Sound sense

What do you do when you are a successful business person and have a passion for music? You get a B Hons in music and build a recording studio.

At least, that is the route taken by Port Shepstone, KZN engineer Thulani Bhengu (40) who is currently building a cutting edge studio facility on the site of an old house in Southport – a small village just north of Port Shepstone and in the heart of the Hibiscus Coast.

An integral part of the studio complex is a five-bedroom Bed & Breakfast accommodation setup for musicians recording at the facility.

The studio – as yet unnamed – will feature state of the art recording equipment plus separate sound booths for the various instruments and will be totally soundproof and inaudible to the nearby residents.

“I will probably involve a couple of local schools in a competition to design the logo and name the studio,” says Bhengu. “The winning school will get a cash prize for its art department.”

The affable young entrepreneur was born and bred in the Gamalakhe township near Margate on the South Coast of KwaZulu Natal and, post school, went on to study engineering and then to form the civil engineering company Ngcolosi Consulting Engineers.

“With the business up and running nicely, about six years ago I decided I could indulge my passion for music,” he says. “I took piano lessons and this went well. I am now in the midst of exams for my Music BA Hons through a university in England.

“During the earlier years I helped a number of young local musicians by sponsoring studio time for them and this grew to the point I installed a small recording studio at my home. However, a combination of musician hours and time in the studio started interfering with family life.

“This cemented my decision to create a stand alone studio.”

Bhengu explains the decision to incorporate the accommodation suites was based on experience with musicians.

“Travel for many of these people is a major problem and so much valuable time is wasted if they have come from far afield each day. Also, between leaving the studio on one day, going home and maybe going out for a few beers with friends, there is a detectable change in voice tone by the following day.

“It will be much better to contain them on site to maximise studio time and to try and eliminate the kind of changes I mentioned.”

The recording studio is 150 square metres in size and has individual sound booths plus the engineer’s control room, which will be kitted with the latest generation recording facilities sourced from England.

The studio itself has been designed by Johannesburg-based sound specialist, Harry Timmerman from 4th Dimension and, besides the soundproof cladding one would expect, features double width air-gapped walls to prevent any sound creep inside the facility or any leakage to the neighbourhood.

Even in its current state of ‘undress’ a handclap anywhere in the studio precinct produces no echo!

“The specification for the studio and the equipment being installed can be compared to that used by the giant studios overseas such as Sony BMG and Lucas Films,” says Timmerman, who is a THX certified audio engineer.

“The backbone of the recording desk will be Pro Tools, while the Playback Suite will conform to full Auro standard with 32 speakers, so the artists can hear every minor nuance of their work and become wholly immersed in the sound. There are only a handful of studios worldwide that have this specification and this a first for South Africa.

“The smallest sound booth is 7,8 square metres and we are using Miller and Kreiselle speakers throughout – the same speakers used in the creation of the soundtracks for movies such as Pearl Harbour, Gladiator, Jurassic Park and Star Wars.”

A resident full-time sound engineer will be employed to operate the equipment but Bhengu says artists are more than welcome to bring with their own producers to work with the engineer during the recordings.

Significantly, studio time in Southport will be around a quarter of the cost of time in a Johannesburg studio, making it that much more accessible to young and upcoming artists.

“We intend to be as flexible as possible,” said Bhengu. “Many young musicians just want to get one or two tracks recorded professionally they can use for promotional purposes and possible radio play while they build a following that would justify going into studio to record an entire album.

“We need to make it as easy as possible for them to do that. At the same time, the lower cost we hope will attract top line and well-known artists to the venue and we would also love to see some foreign artists taking advantage of our lovely sunshine, the beautiful South Coast and the value of the Rand to record here.”

So, why Southport?

Bhengu chuckles and explains: “I bought the house eight years ago and wanted to have the zoning changed so I could move my office there. However, my staff was so against the idea I ended up renting it out as house for a few years.

“When the idea for a recording studio took hold, it was the ideal venue. I approached all the neighbours and we submitted the plans and proposals to the Council. Nobody was opposed to the idea as long as we could guarantee the studio would be soundproof.

“All the nearby residents have been very supportive of the project – which I hope will be complete by December of this year.”

Local resident and drummer for The Sound Dogs, Mike Linten says many local musicians are likely to benefit from the facility and that it will be a long-term gain for tourism in the area.



Coming of the storm

20130123_201322 Riders 2_edited Riders_edited Piet Botha

There is something, perhaps insanely, magical about the mental images conjured up by the words “Cities on flame with rock and roll/ Three thousand guitars they seem to cry/ My ears will melt, and then my eyes/ Oh, let the girl, let that girl, rock and roll/ Cities on flame now, with rock and roll”.

Even if Blue Oyster Cult was tending for some overkill with the notion of 3 000 guitars, there is just as delicious an image with six rock axemen doing it live.

And they are!

