OK computer radiohead producer

Deep Cuts: The Making of OK Computer

Rightly held up as one of the very finest records of all time, the making of Radiohead’s exceptional OK Computer would led the Oxfordshire quintet to wade further out into the sonically unknown than ever before. Working for the first time with the man who would soon become known as the Radiohead producer… 

OK computer radiohead producer

We live in the age of the computer, from the portable rectangles in our pockets that allow us to capture, share and interact with our friends all over the world, the flip-open laptops and MacBooks which many of us spend our working hours plugged into, and those increasingly lounge-dominating HD and 4k televisions, streaming our evening’s entertainment for a monthly fee. Wherever you turn in the 2020s, it’s difficult to avoid the realisation our lives have become inextricably tied to computers.

But back in 1997, computers were still clunky desktop affairs. With their gradual infiltration of our daily lives then a pretty unthinkable idea for most, the rapid development of computing – not least the potential of the internet – led a swelling company of forecasters feeling uneasy, particularly as an unknowable new century ominously loomed.

That foreboding anxiety is central to Radiohead’s critically lauded OK Computer. Via its 12 tracks, Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Colin Greenwood and Philip Selway anticipated a soulless, tech-saturated future. Yorke’s lyrics alluded to the fast-paced, casual violence of an interconnected world (Paranoid Android), Hordes of faceless, insect-like commuters, heads-down within a sprawling modern city network (Let Down) a resulting sense of social isolation (Climbing Up The Walls) and a prevalent back-watching paranoia – a gnawing fear that a 1984-like authority would deem you cancel-able and bundle you off somewhere unpleasant (Karma Police, Lucky). It’s a vision that, in retrospect, seems eerily prescient.

Prior to OK Computer’s release, Radiohead were mainly regarded as being an angst-ridden guitar band, having only really dented the public consciousness with 1993’s unrepresentative outsider-anthem Creep. While 1995’s The Bends foreshadowed a much more colourful musical scope, it wasn’t until OK Computer that Radiohead’s reputation as sonic frontier-expanding experimentalists was established.


The sound of their new album was always intended to be a departure, and while The Bends had featured occasional forays into diverse instrumentation, a greater prevalence of off-the-wall arrangements defined OK Computer, and would shift the perception of Radiohead in the eyes of the world at large. Though the quintet had the desire to self-produce, they enlisted Nigel Godrich to help with the recording sessions, having assisted John Leckie back on the sessions for The Bends. The technically-minded Godrich proved to be an indispensable element to the record’s production, so indispensable in fact, that the band would subsequently use him as the man to helm on all their successive albums. He would become the Radiohead producer.


Radiohead Karma Police
OK Computer‘s technological and personal anxiety was fuelled by Thom Yorke’s own experiences

Though initial sessions took place at Radiohead’s newly constructed Canned Applause studio in Didcot, creeping dissatisfaction with the environment as the right creative space to work up their ideas pointed them towards a much more atmospheric recording location.

Bath’s St Catherine’s Court proved a better fit. A 16th century mansion owned by actress Jane Seymour (and previously used by The Cure to record their Wild Mood Swings album), St Catherine’s Court’s roomy ambience and natural reverberation would impart discernible character into the recordings. A notable example is Exit Music (For a Film)’s gloomy vocal, which was captured half-way up the Court’s stone staircase. “It was the band and me and Peter ‘Plank’ [Clements] who was their roadie.” Godrich told Rolling Stone, “Literally, it was just me [as Radiohead’s producer] on the album. I didn’t have an assistant; I didn’t have any help. Plank had never been in the studio before, but he’d help me lugging the stuff around. It was the seven of us plus the cook and Mango, Jane’s cat. The gatekeeper looked over the cat. He’d say, ‘Don’t let the cat in the TV room since it pisses on the carpet.’”

“I think that’s one of the things that makes this record different is the fact that we managed to capture these old sorts of 15th through the 18th century rooms that we recorded a lot of the album in.” Colin Greenwood told NPR’s All Things Considered. “You set up a bunch of microphones in a room and the ambience is going to be different from room to room.” To further expand the spacious ambience, Radiohead’s producer brought along his EMT 140 Plate Reverb.

Setting up a control room in the house’s library, Godrich and the band recorded most elements live “When you’re recording a band, it’s a bunch of microphones, a mixing desk, and a multi-track tape machine. That’s it. There’s a bit of computer jiggery-pokery if need be. but basically they’re a band, and they play together really well.” Godrich told The Mix. Among the gear that Godrich, Plank and the band installed at St Catherine’s Court were an Otari MTR-90II two-inch tape machine and both MTA series 980 and Soundcraft Spirit 24 mixing desks. While most of the gear was relatively traditional, Godrich used the then-new Pro Tools  software to polish the mixes. Fittingly, further toes would be dipped into computer music-making as the sessions continued.

An Otari tape machine used by radiohead's producer Nigel Godrich
An Otari MTR-90II two-inch tape machine of the type used by Godrich to record OK Computer

At this stage, the band were primarily a guitar band. Godrich mic’d up Thom, Jonny and Ed’s guitar amps with a set of fairly straightforward Shure SM57s. Yorke stuck to his Fender Twin Reverb, while Ed and Jonny leaned on a classic Vox AC30 sound for clean tones, with Greenwood’s Fender 85 and O’Brien’s Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier Trem-O-Verb being unleashed when a crunchier overdrive was needed.

On the bass front, Colin Greenwood’s sunburst Fender Precision bass was output via a malleable Gallien-Krueger 800rb head in tandem with a beefy Ampeg SVT 8×10 cab.


