Gavan Eckhart – ASE’s MasterMix Winner at MediaTech 2019

Stephan met up with Gavan Eckhart at his Soul Fire Studio in Johannesburg to find out a little more about him and to talk about the MasterMix competition at MediaTech 2019.

ASE- How has your week been?
GE- It’s been pretty good, pretty busy. I’m busy doing an installation at an established restaurant called SA Culinary Club in the Hobart Grove Centre in Bryanston and it is looking to be quite an exciting development. It’s an open kitchen, so people can go there for chef training or just to eat. I know about them because they had some live events there with Mandla Mlangeni who I supplied some backline for. I’ve got a whole bunch of preparation works in the pipeline, like the Zeitz Mocaa Installation that I’m doing for William Kentridge and the museum. We are doing all the AV integration for 22 projectors and 5 flat screens, so there is a lot of pre-production stuff. It keeps my brain sore, but hopefully it will pay some bills at the end of it all.

ASE- How and when did your music career start?
GE- Look, I have been doing music all my life. My dad was a musician and producer at the SABC and I started doing parties in high school. It started off with my Hi-Fi and then progressed to a PA, and then I started doing small shows for my dad. But basically it started at the Bassline in Melville with me as a sound engineer, working there part-time with the likes of Dave Tudor, Peter Pearlson and various other engineers who were involved in the music industry and the Bassline. From working there I met a guy called Ian Osrin, who has a studio called Digital Cupboard Studios. I became an intern there, started by making tea, and by that time I already had a good sense of what was going on because I was already working on some studio programmes. That is why it didn’t take long for me to progress from teaboy to being their tracking engineer. I tracked a few basic productions and at the time I got in there, two very interesting clients came in.

The first one was a guy called Nelson Lumumba Lee, who is Miriam Makeba’s grandson, and they started pre-production on the Miriam Makeba album through the Gallo Record Company. We formed a bond and became friends. I wound up doing the pre-production of the album. Then when it came time to track the album, I thought I would hand it over to a bigger studio or another engineer. But he said that he wanted me to track the album. So I did! Then it came to mixing and I thought “They will definitely send this off to someone”. But they said “No, we want you to mix it.” Then in the end I was like “Ok, well please send this for mastering to someone,” because I was 21/22 years old, very fresh in the studio, with less than a year’s experience. But I wound up mastering as well! It was quite, like, a big introduction to the process and that really stands out for me.

The other guy that came in was Philip Miller, who is a very well-known film and television composer. I think the project he was working on at the time was Thula, a lullaby project. We also forged a great bond and have been working together ever since in fact. We have done music for countless movies like Catch A Fire with Tim Robbins, Bang Bang Club, and White Lions, so I got very involved in becoming a score engineer and working with audio visual. Because Ian had other things going on at the time, I started doing a lot of projects like this. It helped that the studio had been fairly well established through albums like Maluwe with Jabu Khanyile and various other South African classics.

Now Philip is also the key to William Kentridge’s involvement because he has been a composer for William’s productions, multimedia films and theatre productions. William is an incredibly talented and well respected fine artist and works in the realms of animation, stop motion animation, theatre productions, opera, avant-garde cultural collaborations with dances, musicians, poets, sculptors, artisans, etc. He is probably the biggest star I have ever worked with, and I have worked with quite a few stars. From working with Philip, I developed a relationship with the Kentridge Studio, and with William himself, as being a trusted sound guy who is able to think outside the box. I was challenged to record marching bands in the streets of Alexandra and translate that into a multi-channel audio mix that goes into museums all over the world, to then installing these multi-channel audio presentations.

There was a moment where I realized that this was something I was capable of doing, and of doing it fairly well. It came naturally and it was instant gratification, like this is something I’m really good at and something people appreciate about my skills. And my development and background was able to just really all come together in this amazing thing! These things all tie in together like the people you meet early on in your career and how you start off often dictates where you are going to wind up 10, 15, 20 years down the line. So I actually got lucky working at the Digital Cupboard, but again, it was a nice opportunity that was opened up to me by the connections that I had. That was something I seized with both hands. One of the things that still stays with me from Ian’s studio is he always used to say to me: “Don’t come to work if you don’t want to. This is a creative field, and you must want to come to work; you have to be self-motivated you have to push yourself if you want to achieve anything.

ASE- Who/what is the biggest names/projects you have worked on?
GE- It is hard to say exactly because there are so many realms in which I work. I don’t necessarily only work as a studio engineer, but ultimately I suppose William is one of my most prominent clients and keeps me very busy. We have played in Paris, at the Salzburg Festival, in some incredible contemporary art museums like the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen, never mind in Wellington, Brazil, Japan and Boston. There’s also Freshlyground; I’m a big fan first of all and that is partly why I got into the #MasterMix competition. They are also my friends; I’ve been on tour with them to America, Canada, the SADC region, and Dubai, and yet I’m still friends with them, which is surprising as well because often being on the road can be a true test of your friendship.

