Talent and hard work have taken Marta Salogni from dive bars in Italy to working with A-list mixing and production clients in the UK in less than a decade.
Only eight years after first arriving in London from her native Italy as a keen, determined, but wide-eyed audio student, Marta Salogni has managed to carve out an impressive career in the recording industry. Her engineering, mixing and production credits list now reads like a Who’s Who of artful artists: the xx, Björk, Frank Ocean, Goldfrapp, Sampha, Django Django, MIA and FKA Twigs.
Today, Salogni works from the small but gear-stuffed Studio Mute in West London, surrounded by vintage synths and her collection of tape machines. She still marvels at how far she’s come so quickly, less than a decade after enrolling on a music production course at Alchemea College in Islington.
“I got here two months before the course started to try and learn some English,” she remembers. “It was so terrible. I couldn’t even top up my Oyster travel card in a shop. I didn’t know how to express the simplest things. I lost a bit of confidence because I was like, I can’t get my point across. But I was so driven, I didn’t care. I was like, I’m not going back!”
After first being shown a mixing desk by a woman who brought one into her school, Salogni started out at the age of 16 as a live audio engineer in a club in her northern Italian hometown of Brescia. Being so young, and living 30 miles away, she was initially only allowed by her parents to work at soundchecks, and would have to leave before the actual performances. “I sometimes slept there,” she laughs, “but it was not good to sleep on a stage behind speakers. But then I got a car and finally I got to start actually doing the whole thing. I loved it so much and I learned so much. But I wanted to do more and experiment in studios. I thought, I really want to do the studios thing. It’s like this beautiful playground.”
As the final part of her audio course at Alchemea had concentrated on post-production, Salogni took a job as a runner at Molinare in Soho, before starting to send handwritten letters (personalised with a wax stamp) to various recording studios where she thought she might get work. This unusual approach in the world of email round robins gained her the attention of studio manager Dan Britten, son of Tina Turner/Michael Jackson songwriter Terry Britten, who runs his father’s State Of The Ark facility in Richmond, Surrey, which is based around an EMI TG12345 console.From there, Salogni moved to Snap Studios in Manor House, North London, where she met Danton Supple (Coldplay, Ian Brown), who at the time was looking for a regular assistant. For the next year, Salogni was based in Supple’s small room at Dean St Studios in Soho, all the while also learning how to use Studio One’s SSL Duality. Eventually, the pair began looking around for another, slightly bigger room, before finding one at the Strongroom in Shoreditch. It was here, in 2013, that Salogni learned how to build a production/mix room from scratch.
“It was Studio 4,” she says. “It has a Calrec [Q Series 28 channel, ex-BBC] broadcast desk. Danton had the desk in storage and he wanted to get it out and start using it. Across two months in the Summer, we moved all his gear to Dean St. Danton went on holiday in August and I shuffled things around and tried to think, ‘Where would the gear go? Should I make one rack for dynamics and one rack for the preamps?’ It was my dream. I was so happy. Then it took a long time to wire it all in to the desk. I helped how I could. We had Bill Ward, who did SARM Studios, soldering away for 12 hours.”
Powers Of Recall
Supple’s work during that period involved mostly mixing, but also production projects done in different studios, with the results being brought back to Strongroom for overdubs and completion. Salogni’s first credit on record was as mix assistant on Dave Gahan & Soulsavers’s 2015 album, Angels & Ghosts.
“At the time of Soulsavers, I was already pretty much doing everything for Danton,” she remembers. “I would be receiving and preparing the stems, putting them into a session the way that he likes it to be structured. Plugging in any bits of gear that he wanted. I finally got to understand patchbays. He would be mixing half-analogue and half-digital, as in the stems would be in the computer, but they would come down the Calrec and go through groups to compressors or to EQs. So I kind of had to design a system to be able to recall all of that.
“That was the main thing: jumping between mixes. It’d be like, ‘Another recall’. There was no recall sheet for the desk because it’s such a one-off thing. So I had to go and design these recall sheets and A/B the previous mix. ‘Cause with analogue gear, if something is not right, you’re like, ‘Well, what is it?’ All the recalls are exactly where they were. Danton has such high standards that he wouldn’t let go if something was not coming back sounding the same, and rightly so. That pushed me so hard to just do everything to the maximum of my capabilities and never let go of something.”
