How to Listen: Nirvana
Qobuz Hi-Res 24-bit/96kHz
Nirvana might be one of the last bands you’d think about when the subject of audiophile recordings comes up. Yet, their two landmark albums—1991’s Nevermind and 1993’s In Utero—are admirable examples of how to record and produce rock records.
Nirvana was of course one of the key bands that brought grunge to a mainstream audience in the early 1990s. Nevermind featured “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” perhaps the single song that defines the grunge era, along with the irresistible earworm
“Come As You Are.” In Utero was the worthy followup and featured the hits “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies.”
Want to see if your system can play loud and rock? You’ll know after playing these records, assuming you don’t blow a speaker in the process. These typhoon-intensity sonic assaults “want” to be played at volume. (Well, you really don’t have to—the recordings sound fine at neighbor-friendly levels, but if you want to hear what the band and producers Butch Vig and Steve Albini really had in mind you have to let them rip.)
Nevermind was produced by Vig and In Utero by Albini, two very different individuals, and yet, having listened to them back to back, I was struck by how similar the albums sound. Maybe it’s because after Albini sent In Utero in to the record company, the label thought it was too raw, and the band and another producer, Scott Litt, had to go back and make changes (Albini refused)—undoubtedly with Nevermind casting a very large shadow. That said, overall Nevermind is brighter and more open, In Utero darker and sludgier.
If you think grunge music equals sloppy playing, the first thing you’ll be struck by on both albums is just how tight they are. This isn’t the sound of three guys playing off the cuff—these are multi-layered, carefully crafted productions, with numerous overlaid guitars. I have far more respect for singer/guitarist/main songwriter Kurt Cobain as a musician now that I’ve revisited these records. His playing is rhythmically exact, in tune, and roaring, thanks to his use of distortion and chorus pedals. His vocals are frequently multitracked, typically with a main vocal front and center and background parts off to the sides. Dave Grohl’s drumming has tremendous impact and presence.
Cobain favored distorted power chords and jarring riffs and sang in a vocal-cord-ripping style alternating with more intimate singing. (In interviews, he acknowledged that Nirvana’s “loud-soft-loud” style was influenced by the Pixies, who earlier had codified this approach.) Grohl played drums with masterful technical prowess and sang background vocals and Krist Novoselic laid down a tight, in-the-pocket bass groove.
On a good system, the kick drum should pound and wallop
and the snare should drive the band like a whip driving a horse. Songs like “Very Ape” (Nevermind) show that these guys were a killer band, and you should feel the rhythmic drive and physical presence of the music. (Although Nirvana was never one of my favorites—IMHO, the songwriting is uneven—tracks like this make me wish I’d seen them live.)
If there’s one “How to Listen” takeaway from these records, it’s that beyond what’s been mentioned already, what you should listen for are the studio effects and how they’re applied, and how well your system reveals them.
These aren’t recordings where the sounds of the vocals and instruments are set at the beginning of the sessions and then left alone. Everything’s tweaked with every track. Some things to listen for:
The equalization, or “EQ,” of each instrument and vocal track—the proportion of bass, midrange, and high frequencies—can be altered, and Vig and Albini use this to deliberate artistic effect. For example, the bass in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is rumbly and indistinct, whereas on “In Bloom,” the higher harmonics (overtones) of the bass are clearly heard. EQ is used on the drums to make the bass drum “kick” and emphasize the sound of the beater hitting the head, and on the snare to fatten it up or make it leaner, like a snapping branch.
Cobain’s voice is sometimes goosed with some added upper midrange (though this could be the choice of mics). On “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the guitars have a piercing upper-midrange and treble. Your ears will hurt when it’s played loud. By contrast, the guitars on “Come As You Are” have a mellower top end. Both albums have powerful bass with a lot of weight, and a palpable midrange.
Compression is used not only to even out the differences in volume between loud and soft sounds, but to give instruments like drums and bass added presence. Compression is all over the drums, to give them extra punch. Listen to the tom toms carefully. That isn’t the sound of naked drums in a room—they’re compressed to make them “sit” more evenly in the mix. Once you know to listen for this, it’s obvious.
Both albums avoid the excessive use of reverb and delay—in fact, the albums are on the “dry” side, which serves the music well. No cavernous 1980s Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” drums here. The soundspaces of Nevermind and In Utero aren’t wide and deep and beyond the edges of the speakers; they’re more like a monolithic wall of thundering and snarling sound. There’s little left-right placement of
instruments or even a sense that you’re listening in stereo except for some occasional panning of Cobain’s guitars, mostly during solos.
The mixes on both albums aren’t all that transparent. You won’t be listening for little tinkly bells or Cobain breathing. On Nevermind’s “Polly,” Cobain strums an acoustic guitar. In Utero’s “Dumb” features a cello. But both instruments sound flat and low-fi. If they don’t seem fleshed out, it’s not your system, it’s the fact that those subtleties aren’t there. Well, these aren’t subtle records and I’m pretty sure the last thing on VIg’s and Albini’s minds was whether audiophiles would be able to count the snares on Grohl’s snare drum or tell whether Cobain had put new strings on. This is rock and roll, not Diana Krall!
And I did mention that these records ask to be played loud. I had to try this: For my final listening, I played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” through our band’s PA speakers (currently residing in my basement). I blasted the song at a hellacious volume, over 102dB (I measured). Holy mother of gawd! What a glorious brain-frying racket! It sounded titanic! Certainly not audiophile-“correct,” but the freight-train decibel level blew all such cork-sniffer rationality aside.
I’d forgotten that rock and roll and volume not only go hand in hand, but are sometimes one and the same. Nirvana, Vig, and Albini didn’t.