is flattering.
Just having the natural ambiance can make something sound more realistic.
- Bass drum front: AKG D112, EV RE20, Beyer M380.
- Bass drum back: small condenser or dynamic mic, often Shure SM98.
- Snare top: Altec 175, Sony C37p.
- Snare bottom (occasionally): Shure SM98, Altec 165/175.
- Toms: Josephson E22.
- Cymbals: Neumann SM2, AKG C24.
- Overheads: Coles STC4038, Beyer 160, Royer 122.
- Ambient: small-diaphragm condensers like Altec 150, Neumann 582.
Taken from Sound On Sound
Steve really likes mics that he can get a lot of different uses out of. He’s 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. He would 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. Recognized for its wide, flat frequency response and high sensitivity, capable of withstanding high sound pressure levels without distortion and the bi-directional polar pattern provides a uniform pick up response at either side of the diaphragm. The bi-directional pattern proves valuable when capturing multiple singers, musical instruments, ambiance capturing and more.
Steve Albini tends to use Sony’s 1950s-vintage C37 FET single-diaphragm condenser which is both omnidirectional and unidirectional easily selected by a switch. This microphone covers the entire audio frequency range with flat response and a wide dynamic range as seen in the picture below, which is the frequency response of the Sony C37.
I know the Behringer ECM8000 is a flat response condenser microphone, wide dynamic range and its omnidirectional pickup pattern. Which is the closest microphone that the college has. The Shure PG87 would be no good as it starts to roll of the low end around the 500Hz mark. I think I have found a close match with the Sontronics STC1 to the Uni-directional C37
Sontronics STC 1
- Favourite microphones: Schoeps 221b, Neumann 56/54 and FM2, Audio Technica 4051, Lomo 1918, plus ribbon mics like the Coles STC 4038, various Royers, RCA 44DX, 74JR and 77DX.
- Favourite preamps: Massenburg 8400, Sytek MPX4.
Steve takes one microphone The Lomo 1918, as an example. The Lomo 1918 was created within the ’60s and ’70s. They weren’t customary within the West however they were quite common within the East. He will use this microphone a lot on acoustic guitar. The difference between whether someone is just playing or singing and playing at the same time. He will have to minimise the vocal bleed, so he puts the microphones quite close up, in that scenario.
If there isnt any singing, then he will back the microphones off 2 to 3 feet and he won’t essentially point the mic straight at the sound hole. When guitar is a little thin-sounding, he will want to have it more in front of the body. It varies. More often than not you have to move your head around a little and change the microphone and placement to where it suits best.
He will use a ribbon microphone if he wants to thicken the guitar sound and place it more in front of the body of the guitar. He won’t necessarily point the microphone straight at the sound hole. To get the best sound from the strumming of the guitar sometimes you want to get it up in the air , looking down at the guitar so you can get more of the strumming.
- Favourite microphones: Coles 4038, Royer 44/77, Neumann U67, Lomo 1909, Josephson E22p, various other condenser microphones.
- Favourite preamps: Ampex 351, John Hardy M2, Neve 3115, B002, Massenburg 8400.
Usually Steve will have 2 microphones on each cab, a dark mic and a bright mic, say a ribbon and a condenser, or 2 totally different condensers with different characters.
Normally he will have two microphones on each cabinet, a dark mic and a bright mic, say a ribbon microphone and a condenser, or two different condensers with different characteristics. The idea behind that is you can simply modify the balance till it sounds just about the same as it will within the room. He purposefully places them straight at the center of the speaker cone, an equivalent distance from the speakers, ten to twelve inches apart, with a loud amplifier, you really don’t want the mics too close.
He will change it up by using the John Hardy, a Neve, or the Massenburg preamps for a heavily distorted guitar. He doesn’t normally process the guitar while recording. So what goes in, comes out naturally to tape If there is a problem he will fix it by moving or choosing another mic if the band doesn’t like the way their guitar sounds.
- Favourite microphones: Neumann U47, U48, AKG C12 or 451, Shure SM7, Electro-Voice RE20, Beyer M88, Sennheiser 421, Josephson 700A.
It’s really important that the vocalist is comfortable when recording his vocals. Steve likes classic vocal microphones, the Josephson 700 is a fantastic vocal microphone.
Steve uses a little compression on vocals, he will only use a little compression on vocals, otherwise the dynamic range is too wide. He normally compresses the vocals about 4-6 dB at the quietest parts, the compressor is not doing anything, and at the loudest parts it’s doing 4-6 dB.
He places the microphone where the singer is comfortable, this can change on every song recorded. Then he’ll let the band listen back, and then adjust accordingly. If it sounds too boomy he’ll move the microphone back a little or get the sin
Where he places the microphone depends on the singer. He’ll start with whatever their normal intuitive distance is from the microphone and then let them hear the results. If they think it sounds too boomy he will have them move back and if they think it sounds too thin then he will have them move forward.