'You become an extension of some else’s mind': We talk to 2018 MPG Awards Breakthrough Engineer Of The Year Marta Salogni
Daniel Gumble spoke to MPG-nominated producer Marta Salogni about the changing role of the producer
Mixer and producer Marta Salogni has established herself as one of the industry’s most sought after studio talents in recent years. Her client roster is liberally peppered with acts both new and established, spanning styles and genres across the board. The very briefest of glances at her list of mixing credits tells you everything you need to know about her versatility behind the desk and her ferocious work ethic, having mixed new music for the likes of HMLTD, Liars, Sampha, White Lies, M.I.A, Bombino, Shura’s Space Tapes, Alex Cameron and Django Django.
Furthermore, she has engineered for acts including M.I.A, Philip Selway (Radiohead), Toy, Tracey Thorn, The Moonlandingz, These New Puritans and Beth Ditto, while also working with David Wrench on projects such as Frank Ocean’s album Blonde, FKA Twigs and Sampha, Factory Floor, Blossoms, Glass Animals, Pixx, Bloc Party, LA Priest, and Let’s Eat Grandma. Oh, and she was handpicked by Bjork to mix her brand new album Utopia (released November 24).
Based predominantly out of London’s RAK Studios, Salogni’s diverse musical taste was cultivated in her native Italy – the small town of Capriolo in Brescia, to be precise – which hosts a population of just 7,000 people. It was here that she spent her formative years, with musical acts of all shapes, sizes and styles passing through one of its only local grassroots music venues. It was also here that her obsession with the art of sound was ignited, cutting her teeth at FOH for a variety of gigs and theatre productions.
“There is so much behind the scenes that influences the performance, and it’s seamless – no one watching is aware of it, which seemed so magical to me,” Salogni beams as we take our seats for the next hour in RAK Studios’ Studio 4. “That’s the ultimate achievement, when people don’t even know how these amazing things are happening.”
After years developing and diversifying her talents in the live arena, Salogni made the decision to relocate to London to broaden her horizons on the advice of a fellow local engineer. She immediately took up a course at audio school Alchemea, before serving in several assistant engineer roles at various post production facilities and recording studios across the capital. Working around the clock with all manner of artists helped not only in expanding her skillset, but also in assembling a CV that would pave the way for a full-time career as a freelance mixer and producer. And as any freelancer will tell you, the path to establishing oneself in a highly competitive market, based largely on zero hours contracts and little to no payment can be a thorny one. In Salogni’s case, it was all about embracing the challenges and immersing herself in the industry.
“The long hours help you in a way because you don’t go out, so you don’t spend money,” she explains. “I took buses to work rather than the tube. You don’t go to the pub, you just buy yourself a can of beer. I didn’t have a social life for a long time. But the good thing about working with bands and artists is that they will have gigs and they’ll put you on the guest list so you can get in for free, and you start creating this circuit. And most of the people you are working with don’t have money either, so we are all in the same boat. But it is very tough – you just have a really cheap room, there is no security of income… you just have to go to gigs and be present in the music scene.
“I wish it was more affordable for people to work in studio,” she continues. “RAK is amazing because they know it is expensive to live in London, so they make sure everyone gets paid and that everyone is treated fairly and that they aren’t working a crazy amount of hours for not much money. A lot of studios are very much aware of this.”
One thing Salogni does believe is proving beneficial in helping budding producers and engineers get a foot on the ladder is access to increasingly advanced recording and mixing software. Where some are critical of ‘bedroom producers’ and the potentially detrimental impact they may have on the overall art of audio engineering/production, others view accessibility to such technology as a crucial stepping stone in enabling those ill-equipped to afford years of negligible remuneration for their work to learn their craft and get to grips with the basics. Salogni falls very much on this side of the fence.
“The fact that technology is more affordable means you can buy yourself a sound card for not too much money,” she says. “It’s amazing because the old school way to get into studios was understanding that you would not get paid for the first however many years. You start by making coffee or getting lunch, which is what I did. There’s absolutely no touching any of the fun bits. That hits you quite hard when you start working. You have to stay focused and try to get through it. That also requires you to have the possibility of financial backing, either by working on the side or from your parents.
