Steve Albini’s 10 Essential Recordings

The Chicago noise wrangler Steve Albini’s signature recording technique was the invisible force that brought alternative rock’s most recognizable sounds to life. Preferring the term “recording engineer” to “producer,” he championed a style of elevated realism that remains as influential as the tracks he captured — most famously drum-heavy albums by Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey and the Jesus Lizard.

Those sessions would define his career, but Albini, who died on Tuesday at 61, was loath to say he had a “sound.” Bands of all D.I.Y. genres — from the famous to the unknown — converged on his Electrical Audio studio seeking what he really provided: an organic, authentic and honest representation of their work at a reasonable price.

Albini estimated he’d recorded “a couple thousand” albums in a 2018 interview; his productivity was related to the purity of his process. Albini sessions were done quickly and affordably. Instruments were recorded with room microphones to capture the natural reverberations of the space. Analog gear and one-take recordings were preferred. “Anyone who has made records for more than a very short period will recognize that trying to manipulate a sound after it has been recorded is never as effective as when it’s recorded correctly in the first place,” he told Sound on Sound magazine.

Here are 10 songs that demonstrate his philosophy of the studio. (Listen on Apple Music or Spotify.)

Pixies, ‘Where Is My Mind’ (1988)

For the first record he recorded outside of his friend circle, Albini used the buzzy Boston band Pixies as lab animals for his sonic ideas: loading its debut album, “Surfer Rosa,” with off-the-cuff studio chatter, refusing to use silence in between songs and making the bassist Kim Deal sing the reverb-soaked background vocals on “Where Is My Mind?” in the studio’s echo-y bathroom. In retrospect, Albini said his production touches were intrusive, but the next generation of alt-rock titans found them invigorating. “‘Where Is My Mind?’” later became one of the records that other bands would reference when they wanted to work with me,” he told The Guardian. “Nobody expected it to take off because no underground American band of that generation had even a fleeting notion of commercial success as a goal. People just wanted to blow minds.”

The Breeders, ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’ (1990)

When Albini worked with Deal on her solo project the Breeders, “I instantly preferred it to the Pixies,” he said in the book “Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies.” “There was a simultaneous charm to Kim’s presentation to her music that’s both childlike and giddy and also completely mature and kind of dirty.” The band, often in pajamas, banged out its debut LP, “Pod,” in the first week of a two-week session. “Steve Albini wasn’t interested in ‘perfecting’ a song or a performance: His métier was getting the best sound from the equipment and pressing ‘record,’” the Breeders bassist Josephine Wiggs said in a 2008 news release. “He was utterly pleased with himself when mixing the record, saying, ‘Look — no EQ!’”

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