Steve Albini—The "Dean" of Alternative Rock Engineers, 1993 Interview
1993 Interview originally produced for The Absolute Sound
I conducted this interview with the great Steve Albini way back in 1993, before MP3, before the iPod, back when all but a few outspoken critics like Albini, Neil Young and a few others had anything negative to say about the digital recording revolution. It's fascinating to read Albini's thoughts from back then today. He was right on target then and now, but of course keep in mind this are his thoughts 30 years ago. This interview was conducted after he'd recorded In Utero, but before it was released._ed.
He's the dean of alternative rock engineers, a thirty-something (now 61 in 2023) veteran of literally thousands of get 'em in, get 'em out recording sessions, mostly with young, inexperienced bands who can't spend a great deal of money, but who have something to say and who don't want to be restrained in the recording studio. More than anything, they want to recognize themselves when they hear the final product.
With Albini at the console, the results are raw, ballsy, honestly recorded representations of ensembles playing (mostly) live, in acoustic spaces. In other words, audiophile quality sound, but applied to music many audiophiles probably won't care for. That's their loss.
Albini's productions are big on space and image focus and are engineered to highlight the sense of ensemble- of musicians communicating with each other as they play. While Albini's recordings are brash, and sometimes bright, they explode with excitement and musical truth. His recordings have fired the imagination of a generation of musicians who want to be heard on record the way they play live- a method of recording pop music that all but disappeared with the advent of multitrack tape recorders in the mid to late sixties. Albini has also opened the ears of the listening public to the sound of honest recordings. And for that audiophiles of every musical bent should be grateful.
What prompted this interview was the first play through of Albini's 1992 recording of P.J. Harvey's Rid Of Me (Island ILPS 8002 514 696-1 LP). Albini outdoes himself here, aided no doubt in part by a reasonably large major label recording budget. "I've got to talk to this guy", was my first reaction beyond Harvey's extraordinary performance. (Note: in 2020 Elvis Costello said about Rid of Me, "For me, the record sounds like shit". That guy doesn't know anything about production". Listen and judge for yourself_ed.)
With the help of Lori Somes, P.J.'s publicist, I contacted Albini at his home studio in Chicago. Yes, he would be happy to speak with me. I procured passes for Albini and a friend to the summer C.E.S., and hooked up with the two at The Chicago Hilton.
Long, thin, and thoughtful looking, with a close-cropped head fitted with wire rim glasses, Albini had "bass player" written all over him, and indeed that is his instrument. We spent a few enjoyable hours traipsing through the exhibits listening to the vinyl and CDs he'd brought along-some he'd recorded, some done by others-before ducking into an abandoned utility closet- the only place we could find that would be quiet enough to conduct an interview.
We spoke in a small dark almost air-less space strewn with stacks of broken chairs, empty glass cleaner bottles, assorted rubble, and discarded industrial grade upright vacuum cleaners. A perfect setting, I thought
MF: I got a letter from a reader who said I should "check out the recordings of the great Steve Albini" and at that point I had only one record with your name on it- Surfer Rosa by The Pixies on Rough Trade records, which I hadn't yet played. So I did, and it blew me away because it was in every sense of the word, what an audiophile recording should be.
SA: Well thanks, I'm flattered.
MF: What I mean by that, is it captured a space- and musicians playing in it and I don't care if they play amplified or un-amplified instruments. So my question is who is this person, and where did this audiophile sensibility come from?
SA: I'm sure it's the same notion that drives all people who want to hear music reproduced accurately. I'm a fan of live music and when I listen to a recording, I think it should in some way be representative of the band that's playing. I talk in terms of rock bands and other engineers may talk in terms of quartets- its essentially the same thing. Its a performing unit that is the heart and soul of any style- whether its a solo performer, a vocalist, a symphony orchestra, or a rock band- that performing unit is what the entire genre is based on- what the entire notion of that music comes from. So my skills have all been developed, to the exclusion of virtually all of my other skills, most noticeably personal hygiene and dress- to try and make accurate recordings of rock bands. Pretty much my whole reason for getting up in the morning is to make a better, more flattering, more accurate recording of a rock band than I did the previous day.
MF: Why are there are so few engineers who have that perspective. I mean, forget about actually being able to do it, so few aspire to that.
