Marta Salogni on mixing Björk, engineering FKA Twigs and working with tape
The MPG award-winner discuss her love of tape machines, her studio process and how LinkedIn helped her land the job of mixing Bjork’s Utopia.
“When I went to the Music Producers Guild (MPG) Awards for the first time, I sneaked in without paying,” says Italian-born producer and engineer Marta Salogni in her East London studio. “I put on the best clothes I had – a suit from a charity shop – and dodged the bouncers to get in so I could see my heroes on stage. I dreamt that one day I might get an award too.”
Fast forward to 2020 and Salogni’s dream has come true – twice. She won the MPG’s Breakthrough Engineer award in 2018 and its Breakthrough Producer award in March. These accolades come courtesy of her studio credits with some of the world’s most exciting, colourful and cutting-edge musical provocateurs. With the likes of Björk, Bon Iver, Holly Herndon and Daniel Avery, requesting her services, it’s unsurprising that the rest of the industry is starting to take notice, and extending warm invitations to Salogni rather than forcing her to dress up and sneak in.
“It can be a lonely job and sometimes you lose track as to whether anyone is listening beyond you and the artist you’re working with,” she says. “So it’s amazing to be recognised by my colleagues, peers, best friends, heroes and role models.”
A passion for sound
Salogni was entangled in music as a teenager in her native Italy. She cut her musical teeth at home before upping sticks and relocating to London in an effort to turn her passion for sound into a bona fide career. “There was an old venue around the back of a social centre, this liberated space in the city I went to high school in,” says Salogni. “I was part of this group of left-wing activists.
At our HQ, we had a venue with a PA and mixer. I saw this dusty Yamaha mixing desk and was told that it allows you to control the sound on stage. I remember thinking it was amazing because it controls the experiences of the audience. I felt like it was an instrument in itself.” This taste for mixing whet Salogni’s appetite, tempting her to take her interest beyond live music and delve deeper into the studio.
“I wanted to experiment and have more time to work on sound, to try new things,” she says. “So in 2010, I packed my bags and moved to London with just a suitcase to pursue my musical passion – there was no plan B.” Following a stint learning the rudiments of production, gear and studio terminology via a course at legendary London college Alchemea, Salogni set about getting her foot in the door of the industry by offering her services to a number of London studios. “I saw an ad for State of the Ark Studios in South London,” she says. “I rang up and asked if I could sit on a session. I met the studio manager, who pointed out that there were no jobs but said they were up for me helping out.”
“I made so many versions that I almost lost myself. I wanted Björk to love what I sent back. I was shaking when I returned the mixes”
No sooner than she’d found the door slightly ajar, Salogni yanked it open via persistence and pure force of personality. “On that first session, I met a producer who needed an assistant,” she says. “That was my first job in music. I wasn’t expecting anything but it led to the opportunity that gave me a start.”
Salogni believes that the secret to music-industry success comes from a combination of steely self-belief, passion and mutual co-operation. “You have to make people understand that you’re grateful for their help, and what your ultimate dreams are,” she says. “If people can help you, they will. The music industry is a creative community and, to enjoy longevity, it’s all about bringing each other up.” Grammy-winning producer and engineer Leslie Ann Jones of Skywalker Sound was one of Salogni’s inspirations and influences during her formative years.
“I read this interview with her in Tape Op magazine,” says Salogni. “I remember looking at the photo of her and thinking, ‘that’s exactly what I want to be’. I imagined myself in the same picture, in front of a big mixing desk and running an orchestral session. If you see yourself in someone else’s shoes, you think, ‘maybe I can do this.’”
Landing in Utopia
Icelandic auteur Björk is an unparalleled music-industry success story whose popularity is matched only by her fondness for musical daring and experimentation. It was Salogni’s work on Björk’s 2017 Utopia album that truly heralded her arrival, not only to the industry at large but to herself. “It was on the plane to Reykjavík that it really hit me,” says Salogni. “I couldn’t believe I was on the way to make a record that I was hoping would be so precious to me.”