Twelve Mic Method
Supple rented out his studio at Strongroom for a week a month, giving Salogni the opportunity to work with a wider range of artists and producers, and she also made good use of down time to begin moving into production, starting with Welsh singer-songwriter Georgia Ruth’s 2016 album Fossil Scale and more recently overseeing West Yorkshire indie band the Orielles’ Silver Dollar Moment, released earlier this year. The latter in particular allowed Salogni to fully employ the drum recording techniques she’d been developing through the years.
“Because of the way that Studio 4 at Strongroom was set up,” she explains, “I was restricted to 12 lines for the live room. So that made me always record with 12 microphones! It’d be kick drum in, kick drum out, snare top, snare bottom, hi-hat, ride, floor tom, rack tom, smash mic, mono front, two overheads... 12. The mono microphone would be the U67 valve, either on the front or on the back. It was a small room, so it was a very tight sound anyway. As a smash mic, I started using this harmonica mic, the [Shure 520DX] Bullet. Before that, it was a [Shure] 58, ‘cause after all I was smashing it through a Drawmer compressor, just turning the input gain very high and making it peak.
“But then the rest of the mics were quite standard. I don’t like getting used to particular gear, because if I do, then I go to a studio that doesn’t have those resources, I’m stuck. I want to be able to go and record anywhere. So that’s why I also use a lot of 57s. They’re indestructible, they’re reliable. For a snare sound, it’s worked for me both on a jazz and on a rock kit. I work with bands that have budgets that can vary wildly. But I can go to a studio and they definitely have a 57.”
Often, for overdubs, Salogni likes to use room mics that aren’t set up for the particular source they’re recording. A drum mic might end up on a vocal track, or a vocal mic may be used on a guitar track. “I like to just set up at the beginning and then leave the microphones where they are,” she says. “I use a lot of room mics that have been there for different purposes, but yet they can capture a sound from a different position which might give you a result that is not the usual close-miked thing that we’re all used to. I don’t like wishy-washy sounds, but I like defined sounds with a room sound and their own existence, so that you can tell that it’s been recorded in that room. Otherwise, you might as well record it anywhere.”
At the same time as she began producing, Salogni kept working on bigger projects as engineer/assistant to busy mixer David Wrench, getting the chance to fill her credits sheet further with artists such as the xx, Goldfrapp and Sampha (on his 2017 Mercury Prize-winning album Process). “David was so busy,” she says. “Projects were back to back. So I would take care of getting the stems, making sure nothing was missing, putting them into a session in Pro Tools. Top and tail, make sure the edits are not clicking. Fading things in and out, levelling breaths down by a certain amount of dB, de-clicking vocals. Then zip it, send it, or just hand the hard drive over.
“When we did the xx record, we mixed half on the Neve [VRP Legend] at RAK, in the box, but in like a hybrid way, splitting the mix through the desk, especially the drums. Some of the projects would come along and then they would be updated. Goldfrapp [2017’s Silver Eye], for example, that was a month in the Strongroom in Nigel Godrich’s studio. But I was kind of like the glue between Will Gregory who was still working on some arrangements, and David who was mixing. I was the centre point. I would go in and make sure that Will was giving me this new arrangement, which I needed to morph into this mix which was already on the way. So there was a lot of being methodical, being really, really on it. ‘Cause otherwise there are hours wasted when you mix back to back.”
In the last year, Salogni has begun taking on full album mix projects of her own, most recently Django Django’s Marble Skies and Insecure Men’s self-titled debut. “I think I’ve developed a tonality which I like,” she says. “So if a mix plays out of the speakers, I’m like, ‘OK, that’s my mix, I recognise myself in that.’ It varies for the type of music. So for something like Django Django, I love making sure that the rhythms are driving. I don’t like when the bass drum or the snare are buried and you can’t tell what’s going on there.
“When I do a mix, I always imagine, ‘What is the purpose of this track? Is it for people to chill out, to dance? How do I link myself to this track?’ Sometimes the driving rhythms can not even be the drums, it can be the piano. It’s trying to understand the core of the track and then making sure that there are elements that always keep your attention. I like very dynamic mixes, both in terms of levels and in terms of spatial arrangement. So I like automating pan, I like to make mono tracks stereo. I like balance between left and right, so I don’t like putting one thing only to the left and one thing only to the right. Unless they counteract each other. I like this kind of balance yet... I like the chaos. But I like the chaos being purposeful. And I like sometimes to leave things in there that are a bit wrong.”
