The Gear of Radiohead's "OK Computer"

Photos of Radiohead via Getty Images.

When Radiohead sat down to work on OK Computer, they had just come off years of touring to promote The Bends, playing all over the world and opening for R.E.M. and then Alanis Morrisette.

In their eyes and the eyes of their label, they had earned the right to stretch out and take some time for their third record. They were also given a gear budget of £100,000, which they used to set up a studio inside St Catherine's Court, a countryside estate that was, oddly enough, owned by actress Jane Seymour.

Inside the rooms of that house (and sometimes other buildings on the property), they brought with them the guitars, pedals, drums, and other standard rock gear that had traveled the globe alongside them. But now in the mix were more experimental toys: a Mellotron, Akai samplers, and other new equipment.

Working with co-producer Nigel Godrich, who the band had met as an engineer on earlier sessions, they also had a sympathetic partner who had the ears and skills necessary to get inventive.

How'd they use all their gear and recording tricks to produce one of the biggest, strangest records of the '90s? Let's break it down track-by-track.


Radiohead - "Airbag"

The album's opener, "Airbag" encapsulates the record's new sonic territory. The opening guitar riff is Jonny Greenwood's Telecaster Plus through his roadworn Marshall Shred Master distortion pedal. But right there alongside it, a cello sound from the proto-sampler Mellotron keyboard doubles the guitar.

When the beat kicks in at 15 seconds, it's drummer Phil Selway's playing, but sampled and sequenced through an Akai S3200 sampler. In Rolling Stone's oral history of the making of OK Computer, Nigel said it took Thom Yorke and and Phil "a day and a half" to program the various parts. Then, they mixed it through Jonny's pedalboard to add distortion, delay, and "all sorts of shit," which results in the at-times crunchy, at-times chirpy quality of the drums throughout.

Colin Greenwood's bass rig for "Airbag," as on most of the album, wasn't particularly strange—a Sunburst '70s Precision Bass (with rosewood fingerboard), Gallien-Krueger 800RB head, and SVT cabinet—but his non-linear bassline that jumps in and out of the mix is another defining characteristic of the song's rhythm.

One last gear highlight is Jonny's use of the Roland RE-201 Space Echo throughout the song, particularly on the textured, tremolo picking in the verses. This tape echo machine, first purchased during the Bends tour (and replaced many times over the years) became a central piece in Jonny's setup.

"Paranoid Android"

Radiohead - "Paranoid Android" (Official Video)

A four-movement alt-prog masterpiece, "Paranoid Android" and its various parts of the song were recorded months apart and stitched together. Nigel said he "had to fake and tape-edit" to make it all work together. The sessions were all recorded onto an Otari MTR-90II tape machine, with the occasional dip into Pro Tools for spot-editing.

Thom's vocals for "Paranoid Android" were cut in the glass-walled "orangery" garden shed on the property. While the primary vocal chain for the record consisted of a vintage Neumann U 47, Urei 1176 compressor, and Pultec EQP-1A, they also used a much cheaper Rode tube mic (likely an NT1 or NT2) about as often. Speaking to The Mix magazine in 1997, Nigel said, "With months of hindsight, I actually think the [Rode] is a bit too bright, but if it's a good performance, that's it."

Thom's acoustic guitar at the heart of the track is his beloved Yairi-built Alvarez DY88, which is heard all over the rest of the album too. In the early-middle section of the song, Phil had another drum part that was chopped and looped, with the rest of the band adding live percussion on top to build the groove, with Jonny's rhythm guitar and Rhodes electric piano playing added on top. At the back half of the track, Jonny's Mellotron contributes the eerie chorale vocals that creep in.

"Subterranean Homesick Alien"

Radiohead - "Subterranean Homesick Alien"

The recording of this track began at the band's rehearsal space, Canned Applause, many months before the St. Catherine's Court sessions. Speaking to BBC6, Nigel said that, when they revisited the backing track, a new toy had recently arrived at the studio: a Rhodes Mark 1 Suitcase 73.

"Every so often, you get a new toy, or a new instrument would show up, and you have a certain amount of immediate value you get out of things. The thing that showed up while we were doing 'Subterranean' was a Fender Rhodes," he said. "So, what you have on that track is: Thom plays up until the second verse and then it's Jonny. They're both having a go. You can hear, the style changes dramatically."

Jonny's high, melodic guitar part that seems to float above the rest was most likely his Fender Starcaster played through his Space Echo and Vox AC30, with some likely but unverifiable combination of other effects in his rig at the time: a DigiTech Whammy pitch-shifter, DOD 440 Envelope Filter, EHX Small Stone phaser, or perhaps the rackmount Mutronics Mutator envelope filter. Whatever the combination, it all was likely treated with the EMT 140 plate reverb the band had on hand for the sessions.

