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EXCLUSIVE: Inside the studio with 2019 MPG Awards Breakthrough Engineer winner Dani Bennett Spragg

On February 28, Dani Bennett Spragg was crowned Breakthrough Engineer Of The Year at the 2019 MPG Awards, further establishing her as one of the most exciting talents in the business. Daniel Gumble met up with her to find out how she has managed to amass such a stellar list of clients in such a short space of time...

“I wanted to work in music forever, but I didn’t know in what capacity,” Dani Bennett Spragg ruminates over a green tea in a central London coffee shop a couple of weeks prior to the 2019 MPG Awards, where she will emerge as Breakthrough Engineer Of The Year. Not that either of us are privy to this at the point of our meeting. “I wanted to be a drummer for a while and then I just thought I might not meet the right people and that I might not be good enough. I thought about studio work for a while, but, to be honest, I didn’t know anything about it.”

For someone who, in their own words, had no knowledge as to how to go about pursuing a career in audio, Spragg could hardly have foreseen that in a few years time she would have picked up liner note credits alongside the likes of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Ed Hardcourt, Baxter Dury, Palace, Unloved and a stream of other high-profile artists. But at the age of 16, she was presented with a life-changing opportunity that would fuel her obsession with sound and place her alongside some of the biggest names in the business.

Spragg’s father, who works in the film industry, happened to be involved on a project with a director who lived next door to British producer Flood (New Order, U2, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, Foals, The Killers, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and many, many others). Email addresses were soon exchanged and an internship at London’s Assault & Battery Studios was arranged.

“I got in touch with him and asked if I could come in for some work experience,” she picks up the story. “He replied about six months later, by which point I’d completely forgotten about the original email, inviting me to come by for a week. So I did, and to start with I had no idea what was going on, but I loved it. That was the moment I thought, I could pursue a career in this.

“I was still at school and I was staying at the studio every night until about 11pm. My mum would say, ‘What are you doing, you’re working for free making tea for people, why are you there until so late every night?’ I was just enjoying it.”

Alongside Flood, Spragg would also be sitting in on sessions with some of the most prominent producers and recording engineers in the industry at Assault & Battery, from which she would soak up as much knowledge as she could.

“Alan Moulder and Catherine Marks were downstairs, Steve Lipson was upstairs working on all of the Hans Zimmer soundtracks, so it was a building full of people working on amazing records,” she recalls. “Now, some of my favourites are Flood and Alan Moulder records, but at the time I hadn’t started listening to that stuff. I really got into Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails a couple of years after I started working there, and knowing that these were the guys I’d been working with was quite a weird realisation. I could’ve named maybe five producers when I first started there – my knowledge of music was fairly broad but my knowledge of the technical side was non-existent.

“I did that in the October half-term and I went back in the Easter holidays to do a session for a week with Catherine. I got on well with all the engineers and assistants working there and they said to let them know whenever I wanted to come back. There was a guy called Drew who sat down with me and explained everything about mics, going through polar patterns; I would memorise all the mics in the mic cupboard. I was often there for 15 hours a day as an 18-year-old while all my friends were going to uni, but eventually I got my first assistant engineer job, which was a session with Gianna Nannini. That was the first job I got paid for. I still wasn’t doing loads and was watching a lot. It was a nice session to start with, it wasn’t particularly stressful. I had a few like that before it got really intense, which was a nice way to start.”

Having impressed those around her during her time at the studio, more projects, and indeed more responsibilities, began to present themselves.

“The first project I got really stuck into was Furnaces by Ed Hardcourt, which Flood produced,” Spragg continues. “That was the first full record I was involved in. It was a long period, and we moved between the big studio at Assault & Battery and the little programme rooms.

“I was involved with that for five or six months in total, and it was the first one where I felt I was there from start to finish. I loved it, but it was really hard. Flood really pushed me on that one – he was like, ‘you’ve been here for long enough now’ – and he put me wholly in charge of stems. I’d also done a couple of months with Alan Moulder looking after stems.

“Flood makes you work super hard, but he’s amazing at making everyone feel important. He wants to push you to do well and if you don’t think you’re doing a significant job, you probably won’t do that job very well. There were a lot of people working on that record, and a lot of really long days, but it was one of my favourite records I’ve been a part of.”

For numerous reasons, Spragg ranks Furnaces among the most enjoyable and memorable records she has worked on to date. Not only did it mark a clear progression in her burgeoning career, but it also paved the way for a multitude of future projects that would establish her as one of the most exciting young engineers in the industry.

Spragg continues: “The more involved you are in a record the bigger place in your heart it has, but even some of the records that I just assisted on and watched the process of are still memorable. Baxter Dury’s last record, Prince Of Tears, was the first record I officially engineered. I love that record. More recently, I did a bit of work on a record for Palace, which was fun. They worked with Catherine and a few others, and it was one of the easiest recorded processes I’ve had. We got on well, it flowed and I would leave the studio in the best mood. There are some records that are among my favourites where the recording process was so hard and exhausting, but the Palace one was so different to that.

“Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds last record (Who Built The Moon?) was definitely one of my favourites,” she adds. “I absolutely love that record; it sounds ridiculous and I had an amazing time working on it. David Holmes produced it and this guy called Emre Ramazanoglu was engineering and drumming on it. Noel played all the guitars, and quite a lot of it is sample-based. It was not Noel’s normal process – he relinquished quite a lot of control for that record and really trusted David. I was slightly nervous going into that album but it was so much fun to work on.

“David blows my mind. He’s one of my favourite people to observe. He picks little samples out of the most obscure, weird stuff and you’re wondering how on earth he’s going to make something from it. I can’t foresee stuff like that. He just has an ear for the weirdest sounds and it always comes out sounding amazing.”

With the clock running down on our time together, talk shifts to music and the records that have shaped her approach to her craft.

“I know that some people talk about how when they were younger they would listen to songs and pick apart all the different instruments and parts, but I just liked songs as a whole,” she concludes. “When I was about 14 I watched a film about Joe Meek and that was one of the first things that got me interested in production, his process got me intrigued by the sound of music. And The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I listened to that a million times. Some of the records that were made in the ‘70s and ‘80s blow my mind. I can’t imagine how you could make stuff that sounds like that even now, with all the resources we have, compared to what they had to work with.

“More recently, I absolutely love the latest Arctic Monkeys album Tranquility Base Hotel And Casino. It took me a few listens to full get it but it just sounds so weird and amazing. James Ford is incredible. These days, all I do when I listen to a record is think about the sound and the production.”