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Digital Farm Animals on producing for Charli XCX and Dua Lipa: "It's not a real job, is it? We're just sitting around making beats and writing songs!"

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(Image credit: Press/Digital Farm Animals)

Don't let Nick Gale's bright pink pig helmet fool you. He might have a playful sense of humour and the occasional tendency to understate his talents, but his production and songwriting is behind some of the biggest chart hits of the past decade. 

A testament to the power of persistence, Nick spent his teens and early 20s honing his production skills, pushing through challenges many of us can relate to - an underpowered computer and the exasperating inability to finish tracks - to hammer out four or five ideas each day. He's since risen from frustrated bedroom beatmaker to Top 10 hitmaker in the space of ten years, working with everyone from Louis Tomlinson to Ellie Goulding, and Westlife to Marshmello. 

Though he spends much of his time writing and producing for big-name artists, Nick's not afraid to put his own stamp on everything he works on, cultivating a vibe that's further explored on solo releases under the Digital Farm Animals moniker. Whatever he's working on, Nick's talents lie in crafting bright and fizzy pop bangers that channel the energy of the dance music he was raised on into a vivid and contemporary sound. 

How did you get into music-making initially?

“I got into DJing really young. When I say DJing, I was doing bar mitzvahs and kids parties. We were literally kids ourselves. Me and my best mate, Nick, were probably about 11 years old. He managed to get a demo version of Fruity Loops in our first year of school. He passed it on to me, and I just became obsessed with it, and never put it down. I still use Fruity Loops today, on everything. That's all I use.”

What do you like about FL Studio?

“It's not necessarily that I like it. Although I do, I've grown to like it. It's just that I have quite a short attention span. So I don't find it that easy to just learn a new DAW. I've tried a few times, but I can use FL Studio like the back of my hand. It’s like a second language to me.

“I feel like learning another one would just hold me back, or something. I don't know. I've just stayed with it and learned it as best as I could. There’s probably loads that I don’t even know about it. But I just use it in my own way.”

And how did you go from being a bedroom music-maker to producing hit records?

“I spent from the age of 11 until around 23 just making music as a hobby. Every day, pounding out four or five ideas. I never used to be able to finish any ideas. Partly because my computer was too slow, and partly because the hardest part is trying to get things to sound like they do on the radio, and getting frustrated and starting again and again and again, trying to recreate your best songs. I spent years doing that. 

People aren't really aware that there's a career path in producing or songwriting, aside from just being an artist

“Alongside that, I was studying. Partly because my parents wanted me to go and get a proper job. And partly because you don't really think you're going to be able to go into that industry. It really didn't occur to me that I would be able to be a songwriter at that point. I feel like it was the same for a lot of people. People aren't really aware that there's a career path in producing or songwriting, aside from just being an artist.

“I was trying to get a job as a lawyer and it just wasn't me, I was just hitting my head against a brick wall. And it came to a head because I think I'd actually failed one of my modules in my last year of law, and I had to redo some. So I had all this spare time. I said to myself, I'm gonna give myself a year, whilst doing that extra module, and any other time was going to be put into music and trying to get myself a publishing deal. 

“I met my current manager around then, he was a friend of a friend. He looked after me, and he’d just met RØMANS as well. He's also obviously killed it. It all started changing at that point. I was spending four or five hours in the studio every day. My manager’s parents had a shed in their garden that they let me use as a studio, because I didn't have any space myself. I was just pounding out ideas. And then Marc, my manager, met my first publisher, and it all kicked off from there, when I was about 24.”

Do you currently work from a home studio set-up or in a professional studio?

“I’ve been through various studios. I started off working out of my first flat, a long time ago now. Then I moved to Rack Studios, which I love, in St. John's Wood. And then just before COVID, I actually built a studio from scratch. Luckily, that served me really well throughout the whole two years. We've just actually moved again, because we're building a house. So I've actually moved out again, to a commercial studio in Queens Park. But speaking to you right now, I'm in LA.”

How do you find a balance between working on your own music, for Digital Farm Animals, and working on music with other artists?

