My Interview With Steve Albini On His Recording Techniques

Steve Albini, who unfortunately passed last week, gained his considerable experience and reputation working primarily with underground and alternative bands. While his most famous credit remains Nirvana’s In Utero, Steve worked with a diverse lineup of artists such as PJ Harvey, The Pixies, The Stooges, Cheap Trick, Silkworm, Jesus Lizard, Bush, and even the mainstream Page/Plant Walking to Clarksdale. Oh yeah, he was a great poker player as well.

In 2005 I interviewed Steve for inclusion in my Recording Engineer’s Handbook, and he was exactly the way you’ve always heard – strong opinions based on experience, and an absolute forthrightness about his convictions. You have to admire someone who stands by their beliefs like that.

I was planning on having Steve on my podcast soon but sadly that will now not happen. You can get a lot from this interview though, even though I’m sure that some of his microphone choices changed since we did it. It’s an excellent insight into his recording philosophy, so enjoy!

Steve Albini image on Bobby Owsinski's Production Blog

“Bobby Owsinski: Do you have a standard setup when you track?

Steve Albini: No. I get asked to do a lot of different kinds of sessions; everything from 3 piece rock bands to acoustic soloists to big sprawling acoustic ensembles to large electric groups where you have the equivalent of a couple of rock bands playing simultaneously, so I try to have an open mind about what is expected of me because I’ve been in bands myself and I know within our band our methodology was different from other bands. I want to give other bands that same freedom to develop their own vocabulary and methodology. What I do is subordinate to what they do, so there isn’t really a standard setup.

Given a three piece rock band for example, I would prefer to have them try to play live, although not necessarily all in the same room, so that they’re interacting with each other and can accommodate each other’s little changes in emphasis and timing.

Given a larger ensemble, I’ve always found that you get better results if it’s possible to set everybody up to play live. I’ve done sessions with as many as 12 or 14 band members playing simultaneously. If it’s possible to have everybody play at once, that’s the best way to do it.

Do you have standard mics that you use?

Depending upon what the music requires, there is a range of choices to start with. For example, in a drum kit if the drummer is going for an open, ambient, boomy sound, then the ambient character of the room is really important, but I’ll still have close mics on the drums because that’s a good way to get a general balance within the drum kit. On bass drum it would depend on whether there was a hole in the front head, or no front head at all or a closed front head. I normally mic both sides of the bass drum. I’ll use either a small lavaliere or a clip-on condenser to mic the beater side of the bass drum. I’ve used a Crown GLM100, Shure SM98, or a small dynamic microphone like a Beyer 201 on a little stand by the beater side of the drum. Then if it’s a closed front head, I’ll use either a large diaphragm condenser mic like a 414 or a FET 47. Normally I’d use a dynamic mic like a Beyer M88, AKG D112 or a really bassy microphone like a Beyer 380 for really murky deep rumbly sound.  

If there’s a hole in the front head and there’s a lot of air coming out of that hole, you have to be careful about where the mic is positioned. I don’t have great results with the mic sticking inside the bass drum but sometimes it sounds quite good with the microphone positioned slightly in off-center in front of that hole. There I might use an RE-20 or a D-112 or a Beyer M88, or occasionally a 421. If there’s no front head at all and it’s a very short, dead, thumping kind of sound, then I would put the mic inside the mouth of the bass drum but very close to the beater and I would probably use either an RE-20 or D112. I have used other mics, like a Shure SM7 for example.

The idea is that you want to record the bass drum so when you hear it on the speakers in the control room it sounds like a bass drum. There are quite a few people who opt for a more stylized bass drum sound where the bass drum doesn’t sound like a bass drum but instead sounds like some archetype of a recorded bass drum. I’ve never had much luck with that. Trying to make it sound like something else always sounds funny to me. I want it to sound pretty much as it does in the room.

The nice thing about having a mic on the batter side as well as the front side is that you can get more attack out of the beater if you need it by balancing that mic against the front mic without having to screw the sound up with EQ. In order to get it to bite more, you don’t have to add more hi-frequency energy, which can also really exaggerate the spillage from the cymbals and stuff.

What determines what mics you use on the drum kit?

