Studio Pro-Audio

The only way is up for Downtown Studios

Wed, 23 Jul 2014 15:12

Studio 1 at Downtown Studios

The South African music industry undoubtedly has a rich heritage. While many people are aware what transpired in our music scene during isolation in the deplorable apartheid years, there are very few monuments from that era left to remind us of our recording legacy. However, there is still one place in Johannesburg that has fared the winds of change; where many of the greats of not only the local recording industry were immortalised, but those of the international fraternity as well.

Downtown Studios, now part of the Downtown Music Hub, is back to life. It is one of the last, if not the only large format commercial recording facility left in Johannesburg and it has survived the tumultuous ebb and flow of the industry over the past 35 years. Indeed, many people were left wondering about its fate after it lay in limbo for quite a while despite remaining in operation somewhat under the radar. But it still stands today; now in a state of revitalisation with its bow pointed straight at the horizon of the future.

The closing of commercial studios is a concerning phenomenon worldwide. Even now, as this is being written, the historic 50-year old RCA studios in Nashville, currently managed by piano-pop phenomenon Ben Folds, is in danger of being closed due to a resale of the property to a Texas-based commercial development company. This is a recurring and often sad story for places like RCA Nashville that literally changed the world, yet is now in danger of being cast aside in obsolescence.

The digital age brought about a complete and utter revolution to the recording industry with the widespread availability of cheap digital recording gear and the proliferation of the MP3. The CD format dwindled, people stopped buying albums and this had the knock-on effect, in as few words as possible, of shrinking the label-driven budgets that were keeping these commercial studios in business. The massive overheads of running a facility on that scale quickly became the end-game for many and the industry was forced to change its MO. Indeed, RCA New York is now office space for the IRS. There’s a sick sense of irony in there somewhere.

Downtown Studios is different, however. It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. The facility, now going on its 35th year in operation, has received a breath of new life under the auspices of the National Arts Council and the Department of Arts and Culture who clearly see the value in what amounts to ‘our RCA Nashville’; bidding to support burgeoning local artists and uplift the local recording industry in general. It is now a division of the Downtown Music Hub, an initiative by the Department to create a hive of creativity in the music sector.

Chola Makgamathe, CEO of the Downtown Music Hub says: “Once the section 21 entity was established (currently operating as the Downtown Music Hub), its board embarked on a process of developing a business plan which sought to address some of the challenges in the music industry that had been identified by the Department. The plan outlines a 20 year vision to become players in various aspects of the music value chain and utilise this position to benefit the sector. One of the areas is of course production and the plan was to recapitalise the studios so that local artists could have access to state-of-the-art facilities to record their music. In order to do this, we purchased consoles and other equipment from Solid State Logic and other suppliers and should be finished with the entire studio refurbishment process by the end of July.”

Pro Systems recently caught up with long-time Studio Manager Darryl Heilbrunn to talk about the past, present and future of Downtown Studios. This is its history. This is its story. This is its future.


Downtown Studios was established as RPM Studios in 1979 by ex-Gramophone Record Company Salesman Matt Mann and Producer Dan Hill, the duo that founded RPM Records in 1969.

Matt Mann handled A&R while Dan Hill was a producer, clarinettist and a band leader and, in fact, produced the first album to acquire gold status in South Africa entitled, Happy Days Are Here Again. Kevin Kruger, the legendary South African drummer and producer, later joined them along with Grammy-award winning John Lindemann, who became the studio’s first manager. The studio ran with the five at the helm for a few years until ownership changed hands.

“RPM Studios was part of RPM Records, which was situated in this building where RPM ran the record label from,” explains Heilbrunn. “In 1982 the Gallo Record Company bought RPM Records and RPM Studios so we, then as RPM Studios, became part of Gallo. The name was then changed to Downtown Studios in 1991. The reason for that was Gallo felt that, seeing as we were servicing other labels, perhaps it would be better if we had a neutral name.”

RPM Records was also absorbed as a label affiliate that, at that time, specialised in ‘white’ genres of music such as rock, Afrikaans pop music and the famous Bump dance compilations. However, despite the oppressive political climate at that time RPM Studios was a place of refuge for people in the industry who wished to escape from the Group Areas Act and interference from the authorities. It was fertile ground for collaborations between musicians of all colours and indeed became a sanctuary for artists involved in political activism who used their music as a mechanism to invoke change and expose the atrocities of the ruling National Party.

RPM Studios subsequently produced a slew of superstar artists and a mountain of hits by such names as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse and Don Laka. Notable producers who likewise made RPM their home were greats like West Nkosi, Hamilton Nzamande, Tom Mkhize, Richard Siluma and many others. It’s had its share of collaborations with international artists as well, and indeed the studios became somewhat famous for this.