Salogni got involved in the project via an unlikely source: a LinkedIn message from One Little Indian’s Derek Birkett. To be clear, the improbable part of that story isn’t Birkett but the social-media channel. “It was a total surprise,” says Salogni, ”and perhaps the only thing LinkedIn has ever been good for. He couldn’t find my email address and wanted to get in touch because Björk wanted me to do a couple of mixes. But, back then, I didn’t know Derek ran One Little Indian. I thought, ‘is this true?’ I phoned my manager and asked if she knew anyone by this name and she said, ‘yeah, of course, he’s in charge of Björk’s label.’”
“Production and mixing can sound good regardless of the gear you have. Just train your ears to recognise what sounds great and what doesn’t”
Salogni submitted some trial mixes of Björk’s The Gate and Arisen My Senses, which landed her the gig. But working on these tracks came with its challenges. “I closed myself in the studio for four days and made so many versions that I almost lost myself,” she says. “I really wanted Björk to love what I sent back. I tried to put as much of myself into the music as possible, while also demonstrating my huge admiration for her. I was shaking when I returned the mixes. A few days later, I got an email back from her team saying how much she loved them and that she wanted me to do the album.”
Mixing the record involved journeying to Björk’s home in Iceland so that Salogni could immerse herself in the idiosyncrasies of the artist’s wonderful world. “Iceland is amazing and insane to witness,” says Salogni. “The landscape is so different; the mountains have no trees, everything is bare,the light is crazy, the sunset takes an hour to happen. You can tell that nature is so powerful there. The city has a beauty that’s very raw and instinctive. It definitely helped inform how I mixed – the geography impacted what we did.”
Alongside the stunning natural world she called home for the weeks spent working on the record, the friendship that the Italian producer struck up with the Reykjavík-born star also helped inform the creative process. “Björk really made an effort to make me feel like part of her family,” says Salogni. “She would come by and listen to the mix, then in the evening we would go for a swim or go and watch a film, or have dinner somewhere. She was great at giving you the freedom to express yourself.”
While Björk’s works often draw on the terrain of her surroundings, the musical worlds sculpted by FKA Twigs are informed by her own warm-blooded physicality. Salogni assisted mixer David Wrench on Twigs’ 2015 EP M3LL155X.
“What struck me was how Twigs described how she wanted something to sound,” says Salogni. “Because she’s such an excellent dancer and choreographer, the music had to reflect the movement in the performance.” Working closely with Twigs ensured certain aural textures were brought to the fore in the final arrangements, often unexpectedly.
“She explained what she wanted from the sound in very visual and physical ways. Björk was similar – she’d say things like, ‘This needs to sound like I’m telling you a secret, I’m whispering in your ears but fireworks are going off. I’m very close, loud yet still soft.’”
“I can always find new ways to work. I ask artists as many questions as possible and immerse myself in their world. It becomes my vision too”
Salogni was a potent musical force on Bon Iver’s fourth album ‘I, I, released in 2019. She was among a veritable army of musical collaborators who gathered to commit Justin Vernon’s music to tape. She remembers the experience as one of wild creative abandon, in which anything was possible.
“Everyone was open and excited about trying new things,” she says. “I was brought in as an engineer but was given maximum creative freedom. It meant anything that came to mind, I could do.” Salogni cites a piece of sound art by 1960s composer Alvin Lucier, known as I Am Sitting In A Room, as a particular inspiration during her time on the project.
“[Lucier] demonstrates that when you re-amp something in a room several times, the source sound disappears and what you get is the response of the room,” says Salogni. “I had the chance to experiment in a similar way. We went to record in an empty water tank, which was very scary. I had to lower myself into it. I couldn’t see the bottom of the ladder, and the tank was riddled with bullet holes.”
These projects represent Salogni’s highest-profile collaborations. But what’s astounding about her credits as producer, engineer and mixer is the breadth of sounds that her talents have spanned and enhanced. From indie-dance upstarts The Orielles to the electronics of Factory Floor, Planningtorock and Shura, Salogni is a creative touchstone for many of contemporary music’s true originals. How does she prepare to take on so many different projects?