“My primary job is writing for other artists, producing and songwriting for other people. DFA is more of a passion project. I really enjoy it. And there's certain opportunities, like Don't Play [the 2021 collaboration with Anne-Marie and KSI] for example, where it just made sense for me to be on it as an artist as well. It's just fun, you know. I wouldn't say that my end goal is to be Calvin Harris as a DJ. Maybe that time has passed as well, I'm a bit older now. 

“I would say it's heavily weighted in the favour of writing for other people and producing for other people. I like being in the studio, and I have a family and two little girls and a wife. So, you know, it’s a trade off. You get to a point where you're like, do you want to have a family life? Or do you want to be on the road all the time and never see them? And I chose the first option.”

When you’re working with other artists, how do you balance the need to preserve their musical vision and style with the desire to put your own stamp on things?

“First of all, I'm quite picky with what I work on. I'm only really working on stuff that I really love at the moment. So naturally, I feel like a lot of those projects will fall within a space that I'm comfortable within, or that I enjoy. And thankfully, a lot of people come to us these days because they want our stamp on things. I don't really try to bend too much to other people's styles, because I feel like if someone's coming to me, they want something that I do well. If they want a hip-hop guy, there's no-one coming to me to do it. There's plenty of people that can do that much better. I just do what I do.

“The most important thing is, as cliche as it sounds, to enjoy what you're making and to make sure it's quality. The one thing that I will say, is that a general rule of mine is that I hate referencing peers. I think it's the wrong move. A lot of people who come into the industry, especially young, good people, will often listen to what's out there right now and try to make what’s on the radio, and it's already too late. So my references are generally older music, and stuff that I really like. I think that's been a good tool for me.”

Could you talk us through a couple pieces of equipment - instruments, synths, effects - that you love working with and help to create your sound? 

“My setup is fairly simple. I have a big studio and I use an Audient desk. But to be honest, I just couldn't find a desk that I thought was pretty, so that was why I bought that. You'll find the SoundToys products all over my music, Echoboy particularly. 

“There's one particular preset called Pan Verb, which is just amazing on guitars and vocals. So that has been on everything. I discovered that when I produced Be The One for Dua Lipa years back, and I've just never stopped using it. I also use Omnisphere a lot.”

You'll find the SoundToys products all over my music, Echoboy particularly

“In terms of my outboard gear, I use Barefoot Sound monitors, I love them. And I also use a Bock Audio 251, which is modelled on the Telefunken 251, which has been good for me as well. I keep it quite simple. I use a Mellotron, a real Mellotron, and I’ve got a Prophet too. A lot of my sounds come from those things, really.”

What led to you producing Beg For You, the Charli XCX track? Had you guys worked together before? 

“No, I hadn't. I'd met Charlie before. We actually had a session years and years ago, a really quick session. She's really cool. I've always loved her music. She's really edgy, and always been doing exciting stuff. And actually, credit to my friend Alex Soifer, who's an A&R at Atlantic Records, for this one. He had this idea for a flip, him and Brandon Davis, Charli’s A&R. They wanted a fresh take on the production. 

“I was playing around with it for ages, because I think the initial idea was to go very ‘80s, like her traditional stuff. And then I was like, what if I flip into a garage thing? It's ended up as a blend of garage and Eurodance, which is kind of weird. That was a fun one.”

Could you talk us through one or two pieces of equipment - synths, effects, plugins - that were fundamental to the making of the track? 

“A lot of the synths come from the Prophet-6, the big ‘80s Euro synths you hear in the chorus. For the drum parts, I chopped up loads of drums from an MJ Cole garage pack. So big up MJ Cole. [laughs] I actually told him I used his drums in something. He released a sample pack a while ago. He's one of my influences, and one of the best drum producers ever. 

Beg For You ended up as a blend of garage and Eurodance, which is kind of weird

“The vocals I think I've just covered in Valhalla VintageVerb, and that Echoboy preset I mentioned. There’s an 808 playing through it, which is from a BWB pack, which I use quite a lot. And yeah, just lots of Moog-y sounds, but they all come from Omnisphere.”