“Working on the side is not normally possible, because you are expected to do sessions any time of the day. To me, this system has many failures, because it means only people with middle class backgrounds or support from their parents can get into studios. And not everyone who gets into music will be able to make a living out of it, so it’s a bit of a gamble.”
She continues: “Technology has enabled kids to teach themselves, and that’s amazing. Some old guys say what these kids are making is not really music or is not real production. I say that’s bullshit. It’s amazing because you are giving someone with the drive and imagination the ability to make something that can sound as amazing as something that’s been made in a studio. I say kids because the image is always of someone in their bedroom, but they can be any age.”
In July of last year, a phone call from out of the blue presented Salogni with a career opportunity of a lifetime, requesting her to mix two tracks from Bjork’s new record Utopia. A lifelong fan, Salogni jumped at the chance to work with the pioneering art pop experimentalist, with her mixes sufficiently impressive to solicit an invite to the star’s native Iceland to mix the record in its entirety.
“Bjork for me is an inspiration, not just musically but as a person,” Salogni says as our conversation turns to her role in what was one of 2017’s most hotly anticipated – and, indeed, widely acclaimed – releases. “For a person my age she has been a constant presence. It was a big honour to even be considered. The two mixes were liked then suddenly everything came into place and very quickly I went to Reykjavik for about a month to mix the record with her, which was wonderful. We went there and set up a studio in Bjork’s engineering room. We started mixing every day and throughout the month we shaped the record.”
Notorious for her experimental approach to work in the studio, the compositions that make up Bjork’s latest offering blend classical live instrumentation and vocals with a heavy dose of electronic embellishment. For Salogni, the key to achieving the right mix was working closely with the artist to understand the record’s aural complexion and unravel its sonic complexities.
“The stems had a lot of information in them; some would have a lot of electronics, some would have vocals,” Salogni elaborates. “With some of the instrumentation like flutes or a choir, we have an idea in our heads of how they might sound, but some of the sounds were completely created out of her imagination. She created these sounds and I would listen and have to think about how I would treat them.
“Trying to understand these sounds is almost a metaphysical process in itself; you’re sitting in front of the speakers thinking not just about what it sounds like, but what it triggers in my head. You try to paint a picture when you mix. You want it to have depth, you want it to be defined, but you don’t want it to be too realistic because then it doesn’t have any magic behind it.
“Bjork and I were A/Bing on a lot of different systems. The worst thing is to make something sound beautiful just for the elite that have £1,000 speakers. It was a very conceptual approach to the sound, respectful to the arrangement; every song has a concept behind it, like a series of paintings. They needed to co-exist as an album but also be different. The vocal treatments were very different for each track. Some were very close and intimate, on others the music would be very loud and the vocals quite suppressed, because the flutes or the electronics would tell the story and the vocals would be like your conscience, on your left ear just telling you what the song is about.”
According to Salogni, Bjork was heavily involved in the mixing process, with the pair working closely to coax each and every conceptual nuance and detail to the fore of each track.
“She would be there every day and was very involved,” Salogni notes. “But she is very trusting. I would make a start on a track and she would give me so much freedom to do as much or as little as I wanted to make it sound how I imagined it. When I had a draft of what my vision was I would let her know and she would drop by and listen and tell me what she thought. She’s very good at describing what she wants in a way that is so direct. She would paint a picture in my head and through that I could transform the mix. She’d be listening at home or in the studio, and we’d compare different rooms. Then we would go and have dinner somewhere or go for a walk… it made you feel very familiar and at home.”
With our time together almost up, Salogni reflects warmly on what proved to be a transformative experience and one upon which she looks back with a great deal of pride and affection, both for the work and the artist. For her, the magic of mixing comes not only in the technical wizardry required on such projects, but also in the intangible human connection that accompanies it.
“It was really special,” she concludes. “You’re working on art so there is a lot of traffic between minds. Inevitably you start creating a bond. The artist trusts you to execute their vision, and the responsibility is huge. It’s beautiful, getting to know someone, getting to know their mind.
“You really become an extension of some else’s mind, and that’s so important when making or mixing an album.”
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