What it should sound like is determined by a conversation with the drummer. Different mics have different character. The RE-20 has a quite mid-rangy sort of popping sound if your going for a percussive bass drum sound. The D-112 has sort of a hollowed out sound and doesn’t have as much mid-range. It has more attack and deep bass. The M88 doesn’t have quite as much low energy as D-112 but it doesn’t have as much mid-range energy as the RE-20 so it’s sort of a middle ground between those two. The 421 is much harder sounding and more pointed. It has reasonable bass response but it’s a more aggressive sound. The condenser mics tend to get used when the bass drum is being played quite softly because you want to pick up the character of the resonance and character of the front skin.

There’s a lot of variations in sound in what you would call the bass drum so it’s important to have a conversation with the drummer and to listen quite closely to what the bass drum actually sounds like.

Do you try to make the sound fit into the rest of the band or just within the kit?

The presumption that I start with is that the drummer already has the sound worked out within the band. I don’t work with a lot of bands that are assembled session players. Virtually all the bands that I record are self-contained entities that communicate within themselves in their own way and work out their own problems internally, so if the drummer has got a particular sound to his kit that he likes, I take that to be a part of the innate sound of the band. If somebody doesn’t like something at any point, that’s your first clue that you have to stop and address something, but I’m not of the opinion that I can discern what is the best sound for the drum kit within a band. I always like to leave those kind of aesthetic decisions up to the band.

Another thing that I’ve noticed, when the drummer has a drum kit that has toms in it, the sort of singing resonance of the toms that goes along with the bass drum can be a big part of the bass drum sound. Trying to get rid of those rings and resonances is sort of a standard practice, but I’ve never followed that advice. I like to be able to hear the drum kit as a single instrument rather than as a collection of discrete sounds. For example, when the drummer hits the bass drum the floor tom goes “Hmmmm,” I tend to like that and believe that it’s part of the character of the drum kit.  

Do you use drum tuners or change heads?

In the same way that I think it’s a good idea for the guitarist to have new strings when they go in to record, I think it’s a good idea for the drums to have new heads. We have drumheads here at the studio so we can swap them out if need be. I tend to think that Remo Ambassador heads record better than other drum heads. Whether clear or coated is sort of a performance choice, but I tend to think that they sound better, or at least are more predictable in their behavior, so I always recommend that the drummer get new heads. If he doesn’t have a preference, I would suggest Ambassadors.

If the drummer needs help tuning his drums I’m happy to help, but generally speaking, a drummer that knows his drum kit and plays regularly will have a preferred sound for his drums and I don’t want to interfere with that.

Do you ever use only two or three mics to capture the sound of the kit?

Yes I do, although it’s not a standard thing for me. I’ve done it when someone is trying to record in an idiomatic way. Some people like the sound of the drums in old Western Swing records where there’s a barely discernible drum kit in the background. Some people like the sound of the early Tamala/Motown records where there’s an overhead microphone and maybe a bass drum microphone and that’s the majority of the drum sound. When someone comes into the studio to make something that’s making reference to an archetype like that, I like to try to accommodate them rather than recording in a modern fashion and pretending that’s it’s archaic.

I have done some sessions on 8 and 16 track where it was an aesthetic choice to have a real simplistic sound to the drums where you’ll end up using only a couple of mics. I’ve found that a bass drum mic and a mic on either side of the drum kit, like one by the rack tom and one by the floor tom, is a pretty good way to get a nice even sound on the drums. Occasionally, just an overhead microphone right over the drummers’ head and a bass drum microphone will work. For some reason I’ve found that ribbon mics work better in that capacity because they have a figure 8 pattern and they tend to attenuate the spillage from the sides of the room, and they keep the high hat in particular from becoming overwhelming.

If I’m recording with microphones on either side of the drum kit, then I’ll probably use condenser mics, either Schoeps 221’s, C12’s or Sony C37’s.  

Do you mic the high hat?

No. I will on rare occasion if the drummer is playing really lightly or doing a bunch of tricky stuff that he’s really proud of, but generally speaking, there’s more high-hat than you can use [from the snare mic]. If they came up with a negative microphone that you could suck it out of the record, I would put one up on the hat most of the time.

