Stepping into (and succeeding at) studio work.
Born and brought up in London, Dani Bennett Spragg started her career as a recording engineer and mixer with internships on both sides of the Atlantic. Winner of the Music Producers Guild’s Breakthrough Engineer of the Year Award in 2019 and Recording Engineer of the Year in 2021, she has worked with artists including Black Midi, Palace, Billie Marten, Wunderhorse, Noel Gallagher and Arcade Fire, often with other producers, developing her own sound along the way.
Here, Dani details her journey in the industry, with advice and insights into the world of engineering and mixing.
My dad played bass and we played together quite a lot. He very much encouraged me. My brother played classical guitar and my parents both encouraged me to try different instruments until I found one that I loved. I think it was obvious to all of us that music was my passion from a very young age.
I studied music to A-level and pretty much went straight into studio work after I finished school. My mum is American so I have US citizenship and when I finished Sixth Form I decided that it would be more fun to try to work in a studio in the US than London. I had family in New York at the time so I emailed every studio in the city that I could find and hoped for the best. I think I got replies from one or two out of about 30 studios and ended up spending most of my time in New York, about four months, working as an intern at a studio called Room 17. I had a side job working in a deli to subsidise it.
When I returned to London in April 2015 I started working at Assault & Battery Studios which was run by producers/mixers Alan Moulder (The Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, The Killers) and Flood (U2, PJ Harvey, Depeche Mode). I had zero technical background and was a runner at first. I was mostly making the teas, getting the lunches and doing very basic studio tasks like making recall sheets or packing down sessions. I had no idea what was going on for a long time, I was just trying to get my head around signal flow and patch bays and the basics of how to set up a studio. It was literally, ‘How do I plug this in?’
My first proper assistant engineer job was during the recording sessions for Ed Harcourt’s album ‘Furnaces’ produced by Flood. One of Flood’s real talents is making everyone feel they have an important role regardless of whether they’re mixing the record or making the recall sheets. It was the first time in the studio that I felt like anyone gave me any responsibility and really trusted me.
Assault & Battery (A&B) is a complex with a collection of studios in it but the main two are A&B 1 and 2. A&B 2 is a commercial recording space, whereas A&B 1 is mostly used as Alan Moulder’s mix room. I was running and assisting in A&B 2 for about six months before moving downstairs to A&B 1, where I trained to be a mix assistant with Alan. I stayed with him for another nine months or so.
Everyone was always freelance at A&B. I never had a formal job there, I just kind of stuck around until someone decided they should start paying me. My friend and fellow engineer Richie Kennedy and I started assisting there around the same time and I think both decided to go down the same route of just hanging around long enough until we got paid.
I got a few earfuls from my mum, especially in the early days of getting home at 2am from a job that I was barely being paid for. She’s a teacher and, when I decided not to go to university, she was like, ‘Are you sure?’. She said, ‘Why are you spending so many hours doing this and they’re not paying you, and all your friends are at university?’ And I said, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be fine!’. My dad works in the film industry, and his stance on it was more, ‘If you have a way into the industry now, take it. If you go to university, you’ll end up in the same place in three years’ time but saddled with debt.’
Living in London was a big advantage for me when I was getting into studio work. If you have to commute, your travel costs can be way beyond anything you’ll make in those early years. I was lucky to live at home and actually be able to afford to work for nothing. I don’t agree with runners and interns not getting paid, but it’s unfortunately not uncommon in the studio world.