"Exit Music (for a Film)"

Radiohead - "Exit Music (For A Film)"

This operatic track, written for the end credits of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet had another unlikely source of inspiration: Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison live recording. Like Cash's unadorned acoustic and voice, "Exit Music" starts with Thom's acoustic and his voice alone—both of which were captured in one full take.

Nigel and the band built up the song from there, with Phil's drum take being another moment Nigel highlights in his BBC6 interview. As heard on the other tracks, Phil's kit at the time was a Premier XPK kit with a cherry/rosewood finish. It was set up in a very dead-sounding children's play room with just a few cheap mics on the kit. (Nigel doesn't say the names, but they could be the Oktava MK-012s and AKG D112 documented at the sessions.)

Colin's bassline was given its characteristic sound thanks to a Shin-Ei Companion Fuzz FY2, which according to he bought for $60 at a pawn shop in 1995. And if you're curious, current prices for Shin-Ei fuzzes are… considerably more than $60.

"Let Down"

Radiohead - "Let Down"

Recorded in the orangery of St Catherine's late at night, "Let Down" made heavy use of the natural reverb of the mansion. For the mellow ostinato throughout the track, Jonny once again layered his 1975 Fender Starcaster with the Rhodes Mark I as he does on "Subterranean Homesick Alien."

For the flurry of beeping arpeggiated tones that emerge in the extended outro, Jonny programmed a ZX Spectrum—an archaic 8-bit microcomputer used by all members of the band in their youth—to generate random notes in the same key as the song. "We also recorded the sound of the program being saved," Nigel explained in a recent BBC6 track-by-track breakdown of the album, "you'd have to record the audio file in order to load and save the program that generated these notes."

"Karma Police"

Radiohead - "Karma Police"

After recording the basic tracks at St. Catherine's, Nigel and Thom returned to Chipping Norton Recording Studios in Oxfordshire—where Pablo Honey was tracked—to lay down piano overdubs on the studio's concert grand. As Nigel told Rolling Stone, Thom was unsatisfied with the song's structure at first. "We went out for a pint and he sort of complained about how he didn't like the second half."

They devised a plan to reconstruct the latter half from scratch, deferring to samples of the band's performance from the first two verses which were run through Nigel's Akai S3200 sampler. It was a process that Nigel described as a "forerunner of a lot of things to come" for the band's future productions. From there, the piano, bass, and Ed's guitars were re-tracked—for the ethereal backing vocals, Thom sang through a Boss PS-2 combination pitch-shifter and delay pedal.

The feedback sweeps that take over the outro and buzz like a fridge were achieved with an AMS DMX 15-80S rackmount stereo digital delay. Using notes played by Ed as a sound source, Nigel turned up the regeneration and slowly turned the speed down until the unit began feeding back on itself before eventually turning it off.

Nigel also explained to BBC 6 that the final piano chord underneath the crunchy delay was a happy accident left on the tape from the end of the piano take. "It's weird, because it's a nice resolving little moment… that's the wonderful thing about tape, you get little accidental bits of stuff that adds something to the track."

"Fitter Happier"

Radiohead - "Fitter Happier"

The album's memorable musique concrète interlude features a guest vocal from "Fred", a synthesized text-to-speech voice pulled from Apple's SimpleText word processor for the original MacOS. Any current Mac users can access the original Fred voice with SimpleText's successor TextEdit by modifying the Spoken Content panel in the Accessibility section of System Preferences.

As Thom explained to UK music mag Select in 1997, "The others were downstairs, rockin', and I crept upstairs and did this in 10 minutes… I was feeling incredible hysteria and panic, and it was so liberating to give the lyrics to this neutral sounding computer."

Thom then paired his speech-synthesized prose—partly pulled from self-help books—with an improvised piano sketch recorded at home on his dictaphone, alongside a looped spoken word sample ("This is the panic office…") pulled from the 1975 film Three Days of the Condor. Nigel and Jonny handled the finishing touches with an unknown string synthesizer and a broken rackmount harmonizer that provides the glitches.


Radiohead - "Electioneering"

In Nigel 's BBC 6 track breakdown, he describes "Electioneering" as the "anachronism of the record… it ends up being a little bombastic."

As the most straightforward rock song of the set, the band kept the studio experimentation to a minimum and simply stuck to guitars—Ed on his Rickenbacker 360, and Thom and Jonny on their Teles respectively using a ProCo Turbo Rat and a Marshall Shredmaster for distortion.

According to Nigel, the backing track was recorded by Phil and Thom at a fruit farm in Oxfordshire where the band would frequently rehearse during The Bends era.

