Aubrey Whitfield: Learning Curves

On International Women’s Day, we caught up with record producer, songwriter and musician, Aubrey Whitfield, who shares how she’s adapted to remote working, why she champions the important role of women in music, and why NUGEN Audio’s MasterCheck plugin has changed the way she works, forever.

It’s been almost a year to the day since I last spoke to Aubrey Whitfield when I catch up with her to reflect on a year spent in lockdown, and how it has affected her work as a producer, songwriter and musician.

Always one to plan ahead and adapt to changing circumstances, Whitfield (who can normally be found at the Ten 87 studio complex in Tottenham, London), has created a fully mobile production setup in case anything like this happens again in future, or if the reality of working in commercial studios continues to raise social distancing issues.

“A year ago when we went into the first lockdown, I started to panic thinking, ‘Oh my God, I can't access my studio...I've got tonnes of tracks I need to produce, I won't get my income, it's all going to fall to pieces’,” she begins, frank as ever.

“I needed to access my studio so I thought, ‘I've already got a really good MacBook here which is just as good as my studio computer, so I'm just going to make an exact copy of every plugin and every virtual instrument that's in my main studio on this MacBook so that I can move anywhere and be able to produce’. It's always good to have a backup so that you can continue your business.”

Whitfield has used the last year to write some songs for TV and film, and has had a blast doing it.

“I wish I'd done this earlier in my career! But I probably wouldn't have got those opportunities earlier in my career,” she considers. “I've now got them because people can hear my skills and my experience, and that's taken some time to develop. What's really good about it for me is that you get a brief and you have to stick to that brief, but it's mostly focusing on the songwriter, and that's what I feel is my main skill.

"When I was a kid, I was only interested in songs; I wasn't interested in singing or producing or mixing, I just wanted to write songs. As I've become a producer, that's got lost a little bit because I'm mostly producing other people's songs. So to be able to have the opportunities to write the songs and produce and mix them as well is quite a hefty job, but it's great.”

Whitfield had an unconventional and rocky start to her career in music: although she has worked with artists including Kelly Clarkson, Soul II Soul, Little Mix and James Arthur, 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.

Before this, Whitfield set up a recording label, but the more in demand she became, the more the pressure piled on. At the height of its success, she made the difficult decision to close it down.

“I was 23 when I decided to close down this record label that I'd been working on for three or four years, and it had become quite successful. It got to a point where, because I was young and not really planning my business properly, I'd taken on too many clients and just couldn't cope with it,” she recalls.

“Inevitably, once you close down something that's as big as that, there's going to be a backlash. I ended up losing everything. I lost my home, I lost my car, and lost literally everything in my home. I had to sell my studio, and I was getting death threats and all kinds of threats from clients who had lost their money through the label. I was only 23, and off the back of that I decided I wasn’t going to do music anymore. That's why I ended up working for the home office for 10 years, but I was still doing music throughout that time I was there.

“I've learned to approach things differently now,” she shares, now coming from a place where she’s thriving in the music industry.

“When you fail at something and then you get back up again and you keep going, it shows resilience. I've developed so many other skills from my experiences, and I know what to do and what not to do. I know how the industry works now, so I'm glad it happened to me because I probably wouldn't be where I am now if I hadn't experienced that side of the business and understood where I went wrong.

"Failure is often an important part of success. It was a tough time for me, but it worked out in the end.”

There's no really big female super producers out there yet, so we've got a lot to prove.

It’s no secret that men dominate the industry when it comes to producing, and Whitfield does all she can to promote the important role of women in music, and in particular uses her Instagram account as a platform to educate her followers on everything from production tips, to the unseen parts of her role as a producer – and everything in between.

“I think 80% of my Instagram followers are male,” she estimates. “So I've only got 20% that are female, but I think it's important to educate men as well around the role of women in music. Before lockdown I was going to local colleges and talking about music production, and I was seeing a few more women on those courses, which is good. When I was younger, there were no women on those courses!

