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Steve Albini “In Utero’s” Ultra-sound Guy

Peter O’Hare – ARP Conference Brisbane 2007

 

 

This paper explores the recording philosophy of Steve Albini, focusing on his recording of Nirvana’s “In Utero” album. Albini’s unique contribution to the discourse surrounding record production centres on his rejection of the producer’s title and objection to the role itself. Albini favours the album credit ‘recorded by’ and refuses to creatively influence the recording process, preferring to capture the sound of the artist playing live. In doing so he repudiates the notion of the studio as a compositional force and further rejects the traditional practice of the producer by insisting on a flat fee, refusing royalty points on recordings.

 

Albini’s recording philosophy and ethical stance is highlighted within an examination of his role during the recording of Nirvana’s “In Utero” album. This will cover the context in which Nirvana employed Albini, as a means of recovering the Lo-Fi sound of their First album “Bleach” and as a rejection of the Hi-Fi production values of their commercially successful “Nevermind” album.

 

In order to investigate the conflict surrounding the “In Utero” recordings it has been necessary to devise a new approach titled Sonicology. This will be used to explain sonic elements of the recording process, from the commodification of “Nevermind” to the raw recording of “In Utero” and its subsequent radio friendly remix. As it was the actual sound and not the musical or lyrical content that was at the centre of this debate, a traditional musicological or textual analysis would be insufficient at uncovering the sonic nuances central to this investigation. Therefore Albini’s unique recording philosophy and the introduction of a Sonicological investigation should both serve as a valuable contribution to the examination of the Art Of Record Production.

 

 

 

Introduction

 

This paper will begin by looking at Steve Albini’s recording philosophy and his view of the producer’s role. The paper will then introduce the approach of Sonicology as a means of identifying the importance of the sonic elements within the recorded song. It will then proceed with an investigation of Nirvana’s first two albums “Bleach” and especially “Nevermind” and the circumstances that resulted in Steve Albini being offered the job of recording “In Utero”. Albini’s approach to the recording of “In Utero” and the rejection of the producer’s role is then examined, including the subsequent sonic fallout between the band, Albini and the record company which resulted in the decision to re-record and re-mix some of the tracks.

 

 

Steve Albini-Big Black And Beyond

 

Steve Albini’s musical education was honed while studying for a Journalism degree at university in Chicago where he began writing for punk fanzines.  His first band Big Black had moderate success recording several E.P’s and two L.P’s. Big Black eventually broke up and Albini went on to form two other bands, Rapeman and Shellac. It was during a break between bands in 1987 that Albini built his first studio. He recorded local bands and learned to record very quickly. This was due to the nature of the music, which was generally played live, and the fact that many of these bands could not afford lengthy and, subsequently more expensive, recording sessions. Albini continued to record relatively unknown bands. However his work also included influential recordings by The Pixies, The Breeders, and PJ Harvey, which helped to raise his profile within the industry. He currently owns Electric Audio studios in Chicago were he continues to record a mixture of low profile artists and major ones.

 

 

 

Albini’s Recording Philosophy and The Producer’s Role

 

A definition of the producers role is in itself worthy of its own paper but for the purpose of this paper I would simply define the role of the producer within the dual parameters of the producers contractual obligations ( delivery of master, choice of studio, fee and points) and the creative approach to recording ( differing skill sets and practice). This is useful when examining Albini’s own approach to recording. His preferred credit on an album is the phrase ’Recorded by’- he completely rejects the term ‘Producer’ adding “all that’s required to be a full-fledged producer is the gaul it takes to claim to be one” (Albini: 1993).

 

Albini’s recording philosophy was shaped by experiences he endured while he was a recording artist himself. He recalled unpleasant recording experiences where engineers would assume the role of the producer, forcing their own creative ideas, irrespective of the wishes of the band: In Albini’s words “The band was paying money for the privilege of being in a recording studio, and normally when you pay for something, you get to say how it’s done. So I made up my mind that when I started engineering professionally that I wasn’t going to behave like that” (Albini cited by Young 2004). Therefore Albini himself deliberately relinquished the producer’s role: “I let the band be the producers, I don’t feel obligated to reinvent the record underway. The band makes all the artistic decisions; I basically just execute them on a technical level” (Droney: 2005). Albini offers that “Trying to manipulate a sound after it has been recorded is never as effective as when it is recorded correctly in the first place” (Tingen 2005). This is an important sonic reference however such sonic elements are often overlooked in the study of the recorded popular song.

