Essential studio advice | Engineer Dani Bennett Spragg
The MPG Awards Breakthrough Engineer 2019 winner gives us her top tips for success in the studio...
From work experience at the legendary Assault & Battery Studios to working with Noel Gallagher on his latest album, emerging studio star Dani Bennett Spragg's career is very much on an upwards trajectory.
Since joining West Hampstead studio as their in-house engineer, she's worked on a variety of hit records from artists including The Amazons, Baxter Dury and Palace.
With so much success, Dani was named as the Music Producer's Guild's (MPG) Breakthrough Engineer of the Year at the 2019 which has opened up plenty of new opportunities on her music industry journey.
We caught up with her to find out more about her career, her winning the award and her top advice for aspiring music producers and engineers...
How did you start your music industry career?
I started off in the industry by getting some work experience at producers Flood and Alan Moulder’s Assault & Battery Studios in North London. A family friend who knew Flood had given me his email address, so I got in contact with him to ask if I could come in for a week of work experience and luckily he said yes. That was my first time in a studio environment and I absolutely loved it.
I spent about a year doing a lot of interning in as many different studios as I could, but I kept in touch with everyone at Assault & Battery, went back at every opportunity I had, and eventually became a full time assistant there.
Were you always attracted to working in music production?
I was always very attracted by the music industry in general, but it wasn’t always the production side of it that I wanted to get into. I initially wanted to be a drummer, but my interest in production and engineering was sparked when I was about 15. I'd watched a documentary on Joe Meek and the making of ‘Telstar’ and that documentary opened my eyes to the production side of the industry.
After that I started reading about production and recording techniques and I think I started to listen to music differently too. I started analysing and picking songs apart in a way that hadn’t really crossed my mind before.
Have you a method when it comes to working in the studio?
Every project is very different. The way that I’ll approach a session totally depends on the artist, the style of music, the studio and the amount of time that we have. The most consistent thing that I do from project to project is the prep. I’ll always make sure that I’m prepared for day one of recording, by having conversations with the artist and/or producer, going to the studio if it’s somewhere I’ve not worked before, and listening to the songs and any references to get an idea of what sound we’re going for. I usually make a rough plan of the mic set up too but often I’ll leave specifics until we’ve actually got the instruments in the room, as you don’t know how certain things will sound in different places and I like to experiment with that.
I don’t really have methods that I always stick to, but I definitely have a preferred way of working.
If I'm working with a band I’ll usually try to track them all together. I think recording musicians playing together is so important for getting the real feel of songs. You lose a lot of life if you record the drummer playing to a click, and then the bassist on top of that, then guitars."
Click tracks are really useful if you have musicians that have learned to play to them, but it’s a real skill and a I think a lot of people force themselves to do it when it’s not even necessary. I think people should play the way that they’re most comfortable, whether that be to a click or not, and just figure out what’s best for them.
Another thing that I always do is try to get the headphone mixes just right when we’re doing takes, especially for singers. Some musicians don’t realise how important their headphone mix is when they’re recording, but if the levels aren’t right in their cans then they can end up playing to parts of the track that might be much quieter when it’s mixed, so the feel can be all wrong. I like to mix as I go as much as possible to avoid that problem and so that I know what stage the track is at. Then it’s much easier to tell what the song needs so you don’t end up adding too many parts or overdoing it.
How did you link up with Hoxa?
In mid-2016 I was primarily working as a mix assistant to Alan Moulder at Assault & Battery but I also wanted to start doing a bit more recording, and a friend of mine was engineering a session at Hoxa and needed an assistant, so he asked me to do it. I think that was a two day session at Hoxa and I absolutely loved the studio, so I said to Jimmy, who owns Hoxa, that if he ever needed a spare pair of hands or an assistant that I’d love to help out.
Jimmy didn’t have anyone working there as an full time engineer at the time, so he took me up on my offer pretty quickly. Hoxa’s been an amazing place for me to develop my craft and all of the songwriters and producers that are based there are so inspiring to be around. It’s a really special studio and I hope to continue working there for a long time!
How did you get involved in Baxter Dury's record and what did you learn from your experiences?
I ended up working on Baxter’s last album through Hoxa. He booked the studio and I came with it, we hadn’t met properly before we started recording.
That was the first record that I got an engineering credit on and I learnt a ton during the process.‘Prince of Tears’ was sonically very different to most of the other music that I’d worked on up to that point, so it was a really fun challenge for me trying to get sounds that I wasn’t so familiar with. I had a lot of opportunities to play with different mic set ups and processing during that record and it definitely fuelled my interest in unusual mic techniques, particularly on drums.
The band that Baxter had in the studio for that record really blew me away as well. We had Damon Reece, who plays with Massive Attack, on drums, Robert Plant’s bassist Billy Fuller, Mike Moore who’s a incredible producer and guitarist, and Fabienne Débarre playing keys and singing. They’re four of the best musicians I’ve ever worked with and it always makes my job a lot easier when the musicians are that good.
I loved working with the producer Ash Workman too. He engineered and mixed 'The English Riviera' by Metronomy which I absolutely love the sound of, so getting to see the way he worked was really interesting. He also brought his dog Mud to the studio every day which was a treat.
Baxter is great to work with. He knows what he wants and is really involved in every aspect of the studio process so every time I’ve worked with him, it’s always been a real team effort. He’s also always conscious of how people around him are feeling which is very important and I actually think it’s overlooked a lot of the time when you’re in that kind of intense creative environment.
People get stressed and tired when doing long hours in the studio and working on something very personal, so it’s easy to get caught up in the process and forget to properly look after yourself."
I made some really great friends during that record and it was one of the most enjoyable recording processes that I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve also recently finished doing some work on Baxter’s new album at Hoxa.