The songs that were being crafted at St Catherine’s Court were sounding like the best the band had yet written. Scene-setting opening cut, Airbag was defined by both Greenwood’s soaring riff in A major, and a hypnotic drum loop (captured with an Akai S3000 rack-mounted sampler, later edited on a Mac). Taking cues from the likes of DJ Shadow. While Thom and Phil were responsible for capturing the required loop, Godrich felt its character lacked edge. Running it through Greenwood’s pedalboard, imparted the right amounts of distorted bite, phasing and occasional wah to its sound.

The multi-sectioned Paranoid Android would take a while to find its shape. Starting with an acoustic-oriented arrangement, the track expanded into a head-banging, heavy-riff dominated rocker, before coalescing into an ethereal, haunting mid-section. Though both of the track’s ‘heavy’ sections were pretty similar, they were recorded months apart. This lead Godrich to have to manually merge each element to just one piece of 24-track tape. Trimmed down by Radiohead’s producer from 14 minutes to a more palatable 6 minutes and 30 seconds, the song would become a crucial statement of the band’s innovative intent, bubbling with both off-kilter guitars and synthesiser textures.

Among the synths that were harnessed on the album, there included an original Novation Bass Station (for the cavernous grind of Climbing Up The Walls) a Korg Prophecy – used to create the theremin-like sounds under the surface of Airbag. The analogue sound of a Moog and Mellotron were also called upon, as well as a quirky ZX Spectrum-based synth for the bubbling outro of Let Down.

On that subject, the uplifting Let Down was recorded in the master ballroom at 3am. Yorke had been Inspired to write its nihilistic lyric when sat in a pub one night. Propulsed by Greenwood and O’Brien’s sparkling arpeggiated Fender Starcaster on Rickenbacker riff (played in 5/4, as opposed to the track’s bpm of 4/4 to add a sense of floaty groundlessness) Let Down was perhaps the most optimistic-sounding record on an album that was shaping up to be darker than anything the band had previously written.

That darkness was evident on two other key tracks, the haunting, nursery-rhyme like arrangement of the now-ubiquitous No Surprises and the chilly uncertainty of Karma Police. Despite being recorded as a song in its entirety, Karma Police wasn’t quite working for Yorke. “We went out for a pint and he sort of complained about how he didn’t like the second half. He asked ‘Can we construct something from scratch’.” Recalled Godrich in Rolling Stone, “It was the first time we’d done that. From the middle section to the outro, it’s a completely different technique of building up a song. It’s not like the band playing. It’s just samples and loops and his sort of thing over the top, which sort of was the forerunner of a lot of things to come, good or bad.” Alongside this sonic maelstrom is Ed O’Brien’s self-oscillating delayed guitar, using a DMX 15-80s digital delay.

Karma Police bled into the electronic voice-delivered Fitter Happier. Less a song as such, and more an eerie stream of consciousness list of the travails of modern existence at the end of the 20th century, Fitter Happier’s distinctive voice was actually named ‘Fred’, and originated from a Macintosh’s SimpleText program. “The others were downstairs, ‘rockin, and I crept upstairs and did this in 10 minutes,” Thom told Select. “I was feeling incredible hysteria and panic, and it was so liberating to give the lyrics to this neutral-sounding computer.”

Across the sessions, the band pushed boundaries both sonic and conceptual, yet there was still room for more traditional fare. The squalling riff-age of Electioneering harked back to the likes of The Bends‘ more frenzied guitar freakouts, while the Bosnian war-inspired Lucky originated as Radiohead’s contribution to the Help compilation. While these tracks didn’t require too much left-field engineering, Godrich was keen to capture Yorke’s vocals as clearly as possible, using both a Neumann Valve 47 and Australian Rode Valve mic on Yorke’s vocals across the album. “I haven’t used much processing, just a bit of plate reverb, or a short delay.” Radiohead’s producer told The Mix, “Some singers just have a great tone, and [Thom] is one of them, so it’s not hard work. The vocals haven’t ended up very loud because it’s not a pop record, but it’s something I’m very conscious about. I’m always thinking, can you hear what he’s saying, because his lyrics are so great.”

With the album recorded, string recording took place at Abbey Road Studios, while full mixing took place at both AIR and Mayfair studios. The project then returned to Abbey Road for mastering. From all involved, especially Radiohead’s producer, there was a building sense that something monumental had been achieved.


Upon its release, on May 21st 1997, OK Computer soared to the apex of the UK charts, and was fast simultaneously hailed as a modern masterpiece. “The record is brimming with genuine emotion, beautiful and complex imagery and music, and lyrics that are at once passive and fire-breathing.” Enthused Pitchfork, while NME’s James Oldham read the record as being motivated by one overriding theme; “Three years away from the millennium, Yorke wants to leave the planet and escape from the routine and clutter of life.” and praised the record’s attempts to stretch, rather than stagnate imaginations of its listeners, both thematically and sonically.

Radiohead’s producer was deeply proud of the record he’d made, with a band who had soared well away from many of their peers “Compared to The Bends it’s fairly uncommercial, it’s definitely a step sideways, but it’s the right thing for them to do.” He told The Mix, “As a band they’re very innovative musically, and in their approach to everything they’re very open minded. It’s an art to them, and that is so refreshing to be around because with the guitar thing people always wanna go backwards.”

OK Computer’s musical and intellectual strength proved that Radiohead weren’t like most other bands. Yorke, Greenwood and co now assumed an immense stature. The depth of the album lifting them into the upper echelons of the music industry. Being considered more as enlightened soothsayers, every subsequent Radiohead release – particularly 2000’s Kid A and 2007’s In Rainbows have been anticipated as major essays of their respective eras, and intriguing forward steps into a genre-amalgamated future that melds buzzing guitars with space-age synthesis and drum machines, ambient soundscapes, freeform jazz and loose, unconventional arrangements. It’s this precedent of courageous ambition that OK Computer first set. It’s a record that for many, is still their highest watermark.