MPG Producer of the year Marta Salogni on Tape, Black Midi’s Hellfire, and Choice Plugins

Hailing from Italy, Marta Salogni’s relocation to London – in pursuit of the very best artists and studios in which to work – was driven by a lifelong love of sound. With widespread industry recognition for her engineering, producing and mixing, Salogni’s multifaceted endeavours have resulted in her working with some of the most compelling artists on the planet. From Bon Iver to Animal Collective, David Byrne to Björk and most recently, Black Midi – one of the UK’s most breathtaking new bands.

Salogni is well-known for her innovative approach to using tape, both in a production context and as a malleable instrument in its own right. Speaking to her, we were keen to learn more about how she incorporates the tactile world of tape editing with the industry’s reliance on software. But first, congratulations are in order…

Firstly, congratulations on winning UK Producer of the Year at the MPG Awards this year, how do you feel about being recognised with that honour?

It’s very special. The MPG awards are judged and presented by peers who I have a huge respect for. I know how high their standards are. There are people that I look up to within the MPG’s jury and their members, people that are good friends and people I call role models. I know the respect that comes with that award and so it really makes me very proud to accept it this year.

One of the biggest recent triumphs that we should talk about is the production of Black Midi’s superb Hellfire album. Firstly how did you become involved with Geordie Greep and co?

I did two tracks with them back in 2020, one was John L from the previous album Cavalcade and the other was Sugar/Tzu which we used for this album. We just loved working together. The process that I go through when I produce is quite natural and spontaneous, and that’s how they are too. They’re amazing musicians – they can play with their eyes closed and their hands tied behind their backs. I love to work with people who are just so good it makes my jaw drop. To feel inspired by what I hear is essential. I felt that 100% working with Black Midi.

They embraced happy accidents, such as when a helicopter was flying overhead during the recording of John L. I had the vocals very compressed so it sounded like an earthquake. We decided to use it during the stop/start parts of that song, and use that unexpected sound to fill in the gaps. It became a strange sort of symbolic thing that even made it into their videos.

So are you involved with creative suggestions, and perhaps reigning the band in if they get a little too adventurous?

There’s so much planning and structuring that goes on. All the parts are very defined. Because they’re so good, they make it sound seamless. All the changes are very complex, but they are a unit so they make it sound very natural. What I did was try to capture as much of the performance as I could, letting that happen and unfold in front of me. If many takes sounded great, then my job was often to find the best out of the greatness, then build upon that in terms of overdubs, and choose which palette of sounds to incorporate into the narrative. It’s a maximalist record. There’s a lot going on there. I think one of the most important elements of production is knowing when to let go of things, you can’t be afraid to leave a gap. On this record there is a strong narrative, a lot of elements to it, but it’s still very clear and each part has a reason for being there. Things are absolutely played and performed with intention.

One of the things you’re well known for is your use of the tape machine. Is that still a big part of your approach and was it used on Hellfire?

Yeah, we used some tape on Hellfire. I used my Revox PR99 MKIII two-track tape recorder which I tend to use on everything. I brought it in to create some tape delays. Without my tape machines I sort of feel very limited. It’s a medium that for me is integral to what I do. I know how to convey what I want to achieve through the use of tape. Without my machines, the road in front of me becomes longer. What I love is using two tape machines running the same tape slightly further apart from each other so you get a ten second delay. When you feed it back onto itself you can craft different layers and polyrhythms. You can change the speed to create different harmonies. You can really create a record within a record. It’s just a medium that I rely on in terms of creativity. It’s how I contribute in a personal way to a record.

So do you feel you can step more inside a sound with the hands-on approach that tape requires?

I think so, because I do connect more with it. It takes my mind off a screen and it brings it down to the tactile, auditory element of a record. This is what it was all about before screens, people would just use their ears. Screens are great because you can see what’s happening, but sometimes it’s better to not look and just use your senses. Artists also feel that too. I always show the artist what I’m doing with tape, so they can feel part of it. It’s not a medium that everyone is familiar with. There’s also a big layer of serendipity to it, a collaboration with the medium which I find hard to achieve otherwise.

So how do you balance that with the modern production landscape, and do you tend to veer away from software?

I’m not someone who’s anti-digital. I use Pro Tools every day. I use a hybrid system that interacts with my analogue gear. Both analogue and digital are great. I like to be able to see what I’m doing when I’m editing. In Pro Tools you can really zoom in. It’s also easy to record quickly.

