To be successful in the music business today, you need to be flexible and multi-skilled — but not many people take these qualities as far as Damien Egan...
If there's one thing that can help boost your chances of staying ahead in the music business it's a healthy work ethic, a fact which is not lost on Damien Egan. At just 24, Damien is making a name for himself as a pop / R&B / garage producer and remixer as well as being an established session keyboard player/programmer. If that little lot wasn't enough, he still finds time to fit in a little sound design for Korg and run his sample library company, Tekniks. Phew! What's more, Damien managed to spare SOS a couple of hours for a chat in the small converted garage that is his studio, conveniently situated at the end of his garden on the outskirts of London.
A career in the music business wasn't always what Damien had planned. He had started ballet classes at the tender age of three but had to stop after 10 years due to back problems. Fortunately, alongside the dance lessons, Damien was also learning piano and guitar as well as building up a small amount of kit. "I had an Amiga 500 running Dr T software and an eight-bit sampling cartridge, a Phonic eight-input mixing desk, a second-hand ART effects unit and a Yamaha TG100 with all these wicked sounds on it," he laughs. "I thought, 'I'm away here'."
After doing his GCSEs at The Brits performing arts school in Croydon, Damien stayed on to do music 'A' level and a BTEC in music performance. It was here that the production bug began to take hold. "The course was modular and we were allowed a few hours a week in the studio, learning about effects, compressors, mic technique, things like that. By then I had upgraded to an Atari running Cubase and I had a Yamaha TG500 which had more effects and better sounds. I was doing all sorts of music — dance, folk, rock. One of my mates would come round two or three nights a week and we'd stay up all night making a drum & bass tune, then we'd do a rock track and roll into college after having an hour's sleep."
After finishing college at 18 Damien faced the problem of making a living in the real world. "I was going through Loot and calling all the people who were looking for programmers or engineers. I ended up going to all these different studios doing a bit of programming or keyboards for lots of small, independent production companies. Each one thought they had the next 'big' artist and it was long hours for not much money."
Damien was determined to forge a music career of his own, and eventually signed a deal with a management company as an R&B producer/programmer. When things didn't work out there, he decided to strike out on his own, a process which included upgrading his home setup to a proper studio. "I first looked at renting a basement below a shop down the road but when I added up all the costs, it wasn't viable. So I sat down and thought 'How much is it going to cost for me to have my garage converted?' The main frame was there, I didn't drive, so the space was sitting empty. I've a friend, David Scherchen, who has built a few studios including Goldie's studio in Hertfordshire, and he came along, did some sketches and gave me a quote. David ordered all the materials and within three weeks it was finished. We had to make the structure waterproof then add a second ceiling to make it a floating room for the soundproofing."
With his studio in place, Damien was now in a position to hire both it and himself out to clients, and it was through these sessions that he started to get into producing garage. "I would have DJs turning up with an a capella and I'd do all the beats and programming. So within a day they'd have a whole remix done, all for a set fee. It got to the point where I was doing about two or three a week, as people were happy to walk in and out with the finished product within a day."
It was also around this time that Damien began to hire out his talents as a session programmer/keyboard player. "Through some contacts I started to get keyboard sessions for a remix team called Crash and Burn. The first one I played on was for S Club 7 and the team really liked what I was doing and they kept using me. Basically, I turn up at the sessions and the beats are ready. The vocals are in time and I'll sit down and play some chords around the song, add any intros or fills, put down a bass line or anything else they want and within three to four hours I'm gone. I have some say in the direction the track goes because I have my own style of playing, that's why they bring me in."
A typical example was Damien's work for Pop Idol winner Will Young. "I got a call from 19 Management who had heard my showreels, asking if I could do some programming down at the EMI publishing studios where Cathy Dennis was demoing a track for Will. I went along and put down the beats in the style they wanted, her co-writer put down his keyboard parts, we put down a bass line and Cathy recorded a guide vocal. A week or so later I got another call and went down to Cathy's house where she was actually writing some material with Will Young. The basic idea was already there and I added all the drum programming and any other bits and pieces that she wanted."
Although still doing garage remixes, Damien has also turned his attention back to R&B production. I asked him if there was any gear that he used that was central to his R&B sound.
