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‘I saw studios as landscapes of imagination, laboratories of the mind’: Salogni and Deakin-Davies talk studio life and gender roles

PSNEurope is granted a rare double interview with 2018 Pro Sound Award winners Marta Salogni and Lauren Deakin-Davies

As PSNEurope arrives at London Fields’ Bayford industrial block on a cold mid January morning, a beaming Marta Salogni awaits us, waving across the forecourt and mouthing directions towards her brand new studio facility, Studio Zona. After guiding us through the building’s warren-like corridors and into the studio’s communal kitchen area, we find fellow studio engineer and producer Lauren Deakin-Davies sipping on a hot drink, her instantly recognisable flash of pink hair and cheery disposition providing a splash of welcome colour in contrast to the murky skies and chill in the air outside.

Salogni has kindly welcomed us into her new base not only for a snoop around but also to host something of a PSNEurope first, as the pair prepare to be interviewed not by us, but by one another. Last year, each of these esteemed engineers scooped major honours at the 2018 Pro Sound Awards, picking up the Studio Engineer and Breakthrough Studio Engineer awards respectively. Over the course of the past two years, each has enjoyed incredible success and career progression, notching up countless awards, accolades, media appearances and acclaimed projects.

In the case of Salogni, a brief glance around Studio Zona reveals a lot. Flanked by a selection of tape decks and centred on an analogue Studer console, its high-end combination of digital technology and vintage gear is suggestive of her ability to expertly and creatively weave traditional and digital techniques. Indeed, her depth of knowledge, matched only, it seems, by a bottomless well of imagination, has appealed to an ever-growing list of extraordinary artists, which so far includes the likes of Bjork, The Orielles, Frank Ocean and Goldfrapp to name but a smattering. She has also spoken out vociferously on such issues as industry diversity and the ongoing threat of closure facing so many long-established studios across the country.

Deakin-Davies, meanwhile, has been busy breaking all kinds of records and adding further weight to her status as one of the world’s brightest studio talents. In addition to her 2018 Pro Sound Award, she is also the youngest female producer ever to have tracks played on Radio 2, the youngest ever MPG member and was crowned Producer Of The Year at the 2017 and 2018 NMG (New Music Generator) Awards. She too has become a regular fixture across industry media, appearing on countless panel sessions and conference stages to discuss the key issues facing the sector.

Over the course of our day together, Salogni’s erudite, philosophical and thoughtful discussion of her craft is complemented perfectly by Deakin-Davies’s endless enthusiasm and infectiously inquisitive character; her commitment to learning as much about her subject as possible is evident throughout our conversation, and her own insights equally enlightening. Topics covered extensively during our talk include, but are not confined to, career beginnings and troubleshooting in the studio, influential records and dealing with misogyny in the workplace. Here, we have attempted to capture just some of the highlights…

STARTING OUT

Lauren Deakin-Davies: So how did you get into doing this?

Marta Salogni: I got into sound engineering when I was still at school in Italy. I was part of a collective which had its HQ in an autonomous social centre in town. Along with an independent radio station, this place also had a venue in it, with lots of gigs happening all the times and many touring bands passing by. I was fascinated by the mechanics of what goes on behind the scenes of concerts. The physics of sound and the potential of being able to control it, manipulate it, and change the impact it has on the crowd and myself. So a friend introduced me to Carlo, the sound engineer there, who took me on as his assistant engineer. 

I worked in live sound up until I graduated and decided to move to London. I wanted to get into recording studios, which were so rare where I am from. I saw them as these landscapes of experimentation, laboratories for the mind, free of the time constraints of the stage. In London, I did a short course to learn the basics of studio engineering and English nomenclature of new instruments and techniques. Then I found a job in post-production which taught me sound design and Foley, but my heart was set on music, so I left to continue my research and finally landed at a studio in south London, State of the Ark, for my first session as an assistant. That was the start of me in London, in studios.

