Mikko Gordon, operating out of London, England, is a vanguard engineer. He has an interesting list of credits, including ISLAND, Colouring, Pete Townshend, and Arcade Fire (WE). His work engineering The Smile's musically complex A Light for Attracting Attention (alongside Nigel Godrich, no less) should be enough to pique our interest. Gordon's work has a feel of intimacy, and he perfectly balances depth and close frequencies in equal measure. We spoke to him from his place in London to get an overall insight into this talented fellow.

Would you call yourself a mixer, recording engineer, or producer?

I consider myself a producer, mixer, and engineer. I’m interested in working on interesting music, in whatever capacity I can best help an artist.

Who are some of these artists?

I’ve worked with The Smile [Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood with drummer Tom Skinner], Arcade Fire, Idles, and Pete Townshend, to name a few. Recently, I’ve mixed two live albums for The Smile, as well as produced and mixed the [self-titled] debut album for a new Irish band, Somebody’s Child, who are brilliant.

How did you start in this recording world?

I was always into music from a very young age. My dad was a music journalist – a serious hobby – he interviewed a lot of amazing bands and used to take me along to gigs. I grew up in Helsinki, Finland, and came from there to study music at Goldsmiths, University of London. There I very quickly realized that I hated being in bands, but I was always the person recording the projects I was in and found the process very interesting. So, when I graduated, I set up in a small studio with a friend in Southeast London and started working!

Do you still have your own studio?

Mikko Gordon in studio photographed by Christian Cargill
Photo by Christian Cargill

My studio, Hackney Road Studios, is in East London – in Hoxton, and I’ve been there since the beginning of 2018. Over the years, I’ve had different studios and different setups. I’ve also had the opportunity to travel the world and go to lots of incredible studios, which has been really fun!

You’ve worked a lot with Nigel Godrich. When did that start?

Yeah, I’ve worked with Nigel on and off for years. I met him originally through my wife [Laura Bettinson]. She’s an artist, producer, and DJ under the name of lau.ra, and is in a band called Ultraísta with Nigel Godrich and drummer Joey Waronker. I met Nigel through that; we got along, and I started helping him out. At the beginning with Ultraísta I was helping on their live sound, went on tour with them, and we became good friends. It’s not been constant, but we’ve worked on some great projects over the years, and he’s been a great mentor and friend to me. To me, he is one of the greatest producers of all time. If you look at the records he’s worked on, there are so many great ones! If someone’s always in the room when great things are happening, then obviously it means they’re doing something right. His aesthetic, his taste, and his approach are just so amazing.

What, in general, is his studio approach like?

Nigel’s obviously a private person, and he believes in the magic of the creative process in the studio. I don’t like to get too deep into that. He doesn’t give many interviews himself. But one thing that stuck with me was something he said to me years ago, which was, "Stop worrying about making things sound good, and worry about making them sound interesting."

How did you end up working on The Smile's debut record?

I’ve been working with Thom Yorke for a long time, both in a live sound and a studio capacity. When they started working on that record with Nigel, I came in to engineer it.

Were there any challenges to working on that record?

The biggest challenge for me is working with such phenomenal musicians who operate at such a high level creatively. I wanted to bring 110 percent at all times to justify my position in the room, and I wanted to make the recording process as invisible as possible for them so they could enjoy playing.

What about working with Caribou [Tape Op #37]? How did that happen?

Dan Snaith is someone I’ve met a few times over the years. He came in to do a session for a new season of a show called “From The Basement” which I was engineering and Nigel was producing. We had a great time; it was a fun and relaxed session. Everything was quick and straightforward. Great musicians. I set the room up, they played the songs a few times, and we were done. I then co-mixed the tracks with Nigel.

Was there ever a gig you worked on where it was the opposite? More about constructing with Pro Tools and overdubs?

Yeah, absolutely. It depends on the project and what the right working methodologies are. Sometimes it’s great having a bunch of people playing live in a room together, but on other projects we'll want something that is much more pieced together or something in between. I work with analog tape a lot, and I love to make tape loops. What I love about that process is it’s kind of like sampling, but a different way from doing it in the digital realm. You'll get these interesting results where it doesn’t quite sound like what it was originally. It doesn’t quite sound like sampling, and that’s usually when wonky, happy accidents happen. For me it’s always about defining the sonic identity and aesthetic of a project and figuring out the working parameters. I always want the projects I work on to sound unique, and my goal is always for a listener to hear just a few bars of music and to be able to identify the artist.

What’s your studio setup like?

