Sunday, December 05, 2010

Steve Albini at The Art of Record Production Conference

I didn't take anything along to write notes down at Steve Albini's keynote speech, so my Musician's Union Diary, already full, bore the brunt of my spidery black scrawl, all over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and around the continents, crammed into the blue of the seas where I could read it.

Albini learned how to record musicians in the 1980s, working with assertive punk rockers, and therefore has only ever called himself a recording engineer. None of the bands he worked with back then wanted an 'auteur' producer with their own artistic input, spreading ideas-goo all over their songs, so Albini learned to record bands the way they played to their audiences, and has done ever since.

He said that he realised that he was not a 'record producer' when he saw a couple of 'record producers' in action (at this, the audience burst out laughing).

He told us that digital recording technology was developed from audio editing products, not audio recording products, hence the emphasis on working on the sound after it has been recorded rather than beforehand. He called this trivial, and the work that engineers do in digital studios 'circus tricks'; well, on this point I have to disagree slightly, having done such a lot of analogue recording in the past.
Many of the engineers and producers I worked with were prone to 'circus tricks' and it was just such a waste of expensive studio time back then as it is now. But the fact that digital recording was invented to 'solve the problems' of recording does ring true, and that is why the Take One album was recorded so simply and as a series of one-takes.

He told us how he built his studio out of adobe bricks that he bought in Mexico for 35c each and transported to Chicago for five times that amount. Adobe, being mud, totally deadens sound and is perfect for a studio that does not want reverberating walls or floors: it doesn't transmit anything, almost working as a sponge for sound-waves that want to bounce around all over the place.

Apparently at his talk in London the night before he talked a lot more about his recording methods, rather than the bigger picture. I wished I had been there for that too, as he's such an interesting speaker. Listening to an enthusiast is always inspiring, and I am beginning to think that I might set up my own recording studio- digital! But using Pro-tools for good live sound.

After a five hour drive up the A1 (McMum was worried about jacknifed lorries so I decided to avoid the M1 which I suspected would be chaotic) I did see one high-sided vehicle, tipped over all three lanes on the M58 and blocking the exit; we crawled for a while, in temperatures of -4, but it wasn't a bad journey.
I didn't have time to get 'I-am-going-to-present-an-academic-paper' terror, but more or less had to launch straight into it.
Although I only got about 1/3 of the way through, I managed to show my Futuremusic slides of nerdy white guys nestling in their studios, and I had some good feedback afterwards, mainly in the form of chaps who teach music technology to mixed groups asking me how to keep the girls interested and the boys from taking over. I had an idea on the way back in the car; I hope these guys will keep in touch because I'd like to put it in to action.
I also met some interesting female engineers, and was delighted that Paul Theberge, whose writing I really like, came to the presentation and told me afterwards that he had enjoyed it.
It was a trip well worth making, and it was a pity I couldn't afford to stay for the rest of it- especially the papers on song writing in the studio and King Tubby! (wow, that would be an interesting one!)
I have to save up for next year's conference. It's in San Francisco. I want to go, and I want to do some gigs there while I'm at it!
A New Year's resolution, made in December.

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