 

 

Sonicology

 

In their introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Pop and rock (2001) Frith, Straw and Street draw a distinction between “The songs and sounds” and their effect and influence within the field of popular music.  Music analysis, as Shepherd states,

 

“has been almost synonymous with the analysis of musical notation, the musical score” (Shepherd 1999:161). This is problematic when faced with the sonic elements of the recorded song, a point echoed by Middleton who believes that traditional notation finds difficulty dealing with non-standard parameters such as “articulation (attack, sustain, decay) not to mention new techniques developed in the recording studio, such as fuzz, wha-wha, phasing and reverberation” (1990: 105). Therefore employing standard notation would appear to be an inadequate tool when attempting to investigate the popular recorded song and its variety of sounds.

 

This point is acknowledged by McClary & Walser “What popular music has instead of the score is, of course, recorded performance – the thing itself, completely fleshed out with all its gestures and nuances intact. What would seem to be an indisputable advantage over notated music converts to a disadvantage only because analytic methods are still tied to those aspects of music that can be fixed or accounted for in notation” (1990: 282). Similarly Warner notes that musicological studies dealing with the complexity of modern technology (technology which is often part of the recording process) are insufficient, noting: “Furthermore, the traditional analytical parameters of music (pitch, tonality, rhythm, arrangement, etc.), those with which academics are most familiar, continue to demand attention. However, modern pop music is clearly bound to this technology both creatively and perceptually, and appropriate analytical methods need to be developed which not only take this relationship into account but also illustrate its pervasive influence”. (Warner 2003:33)

 

 

 

While traditional musicology with its notation and descriptions, is still very important in the examination and interpretation of the musical elements of the song and with textual analysis of lyrical content also contributing to the investigation, there is however, a third component vital to the overall description of the recorded song. This is the sonic element, used in the description of the overall sound of the song, a result of instrumentation, the recording environment and the recording process itself. In any attempt to analyse the production/recording processes involved in music it is necessary to take account of its fundamental component, sound.

 

 

 

At this point it is worth noting that there already exists a body of research concerning performance and space, audio signal analyses along with studies regarding Timbre. The difference in a Sonicological approach is that it highlights the recording process which has a direct effect on instrumentation, space and timbre because of the nature of capturing signals, their manipulation and journey to the final master. The effect of the recording process is often overlooked within studies regarding Timbre, as with Berger and Fales investigation of “Heaviness in the Perception of Heavy Metal Guitar textures” (2003). The study analyses four pre-recorded examples of guitar passages, stating that ”A comprehensive scanning of spectral representations of these samples led to our choice of acoustic noise – its quality, intensity, and frequency range – as primary candidate for the acoustic features resulting in the percept of “heaviness” “(ibid). This conclusion is reached without once acknowledging the recording process that produced these examples. A process that can alter frequency and acoustic components depending on which recording space was used, which recording medium was employed (tape/digital), what mikes where used to capture the signals or which effects and processors were used to manipulate the signals.

 

 

Sonicology: Approach and Analysis

 

As a means of addressing the sonic elements described before, I would like here to introduce a new approach, that of Sonicology. This would cover the sonic properties of the recorded popular song, an area that is not adequately addressed by traditional musicology. Thus Sonicology would include descriptions of the recording process, emphasizing choices that have a direct effect on the sound of the recording, including the choice of recording studio, type of equipment used, effects, processing and stereo image. It would also investigate the production, engineering and mixing methods employed in the life-cycle of the song. Thus the analysis of the popular recorded song would include a sonic description, which would compliment notational and textual analyses of the song. We can now apply this Sonicological approach to Nirvana’s recordings and Steve Albini’s own contribution.

 

 

 

 

Bleach

 

In order to fully explain the recording of Nirvana’s “In Utero” album it is necessary to highlight some of the events, which led to the point where Steve Albini was asked to record the album. In doing so I will briefly explore Nirvana’s early recording projects “Bleach” and “Nevermind”. Many of the issues that surrounded the recording of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and “In Utero” albums concerned the ‘sound’ of the recordings. Therefore, this section will again follow a Sonicological assessment of the recordings in order to explain subsequent artistic and commercial decisions.

 

Nirvana’s first album “Bleach”was recorded in a total of 30 hours at a cost of $606.17. It was recorded by Jack Endino and released on the ‘Sub Pop’ label. Time and money restrictions made for a raw live sounding recording. Nirvana subsequently carried out further demo recordings with producer Butch Vig that were intended to form the next ‘Sub Pop’ release, but instead these recordings were sent out to major record companies in the context of securing a new record deal. Eventually Nirvana signed a recording deal with DGC (David Geffen Company) a subsidiary of Geffen records.