SA: Most recording engineers aren't fans of recorded music, first and foremost. They are fans of engineering first and foremost. And so they like to do things as engineers that reveal to other engineers things about their knowledge, or their hipness within the engineering community. That's overstating it somewhat, but I think to a greater degree than most engineers admit, they don't really listen to music. They don't go see live bands very much, they don't listen to records much at home. Some producers carry with them the notion that they are part of a continuum of producers each of whom has a distinct style and personality that must be imposed on whatever band or artist they are recording. I don't come from that perspective at all. When I'm making a record with a band, the band is in charge. I am there as a technician, essentially, to make what they do every day as part of their normal life, to make that come across the speakers to someone listening at home.
MF: I've always said that the majority of pop engineers today think of artists as voltage sources for their processors.
SA: Exactly! That's a really good way to put it. Politically they can be a nuisance as well because the artist may very well want things to be one way or another and if the producer is not of that frame of mind and he can get the record company to agree with him, then the only sticking point is the damn artist gets in the way wanting to play an F#minor- that sort of thing.
MF: So how did this esthetic develop in you? Where did you grow up- just a quick overview.
SA: My very early childhood I traveled across the country because my dad moved from California to Washington D.C.. From about nine years of age I lived in Montana. All of my formative years, my adolescence was there. All of my tastes developed there, pretty much in isolation from the mainstream popular culture because this was before there was MTV, USA Today, CNN and things like that that made information leap across the country to every small village. Montana was still relatively isolated culturally.
MF: Was there music in your house?
SA: My folks were big fans of the Folkways recording series, so my earliest memories are listening to records like Hedy West and Hoyt Axton and Ledbelly and folk and blues recordings that were made more as documentaries than as esthetic undertakings. My dad was also a huge fan of Johnny Cash and other country and western hillbillies. We had a monaural hi-fi that he had built himself. Had a really nice Heath vacuum tube amp and Heath turntable which he built. Had the crudest idler wheel drive of any turntable I've ever seen in my life. The speed control on it was approximate at best.
MF: Was it a tapered shaft?
SA: Exactly. And you could move the idler up and down the shaft. The arm weight about a pound and a half and you'd turn it on and let it heat up for a while and it would sound fine. All of my early music experiences- even when I became a teenager and was listening to punk rock records, I was listening on this old vacuum tube monaural Heath hi-fi and I developed a very crude sense of what recorded music really sounded like. And it wasn't really until I got to college in 1980 that I was able to see live rock music to any extent. I'd seen a few stadium concerts, but I'd never seen a three piece rock band in a club environment until I came to Chicago.
MF: What made you want to become an engineer? Had you met musicians that wanted to be recorded, and you did it?
SA: That was a big part of it. A lot of it is just the tinkering urge that everybody gets. When I was in Montana I was in a punk rock band and we wanted to make recordings of ourselves...
MF: What did you play?
SA: Bass. And the only way to make recordings of yourself was to find somebody with a tape recorder and borrow it and some microphones and experiment. I spent the better part of a summer just tinkering with a tape recorder and finding out what different things did. I didn't really learn anything, but I got all the tinkering out of my system early on. So now I don't feel the need to punish other musicians with tinkering.
MF: But you came from the perspective of a musician so it was a position of respect for what music is, as opposed to what the technology is.
SA: I've been in bands as a musician, and I've been a fan of music for longer than I've been recording bands on a professional level.
MF: At what point did it become apparent to you that other bands were going to ask you to do their recording?
SA: It just started happening. I was in a band called Big Black that was reasonably successful on an independent level, and other bands admired the way our records sounded and we had done the bulk of our own recording, and so people started approaching me about recording their bands, because at the time, in the early eighties, most recording engineers were unsympathetic to anyone who played actual rock music. Engineers in that era were all trained to do voice-over and jingle recording sessions. Or “lite rock” and pop without any esthetic imposed on it. It was just a matter of getting the music on tape and putting the voice on top.
MF: Except the heavy producers at the time.
SA: Right, and the heavy producers' stuff of that era, there was no level of aggression in that music, except for a very few hard rock recordings of that era, the emphasis was always on a slick classy quality and never on balls or impact. And the bands that I was dealing with-the bands that I was a fan of- all operated on much more gut level, on a much more immediate esthetic. It had nothing to do with being smooth or well crafted. All that mattered was taking the audience by the collar and shaking it. So what an ordinary engineer would consider a good recording would be one where the VU level was appropriate to the tape and where the noise floor was acceptably low and the instrument isolation level was good enough. For me the criteria would be one that surprised me and made me ears perk up and one that accurately reflected what the band was trying to do.