One example Salogni cites is ‘Blissing Me’ from Björk’s latest album Utopia, the majority of which she mixed. “For David, as I say, I used to do a lot of de-clicking. I’d clean up vocals very fully. When I went to mix the Björk record, there was this track ‘Blissing Me’ that starts with about a thousand vocal clicks. So the inner me is like, ‘Clean these vocal clicks!’ The other me is like, ‘No, hang on a second, I like those.’ Then I listened to the lyric: ‘All of my mouth was kissing him.’ I was like, It makes sense. OK, I’ll leave it. But this is gonna be played over and over again forever, and this is my choice. No one here tells me what to do. I’m the mixer. Oh my God. I’m doing it. So I left all of it. I told her, ‘I’m leaving this in because of this reason.’”
Salogni had been contacted by Derek Birkett, owner of Björk’s label One Little Indian, a few months previously, after her name, as she puts it, “was circulating and kept popping up.” Birkett sent over two tracks, ‘The Gate’ and ‘Arisen My Senses’, for Salogni to mix in her new studio base at Mute.
“They were both quite challenging,” she says. “‘The Gate’ is a very dynamic structure and it has these bursts of energy. Björk is not a band that has a drum kit, a bass and a piano. These are sounds which have been created especially for this record. The choir and the strings and flutes are traditional instruments. But still we have these electronic elements that her and Alejandro [Ghersi aka Arca] developed. I’m like, ‘I’ve never met these sounds before. How is this supposed to sound? What shape of EQ is this supposed to have?’”
In the end, Salogni spent two days on each track. “I did so many options,” she explains. “Those two tracks have a lot of automation in them, ‘cause I wanted to make sure that all these elements — the bursts up and down, left to right — were right. Then the vocals needed to convey the message and needed to be still there in the middle. I didn’t want to sacrifice the beautiful whispers in the midst of explosions.
“‘Arisen My Senses’ was quite a lot of work, ‘cause especially going to the end there’s this explosion. Compression helps. Not a huge amount, because I still want things to completely jump out. And how do you do that without making the whole track quieter? I try to do that through EQ, automation. Very extreme volume automations sometimes. Splitting the same stem, duplicating them, so I have different settings for this moment and that other moment. But then you end up automating so many parameters and the Pro Tools session just goes like, ‘Tsk tsk tsk, bye!’”
Björk was clearly impressed by what Salogni had achieved with the two tracks, as the singer then invited her to Reykjavik to mix another six tracks for Utopia. Salogni brought her 2015 MacBook Pro, fitted with Pro Tools HD cards, plus her UAD Satellite, and essentially rebuilt her Studio Mute setup in Björk engineer Bergur Porisson’s studio.
“It’s next to the harbour, and so I could see the sea from the window,” Salogni says. “I had many speakers, because I didn’t know the room. I asked for the same speakers I have here: the Dynaudios [BM15] and ADAMs [A5]. I also had these weird Amphion speakers that Bergur has, with a sub. I had a little [Avantone] Mixcube in front of me, then my Beyer [DT 770 Pro] headphones, which are amazing.”
Salogni often worked knee-to-knee in the studio with Björk on the mixes. “It was so precious for me to have her there,” she says. “She was really warm and generous and this person that I felt a sense of familiarity with very instantly. Sometimes you just feel at home with someone and you feel like you can communicate. It’s so essential. It helped me so much to be able to convey what I thought was her message and what she wanted to communicate. She’s an excellent communicator. She would tell me, ‘I want this to sound like it’s whispered in the midst of fireworks.’ Or, ‘This track is very severe and it needs to be warm. It needs to be tough, but not harsh.’”
For her part, Salogni was very careful in her processing of Björk’s voice. “I never counteract her dynamic, I just help it. I do a little bit of EQ, a tiny amount of [Waves] C4 multiband. If I use a compressor, I use it to just help me for the tonality sometimes, to just make everything a tiny bit more constant. I ended up using the [UAD] dbx 160 plug-in.”
Reverb-wise, Salogni is a fan of UAD’s EMT 140 plate plug-in, but tends to return again and again to Valhalla’s VintageVerb. “It sounds beautiful,” she says. “There’s only one track, ‘Future Forever’, in which I used the EMT 140, because it wanted to have a different quality. With the Valhalla, I like the concert hall and I use that on everything. But I’m someone who uses things one way and then perhaps three or four other effects afterwards to make it different, rather than changing a preset. Maybe I’ll treat the concert hall to sound more like a room by using other things afterwards. Sometimes I use EQs, sometimes I use compression on a reverb.”
