Skip to main content
Steve Albini: "Find people who think like you and stick with them. Make only music you are passionate about. Work only with people you like and trust. Don't sign anything." | Photo:
Steve Albini: "Find people who think like you and stick with them. Make only music you are passionate about. Work only with people you like and trust. Don't sign anything." | Photo:
mbx -

Top 5 Principles of Music Making According to Steve Albini

Sadly, the world of alternative music lost another huge personality a few days ago – American producer, musician, sound engineer and, last but not least, music journalist Steve Albini passed away. His famous Electrical Audio studio in Chicago was a shrine to a huge range of bands and underground personalities. Throughout his great career, he worked with Nirvana, Pixies, Bush and PJ Harvey, to name just the most famous of the thousands of musicians he worked with. His bands Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac set the course for the minimalist guitar genre. Steve Albini was also a big critic of mainstream music and industry, and today we look at the top 5 principles of music-making according to his creed.

1. Sound engineer, not a producer

One of the many things that set Albini apart from other famous music producers is that he despised being called a producer. He preferred the title the sound engineer because it more accurately describes his belief that the job of the person so titled was only to record the band, not to shape its sound.

Albini also never had royalties paid (fees for secondary uses of a recording, such as radio, film or advertising) for any recording. Instead, the band simply paid him a one-time fee for his time. This is because he considered it unethical to make an unlimited amount of money from an artist's work as part of a royalty payment, which is otherwise an accepted practice throughout the industry. Consider how many millions of dollars he must have lost because of this belief in his work with Nirvana, right?

Most remarkable, however, is that Steve Albini has worked with everyone from the biggest names to the most obscure underground acts. He wasn't like Max Martin, Rick Rubin, or any other star producer whose rates are unaffordable to anyone without a yacht, a Lamborghini collection and an original Picasso in one of their summer homes. He has always been accessible – his email is publicly traceable, as is his phone number, which I can confirm from personal experience, as we communicated about the possibility of collaborating on a Punt Guns project a few years ago. Now I'm really sorry we didn't end up going through with it and doing a record together at Electrical Audio, the recording studio Steve owned and operated for nearly three decades.

2. Be a c*nt

Most people in the music business will advise you to be nice to everyone, just say yes, and build a reputation as an all-around professional. But Albini was definitely of a different opinion. One example of his approach was the founding of the band Rapeman, whose name comes from a Japanese manga, but that's definitely not the first association that comes to mind. Albini himself admitted his cynical need to repel as many people as possible with the name. "I’m embarrassed by it now, but it was part of the decision-making process: "Look at all these fucking bands trying to get on MTV. Whatever we’re doing with this band, it’s got to be 180 degrees opposite of that,'' Albini said in an interview with The Guardian.

Albini also used provocation in his writing and interviews during his fanzine journalism days. In his first band, Big Black, he was also unafraid to criticize the Chicago underground music scene's own ecosystem, where criticism and strong words uncompromisingly exposing immoral practices or the rottenness of the system were seen as a sign of stubborn authenticity. However, fighting windmills didn't bring them much popularity. But if Albini looked like an asshole in many people's eyes, he was the kind of asshole who upheld the punk creed of not signing to major labels, rejecting authority, saying what you think, and making a lot of noise.

In short, Albini wasn't afraid to be uncompromising in his advocacy at a time when subculture and the underground were increasingly assimilated, marketed and shamelessly monetized by the music industry's power players. "He had a real sense of wanting to do what was right, not just for himself but for other people," one former collaborator said of Albini. However, over time, Albini realised that as the cultural context changed, elevating rudeness and insults to acceptable media discourse (see the acceptance of extremism in the public space in the UK after Brexit, or in the US during Donald Trump's presidency), he too had to change his approach: "That was the beginning of a sort of awakening in me. When you realise that the dumbest person in the argument is on your side, that means you're on the wrong side."

