I stopped by Virgin Megastore to fruitlessly shop for Broken Social Scene and TV on the Radio on vinyl Friday. Browsing through the book section I found the 33 1/3 book series. Each book is devoted to a different classic album. I was looking for Pixies Doolittle, but found Nirvana In Utero.
In Utero is one of he most frustrating recordings I own: my favorite Nirvana songs, recorded by Steve Albini and Bob Weston, but mastered for FM radio in a ’78 Ford Fairmont by Bob Ludwig. To paraphrase Steve Albini’s opinion of the mastering, “…compressed dynamic range, closed down stereo image, reduced bass and treble…” Essentially, the final master approved by the band and Geffen had a sonic bell curve applied to it, appealing to the lowest common denominator.
The 33 1/3 book stated that bootlegs of Albini’s original recording exist and some versions of the vinyl LP contain the original. Searching ebay turns up domestic and UK pressings but no description mention a different mix on either. Nirvana fan sites don’t list the Albini sourced bootleg in their “Outcesticide” series. I’m losing hope that the original mix is available on any recorded media (or is so rare on limited vinyl pressings that it is lost to time).
Further searching found “Is This Thing On? Production Fuck-ups.” The Nirvana section:
Nirvana In Utero (Steve Albini)
Albini doesn’t consider himself a producer (the credits say “recorded by..”) and considering some of his Big Black work, he may just be right. Frank Black said that when he worked with the Pixies, he took great pains to get the guitar parts down and rushed through the vocals. It sounded a little more professional when Kurt Cobain requested his services. In all, this was one of his many bold moves he made considering that Albini was a respected underground producer but definitely not major-label league yet. Of course, for a cool million dollars[ed. really $100,000], Albini decided that he could work with them. You’ll note on the CD that there are special treble and bass control settings marked out to show you how the CD is meant to be heard- sure enough, this does change the sound of the thing quite a bit. The sound is more raw than Nevermind as I’m sure they wanted. In all, Cobain’s record company (DGC) wasn’t amused with the proceedings so they had to send Scott Litt in to clean up some of the stuff to make it radio-friendly. Supposedly, the whole project was hotly disputed between Albini and the band and the company though Albini claims everything turned out hunky-dory. Except for the Litt remixes, he and the band had their way.
I happened to have In Utero handy and sure enough I found the suggested bass and treble knob adjustments: +2 Bass and +5[!] Treble (as the hour hand of a clock, in the pic above). This discovery made my day, I told my friends and my wife.
The big problem with the tone controls tweak is that no two tone controls or EQ work the same way, plus I don’t have tone controls on my Rogue 99 pre-amp. So, the closest I can come to the band’s suggestion is applying the following custom EQ in iTunes:
I just adjusted the EQ to the above setting after I figured Nirvana’s numbers were half of iTune’s EQ scale (12 dB versus 24 dB range respectively). Hopefully, this will improve the sound of the album, though I know tone controls cannot revive the full bandwidth thrown away in the “remastering.”
Can anyone confirm the existence of an Albini mixed bootleg on CD or vinyl?