The Flaming Shrine of Steve Albini

Steve Albini. L Dopa. Independent from the Independents. Pruriently superlative. Talented, angry, insane. Paradox of paradoxes. Mocker of men and destroyer of kings. Often drummerless. And possibly sold out.

Why has noone yet enflamed a shrine to the great Steve Albini?

Every album from Big Black to Shellac is a shrine unto his genius.

But the words are merely noises without the music. Albini turns repetition into anxious precision. And he is a damn fine producer from what I understand.


Time flies as a crow flies:
In a straight line.
Through you, not around you.
You’re life is only that with which
Time has its way with you.

If not for his own incredible music, then for producing one of the greatest albums of all time. Thank you for Surfer Rosa by The Pixies.

Yeah! And which the Pixies apparently didn’t like enough to use him again, preferring the more overproduced sound that Frank Black now routinely uses to marr his music.

Sigh. God bless the opening lines of My Black Ass.

This is all more information than anyone needs, but since I can contribute…

I’ve had two friends write letters to Steve.

The first handwrote a two page glowing letter, telling Steve how much he loved his work, was so inspired by it, blah blah blah. Steve wrote back, on a single sheet of lined paper. The letter read in it’s entirety:

You should work on your penmanship. You make a sloppy impression.

A lesser person would probably have been devestated, but Mark this was the most hysterical thing he had ever seen. He made copies and taped it all over his house.

Flash forward a few years. I’m working with a friend who’s building a recording studio. He contemplates writing Steve an email with some questions; we all warn him. In every context I’ve seen Steve, he’s ripping someone a new one. Well, this guy sends Steve a letter anyway. I am including Steve’s reply, copied directly from email. Gear heads will appreciate his advice, though many, most, might disagree with his approach to recording. But obviously, it’s this attitude that got Mr. Albini to where he is today, so I take the naysayers with a grain of salt. I also take Steve’s opinions with a grain of salt, too. But you can see from this letter, for all of his caustic persona, he really knows his stuff, and he’s genuinely willing to help if you’re going to put some work into it. I’ve changed town names and such to avoid offending anyone.

Casual readers can stop here; gear heads, enjoy! (For those who didn’t know, Steve’s studio in Chicago is built from adobe, which my friend asked him about…).

At 03:28 AM 02/24/2001 -0800, you wrote:
> Steve, I know you are a busy guy so I’ll try to keep this short and to the point. I am from the XXXXXXX area. XXXXXX has two recording facilities; “xxxxx” and “xxxxxx” Studios. But $45 dollars an hour is not always an option for young musicians. I’ve been throwing myself into a meat grinder every day for the past couple of years, working hard to save money. My hands are solid tree bark. I have managed to save $20,000. My goal is to put that money into developing a studio.

**Wow. That’s 444 hours and 25 minutes at $45 an hour. That’s 10 weeks in the studio. Are you sure you want to do this? I have been in three bands during the last 20 years, and all-tolled, I haven’t spent that much time making records combined. It’s hard to see how spending 20 grand on building a studio will be saving you any money.

I know something about the studios you mention, and while they aren’t really up to the standards we set here at xxxxxxxx, they are perfectly good small studios. Every college town in America has a couple of studios like this, and they are all about the same. Building something yourself that would serve as well will be a huge undertaking, and it will eat up every cent you make available to it.**

*>I am a solid musician with 15 years of experience. I have good ears, but have only been turning knobs and putting sound to tape for a couple years. This studio would be a cheap alternative for independent musicians. I will record bands for free or next to nothing, and they will give me the opportunity to acquire more knowledge in this field. *

This is pretty much the route everybody takes to get experience.

*>(My arsenal of tools to get this job done)
>1.One friend that is a licensed architect that has been studying studio design & acoustics. (I trust him; he is a musician and he introduced me to the COWS) *

That’s good news – I sure don’t trust the guy who introduced me to the Cows.

*>2.One father that has any and all tools needed to fabricate a studio. He is also an electrician, and somehow always has a connection to find free and endless supplies of raw materials ( I think he may be in the mob) *

You probably weren’t supposed to tell me that.

*>3. I do have a knack for carpentry and an extreme drive to make records, and to help out independent music.
>So anyway, my questions to you, Steve, are these; I’ve got a decent size basement and $20,000 dollar budget. How should Ii move my money around? *

You will spend it all, without a doubt, but how you spend it depends on a number of circumstances. If you own the building, I suggest spending the lion’s share of it on construction, and a minimal compliment of equipment, since you will naturally acquire more eqipment over time, but the construction, once finished, is hard to make changes to. If you don’t own the building, then you should do as little construction as possible, since you can’t take the construction with you if you get moved out by a rent increase, problems with neighbors, etc. In this case, you can buy a bigger compliment of equipment, but the acoustics (which are the most important part of any studio) may be compromised. Remember to make everything you build into the studio removable – you will need to fix it eventually, and may need to move it someday.

*>With this kind of budget, what is important, and what can I do without? *

**However much of your budget you spend on equipment, try to only buy equipment that has held its value or appreciated over time. It is better to buy a couple of $1000 mics that will still be worth $1000 in a year than five $400 mics that won’t be worth half that in a year. It is better to buy an analog tape deck that has a known market value than a computer that Is only worth anything when brand new. I bought a $2800 computer a few years ago, a top-of-the-line 486 IBM. Right now it’s worth about $200. I bought an Ampex ATR 102 for $1500 at the same time, and it’s now worth $5000. I bought 4 top-of-the-line Sony DAT machines for $2000 apiece a few years ago, and they are worth about $400 now. At the same time, I bought a pair of AKG C-12 microphones for $8,000, and they are worth $12,000 now. Good equipment is expensive now, but if it is really good, it will hold its value or appreciate over time.

Don’t buy any computer software – it is like burning money. There is no resale value for any computer software, and the hardware interfaces become obsolete very quickly. If you have to do computer editing of sound files, use free software, demo versions, etc. The code is out there.

You will need to buy a shitload of wiring. The Gepco company in Chicago is probably the best cost/performance compromise – nearly as easy to use as Mogami or Gotham, half the price.

Get more mic stands (especially short ones with little booms on them) than you think you need. You will always need at least two more than you have.**

*>Do you have any suggestions on equipment? Or who is a good company that i can rely on for finding good new or used equipment? I would especially be interested in your take on a good microphone? And, last but not least, were did you get adobe, or the equivalent to adobe, in the mid west? *

**Adobe comes from the Southwest, so that’s where you have to get it. Like Lemurs in Madagascar, they ain’t found anywhere else. We got ours from New Mexico.

Good microphones for the money: Royer R121, SF12, Audio Techinca 4033, 4050, 4051, Pro37R, Beyer M201, M88, M380, M500, M160, AKG D112, 451, Sennheiser 421, Electrovoice RE20 or PL20, Crown GLM100 (cool little mic I use all the time).

Tape machines are a whole ball of yarn. If you’re willing to take the time to learn about them, fix them and maintain them, the best big old analog multitrack machines sound amazing, and you can buy them now at very reasonable prices. If you aren’t willing to spend the time and energy to learn about them, then please don’t buy one. They are great, and can give you spectacular results, but if they get mechanically or electronically out of line, and you don’t fix problems as they arise, they can tear themselves apart like a thresher hitting a woodpile.

-steve albini**