Do you use the overheads to mic the kit or just as cymbal microphones?

If the drums are being recorded in a live room with a lot of ambient sound, I tend to think that the cymbals sound better that way than with mics right up close to them. I do have overheads up over the drum kit generally just to correct balance problems with the cymbals. Like if the crash cymbal isn’t loud enough, it’s nice if there’s an overhead mic to bring it up, but I generally prefer the sound of the cymbals at a distance. 

What are you using for overheads usually?

I’ve had really good luck with Coles and STC 4038 ribbon microphones. I’ve had good luck using an M/S stereo pair in front of the drum kit sort of chest high as a cymbal mic. I’ve used an AKG C-24, the Royer stereo ribbon mic, Neumann SM 2, a pair of 414’s. I’ve used any number of things for that M/S pair.

For overheads as individual mics on booms over the drum kit, I’ve had real good luck with Schoeps 221’s, and the AKG C60 using omnidirectional capsules or CK-1 cardioid capsules. I’ve used 414’s. Boy, it’s hard to think of something that I haven’t used.

Do you tailor your mic selection to the instrument?

To an extent. You can get into a mode where everything is an experiment and you never make any decisions and that tends to slow things down. I tend to make a guess as to what should work, and if it doesn’t sound like it’s doing the job, I like to capitulate immediately and put something else up rather than screwing around forcing it to work. So it’s not a long experimental process but more like a couple of rapid decisions.  

How do you determine where to place the instruments in a room?

If I’m familiar with the studio like the ones we have here at Electrical Audio, I can tell if a given location is good or bad. The most important thing is the band’s comfort and their sight-lines. There’s no point in having one tiny little corner of the room where the drums sound good if the bass player can’t see that far, so I tend to avoid the bad spots rather than finding the good spots.  

One really revealing thing is to walk around a room and sort of stomp and clap and holler and hear where you’re getting reinforcement from the room and hear where it sounds interesting. Wherever you find the place that you like the sound of the reflected sound is a good place to start. A lot of studios are designed to have very little reflected energy and support from the room and those can be frustrating environments to record in. Professionally designed Nashville style studios can be a real chore to make records in because the rooms don’t have any personality. I’ve found a lot of non-professionally designed studios to be more flattering acoustically.  

How do you deal with leakage?

If there are a lot of instruments in the same room, you have to be careful about physically how close they are to one another, what their orientation is, and how close the mics are. If there are many sources in a room, chances are that they’re an acoustic ensemble and you’re not dealing with high volumes. If there’s bleed from one instrument to the other, it normally sounds sympathetic and nice.  

So you usually use the iso rooms instead?

Yeah, normally if it’s a three piece rock band there will probably be one room that’s an isolation room that will probably have the amplifiers in it. The hardest thing to manage in terms of bleed is if you have really quiet instruments and really loud ones playing in the ensemble, like if you have a violinist playing with a rock band. Then you have to find a location for the violinist where there’s enough air around the violin to make it sound normal with a reasonable sight line so they can see what they’re doing, but you have to make sure the violin isn’t so close to the drums or amplifiers that the violin mic is overwhelmed.  

Surprisingly enough, instruments like accordion, buran or frame drum or things like that are easy to deal with because you can take a small lavaliere and physically mount it to the instrument so it’s right by the sound source. You don’t need very much gain on that microphone at all and it’s not going to pick up very much bleed. It’s much harder to do with instruments like piano or acoustic guitar or mandolin because if you have the mic close to the strings on those instruments it sounds funny.  

Generally speaking, if you have a large ensemble you try to put physical space between them, and then you try to put the loud instruments in one room and the quiet ones in another one if possible.

What do you use for microphone preamps?

I’ve used them all and there are very few that I’ve not been able to find a use for. We have about ten Ampex 351 modules that we’ve modified into mic preamps and I really love the way they sound, especially if you’re using a ribbon or dynamic microphone. It seems like the way they interface with those dynamic systems is just a natural match. They were similar eras of technology designed to work together.  