In June or July 2016, I started to work at Hoxa HQ Studios in West Hampstead, almost by accident. The studio had been taken over by songwriter Jimmy Hogarth (Amy Winehouse, James Bay and Paolo Nutini) and they had never had a house assistant or engineer there. Jimmy didn’t really design it to be a commercial studio – it was his own recording space which he rented out to friends, but people loved it so much that it started to get busy. Jimmy, who is an incredibly successful songwriter and producer, essentially ended up having to assist on sessions himself at first, which was taking away from his own work. Totally by chance, I think in June 2016, an engineer who I had worked with at A&B was doing a session at Hoxa and needed an assistant, and he asked me to do it. I did a couple of days assisting him at Hoxa and at the end of the session I said to Jimmy, ‘I really loved working here. If you ever need a spare pair of hands, I’m looking for as much work as I can get.’ He said, ‘Actually, I do.’ I was definitely in a little over my head at the start, but it was a great baptism of fire – I ended up doing a bit of everything.
I’ve never thought I had a particular breakthrough moment but the move to Hoxa was a big step and, from having solely been assisting up to that point, it threw me into engineering. For the first few months I was working solidly on a Noel Gallagher record, ‘Who Built the Moon?’. Then I engineered my first records: Baxter Dury’s ‘Prince of Tears’ and Blair Dunlop’s ‘Notes from an Island’ LP. By late 2016 I felt I’d almost fully migrated into being an engineer.
“At Hoxa, I met a super-wide range of people, many of whom would say – not in a condescending way - it was their first time working with a female engineer. I’ve definitely had a few encounters where I’ve felt patronised or not taken seriously but more in my early days: now much less so. It could be frustrating: someone walking into the studio, assuming I was the assistant or the receptionist, and asking, ‘Where’s the engineer?’ … ‘It’s me!’ But it wasn’t so frequent that it affected my daily life.
On those occasions I never really took it personally. I think that attitude was almost ingrained in previous generations of the music industry. Production and engineering was such a boys’ club for such a long time that I think a lot of older people in the industry were genuinely just very surprised to see a woman running a session, and not necessarily in a negative way.
There’s definitely also been a big shift in studios wanting to have a more diverse set of employees, gender and background wise, which is great to see. When I started working in studios I feel like you could count the number of well-known female engineers on one hand and it didn’t feel there was a particularly strong community of female producers/mixers/engineers/assistants, which couldn’t be further from the truth now.
Around the time of engineering the Baxter Dury and Blair Dunlop records I also worked with a band called Palace, engineering a few tracks on their album ‘Life After’. My work on those three records won me the Music Producers’ Guild (MPG) Breakthrough Engineer of the Year in 2019. I was nominated by Andrew Hunt, a producer and mixer I worked a lot with around that time. He told me I should put myself forward, which I thought was ridiculous, so he put me forward and then I won.
I think one of the best things about the MPG awards is that they’re all peer voted and there’s no doubt that it does feel very satisfying to get recognition from the people around you. I’d had my most successful year of being a freelancer when I won my first MPG and worked on a bunch of records that I was really proud of, so it was nice to have my peers recognise and validate the work which I thought was the best I’d done up to that point.
The award didn’t bring me an influx of work, but I didn’t expect it to at all. The only thing that changed immediately was the number of interviews and press opportunities that I was offered and asked to do. Artists don’t see your name on a list in [recording industry magazine] ‘Sound on Sound’ and go, ‘Yes we want to work with her!’ It’s a really nice bit of recognition from the industry but in the grand scheme of success, in my eyes, awards mean next to nothing. It’s working on records which people genuinely connect with that gets you the recognition and kind of success that matters. People see your name on the back of a record they really love, and they want to work with you because you were a part of it, it’s never because of an interview in a magazine or on a podcast.
I worked at Hoxa for a total of about three years, and it’s the studio where I really got to develop my own recording process and figure out what I liked. The number of different engineers, producers and artists that I worked with on every session meant that I would always be picking up various tricks and then choosing and tweaking the ones that I wanted to use in my own process. That is how, as a mixer and an engineer, you have to develop. I think finding and developing your own sound and taste can be one of the hardest things to do in this field, but I think it’s essential
The Covid pandemic changed the course of my career quite significantly but in what I think was a really a great way. I started working with Craig Silvey (Florence & The Machine, Arcade Fire, Portishead) in October 2019: he came to Hoxa in May of that year to produce a Baxter Dury record. I became good friends with his engineer at the time, Max Prior, and, to cut a long story short, I ended up taking over from Max when he decided to leave Craig and go independent. If that hadn’t happened I would probably have stayed at Hoxa as the house engineer and potentially had a very quiet couple of years through the various UK lockdowns. Instead, 2020 to 2021 were the busiest years of my career.
