Small studios, big sound


The importance of sound is arguably second only to sight when considering the senses, and as you sit back, eyes closed, and listen to that astonishing orchestra or your favourite group, can you imagine a world without sound? Do you visualise a large studio recording with a composer, musicians and vocalists?

It would seem, thanks to modern technology, that most of South Africa’s top sound facilities have embraced the benefits of operating out of small self-contained facilities with studios no larger than an average bedroom, that use the latest sampling and plug in devices to create their masterpieces.

Probably the last custom built studio capable of recording an orchestra was the well known Audio Lab in Blairgowrie, Johannesburg, which closed its doors this year.

Top composer Rob Schroeder of Robroy Music, who operated from the Audio Lab for many years, has built a bespoke studio in Stonewedge Park, Bryanston.

“A large studio is now totally impractical,’ he says, “even if you want to record a grand piano you use a keyboard, with the ability to change the notes and dynamics. It does mean that control rooms need to be much larger, but the equipment itself is smaller. In the past we used an old desk with 60 channels, now we have a small digital unit which offers over 190 channels. We also operate out of only three rooms – a control room and two small studios.’

Adam Howard of Howard Music agrees. Howard does the lot – from composition through to final delivery. “You have to have some musical abilities these days,’ he says, as someone who plays a mean trumpet. “Whereas in the past the various areas and operators were specialised, now with the new technology – plug ins, etc – you need to have a broad range of expertise and be a jack of all audio trades.

“Large studios are being phased out. In the old days if you needed strings you had to have a large studio with 20 string players. Now even a drummer can get away with a programmed drum sound, especially in the world of commercials. You can use sampled stuff – as we have huge libraries of samples – and you can apply these to virtually any requirement.’

Complete experience

Motion picture sound is also a specialised field and Refinery’s Area 5.1 is one of the few remaining facilities to offer a complete motion picture sound experience. From ADR to Foleys to final mix, Area 5.1 boasts the only licensed Dolby 5.1 motion picture facility in the country.

“We have completed quite a few upgrades,’ says Refinery’s Tracey Williams, “including upgrading Studio 2 so that it can mix in Dolby 5.1. Charlotte Buys, Michael Botha and Barry Douglas operate out of the facility and we also offer a dry hire service when required. We have an impressive list of recent motion picture sound credits including Platteland, Lucky, 31 Million Reasons, Otelo Burning and Man on Ground.’

Cape scene

While the bulk of South Africa’s sound facilities are still concentrated in and around Johannesburg, Kloof Street in Cape Town is the home to Mama Dance! Music for Africa / Composers for Africa, which has become increasingly focused on creating and supplying music to the advertising, film and TV sectors. They became the go-to-guys for agencies and production companies that needed South African flavoured music – composed, licensed or production music.

“We are very excited about the re-branding of our original composition agency to Composers For Africa and are confident that our one stop shop service attitude will be a big hit with agencies and production companies who prefer to deal with one reputable company rather than various composers for each job,’ says Craig McGahey.

TheWorkRoom, also Cape Town based, is an award winning audio post facility which encompasses all aspects of audio production and post-production from recording to mixing, ADR, Foleys and 5.1 surround sound.

“There have been many developments in sampling and plug in technology,’ says owner / engineer Stephen Webster. “This gives video editors access to audio plug ins for mixing and has led to the impression that there is a lesser need for dedicated audio post facilities. Thankfully, we have a client base that understands the value of having their work mixed by a professional sound engineer.’

Technology rules

Jim Petrak of Sound Surfers confirms the need to remain abreast of technology. “We are always on the prowl for new technology and this year we have invested in a new secret weapon – but if I tell you what it is I would have to kill you – and then I guess it wouldn’t be much of a secret then!’

The importance of sound cannot be over emphasised. Its appeal to the aural sense is as important as the visual, and with the ability of modern technology to create such marvels as a bass guitar played in Abbey Road Studios, the abilities of our local composers and engineers is further enhanced.

By Andy Stead


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