May 9, 2024 4 min read

Recording engineer Steve Albini dies

Recording engineer Steve Albini - known for his work with artists such as Nirvana, Pixies and PJ Harvey - has died, aged 61. The raw, analogue sound he favoured was highly influential, and he also inspired others as a musician himself, fronting bands such as Big Black and Shellac

Recording engineer Steve Albini dies

Musician and recording engineer Steve Albini died of a heart attack at his home in Chicago on Tuesday. He was 61. Prolific in his output, he worked on albums by Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey, Jarvis Cocker and many more. As a musician, he was best known for fronting the bands Big Black and Shellac.

A statement on the website of Electrical Audio - the studio Albini founded in 1997 - reads, “On the night of May 7, our captain, Steve Albini, died unexpectedly. We are struggling to comprehend and process this loss”.  

“Steve was a hero to all of us, our friend and mentor”, it goes on. “He was one of the greatest living recording engineers, tirelessly dedicated to capturing the creative work of the bands and artists he worked with. He saw recording almost as an ethical imperative to document the music of the world around him”.

Born in Pasadena, California in 1962, Albini began playing bass guitar while recovering from a broken leg as a teenager. He cited being introduced to The Ramones as the key moment in his musical development that led him into what would become his career. 

Moving to Chicago to study journalism, he became heavily involved in the local punk scene, including writing for fanzines and managing bands. He first started engineering bands’ recordings in 1981, and formed Big Black the same year. The band released the influential albums ‘Atomizer’ (1986) and ‘Songs About Fucking’ (1987).

Big Black had already decided to split before the recording of ‘Songs About Fucking’, and afterwards Albini briefly fronted Rapeman - a name taken from a Japanese comic for which he expressed regret in recent years. In a viral thread on X in 2021, he said that he felt he and others of his generation had not been “held to task enough for words and behaviour that ultimately contributed to a coarsening society”. 

In 1992, he formed Shellac, another influential outfit who remained active for the rest of Albini’s life. His death comes a week before the release of their sixth album (and first for a decade) ‘To All Trains’. 

However, Albini was best known as a recording engineer - both for the impressive list of acts he worked with and his view on the process of working in the studio. 

Although widely considered to be a great record producer, he shunned the term, arguing that his job was to capture the sound of a band rather than direct what they should be doing. He preferred not to be credited on album artwork and also refused to take royalties from the sales of records he worked on, saying that doing so was unethical. 

Instead, he charged an affordable day rate - $900 at the time of his death - for the duration of the recording sessions.

He estimated that he had worked on over 1500 records, many of them lesser known as he chose to work with pretty much everyone who asked. There were many notable names on the list too though. Robert Plant - a fan of Big Black - hired him to record Page & Plant album ‘Walking Into Clarksdale’. Other notable names included Pixies, PJ Harvey, Manic Street Preachers, Jarvis Cocker, Bush, Joanna Newsom, The Cribs and Melt-Banana.

The album he is most often associated with is Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’, which he recorded over six days with the band in 1993. This despite the fact that Albini saw them as “unremarkable” and simply sounding like “REM with a fuzzbox". In fact, he reportedly said that he only took on the job because he felt sorry for them, seeing them as a band beholden to a major record label.

Albini captured a far more raw sound than that of the band’s previous album ‘Nevermind’. The band’s label Geffen and management did not like the results, and Nirvana themselves were unsure of them. Ultimately they decided that the guitar and bass were too low in the mix and asked Albini to remix the record. He refused, saying that he was happy with it, and also not wanting to get into a lengthy back and forth of being asked to make changes.

Instead, the whole album was remastered by ​​Bob Ludwig, and the singles ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘All Apologies’ were remixed by REM producer Scott Litt. 

Despite the critical and commercial success of the final version, Albini dismissed it, saying that it did not “sound all that much like the record” that he had submitted. He also said that it caused him problems finding other work in the year after its release and was critical of the record label for - as he saw it - meddling in the sound of the album.

Being critical of the music industry was another recognisable aspect of Albini’s contribution to the world - both in interviews and articles he wrote for various publications. He was particularly critical of the major label system, which he viewed as exploiting artists for the financial gain of others. 

He also remained a staunch advocate of analogue recording, criticising digital technology from its inception - although he did later concede that it had made recording more accessible.

Numerous tributes were paid to Albini as news of his death broke yesterday, among them PJ Harvey, who said, “Meeting Steve Albini and working with him changed the course of my life. He taught me so much about music, and life. Steve was a great friend - wise, kind and generous. I am so grateful”.

Comedian and musician Fred Armisen wrote, “I love Steve so much. We said it more often to each other in recent years. I’m so glad I got to tell him. He was so funny, all the time. He sent me this text a few days ago, ‘I shouldn’t admit this but I don’t get cymbals. Like I can tell the difference between this one and that one but if I’m honest they both sound like cymbals and I don’t care’. I always loved hearing him say ‘I don’t care’”.

“He was such a good friend to me, endlessly”, he went on. “I admired his work ethic and his warmth. And his opinions on national flags. On everything. I always cherish getting to spend time with him and Heather [Whinna, his wife]. I’m really going to miss him. It’s a heavy loss”.

Meanwhile, indie label Polyvinyl described Adbini’s death as an “unfathomable loss” and said that it is “impossible to fully trace the profound impact he made on all of us, on the sound of music itself”.

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