I really love the GML mic preamps. They’re dead clean and have a lot of gain and great bass response. I also really like the John Hardy mic preamps. They’re clean, really great sounding, really reliable, and have great metering. We’ve got a lot of these Sytek mic preamps which are rather inexpensive but are on par with the others that I just mentioned. They sound different, a little crispier sounding with a little more extreme high end, but they have loads of gain and are quiet and totally reliable.  

The console preamps in our Neotek consoles are also really nice. I use them far more than I use the console preamps when in other studios. The older one that we have, the Series Two, has a slightly thicker sound that’s really good for rock music and bass and drums. The newer Elite I don’t hesitate to use the preamps on anything.

How do you determine what preamps to use? Is it a preferred combination with a mic?

Generally speaking it’s more of a logistical factor. Like if I have four mics up on the guitars, I’ll want to use a four channel preamp so that they’re all in the same place. If I have three vocal mics up that we’re experimenting with, then I’d like to have them all in the same place. Again, there’s no real exhaustive search done to try to find the perfect preamp. It’s more a matter of making sure that whatever choice you make doesn’t cause problems.

What do you use on snare?

I had the hardest time with snare drum when I first started making records. When you listen to a snare when you’re sitting at the drums it can have this really explosive sound, and it can have a really subtle sound. I was never happy with the sound of snare drum on other people’s records. It didn’t sound like a snare drum to me and usually sounded like some stylized version of a snare drum, so I experimented for a long time before I found something that I was happy with.  

The first thing that I found that I was happy with was using a Beyer 201 dynamic mic with a small condenser microphone like a Shure SM-98 or AKG 451 strapped to the side of it with their diaphragms aligned. I used that combination quite a bit because every time I tried something else, it wouldn’t sound right. The stock solutions like an SM57 or a 421 just never did it for me. Every time I would open the fader on one of those it would just sound wrong, so I like that combination on the top of the snare. It seems like I can vary the balance between those two and get either a crisp sound or a thick sound or a popping midrange sound. With a flexible combination of those two I could either satisfy myself or satisfy the drummer.

I did happen to find a couple of other mics that I like on snare drum. For rock drumming there’s this small tube Altec model 75 that sounds quite good. It doesn’t clip. There might be some mild distortion, but it sounds good. I’ve also used a Sony C37 which was a real shocker. I didn’t expect that one to work out but that mic sounds great on snare drum, especially on a bright but bassy, flat, funky snare drum. Those are the only mics that I’ve had good results on. I’ve occasionally used a bottom mic, but it doesn’t get used a lot.

How do you place it?

Someplace where it won’t get hit (laughs), but that’s not even the biggest problem. You want it somewhere where it’s out of the drummers’ way. You don’t want it to interfere with what he’s doing and you don’t want the drummer to be preoccupied about not hitting the microphone. Every drummer’s set is slightly different, so you try to find a place where it’s not going to pick up too much of the high hat and it’s not going to be in the way of the drummer.  

It’s nice if you can get a few inches of distance between the snare drum mic and the snare drum, but you have to put it where it will go rather than making the drummer work around it.

How about toms?

For years I used AKG 451’s on small toms and AKG 414’s on big ones. Occasionally I would use 414’s on everything, but 451’s had a really great, focused attack and nice clear resonant bass. But because the matching on those mics is a little sketchy to start with and because they’d get banged up all the time, I started looking for something to replace them with. The real inspiration for this was that AKG discontinued the 451 and almost instantly those mics were being sold by equipment brokers as “vintage.” These used to be a commodity item that you could pick up for $100 and suddenly they were $500. The new reissue of the 451 is completely different and nothing like an original 451, so I had to look for something else.  

I talked to a number of microphone manufacturers about commissioning them to make a microphone for me but no one was interested. What I needed was a high quality condenser microphone with a small diaphragm that was either side firing so I could place it over a tom without it sticking out in the drummers way, or with a rotating capsule like the old 451’s. Nobody had a product that was equivalent until I talked to David Josephson. I had used some of his microphones in a studio in Japan and found them to be really good general purpose condenser microphones. He thought it would be an interesting project, so over the course of about two years we went back and forth and he ended up designing a capsule that would fit on his standard head amplifier that was a side firing single membrane cardioid microphone [the e22S]. I bought a half dozen from him and he entered it into his product line.  

