Studio Engineer + Producer:
Bjork, Holly Herndon, Bon Iver
from Women in Sound #6
released February 4th, 2019
interview by Madeleine Campbell
You grew up in Italy? What was your early musical life like?
I was born by Lake Iseo in northern Italy and grew up in this little town called Capriolo, by the Italian Prealps. The first 14 years my life developed pretty much between there and the nearby towns until I started going to high school in the bigger city of Brescia. There I started being involved in the political activist scene and local left-wing social movements, which are a thriving reality and incorporate many aspects of the arts, especially music. The headquarters of the movement are a reclaimed space called Magazzino 47 and a radio [station] called Radio Onda D'Urto, which became my headquarters, too. The Magazzino also functioned as a venue, one of the very few that offered its stage to local and touring bands from a wide range of genres: avant-garde, punk, electronic, folk. I remember one afternoon I walked in the empty venue and saw the big mixing desk, an old analogue Yamaha with 30-plus channels. I was instantly fascinated by it — by the concept of being able to control the sound coming from the stage and amplify it, deciding the ratio of the different volumes, and experiencing the different levels of emotions that are triggered by different balances: intimacy or energy, rage or melancholy, and so on.
For me, it wasn't and never has been only about pushing faders up and down to match a pre-established notion of how a specific genre or piece of music should sound, but instead to be part of the performance and playing those faders as an instrument, being the invisible band member whose position is in front of the stage, not on the stage. I love that freedom, the vicinity with the audience, being in the midst of the public but being metaphysically on stage at the same time.
The responsibility is big. The mission is so important. For however long the concert lasts, there's nothing else that matters. It feels liberating to be able to dedicate myself so fully and intensely to something which has an immediate response like sound. It's an interaction. Yes, there are some rules, and if you want, you can respect them, but once you know them you can also break them. The only thing that matters is to stay in control of the chaos and the entropy, also leaving the space for spontaneity and having the ability to completely improvise. It's this dichotomy that I fell in love with.
All these thoughts were going through my head when I asked Carlo, the sound engineer [at Magazzino 47], if I could learn from him and work by his side from that day onwards. I can say he was my professional father figure. My father has the same name. He patiently taught me all I knew about sound, connectors, signal flow, electronics and mics up until I moved to London when I finished high school.
How did you end up in London?
Carlo told me, “If you feel this is what you want to do with your life, you should try to move to London or Berlin.” I really wanted to get into a recording studio and have the time to experiment with instruments, equipment and sound in all its forms, but there weren’t many studios around Brescia, at least not the studios I was fantasizing about. Up until October 2010, I only worked in live sound for the Magazzino, the Radio Onda D'urto, lots of festivals in the north of Italy, various theatres and venues. I loved live sound and its immediacy, but I needed to explore that studio world that so much fascinated me. I gave my final exams and bought a one-way ticket to London.
As expected, the change was a shock, but I was extremely self-motivated and I decided I wasn't going to go back, no matter what. I spent the first months babysitting and walking to every park I could find on my AZ map, meeting new people and trying to learn to speak and understand the new language, which up until then, I only studied as literature back at school.
In January, I started a nine-month course at a sound engineering school called Alchemea, which no longer exists. I realized I had to relearn lots of audio terms I knew in a different language and learn new ones that only apply to studio work and not live sound. The school had three studios, which I had access to at different stages of the course and were open 24-7. I was there pretty much 24-7, too. For nine months that was my life. I learned as much as I could, knowing that after this course I still had so much to learn (but only the real-life studio experience could have taught me what I was missing). Then I did what anyone who wants to get into studios does: I started looking up the best ones in town, finding their addresses and phone numbers, asking the studio managers if I could pop in and leave my CV, do a trial shift, make teas or coffee or tidy up after a session. Literally anything. I got my first job at a post-production house in central London. Although not a recording studio, I was really interested in sound design, foley and location recording. It was a precious year where I learned notions and techniques I still apply to my job, even though they are supposed to be related to post-production. I left after a year because, in my heart, I knew I really wanted to be in a recording studio. So I started my search again.
