8 of Björk's Most Inventive Uses of Gear

Header photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images.

As one of the most prolific avant-garde artists to ever work in any medium, Björk Guðmundsdóttir needs little introduction. The Icelandic musician and multidisciplinary creative started making music as a child in her Reykjavík hometown, then rose to prominence in the late ‘80s as the frontperson of the alt-rock act The Sugarcubes while she was still in her early 20s. Following the dissipation of that much-loved band—whose biggest hit “Birthday” is an experimental pop classic—she launched her solo career with the aptly titled 1993 album Debut.

Björk’s work with The Sugarcubes was pretty bizarre, but her solitary output took things to the next level. Between the swan dress, reporter attack, rumors of living on a remote private island, and of course the video of her deconstructing that TV, her reputation often precedes her—but her songwriting is nonetheless sincere.

It’s defined by an essence of duality that mirrors the singularity of her lore, united by a penchant for melding quirky vocalizations with oblique lyrics and lopsided baroque instrumentation. It can be pretty eccentric, trippy, or theoretical, but it rarely feels like she actively set out to make something as alien-sounding as humanly possible. Instead, it just comes across as the product of an artist whose sense of alluring weirdness rivals that of The Room director Tommy Wiseau.

Official video for Björk's Fossora single "Atopos".

In a discography as saturated with classics as Björk’s, it can be hard to figure out where to delve in. Homogenic—which turned 25 this September—makes for a solid jumping off point. Released within just a few years of the ambitious records Debut and Post, it found her embracing comparably poppier sonic sensibilities. Pairing cutting edge electronics with ornate string arrangements, she brought the album to life with help from LFO member Mark Bell, prolific English producer Guy Sigsworth, prior collaborator Howie B, and influential audio engineer Markus Dravs. After she had to thwart a shocking murder attempt from stalker Ricardo López, the crew decided to abandon their original plan to record the album in London. Instead, they decided to lay Homogenic to tape at the recording studio El Cortijo in the coastal town of Malaga, Spain.

Much of Homogenic pays homage to Iceland. However, it’s still easy to pinpoint a feeling of uneasiness that seems indebted to her at-once over-the-top and harrowing existence at that time. “State of emergency / How beautiful to be / State of emergency / Is where I want to be,” she sings over swirling strings and percussion on the hit single “Jóga.” Thanks to the incorporation of orchestral elements into her sound, the dynamic record sounds like a spy movie soundtrack crafted by an IDM artist. It’s not quite apt to say that Homogenic ushered in a new era for Björk—she’s an artist whose whole schtick involves subverting expectations and pushing boundaries. But it is one of the most refined and memorable records in her entire discography.

When I set out to write this piece, it was just supposed to be about the equipment that shaped Homogenic. But in the time since I first put the pen to paper, Björk has returned to the spotlight in full force. First, she put out a podcast series called Sonic Symbolism, in which she converses with her collaborators about the sounds and textures that course through her records. Then, she announced a new album called Fossora, which is out September 30th. Accompanied by a mycological video for the single “atopos,” as well as a statement about “farrrrt”-ing, its rollout has been characteristically trippy and unique. Based on the voracious hype that’s surrounded the upcoming project, it’s slated to be one of her buzziest endeavors in a while.

And so, in honor of Björk's rich legacy and exciting new record, we’re here with a breakdown of her best gear moments.

Watch Björk work with her Yamaha QY20 Sequencer in this 1994 documentary.

Yamaha QY20 Music Sequencer

Almost as iconic as Björk’s television deconstruction video is the above tour of her stripped down home studio setup. While you might expect an artist with such an inexplicable sound to require a small music store’s worth of gear in order to write, her rig during this era was actually almost ridiculously compact—small enough to unobtrusively sit on the floor of her living room. At the heart of the setup is a Yamaha QY20 Music Sequencer, which was a handheld music workstation that the company produced in the 1990s. Like some archaic forebear to the Teenage Engineering OP-1, it featured a MIDI sequencer, a tone generator, and a single octave keyboard. Björk’s was hooked up to a few other pieces of gear—mostly keyboards and speakers—but it could also run on batteries, allowing musicians to make music on the go. Other like minded artists that used the fledgling production tool included Autechre and Tricky.

Casio SA-10

Another item that stands out in the home studio tour is a Casio SA10. The keyboard is typically geared towards young keyboard players, and features a selection of sounds that land somewhere in between a toy and a DX synth. While it’s far from the most complex or sophisticated keyboard of all time, you can pinpoint its influence on the unpretentious timbres that define songs like “Crystalline” and “Possibly Maybe.”

