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An interview with Dan Cox of Urchin Studios

London-based producer, engineer and Urchin Studios owner Dan Cox speaks about recording, studio building and the MPG awards.

Dan Cox is making a name for himself as one of the UK’s best up-and-coming producers and recording engineers, having racked up a reputable list of credits on records by the likes of Tom Odell, Denai Moore as well as the forthcoming recording Axels and Sockets from the Jeffrey Lee Peace Sessions Project in which he recorded with Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, Jim Sclavunos from The Bad Seeds and James Johnston from Gallon Drunk.

Cox also engineered and co-produced two tracks, Age and Tease Me, off the Ivor Novello and Mercury nominated Is Your Love Big Enough by Lianne La Havas, which was named iTunes’ album of the year in 2012. This year, he won the prize for the Breakthrough Engineer of the Year at the MPG awards. PSNEurope visited Cox at Urchin Studios in Hackney to discuss the origins of Urchin, his recording style and what it’s like being an MPG award-winner. “It’s part of the DNA of a studio that people play in a room together,” says Cox. “I met Matt [Ingram], my business partner, from playing in a band with him, so you know – the roots of the studio are based on being in a band.”

Cox met Ingram when he was playing drums for Gordon Raphael, best known as the man who produced The Strokes’ seminal album, Is This It. “We had this idea of having a production team, but then we were left with the question of: ‘Where do we base this out of?’” Cox and Ingram subsequently set up shop in Raphael’s old Limehouse studio for roughly five years before the current Urchin Studios was built.

Urchin now features a large live room flooded with natural light, a floated drum kit and various keyboards, pianos, synths and amplifiers. The control room is based around an old 40-channel Trident 65 mixing console, which is integrated with Pro Tools HD3. “The studio is designed and broadly focused on the idea [of capturing live performances],” explains Cox. “From the control room, I can see 80% of the live room at a glance so with things like line of sight, we really thought about it. The whole idea is that you can set everyone up and everyone can see each other.”

In addition to the classic analogue Trident desk, Urchin Studios’ control room is equipped with a six-channel split Amek BCII console, Dynaudio BM6a and Yamaha NS10M studio monitors and a four-channel API 3124 and API 3124+. There is also a two-channel dbx 160VU, an Empirical Labs Distressor and two Digidesign 192 digital recording interfaces on hand.

The facility took three months to build and was designed by Tony English, the MD of studio design company Slowglass and senior supervisor, art director and acoustic engineer at Alchemea College. “Tony’s not just a studio builder and designer – he’s really good with ideas and aesthetic and feel,” comments Cox.

Denai Moore was the first artist to record in the new studio, and Cox tells PSNEurope that the track from that session was one of the tracks submitted for consideration by the MPG judges. “We actually got a signal running from this room to that room [the control room to the live room] at 11 o’clock at night the day before the first session, so it was pretty tight.”

In spite of that first session being described as a “mad panic,” Cox states: “It’s very important as a producer or an engineer to try and keep the stress cordoned off from the artist, so that their main focus is just making a record.” The recognition that Cox is receiving for the records being made at Urchin seems to be proof that his calm and professional approach to making records is working.

“I’m not in the business of setting up things just because it’s the established way,” asserts Cox. “At the moment, we’re thinking quite a lot about letting the vocal performance inform the rest of the track. You end up putting the vocal performance really at the centre of what’s going on…which is a really interesting way of working. We’re really into that idea of a performance being at the heart of the recording, versus the idea of recording the drums and then editing the bejesus out of them.”

Joining Cox on the Breakthrough Engineer of the Year award shortlist were Matt Wiggins and Catherine Marks – who, between them, have credits ranging from Paul McCartney to PJ Harvey and Adele – so it would be an enormous understatement to say that the competition was tough. “I was just happy to be recognised to the point of being shortlisted,” says Cox. “I thought: ‘My name is on this list next to Flood and Moulder, Paul Epworth and Ethan Johns,’ a lot of people who have been doing it for a long time and are people who I greatly respect, so that was enough for me… and then I won it!”