It’s often said that the best way to learn a process or a skill is to just throw yourself in at the deep end – acquiring and absorbing the knowledge as you go. For Dani Bennett Spragg, the MPG’s Breakthrough Recording Engineer Of 2019 Award winner, getting to spend time at London’s legendary Assault & Battery studios at a young age, sitting side by side with the prolific producer Mark ‘Flood’ Ellis, proved to be the perfect education.
Dani’s interest in music began early on in her life: “It took a while, to be honest,” Dani remembers. “I knew I wanted to be in music when I was young, but I didn’t really know in what capacity. I remember watching a documentary about Joe Meek and the making of Telstar, and that was really the first time I thought about it as a potential job. You tend to hear a lot of producers talking about picking apart songs they loved when they were kids… I never did that. I never really thought about production as a thing until I saw the Joe Meek documentary and that really did trigger my interest in a big way.”
Dani’s fascination with the esoteric recording practices of Joe Meek pushed her to snap up an unlikely opportunity to get to learn alongside one of the most acclaimed and hardest-working producers in the industry: “Until I got into the studio, I didn’t really know if it was what I wanted to do,” Dani remembers. “It was very fortunate, really. When I was 17, my dad, who works in film, was working with a director who was actually Flood’s neighbour. My dad was talking to this director about how I wanted to get into music and he ended up giving me Flood’s email address. I’d actually never heard of Flood at the time.”
The floodgates are open
Dani emailed Flood and enquired about the possibility of spending a week in the studio doing some work experience. “He took about six months to reply!” Dani laughs. “But then, he was very welcoming and we made it work with my school holidays. I was in my final year of school.”
We ask Dani what roles she initially undertook at Flood’s Assault & Battery studio. “Looking back, I don’t think there’s ever been a situation where I’ve known less about what’s going on,” Dani tells us. “I sat in the studio for a week and made tea and loved it. I didn’t know what I was doing, but it was really fun and all the engineers in the studio told me that the door was always open and I should come back whenever I wanted.”
When Dani did come back, she had her horizons broadened further by getting to work with other studio luminaries. “When I came back four or five months later, I did a week with Alan Moulder. Three weeks after that, I came back and did a week with Catherine Marks. I was just doing the rounds in the studio. Initially, I knew so little about what was going on that I was just learning really basically what the job was. It took me a while to properly get my head around engineering – that is learning everything about the desk and about the mics and all that kind of stuff. There were three or four engineers in that building who would sit down with me and go through all the really basic parts of the job that I needed to know about: Pro Tools, mics, polar patterns and a lot of other technical bits.”
Naturally, Dani’s enthusiasm to learn resulted in her becoming a highly capable recording engineer and a real asset to the studio environment. After working solely with Alan Moulder for a year, Dani was ready for a change. “I kind of wanted to move back into recording and broaden the spectrum and my skills, basically. An engineer that I knew was doing a session at Hoxa HQ [a boutique studio in West Hampstead] and needed an assistant. He asked if I would do it. I did the session and when I met Jimmy Hogarth, who runs the studio, I just said that if he ever needed a spare pair of hands or an assistant that he should just let me know and I’d be happy to step in.
“At that time, he didn’t have an in-house person at Hoxa, so as well as managing the studio, he was having to set up sessions and be around in case things went wrong technically. I think he was keen to have someone take that responsibility off his hands, so it didn’t take long for me to become a fixed person there, really.”
We were fortunate enough to witness Dani scoop the Breakthrough Engineer accolade at the MPG Awards held in London earlier this year, flanked by The Amazons, a band who Dani had worked extensively with on their debut album. We ask Dani how it felt to be recognised. “I was pretty shocked! I hadn’t even put myself forward for the award. Andrew Hunt, who I’d worked with quite a few times, put me forward. I just didn’t think I’d done enough work yet to justify getting an award. The whole first round is peer voted. I think initially, it’s all the MPG full members who cast their votes, then there’s a room of 30 or 40 artists and producers voting on the tracks. I really didn’t expect to get through the first round, because I didn’t think anybody really knew who I was. I felt like it was still very early in my career to get that kind of recognition. But it’s really amazing and a wicked step forward.
“It’s already made quite a big difference to my profile in the industry. I really didn’t expect it at all. There’s so many other people that I’m in awe of. It’s just very nice to be recognised. I was delighted that the rest of the nominees in the category were female as well.”