3. Minimalist perfectionism

When Albini started out as a producer (before he'd developed his strictly neutral approach), he was more comfortable imposing his ideas on the bands he worked with. Today, he regrets some of his unnecessary creative interventions, such as the ambient noise and snatches of conversation that weave through the Pixies' debut album Surfer Rosa. Over time, Albini developed a simple process when he agreed to collaborate with an artist. He began by asking them to list their expectations, what bands they liked, what they wanted to sound like, and even descriptions of disappointments from previous recordings and productions. It was a slightly therapeutic start, but it gave Albini and the collaborating musicians a clear direction and a mutual convergence of ideas.

Like a proper producer, Albini did everything the band asked him to do, but always tried to maintain his preferences. He liked to record on as few takes as possible, preferred analogue recording (using magnetic tape, for example), did not recommend too much intervention in the recording process, and once everyone agreed on how they wanted to sound, he hardly interfered in the artist's music itself afterwards. In this regard, there is a funny story from his collaboration with the band Bush, when he was asked for his opinion on the song "Swallowed". After much hesitation, Albini admitted that he didn't think it should be on the album at all. The band disobeyed and "Swallowed" became their first number-one single on the US charts.

4. Don't trust anyone in the music industry

The album that catapulted Albini into the spotlight was Nirvana's acclaimed 1993 album In Utero. Kurt Cobain was under immense pressure and was looking for a follow-up album to the highly successful Nevermind. The sudden rise to worldwide fame brought with it critical voices that questioned Cobain's credibility as an artist who was living the very style he had originally fought against and despised. So Kurt Cobain decided to approach Steve Albini to repair his artistic reputation. He was a fan of his band Big Black, which he had seen live in Seattle. They had a couple of late-night phone calls, but Albini didn't know who was calling and tried to politely send the unknown to fly a kite.

Eventually, he managed to get in touch with Nirvana officially, which led to a negotiation in which Albini laid out his recording philosophy in a letter: he wrote that he needed to "bang a record out in a couple of days, with high quality but minimal production" and, most importantly, "no interference from the front office bulletheads”. The material that eventually became In Utero was really recorded in a few weeks in a studio in Minnesota.

Of course, the whole process was not without the intervention of Geffen, the record company under which Nirvana fell. The managers insisted that the record be remixed and have a more commercial sound compared to Albini's production. In the end, a compromise was reached: the singles Heart-Shaped Box and All Apologies were smoothed into a more commercially acceptable form, while the rest of Albini's production remained in its original form. As you can guess, Albini was not happy with the result and harshly criticized Geffen's approach. However, he had a good relationship with the members of Nirvana. This adventure nearly buried Albini's production career, as he was suddenly too big a name to underground bands and a troublemaker to established artists. He was only saved by working with legends Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, where Albini learned to be more neutral and keep a professional distance.

5. Sound sanctuary

His legendary Electrical Audio studio is built of clay bricks that absorb sound. When the band isn't recording, the rooms are completely silent, giving the whole building an almost sacred cathedral feel. The reason Electrical Audio was formed in 1995 was because Albini was fed up with the lack of good, cheap studios to record. Electrical Audio, on Belmont Avenue in Chicago, consists of two main recording rooms (Studio A and Studio B), which he designed himself and which his Shellac bandmate Bob Weston helped him architect. His philosophy of approach to recording was heavily influenced by English producer John Loder, who became famous in the late 1970s for recording albums quickly and cheaply but still managed to maintain the band's distinctive qualities, sense of sound and aesthetic, and professional standards.

Steve Albini was a unique phenomenon on the music scene. His character, uncompromising focus on the values and principles of DIY independent music making and approach to production will be sorely missed here.

"I don't consider myself to be unique. There is a thread of continuity among people who devote their whole lives to this. They contribute enthusiasm, knowledge, common sense and a decent work ethic. It is nice that there are still unselfish people in the game. I try to live that way."

Steve Albini (*22 July 1962 – †5 May 2024)

Tagy steve albini electrical audio TOP 5 Nirvana in utero Producent

If you have found an error or typo in the article, please let us know by e-mail

Marek Bero
Bass Gym 101 books, touring & session bass player, football tactics aficionado.