Congrats on winning the MPG Award. How important has winning the prize been to your career?
I was totally blown away when I won the award, I didn’t expect it at all. It’s made a pretty big impact so far, not so much in terms of getting more work but in terms of people knowing my name and getting to meet loads of great people in the industry.
I’ve also become a bit more involved with the MPG itself which I’m enjoying. I went up to Scotland recently with a group of other engineers/producers (Dave Eringa, Danton Supple, Dan Cox and Andrew Hunt) to be on a panel at the Xpo North conference and I’ve been getting a lot more getting opportunities to do things like that since I won the award, so I’m hoping that’ll continue.
I think the main things that the MPG has given me is a lot of exposure and a lot more opportunities to meet and get to know my peers. Meeting fellow engineers and producers is really important and it happens a lot less often than you’d think, mainly due to the fact that we all work such unsociable hours, so it’s really nice to be given opportunities to meet everyone and be in a kind of community with people doing the same thing as you.
Have you any advice for artists who might be gearing up to enter the studio for the first time?
Don’t rush into recording, prepare as much as possible, and put some time and effort into picking the right studio and the right people to work with. There are hundreds of studios in every kind of location and they all vary hugely, so it’s really important that artists think properly about what they need from a studio and find one that’s well suited to their project. I think it’s even more important that artists find the right producer or engineer for them.
Finding someone that you get on with and trust is so vital, as is having someone who’s really invested in your music. Writing and recording your own music is an incredibly personal process so I think it’s vital that the team that you have working on it with you is as dedicated to the project as you are."
You should also have your songs as prepared as you possibly can before getting in the studio. Use pre-production prior to the session to iron out any bits of the songs that need finessing, so that your time in the studio is solely for recording.
If you end up going to a studio with an engineer that you’ve not met before then make sure you at least have a conversation with them before your first day of recording so they know what your set up is and what kind of sound you’re going for. Engineers often like to get a head start on setting up the studio before the artist arrives, so having a chat with them before the session give them the opportunity to do that.
Have you got any advice for aspiring producers entering the studio for the first time?
If you’re doing work experience or you’ve got a job as a studio assistant or runner, the most important thing you can do is make the best first impression you can and make people remember you. Getting work in the music industry is often based on who you know more than what you know, so making a memorable impression on people is very important.
As an assistant, you have to be constantly on the ball. Try to preempt what the artist/engineer/producer needs from you, whether that be a tea and coffee run or setting something up. Be attentive, but don’t overstep your mark.
I’d also say to never turn down work if you can avoid it, particularly when you’re first starting out. You never know who you’ll meet on a session and what it might lead to, so take every opportunity that you’re given and put 100 percent into every session that you do.
The world of music production is seen as male dominated – are women treated on an equally? Is it getting easier to be a woman in the studio?
Definitely. There’s no question that there are more men than but women in studios but women are being encouraged more and more to get into the technical side of the music industry and there is a huge wave of female engineers and producers coming through studios now. There are even some apprenticeship schemes, workshops and groups that are solely for people in the industry who identify as female. A few examples of those include Normal Not Novelty, the Spotify EQL Residency and Soundgirls.
As a woman, trying to break into an industry that is so male dominated is daunting because there aren’t so many obvious role models. I met Catherine Marks during my first week in the studio and ever since she’s been a real mentor to me.
She’s super supportive of women in the industry and it was really encouraging for me to meet someone like that at such an early stage of my career. There are a lot of women really paving the way for younger engineers at the moment and a lot that I really look up to. Aside from Catherine, Marta Salogni, Emily Lazar and Isabel Gracefield are a few who I think are doing really great work at the moment.
I would say women are treated equally and it is getting consistently easier to be a woman in the studio, but you do still come across the occasional person who might be surprised by or comment on the fact that you’re a woman. I’ve heard some stories about that but on the whole I’ve never had anything but encouragement and respect from people I’ve worked with.
Which of the projects have you felt like you’ve most enjoyed and most connected with the artist?
I’ve massively enjoyed a lot of records that I’ve worked on but there are a few that stand out.
I’ve worked with the Amazons quite a few times over the last couple of years and that’s always a ton of fun. They’re four of my best friends and we’re very much on the same page when it comes to musical taste so we usually work very well together. I’m a big fan of their music too which helps.
I also did some work with Palace last year on their new record and on an acoustic EP of tracks from the album, and those were some of my favourite sessions ever. They’re very good at what they do and for some reason the sessions just flowed really nicely. We got a huge amount done in a pretty short space of time, but it never felt like hard work. I’m really proud of the stuff I did with them.
Working on Noel Gallagher’s last album was also one of my favourite times I’ve had in the studio. David Holmes, who produced the album, is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with and his knowledge of music is just unbelievable. He’d often mention these really obscure pieces of music that he thought we should reference for Noel’s songs and they were pretty much always perfect for the track.
Noel was amazing to work with as well. He’s an incredible guitarist, which I think a lot of people overlook, obviously a great songwriter, and has an unbelievable amount of gear. He’s got about 500 guitar pedals, but he knows exactly what each one does and exactly how to get what he wants out of them, which is pretty insane.
I learnt a lot from both of them during that record.
What’s keeping you busy in 2019?
So far this year I’ve been involved with some really exciting projects, and most recently I’ve been working on Baxter’s new record and with an artist called Blanco White on his debut album. I’ll be working on that for a little while longer and then onto another album which I’ll hopefully be doing at Urchin, one of my favourite studios in London. In between those albums I’m still the in-house engineer at Hoxa HQ and I’m starting work at Noel’s personal studio too which he’s just finished building.
Visit danibennettspragg.co.uk for more information.
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