How are you laying down your drum patterns? Do you use any drum machines, or are you working with audio in your DAW?

“I don't think I have enough rhythm to actually play drums live, I’ve never been able to do that. No, I program everything. I go into detail and I'm in the Piano Roll, just literally drawing in drums like a 12-year-old kid. That's how I work.

Tell us a little about your publishing company, Bigger Picture Entertainment. What led you to set that up? 

“Bigger Picture is a joint venture between me, my manager, Marc, and a good friend of mine, Jason Sharp. We're trying to bridge the gap between the big major companies and some of the smaller indie companies. We found ourselves in quite a unique position, especially for me being an artist, whereby we've had quite a lot of success through pitching records. 

“I do work with artists, but a lot of records that we've had success in have actually come from pitching, and we've just realised that one of our strengths is in the relationships we’ve built. Identifying which songs work for certain artists and being able to finish them and push them through. So we're a very hands-on publishing company. Everything we sign has to make sense, strategically, and we have to love it. 

“The main objective is that everyone within the company works like a team. We're trying to create a big family of producers and songwriters, whereby we share everything. So with anything that comes through the door, they'll instantly be working on anything that I work on, which hopefully gives you newer songwriters and producers a foot in the door. 

“For example, I'm executive producing the KSI project. And so all of my guys are all over that. There's been various other big wins quite early on too, with guys like Clean Bandit and Diplo. Actually, one of our guys just produced the latest Gunna record. So it’s expanding quickly.”

You’ve worked with a ton of big name artists. Who’s been the most fun to work with? 

“Someone I've worked with recently, who I love, is Tom Grennan. He's really good fun. I've actually just finished up a few records with Marshmello. He's wicked, a really down to earth guy. I assume people know he's a guy… [laughs] he’s a really down to earth marshmallow. But that's been a lot of fun. 

I'd love to work with Coldplay. Chris, please!

“Obviously KSI is just an absolute legend. We've got a really good relationship and I'm all over that project. He's just the most down to earth guy in the industry. He’s a lot of fun. You know, I've got no bad stories. I've really enjoyed working with everyone that I've done music with. I mean, it's not a real job is it? We're just sitting around playing beats and writing songs, it can’t go that wrong!”

Who would you love to work with that you haven’t yet had the chance to? 

“I'd love to work with Drake. I'd love to work with a lot of bands, like Glass Animals. I think they're amazing. My all-time hope, which I think I might have missed now, is Coldplay. I'd love to work with Coldplay. Chris, please! Something I want to focus on is doing some more left-field music now. Not so much straight down-the-line pop. I like the idea of taking bands and doing something weird with them. So yeah, anything that's a bit unusual.”

Do you have any advice for up-and-coming artists and producers? 

I think it’s the same advice that applies to any job, but particularly in this one. You’ve got to put in your 10,000 hours. You just keep cracking away at it. And you have to be very, very, honest and brutal with your productions. It's about not taking things too personally, and taking criticism, and making sure that you are better than everyone else. That's the reality. 

It's not enough just to be good at music production. It's equally as important to have your head firmly in the business side of things

“Unfortunately, it's not enough just to be good at music production. If you want to be a music producer, or a songwriter, it's equally as important to have your head firmly in the business side of things. To make sure that you know how to network, and meet the right people, and work out how to get your songs from your laptop onto the radio. There isn't a quick answer for that. 

“My opinion is that hit records, as cliche as that phrase is, come from your taste in music, rather than having the best drum sounds, or anything else. It's all about what you're listening to, blending stuff that you've heard in your life and that you like together, and making something new. I mean, we all know what's on the radio now. But what's going to be on the radio in three years time? For anyone who wants to make good songs, forget production - just make sure you're listening to as much music as possible, all the time.”

Beg For You by Charli XCX is out now on Atlantic Records. 

Find out more about Bigger Picture Entertainment on their website. 

I'm the Tech Features Editor for MusicRadar, working on everything from artist interviews to tech tutorials. I've been writing about (and making) electronic music for over a decade, and when I'm not behind my laptop keyboard, you'll find me behind a MIDI keyboard, or a synthesizer. 

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