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Aubrey Whitfield: Bringing It Home

The path to becoming a successful record producer has not been the most conventional for Aubrey Whitfield, who explains why she swapped working at the Home Office for the recording studio, and imparts some wisdom for aspiring producers along the way.

Aubrey Whitfield is a successful British record producer, songwriter and musician that has worked with artists including Kelly Clarkson, Soul II Soul, Little Mix and James Arthur. However this almost wasn’t to be, as for the majority of her adult life she worked for the UK Government’s Home Office where she designed the UK’s alcohol policies, travelled the world as a Private Secretary to a Government Minister, and advised the British Prime Minister on international threats to the UK.

“It's definitely an unconventional route into producing!” she laughs, speaking to Headliner on the phone from her home studio space.

Whitfield’s passion for music had been ignited as a child when she started writing and performing music from a young age. She has fond memories of her dad teaching her to play the keyboard and guitar, and grappling with his Tascam four-track recorder to build demo productions for her songs.

In her teens, she was a prolific songwriter – “I was music obsessed” – and whilst everyone else was hanging out at their mates’ houses, Whitfield spent her after school hours in her bedroom learning how to bounce tracks, EQ, and how to build productions.

Whitfield was determined: she wanted to be a famous songwriter and singer. She joined a band, got a manager and recorded a couple of EPs which she produced, thinking the band would be the next biggest female-fronted act. This didn’t work out, but undeterred, she shifted her focus slightly and set up a record label where she began promoting local bands and putting on showcase gigs, rapidly moving on to national and international artists.

Everything was going well, but a 22 year old Whitfield had bitten off more than she could chew and was feeling the pressure. She made the difficult decision to close down her label at the height of its success and took the job at the Home Office.

“I just closed the business down overnight. I regret that because what I should have done is sold the business, because I ended up losing everything,” she reflects. “I lost my home, my car… I had a recording studio in my house and I had to sell all the equipment. I became penniless. I was young and naive, but I've learnt from it.”

You really have to hustle and remember that you're a business, so you have to treat it like a business.

The only thing that Whitfield didn’t sell was her old Takamine guitar, so she could continue to at least write songs. Her entire life had been music after all, so she focussed on becoming an artist instead:

“I didn’t even think about going into producing my own record. It just didn't cross my mind. I wanted to be an artist and I needed a career in which to fund that, so I went into a full time job at the Home Office and then later the Cabinet Office, and ended up doing really well in that career becoming fairly senior. It was a good salary, and I would use it to fund building a studio.”

Every month for three years Whitfield would save her salary and buy a new piece of studio equipment each month. She started with the crucial stuff: a Mac, then a midi controller, then Logic Pro 9, then a drum machine, and finally a budget condenser microphone. She crammed it all into her small bedroom in Croydon and started to teach herself about digital working and Logic Pro.

However, Whitfield was struggling with her nerves when performing live and was no longer enjoying being an artist. She made the decision to go into producing other artists full time, and quit her full time job.

“It was the best decision I ever made. Besides, my boss at the Cabinet Office wasn't happy with me because I actually fell asleep at a meeting that the Prime Minister was chairing because I'd been up the night before producing songs! I was very, very nervous about making the leap, but it's worked out well. I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Glancing around her bedroom, she knew she needed to up her game in terms of kit. Whitfield got a bank loan and invested in new studio equipment, including a Universal Audio Apollo Quad pre-amp, a Neumann U87 mic, some KRK Rokit monitors, and an assortment of Waves and UAD plugins.

With a home studio full of studio equipment, over 20 years songwriting and producing experience under her belt and a laser-focused desire to succeed, Whitfield knew she needed clients. She visited the StarNow website to see if any artists were looking for a producer. The rest is history, and she soon built up an impressive portfolio.

“This meant that I could prove that I was good at what I did, but it also increased my presence online. I also made sure I had a showreel because when you're approaching artists, they're not just going to work with any old producer. They want to hear what you can do. They also quite often want to know that you've got a decent studio setup, because they don't have to pay to go to a studio.”

It’s no secret that music production is a very competitive industry – thousands of talented producers are desperate to get clients and achieve mainstream success. Whitfield is a realist about it: only a small percentage will achieve it – but it’s not impossible.

“You have to be competitive,” she stresses.”You really have to hustle and remember that you're a business, so you have to treat it like a business. I've had a couple of people grumbling because I did some stuff for free right at the beginning. You shouldn't really work for free regardless of your skill set – I do agree with that. But I think if you're doing one free song and you've got no ‘credit’ whatsoever, then it's a good way of getting clients.”