"The Studio Electronics SE1. Basically it's a Minimoog in a rack unit. It uses the same circuitry so you can get that smooth bass as well as some very edgy sounds. It's got Oberheim filters in it as well, which can also give it a kind of '80s feel. For a long time I'd been trying to get this bottom end that the Americans use and it was really hard. Either the bass was too booming or just too weak. I've a friend who is an engineer for Flight Time (Jam and Lewis' production company) and paid him a visit. The studio complex there was amazing and I got to meet Jam and Lewis who were both really nice guys. I also found out that the majority of the R&B producers over there use the SE1 for the bottom end. So I got one and it works a dream. It sits in the mix, you don't have to EQ it or compress it, you don't have to touch it. You can feel it in the car, you can feel it in a club — it works everywhere."
Any other favourites? "The JV1080 is like the industry-standard sound module for garage. Crash and Burn were also using the JV990 and that's why I picked one up as well." And the Proteus 2000? "That's a reasonably new buy. Because I'd had my JV for such a long time, I felt I needed some new sounds. It's great, very diverse; it's got very good keyboard sounds, pads and strings. Although it's only really just been patched in, I'll get into it and start making my own sounds on it."
The studio is based around an analogue Mackie eight-buss mixer and an Apple Mac G4. "Up until a couple of years ago I was using an old Allen & Heath desk — it was a really warm-sounding desk but very limiting with the channels and EQ."
Although happy with the Mackie he's using, Damien would like more channels. "I could do with 64 — I've really run out of channels and half the outputs of the gear aren't even plugged into the desk. I use 10 inputs for the sampler, four for the JV1080, two for the JV990, eight for the output of the computer, one mic channel and one for the bass unit. The Triton and Proteus route through the monitor channels. With the amount of mixes I'm doing, it is getting difficult to recall all my settings, so going digital is an option I'm looking into. If I do it'll be a Mackie digital desk, they've a nice feel and sound and are very easy to work with. I know a few different production teams who use them and they work really well."
Logic on the Mac is Damien's sequencer of choice. "I'd been using Cubase when I had my old Atari and carried it over to my first PC, but I just didn't like the feel of it. Then a guy running a small local studio was running Logic on his Mac and he asked me to have a look at it. I just took to it, and have been using it for a few years now. I love the editing and the MIDI timing is great. Everywhere I go now as a programmer they run Logic, especially as it interfaces with Pro Tools. I've also got my own special quantises for Logic, along with all my key commands, as an auto file which I'll take along to a session on a disk. It's a lifesaver when working quickly or to a tight deadline — I can't afford to mess up and have to know what I'm doing and be able to do it quickly.
"Since I moved to the Mac I've had no problems with latency or anything. My PC used to crash all the time and I got really fed up with it. The Mac is used solely for music, unlike my PC, which was used for music, graphic design, the internet, office work — you name it."
As a keyboard player, Damien also has a soft spot for Emagic's EVP88 plug-in. "The EVP88 is the most amazing plug-in I have used as well as one of the most realistic Rhodes sounds I've found. As a player I love the Rhodes sound and if I could get a real one that'd be great, but the next best thing is the '88. You slap a phaser on it and you get a funky, funky sound. You can distort it, crunch it up, whatever. It's just a great instrument that I try to use on every track."
For his garage work, Damien is also called upon to record vocals. "I use an AKG C3000 plugged straight into channel 24 on the desk, with a little low cut so there's no rattling. If I'm recording a take I'll stick a bit of compression on it, but no EQ, and I just use a pop shield made from my mum's tights," he laughs. "I'm not spending 30 quid on something I can make. Once I've got all my takes together in Logic I'll comp the track and use the Waves Renaissance compressor, which I love. It's great for vocals, it really gets a good punchy sound."
Recording & Mixing
- AKG C3000 mic.
- Apple Mac G4 running Emagic Logic Audio.
- Behringer Ultrafex multi-effects.
- Dbx 266 and 266XL dynamics.
- Digitech Studio Quad multi-effects.
- Electrix Filter Factory filter.
- Emagic AMT8 MIDI interface.
- Ensoniq DP Pro multi-effects.
- KRK K-Rok monitors with Samson amp.
- Mackie eight-buss mixer.
- Mindprint Envoice voice channel.
- Tascam DA20 DAT recorder.
- TC Electronic M2000 multi-effects and TripleC multi-band compressor.
- Technics 1212 turntable.
- 3x 48-way patchbays.
Keyboards & Modules
- Access Virus Rack synth.
- Akai S3000 sampler.
- Emu Proteus 2000 sound module.
- Ensoniq SQR Plus sound module.
- Korg M2000R synth, Triton LE workstation and Electribe EM1 groovebox.
- Roland JV1080 with Vintage and Hip-Hop boards.
- Roland JD990 with Vintage board.
- Studio Electronics SE1 analogue synth.