I met a producer called Danton Supple who I started assisting and moved onto Dean Street Studios, RAK and Strongroom Studios, where I started freelancing. There I met David Wrench, producer and mixer, with whom I started working. I learned a lot from him, and progressively got busier and busier with my own projects. Thanks to a project I was doing with David, Goldfrapp, I met the record label Mute, who allowed me to take over their studio in Hammersmith. I set up my studio there, working on both mine and the label’s projects, until a couple of months ago, when I came across this space. I decided to take over a part of it as my own place, and build my studio from scratch. I always wanted a desk, but never had the space for it. Now I have this 1976 Studer which I love. All my tape machines are here. It’s home.

LDD: So you had to offer the full package for those artists when you first started?

MS: Yes. With such little resources you need to be able to do it all. And that was great, because you get an insight into all the various sectors and figure out what you prefer doing. That period of time was such a steep learning curve for me, and a lot of the bands I was working with grew together. I was learning at that moment and they were emerging at the same time. We helped each other.

LDD: Did you choose a specific genre or type of artist to work with?

MS: I never stuck to a genre. The most important thing for me is a strong idea. I can’t inject a strong idea without the material already being there, because it would turn into my project rather than a collaboration. I always cross genres and go between bands and solo artists and electronic music. To me it never mattered as long as the idea was interesting.

LDD: I agree. And I feel that if you’ve gone into an industry like this you’ll be the kind of person who likes to do what you want to do, and would most likely have gone against the norm in order to do it, so you might as well be having the best time possible.

MS: Exactly. If you treat this art as a job that you’re resentful of it’s never going to end well. It’s very easy to discern people that put passion into what they do and those that are just doing it for escapism from their 9-5 job. It’s not something that you can mask if the passion isn’t there.

LDD: I can tell when people come in and they have other jobs and this is not their main focus. They’ll come away with something that’s OK, but compared to the projects I’ve worked on with those whose life it is to be doing this…that’s when you get something amazing. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether to turn down a project you know probably isn’t going to be great – even though you need the work – so you can spend more time looking for something better to work on.

MS: Yes, and you never regret that. I always feel grateful to be working and making a living from such an amazing profession, so it’s easy to feel bad about turning things down. You feel you should always be grateful that people want to use your skills, but you have to consider whether or not you really believe in the project. You have to trust yourself. It’s also important to reach out to people that you love and would love to work with, no matter how obscure. It’s essential. Is that something you do?

LDD: I do. I’ve only recently felt like I’m in a position where I’m qualified enough to say ‘I think you’re amazing, let’s work together’. Before, even though I had a naive confidence, I felt I didn’t have the credentials. But now I’m getting some form of affirmation that what I’m doing is good, so when I approach people they can see that others have also thought I’m doing a good job! And that’s important because I don’t have a list of huge artists to my name yet.

MS: People want to see experience, but where are you supposed to get that experience? It’s a vicious circle and sometimes people get stuck. I’ve seen many big artists who want to go and look for the new up and coming engineers/producers who don’t have any big names yet because that’s how you make a difference to people’s lives. That’s the responsibility of the people at the top, to reach out to those who are up and coming. In five or 10 years time I expect us to be doing the same thing with other people. It’s important to give back as much as you receive.

GENDER ROLES IN THE STUDIO

LDD: One thing I’ve noticed with the accessibility to music technology is that there are so many female singer-songwriters who are nearly there in terms of recording and producing themselves, but end up getting another producer to finish their project because they don’t feel they are qualified to complete it. I understand that, but I have been trying to encourage them and give them tips so that they can make decent demos or produce a record themselves, provided they have adequate gear and enough of an understanding of the process. One of my friends, an amazing pop country artist, did her own demos that I was helping out with, and I told her she should just do them herself. She knew how to do it, she knew what she wanted, and now she is so good. She’s absolutely flying and is also encouraging other people. Guys seem to just do it anyway, but [some] girls seem to have this apprehension. Is this something you’ve noticed?

