LONG READ SPECIAL: AN INTERVIEW WITH MARTA SALOGNI
Following her incredible talk for Omnii earlier this week, we sit down with Marta Salogni to talk about engineering, producing and mixing. Having worked with an incredible array of artists — including Frank Ocean, Björk, The XX, FKA Twigs, Alex Cameron and Sampha — Marta shares her advice, experience and technical tips in an extra special Long Read that dives deep into process, perception and professionalism.
Can you describe your working process?
When producing, I’d firstly meet the artist or artists to speak about the project and their overall vision, then zooming into specific aspects of the record — this can be related to the sonics, dynamics, aesthetic, tonality, conceptual and lyrical content (when lyrics are present) of their music. Same idea goes for mixing and recording. Preparation is essential, but so is leaving the space for experimentation and spontaneity.
Together with the artist, we speak about their expectations, what they would like to achieve and how I can help with that. We talk about the influences that inspired their music, which can be positive or negative. I believe keeping track of the sentiments and instincts which gave birth to a piece is very important, then, as the song grows, it gains its own identity, freely. It can change shape and form throughout the process, and sometimes it can settle into one identity, two, three identities, sometimes it doesn’t want to, doesn’t need to — I believe we should have the sensibility to accept and recognise this fluidity, which is also what helps us understand when a song or record should be considered ‘finished’.
‘Finishing’ a record is often one of the hardest moment of its making process. Suddenly this intimate creation is now an existence in its own right, very precious to us, but about to be catapulted into the world with the hope that the listeners will understand it, respect it, be enriched by it — just as we felt whilst making it.
I work with a wide range of artists and music styles so my set up changes according to each project and its needs. The core of it is quite simple. When working digitally, I usually record and mix with Pro Tools and I have my set of plugins which I like and always use. Not many, two EQ (the Protools 7 bands one, and the FabFilter one), a few compressors I like which replicate the outboard I also use (1176, LA2A, DBX160, SSL G Stereo Buss compressor), two reverbs (Valhalla, UAD Plate), one delay (H-Delay), the Waves Doubler, Waves Multiband C4 and LinMB, the Soundtoys bundle and a couple more specific ones which vary depending on the case. Simple ones, really — I combine them together to create more complex set ups or effects when needed.
When I work in analogue I use similar type of processing, EMT Plates, spring reverbs, tape delays (usually with my Revox PR99)… EQs vary depending on studios and situations. I really like the Massive Passive and the Neve 1081 for pre amps and EQ. 1176 and LA2A and DBX 160 for compressors. SSL G Series Buss compressor on the master. Vari Mu too. The Eventide Harmonizer. Tape phasing, tape saturation. I own 4 tape machines which I love — Revox PR 99, Ferrograph 5A, Akai DS4000, Davoli Echo Mixer. I like trying out units I never came across before, each studio always has lots of unique interesting bits of gear — I work with what I have in front of me. It’s more fun to be challenged than to be comfortable for me. Same thing for mics. I like the Neumann U67, Coles 4038, but also use lots of Shure SM57. The recording process shouldn’t be elitist — nowadays we can achieve a clear signal and good quality reproduction with affordable equipment, when cabled and set up right.
When I record/produce, I set up the room with pretty much all the mics I intend to use for the session, so they are there ready to be recorded. I like keeping a smooth flow during the recordings, without having to stop to set up another mic for a different purpose. I set up so that everything is on stand-by. There’s nothing more counter-productive than having to stop when you’re on a roll. Inspiration is a wave to be captured before it fades. Time is precious. Keeping the momentum is vital.
So, I try to set up a wide variety of mics which allow me to be covered for the full spectrum of instruments to be recorded. Condensers, dynamics, mics with different chains of compression and EQ — I keep track of it all with a channel list and move mics around according to what we are recording. I often use room mics or different combinations of mics on one instrument to create a more interesting tone. In these cases, checking phasing is essential, because we are dealing with multiple distances, mic models and processing chains. I set up a few effects ready to be used too, then tweak them when the space and mood of the track becomes more established.
I record EVERYTHING. I like the small bits in between takes. I like first takes. I like to understand what ‘perfection’ means beyond the flaws. I like the thrill of being the first pair of ears hearing what comes from the speakers and I let it play with my emotions when it comes to choosing the right take. It’s a team effort always, but over comping can kill the vibe of the recording. I tend to comp for artistic reasons, I am really not into patching a take together if it’s not there already in the original delivery. Performance is at the top of my priorities.
Mixing wise, I work on automation lots. A mix is also a performance in itself, it should move with the song. Dance with it. Follow its flows and enhance its journey. I automate volume, panning, equipment/plugins parameters. Even on the master fader. Automation everywhere.
EQ is also very important — I have an EQ on all tracks, shaving off frequencies which I don’t find essential to the sounds, in order to create space and clarity. I go through each channel in solo and in context with the rest, progressively fitting all the instruments around each others, defining their space as much as I can, but also creating a cohesive overall sound which gives the song its own tonality.
While I mix I switch between different speakers, as many as I can. At the studio, I have a pair of Dynaudio BM15, Adams A5, A Pure Radio. When I leave the studio at night I listen on headphones (Beyerdynamics DT770) on my way back home. I usually spend one day per track when mixing, go home in the evening then finish it off with fresh ears in the morning.
How did you get into working as a producer, engineer and mix engineer? What have been your influences?
I got into engineering when I was still in high school back in Italy, working at a reclaimed space in Brescia, which has a venue and independent radio in it.
