Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The curse of the back room studios

Yarona FM’s disc jock, Boipelo Seleke, has now lost count of the many local recordings that failed to make the youthful station’s play list because the recordings were so half-baked their state of the art broadcasting equipment couldn’t stand them. The CD playing machine’s levels, she would tell you, would flick like crazy, confused by the mix, so much so disheartening at times for that odd record that bristles with promise not to be unleashed onto the listening market.

“It is not like we want world class production. We just want something decently engineered and playable,” said Seleke. “And on the side, the artist will be pushing you to play his record because the record may sound like it’s a real deal in his bedroom studio. Sometimes, it just feels like there was just too little commitment, if not lack of resources on the part of the artist. You may even wonder why the artist did not wait for the right time to come up with an album that would cut it.”

It seems that they just can’t wait because they just can’t. With a studio or two on every street corner, cutting a music album has never been this accessible. It only takes the price of a second hand computer, a few pirated music making software, a microphone and a dreamer to make an audio production studio today.

“I have been taken to rooms full of wardrobes whose owners claim to be quality recording studios. You just see these and know why the quality of many of our local artists’ records is not good,” observed Thabo “Mapetla” Ntirang, BOMU award winner for best Kwaito artist. “It is like everyone who has a personal computer at home thinks that he has a studio. When he gets broke he tells people to come and record just to make quick cash. We are so hungry everyone wants to make money.”

Pundits argue that this proliferation of makeshift/bedroom/backyard studios comes at a price for the country’s fledgling music industry. Of late, the industry has been dealing with issues of quality control, especially given the fact that competitive markets, such as South Africa, are opening up to local works.

“There are lots of studios around but it’s all about computer technicians trying their hand at music,” said Kagiso “Kayzee” Nkwatle, an artist cum producer, best known for producing pint-sized kwaito star Vee’s first hit, Pompa Tswidi. “They know nothing about music creation. They are just computer geeks with no musical background. They do not even have proper recording equipment. And do you know what the result is?” Sub-standard productions that pollute the face of our local industry, he went on to answer his own question. “If only they could try to make the commitment to learn the mechanics and science of music,” he complained.

A freelance studio guru who has worn the producer and the engineer’s cap in a good number of studios around the country, Nkwatle has had enough of cymbals crashing in all the wrong places. He has heard much too much of notes and chords going off dissonantly in ways that could not be remotely described as music in any language.

“One would just hold a note that he barely knows let alone the key he is playing in. It is all accidental.

If he loses the song, don’t bother asking him to redo it because it was all a product of chance. Even if one happens to stumble upon a good sounding groove, one cannot help noticing a wrong or crazy cymbal going off in the wrong place. If only the proliferation of these studios meant that there is learning going on there, then one could say that there would be something to applaud in a few years time,” he said.

Perhaps what even rubs him the wrong way is that the phenomenon does not translate into jobs for session musicians.

“They are manned by youngsters who think that they know it all. If you try to advise them of a chord that is out of tune, they will tell you “nigger you talking s*&^^t”. I don’t see anything possibly good coming out of that.”

Nkwatle and his kind can talk all they like but the artist has taken to the record star rush like a house on fire. Anyway, some radio stations are not too fussy about sound quality. And hit makers like Mapetla are not amused. They are concerned that the backyard studios output is often so bad that it undermines their tireless work to make professional sounding records that would grow the industry. It is these disposable records, Mapetla argues, that do not help to dispel the notion of the local musician as an artistically inferior lot.

“The message that is communicated to an outsider when only a few artists come out with clean sounding albums is that we are not good enough.

People have a way of generalizing. A lot of these bogus producers should just leave the work to the professionals, go hibernate and learn their tools before they claim to do the job,” he said.

This evolution, however, needs to be kept under check, warns Seleke, as this is where software piracy is rampant. Chances are only one studio owner buys the software and others just make copies, exchange the codes and get on with it. Next time you hear a local song on radio, there is a good chance the software tools were ripped off some audio production and engineering maker. While the implementation of the copyright act here still looks a way far off, there is no end in sight to the infringement.

But prolific producer, David “Skizo” Molosi, hastened to advise that the small studio head should not be shot down. He should be encouraged as he meets the demand of those who may not care that much about quality as long as they get the opportunity to explore their talents and get a little airplay here and there. He, however, urged them to try to learn aspects of studio craft such as sound engineering.

“In this technological age, a small setup does not mean that you cannot do anything of note. The proliferation of studios is not a bad thing because, with time, people will be able to tell who is shortchanging them and seek professionals who do the job well.”

Mapetla’s manager and producer, Kenny Matholwa, though skeptical about the many studios that line the city’s street corners, observed that they could potentially be the place to get untapped talent to groom for the big time.

“Some are good for demos that you can listen to and identify new talent. Those who are just doing it for the love of it not for commercial purposes are alright because they get to learn how it is done,” he said.

But even if the small studio producer does it for commercial purposes as a lot of them do, Mapetla argues, the market is too small to sustain him.

“With the current situation where you would get four studios in one neighbourhood, it means that they do not make any good money. Our artist population is just too small for all of them to feed off it,” he observed.

Perhaps the grand plan is not about transforming the music industry or reinventing the wheel for these fearless individuals. They may perhaps be men who have resolved to steer their musical destinies where their sense of initiative can take them. What if they are rebelling against the mainstream recording go-to heads that may be out of their league? Some may have as well had their demos thrown back in their faces. But then it could be a case of the old generation gap rearing its head in the industry with the young guns finding little common musical ground to relate with the veteran, argued Seleke.

“Sometimes it is all out of getting attention of the older experienced and well resourced studios as in many cases the second album is recorded at a proper studio after the first poorly produced record gets decent airplay.”

There could also be the ambitious few who want to have the artistic autonomy to experiment with various sounds instead of being dragged along well-beaten stylistic roads that old timers may be set in. Although such daring youngsters may just be the much-needed breath of fresh air, especially in this age where every music safely follows a formula, the absence of an experienced guardian means that they miss out on some fundamental studio craft insight. That may perhaps explain the many poorly engineered records that never get to rotate on radio.

Despite all the talk, the small studio man does not look like one to call it quits any time soon. It is almost a given that as soon as the schools go on recess, Seleke, who is responsible for the play listing of local music at Yarona FM, would have to comb through the mass of bedroom studio records looking for one that would make the play list with little success yet again. Looking on the bright side, the fact that a lot of the records she receives are from students may point to a creative future.

Perhaps one bold statement that the phenomenon makes is that everyone can do just about everything in an age where the worldwide web is king – the one place where the studio craft is demystified and the illegal sharing of software files occurs.

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The Telegraph October 28

Digital edition of The Telegraph, October 28, 2020.