Mick Evans and Rebeka Rain with a new member to the team, Stefan Wyeth from Cape Town, form the production team of Melpro Studio in Philadelphia, just outside of Cape Town. Philadelphia is a far cry from their Australian and European routes. Mick used to be one of the most sought-after DJ’s of the 80’s and the 90’s and travelled the world playing some of the biggest clubs and venues around.
He also did writing, recordings and production work which eventually led to the creation of Melpro Studios in Australia. Rebeka Rain is an accomplished singer songwriter and pursued a music career after her career as a professional in-demand horse jockey came to an end. Why would two people from such diverse backgrounds come together as a production team and open a world-class studio in Philadelphia, South Africa of all places? Here is their story.
What made you decide to open Melpro Studio here in Philadelphia South Africa of all places?
Mick: Originally it started with a friend of mine, Duncan Mackay of 1OCC, Cockney Rebel and Kate Bush (who also works with the team). I moved from England to Australia and Duncan moved from England to Cape Town. He’s been here for 20 years or so. Kyle (Petersen) recorded his PROJECT ONE album with Duncan. Roughly during that time, we were busy recording a new Rebeka Rain album in Australia. There was one song that we thought needed an orchestral score. Duncan flew out to Australia to compose the score and he brought the PROJECT ONE cd along. I listened to it and thought that this guy (Kyle) is really good. So, I rang Kyle up (they say it was 3 o’clock in the morning in South Africa but the sun was shining in Australia) and we flew him out to Australia.
Rebeka: We recorded 5 songs together.
Mick: That was in a matter of days. We just clicked. That’s the way we used to record music. We would just all go into the studio and never had any idea what we were going to do. That’s where the magic comes. The day when you sit alone at home trying to perfect a song, you’re never going to get it right. You will get a perfection of the song that you want to hear. But when there is a bunch of people around and everybody is spinning off each other, that is when the magic happens. That is what they call “the magic of the studio”. It’s not the gear, it’s the personalities. You can always perfect it afterwards but the actual spark of it is when you are together. And that is what happened with us and Kyle. It was just instant.
After the recordings, Kyle came back to South Africa and we stayed in contact – we became great friends. Then Rebeka and I were writing stuff for a company in Denmark who was looking for songs for young artists for Eurovision and that sort of stuff. So, we ended up writing 20 songs for them. Then we had a song that the three of us were doing and they asked, hey, is there a band? I said, yeah, of course, there is.
Rebeka: So we got straight in contact with Kyle and said that we have to come up with a band name. So we called ourselves LIFE.
Mick: Then we said to Kyle that we must get an album done. We got Kyle and Darren (Kyle’s brother) to jump on a plane back to Australia. We clocked 272 hours in the studio in 12 days.
Rebeka: They had a half-day off because they were jet-lagged when they arrived.
Mick: There was a videographer there that recorded everything and there are 272 hours of actual footage. That’s how we know how many hours we spent in there. There were a couple of songs that we revisited, and we wrote and recorded about 8 new songs. I then started organising visas for Kyle to come to Australia so that we could become a production team. At that time Kyle got a call from a top SA artist and he started performing with them. They started talking about building a studio one day and Kyle mentioned our studio. We ended up arriving with 7 and a half tons of gear. We flew over a couple of times and met with them to discuss the details before we shipped everything over.
What made this place so special?
Mick: The difference between Melpro Studio studio and say a studio in town or wherever, is that this is a working studio in the fact that we work it. We are the artists and we are the production team. This basically stems from the days back in England when I was mucking around in the Stock, Aitken and Waterman scene and all that. It was a production house. What I got out of the ’80s with working with all these places in England is that these places are factories. They make a record, and somebody takes it to market. At Melpro Studio we are in-house production. If you work in the studio yourself people come in, we take the time out and we make records. And at the times we are off we make our own records.
Rebeka: There is hardly a day when this desk (mixing) is off.
Do you release all your records under “Life”?
Rebeka: LIFE was only one album and then also one under the name Rebeka Rain and Mick Evans. I’ve got about 5 albums out and a few singles. We also write a lot for other people.
Mick: With the second Rebeka Rain album that I got involved with I brought a friend over from the UK to co-write with us, John Fiddler. Les Hall (Ted Mulry Gang) did some guitar work for us. He was the original AC/DC guitarist. He and Malcolm (Young) started AC/DC. Max T Barnes from Nashville co-wrote the 2nd song on the album. Between him and his father (Max D Barnes) they have written 33 number one worldwide hits (for among others Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Taylor Swift and Garth Brookes).