"Climbing Up The Walls"

Radiohead - "Climbing Up the Walls"

The full-band backing track for "Climbing Up The Walls" was once again pulled from the sessions at St. Catherine's and took advantage of its cavernous acoustics. This track saw both Greenwood brothers think outside the box to create the track's eerie ambience: in a rare move, Colin swapped out his Precision bass for resonant synth bass, courtesy of a Novation Bass Station.

Similarly, Jonny put down the Telecaster and ran a portable radio through his trusted Roland RE201 Space Echo before whipping out a Korg Prophecy monosynth, which provided the sci-fi synth lead line during the instrumental break that evokes the Ondes Martenot he would later use on Kid A and onward.

Thom was playing an acoustic—likely the DY-88 he favored throughout the late '90s—and as Nigel told BBC 6, "he'd get to the halfway point and he'd step his foot on the distortion pedal and the acoustic pickup feeds back, wails, and makes this extraordinary noise. He'd get to the end of the song and he'd start shouting into the guitar so he could hear it through the amp. By the third take, he would just start singing the song from the beginning into the guitar instead of playing it." This pickup-treated performance would end up making the record, giving the vocal track its eerie and distorted character.

Once the foundation was recorded, Jonny's string arrangement would be tracked at Abbey Road. The microtonal horror film-like textures—inspired by the work of avant-garde Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki—served as a primer for the scores he'd come to compose in the decades to follow for films like There Will Be Blood and The Master.

"No Surprises"

Radiohead - "No Surprises" (Official Video)

If the studio recording of "No Surprises" feels more dry and intimate than the rest of the record, that's because it was recorded in a separate space—this time at Canned Applause, the band's rehearsal room in Oxfordshire. Ed played the opening riff on his Rickenbacker 360 with a capo on the 15th fret, while Jonny doubled the line on a Premier 6801 orchestral glockenspiel. Buried in the back of the mix is an overdubbed Hammond XB2 organ played by Jonny, which enters shortly before the first chorus.

Nigel had just bought a tape machine second-hand that he would use to record most of the album (an Otari MTR 90II 2-inch analogue multitrack) and set it up during a band practice. As he told BBC 6, the first time he ever pressed the record button on the unit ended up being the take, what turned out to be a rare case of "first thought, best thought" for the band.


Radiohead - "Lucky"

As the penultimate track on OK Computer, the recording and (in fact) the release of "Lucky" predated the lion's share of the tracks cut for the album. While Radiohead were touring The Bends in 1995, seasoned producer Brian Eno was helping assemble the aptly-titled charity compilation The Help Album to raise funds for War Child, an NGO that was then providing aid to Bosnia and Herzegovina during the height of the Bosnian War. Eno approached the band to contribute a track which would be recorded in a single day—they ultimately went with a song they were developing during soundchecks in Japan.

"Lucky" was recorded in five hours and would be the first time Nigel sat behind the boards for the band after assisting John Leckie as engineer during the production of The Bends.

More than any of the other tracks, "Lucky" is a showpiece for the band's standard three-guitar setup and the division of labor between Thom, Jonny, and Ed. It opens with a high-pitched ringing courtesy of Ed, who strummed above the nut of his Fender Eric Clapton Signature Stratocaster processed through a Digitech Whammy and a number of reverb and modulation effects.

Thom's vocal entrance is accompanied by his 1963 Fender Jazzmaster, mainly sticking to a mellow clean tone throughout. Jonny's lead line is more sparing and makes heavy use of filter sweeps, opting for sustained chords run through a DOD 440 Envelope Filter before doubling on the Mellotron M400, this time using the distinctive choir sound for its cosmic chorus.

"The Tourist"

Radiohead - "The Tourist"

Recorded at the same fruit farm in Oxfordshire where the foundation of "Electioneering" was tracked, the meditative slow burner "The Tourist'' became a unanimous early contender for a closer during rehearsals. It stemmed from a harmonic progression that Jonny presented to the band before Thom wrote the topline—its langrous pace inspired by witnessing a group of frantic tourists during a trip to France.

Here, Jonny's Fender Starcaster once again takes center stage, contrasting a clean tone in the verses with a soaring lead line run through Jonny's favored Marshall Shred Master distortion pedal during the choruses—as on the previous track, this is supplemented once again by a Mellotron choir rising above the stratosphere. The last sound you hear on the album is a triangle struck by Phil, serving as a sonic marker of the end of a twelve-track journey.

Sources: Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’: An Oral History King of Gear pages for individual songs (a lot of touring setups it seems, not necessarily recording setups, so let's be careful and check other places too)
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