Because Dani was fortunate enough to establish her career in-studio, we ask her what her thoughts are about music education and whether it’s actually worth spending time acquiring qualifications when getting into a studio ultimately seems to be the end result for most.
“I really think it varies from person to person, I was very fortunate to be able to get into a studio and learn from people like Flood,” Dani explains. “That’s not really available to most people. I wanted to go and study at LIPA, but I didn’t get in the first year I applied for it. So I took a year out and did my work experience at Assault & Battery. I tried to really get my foot in the door and stay somewhere, by the end of that year I was pretty much at the studio full-time. When I went back to apply for LIPA again after this time, they were a bit confused, they asked: ‘Why are you wanting to come here? You’ve got a job that all our graduates really want, so don’t leave it!’ That was really honest of them, which I appreciate.
“I’m glad that I didn’t go now, because I wouldn’t have got to work on the records or had any of the studio experiences that I have,” Dani reflects. “I do think for some people, it is massively beneficial. I’ve met a lot of people who are really glad that they studied. A lot of them have more technical knowledge than I do. I sort of wish I had more of that – it is important.
“But I do generally think the best way to learn is by doing, but I’m aware that’s not realistic for a lot of people. Places like LIPA or Tonmeister in Surrey have a lot of associations with big studios and you get a lot of opportunities to go into them. I think they’re definitely not a waste of time. For the majority of people, it’s probably the right thing to do.”
Rising to the challenge
Dani is quite open about the various joys – and the challenges – that her role presents. “The most fun is when I’m just working with a band or an artist who I get on really well with, the songs are strong and they’re great musicians. When everything just clicks. Some sessions just flow really well – even though you’ll do lots of work – they just have a special feeling. You don’t feel tired at the end of the day. There’s a band called Palace that I’ve worked with quite frequently and every session I do with them is wonderful. I wish I could work with them every day. It’s always so easy and they’re so good at what they do.”
Dani continues: “I really like being tested and having to figure stuff out. If you do find a solution to a problem, then you feel like you’ve acquired knowledge. The hardest part I’d say is if I’m working in a genre or a style of music that I don’t know that well, or that I don’t really listen to. People turn to me as I’m – of course – expected to know what I’m doing as an engineer and facilitator of the sounds. Sometimes, I’ll hold my hands up and say: ‘I don’t really know how to do that.’ It hasn’t happened that many times, with stuff way out of my comfort zone in a ‘not fun’ way.
“Basically,” Dani elaborates, “If I have to work in a system that I’m totally unfamiliar with and it’s really fast paced, so I don’t have enough time to get my head around things, then sometimes I’ll just go away at the end of the day feeling like I’m really bad at my job. But stuff is rarely hard without being rewarding. Usually, if it’s been a really hard day in the studio, I’ve come away with a sense of accomplishment and having learned something. It’s not normal to leave and feel miserable about the day.”
Persistence pays off
We return to the question of getting a foothold in the highly competitive music-production world, and whether Dani has any advice for aspiring engineers or producers?
“When I was starting, I think I emailed every single studio in London, just to try and get work experience. But as soon as you have one contact, just hassle them and keep yourself in their heads. Be really persistent. All you need to get your foot in the door is to know just one person. It’s really unlikely that you’ll end up getting work experience in most of them, most of them don’t have the facilities to take them. It’s pretty rare.”
On an optimistic note, Dani points out the many placements that are available in several noteworthy studios: “There’s the year-long placement at RAK Studios that they run every year for example. Obviously, it’s really, really competitive. I think you’ve got to make people remember you and know your talents.”
“I remember when I worked at Assault & Battery, when we had work experience people in, the ones that would stay would be the ones that emailed the studio right after their stint was up saying: ‘Thank you for having me, I’m prepared to come in again whenever you need help.’ Even tiny studios get barraged by emails from people looking for work. You’ve got to stand out somehow. Send them a personal email and explain why you want to work in that specific studio or with that specific producer. Tailor it. Pick out things that have been done in that studio or records that the producer has made that you really like and emphasise that that is why you want to work with them.”
So for Dani, what does the immediate future hold in store? “I’m starting work with an artist called Blanco White, he’s a guy called Josh Edwards who is kind of folky, but has a very strong South American influence. I’m doing that at Hoxa and I’m really excited about it. When I finish that I’m back to being the in-house engineer at Hoxa, whatever comes through the door, I’ll work on. I never really know what’s going on past six weeks ahead. It’s more exciting that way. I just take it as it comes.”