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‘It’s word of mouth’: Phil Ward chats to Dan Cox of Hackney-based Urchin Studios

Phil Ward meets producer, engineer, and mixer Dan Cox, the man behind Urchin Studios, which he started with drummer and producer Matt Ingram...

Dan Cox

Generation gaps are tricky. Sometimes it’s a matter of making a clean break, a sweep of change, perhaps even a revolution. Sometimes it’s just about having the respect to keep your room tidy. Whichever cycle we’re in at the moment, there’s a reassuring continuity about Dan Cox, East London-based record producer, recording engineer, mix engineer and former SAE student, and his organically farmed commercial studio Urchin.

Strokes of genius

In London, Hackney is the new Soho. Studios, agencies and galleries pepper the neighbourhood alongside coffee bars, pubs and clubs, and there’s still just about enough edge to keep the tourists at bay. Many of the studios, it will not surprise you to hear, mix 3D video capture with animation and immersive audio to whip up the froth on the beards of online multimedia, but some are different. Or rather, the same as they used to be.

Cox’s own description of the concept of Urchin Studios, forged in 2007, speaks volumes, and here we are not talking about decibels: “Urchin was conceived not as a technical haven for stale recording engineers but as a place to stimulate creativity and inspire musicians.”

He also styles himself as a specialist in ‘live takes’, and it’s clear that Urchin is in touch with hundreds of musicians and combos, signed or unsigned, who probably don’t like being put in a box, mixed in a box, or in any other obvious way packaged.

His partner in the venture is drummer and producer Matt Ingram. It was when playing in a band with Ingram that they both got to know The Strokes’ producer Gordon Raphael, after he had established a studio and label called The Silver Transporterraum of London in Limehouse. When Raphael relocated to Berlin he invited Cox and Ingram to take over that space and lease some of his equipment, helping them to establish Urchin as a going concern. In 2012 they moved to the current location in a building called The Laundry in Hackney – a typical Victorian sweatshop-turned-groovy New Elizabethan hang, with a restaurant called the Wringer & Mangle among other delights.

Cox – who sums up the roots of Urchin as “the 16-input school of recording” – has made a name for himself co-producing Laura Marling’s album Short Movie and engineering and mixing Pete Doherty’s Peter Doherty & The Puta Madres and Thurston Moore’s solo project The Best Day. Indeed, over a decade of engineering, mixing and production has seen him rubbing shoulders with Tom Odell, Florence And The Machine, Ghostpoet, Kele Okereke of Bloc Party, The Red Krayola, The Staves and many, many more. Film and TV soundtrack work includes Victoria for ITV, My Family And Other Strangers for BBC, Paddington, Under The Shadow and Jet Trash.

Twice nominated for Studio Of The Year at the MPG Awards, Urchin has established an enviable vibe. When you can, check out the duo Lewis & Leigh’s debut album Ghost, produced by Matt Ingram at Urchin and indicative of the no-frills, rootsy pureness of instruments and voices delivered whole in an atmosphere of blessing.

Urchin Studios’ Live Room

The ambience is key, according to Cox. “If we’ve got 16 mics we can capture the fundamentals of everything,” he says. “We go to gigs, we talk to musicians… it’s word of mouth. In the early days of Urchin I don’t know how we managed to convince people to use us before we had any track record, but somehow we did. One way or another we got through the first few sessions until we had some things recorded that we could show people.

“We definitely focused on making the environment of the studio feel good, and making sure the way we deal with people makes them feel comfortable in themselves and in their music. That’s the continuing priority to this day because, when all’s said and done, you can have all the amazing gear in the world at your disposal but if someone’s in a bad mood, or cold, or thirsty – any one of the realities of surviving as a human being – it doesn’t matter. You’ll have a nice, expensive recording of people not playing very well.”

Mixing board

Recognition includes MPG Breakthrough Engineer of The Year for Cox in 2014, followed by nominations for MPG Engineer of the year 2016, Pro Sound Awards Studio Engineer of the Year in 2014 and 2015, and Resolution Studio Producer/Engineer of the year in 2014. For the past four years, Cox has been on the Executive Board of the Music Producer’s Guild (MPG) and MPG Awards, where the sense of a generation gap being filled sensitively and fruitfully complements the quality of continuity needed in such a heritage-rich organisation.

Naturally, there are innovations afoot, such as the recognition in the awards for unsigned artists, self-producing artists and gender balance. There is also forward-thinking lobbying such as the campaign to include self-employed workers in the music industry in the Government’s extension of paid parental leave – and, in particular, the ability to share paid leave regardless of gender.

“In terms of gender balance, I think the MPG is now quite significantly ahead of the average,” Cox says. “The momentum is good, and we have to keep it rolling. I’d like to see more female mix engineers, but all the other roles are better represented. Mind you, fewer people do just one thing these days – I certainly combine five or six different jobs depending on what’s needed.”

Cox has also hosted discussion panels on the continuing issues of credits and rights payments in the age of the download. “It’s important, especially for newer members, to remind ourselves of the importance of credits,” he adds. “Downloading has been a reality for most of the time I’ve been working in the industry, and we’re still trying to identify how credits can be lost and how best to track them on streaming services. The information is still patchy, although TIDAL can be commended for having fields available to enter data. Spotify has a producer field, a songwriter field… and that’s it. Although not yet integrated into streaming services, a new system called Jaxsta launched recently as a hub for credits as metadata – you can cross-reference studio and producer back catalogues as well as the artist. The exciting thing about that is that it goes beyond what a record sleeve could do, and it’s something the MPG is right behind.”

It’s part of still more modernising to be done, as the industry moves beyond Tin Pan Alley into this digital future – digital, that is, with a 16-input heart and a killer bass line. “Some areas of the industry are very out of touch with what actually goes on in the studio,” reflects Cox. “As a Board, we’re all working producers and engineers so we’re always coming up against this: the view that we just capture what the artist does and that’s it. Our engineering is not like civil engineering; the civil engineer will not rearrange the shape or colour of the architect’s bridge, as we do! It’s a tough message to get across, but most of this industry shares the same perceptions as the general public. Within the industry, we must do more to elevate this understanding and achieve greater recognition for the creativity and the craft that goes into what we do.”