Ampex Remembers Steve Albini

Legendary alternative rock artist, music producer, and Ampex equipment enthusiast, Steve Albini, who preferred the title “engineer,” sadly passed away at his Electrical Audio Recording Studios in Chicago on May 7th, 2024. He was 61.

Known for his pioneering bands Big Black and Shellac, and working with artists such as Nirvana, the Pixies, and PJ Harvey, Albini was steadfast in his belief in analog equipment and media, and featured Ampex ATR102 and 104 1/2-inch recorders at his studio used for mixdown. Albini was concerned with the speed of changes in digital media and software and was a proponent of analog recording to preserve the historical record of music.

Speaking to The Guardian in 2022, Albini said, “The recording part is the part that matters to me — that I’m making a document that records a piece of our culture, the life’s work of the musicians that are hiring me. I take that part very seriously. I want the music to outlive all of us.”

Speaking to the Chicago Sun Times in 2021, Albini said, “Analog masters are good for 100 years or so, minimum, (we don’t really know because the earliest analog masters pre-WWII are still playable) while digital masters are beholden to a bunch of proprietary software and hardware, and often become unusable in a few years’ time.”

Highlighting of the sound quality of analog recording vs digital, the always opinionated Albini continued, “And there’s an important quality to analog recording, that the boundaries of the media are soft, making it more forgiving than digital recording… In digital recording, if you exceed the headroom of the system you get unusable hash from a violently clipped signal. In an analog system in the same situation you only have some mild artifacts and plenty of leeway. You have to f— up really badly to ruin an analog recording.”

Steve Albini’s studio was featured in Audio Technology Magazine in 2018, which wrote that, “Electrical Audio has five or six Ampex ATR102 and 104 1/2-inch machines, all of them used in stereo. Most of them had been refurbished by Mike Spitz at ATR Services Company before he passed away.”

Of the Ampex recording equipment, Albini enthused, “These machines are real workhorses. They’re very simple to use, and dead-notch reliable. When you print tones and look at it on the scope, they’re rock solid. It’s rare for the azimuth stability on a 1/2-inch machine to be as good as it is on these. There’s very little drift in the amplifiers. You have to keep your eye on the drift over time like any analogue equipment, but they’re very reliable, very stable machines.”

Steve Albini also believed that a recording studio should be a resource for the local music scene and the community. After his wife, filmmaker Heather Whinna, brought home a “Letter to Santa” from the post office written by a family in need, they spent the next 20 years working with Second City Theater to stage a 24-hour show to raise funds and deliver gifts and other needed items to local families at Christmas.

Country musician Robby Fulks, who recorded six albums with Albini, speaking to the Chicago Sun Times, said, “He’d miss sleep, meals and leisure to make your record sound a little better. You’d be the recipient of extravagant gestures if you were his friend. If you were a president of a record company, he’d refuse your call or hang up on you.”

From Ampex, it’s our privilege to say, thanks for the music, Steve.

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