In 1987, Steve Albini's band Big Black released a CD called The Rich Man's 8-Track Tape etched with the quote: "The future belongs to analog loyalists. F--k digital." During the infancy of the CD, when the recording industry sang the praises of a digital future represented by the CD over the traditional tape and the accompanying recorded methods used for years, Albini's statement was controversial. Does guitarist/recording engineer Albini still feel that way? "Pretty much," he says by phone. "When you work in the audio field, a lot of the limitations and problems of a new technology show their ass to you a lot sooner."
Albini is in New Orleans this weekend for TapeOpCon2005, a series of seminars and workshops focused on recording and production, sponsored by TapeOp magazine and held at the Fairmont Hotel and the Orpheum. In addition to speaking, he will also perform with his current band, Shellac, on Saturday at the Howlin' Wolf.
As an artist and an engineer, the Chicago-based Albini embodies radical extremes of craft and vision. Founder of the caustic bands Big Black and Rapeman, he famously broke up both groups before they could decline in quality, keeping their legacies gloriously intact. He is a rail-thin guitar slasher, all treble blast and bad attitude, and his current band, Shellac, is a ferocious unit with all the fat trimmed off. His public persona was that of the sneering, tough-as-nails punk intellectual who doesn't suffer fools gladly. But along the way he also acquired some serious recording skills and gained a reputation as a thoughtful recording engineer who could successfully capture the dynamic energy of gut-punching rock music on tape with outstanding accuracy.
Writers often incorrectly call him a producer, a title Albini is quick to reject in favor of the more accurate (and workmanlike) "engineer." Record producers, he points out, are like auteurs, choosing the songs, picking the singer, and supervising the sessions. "I don't do that," he has said unequivocally.
Albini came up when the word "record" was used as a noun -- a document, or (to quote Webster's): "preservation in or as in writing." He's notoriously critical of how "production" ruined many once-great bands. Albini's approach is to capture the performance on tape in the best fidelity possible, while leaving all musical decisions to the artist. Since he recorded the Pixies' Surfer Rosa in 1988, his services have been desired by many, which led to Albini recording several of the defining albums of the 1990s: Slint's Spiderland, Nirvana's In Utero, P.J. Harvey's Rid of Me, and discs by the Breeders, Urge Overkill and the Jesus Lizard, among others.
In the almost 20 years he has been recording -- many of those in Electrical Audio, his studio in Chicago -- he has seen the cost and complexity of digital equipment drop to such a degree that more and more people can set up home studios. He likens the recent wave of affordable recording gear to the accessibility of digital video -- it's great that more people can now make movies who otherwise wouldn't have been able to afford it, but it doesn't mean we should lose the craft of shooting on film.
"From a professional standpoint, there's an obligation I have to make sure I'm not damaging my client's work out of laziness," he says. "(Home recordists) want to make something quickly, where I am concerned about doing what is best for my clients."
Albini's passion for recording and the issues associated with it attracted him to TapeOp magazine some years ago: "I was a subscriber first. I thought they served an under-served audience. There were all these people recording at home and in their practice spaces and there wasn't a public forum for them." He could relate to the approach. "I started that way, too, and I'm sympathetic to people doing things on the cheap. I learned that way." Eventually TapeOp interviewed Albini and invited him to speak at their conferences. He sees it as a useful gathering for recording enthusiasts to share ideas. But then he's quick to add, "It's a dork fest. A bunch of guys with home studios.
"Recording -- it's my job. I like it, but it's a job," Albini says. "Playing is for my entertainment. It's fun." Musically, that has resulted in bands like Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac -- bands that took punk's edge and sharpened it, paring off the excesses to reveal the muscle and intellect at its core. While the song lyrics explored dark themes -- violence, hatred, and sex at its crudest -- Albini's musical approach always prized sonic clarity and precise execution, the very qualities that distinguish his recording work.
So how do we reconcile the two Albinis -- the reputable professional of Electrical Audio and the sardonic misanthrope of Big Black? In conversation, he is still opinionated and direct, and this is consistent with how he's always conducted himself. The punk values of old included the strong work ethic he applies to recording now. Both are based on a sense of righteous duty coupled with the dedication to do the work. Walking the walk, as it were.