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‘They were firing on all cylinders’: Steve Albini on recording Nirvana’s masterpiece as In Utero turns 25

The legendary engineer and producer tells PSNEurope about the techniques he used to record the band’s legendary album.

Nirvana’s In Utero celebrates its 25th anniversary next month, and its legendary engineer Steve Albini has spoken to PSNEurope about the studio techniques he employed to record the album, their efficiency in the studio and how Kurt Cobain sung almost the entire album in one session.

Recorded not at Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago but at Minnesota’s Pachyderm Studios in trademark Albini style, In Utero was recorded and mixed in just 12 days, showcasing the band’s sound in all the unadulterated glory of their frenetic live shows. And according to Albini, despite the band’s standing as one of the biggest acts on the planet, they approached the recording with all the amiability and diligence of his typical client roster.

“Everything about that session was consistent with all the other sessions I had been doing,” he told PSNEurope. “The band set up to play live, they knew the material and there wasn’t a lot of writing or arranging done on the spot. Everything proceeded in a very straightforward pattern. I was using the same live band recording methodology I’d been using with all my friends’ and peers’ bands that I still use today.

“The remarkable thing about that session was the way Kurt conducted the vocals. We had set some time aside to get started on the vocals not knowing how long it would take, and he basically sat down and in one session sang the entire album. He did a couple of test recordings to get comfortable with the sound of the room and the mics, and then sang the album in one go. There were a couple of things that were redone that may have stretched out over two days, but it was extremely efficient and obviously a very taxing process for him, and he did a remarkable job.”

Albini also recalls an accidental stroke of good fortune in Cobain’s vocal sessions that helped embellish the record.

“One of his comfort mechanisms was that he always wanted something in his hands, “ he elaborates. “He was playing with instruments the whole time that he was doing the vocals. At the start he was using a rainstick – a percussion instrument – but the sound of it coming through the vocal mic was obviously imposing on the session and he didn’t like it, so he ended up redoing those takes. But he eventually settled on having a somewhat broken acoustic guitar to hand, so that acoustic guitar you can hear in the vocal sections of the songs is not a separate overdub but the sound of his guitar while he was recording the vocals.”

He continues: “They were firing on all cylinders. They attained a level of success where they didn’t have to ask anybody’s permission to do anything, so they made a record to suit themselves and Kurt’s vision for his music and his voice for that record were intensely personal, and I feel like he wasn’t handcuffed in any way.

“It’s not just the biggest record I’ve ever done, it’s the biggest record I’ll ever do. And they behaved exactly the same as all of their peers in the underground. They were prepared, they were well rehearsed.

You can read PSNEurope’s interview with Albini in full here, while he also tells us about his favourite In Utero mix here.