Steve Albini, arguably the most influential and prolific recording engineer in the history of "alternative" music, has left his sonic signature on more than a thousand albums, including the Pixies' Surfer Rosa; PJ Harvey's Rid of Me; Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile; Flogging Molly's Swagger; and Nirvana's In Utero. He's always been something of an analog loyalist, relying on the positioning of microphones during live studio recordings, rather than the digital approach of recording each instrument separately and using overdubs.
Albini's 23-plus years in the recording business, his enduring indie ethos, and his minimalist methods have made him a go-to guru for fledgling studios and D.I.Y. artists. His recording studio, Electrical Audio in Chicago, usually works on a half-dozen records a month. And yet he doesn't even have a receptionist. When we call the studio to schedule an interview about his upcoming gig as a panelist at the TapeOpCon convention in Tucson on June 16 and 17, Albini himself answers the phone.
New Times: What are you going to be talking about at TapeOpCon?
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Steve Albini: The convention is primarily for musicians who run their own studios or people who record outside the norms. So I'll be discussing a mixture of practical and technical issues, as well as some greater cultural issues -- philosophies about recording, commercial concerns, and just a wide range of topics.
NT: You mentioned recording philosophies. What's yours?
SA: My recording philosophy is based on the bands as a social and musical entity. My job is to assist the band in making the record they want to make, not the record I think they should make. I respect them, and I respect their intentions. My secondary concern is keeping the sessions from being too expensive and too time-consuming.
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NT: You've been doing this for a long time now. What's the indie recording scene like now versus 20 years ago?
SA: It's much easier for independent bands to put out records now. It used to be expensive to do a record of any kind, and now there are ways for people to record with a trivially small investment. On the flip side, there's been a slide in the standards of recording. You used to have to have some sort of technical training to engineer a record, because you were recording something that was going to be released and scrutinized on a mass level, so the standards were higher.
NT: Would you recommend indie or major labels to promising new bands?
SA: The bands that have kept control of all the details of their career tend to last longer and make more money. You'll serve the audience better if you stay true to your vision and make the music you want. But if you want to spend a year in a limo and feel like a rock star, if high-society treatment is what you want, you can only get that with a major label. Indie labels just don't blow money that way.