I often say that I’m really famous to the most famous people you have probably never heard of because I work in so many different realms from jazz to hip hop, from theatre and fine arts to indigenous music. Some of the coolest experiences I’ve had were with Pops Mohamed for a project called Southern Rhythms where we got to record traditional music from like 12 different places in South Africa. We went to Giyani, Kimberley, and Cape Town and recorded at a shrine up in the mountains and at the St. George’s Cathedral with the choir there. From bushman in Kimberley to Indian Classical music in the Lotus shaped temple in Durban, which for me was one of the most amazing experiences, seeing the whole country and the amazingly rich cultural diversity that we have. I was also very blessed to work with a band called Stimela, tied in through the Digital Cupboard. I met this guy called Thabelo Kgomo who produced Simphiwe Dana, and we went on to play festivals from Ga Motlatla to Witbank to the back of beyond in the stix and everywhere in between. That was really an amazing opportunity for me to experience the diversity of South Africa and the musical heritage that is not always understood by the majority of people in this country.

Probably the biggest selling album I have worked on was Nathi Mankayi’s album, which went 5 times Platinum. The irony is that my name isn’t on it, I just wasn’t credited. That’s just the thing with the music industry in my experience: that the biggest album I have been a part of, which we recorded right here in Soul Fire Studios, I never got credit for. But the first vinyl I ever worked on, which I recorded, mixed and mastered, is just William speaking gibberish for 45 minutes! And it is less than perfect with page turning and throat clearing. It is a very warts-and-all type of recording, very archival in a sense, which is just great!

ASE- Where did you hear about the #MasterMix competition?
GE- Facebook? Instagram? Somewhere on social media… Come to think of it, it actually popped up on the South African Sound Engineers page, so I thought, this couldn’t be too hard!

ASE- What did you think of the other mixes?
GE- I preferred some of the other #MasterMix mixes! I thought I voted for myself, but it turned out it was Louis’ mix! There is a huge element of luck to these kinds of things as well, obviously there is some skill, but it is about context as well. I think the reason I won (I know you didn’t ask me, but I want to tell you), I think the edge that I had (besides knowing Freshlyground and their music which is probably a lot of people aren’t as intimate as I am with it), is I have an emotional connection to it. And if you can find the emotion in a song and use that to push your mix forward, then you will be the winner every time. I was able to find that emotion and really capture it and bring it out.

I try to let emotion shine through. I try to be the window between the audience and the performer. I find that is a very good analogy, and I’m always aiming for transparency, so I want the listener to feel like they are with the performer, like they are close, connected. Of course if it is a recording, they can’t be in the same room at the same time. The only thing that can really connect the performer and listener is that emotion. So by focussing on those ideas and concepts of emotional connection, you can bring those two things much closer and become this transparent window. A window is always there, but if you are looking at a view through a clean window, you are not going to say “This is a nice window”, you say “It is a nice view.” So if you don’t notice the mix, then you have done it right.

ASE- What project are you working on now?
GE- I have been doing some vocals for the Jaziel Brothers and then mastering for Isithembiso, the TV series. I’m working on a film called Judas, and recently we did a show for Grahamstown FestivalThe Girl with the Magic Paintbrush. I’ve got a weird, interesting Maskande album that I’m trying to get out, which is a personal project. William has an arts incubation project called Centre for the Less Good Idea in Fox Street, Johannesburg. It is a collaborative arts incubator combining multi-disciplinary arts, theatre, fine arts, technology, performance, dance and music. I supply the backline and gear for that.

ASE- How do you like the gear you won?
GE- I think it’s great! The Shure PGA 27’s are great, very versatile for what they are. I have used it a couple of times on cellos and on location recordings. The headphones are lekker! The Soundcraft desk – I needed a desk like that, I have been looking for one like it. I bought a very cheap desk recently that I was actually not happy with, though it did the job on the day and there is nothing wrong with it, but I didn’t feel like it was something I can trust, it wasn’t something I wanted to present as the type of gear I work with.

I feel gear has a very strong bearing on the type of client you have and the type of jobs you can do, so if you present yourself with high-end gear, you can attract high-end clients. You are saying that you have made the investment in something that is more robust, and more trusted than entry level stuff. So having a multi-track USB analogue mixer is just great – I even just bought a bag for it! The studio monitors work great, the iLock I needed! It is already plugged in and labelled. I am quite chuffed with everything, and think that Wild & Marr is a great company and they have some great brands.

ASE- Finally, what about the bursary?
GE- It’s a tough one. I’m nervous to gift it to just anyone, so I’m looking for someone who is able to make the most out of it. What I am going to do is give it back to ASE and together we can look through candidates for this bursary, and will hopefully choose the lucky person soon.