Hackney Road Studios has two rooms, which I share with my two co-owners, Sean Woodlock and Bob Matthews. One room has a Neve V66 desk, the other one an SSL 4000 E Series console. We also have ATC speakers, Studer 16-track and 2-track tape machines, as well as a bunch of outboard gear. I’m pretty old school with my approach to gear. API and Neve preamps, Urei 1176 compressors, and Neumann microphones – the usual classics.

Do you use plug-ins much?

Not so much when I’m tracking. I do like to track with an analog front end. But as a project evolves from there, I’ll start to use more plug-ins. Again, it depends on the project. Sometimes I’ll mix completely in the box; sometimes a more hybrid approach is needed. It depends on what we’re doing. But I’m happy to work with plug-ins and in the box. Years ago, I went to see Tchad Blake [Tape Op #16, #133] after he had made his transition to working in the box. I was amazed that he could make records sound like that in the computer, so, for me, he was one of the people who showed it’s possible. With the amount of recalls that are required these days, as well as working in lots of different studios, some element of working in the box is almost a must.

Do you have a favorite set of plug-ins? Do you have a methodology for working with digital?

Good question. I guess it depends on what I'm doing. But similar ones to what most people are using, like Soundtoys plug-ins. They are so versatile and interesting sounding. I like the Valhalla plug-ins – so inexpensive and so amazing. I love their modulation plug-ins, like Space Modulator and Super Massive, and the VintageVerb plug-in as well.

Is there anything people should be doing more with gear, approach-wise, than the traditional means?

My engineering toolkit is really quite simple and classic. The UREI 1176 is definitely my favorite compressor. But, overall, with my approach to compression, I tend to think of it as "sonic varnish" in that multiple layers tend to sound better; just like multiple layers of varnish would give a better finish than only a single layer. Often, I’m compressing on the way in as I’m tracking, and maybe recording to tape – getting a little bit of that extra tape saturation in there as well. Then I'm compressing groups of instruments as well as the whole mix. It’s those subtle layers of compression that are building up to give it that final result.

Do you do live sound still?

I got into it when I first started engineering. After I graduated, I was also doing bit of live sound – there seemed to be a lot of that work going around. I did some touring, but stopped completely to focus on studio work until I was asked to do sound for Thom Yorke. That wasn’t an opportunity that one would turn down! [laughter] I toured with him whenever he was doing shows outside of Radiohead for a long time, which was amazing. With The Smile, it made sense – after having made the record – to take that out into the world as well and help translate that in a live setting.

Are there any disciplines you learned by doing live sound that spilled into the studio?

For me, the end goal is always the same. I’m always looking to find the emotional meaning of the song and get that across to the listener in the best possible way. The tools may be different, but what we’re working towards is exactly the same.

Trying to find the emotional element of a song – is that something you do in pre-production, or does it apply more to tracking or mixing?

It can apply to all stages of making a record. On some projects it could mean creating mood boards and having a lot of visual information, which then helps define the music and production. Sometimes it's talking about the lyrics in detail. I believe it’s about understanding what the artist is trying to get across, as well as finding the best approach and, again, coming back to defining the sonic identity and aesthetic of a record. There’s no one approach that’s going to work for everyone. We're trying to understand who the artist is, as a person. What they’re trying to get across is different for every single human being. For me, the purpose of making music is to create something that creates an emotional reaction in the listener. To create work that brings something new to the table. I love working with bands. I grew up listening to loads of guitar music, but I also don’t want to be just making the same records that have already been made years ago. What can we do now, in 2023, that’s bringing something new to a genre?

Have you ever sought out artists to work with?

I do that all the time! Whenever I hear something that I love, I’m always making note of that. I absolutely reach out to them, especially because I’ve never been drawn to mainstream pop and I’ve been carving out my own path in the alternative, experimental, and electronic world. I’m always looking for artists that are doing something interesting in a new way, and also something where I think I can also help bring those ideas forward.

What about your own internal vision as a producer?

I’m always looking to help define an artist’s sonic identity, but there’s always something of me in there too. When I got involved producing the Somebody’s Child record, they stylistically had a huge number of songs all pulling in different directions. That was a question of defining, "What we are doing aesthetically?" If you listen to that record, you’ll hear that there are a lot of influences from early 2000s indie bands like Bloc Party or Arctic Monkeys. But, at the same time, I didn’t just want to make a record like that, because those records have already been made. So, we looked to bring another angle and bring something new to that genre. On one side there are lots of really dry, high-energy drums and distorted guitars. But then there are all these dreamy Vangelis-influenced keyboards and ambient tape loops, and that combination brought something new and interesting to the sound for me.