 

 

 

Nevermind

 

 

Several producers were in the running for the next record titled “Nevermind”, including Scott Litt who had produced REM, and David Briggs who had produced Neil Young. Eventually the band decided that they would work with Butch Vig and had a ‘get out’ as Cobain said: “Vig would be the main producer, but they’d use other producers for the songs the band deemed commercial” (Azerrad 1994: 166). This at once signalled the band’s intention of deliberately employing a producer who would sonically alter their songs with a view to making them commercially acceptable.

 

Butch Vig’s production role for “Nevermind” consisted of the standard practice of choosing the recording studio, in this case Sound City Studio in California. This time the budget was $65,000 including Vig’s own fee, although the final cost was $120,000.

 

 

 

When production got underway Vig often wanted to double track vocals and guitar parts. Cobain at first resisted as he felt it was compromising his punk values. However, the producer would often persuade him, arguing that he was trying to capture the intensity of their stage sound. He would say: “When you guys play live, it’s just so incredibly loud and intense – it’s larger than life and I’m trying to use some of these things I know in the studio to make you guy’s come across that way on record” (ibid: 174). Vig also used the common production practice of layering parts utilising multitrack recording, starting with the drums and bass, then adding guitars and vocals. He even sampled some vocal parts for use in different sections of the same song, all pretty standard production practices. However, for the bass drum sound Vig constructed a bass tunnel consisting of several drum shelves. In this way he artificially extended the bass drum and by miking this set up produced a unique bass drum sound. Producer Vig was actively involved in creating a sonic landscape for Nirvana that did not exist in their live performance. He was attempting to recapture their live sound and intensity, by means of production practice. On completion of the recording, Vig mixed the album. However, the band was not pleased with the results. Sonically they felt that the record was flat and called in producer Andy Wallace to remix the album.

 

 

 

When the album was released it reached number one in the Billboard charts. Cobain feared that the success of the album was turning Nirvana into just the sort of mainstream rock band that he had fought so hard to avoid. He then began to distance himself from the “Nevermind” album. Interestingly he did not dismiss the songs or their content and arrangement, what he chose to attack was the production style of the album and especially Andy Wallace’s contribution. In Sonicological terms Wallace had used production methods to augment Vig’s recordings. Wallace had utilised E.Q. and dynamic processing to enhance the sonic characteristics of the songs, elements that would result in the songs being more susceptible for broadcast i.e. radio friendly. By separating the production process from the songs themselves, Cobain was able to appear aggrieved, as if the process had diluted his vision for the album.

 

 

 

In Utero

 

 

It was the search for the true sound of Nirvana that resulted in the choice of Albini to record the next album. It was clear that the integral sound of Nirvana, the song writing and instrumentation, would not change on the next album. What would change would be the sound as captured on the recording. Cobain was aware of Albini’s work; one of his favourite albums had been his recording of “Surfer Rosa” by the Pixies. He was aware of Albini’s recording ethos which could certainly help to recapture the Nirvana sound, the sound they achieved on the “Bleach” album, the authentic ‘live’ sound of the band.

 

 

 

Cobain used Albini as a means of returning to the sound of “Bleach”, a sound that had been lost in the commodification of the “Nevermind” album. The punk/indie aesthetic had been distilled, not the songs or subject matter, but the sound. This was mainly due to the production practices and the role of the producer Butch Vig and Andy Wallace.

 

Albini was used to regain the punk aesthetic by means of the non-production of “In Utero” and by mere association with Albini, rooted in the politics and ethos of punk rock, Cobain was trying to appeal to those hardcore fans, a return to the pre “Nevermind” sound. The choice of Albini, who constantly attacked the corporate machinations of the record industry, would also be a signal to those who had accused Nirvana of being corporate stooges. Cobain continued to attack the sound of “Nevermind” publicly. This in turn was seen by Krist Novoselic  as a “kind of reaction to get Albini…it made sense, going back to our roots instead of making another really slick album” (Jovanovic 2004: 95).

 

Albini himself was keen to capture the authentic sound of Nirvana. His dislike of the “Nevermind” recording did not refer to the band or songs, he just felt that out of the recordings he had heard it was: “The least representative of the band”(ibid: 97). He went on to state that “Nevermind” sounded that way “not because that’s the way the band sounds but because that’s the way the producer and the remix guy and the record company wanted it to sound” (Azerrad 1994: 314). Cobain and Albini, within a Sonicological assessment, had both now attacked the sound of “Nevermind”.

 

Ironically, as I have previously mentioned, Butch Vig attempted to recreate the live show energy of Nirvana by augmenting the recording with production processes “They sounded so amazing live that in order to get that kind of sound on record you had to use more production work in the studio: doubling guitars, using multiple mikes on things and splitting them left and right, just trying to make it sound larger than life” (Berkenstadt & Cross1998: 61). As will be shown, Albini’s solution to capturing the live sound of Nirvana would be simply to have the band play live and record them as faithfully as he could. In order to achieve this they would use Albini’s expertise in recording and rely less on production techniques.