I was fascinated by the possibility of ‘physically’ manipulating sound — an ‘untouchable’ medium — through the means of machines. Sound is technically a change of air pressure, and at the same time a form of art under the name of Music. The coexistence of these two aspects (the scientific one and the artistic one) made me fall in love with it, and the infinity of the subjects music touches was like a promise of ever lasting fascination — literature, math, physics, science, politics, history…
I started helping out the engineer who was taking care of the live concerts happening there, Carlo, who taught me the rudiments of the job — how mics work, how to set them up, how to connect them all to a mixer, then soundcheck, then live mixing etc. I worked there, then around festivals and theatres when I was 16-20. I had a great time and I absolutely loved what I was doing, especially because I was operating within a very fervent, politically charged scene, but I wanted more — I wanted to experiment further with what I was learning. Live sound had such a fast pace, and I wanted time to investigate and try things out, I wanted to work in recording studios — unfortunately there weren’t many around at all. Carlo turned to me and said I should move to Berlin or London.
I gave my final exams and while I was shaking the professors’ hands I just asked ‘Tell me now whether I passed because I have a flight to book’. And here I am.
Did you start out by mainly focussing on producing, engineering or mixing and then developing your other skills, or have you always done all three?
I started out as an assistant to a producer who also mixed, so I have learned and always been involved in all three fields. My desire was to have a complete understanding of the whole picture, to be able to ultimately feel comfortable in any given situation while in a studio — whether that was recording, producing or mixing. The three are undeniably and strongly interconnected for me. When I first started working in a studio as an assistant, I would spend any downtime (while I wasn’t on a booked session) putting into practice what I learned from other producers, mixers and engineers. I would ask if I could use the studios if no client were there, and get in a local band or artist to record, mix and produce on my own. That’s when the things I learned during sessions really cemented themselves in my brain, through practice and a sense of responsibility. I can’t thank the people I worked with enough, who gave me the possibility of learning from them and then spending that downtime in the studios. I would not be the same person right now if that hadn’t happened.
What is your favourite bit of gear to use?
My Revox PR99 reel to reel tape machine! I take it with me wherever I go. I use it for tape delays, saturation, phasing — whatever effect I can achieve.
How important do you think it is to have top-of-the-range equipment?
Not really important. If basics rules of signal to noise ratio, good cabling, signal flow and maintenance are respected, then anyone should be able to reach a quality of recording and reproduction that matches good professional standards with affordable equipment. Knowledge and creativity are resources far more useful than an expensive top of the range piece of gear. When new gear brings innovation I am well up for it — that’s worth the money. When it comes down to gear exhibitionism, then it sickens me.
What is your personal ‘top tip’ for producing and mixing?
Stay sensitive and curious. Empathy is one of the greatest qualities. Try things out, never assume something is always right, or wrong. Create sounds that didn’t exist before. Be kind to who you work with, including yourself.
Do you have any advice for those starting out on how to succeed in the industry?
Don’t give up. Collaborate, go out and meet likeminded people. Do things you can be proud of, make connections and be strong together. Don’t isolate yourself. Reach out if you need help and help others if you can. Create opportunities, and be the positive change that will shape the future of the industry.
What has been your biggest challenge? What have you found easiest?
The biggest challenge, perhaps, is going solo . Working in a studio which is mine and allows me to focus very intensely is brilliant, but can also be the source of isolation sometimes when working alone and for a long period of time. I love to feel a sense of community around me, I believe it’s a natural human inclination to gather and bounce ideas off each others. Speaking to other people, I found that nowadays isolation and loneliness is a common denominator in the struggles in the music industry and its mental health situation.
What’s easiest… I think empathising with others and immersing myself completely in a project.
You’ve worked on some amazingly high profile and deeply sonically textured projects recently — notably Bjork and Frank Ocean — what has this been like? How do you find it best to work with artists in the studio and to help them realise their vision?
To feel trusted to deliver complex visions and concepts makes me deeply honoured, both in a professional and in a personal way.
Learning to technically complement the artist’s creativity and translate all of its power via the medium of production, mixing or engineering is such a fulfilling experience.
I love listening — sounds funny and obvious to say, as that’s pretty much what I do as a job for most of the day — but that’s essentially the most important and most underestimated part of it. Not only listening to the music, but listening to the musicians, the artists, understanding what they are communicating and how they are communicating it. We all have different ways to express our needs, especially when it comes to something difficult to pin down with words such as a sound — an emotion, a feeling. I find sometimes the best thing to do is to communicate via examples — for example, I once got told whilst mixing, “imagine this : I want my vocals to sound like I am telling you a secret. Whispered, in your ear”.
My duty as a professional is to be capable of translating that view into a reality, to have both the sensitivity to know what the artist is referring to in terms of its sentiment, and the technical knowledge to deliver the right result. Even when the right outcome could be subject to interpretation. As a professional, I need to understand which interpretation is the right one in the eyes and ears of the artist I am collaborating with.
The technical way I achieve the result is then via EQ, compression, panning etc… a vocal whispered in your ear, for example, would be close, breathy, dry, on one side, and warm but also sibilant.
Another very important aspect of working with an artist is to always maintain the focus on the whole project, not to get lost on the way or let obstacles become source of frustration. The studio is a magnifying glass for everything. Each party involved must be honest and supportive, patient, respectful and understanding.
What are you future projects?
I am working with artists I have a great deal of respect for, because of how innovative and relevant they feel for me in relation to the contemporary music scene — pushing it forward and challenging the status quo.
It’s a sentiment that’s always been fundamental for me, it’s what makes me get up in the morning and makes me feel fortunate to be doing what I do.
I can’t mention names as for now because these projects are still a work in progress, but will hopefully be out soon.