In my studio I’ve got a 1974 Studer Desk. That was the first thing that came into the studio. It only had 8 outputs but I wanted it to be more versatile so I could record and mix on it without too many limitations. I spoke to a tech and together we modified it to have direct outputs, making sure we weren’t altering the sound of the desk itself. Its 8 outputs were there because that was the limitation of the technology at the time but it doesn’t mean that I need to adhere to those constrictions any more. So I’m very keen on integrating new technology with the technology of the past that is worth bringing into the present. I think you’ve got to, otherwise you’re just unnecessarily limiting yourself. Limitation can be a good thing sometimes, with plugins for example. I have loads because artists and engineers sometimes send me their sessions with their own plugins on and I need to recall a production or a mix, but from my collection I only tend to use around fifteen.

What are some of those plugins out of interest?

I like Pro Tools’ own EQ, I learned with that as a student. The Valhalla DSP’s reverbs, various multiband compressors, the FabFilter EQ and all the SoundToys range. I like the sound of the Universal Audio plugins so I use them lots too – the SSL Buss Compressor especially. I have Limitless from DMG Audio that I’ve been using quite a lot. Simple stuff, because everything else I can just do with a tape machine. Compression, saturation, pitch-shifting, tape delays. Plugins are great but they can be a bit like very fine brushes when I’m trying to make a very big painting. With plugins I can define things. But to create something I need something more physical. 

As someone with a huge range of experience in engineering, mixing and production, do you think the lines between these traditional disciplines are becoming more blurred?

I think so, but I think that’s a good thing – because we don’t have the hierarchy that prevents people from coming up and becoming a producer. I think it’s great that younger people have had access to high-end technology that has become more affordable. They’ve been able to nurture their creative talents from their bedrooms, rather than a studio. The old ways would have cut out many people who couldn’t afford to live on nothing for a year or two. For quite a long time, music has been quite a privileged place. There are people who weren’t paid for a long time as assistants and runners.

People coming in from the side, as opposed to working their way up, are the people who’ve taught themselves everything they need to know. Either approach is valid. I did the kind of old school thing of engineering in Italy when I was 16. I was doing live sound and learning all the stuff about engineering. I worked a lot, learned as much as I could, got my diploma then asked myself where the jobs were so I decided to move on with what I loved, and I wanted to do it in studios.

So I moved to London, and worked from the bottom up. Runner, assistant, assistant engineer, engineer and so on. I was assisting other people, but also doing it for myself. In the evenings, I’d go to gigs. If I liked the band I would wait for them to finish, then I would tell them I was an engineer, and I could get studio time, and offered them the chance to record and produce them.

In this industry, I feel like you need to be able to do the ‘next job’ above where you currently are, in order to proceed. I’d do every studio role myself. It gave me the possibility to put into practice what I was learning from other people. It made me self-sufficient which is a really important thing for me.

Is that self-sufficient ethos something that you’d advise to those coming up now then?

Yeah, the moment you don’t need to rely on anyone then you’re free. I’m all for the community, and we need to know that we all complement each other. By trying it all, you really learn what your strengths are – and also accept your weaknesses. The sum of it is more important than the individual parts. It’s about saying, ‘Hey I would love to get you involved, because I think it’d be a better record’. It’s not trying to prove something to the artist or the label anymore. It’s about making something that stands out. Everyone I work with seems to have a similar spirit – let’s make something special, and see where we go together.

So where are you going next Marta?

I’m going to be doing a concert with tape machines. Valentina Magaletti and I are going to support Suzanne Ciani at EartH in London later in the year. I’m performing with tape more and more, which feels both very fulfilling in both a production context, and with artists.

I also have a record coming out under my own name, a first as a composer. It’s a record I made with Tom Relleen, called Music For Open Spaces. I played my tape machines and tangled those sounds with other instruments to create open compositions and soundscapes, both concerning the physical realm and the conceptual. We started recording it at the edge of the desert in Joshua Tree and later carried it to the ocean in Cornwall, so it is inspired by and meant to inspire the feeling of those vast landscapes.

I’m also curating a festival called Transmission in Italy where I get to choose and bring artists in. I’m very excited about that too, it’s a way to envision and curate something which I can then present to the world.

Project-wise, I can’t really talk about too much, but there’s a lot coming up. It’s good to have a variety of things going on.

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