Working more or less solely with one other person every day, as I’ve done with Craig for three years now, can definitely be challenging at times, but it’s also incredibly satisfying to be part of such a well-oiled machine. Craig & I know each other and our respective ways of working so well now that we barely have to say a word to each other to know what the other is thinking.
I’m coming to the end of my time with Craig now and I’m definitely going to miss having him to bounce ideas off all the time, but I’m also excited to be back working for myself again.
In the last two to three years I’ve moved my focus more towards being a mixer, which is what I spend most of my time doing now. I’ve been in studios for seven years and I feel like I’m only just getting to the point where I’m discovering what my sound is and honing my personal taste, which at the end of the day is what people hire you for.
That’s definitely something that I tried to explore while working on the Wunderhorse album ‘Cub’, which I engineered at Rockfield, Monmouthshire. Working residentially can be difficult: you can either spend too much time with people you’re working with and go insane or you can be super-productive and get on really well. Luckily, for us it was the latter and we had a fun few weeks. It’s the first full album that I both recorded and mixed.
I didn’t have much time from recording to mixing and I actually found the transition more difficult than I expected. A huge part of mixing is about bringing a fresh perspective to a song and being the bridge between the artist and the listener, but when you've been involved in the recording of a track you can have attachments to certain moments or takes which don’t necessarily give the same emotional effect to someone who wasn’t in the room when they happened.
If you have loads of time between recording and mixing, maybe it’s easier to get enough distance to have fresh ears on it, but I found it hard to get into that headspace and not be too attached to the recordings. I had to learn to listen to the songs with a new perspective and not think like the recording engineer, which wasn’t easy. I only realised about two to three tracks in that I wasn’t pushing the mixes far enough away from my roughs. I’ve had another twelve months of almost solid mixing since then and even in that time I feel like I have a much deeper understanding of how to approach mixes of songs I’ve recorded. Mixing is definitely something that you get better and better at the more you do it. I think it’s the only real way to progress.
My top advice for people who want to get into recording is persistence. The only reason I ended up where I am, from spending three years at Hoxa to working with Craig, is because I stuck around and asked people for opportunities. Stuff doesn’t happen if you don’t ask: there are hundreds of people who want assistant jobs in studios and only a handful are going to get them. The only way to stand out is to be persistent and personable. No-one will hire you because you have a degree, they hire you because you’re enjoyable to be around, you care about the job and you really want to be there.
One of the biggest challenges in mixing is when the mixer doesn’t see eye to eye with the artist. It happens all the time. You don’t often hear about when mixes don’t go so well and you end up on revision number 12, but of course it happens, even with the most successful engineers. When you send your first mix out, that’s essentially your opportunity to put your taste on the table, and it can be disheartening when someone says they don’t like it, but you just have to learn to not take it personally. I often think that when you do miss the mark on the first pass the mix can end up in a better place. A lot of the time it’s actually the collaboration between the mixer, artist, producer etc. that makes the mix interesting. I don’t think people do their best work when they’re left unchallenged. People hear everything differently so I think collaboration can often bring the best work out of everyone.
What's your favourite Flare product and why?
I haven’t had Flare’s E-prototypes for that long, but they have quickly become my go to earphones by a mile. They are the only earphone I trust for studio work, for checking mixes or for recording. The sound is super well-rounded and flat, or natural and trustworthy. Nothing is hyped: they sound how the real music actually sounds. They’re also incredibly light to wear.
Follow Dani on Instagram here
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