 

 

 

For the recording of ‘In Utero” Albini chose Pachyderm studio’s in Canyon Falls Minneapolis. It was the studio Albini had used to record PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me” album. Therefore he was familiar with the studio’s recording environment and equipment. The mixing desk was classic Neve 8068 and songs would be recorded to tape via Studer tape machines. This was all in keeping to Albini’s preference for analogue recording equipment.

 

 

 

Recording began mid February 1993 and although Albini was overseeing the project and adopting some of the more organisational aspects of the producer’s role, he did not undertake any creative handling of the project. He would record the album for a flat fee of $100,000. In keeping with his ethical stance on producer’s remuneration he refused to take any percentage points on the album. Normal practice would see the producer receive a percentage typically between 2-4% of every album sold. Albini refused to take any royalties saying: “It is an insult to the band to say that because I recorded this album and not somebody else, you’re selling more records and therefore I want a cut” (Azerrad 2001: 344). Interestingly this stance resulted in him not being pressurised into making a commercially successful record. Albini had already been paid for his services; therefore he did not have to deliver a radio friendly recording in order to receive more money in the form of royalties. This was in keeping with Albini’s philosophy i.e. he was not a producer. I have already examined this previously within this paper’s dual definition of the role. Albini had rejected the creative element and now attempted to minimise the legal element by dispensing with an important contractual condition.

 

 

 

With studio costs of $24,000 the total budget for the recording was certainly small for the follow up to the commercially successful “Nevermind” album. Albini recorded the majority of the basic tracking (Drums, Bass Guitar) for the album in the first week. As Albini adds “They recorded the basic take as a band, all recorded live. And on almost every song, Kurt would add one, sometimes two additional little guitar parts” (Garr 2006: 61). This included sixteen songs, most of them recorded in one take. The songs were completed, with the minimal overdubs, within the second week, prompting Cobain to say that: “It was the easiest recording we’ve ever done, hands down” (Jovanovic 2004: 99). The songs were duly mixed by Albini and all parties left the studio satisfied with what they had achieved. This should have been the end of the story. However, as we are about to discover, the recording and in this case non-production of the ‘In Utero” album, was to become a contentious issue for Nirvana, Albini, and especially the record company.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In “Utero” remix

 

 

Although both the  band and Albini had been happy with the results of the “In Utero” recordings when they left Pachyderm studios in late February 1993, by April there were reports filtering out that Nirvana’s record company and management were less than happy with the  recordings. Cobain told journalists that their A&R man Gary Gresh had not liked the record for “various sonic reasons”(Garr 2006: 66).There followed an article in the Chicago Tribune titled “Record Label Finds Little Bliss in Nirvana’s latest” (Jovanovic 2004: 107), announcing that the record company wished to see the album remixed. Albini was then contacted by one journalist who informed him that Geffen had, off the record, told him that the album was “awful…unreleasable” (ibid).

 

Certainly the initial reaction from the band was not to rework the record, as Krist Novoselic added: “I know for a while there was a reactionary element to our mindset. I felt like we shouldn’t touch it as a point of principal” (ibid). There then followed a series of calls between various members of the band and Albini saying that they now felt that the recordings did not sound very good and could they be re-worked. Albini refused to rework any of the recordings and in a letter to the Chicago Herald Tribune newspaper added: “I have no faith this album will ever be released” (Hector 2004: 34).

 

 

 

There followed a series of statements released by Cobain and Geffen each stating that the band had complete artistic control over the album, and that it would be released when the band were satisfied with the results. Nirvana then went ahead, enlisting REM producer Scott Litt to re-work three numbers, two of which appeared on the final album. They were “All Apologies” and “Heart-Shaped Box”. Unsurprisingly they would also be the first two singles released. For “Heart Shaped Box” extra backing vocals were recorded, as well as an extra acoustic guitar track. The results of these interventions were exactly the same that Andy Wallace had achieved in the “Nevermind” sessions which Cobain had tried to distance himself from. They again used EQ and Compression to dampen the dynamic range. As Albini said when he heard the remixed tracks, they had been altered: “To make it sound more constant on radio” (Jovanovic 2004: 109). The album was eventually released in the US on 21 September 1993 and entered the Billboard charts at number 1.