“Each is different, individual and unique,” she says. “I prepare myself for anything and believe I have the tools and the knowledge that allows me to accept any kind of situation. It can be compassion, having an open mind, or just being ready to try new things.” In Salogni’s eyes and ears, the role of the producer is to look outside of themselves to facilitate the artist’s vision, whatever form or sound that may take.
“I’m not going to let go of something I’ve been tasked with until the artist feels like they’re happy with what we’ve created,” she says. “And because of this approach, I never reach a wall. I can always go further and find new ways to work. It’s never about you. You are just a medium. If an artist tells me this is their idea for a song, this is their inspiration, or they give me a book, a painting or another album, I’ll ask them as many questions as possible and immerse myself in their world. It then becomes my vision too.”
“What struck me was how FKA Twigs related how she wanted something to sound. The music had to reflect the movement in the performance”
During Salogni’s early musical adventures, she bounced from studio to studio in London, not only making friends and connections but also collaborating with new artists, giving each other a leg-up. It’s this sense of community that Salogni feels is vital to London’s thriving music scene.
“I started producing at Strongroom during downtime for bands that didn’t have any budget,” she says. “But I didn’t have any credits either. So we would record, produce and mix together. It gave me the opportunity to learn all three crafts and the band the chance to get a record made – so we both won.” While her career has progressed to the point where headline names are now calling for her services, Salogni is keen to point out that you should never forget about the musicians at the start of their journeys.
“I never want to alienate new artists from approaching me, even if they don’t have the same budget as the bigger acts,” says Salogni. “I try to take on projects that allow me to run the studio, so I can have this space, but it means I can also work with up-and-coming artists who have much less money. They’re equally brilliant – and everyone had to start out at some point.”
It’s also beneficial for emerging producers, engineers and mixers to be somewhat selective about the work and artists they take on. Even if you’re only slightly discerning, picking projects you’re passionate about can showcase your superb taste and help establish your calling card early on. “If you work on music with artists you love, then more artists you love will start coming to you,” says Salogni. “You need to pay rent and when I was in-house, I worked on things that I wasn’t that into. But if you have a choice and can afford to survive by doing what you love and earning less, then go with it – it will pay off in ways outside of fame and generate a positive feedback loop.”
Salogni’s tucked-away studio near London Fields features a mix of classic analogue gear and contemporary software. As she says, her approach sees her striving to do less with more. “I work with a hybrid setup,” she says. “I have an analogue Studer desk, which I’ve tried to integrate alongside Pro Tools and plug-ins. I don’t have much gear. The tape machine is my outboard gear, while compressors, EQs and pre-amps are all on the desk. I’ve got some reverbs and that’s all I need. I don’t need to overcomplicate, I want gear I know, can use and rely on everyday.”
Limiting the equipment and technology in her studio is a way of not only saving space but also making more room for ideas to breathe. “Learning how to use something really well to make multiple sounds is the best way into the studio,” says Salogni. “It’s also more rewarding to work out a way of using something that serves your purpose but maybe wasn’t created with that purpose in mind.”
At the centre of Salogni’s process sits her beloved two-track tape machine, which she tries to utilise in every project. “I use it for compression, saturation, looping, delays, transforming rhythms, creating polyrhythms, soundscapes and more,” she says. “I went deep into learning how to use tape in a creative way. That’s always been part of my process and I could never do without it.”
Although technology is a great enabler, Salogni has never been guided or led by the equipment at her disposal. Instead, it’s the power of ideas that wins out. “Production, recording and mixing can sound good regardless of the gear you have,” she says. “Just train yourself and your ears to recognise what sounds great and what doesn’t. Try and learn from records you like.”
When it comes to learning how to create great music, the only tricks are investing time into both your gear and your sounds. “The most important thing is to spend time really getting to know your gear,” says Salogni. “If you desire something like a new mic, save up for it – but don’t be fooled too much by advertising. We’re made to feel incomplete unless we have something, but it’s what you do with what you’ve got that matters.”
With a new record in the pipeline from Dreamwife – as part of an all-female studio team that features Grace Banks and Heba Kadry – as well as a collaborative ambient LP from Daniel Avery and Nine Inch Nails synth artist Alessandro Cortini, there is no shortage of lavish Salogni music to be excited about right now.
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