Electric bass; do you mic or take it direct?

It’s rare that I take a direct signal on a bass guitar. Again I think that the bass player’s choice of amplifiers defines the character of his playing and the band, so I tend to try to record the bass amplifier so it sounds the same as when you listen to it in the room. I generally use a couple of microphones, one which is brighter than the other, because depending on the balance of the song you might have to increase the edginess of the bass to make it poke through more.  

One mic that I use all the time is a Beyer 380 which is a very wooly and deep microphone that has a lot of super low end. It’s a figure 8 mic so it has a huge proximity effect. If you move it in close on the speaker cabinet you get all the low end you would ever want. Then I’ll generally have a condenser mic as well like a 451 or a 414 or an Audio Technica 4033 or a FET 47 or any number of things to compliment it.  

I place the mics generally fairly close and in the center of the loudspeaker, but far enough away that none of the excursion of the speaker will run into the microphone.  

Guitars; where are you placing the mics?

Electric guitar mikes tend to be farther away from the cabinet because if you’re really close to the speaker then the acoustic interactions with the cabinet are more localized. If you pull the mic farther away, then you get a more coherent sound from the cabinet as a whole. I have used all sorts of mics on electric guitars, but I really like ribbon mics on them. I think the 4038 sounds great and the Royer 121 sounds great. Old RCA BK-5 and 44’s sound good on small cabinets if you have to beef it up.

One mic or multiple mics?

Normally I’ll have a bright mic and dark mic on the cabinet, like a condenser and a ribbon mic. Since all the speakers in a cabinet sound different, I try to find one that’s appropriate for the ribbon mic and another one that’s appropriate for the condenser.  

I don’t have a lot of luck on guitar cabinets, I have to admit. I haven’t had a lot of luck with the traditional SM57 or Sennheiser 421 or 409. I actually never even owned a 57 until recently. I had to buy one because somebody wanted it, but I had gone nearly 20 years without one.

What do you use on vocals?

That’s a real can of worms. There are as many vocal microphones and vocal styles as people singing. I know a lot of people just throw up a U 47 and call it quits. I have used a U 47 with good results, but I can’t say that it’s my #1 favorite vocal mic.  

If I have a #1 favorite vocal mic, it’s probably the Josephson microphone called the 700. I’ve used that quite a bit, but even as great a microphone as it is and as much use as I get out of it, it’s not appropriate for fully 75% of the people I work with. I end up using everything from RE-20’s to old tube mics to ribbon mics. It totally depends upon the singer and the delivery. This is one area that you really can go around in circles looking for something that sounds good.  

So your mic selection is based on how it makes the vocal sit in the track?

If someone’s voice is the center of attention in the music, I like to be able to just listen to that and have it be satisfying. If you’re listening to the voice by itself, it should make you think, “That sounds really great.” If that’s the center of attention, then you want to make sure that it’s a rewarding listen.  

How about piano.

I’ve had really good luck with the Neumann SM 2 stereo mic over the piano. AKG C-12 and C-24’s sound great too. Those Audio Technica 4051’s are great piano mics. I’ll usually place them perpendicular to the harp, one on the long strings and one on the short strings. You have to shuffle them in and out until the stereo image sounds normal. The SM 2 I’ll put in front of the piano with the lid open sort of looking in on the strings. Same with the C-24.

How do you approach acoustic guitars?

With acoustic guitars it depends on whether there’s going to be singing simultaneously with the acoustics. If there is, then you have to try to make the mics not favor the vocal. If there’s no singing, then you can record the instrument at a distance and pick up some room sound and that’s nice. Normally I try to have a stereo image either from the audience perspective or the players perspective. The Neumann SM 2 is a great acoustic mic. Schoeps 221’s are great. I’ve used the ATM 4051 at a distance because they’re get a bit brittle if you get too close.  

If you have an instrument that’s really stringy and thin sounding, a ribbon mic up close tends to make it sound a bit heftier. The same basic thing holds true for things like mandolin and banjo. With banjo you have to be careful because it’s a brittle instrument and you have to use a darker microphone.”

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