MS: It’s intrinsic in culture. Now things are changing, but when I was a child I would open up a book and the mechanic is a man, the electrician is a man, so you have this built-in thought of needing to have a man in the room. And that’s very toxic for men; to feel like they have to know everything or take charge. These expectations set by society are very dangerous, but thankfully a lot of people are refusing these gender roles now. I can see the whole gender playing field levelling, at least more so than before. That’s a great thing. I see other women finally feeling like nobody else needs to be involved in their process. Our resources are the same – no gender has better ears than another! If you tell someone they can’t do something from childhood they will grow up believing that. It’s all about education and encouragement.

LDD: Definitely. When I was in my first studio job I didn’t even comprehend I was a woman. Then, when I started to get some success, I was doing lots of interviews with people asking ‘What’s it like to be a woman’? I was like, What?! And then I was in this world that I was completely oblivious to. I got into the industry because I was a massive nerd – I loved music tech, engineering, the prospect of creating music.

I remember getting hired by a studio and the person who owned it was this 40-year-old guy called Martin who (at the time) didn’t know how to produce music, I was the producer. We had this band in and I was sitting at the mixing desk and the owner was standing by me, when one of the members goes to me ‘Can I have two coffees and a tea?’ He just assumed I was the tea girl. And Martin said, ‘I’ll be taking the tea order, I’m her assistant’. I have so much respect for him because he was so respectful towards me. The bands would then show me respect because he did, but that was also frustrating because without that I’m not sure they would have treated me that way.

MS: The same used to happen to me in the live sector as well. And you’re right, sometimes you do forget that you’re a woman until someone else reminds you. Like if someone says a bad joke or swears and then apologises because there’s a woman in the room. I hate to be reminded that there are differences. [Right now] it’s amazing to be part of the change and something that is positive and refreshing. At the moment there is a really supportive environment and community of people giving exposure to these important matters. It’s about time. I don’t believe in gender roles, they are toxic, filled with prejudice, and are misleading. I was very conscious that I was the only woman in my field in Italy. I remember the first time meeting another woman who worked in sound, it was like seeing a unicorn!

TROUBLESHOOTING AND TECHNICAL CHALLENGES

LDD: In the studio, things can go wrong, and I find people management is incredibly important, but equally so is troubleshooting. I find my approach can change depending on the kind of person I’m working with. Some people, you can just tell them you are going to fix the problem and it’s all fine, but with others they just assume you don’t know what you’re doing and that you must be responsible. How do you deal with things going wrong?

MS: You develop a system to deal with these things over time. It’s important that those in the room not involved in the troubleshooting have something to do. If something stops working, get them some tea… the worst thing you can do is make people wait. Having people sitting around not doing anything isn’t good.

Anything can stop working at anytime, so just be honest and concentrate on fixing the problem. And understand the limits of your knowledge. Is it time to call someone in or not? If I have no idea how to fix something there is no point in wasting time.

LDD: What’s the most technically challenging project you’ve worked on?

MS: The most instruments I recorded at the same time was a 90-piece orchestra. That was very challenging. The amount of work that went into that was incredible. And if you mess something up 90 people are going to be looking at you and hating you.

LDD: Did you mess anything up?

MS: No, thankfully. You become like a superhero in these moments, where there is no room for mistakes. How about you?

LDD: I used to do the audio and production for something called Balcony TV, which would involve getting artists to come up on to a balcony to studio record a session. We’d have to get a five-piece band and all the necessary gear to record them on to a rooftop. We’d film in January and my laptop would freeze because of how cold it was. And it was one take only, there was a film crew, so there’s a lot of pressure. I also recorded an album with Kate Dimbleby that was entirely vocals – drums, percussion sound, everything was done using vocal loops. That was really challenging and interesting in that the mixing process was unlike anything I’d ever done before.

MS: What’s your studio setup?