In 1989 Manfred Mann recorded his hit album Plains Music in Studio 2. Simon Le Bon and Duran Duran also got the bug to record while on tour here and ended up at Downtown Studios only to emerge two days later with an album combining Brit pop with township-style inflections. Simply Red recorded their hit single We’re in This Together in five days, that featured 20 South African session vocalists. And, of course, who could forget Paul Simon’s Graceland which was by and large recorded there in 1985 in collaboration with many local musicians such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Graceland went on to sell 14 million copies worldwide and won the 1987 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Later on, in a twist of serendipity, its title track won Song of the Year in 1988.

RPM remained an operational division of the Gallo Group for 30 years until 2010 when the Department of Arts and Culture got interested in the studios and eventually purchased them from Gallo in a bid to become an “agent of change for the advancement of human capital development, job creation and entrepreneurship in the industry” and to “facilitate economic empowerment of South African artists”.

Despite all of these changes, Downtown Studios prides itself on never having closed its doors in its 35-year existence. However, Heillbrun will admit that in recent years the frequency of feet walking through the door did wain somewhat.

“Home studios, computers and software that allowed people to record in their bedrooms or garages definitely had an effect [on business]. People are recording fairly decent sounding stuff in their home studios. However, I say ‘fairly decent’ because we still feel there is a place for professional studios. If one listens very carefully to the average sound quality of recordings these days, you’ll actually hear that it’s decreased over the years. It’s become quite hard, harsh, digital and homogenous. Whereas, in the analogue days there was a lot more actual engineering going on to create the sound you were after.”

The studios, the upgrade

“We made a conscious decision not to build an incredibly technical and perfect facility because we didn’t believe that technology alone was the basis of an excellent recording,” explains Heilbrunn. “We felt that you needed good acoustics, which we did – our rooms were designed by Jean Knopperson and Ivan Lin; proper acousticians. You need average speakers, not mind blowing ones, because they put you in another world. We just felt that if we had a good SSL console, good tape machines and good room acoustics, that was enough.”

Downtown Studios comprises three studios: Studio 1, Studio 2 and Studio 3 in descending order of size. While most of the floors that encompass the Studios, such as the administrative offices and the reception area have received a complete overhaul and cosmetic upgrade, the studios, besides Studio 3, have remained largely the same due to their classic and original design. Most of the upgrades to the studios have therefore mostly been in respect to the equipment. Studio 1, however, did receive new carpets as the old ones were looking a little long in the tooth while Studio 3 has undergone an entire redesign of its control room.

Studio 1, the largest of the three, has a large control room that originally housed a 48-channel JH-500 MCI console paired to a Studer A27 24-track tape machine with Dolby SR noise reduction. All three studios in fact received these tape machines. The MCI was replaced later on with a 56-channel SSL 4000E with G-series EQ that was obtained from the famous British musician Paul Weller (The Jam).

However, eventually the 4000E broke down which caused Studio 1 to be closed for a while until Downtown Studios received new funding. Eventually the funding was procured because of their new partnership with the Department of Arts and Culture and, as part of their upgrade plan for the facility, Studio 1 received a brand new 72-channel SSL Duality SE console, a 64-channel Avid HDX system with the MADI I/O, SSL MX Alpha Link converters, Adam S3X monitors and an Apple Mac Pro to run recording software.

Studio 2 has remained largely unchanged with the original 48-channel Harrison MR-series console staying put. However, a Pro Tools system has been installed along with SSL MX Alpha Link converters and an Apple Mac Pro.

Studio 3, the smallest of the three, has undergone the most dramatic metamorphosis. Originally housing a Neve console purchased from the SABC, a Soundcraft console was then installed as its replacement until finally a Sony MXP-3606 found its way in, which stayed there for many years. The new revitalisation project will see, as mentioned, the control room completely redesigned for better acoustics with the addition of a 48-channel SSL AWS 948 II mixing console with virtually the exact same Pro Tools HDX/MADI/Alpha Link system installed in Studio 1. Adam S3X H midfield speakers will also be featured.

The wrap

Downtown studios, it seems, has had a breath of new life. This is most positive for the future of South African artists and, given the spirit of its mandate, the Department of Arts and Culture is clearly behind the growth of the music sector wholeheartedly. The rich history of Downtown Studios and what it represents to so many is invaluable to our future because, after all, if you don’t know where you’ve come from, you can’t possibly know where you’re headed. Long live Downtown Studios!