How did Arcade Fire's WE album come about?

Nigel asked me to come and work on the Arcade Fire record with him. I grew up listening to those guys, so it was exciting to go and work with them! It was during the pandemic, so it was tricky to get us all together. We managed to make it to a studio in Texas called Sonic Ranch and form a bubble there. From there, we continued working on the album in New Orleans and London.

Who are some other artists you have worked with?

Idles, Gaz Coombes [Supergrass], Squid, Chris Difford from Squeeze, and Nilüfer Yanya. There’s an artist, Colouring, who I love. I’ve worked on almost everything that he’s ever released, together with my good friend, producer Gianluca Buccellati. There’s a UK band, Island, who are absolutely worth checking out. I produced their second album [Yesterday Park].

Do you ever alter the recording environment to make the artist more comfortable and not have it feel so formal?

Mikko Gordon in studio photographed by Christian Cargill
Photo by Christian Cargill

My studio is designed for that. I like making sure an artist is comfortable and happy, as it’s such an important thing. Plus getting to know the people. When you’re starting a journey to make a record, you’re just getting to know those people and figuring out who they are. I think it’s important to hang out and spend as much time with them in advance. If you have good relationships, then it’s always going to be really positive for the album experience. I’m a big believer in defining your strategies for work and your limitations for projects. When people are recording, I want it to already sound like a record at that point. So we know what it’s going to sound like. People can be inspired by, and react to, what they are hearing, and they will play differently. I hate when decisions are left until the mixing stage. Like when the session has 30 tracks of drums and loads of different microphones, but there’s nothing defined aesthetically. For me there should be a sense of the direction the production is going in, from the very first moment people start making sounds.

Was there any time where something didn’t quite work out?

I can't think of one now, to be honest. If you set up the parameters for productive working, you’re going to get a good result out of that. Sometimes, of course, you’re not the right person for a project – realising that early on is valuable. There have been times where I’ve been under a huge amount of pressure and trying to figure out how to do something challenging on the spot. I remember doing a string session for The Smile record, and none of the music is to a click. I had built click tracks for all the songs, and one of them was in 11/8 time. In the session, the conductor didn’t want just a straight pulse, but a syncopated click to help keep in time. And it was a very expensive session with all string players, the studio, and so many people in the room. I ran off into the next room with my laptop to re-do this click track – the music had no pulse and all these guitars were phasing against each other – and I was trying to figure out where the one is! And without any chance to test it I loaded the session up in the studio and I hoped that I had gotten it right! In those moments you have to pull it together, stay calm, and figure out a way to make it work more quickly.

Do you find you develop a language, a shorthand way of communicating with an artist after working with them for some time?

Yeah, absolutely. When you work with people a lot you establish a common language for talking about music. And again, this is different for different people. Some people might want to speak in abstract terms and others would like to reference a lot of music theory. Just through establishing relationships and getting to know people, I'll understand what language to use to communicate effectively.

You teach at an audio school, right?

Yeah, I never managed to fully leave Goldsmiths, University of London where I studied. I found it such a stimulating environment. The lectures there were very inspiring. I’ve always stayed involved with the place. I set up a recording studio there for the music department [Goldsmiths Music Studios] that operates both for students and as a commercial facility. I also run a creative production module there for master’s students.

Is there anything you've learned from a student?

It’s interesting that you asked me that, because it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. For a lot of people, as they get further into their career, staying relevant becomes more of an issue. I guess at some point you become more comfortable in the way you do things, and then those tastes change and evolve. I’ve always thought that it’s also always a feedback loop, because I’m also seeing what new ideas students are coming up with. Sometimes they’re approaching things from a very unusual angle. That can be really valuable, and that feeds back into my own practice.

Have you ever taken students to your gigs, like sitting in on a mix?

Absolutely. I’ve supported a number of people over the years. I have a program in place to hire graduates from the degree to come work at the Goldsmiths studio, and I also take on people to assist me and work at my studio. I’m proud that so many of them have ended up working full-time in music, and that I’ve been able to help them excel with that, because it is such a difficult industry to get into. To name a few: Francine Perry is now working with Romy [Madley Croft] from the XX and Beth Orton, and Francesca Edwards has been working at RAK Studios and engineering for me. Mathew Keightley is another of my engineers and has been helping me with some mixing. Aviram [Avi] Barath is now a MD [music director] for Jai Paul and Loyle Carner. They’re all doing amazing things, which is wonderful!

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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