Roland D-50

In general, Björk seems to gravitate towards two types of creative tools—hard-to-grasp technology and lofi oddities. The Roland D-50—which can be heard towards the beginning of the housey Debut track “Violently Happy”—is neither of these things. Released in 1987, the company’s first fully digital synth features subtractive synthesis, on-board effects, and a joystick for manipulation. But while it was a pretty groundbreaking release for the company, its analog-indebted design helped its aesthetics fit comfortably alongside stylish products like the Juno 106 and the Jupiter-8.

Watch Björk behind the scenes during the making of Homogenic in this 1997 episode of BBC's The South Bank Show.

Roland TR-909 Rhythm Composer

Homogenic is an alien landscape of its own. It really sounds like nothing else. The drums don’t sound like any other drums, organic or electronic. They never bang and rarely thump. Instead, they crunch and splat and hiss,” wrote Tom Breihan in a 2017 Stereogum anniversary piece on the record. Björk mirrored this sentiment in a 1997 with Raygun Magazine: “I wanted Homogenic to reflect where I'm from, what I'm about. I wanted the beats to be almost distorted; imagine if there was Icelandic techno,” she told the publication. These statements could pertain to the one-of-a-kind percussive textures on any of Björk’s releases. But in actuality, she mostly uses a heavily-processed Roland 909 for drums—one of the most popular and distinct-sounding drum machines of all time. The coveted rhythm composer is at the center of her home studio in Spain in the above 1997 documentary made by BBC’s The South Bank Show. Not only does the piece of gear sound great, but it also looks awesome in a studio framed by the sun-drenched, mountainous European countryside.

Yamaha SU10 Sampling Unit

Another piece of equipment that spends some time in the spotlight in the aforementioned South Bank episode is the Yamaha SU10 Sampling Unit. Like the QY20, it was a portable sampler that Vintage Synth Explorer once aptly described as “a note-pad for musical ideas.” The SU10 had a four sample polyphony and could store four songs with up to 100 events in each. It has received criticism for its poor audio quality and toy-like nature, but it is also beloved by some for its selection of strange effects, which seem to suit Björk’s sensibilities well. “It’s so incredibly convenient,” she says in the South Bank interview. “You put the batteries in and you can write on the airplane or your grandmother’s house or at the top of a volcano or in a club or in a tube.”

In the Sonic Symbolism episode about Homogenic, she describes bringing those very volcanic samples into the studio in Spain. “ I had one and a half years of beatmaking,” she says. “I had 100 beats in a bank. Each beat was, like, one bar, so when I had the songs to go to Spain—for example when I made “Jóga”–-I could put beat number 27 in the verse and beat in number 69 in the chorus and beat number two was the intro.”


As evidenced by the fact that she may or may not live alone on an island in the middle of the frigid sea, Björk seems like a pretty introverted creator. Therefore, it’s hard to imagine her writing music in a collaborative setting. While she worked with an actual choir on Medulla, she quickly found that requiring consistent access to a full stable of classically trained musicians could be difficult and limiting. With Vespertine, she started using the software Sibelius to help write string arrangements at home. It allowed her to walk into the studio prepared, in spite of the fact that her baroque composition process features fewer actual orchestral musicians with each coming album.


Developed by San Francisco software company Cycling ‘74, Max/MSP is one of the most alluringly complicated DAWS out there. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that an artist as adventurous as Björk would incorporate it into her studio setup. It proved especially groundbreaking while writing Biophilia. Engineer Damian Taylor configured a Logitech Dual Action Gamepad so that the software could be played as some sort of strange video game/instrument hybrid. It helped to push Björk’s composition process beyond the confines of a more traditional instrument like a piano, allowing the album to inhabit an aural universe that is entirely its own.

Shure SM-57

Sonically, Homogenic is a pretty breathtaking album. It’s lush and otherworldly, tense and surreal. Therefore, it’s surprising that Björk mostly used an understated Shure SM-57 dynamic microphone to lay down vocals. “A lot of times, Björk would listen to an almost finished mix and then pick-up a Shure SM57 mic in the control-room, with the speakers on (with a bit of Urei compression on) and re-sing the lead vocal in order to adjust her singing dynamic to what she's hearing at that point and then lay down a blinding performance, as she has got such great mic technique,” said Dravs in this 2008 interview with Audio Pro International. Based on the quality of the performances captured, you might think what you’re hearing is the product of a $4,000 condenser, like a Neumann U-87. But it’s actually just a standard mic that you could probably find at any music shop in your town (and definitely here on Reverb). It’s a reminder that Björk’s talents and ingenuity transcend price tags.

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