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Talkback: Mikko Gordon

Engineer & Producer By William Stokes
Published June 2023


Born in the UK, engineer and producer Mikko Gordon grew up in Helsinki before returning to study at Goldsmiths, University of London. Since then he has formed a close working relationship with Radiohead super‑producer Nigel Godrich, who he first met through his wife, Laura Bettinson (aka Lau.ra), who is producer, DJ and vocalist in Godrich’s own outfit Ultraísta. As well as touring with Thom Yorke and Phil Selway as live engineer for their respective solo projects, Mikko engineered the debut album by the Smile, the trio comprised of Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and drummer Tom Skinner. He also toured with the band and mixed their live albums.

“Originally, I was thinking, ‘I want to be in a band,’ but I realised very quickly that I hated the democracy of the process!” Mikko laughs. “Wearing the producer’s hat and working in the studio is much more interesting to me.”

At the moment I can’t stop listening to

I’m listening to a lot of electronic music at the moment; Luke Abbott is a current, huge favourite. ‘Swansong’ would be a song I’d recommend to check out. The sounds are just so... organically synthetic is the best way to describe it: you know, they’re modular, but they’re so real! The way they jump out, all the drum sounds and things. It’s amazing.

There’s also an Australian band I recently discovered called the Lazy Eyes, who are wonderful! Really young band, just doing really interesting stuff. And Nilüfer Yanya would be another one for me. She’s an amazing UK artist, just her sound and her vibe. I’ve been listening to her a lot. I did a session with her and her band as part of another series of the From The Basement programme.

The project I’m most proud of

I’ll have to say engineering the Smile album [A Light For Attracting Attention]. That was just an incredible experience for me. Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood are just such incredible artists and musicians, and Tom Skinner as well — such a phenomenal drummer. It was a really fun and challenging project at the same time. We recorded to tape, working quite quickly. It was a very, kind of, free environment for the band. Just to try and figure out stuff, to play things live together. I think, especially after Thom making a lot of electronic records, the band were just really enjoying having three people in a room playing music together. And the kind of excitement that came from that. We were trying to minimise the role of computers, you know, recording to tape and just keeping things moving. It was just an incredible album to be a part of, to be creating sonics around these songs that were coming together.

The first thing I look for in a studio

It’s definitely the vibe and the feel of the space. A lot of studios feel quite clinical and sterile, and not like creative spaces. I’m happy to record in houses or any location — they don’t even necessarily have to be studios. So how it’s going to feel is important.

After that, it depends on the project. A big control room, the monitoring, you know. If we’re talking about technical things, it’s very important to be able to trust what you’re hearing. And I’m always happy to bring in a set of speakers myself, if I need to. And then, on the equipment front, I’m old school: I love an API or Neve preamp, an 1176 compressor, Neumann microphones. But again, if the space is right then I can bring that stuff with me.

The person I would consider my mentor

Well, definitely Nigel Godrich. He’s been an incredible mentor and friend. I’ve learned so much from him about how to think about music and how to approach things aesthetically. I’d also name Mandy Parnell, a mastering engineer who early on in my career was incredibly supportive, gave me a lot of her time. I would just go and attend sessions and, kind of, sit there listening to all the problems in my mixes being revealed!

She would talk about some of the things that I need to think about or look at, and then go ahead and fix them all, and make the tracks sound amazing. I would even come in sometimes to listen to a mix I was unsure of on her system, then go away and work on it a bit more. Or even tweak something there in the session. She was never in a rush to move to the next thing; she always had time to help me, which was amazing. Her support helped me to get better with my mixing.

Finally it would be Tchad Blake, who I’m also very grateful to for having given me his time over the years, listening to things I’ve been working on and letting me see him in action. That’s been absolutely incredible.

My go‑to reference track or album

I worry that I’m going to come across arrogant with my answer, because I tend to reference music that I’ve worked on myself! Because I know how it sounds inside out, and I know where I’ve wanted to go sonically with it. So usually, when I’m walking into new studio, I’m going to be listening to a few songs from projects I’ve worked on. But if I was playing something by someone else, there is a Four Tet remix of Ultraísta, which sounds phenomenal. It’s got this beautiful, deep low end. A great‑sounding track. And also I get to hear my wife singing while I’m doing it, so it’s win‑win!

I might be going on a tangent here, but it’s interesting how there just isn’t really an ‘average frequency balance’. You listen to a record and it’s got no low end, but it still sounds great in this really... compact kind of way. And then you’ve got records with like, huge bass. Maybe all the highs are really muted. So everyone needs to figure out what their ideal is. You can have stuff that sounds amazing, but you’re thinking, ‘I would never make it sound like that.’ But I can still really respect how that’s been done.

My top tip for a successful session

Making records is an intense experience. And I think it’s really important that artists feel like they’re able to try out new ideas and to experiment — and to fail. It’s really important to have that comfort factor, to be able to fail, because through that you get somewhere. You go to new places, and that kind of freedom brings out creativity. So I think it’s about creating the kind of right space and environment for that. That’s one reason why I’m never keen on people bringing in film crews to recording sessions, because it changes everything. Suddenly everyone’s considering what they’re saying, and it’s kind of counter‑productive to the creative process.

Mikko Gordon: I’m a big believer in committing to decisions and sounds early on. I want people to be going in to play and putting their headphones on, and to have it feel like a record is already there.

Beyond that, sonically, I want the record to start taking shape as early as possible. So I’m a big believer in committing to decisions and sounds early on. I want people to be going in to play and putting their headphones on, and to have it feel like a record is already there.

I get stuff to mix sometimes and there are, like, 30 microphones on the drum kit, but there’s nothing defined. And it just sounds like a boring drum kit! And it’s like, we’re just pushing the creative decision process way down the line. Whereas if that decision had been made earlier on, then the other creative decisions would have started building on top of that, and the whole end result might have been more interesting.

The studio session I wish I’d witnessed

Well, growing up, the three big bands that I listened to a lot would have been Radiohead, Arcade Fire and the Cure. And I got to work with Thom and Jonny already. I’ve made a record with Arcade Fire already. So the Cure is definitely the last one! I’d love to make a record with them. But when it comes to sitting in, it would be on the sessions for the album Disintegration. That would have been an amazing experience. Just the atmosphere and the feel. That record is very dark at times. And I’m curious about whether the mood was really sombre, or whether they were, you know, just laughing and joking around in those sessions... just what the feel was, what the goal and drive for everyone aesthetically making that record was.

The producer I’d most like to work with

I mean... I’ve already worked with him! I’m very fortunate to have worked with Nigel Godrich a lot. But Tchad Blake would be someone else. And Dave Fridmann. He’s worked on loads of great records that sound really interesting and creative, the way he brings that interesting kind of psychedelic element.

The part of music creation I enjoy the most

It’s just the act of working together with people to create something. You know, creating music that will hopefully resonate with them and have a connection with them. It’s great when you’re coming up with sounds and you can’t really tell what something was or where it came from. And hopefully that will leave listeners wondering how those sounds were made.

The advice I’d give myself of 10 years ago

I feel like, 10 years ago, I was only just getting to a point where I was figuring out knowing what I’m doing. I think my advice would be to be fearless. Keep experimenting, and just stick at it.