Finn Downey is the first person to admit that his home recording studio is a modest setup. Downey has nailed egg crate foam mattresses to the wall and set up a couple of professional-quality microphones, a mixer, turntable, preamp, keyboard and a pair of equalizers. He has a computer equipped with digital recording and production software, and a drum kit in the living room, right outside the studio door.
The small room in his Belmont house is transformed when Downey, an audio engineer and occasional producer who’s making a name for himself with local hip-hop and rap artists, starts clicking around in LogicPro.
“You’ve gotta talk to Finn,” at least five people told me at a Rugged Arts hip-hop showcase last year. “He’s doing cool stuff.”
Downey, 20, says that while an audio engineer’s work is “incredibly technical and super boring, unless you’re an engineer [yourself],” it’s ultimately important to how an artist is received by the public. “If all the rappers in town were just recording on their computer microphones or whatever, they could be incredible [rappers], but no one would listen to it” due to crappy audio quality, he says. If something sounds scratchy, pitchy, hollow or if it’s boring, we tune out or turn it off.
That’s not what he wants for local talent. “Hip-hop is my favorite genre,” Downey says. “It’s incredibly honest. A lot of music tends to have this escapist side of it and hip-hop is very much the opposite of that. It’s about real things that are happening.” He wants that music out there.
Creating a good mix and master recording is all about contrast. “There’s a tendency to have everything at the same level”—radio pop, for example—but “deciding to have certain parts really, really quiet, or surprisingly loud, I think that’s really important to keeping things interesting,” Downey says.
Reagan Riley, an emerging neo-soul and hip-hop artist who grew up in a classically trained music family, worked with Downey on her debut EP, Summer Complex. She says he’s very intuitive when it comes to engineering. It’s part gift, part experience—he’s been doing this for a while.
Drawn to hip-hop music by Gorillaz’s 2001 eponymous release—which he first listened to at age 6 in his dad’s record store, Spencer’s 206—Downey started using GarageBand, a basic (but still fairly complex) music software program—when he was around 10 years old.
By age 15, he had his own studio in an office building behind C’ville Coffee. “I couldn’t record during the day, because there were people doing paperwork all around me,” Downey says with a chuckle. He’d head over to the studio in the evening after working at his family’s business, Carpe Donut, which was right across the street on Allied Lane.
The first rappers Downey worked with were guys from his neighborhood “who just happened to rap.” He remembers recording a kid who’d mowed his parents’ lawn.
Last year, in addition to Riley’s Summer Complex, Downey engineered a number of other local projects, including electropop, funk and hip-hop act Ammon Winder’s Turquoise Transcendence’s Dayz in the Moonlight, dogfuck’s hip-hop record Rectangle and Keese’s False Hope EP.
Keese, one of Charlottesville’s most promising young rappers, says that working with Downey has improved his songwriting and his live performances. “I used to record and engineer my own music for a long time, but it was very exhausting and time-consuming,” says Keese. “It sounded good but I was missing someone who had the knowledge and experience—Finn is that guy.”
When Keese went to Downey’s studio for a fellow rapper’s session, he was impressed with the engineer’s passion for hip-hop music and his ability to lay down a beat. Keese booked his own session with Downey a few weeks later, and they’ve been working together ever since.
“Finn was eager to do whatever it took to make [the songs on False Hope] sound as good as possible,” Keese says. “It’s fun working with Finn because you learn a lot. He inspires me to go harder and make the best music possible.”
Riley credits him with bringing her out of her shell musically. Though she’d played music all her life, she was shy about it.
“Finn heard the potential in my voice. ‘Just sing a little louder; I’ll make a beat for you,’ he said. It was very nerve-wracking for me, but eventually I got it out. It laid my foundation.”
Downey says he listens to a lot of records “and just tries to copy what they’re doing.” Nas’ Illmatic, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East are some favorites, and he marvels at the engineering on Television’s Marquee Moon.
“That era, the mid-1970s, they were so into the pan, and those records are so fat. They’re so wide. I love putting speakers on opposite ends of the room and listening” to all the space between. It’s an example of how audio engineering can alter the listening experience and make (or break) a record, and it’s something Downey keeps in mind as he works in the studio.
“You have all these rappers who are like, ‘Finn, let me get a verse on that. Let me do this, let me do that,’” Riley says. “People come to him with music, but he also puts out music that people [want to] throw verse on,” says Riley, adding that “when it’s done, it’s perfect and it’s cool.”
Downey’s much more humble about what he’s doing. He jokes that as Charlottesville’s hip-hop scene grows, it’d be great if everyone in the scene could be driving a Bugatti in a year or two. But he knows that’s a way off, so for now, he says he’s keeping things simple: “All I’m trying to do is give beats to rappers.”