MF: Did the first Sex Pistols record do that for you?
SA: Yea! That's a great recording. There are many great recordings that are not generally recognized as great recordings by people when they discuss techniques and things like that. There are some recordings that I think are timeless and perfect. Alot of people talk about Beatles records in that regard. I think they're flattering to the band and I think they're pretty good, but there are many other recordings I think are as good if not better. The first Television album I think is an absolutely astounding recording. Its the first time in my life where I ever thought "wow, that's a nice high hat!" There's a record that was done a couple of years ago by a group called Slint, from Louisville, Kentucky, the album's called Spiderland and that I think is one of the most amazing records I've ever heard.
MF: What label is that on?
SA: It's on the Touch and Go label. I brought a copy of it.
MF: Cool, we'll play it.
SA: It was executed by a friend of mine, Brian Paulson, who's done many good sounding records, but this one is one of the most strikingly stark recordings of a rock band I've ever heard. Its totally, completely unaffected and bald, and as a result you can hear every detail of what everybody is doing and it happens to be an amazing band too.
MF: They have to be to get away with that kind of recording. A lot of what's being done now is covering for the fact that musicians can't play.
SA: And there are expectations that audiences have for a level of production on certain recordings. If a Van Halen album came out sounding like this Slint album,
Van Halen fans probably wouldn't appreciate it. People like me might find some use for Van Halen at long last, but that's not likely to happen. If you go to see a rock band at a club there will be three people playing instruments and somebody singing. When you go home and listen to their record there may be as many as six or eight parallel guitar tracks doing the same thing, merely to provide a cushion of sound under a multitrack vocalist that's undergoing a whole lot of dynamic processing generally massive compression, heavy duty EQ and a lot of digital effects, and that will be supported by a rhythm section that's heavily compressed, electronically recorded bass guitar with drums that are likely as not gated, at best, or at worst, sampled off of other recordings and you end up with something that bears some resemblance to what went in, but it can't in any sense claim to be a representation of the band.
MF: Do you have studio that you work out of now?
SA: I have a 24 track studio in my house-all top of the line equipment-but more importantly than the studio, I have a large collection of very high quality microphones that I tote with me whenever I go anyplace else to make a record.
MF: How did you accumulate them and what are some of them?
SA: Well I got them by buying them......There's the Calrec Soundfield- an amazing microphone that sounds really good.
MF: That's the Ambisonic microphone.
SA: They make a version of it that's a simpler version that they call the Ambisonic stereo microphone. The idea is a really good one. Are you familiar with the M-S stereo microphone?
MF: Sure. Most of our readers understand that.
SA: If you imagine the mid-side principle where you take two microphone capsules and electronically add and subtract their components if you expand that into a tetrahedral array you can create virtual microphones of virtually any polar pattern, and virtually any stereo spread and virtually any front to back dominance by using these different capsules inside the microphone head itself. You can use those as components from which you synthesize a stereo image and that is the main feature of the microphone- that it was developed as a very versatile stereo microphone that would allow you to do an awful lot with the stereo image. What a lot of people don't recognize is how nice this microphone sounds. It's a very crisp, very dry, natural sounding microphone. It doesn't have any of the currently quite trendy mid-range-y quality that a lot of vacuum tube microphones have, and it doesn't have any of the sort of forgiving tonal irregularities that a lot of other microphones have. It doesn't have big peaks and bumps in its frequency spectrum that are flattering to certain things and not flattering to others. It's relatively flat, and considering how complicated an array it is, I'm amazed it's as flat as it is.
MF: When you mike a band- lets take the P.J. Harvey album which sounds like its recorded live in the studio…
SA: Its essentially live. There are always moments of uncertainty where somebody does something he wants to fix later...
MF: You can hear mistakes in there that were left in, which I think is great. So how was that miked?
SA: On a drum kit I will generally have more microphones than on anything else. A drum kit is a pretty complex instrument, so there'll be on each tom a top mike for the attack of the stick hitting the skin and then a mike on the resonant head to pick up the resonant tone of the drum, and then those have to be balanced electronically to simulate what your ear hears as a natural summing effect of the room.