In the three weeks that Salogni was in Iceland, she and Björk were constantly re-evaluating the mixes by playing them on different systems, in different environments. “She would be listening at home through her system, and then in the car. So, so many systems to make sure. The focus of the album was trying to get the low end to come through and the vocals to sit right and the high elements to be clear on all possible systems that we could get our hands on. To be able to translate the concept behind each track, through the medium of mixing. To make it coherent as a piece.”
Having met the people at Mute Records through her work on Goldfrapp’s Silver Eye, for the past year and a half, Marta Salogni has taken up residence in their studio on a permanent basis. The facility is based around an SSL Matrix, which Salogni admits has taken her some time to get used to. “It kind of disturbs me to see these faders moving around,” she laughs. “It’s like, ‘What the hell?’ I hate seeing moving faders and I hate looking at the computer screen. This is what I want to progressively get rid of.”
At the moment, in her development as a producer and mixer, Salogni is training herself to be able to detect unwanted frequencies through her hearing alone. “Like when the old-school people say, ‘Back in the day, you used to be able to recognise frequencies by just listening to them’,” she says. “But I think seeing the frequencies also gives me the confidence of saying, ‘OK, scrap the screen, I know what I’m doing.’ But if I can’t seem to locate the harmonics of this frequency that I don’t want to have, I use a FabFilter EQ, which has that brilliant analyser. Then you can see it clearly. And I trust it because also I’ve noticed that there are frequencies we can’t hear in the low end, but then you can see the speaker cone moving.
“To me, it’s quite new, this thing. With electronic music, generating frequencies which are beyond our hearing, I think to have a system which is also incorporating the digital side of it along with the visual capability of seeing things move the speakers, it saves a lot of time.”
In whatever spare time she has, Marta Salogni experiments with Studio Mute’s collection of vintage synths, including the Russian-built ‘80s-era Polivoks, and the Roland System 100. “I’m still learning it,” she says of the latter. “Daniel [Miller, Mute boss] sometimes comes downstairs and he puts a patch in. Then I jump in and I look at what he does and I play further and I kind of trace the signal path. I’m still at the early stages.”
Salogni also dabbles in her own, still-unreleased tape loop-based music as Sister Static, using her collection of Revox and Ferrograph reel-to-reels. Elsewhere, she’s currently working with a couple of big-name artists who she chooses not to identify, since the projects are still unannounced. Ultimately, having achieved so much in less than a decade, she’s eager to keep pushing herself further in her studio work. “I feel so honoured and privileged,” she beams. “I’d love to just carry on working with the people I admire, and just keep challenging myself. Keep on learning and discovering new things.”
The Transparent Engineer
Marta Salogni’s first experience of vocal recording came in 2014, with Radiohead drummer Phil Selway, for his second solo album Weatherhouse. “He’s so lovely,” she says. “I was so nervous. Adem [Ilhan] from Fridge was producing. But I was so nervous I couldn’t sit down. Adem was like, ‘Do you always engineer standing up?’ I’d worked with Danton before, when he was recording vocals, and I kind of observed that. Then I observed what singers did. It’s such a precious position to be in when you’re an assistant because you can observe both the reactions and what works and what doesn’t. So I kind of made mental notes of all these situations.”
The main lesson that Salogni says she learned during this period in terms of vocal recording is that it’s best to avoid making singers do take after take after take. “That never worked for me,” she says. “Doing things over and over and over again. I’ve been with producers who’d say, ‘Do it again, do it again. Let’s drop in for that line and that line.’ Doing it line by line. And because also I was the person who was doing all this, I just became allergic to it as a method or as a concept. It just doesn’t work and none of the artists I ever spoke with has ever enjoyed that.
“From there I kind of understood, I’m going for one take, two takes. I try to be as transparent as I can. I don’t want to impose myself. It’s like being in front of a therapist almost when you’re singing into a microphone. It’s quite a position of fragility. No matter how confident the singers can be or how much experience they have, they’re in front of a microphone. The other person needs to be conscious of that.”
Salogni’s preferred vocal chains are fairly traditional. “It’s always down to what the resources of the studios are,” she stresses, “but if I can choose, I do like Neumanns: U47s, U87s. I know that’s quite a boring choice. A valve U67 is my favourite above all of those. There was one at Strongroom that was my favourite. The Neve 1081 gives me the possibility to do a basic EQ and when I go for a compressor, I love [Universal Audio] 1176s but also the LA-2As. It depends. If I need control over the attack and release, then I go 1176. Then I love the [Manley] Massive Passive EQ. If I’m recording, I use it on vocals, or otherwise I use it on the mix.”