After seeing their ad in Tape Op magazine, I called up this beautiful studio in south London called State of the Ark and asked if I could make teas and coffees and generally help out during one of their sessions. They have this beautiful desk, the [EMI] TG12345, and an incredible range of mics and outboard gear, plus a live room which sounds good for pretty much any instruments. The owner said I could come and help, but not to expect any long-term jobs out of that occasion. It didn’t matter to me. I wanted to be in a studio and that was all I cared about. All I needed was a chance to demonstrate it. I never had a plan B. That was the start of my career in the recording world. From there I moved on to Dean Street Studios, Snap, Rak, and Strongroom, assisting at first, then engineering, producing and mixing. During my journey I had the fortune to spend large parts of time in the company of amazing colleagues from whom I learned a lot and who inspired me to always better myself.
Do you work out of your own studio or do you share a space with other engineers?
When I started freelancing, I worked out of different studios around London and the UK, sometimes abroad, too. The ones I was using the most were RAK and Strongroom. But I really needed my own room. During a project I was doing with David Wrench and Goldfrapp, the label MUTE told me they had a studio in their building that they were happy for me to take over, so I moved there. The room was already built and it was perfect for me. A mix room really well insulated and acoustically treated. It already had some equipment in there, including lots of synths belonging to the label owner, Daniel Miller: Roland System 100, 808, 303, Minimoog, [Formanta] Polivoks, [Sequential Circuits] Pro-One. I’m now about to move to a new studio in East London, which is bigger and is being built for me. It will also have tie lines to a shared recording area, so I will be able to record there as well as mix. I still tend to book bigger studios whenever I have a recording or production job to do, but having a live room available will definitely be a plus.
Can you tell me about your equipment set up?
I record and mix in Pro Tools or to tape, depending on the situation. Right now, I have my two-track tape machine, a Revox PR99, connected to two in/outs in Pro Tools so I can use it to process either as a tape delay or as a compression and saturation unit. I just bought a desk, an early prototype Studer 369/169 from 1976. It has 22 channels, of which 10 are mobile, and I will use it to record outside of my studio. I love the different and unique acoustics of all those places that wouldn't normally define a traditional recording environment.
What are some of your favorite tools (hardware or software) you use?
I think my Revox PR99 is the tool I use the most. It’s really versatile, from tape delays to saturation to pitch shifting to phasing. I love the tactile interaction with tape. I have a splicing block I always use when creating tape loops. It's a very satisfying process. I like simple tools like EQ. I find it quite underrated in its simplicity. I think it’s probably the most powerful and irreplaceable tool we have in engineering after volume. I can compare it to the focus on a camera or a chisel used to shape the outlines of a sculpture.
I’d rather combine simple tools and create more intricate ones tailored around my needs than get stuck with an intimidating piece of gear and its intricacies. For me, it's all about the fluidity of the workflow and removing obstacles that can slow down the creative process. Once practiced enough, processing becomes a form of translating ideas into sound, so fluidity and fluency become essential for me. I always put drums at the top [of the digital audio workstation layout] and always colour them blue, only because that way my brain and eyes don't have to be occupied with trying to find the element my ears are looking for. I can keep my focus and concentration tuned into the big picture and at the same time, the hundreds of little reflections within it. That way, it all becomes spontaneous — a matter of expression, like a language.
You fill several roles within the studio: recordist, mixer, producer. In many ways, those jobs are very interconnected. Can you talk about the benefits and challenges this presents?
Ever since I started working in studios, my position has always existed across different roles. I like keeping my horizon open and being able to adapt to different situations and needs. I have learned how to record, mix and produce. I can do all three equally and I don't like to be pigeonholed into one category or another. What matters for me is the artistic outcome, not a job title. Same with the genres of music I work on. Sometimes I get asked, “What genres of music do you mostly deal with?” That question annoys me because it instantly simplifies and limits the answer.