“There's so few female producers out there that we're not as visible, but in some ways we do stick out a bit more, because there's less of us,” she weighs up.

“At the same time, there'll be occasions where people are sending me messages saying, ‘I want to work with you because you're a female producer; I've not been able to find one anywhere’, so I think those few female producers have a role to play in promoting their experiences and encouraging others to come forward.

"There are many talented self-producing female artists out there who could be great producers, but they don't consider that transition into producing for whatever reason. It's good for us if we can make them realise that they could go on to produce, and that it's going to be a safe, productive and creative environment for them.”

Whitfield shares that overall her experiences have been positive (aside from the odd internet troll), although there have been occasions in the past where she’s been in a commercial studio with a male client, and the engineers assumed that the client was the producer, and her the artist:

“It's just an automatic assumption, and things like that are quite frustrating,” she shrugs. “It feels like we're being judged because we're female; there's no really big female super producers out there yet, so we've got a lot to prove. But it comes with confidence and experience.

"Compared to where I was three years ago, I would now feel competent to go into a studio, sit behind a desk with a load of men in the room and feel quite confident. If we can just feel confident in ourselves and not give in to that imposter syndrome, we can do anything.”

MasterCheck is something that I think every producer should have if they're going to be doing mastering, and it’s something that I wish I'd done earlier in my career.

Just prior to our interview, Whitfield was given the chance to try out any of NUGEN Audio’s range of plugins. MasterCheck was the one that immediately stood out for her, and is what has been missing from her arsenal of production kit.

MasterCheck is designed to act as the complete optimisation solution for today’s delivery services – essentially it’s a plugin providing the tools to make sure music reaches the listener as intended.

As all producers know, streaming apps, download stores and podcasts all use data compression, loudness normalisation, or both. These processes can affect a track in undesirable ways: your loud, punchy mix could end up quiet and flat, or suffer clipping and distortion.

MasterCheck reveals these problems ahead of time, and enables producers to deliver masters perfectly tuned for specific playout systems, as Whitfield discovered:

“I’ve had instances recently where I've produced, mixed and mastered a track – and I'm not a mastering engineer, I'd like to point out – but I've got basic knowledge. It’s important to make sure that your master is compatible with streaming services like Spotify and Apple, who use all kinds of different tools to make sure that all of their songs sound as they should.

“What I like about this plugin is that it will help me test my mixes and masters and make sure I can hear what it's going to sound like on Spotify and Apple and YouTube etc., and that it's not clipping and it's at the right level. It's something that I think every producer should have if they're going to be doing mastering, and it’s something that I wish I'd done earlier in my career. It's going to be quite an important plugin for me now going forward.”

All major online services encode music, using different specs and formats depending on the playback device, the connection speed, or even whether the user is a ‘basic’ or ‘premium’ customer.

Hot mixes can introduce true peak overs that will clip on playback. Whitfield noticed how MasterCheck detects these errors, allowing her to hear obvious frequency masking and other artefacts, as well as giving her some food for thought:

“Where it's been particularly useful for me is that we have this loudness war thing where artists want their songs LOUD, and you could make a really, really mediocre song sound good if it's loud, because everything sounds loud. And of course, what these popular streaming platforms do is they have a level that the volume shouldn't go above, and if your master goes above that level, they're going to compress it and take it down.

"I think I was kind of guilty of that, because my masters have been quite loud and they've been going over this level that Spotify etc. have set, and they're compressing my tracks down and reducing the volume of it. That's what I've learned by using MasterCheck, which is great because that means now I need to look at my gain stage and make sure that my master volumes are not going above that level. That actually is quite a huge thing because it's going to change all of my songs going forward; it's going to change all the structure of all my levels.

“I can really drill down into the nitty gritty of the masters; it's going to be on every master channel that I've got now,” she adds, on a roll now. “Everyone needs to have this kind of plugin; it's so important because all of our songs go out on all of these different platforms, and we need to make sure that it's compatible with all of them. Otherwise, it could affect how our mixes and masters sound, and that's not good advertising for anyone!”