MF: So in other words, what you are trying to do is- in the audiophile community there is this idiotic kind of ideology- you've got to use a single point stereo microphone to record the whole event and most if sounds like shit. And the point is, what you are trying to do is use the technology to create the reality.
SA: To interfere as little as possible- that's my goal. To make a recording the represents as accurately as possible what the band is doing and as a technician, as a producer, whatever, to not interfere with the stuff that goes on inside the band- all of their decisions about what kind of songs to play how they should play, the kind of instruments they should use-I consider that almost sacrosanct-that's their game.
MF: So you are a producer and an engineer?
SA: I don't like the term producer although generally speaking when a big record company hires me, it's as a producer. I don't like the term producer because to me it implies a way of doing things I want no part of-the sort of pushy bastard that organizes things and tells the band what to do.
MF: But does the band rely on you for feedback? How does this sound? How was that performance? What's the feel of that?
SA: In the sphere of musicians I deal with, that's a normal part of interaction with anybody. They would expect that from the guy that drives them from the airport. It's definitely not the star strata of artists. It's not people that expect to have “yes men” around them-with very rare exceptions. There's always an amount of hemming and hawing about what should be done and what sounds good and what sounds like shit. It's not the case that I'm hired because I bring an esthetic that I can impose on them. And that's the case with most other producers.
MF: Well, of course that begs a certain question. There is an esthetic. It's a natural esthetic. Its allowing the band to come through. Which I think is positive. It's neutral in the sense that it's what the band is that you are trying to bring forth.
SA: Occasionally bands that have had other studio experiences expect when they go in to the studio to be messed with more. They expect to have a metronome set up for them. They expect to have guitar overdubs, for example.
MF: When they go in with you, do they sometimes feel naked and inadequate for a while until they get used to your style of recording?
SA: Occasionally people feel like I'm just trying to make life easy for myself. Like, "what do you mean you don't want to fix that?" Because I like the way it sounds, and because fixing it would make it sound worse. " Oh it will be simple for me to fix it. Just let me go down and fix it". Fixing it is not necessarily a good idea.
MF: What happens in a situation like that? Who wins out?
SA: The bottom line is, I work for the band. If they tell me in a clear voice that we want to do something one way, and even if that goes against every element of my own personal psyche, that's ultimately-they're the boss. If someone wants me to, I'll replace a snare drum with a sampled champagne bottle. I always make it clear what is a good or bad idea.
MF: But you try to mike everything in stereo, so there's not a lot of pan potting.
SA: I use stereo an awful lot more than most recording engineers.
MF: Absolutely! You can hear that in a minute. And do you have a room pair or ambient mikes?
SA: I generally have several pairs because when you're doing a set up for a recording if it's a classical piece, you are recording something that has a very predictable dynamic and something that you may well be very familiar with. I record a couple of hundred records a year and in each of those records there are from three to eighteen songs being recorded, each one of which will have a peculiar specific personality so I try to set up things that allow me the flexibility of having already set up the perfect ambient mike pair. Generally speaking I'll have either the Soundfield mike or an M-S stereo micrphone set up as a stereo pair in front of the drum kit. I'll have another stereo pair of ambient mikes very distant from the drum kit, and then I'll have spot mikes on the drums and a stereo pair of overhead microphones so that the entire range of sound from very close to very ambient is available on tape without having to do anything electronic and without having to spend tedious hours fiddling around with one pair of microphones to get them in the right place.
MF: How long generally does it take to do a whole record with you engineering it?
SA: It takes a lot less time with me than with big shots. I just made an album with a band in a weekend- two days. The longest time that I've ever spent working on one album is a little under three weeks.
MF: Lets just quickly deal with the analog/ digital debate. What do you think?
SA: The consumer formats for digital today are horrible. Everything on the professional level has been designed to meet but not exceed the standards of the consumer format. The CD is a very crude digital storage medium, its not permanent, it has a lot of error, the sound quality I don't think, is close to a good analogue system. Everything from microphones, through converters and digital processing devices, equalizers, transfer consoles, mastering desks- everything has been designed to meet, but not exceed the standard of the CD which is a 16 bit word, a 44.1KHz sampling rate with a minimum of oversampling and fairly healthy error correction. There is serious error correction going on at all stages of the digital recording process.