 

 

 

 

 

In the end the band decided that they wanted the raw Albini recordings to satisfy their own credibility while using the remixed tracks to satisfy their corporate masters. This is evidenced by Cobain’s own writings, contained in his journals, which were published after his death. In one entry he states that the Steve Albini recording should be released under the title “I Hate Myself And Want To Die”. In a further bid to replicate the authenticity of the recordings, he suggests releasing them on vinyl, cassette and 8-track cassette to be sold to “small mom and pop stores….no promos sent out” (Cobain 2002: 240). In contrast to this subversive marketing strategy he continues by stating that a month after the Albini recording is released they should release another version containing the remixed tracks by Scott Litt. This was to be titled “Verse chorus Verse” released this time on CD with a sticker that states “This is the radio friendly, unit shifting, compromise version, which by the way, Nirvana is extremely proud of” (ibid). In other words Albini’s un- produced version, reflecting the raw sound of Nirvana, versus the Litt version, produced and featuring a sonically enhanced, commercially viable Nirvana.

 

 

Conclusion

 

Albini’s contribution to the discourse surrounding the art of production can be considered in terms of his objections to the title and role of the producer. This is evident in his recording philosophy. During the Nirvana recording Albini was the only one who did not bow to any outside pressure; this was made easier precisely because he did not assume the role of the producer. Firstly, he was not responsible for any of the artistic decisions made during the recording. Secondly, he was also not on any royalty points for future sales, therefore he was not going to benefit from any changes made in order to make the album more commercial. Finally, as for Albini’s recording philosophy, “the revolution will not be televised” but recorded on analogue tape for future generations to use as a comparison to the radio friendly, digitally manipulated and intrusive production found on many of today’s recordings. One may ask if Albini’s recordings have a sound- in my opinion they do. It is the sound of the artist, expertly recorded and with minimal interference.

 

To conclude, I leave you with a quote from Nirvana’s drummer, Dave Grohl., who in this months edition of “Q Magazine” offers a fitting reflection on Steve Albini’s recording style. Grohl states that “ I like “In Utero” more than “Nevermind” because there was nothing in between the band and the tape”(2007).

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Albini, S. (1993) “The Problem With Music” The Baffler Issue no5.

 

Azerrad, M. (2001) Our Band Could be Your Life – Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (New York: Back Bay)

 

Berger, H. &  Fales, C. (2003) The Match of perceptual and Acoustic Features of Timbre Over Time: “Heaviness” in the Perception of Heavy Metal guitar Textures. http://www.indiana.edu/~savail/workingpapers/heavy.html

 

Berkenstadt, J. & C. Cross (1998) Nevermind – Nirvana (New York: Schirmer)

 

Cobain, K. (2002) Kurt Cobain Journals (London: Penguin)

 

Droney, M. (May 2005) Mix – Preserving the Art of Audio Engineering (Prism Business Media Inc.  http:/mixonline.com)

 

Frank, J. and C. Ganz (2005) Fool The World – The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies (London: Virgin)

 

Frith, S. Will Straw. and John Street (ed) (2001) The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

 

Garr, G. G.(2006) 33 1/3 series, In Utero ( London: Continuum)

 

Hector, J. (2004) Nirvana – The complete guide to their music (London: Omnibus Press)

 

Jovanovic, R. (2004) Nirvana The Recording Sessions (London: Fire Fly)

 

McClary, S. and R.Walser (1988) ‘Start Making Sense!’, in Frith, S. and A. Goodwin (ed) (1990) On Record: Rock, Pop And The Written Word (London: Routledge), pp 277-292

 

Middleton, R. (1990) Studying Popular Music (Buckingham: Open University Press)

 

Shepherd, J. ‘Text’ in Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss (ed) (1999) Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell) Chapter 12.

 

Tingen, P. (2005) “Steve Albini, sound engineer extraordinaire”, Sound on Sound, September edition at http://www.soundonsound.com/articles/People.php

 

Q Magazine (December 2007), Dave Grohl – My Brilliant Career, (London, Mappin House)

 

Warner, T. (2003) Popular Music- Technology and Creativity: Trevor Horn and the digital revolution (Aldershot: Ashgate).

 

Young, A. (16/3/04) Sidelines – Albini laments age of over production at

 

www.mtsusidelines.com

 

 

 

 

 

Discography

 

PJ Harvey (1993) Rid Of Me (Island CID8002 514 696-2)

 

Nirvana (1989) Bleach (Sub Pop 9878-70034-2)

 

Nirvana (1993) In Utero (Geffen GED 24536)

 

Nirvana (1991) Nevermind (Geffen GED24425 DGCD 24425)

 

Nirvana (2004) With The Lights Out (DGC 0602498648384)

 

Pixies (1988) Surfer Rosa (4AD GAD 803 CD)