Dan Cox is the co-owner and engineer of Urchin Studios in East London where he has made a name for himself working with artists such as Lianne La Havas, Florence and The Machine, Thurston Moore as well as winning the MPG Breakthrough Engineer Award 2014.
Dan started the studio in 2007 with his friend Matt Ingram who is a touring drummer and music producer who has played with artists such as Michael Kiwanuka and Paloma Faith.
They met when Dan and his friend Toby L were looking for a drummer for their band. Matt, back then, was hired to play the drums for Gordon Raphael, the producer of The Strokes - Is This It but he also started jamming with Dan and Toby.
Dan had moved to London halfway through studying audio engineering at SAE Institute and Matt knew he was studying so they said to each other:
“Should we try to produce some records?”, “Yes, sure...”, “How do we do that...?”, “I’m not entirely sure...”.
They knew they had the skills but they were struggling to connect the dots of approaching bands, finding a studio and figuring out how it works. They tried it a few times but with no luck.
Having completed the course at SAE, Dan got an internship at a recording studio, where the two of them finally got some bands in that they could produce themselves. But this wouldn't last long because they got a call from Gordon Raphael, Matt’s boss, he told them that he had moved to Berlin.
Gordon had this studio which they would occasionally rehearse at and Matt had a set of keys.
“I think every band in London had a set of keys to this place”, Dan recalled.
Gordon asked them if they would be interested in looking after the studio for him.
“Matt and I discussed this and we thought, well..., it’s a cool offer but we already have access to a studio, but if we actually took ownership of this place and made it into something that was ours, rather than operating something that was someone else's, maybe we could do it!”.
They weren’t sure if Gordon would accept their offer but thankfully he did so Dan and Matt took over the lease, rented some of his equipment and in the Spring of 2007 started Urchin Studios.
Their dream could finally start.
Were there any fear or doubts to go for it and if so, what made you take the leap to go for it?
We had plenty of fear and plenty of doubts. We also had well-meaning friends who with the best intentions sat down with us and went: “I don’t think it’s a very good idea”, and “I think you should really think twice about this. Many studios across London are closing down and it doesn’t look like a wise thing to do”.
These were also music business people, so it was people who knew what they were talking about.
But with so many things in life, you just have to go, right, well I’m a bit scared, I have some doubts. Obviously, the big thing I was scared about was, what if I can’t do this, what if I can’t I make this work. Which I think is the same for everyone starting a business or starting some sort of endeavour. Particularly when you have to put money into it.
Especially when opening a studio, you have to put down quite a bit of money. Some of which you have saved or maybe you need to take a bank loan. So you take on these risks.
But the reason you do these things if because you just feel like you should, and you want to and you are willing to take that risk to make something that you believe will be successful or at least if not successful, interesting!
I still think about this today, given the choice between doing this with all of the pro’s and cons vs having a normal job, I would still choose this every time.
In the beginning, how did you gain more clients, did you have any certain techniques or was it going to pubs talking to musicians saying “I have a studio, come and record.”?
As a starting point, we made a simple website. But we weren’t quite sure what to do with it. We went to shows, talked to people, trying to spread the word.
The most important factor in the early days was the fact that Matt was a drummer, and he was playing with different bands, playing with some decent people, going on tours. So he was meeting many musicians, and through doing that he was able to promote the studio.
This is still to this day an important part of how we gain new clients.
We also did a few free sessions so we could get a few projects under our belt. So when we asked people to record at our studio we could show them what we had done.
And to our amazement, after about 6 months of getting started, we had our very first client find us through the internet!
Do you think it’s important for a person wanting to open a studio today to have a website or is it more important to go out to shows and meet people?
I think word of mouth is always the most important way. Whether you do that from going to shows, meeting musicians or if you play in a band. I think it’s quite advantageous if you play in a band. You are then naturally meeting bands and artists at gigs.
A website is important to showcase what you do and it’s the easiest way, even if you just meet someone at a show and give them a card with your website address. Maybe they don’t have time for a proper conversation, but then they can go and check your website. Maybe you have worked with someone they know.
Another important factor is making sure clients are happy during the sessions, so when they leave they leave feeling really good about their experience. They then go off and give you a great review of their experience to their friends.
It takes time to build the reputation. I still feel we are growing it nearly 11 years later.
You say you focus on making sure the artist should leave happy. Do you have any specific things you do that you aim for? Do you have some tricks you use?
Every session is different. My philosophy is that the artist is always at the centre of the process.
To explain further, the technical process, which is necessary to make a record shouldn’t be an impediment to the creativity or shouldn’t disadvantage the creative process. For me, that has always meant working quite quickly so you can keep the momentum. Of course, you have to stop at certain times, maybe something is broken or you need to change the setup, but it has always been important to me to keep that momentum going even if you have to slow down for a minute.
Also, to keep calm if you hit a problem and you have to stop recording. Because if you keep calm then the artists don’t panic. Be reassuring and offer them a cup of tea, and while the kettle is boiling you have some time to think about the problem. This still allows you to keep the creative flow going.
