How Grandfather Made A Record With Steve Albini In Three Days: Part I
September 30, 2010 by Michael Kirsch
After spending close to a year recording ourselves in our home studio, we became frustrated with the process and the results of our work. Our goal was to accurately document the sound of our band, but we started to question the very concept of the home studio and digital audio workstation as a tool to achieve that.
So we did what we’ve always dreamed of doing: we called Steve Albini and booked three days at his studio. Famed for his devotion to analog recording methods, Albini’s rigorous, discerning and maniac fixation on unencumbered sound was precisely what we sought out.
Over the course of this four-part blog, I will discuss the making of our debut record Why I’d Try.
THE PROBLEM WITH HOME-RECORDED MUSIC
Myself and my band-mates, all of whom have practiced home recording for years, had grown tired of playing the roles of performer, producer and engineer simultaneously. Being involved in every step of the process made it impossible to find objectivity in our decision-making. We constantly reworked, edited and re-mixed our recordings for months on end, utilizing the limitless palette of plug-ins and editing tools available to us.
Leonardo Divinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Fearing that we would spend eternity trying to finish the record if left to our own devices, we began to discuss the benefit of having an outside perspective. We wanted someone who didn’t have any preconceived notions of how our music should sound, and who would accurately document our band without trying to manipulate it; something we inevitably could not do ourselves.
No Time or Tape
For a home studio, we had some really nice gear. Over the years, the three of us had acquired high quality pre amps, converters, microphones, sound-reinforcement material, and a wealth of instruments and amplifiers. We had access to a house with multiple rooms with great acoustics and a computer running the latest version of Logic. Nevertheless, we constantly found ourselves dissatisfied with the sound of our recordings and mixes.
Our problem seemed multifaceted. Without properly treated rooms, it was difficult to make informed judgments during both the tracking and mixing stage. None of us were very familiar with the environment. We discussed how a professional studio could provide us with great sounding rooms along with an engineer who knew how to record in them.
In addition, the thousands of plug-ins at our disposal sounded synthetic, not just because they digitally approximated real sounds, but because we did not record vocals in a “Chapel” or drums in a “Large Concert Hall.” No matter how good some of the plug-ins sounded, they did not sound like us. We wanted a studio with equipment that reinforced the sonic quality of the performances inside of the studio, creating a realistic space for the listener.
Finally, our home studio offered no limitations on time or tape. Hard-drive space was vast, tracks were abundant and we took advantage of these resources, experimenting endlessly, often to the degradation of the music.
Were all these factors standing in the way of an honest and organic representation of our band? We thought so. We no longer wanted these obstacles creating space between the performance and the recording.
THE SOLUTION IS ELECTRICAL
We found our solution at Electrical Audio in Chicago, IL. We had known about the studio for years, and were avid listeners of many recordings that were made there, most with engineer Steve Albini behind the board.
While there were other studios in NYC and Brooklyn that we looked into, Electrical Audio met all of our requirements at a rate that we could afford.
Albini had a reputation for successfully making records on a small budget in two or three days, whereas other studios and engineers we spoke to recommended more time. They advised us that two or three days would barely be enough time to mix a record, let alone complete it start to finish.
Electrical Audio specializes in capturing live performances with minimal sonic manipulation. Steve Albini, would use microphones to capture the sound of the studio’s rooms, rather than using plug-ins. He would not use a computer at all during the recording process. Additional reverb would come from a metal plate in the basement.
Using minimal compression and EQ, Albini would track and mix us onto 2” tape, with its inimitable warmth and limited 16-track format.
WHY I’D TRY … AGAIN
We had already recorded our album Why I’d Try in its entirety on our own. And we’d weighed our options — we could finish the mixes ourselves, outsource the mixes to another engineer, or throw out the entire record and start from scratch at Electrical Audio.
We asked for a few “test mixes” from outside engineers, though none of them brought us any closer to the sound we were looking for. Our decision was unanimous. We would record Why I’d Try again, from scratch, at Electrical Audio. [Stream/Compare Grandfather's home mix, outsourced mix and Albini mix below.]
We called up Electrical Audio and booked three days of studio time, three months in advance. They didn’t ask to hear a demo, and their only requirement was that we arrive on time, and pay them their rate. With no record label backing or money, we decided to liquidate our entire home studio, and sell any other useless items we could find around the house on Craigslist.
With the help of a fundraiser on Kickstarter.com, we raised enough money for three days at Electrical Audio with Steve Albini, a day of mastering with Bob Weston at Chicago Mastering Service, and all the costs associated with pressing a limited run of 300 12” Vinyl records.
Prep Time: 3 Months | Cook Time: 3 Days | Ready In: One Week
With three months to go, we rehearsed diligently. At Electrical, our only responsibility would be to perform our songs to the best of our ability; they would take care of the rest. Nevertheless, we understood that in order to record and mix a record in three days, we would need to develop a strategy and stick to it. While Albini was hired to engineer the record, it was our responsibility to produce it. He would not tell us how to record our music or utilize our time at the studio.
We developed a set of rules for the session. We would not record any instrumental overdubs, in order to save time and preserve the energy of the performances. We wanted to make a record that could be recreated live without the need for extra musicians or pre-recorded samples. We would record full takes of each song and only keep the best one.
Saving multiple versions, or editing performances from multiple takes would waste 2” tape, and we had no room in our budget to waste anything. This would also force us to make decisions instinctually without second-guessing ourselves. We would overdub vocals on the second day. This was a technical decision as our singer is also our drummer, and recording both simultaneously would pose various problems. We would mix on the third day, master the record on the fourth and release it online as a free digital download by the end of the week. This was our plan.
Next week I will post detailed notes and photographs from our session at Electrical Audio, and share our experience recording with Steve. — Michael Kirsch, Guitarist, Grandfather
You can download Why I’d Try for FREE on our website: http://grandfathermusic.com
Email any questions to Info at grandfathermusic dot com
I have included a player with three versions of our song “Tremors.” Version #1 is the definitive mastered version, recorded at Electrical Audio. Version #2 is the recording and mix from our home studio. Version #3 is a “test mix” from when we attempted to outsource our recordings to mix engineers.