Whitfield wishes that someone had told her that many artists expect producers to mix and master as well as producing, which to them may seem like one and the same, but in reality are entirely different disciplines:

“Independent artists don't have the budget to be able to pay for all three,” she explains. “So I had to learn the basics of mixing and mastering. At the start, I was telling artists, ‘I’m not a mix engineer,’ and I lost a couple of clients because of it. So even though it's not quite fair, I think that producers need to be sure that they have experience in producing, mixing and mastering.

If you want to be successful as a producer, you have to be able to mix – there is just no way around it.”

Whitfield is proud to be one of the few female record producers from the UK, and does all she can to promote the important role of women in music.

“I think there is a slight shift now in attitude and more women are coming forward, but we have still got a long way to go. I always get asked, ‘Why do you think that is? Why aren't there more females in these roles?’ I don't know the answer, but take me as an example: I was a self producing artist for many years – I never even thought about becoming a producer. I think there are lots of other self producing females out there that probably haven't realised that they could do it as well, or it might be a good career option.

“I think it's to do with visibility,” she offers. “I think that all female producers who are doing quite well need to be more visible and say, ‘Hey! you can do this’. Maybe some women are getting put off by the fact that it can be quite technical, but it's actually more of a creative role.”

In Whitfield’s experience, do female artists tend to want to work with female producers?

“Yes,” she says, without hesitation. “The majority of my clients are female and quite a few of them have said to me that they have purposely sought out a female producer, and there's a couple of reasons. The first one is that they feel that they can be more comfortable in expressing what they want, and that they can connect with a female producer a bit more.

"A couple of my female clients have had bad experiences with male producers. One was locked in a studio with a male producer and couldn't get out, and there was another one who refused to release the masters unless she went to bed with him. I hear stories like that more than I should. But it is a minority of male producers, and as you know, most of them are very, very professional and courteous. It's mainly a connection thing, as I would say I have probably connected with my female clients more than with my male clients."

When approaching production, Whitfield says the drums are the most important part of her process:

“The drums are what makes a song sound modern or dated,” she reasons. “Everything is built around the drums. Then I'll do the bass after and then build all the other stuff around it. I always advise aspiring producers to work on their drums first.”

Native Instruments’ Maschine was the very first piece of studio gear Whitfield bought when she moved to London, and after getting rid of of her gear – she made sure it was the first piece of kit she bought when restarting her studio from scratch:

“It really helped me craft my sound as a producer. I only use it for drums and I don't use any of the built in drums that come with it; I source my own drum samples and I'll buy drum packs and programme the drums using the Maschine. I can get drums sounding like they do on the charts, or get them sounding like a real life drum kit using this bit of kit, although the drum samples are equally important because they need to sound good as well,” she points out. “I would be lost without this piece of equipment. I wouldn't be able to produce half as good as I can without it.”

She’s been using her trusty Universal Audio Apollo quad preamp for years, which all of her audio gear runs through.

“What I really like about this preamp is that you get access to all of these awesome plugins which basically copy the sound of big analogue recording desks. Absolutely everyone goes through it, regardless of vocal type or genre.

"It makes it sound like it's going through a big studio desk like at Abbey Road or something. When people came to record vocals, it sounded incredible straightaway, and I've got all those additional plugins that I can use to make it sound like they're going through a big analogue desk in a huge studio somewhere. That's a really clever trick to have up my sleeve.”

Cableguys ShaperBox 2 plugin has been getting quite the workout recently:

“It does all these really cool effects, like stutter or reverse or filters and sweeps – all kinds of crazy effects. If you're not that musical but you want to get some effects on a sound that you've got, you just put this plugin on, press some buttons and it will just add all these really cool effects. I can't think of anything else that has all of that in one plugin. There might be the odd client that comes through who wants me to do an EDM track or have an EDM effect, and that's where you tend to have these synth sounds that are quiet at the start, and then they build up and get louder and wider. ShaperBox 2 can help create those kinds of dance effects.”

Whitfield estimates that she does about 90% of her work on headphones:

“I don't really use the monitors because I just like to be absorbed in the music,” she explains. “Most of society listens to music via headphones, so you’ve got to make sure that it works on headphones. Monitors are more important for dance music because you need to know what it’s going to sound like in the club, but for the music that I produce which is mostly modern singer-songwriter stuff, headphones are quite an important tool.”

The lockdown period has not see Whitfield run short of work – in fact, she’s been really busy:

“I think a lot of people are stuck at home with nothing to do but write songs, so I've got absolutely loads of songs to produce, and I’m working on a few albums. I'm also going to be setting up a music project for myself, because I'm still an artist deep down," she smiles.