LDD: In my home studio I have a bunch of DigiGrid hardware, but I mainly use Universal Audio Quad Apollo as my interface. I don’t have a desk. I run Logic off my laptop and use KRK monitors. At the studio I work at, Sound Lab Studios, they have a nice SSL desk, Focal speakers. We have some massive KRKs in the wall for when we are doing rap sessions because they are so bassy, and we have a couple of Neve preamps. It’s a nice setup. What do you have here?

MS: On the digital side of it I have my laptop plugged into two Avid HD I/O, they give me 32 in 32 out. Then the desk, half is a Studer 169 and half is a 369. They go from one to 22 channels. It’s from 1976 so it’s looking quite good for its age. It sounds beautiful. The EQs at top and bottom are very musical, a little change does a lot. It’s super clean; I’ve A/B’d in the box to compare just two channels on the desk and it sounds just how you want it to sound – quite similar but more open, more spacious and more enhanced. I’m a fan of complementing digital and analogue.

INFLUENCES

LDD: Initially, I didn’t like listening to other people’s music when I was younger because I could never listen to a song as piece of music; I was always listening to it as separate instruments. I would just pick out the drum parts or the bass parts and I’d be concentrating so hard on what was happening sonically within the track that I’d struggle to enjoy the music as a whole piece. As I got older I got over that and started my own band, and having more control over what was happening in the songs helped me enjoy listening to music more. The first album I thought sounded really cool was An Awesome Wave by alt-J. The production on it was really interesting and really dynamic.

MS: I was the opposite when I was younger. When I was in high school there was a radio presenter who was part of this collective in our town who told me to try to pick out all the instruments in a song, and I’d never thought about that before. Around that time I’d probably held a guitar once in my life, so I found it really difficult. Until I started recording I would just listen to music as a whole without picking it apart. 

There were two albums that really made me consider the way that I listen to and make music. One is Spirit Of Eden by Talk Talk – the space and the atmosphere is beautiful. I can listen to it over and over, because there are always some elements my brain didn’t pick up before. It’s so elegant and sensitive. Another is An Electric Storm by White Noise. The first time I heard it I could hardly understand how they did it. Knowing how hard it would be to make something like that with the resources we have now, to imagine making it with the resources they had in 1970 is alien to me.

HIGHS AND LOWS OF THE JOB

MS: This job provides a vehicle to express yourself. It’s a long learning process but when you reach the point where you stop doubting yourself you just run wild, and that’s amazing. It’s very empowering.

LDD: I love that it enables you to be versatile. You have to have so many arms, whether it’s that you’re an engineer, a musician, you can solder, you’re a therapist… it forces you into learning so many skills. And you learn so much about people.

MS: [As for the most difficult part of the job] the loneliness can sometimes be difficult. You’re not always working with people, and there can be long hours of being alone. Suddenly it clicks when the music stops and you realise you are on your own. Also, when you can’t find a point of contact with an artist; when you can’t find each other in the music. That becomes hard, and you have to be honest enough to say that maybe you aren’t the right person or that it’s just not happening.

LDD: I don’t do very much mixing, so when I do it’s one of the few times I’m alone in the studio. The worst part of working freelance is asking for money. I know you still have to do it when you’re working with management, but usually there is someone representing you or there is some sort of buffer. It ruins the vibe, being in a session and then having to ask for money. It suddenly feels like you’re providing a service, as opposed to working together creatively and artistically.

ADVICE TO BUDDING ENGINEERS

MS: Trust and follow your instincts. And always move forward; don’t get stuck, no matter how sticky the situation. Change is hard but it’s great. The best things always come to me through change – from moving from Italy to the UK, moving from one studio to another, and I always manage to bring forward the things I liked most about what I left behind. Never be afraid to make big decisions.

LDD: Don’t be afraid to put music out there. You will find when you look back in six months time that it may not be as good as what you are doing now, but if you didn’t put that out you wouldn’t be where you are now. 

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