Our studio is also built to keep the technical side of things tucked away, having nice rugs, mellow lighting and big windows. It’s all designed to make the technical environment not seem like a technical environment so it feels relaxed, like a home. And that just makes everything easier.
You stressed the importance of being able to keep the stress away from the artist so they can focus on making their music. Do you have any specific techniques or tricks you use to stay calm and make the artist feel comfortable?
Always offer them a cup of tea! It’s a way of saying “Welcome”. Like inviting people to your home. It should feel like that when coming to my studio. Treating it like people are coming to your house, ask them how they are, how their journey was.
And if it hasn't been talked about before the session, explore what direction we are going to take. Which can take many different forms.
For example, if it’s a string quartet with a composer I have worked with we just jump straight into setting up because that type of session is typically 3 hours and the musicians are in a particular 3-hour-musician-union mode. So that’s about efficiency. Making sure when everyone walks in the door they have a mic, chair and a music stand ready waiting for them.
If I was just engineering a band, where is the drummer? Where will they park their cars? What sound are we going for? Do they have a particular sound in mind? Work out the creative direction they want to take and again, make them feel like they are home while you take care of the technical things.
I don’t like musicians having to sit around waiting because that’s a distraction from what they are supposed to be doing. If you do need some extra time setting up, just let them know that we are getting there and we will be ready for them very soon.
You have a “Live Takes” approach to making records, could you explain that approach in more detail and what you feel you are gaining by doing so?
The core of the “Live Take” approach is to capture a performance. For example, if you have a 5 piece band, make them play the song together. Or if you have a singer-songwriter have them sing and play the guitar at the same time.
The reason that process is advantageous is that you are attempting to create something that is more engaging. It’s a much more natural process. When you go to a show and watch a singer-songwriter with a guitar, they play the guitar and sing. That’s engaging because that’s the performance. If you went to see a singer-songwriter and they started by playing the click track, then recorded the acoustic guitar and finally sung the vocal on top of that recording, that would be nonsense.
However, that is the modern way of making records, layering piece by piece. It works tremendously well and I do it quite frequently too, but it’s a different thing when you record the performance and particularly when you get the vocalist in there with the band as well.
Usually, the last thing in modern recording to go on the track is the vocals, but when you do that you have already spent so much time making sure the different instrumental elements conform to each other. So, when you record the vocals on top, the vocal to an extent has to conform to that instrumentation, when, in fact, the core of a song is the vocal performance.
When you record a live performance with a singer in there, suddenly you don’t have this prefabricated structure of a song with a vocal that’s stuck on top. Instead, the whole band gets more keyed into that vocal performance. It’s fascinating when you do it.
You rarely need a click track, sometimes you do, but some vocalists get thrown off by a click track. There's more freedom and more versatility by taking that approach to recording but you do need good musicians and a good singer. Also, the artist needs to embrace that process, if not, it usually doesn’t work out. It’s not for everyone and not for every style of music. But it’s fantastic when it works.
If you notice that the song doesn’t really work in a live take performance, what’s the best way of telling the band to try something else?
Not making a big deal out of it. You might be absolutely convinced that the “Live Take” approach is the best way but for some reason, it’s not working. If it’s a band, it might be a particular musician, maybe it’s not working for them so you have to try extracting them from the setup without causing any offence. Say, for example, that the guitarist is not comfortable and you can hear it in the take that they are not glueing into the performance. They might be in a bad mood, tired or hungover or it could be something on my end, that the headphone mix isn’t working.
Another example, let’s say the guitarist has been playing a certain guitar for 10 years but just because we are recording he is going to borrow his friend's really expensive guitar. You can tell that he might not be comfortable playing that guitar but rather than calling it out directly ask him “Tell me about this guitar. Where’s your guitar, maybe you want to try this take on your own guitar because that’s the one you play a lot”. They might go “Oh yea, but this one sounds better” but you gently stress “Try the one you normally play and see how that goes”. You sort of engineer the situation a little bit.
It’s like a magic trick, you try to conceal this and that and distract this way and you create this illusion so you keep the vibe in the room and people are still excited.
In your 12 years of record making, what have you found to be the best way to inspire a singer or a band to get that magic take?
It doesn't have to be about me knowing the song. I can still produce a vocal recording of a song that I haven’t heard before the session. It comes back to the relationship between the artist and producer/engineer. If you are working on a track with an artist and you have done maybe 4 albums with them before. That relationship might inform you how to work with them.
Do you have a favourite failure, as in a failure that set you up for later success?
This isn't one that specifically sets you up for later success, but one time way back in our first year of running the studio we were recording an album with an artist and had a fantastic first day with them. The next day when we came back the entire first day's recording had just disappeared without a trace from our computer. We never quite figured out what happened and it was day 2 of recording so we just had to start again. Fortunately the artist was ok with it, even saw the funny side after a while and of course, we made up the time but the important lesson here is to always make sure you have a backup!
How did you tell the artist? Were you scared?
You just have to own up to something like that. Mistakes do happen. Hopefully, whatever it is it’s not too big of a deal. Sometimes, mistakes can be a good thing, for example, when you mean to copy and paste a particular instrument to a different section of a song and you accidentally bring the bass track too and you end might end up with something amazing.
