For as long as I've known about Nirvana's In Utero, which turned 20 today, fans have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out if there was an authentic, pure "Albini mix" of In Utero. There's some good information about that story in his Reddit AMA from last year, but it hasn't stopped me from dreaming of the nigh-mythological "100% Albini mix." Until today.
I've been anxiously awaiting the "Super Deluxe 20th Anniversary" edition of In Utero after hearing Albini speak to Vish Khanna on his podcast Kreative Kontrol. Disc 2, the "2013 mix," is actually a brand new mix of the record by Albini, Noveselic, Grohl, and Smear. To me, this was as close to getting the Albini mix I've wanted. And, I'll tell you, it's totally ace. In this write-up by Khanna, Noveselic states that the new mix would be for fans who would listen in for small differences and additions. Below, I've outlined what the 2013 mix adds or detracts from the 1993 release. For your reference, I used the original 1993 CD release ripped into a variable bitrate against a 256k version of the 2013 mix.
"Serve the Servants"
The first difference is immediate. In between the 2nd and 3rd beats of the count-off, Cobain (I think) says "Ok" and clears his throat before the first chord. The classic, morbidly poppy lead riff is supported by another guitar harmonizing behind it. You'll also notice that the vocals are a lot dryer, and the rhythm guitar is quieter. My favorite parts about this one are the added cello lines during the chorus, and the alternate, louder solo during the bridge. This is one of the most fucked up pop songs ever.
The drums are not as loud or pronounced, but Cobain sounds like all kinds of fucking evil throughout the song, especially during the chorus. The new mix really highlights how loud Cobain was screaming in the room; you hear more of the microphone capturing the room of the scream than his vocal cords. Same goes for the lead guitar. Emphasis is also added to the texture of the rhythm guitar's tone than its volume.
By track 3, you might have noticed that a lot of post-production processing has been scrubbed off, in favor of a more "organic" sound. Most of the vocals are evened out on the sound stage, and it really comes through on "Heart-Shaped Box." The fucked-up harmony in the verse is given more of a presence, and the placement of the guitar and backing vocals have been flipped from their original channels. Pay attention to that right ear: instead of hearing a blistering wall of a distortion pedal, as you do on the 1993 mix, you hear a third backing voice coming in with Kurt's "hey" and "wait." The solo, too, is less acerbic.
This is where the changes may start to bother the Nirvana enthusiast. Like: they took out the guitar count-in! But, on the other hand, they've made the bass' tone a bit tigther and louder, and the guitar during the verse is less shimmery. The outro refrain has more of an echo and less of a volume boost. Overall, I think it makes this song sound less one-sidedly rage-filled, but more enraged and depressed.
"Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle"
The first thing I noticed is that there's no tape hiss on the new 2013 mix (note: I didn't go into ultra nerd mode and triple-check that the 2007 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab remaster got rid of the tape hiss or not). I also noticed that the two-note slide couplet stays firmly in the right channel on this new mix (it sounds more centered on the original). Kurt's guitar also sounds less like "I Wanna Be Your Dog" harsh. The bridge on this new mix sounds especially brutal.
Albini stated on the Kreative Kontrol podcast that the new mix was by no means meant to be a definitive version of In Utero, but another offering from a "different angle." Well, this is sure to make some fans frown: the cello in the chorus is totally gone. And though I appreciate actually hearing the strings on the acoustic guitar, and that the vocals have more room, the lack of chorus cello is a bit bothersome.
My favorite aspect of the 2013 mix, so far, is how much meatier and fuller the rhythm guitars sound. There's nothing too different about this song besides that they added the lead guitar's feedback in the intro following the rhythm guitar. This new mix definitely sounds very, very ape.
What I've noticed about the new mix overall is how they've made the songs feel more "live" rather than "produced;" by which I mean that Kurt's vocals or guitars don't get a huge volume boost over the other instruments. "Milk It" is a good example. While the drums are quieter, they've given more of a definite shape, and you hear the room more than Kurt's cords in this song again. My favorite part about this one is that, in some ways that I can't totally describe, I hear Grohl wailing away more than I do in the original release.
Like "Frances Farmer," if you listen closely to the original release, you can hear the tape whir-up—which 2013 has removed—and Kurt clear his throat. They got rid of that too. The acoustic guitar sounds much dryer, and Grohl's toms and kick fill out their end of the sound spectrum a bit more prominently.
"Radio Friendly Unit Shifter"
In the beginning, you'll notice that the guitar noise stays on the right channel, and Kurt's moaning on the left. The snare has less of a pop and more of a crack and bottom-end and, like the guitar, has more body to it. Headphones recommended, but definitely at your own risk.
I've always really loved this song, mainly for the punchiness of Grohl's kick. But I've never really liked how "trebly" it is; the 2013 mix fixes this right up. Grohl's kick retains its pop, but, as is the trend on the new mix, is given more of a body. The guitars and the drums are about as loud as Kurt's vocals, too, which better emphasizes what the boys were trying to thematize: a noise spasm.
This remix kills it. Overall, the new mix makes this song feel much more like a finale. The classic lead riff is given less prominence, which lets you hear the rhythm riff way more clearly. The introductory cello drone is given more of a place. It's also a bit quieter, and remains more in the corners of the mix during the verse. On the 1993 mix, you'll notice that the instruments hang out on the left and right channels and bleed into each other to meet in the middle, but the 2013 mix has them dead center. The ending isn't much different, except that the refrain is a few seconds longer which, I think, adds that "finale" sense to the song.
I'm really into this 2013 mix. To be a bit hyperbolic, if the band had released this through Touch & Go in 1993, I would like to imagine that it would've sounded like the 2013 mix. In the Reddit AMA, Albini notes that there were tons of powers outside of Nirvana pushing and pulling the record in a lot of different directions, and this was what inevitably characterized the sound of the original mix. The 2013 mix sounds more straightforward, bare, and quietly more brutal.