MF: Now when you heard the P.J. Harvey album on that system (Apogee's
newest hybrid speaker with Krell electronics and digital front end) that was an analog recording I assume...
SA: That was an analog recording and the vinyl copy is an all analog mastering as well, which is very rare today. The guy that mastered it is a fellow named John Loder. He's a very wise engineer. He runs a studio, a record label and a distribution company in England called Southern Studios. He was involved in one of the very first experiments with digitized audio. He's older than me- about forty seven or so...
MF: An old guy like me.
SA: And when he was in college as part of his post-graduate work he was involved in digital encoding of audio for the purpose of encryption for military secrecy basically. And the telephone company basically was responsible for all of that stuff. And he understands digital audio better than just about anybody. And as a result his studio is and has remained staunchly analog. High quality analog recording sounds better, is easier to work with...
MF: You are the first person to tell me that! Most people say well digital sounds lousy but the convenience factor, the editing...
SA: Once you get to the stage where the music has been digitized and stored as files on a computer and you are sitting at the computer, yes, it's very easy to shuffle things around, but for example if you're transferring an hour and a half of music and you get to one point on the tape where there's a program peak that peaks out the digital meter you've ruined the recording, you have to start over, you have to lower the signal level of the entire program to acommodate that one peak and there's very serious degradation in the sound quality of music that's recorded at anything less than the absolute peak level on digital media. And that's why classical music enthusiasts, people who listen to music with a real wide dynamic range where a large portion of the program material is at a low volume level, those people were some of the first to recognize that hey, CD sounds like shit. And that's because if you're listening to something that's at minus 20 from a 0 dB reference on a CD, the actual resolution of the word at that level is something like 12 bits, 10 bits, something like that. At 10 or twelve bit encoding, if you listened to that next to the source itself, there's no way you would accept it. Everyone talks about how CD is a 16 bit system. Its 16 bits when you're pinning the meters. When you're not, its not 16 bit. Regardless, virtually all of the digital recording that are being done these days- the stereo masters- are being done on DAT because its convenient- its a nice size. Its a terrible format! It was invented as a replacement for the home hi-fi cassette. In that capacity it would be fine. For temporary recordings of music that exist in an archival form where you just want to listen to it on a convenient size, DAT would be a perfect choice but the American major label industry blocked DAT- which to me seems like such a psychotic move.
MF: And now look at what we have! Minidisc and DCC.
SA: Neither one of which is going to survive. Even people who own CD players will recognize that these things are marginally more convenient than CDs because you can record on them, but they sound like shit. That DAT has usurped the stereo analog recorder in the studio is really criminal. One good thing though, is that it allows people like me to buy really high quality stereo analog recorders at really low prices. (Everyone laughs).
MF: What about recording consoles?
SA: It amazes me when I see displays like this of high end audio gear, people spending five, seven, eight hundred dollars on speaker cables...
MF: Eight hundred? How about fifteen thousand! (the Kimber 88).
SA: For fifteen thousand dollars I'll record and mix five or six record albums for you how's that? Anyway, I've been to the finest recording studios in the world. I've seen how these things are put together. I've looked inside the guts of the finest recording consoles in the world and there are signal paths in every piece of home audio you listen to at home, if they were like these, you'd pull your hair out looking at this.
MF: That's why many high-end engineers try to bypass the console altogether.
SA: Recording studios are put together with some regard for audio quality, but the principle guiding factor is A: what do the clients expect to see? In other words what have they seen at other studios. B: Features clients have come to appreciate, and C: cost. If things are too expensive and too cumbersome and too weird no matter how good they may be, they will never gain wide acceptance in the studios.
MF: So if you go to a recording venue that has a lousy board, what do you do?
SA: I deal with it. I'm not such a prima-donna and my clients are not so rich that I can afford to make decisions like "oh, this console in inadequate we have to go somewhere else". I can't do that.
MF: What kind of tape do you like to use?