Work/life balance is a topic that has been coming up more and more lately. Why do you think our industry has been prone to rewarding, or looking up to people who work 24/7? Is that the only way to success?
I’m not someone who believes in 14 hour days or even longer. I’ve always felt that 9-10 hour days are the most efficient and sustainable because you can do that for many days on end. That allows you, and the people you are working with, enough time to wake up at a sensible time, have some breakfast, come in to do your work and go home around 8-9pm and still have a normal dinner, do whatever you need to do and get some sleep.
I always aim to not completely destroy everyone’s routines, neither the artists nor mine. I don’t think it’s good for anyone to work 14 hours, day in and day out. People start to severely miss out on sleep and you can get quite stressed out by the end of the day. You might end up busting out the beers, which is fine, but you really quickly get into this messy process and you end up losing your most important thing, your perspective. When you lose perspective that exponentially multiplies all those factors because it the starts taking hours to do something that should take 30 min because you don’t know where you are.
I personally don’t admire people who work silly hours, but what is really important is working hard and being committed to what you are doing, because you have to be committed in this line of work.
Also, the industry rewards results rather than actually working-hours and the thing we look up to is the end result. And the end result no way reflects how many hours you spent working on it. It does, however, represent to a greater or lesser extent, how committed and how hard you worked on a project.
What does hard work mean to you?
Being focused. It doesn’t necessarily mean working more hours. Being focused is being aware of what kind of work that needs to be done to achieve a really great finished product. That can take many forms, maybe the artist is really stressed all the time, so building in breaks in the session so they can calm down.
The bits where you stop working are as important as the bits when you do work. To get perspective on what you are working on.
If you are mixing, the time you spent on it doesn’t equal to how good it is. That’s an important lesson that we all learn. I don’t spend as much time as I used to on mixes because I have learnt how to build in my breaks.
If you lost focus or felt overwhelmed on a mix or in a session, what have you felt helped to regain focus and getting control in those situations?
Perspective. Taking breaks. If a break isn’t working and you are not getting anywhere you might want to take a different angle on something. Changing the key or tempo. If you are mixing a track and it doesn’t sound right, listen to the rough mix or bypass all your plugins. It’s good to do something radical. That can reveal something you might have missed. It could also be that you are listening too loud.
Some things are beyond your control. If you are making an album, it might be that for whatever reason, that a track does not want to realise itself, or the song isn’t good enough or maybe it’s the kind of song that shouldn’t be recorded in a studio. Then do something different. Maybe the band or artist can only play it as it should be on a stage. A good example of that is Radiohead’s song “My Iron Lung”, the choruses of that song are from a live show and the verses are recorded in the studio. If that’s the way you get the best results then that’s the way you get the best results.
Be open-minded. Allow accidents to happen. Maybe as a producer, you have been buried in the project too long, you have lost perspective and you think “I’m the producer, my ideas are the best”. Perhaps the drummer who has been reading a book in the corner the whole day has a great idea saying, “might be a stupid idea, but I’m just hearing this idea of a piano”. If as a producer you are so caught up in the project that you lost your open-mindedness, you might not realise that’s a great idea.
As a producer your job is also, not only to be right but to be wrong. To be determined enough to see an idea through only to go “right, my idea was not very good”. You've got to be humble enough to go “that’s not good, let’s try something else, your idea was much better”.
Looking back on your career are there any, or several moments, that you thought: “This is heaven, can’t believe I’m working with this artist/project”.
There has been quite a few of those. But the obvious answer is that when I was getting into music as a teenage guitarist in my bedroom I would spend hours trying to figure out what guitar sounds I like on record. It was bands like Nirvana, The Mars Volta and Sonic Youth, whose album “Sonic Nurse” I most enjoyed. It has loud noise sections and the most beautiful, clean guitar sections and it’s quite hypnotic.
Being an angsty teenager that was an album that was perfect to put my headphones on and shut out the world. So when I got to work with Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth that really was utterly amazing. The first session I did with him he came into the studio to play the guitar on a record that I was engineering for a producer and I said to him as I often do, “would you prefer to play in the live room or in the control room?”. He chose to play in the control room so I ended up sitting right next to him. He hadn't heard the song before so he began improvising in this way which for me completely embodied what playing the guitar was when I first got excited about guitar music. That was a very magical moment.
What has been your best purchase for £200 or less for the studio?
I’m going to pick a guitar pedal. It’s a classic but an unusual variant, it’s the Stereo Echo/Chorus Memory Man. When I found it on eBay it was on auction with less than an hour to go so it was definitely an impulse purchase. Those are the most exciting things to me when you just go, “I think we should get this. I’m not sure why I just have a feeling it’s gonna be cool”.
I have another pedal here from an eBay purchase that I still don’t quite know what it does. It’s a boutique guitar pedal from MASF and it has controls that say, “Taste”, “Touch”, “Smell”, “Hearing” and “Sight” on it. When I see people on YouTube using it, it sounds cool and crazy but when I do I can’t make it sound right.
Let me know your opinion about gaining clients, dealing with uncertainties and making artists perform to their best in the comments below!