In a country that produces a prodigious amount of talent and all too often an equal amount of under-enthusiasm for artists not named Steve or Kurt, the rock guitar legends are fighting back through ‘Riders from the Storm’, an initiative undertaken by Mel Botes, renowned for his master craftsmanship on the electric guitar, his interpretations of various legendary rock works, his original compositions and his classical repertoire.

Says Botes: “The concept was born out of similar projects undertaken by international rock legends such as Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. Locally, we have also had unprecedented success with the band ‘6 Snare’, in which we have combined six of the most popular Afrikaans folk musicians into one group, roughly following the same recipe used by the international supergroup ‘The Travelling Wilburys’.

“Hence, joining six of the most prolific electric guitar players into one rock supergroup was a logical next step to take.”

The band members shared a stage for the first time at their maiden performances in February last year at the Atterbury Theatre in Pretoria. Most recently they performed at Shelley Point in St Helena Bay as part of the Hyundai SA launch of the Santa Fe – cars and rock ‘n roll, always a good mix.

The band members are: Mel Botes, Piet Botha, Albert Frost, Valiant Swart and Nathan Smith. There will always be an invited sixth ‘mystery’ member who will be selected from guitarists from popular local rock bands, session musicians and solo artists. In fact, for the latest gig, Mauritz Lotz joined and Robin Auld was the guest – Nathan Smith sitting this one out.

Botes is an accomplished player, interpreter and originator of legendary rock works, including his evergreen nationwide top-sellers ‘Crazy Diamond – A tribute to Pink Floyd’; ‘Sultans of Swing – A tribute to Dire Straits’ and his own original, ‘David’s Confession – About Time, Chapter II.

Piet Botha is renowned as one of the pioneers of South African rock and has become a legend in his own time as front man of ‘Jack Hammer’ as well as a host of solo Afrikaans and English rock works. Along with the likes of Valiant Swart, it was Botha who was a ‘voortrekker’ of Afrikaans rock and their groundbreaking work probably paved the way for the likes of Koos Kombuis and Fokof Polisiekar.

It was never easy and in the early days more attention was paid by the media to who Botha was related to than the music and I recall talking to him at an early Jack Hammer gig where he said, emphatically: “I don’t care about that shit; I just want to play music.”

In fact, what they were doing back then was a huge step away from what was considered ‘normal’ for a pair of ‘boereseuns’ and their songs were not cutesy little ditties about boy meets girl but real reflections of life, love, hate, fear and hope in a changing South Africa. And this probably scared the crap out much of the ‘establishment’.

Now, older and sporting a Willie Nelson kind of look as the long tresses ease towards grey, he is doing just that. Playing the music. So too is Valiant Swart.

As a session musician, Mauritz Lotz’s innovative style can be heard on more than 1 000 local album productions and he has shared the stage with various South African artists supporting international artists such as Roberta Flack, The Bee Gees, The Rolling Stones, Ronan Keaton, Eric Clapton, Sting, Midnight Oil, Joan Armatrading and OMD.

It is hardly surprising the rest of the Riders joke about taping two of his fingers together before a gig to even the playing field.

Albert Frost is one of the most accomplished guitarists in South Africa and brings some edgy blues-rock to the collaboration, having cut his teeth with the Blues Broers and in his capacity as a solo artist or with his trio.

Says Botes: “The brief to these musicians was simple – each had to contribute three compositions to the group’s performance in which that particular musician plays the lead guitar to accompaniment from a full rock band.

“They were given a choice between original or standard rock renditions, provided the music fitted within the overall criterion of ground-breaking work. Furthermore, each musician also had to submit material that could be played be the group as a whole, balancing recognisable sounds with new artistic works.

Of course, Riders would be little without proper backing and the engine room of the group comprises Ghapi (aka Phillip Botha) on drums, Simon Orange (Blue Broers) on keyboards and Schalk van der Merwe (Bed on Bricks) on bass.

Unkindly they have been called a ‘cover band’ and, perhaps, in a sense they are. However, it is the interpretation that makes for originality and the mix does include original works from each of the collaborators, such as Valiant Swart’s ephemeral ‘Die Vloek van die Kitaar’, ‘Suitcase vol Winter’ (Piet Botha), ‘All of Woman’ (Robin Auld), ‘Mountains’ (Albert Frost), ‘Torremelinos’ (Mel Botes) and ‘Nemesis’ (Mauritz Lotz).

There’s a spider-shiver that runs from the base of your spine to smack you in the back of the head when the entire ensemble gathers its collective force to belt our “Riders on the Storm (The Doors), Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple), ‘Le Grange’ (ZZ Top) or ‘All Along the Watchtower’ (Bob Dylan/Jimi Hendrix) and you have never heard Beethoven’s 9th Symphony played the way Mel Botes does it.

Other contributions include material from Pink Floyd, Toto, Santana, Johnny Cash, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Gary Moore.

This is a storm of epic proportions and it’s coming for you!