The boundaries between engineering and producing can be very faint. I first started producing while I was still engineering simply because my skills started to develop towards that and creative decision-making became more and more natural. Confidence came as a consequence of the experience and as a result of the supportive environment I operated within. The benefit of covering these different positions is the ability to adapt chameleonically to the different needs of a project. Some projects would be artist-led, self-produced and I'd be hired as a mixer, but I’d also be asked to contribute to the record beyond the field of mixing; for example, with suggestions about arrangement or instrumentation. Nowadays these jobs are way more interconnected than they used to be. It is a positive change, but it can also become overwhelming at times if one person is in charge of everything. I have been there many times: engineer, producer and mixer at the same time on one record. It's an amazing opportunity because it allows me to control each aspect of it and really shape it in a very specific manner, but it can also affect objectivity and perspective sometimes. I had to learn how to safeguard those.
As someone who is very self-taught and has mostly worked in isolation, I’m hoping to branch out into more collaborative work. It can feel very daunting for me to ask a friend for mix feedback. You’ve been a part of some great creative teams. Can you speak about how this impacts your workflow? For example, on a record like Utopia, where Björk employed two mixers with different techniques and styles, how much do you consider your collaborators within your own contributions to an album?
I love the collaborative dimension of the making of a record. Feeling part of a collective effort and working in synergy with other people has always been one of the main reasons I chose this life. It's a learning process, assimilating someone's artistic view and realizing it via the medium of production, mixing or engineering. It impacts my workflow massively. I actually do reshape my workflow according to the record I am working on, but I do also maintain some personal anchors that allow me to regain my balance in case I need it. I like when a project challenges me and pushes me into directions I have not explored before. That push can only come from the interaction with other minds. Inspiration, for me, comes mainly from the outside world. I am a listener by nature, made by some kind of highly inflammable material which needs a spark to start a fire but then can burn forever. I count on the inspiration that people can instill in me to be able to create, so collaboration becomes essential. On Utopia, I worked very closely with Björk, translating the conceptual and emotional content of her vision into the mix of each track. For each of them, we had an individual approach. That is the reason why the album is a composite of mixes from me and Heba [Kadry] and why sometimes we mixed different parts on the same song. Both the interaction and individuality have been crucial aspects of that record-making, all converging into one body of work beautifully coherent and cohesive — a world in itself, as the title suggests Utopia.
I’ve read that you own several tape machines. What led you to buy your first one? Do you have any advice for someone who has worked only digitally but would like to take steps towards analog recording and mixing, as well?
Yes, I own quite a few tape machines now and the family is still growing. The first one was bought out of curiosity. I was absolutely fascinated and confused by it at the same time. I wanted to have one in front of me to try and understand how it worked and make that fascination familiar rather than intimidating. The first tape machine was a Revox PR99. It's still at Strongroom Studio 4, which I built when I was an in-house engineer there. When I got my own studio, I had to leave it behind, but I loved it so much I looked around for the same model and bought it again.
My only advice for someone wanting to approach the tape world is to go for it. It can be intimidating at first because it's not as common as it used to be and therefore, it can result in being mysticized or disregarded. I love tape and machines, not only because of the sound, which can vary wildly according to setting, tape type or machine type, but because of the physicality of it, the swish noise of the reels turning and the visual engagement of seeing it move mechanically, the different interaction that process creates. It's not magic, it's pure science and it's beautiful.
I read your feature with Omnii Collective and I really appreciate that you mentioned empathy as one of the greatest qualities in engineering and production. Can you expand upon that a bit?
[In the Oxford English Dictionary,] empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feeling of another.” I can't think of anything more important than that when working together with an artist on a record. To empathize means to challenge our status quo, not only to observe but to take part in a journey where we need to trust both the other and ourselves.
What artists are you excited about lately?
I am very excited about lots of music lately. I think this is a time of brilliant creativity and reinvention led by amazing innovators. Technology and content seem to have acquired a new political energy. Records are questioning social issues, gender, sexuality, power. I am glad this is happening. This is exactly the reason why I wanted to be in music from the beginning. It is one of the greatest mediums for change, carrying the sentiments, needs and demands of its generation.
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Since this interview, Marta opened her own studio, Zona, in London Fields.
- Women in Sound 2019 -