As if all of Damien's other projects didn't keep him busy enough, he has also been involved with some pattern and sound design for Korg. "In 2000 I was working with a Japanese producer who was endorsed by Korg. He was writing a demo track for the Triton keyboard and he asked me to do some engineering for him to get the track mixed down. Later I got in contact with Korg and offered my services. Unfortunately they had nothing going at that time but said they would 'keep me on file'. A year later I was in Birmingham at a big music show so I went over to the Korg stand and introduced myself. At the time I was just about to release my Underground Garage sample CD and I gave them a copy."
The CD hit the spot and, after a visit to his studio, Damien was asked to program some garage patterns for the then-in-development Electribe EM1 groovebox. "I got sent a prototype of the EM1, still covered in paper and tape as the design wasn't finalised. I was ill with the 'flu at the time and was stuck in the house for a couple of weeks, so I sat in bed and programmed, saving my patterns into the memory of the EM1 until Korg provided an editor for the Mac. Korg were using programmers from all around the world and to cut the list down to the best, we were asked to evaluate all the finished patterns with a grading system. In the end quite a few of my patterns made it onto the finished product and they asked me to do a garage demo track for the Korg magazine when they demoed the new machine."
Damien is currently working on some new sounds for a forthcoming Korg keyboard. "This is great because it involves more sound design than loop programming. It's very creative. Korg sent me an MS2000R to do all the programming on. When you first look at it you think 'Oh hell', but they sent me a librarian program and that's made everything very clear and simple."
So how does Damien go about the creation of a new sound? "Basically it's all just waveforms, filters, LFOs and envelopes. That's all you need to worry about. I'll start by thinking 'What type of sound do I want? How do I want it to feel? Where is it going to start and end?' Then I'll begin to hear a sound in my head: is it an edgy sound or a smooth sound? That's how I'll select my waveform. If the sound's going to be moving I'll think, 'OK, I've got to use an LFO, is that going to be triggering the filter or envelope? Of course, sometimes the process involves an element of randomness, of 'Oops, what happened there?', and if it sounds good, I'll use it.
"The whole idea behind this keyboard was to come up with a new fresh-sounding product, so I've been listening to lots of new music and trying to create sounds that can be used in the future — to be more forward-thinking. I don't know how many of my sounds will go into the finished thing but the reaction has been really good so far. I really enjoy the process, with the bonus of being paid for knob-twiddling!"
He's already a very busy man, and not surprisingly, Damien has plenty of plans for the future: "I want to continue on the production side of things and establish myself more as a well known producer in the pop/R&B market. I also want to continue to develop Tekniks and its products — oh, and retire when I'm 30!" he says, laughing.
So when on earth does he sleep? "I still get a good five hours' sleep a day and that's enough for me."
Not all of Damien Egan's enterprises have been as successful as Tekniks: "Because I'd worked on a few bootlegs whilst hiring out my studio, I thought 'OK, I can do this myself.' I got some cash together and did a garage remix of a well-known girl group and pressed up 500 white labels. I couldn't get a distributor to touch it as there was already a mix of this tune out at the time. So I got my list of shops, 50 records under each arm and I hit the streets. I started at nine in the morning and covered London, trying to shift these records. In the end I sold just over half and didn't get my money back, but it was a good lesson in how hard it is to do it all yourself."
As I mentioned in the introduction, Damien also runs the sample CD company Tekniks, initially funded by a grant from the Prince's Trust. I asked him how this latest venture came about. "Initially I wanted to set up a record label, but after my experience with the white labels (see the 'De-pressed' box) I decided to go into the sample CD market instead. The company's first title was Underground Garage, which I produced in conjunction with a mate, splitting the programming workload 50-50. I had had some interest from some of the more established sample CD companies but after doing the maths I thought I'd try and do it all myself. I had to manufacture the CDs first, then send out evaluation copies to distributors world-wide. I had no guarantee they would take the CD on, but I really believed in the product and it was a risk I was prepared to take. Response has been great and I'm selling to Japan and the USA as well as Europe. Tekniks is on its fifth release and, although it's hard work, I'm really enjoying it.
"I've always been into sampling, it's a passion and I'm always putting together new kits or something. I love the creativity of taking a little sound and throwing it through the filters, reversing it, whatever. I love my S3000 although I'm starting to get a little limited by the memory so I'm looking at getting an S5000. Akais are always in the studios I've work in, so it's what I got used to using. I never really took to the Emu operating system, I don't like the grouping or the filing system which is all over the place. I have an Akai folder on the desktop of the Mac and I dump all my samples in there, so there's no searching everywhere for Zip disks, it's all in front of me."