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WHEN Gallo Record Company was selling Downtown Studios for R5 million, the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC), realising its rich history, decided to purchase the building.
The studio is named after the dodgy downtown part of central Joburg, where it is situated. However, this recording studio has seen every major South African musician record and/or rehearse in its large structure.
From rock bands like Sugardrive to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Lucky Dube to the Soul Brothers, they have all recorded at Downtown Studios. The studios have played host to international artists who have recorded there, like Simply Red, Duran Duran, The Hot House Flowers and U2.
The general manager of Downtown Studios, Darryl Heilbreun, recalls when U2 came to record.
“When Attie van Wyk from Big Concerts phoned me to say that U2 wanted to record here, I nearly fell off my chair. I didn’t believe it. It was crazy. We had helicopters hovering above us, there were police and security people.
“They sent their people to set up in the morning and arrived in the afternoon. They brought all their equipment in. They recorded two songs here.”
It was under the reign of Pallo Jordan that the DAC, under the auspices of the National Arts Council, purchased Downtown Studios. The idea was to upgrade the studios and also make them more accessible not only to the big artists, but also to the up-and-coming artists.
However, like most things in government, it took a few years before anything happened.
“They were not sure what to do with this,” explains Heilbreun, “whether to turn it into a training centre, or a record label to help out the inner city musicians. It was Glen Mosakane and Zwelakhe Mbuli who saw the bigger picture and vision. They suggested we fix up the building and studios which is where we are now.”
Indeed, arriving at Downtown Studios, it was no longer that tatty eyesore which looked fit to be inhabited only by cockroaches and other vermin.
The place has been spruced up with new furniture, flooring and a state-of-the-art studio which has a new sound desk with an option of analogue and digital recording.
“It has the tricks of digital, but an analogue sound,” explains Heilbreun. “Today’s recordings of digital are harsh and bland whereas analogue is warmer. Don Laka is the chairperson of the board and we both agreed that this would be the better option. We then consulted top engineers like Peter Pearlson and Neil Solomon and they advised that duality is the way to go.”
However, only one of the two studios has an upgraded desk.
“We kept one studio fully analogue as all the big traditional Zulu artists record here. They prefer the sound that analogue gets and asked us not to change it. It suits their music better.”
Indeed, when I took a peek into that studio, Ihashi Elimhlophe was recording. The music had a lovely, warm vibe, just like the happy man himself.
In the upgraded studio, Rebecca Malope’s producer, Sizwe Zako, and sound engineer, Dave Segal, were working on her new album.
Zako was impressed and grinned from ear to ear. “I was telling Dave how lucky we are to be the first people to record on this desk.This is world class and we have been used to Third World equipment.”
Segal, who has been associated with Downtown Studios for 30 years, agrees: “We had top quality desks before, but this is amazing and the bottom line is the sound.”