SA: I use Ampex 499 for the mulititrack recordings. There are physical problems with the tape that competes with it, Scotch 996, that I think bodes very poorly for those master tapes in the long run. Last year I had to do re-masterings of records that were made over the last ten years and the analog tapes, generally speaking, were in very, very good condition with a few exceptions. And those had a sticky binder leaching and I had to meticulously clean every inch of a master tape and it was real pain in the ass. But, when it was done there were pits in the tape, there were places you could see daylight. But you could play it and it sounded fine. If that had been a digital tape that had deteriorated even one percent of that amount, not only would you not be able to play it and get anything like music out of it, there would have been no way to retrieve the information off of it. It would have been lost. But anyway, the thing that bothers me about recording studios in general, is that the people that run them have the attitude that well, "if it sounds okay to me and if it works for my normal day to day usage, there's no reason to improve it, no reason to make it easier on you, Steve Albini, when you get here," and so when I get to a studio and find problems I make a log of them and try to get them fixed. And that's why I brought Bob (Weston) with me in February when I was making the P.J. Harvey album to a studio that was acoustically outstanding-a place called Pachyderm in Minnesota-but there hasn't been appropriate maintenance done on it. And the console, an old Neve console that sounds pretty good, and I know there would be problems. And I brought Bob along when I was doing the Nirvana album (also at Pachyderm) because I knew there would be problems. I wanted to be able to find something, pull it out, throw it to him and say, "Fix this". And that was a real luxury. That was the first time there was enough money to bring someone like Bob along.
MF: I would hope so!
SA: Most people that do what I do are in it for themselves. They want to make a lot of money. They want to be popular and famous and have a lot of influence in the industry. I really don't give a shit about that kind of stuff. I get paid far, far less than anybody else that does what I do.
MF: I can relate.
SA: I make records for free.
MF: You mean you don't aspire to be Chris Lord-Alge?
MF: When you recorded the new Nirvana album (In Utero) did anyone in the band say anything about vinyl versus CD?
SA: Sonically I don't think it's an issue with them. Esthetically they prefer vinyl- they grew up with records and everyone has a romantic attachment to it.
MF: Will the new one come out on vinyl?
SA: I don't know. I'm not involved in that. I dislike the record company world so much, I dislike the professional music industry so much that I didn't want to deal with it even in the least bit. My agreement with the band was, I will deal directly with you, you will have to put up with the record company. And to this day I haven't said a word to the record company.
MF: Did Nirvana approach you about recording In Utero?
SA: Yes. I don't approach bands unless it's a very small scale band that might be intimidated coming to me, otherwise if I take a real shine to them I'll approach them. Generally speaking bands look me up.
MF: Did they come into the studio ready to go, well rehearsed?
SA: Yep. They were as prepared and as together as any band I've worked with. I have no reservations about how they handled themselves in the studio. They were very professional and very efficient. Speaking of the Nirvana Nevermind LP, I'd be very surprised if it was mastered from an analog tape.
MF: It was. Howie Weinberg did it (actually the original Sub-Pop vinyl edition was mastered using a CD_ed.).
SA: The vast majority of mastering houses are using digital workstations instead of analog mastering consoles. And even those that are using analog consoles- when a record is cut you have to have the cutting lathe informed about changes to the audio program...
MF: The preview head.
SA: Right. The standard method is to run the audio across a preview head and a parallel set of equalizers or level controls or whatever, duplicate what you've done to the program channel and that preview head tells the lathe how it should behave. “This is a big bass break, we're going to need a big wide groove here, so make space.” Almost without exception mastering labs since the mid-eighties have gone to using a digital delay line instead of a preview head. The PJ Harvey album is one of the few records I know of where I insisted that they use the analog preview head instead of the digital delay line- and it was done at Abbey Road studios which is a very fine facility and even there he had to hard wire in the preview head so the cut could be done in the analog domain.
MF: Did you exercise that kind of control on the new Nirvana album?
SA: No. I can seldom exercise that kind of control once the tape leaves the studio.
MF: How did the CD of the PJ Harvey album sound on the Apogees? Brighter than how you mixed it?
SA: Yea, those were very revealing speakers, tonally the speakers were quite flat. I tend to listen to speakers that are thuddingly bass heavy.
MF: What do you monitor on?
SA: Near field monitors.
SA: Yamaha NS-10Ms
MF: Why? Why? Why?
SA: Because they sound like shit! And if you can make a record that sounds convincing on Yamaha NS-10Ms, then you have achieved something. When you get to a system that is flatter and has more detail, you will not be losing anything. For a more accurate monitor I like the Westlake BBSM 4s. A dual cone nearfield monitor with I think a one inch high-frequency driver. They sound great, good imaging, and detail and all that crap.
Here's an Albini speech from 2014 in which he discusses the "state of the music scene".