We do a lot of collaboration, which brings us to why we are here. We are here for the talent. We have charted almost everywhere, but we have almost never heard anything from South Africa. We’ve heard the people that broke out like Johnny Clegg. Peter Gabriel would come over to SA and do his rhythmic parts, so you think that it must be a rhythmic country.
Another friend of mine, Harri Kakouli from a band called The Squeeze, came over to SA for 5 years to learn African rhythms. Together we did the dance world fusion albums 1,2 and 3 which are still charting to this day. So I thought well maybe that is what South Africa does, rhythm. But when we came the first time however I heard incredible talent and thought well why isn’t the world hearing this?
Then we came back again and got involved with a radio station and realised that what was missing was putting together a production for the world. I would listen to the radio and hear a song from Taylor Swift or Beyonce and be impressed by the international production and realised that this is exactly what South Africa is missing. The problem is not the talent, it is the production to get it out of the country. So I thought maybe there is something that we can help with. Maybe we can develop artists and bring a little bit of glue to what they’ve already got. We don’t want to take away from what they’ve got because there is so much talent here.
Well, thanks for doing it!
Mick: Well I might as well give you the whole story. I had 3 Apple stores in Australia and a studio. We also had a pro-audio division and we were the dealers for Nord, Kurzweil, Marshall and all that. Rebeka came into one of my shops and told the staff that she wanted to make some music. So the staff sent her over to me in the studio.
Rebeka: I had done a demo album with a small studio and was ready for the next step. So I went up to talk to Mick and he agreed to listen to my cd. There was one song Don’t listen to the darkness that Mick really connected with. It is actually the song that brought us, Duncan and Kyle, together. I wrote that after my son took his own life.
Mick: Rebeka was one of the first famous female horse jockeys in Australia.
Rebeka: Most of my career has been riding horses all over the world. Now we just love making music. We make everything from folk to dance to house albums. We are currently busy mixing a new album for Duncan which is full-on prog-rock.
So who supervised the building of Melpro Studio?
Mick: We did it ourselves, everything that is in Melpro Studio. The timber, the lot. We did not want to trust anyone else to understand soundproofing. Everyone wanted to connect the roof to the concrete ceiling. So I designed the roof and showed it to the builders, which they appreciated. We brought the doors over from Australia. The whole room is floating. There are 6 and a half kilometres of cable in this room going into the console.
Let’s talk studio techniques. When you record a drum kit for instance, are there specific mics that you prefer?
Mick: Every person that records drums will have their way and theory to get what they want. A lot of it depends on where you are and in what room you are. If I’m in another studio my method will differ from what I will use in Melpro Studio. I have my go-to mics but what makes it easier is having a console like this one. This SSL desk (SSL Duality SE) has an analog and a digital side. It will run two DAWS at once, Protools, Logic, Ableton, whatever 2 you want in there.
I can have Logic running in the background and Protools in the front telling Logic what to do. This desk is number 201 that was built and they just can’t keep up with manufacturing. Now drums are also analog. Trying to record drums digitally means that it will hit the analog to digital converters and usually people don’t want to spend a lot of money on converters. It ends up not being a true thing. The converters we have here at Melpro Studio are $8000 each. Some people only want to spend R5000 which will obviously not have the same kind of circuitry. With these, we get very close to analog.
Analog has come back in a huge way, not only from a console point of view but also records. This Denmark company we did some work for were sending between 20 and 30 thousand vinyls to Japan per month just to supply the demand. Panasonic went back into manufacturing Technics turntables. The first run was 10 million.
We have a mastering machine specifically for vinyl. People might think that it is a new trend. It can start off as one under young people that did not grow up with vinyl, but when they put on a vinyl the sonic difference is there. I love the idea of digital but I want the analog sound. So in terms of drums, it also depends on the player. I will use different mics for hard hitters than for softer hitters.
So you will use both analog and digital each to their own strength?
Mick: Yes. It is also in a way determined by what the product requires.
Rebeka: Although we have the analog outboard gear we will also use plugins where we feel it can be more effective.
Mick: I get sent a lot of plugins by various software companies but my go-to ones are from Brainworx, Sonics, Oxford and SPL. SSL also has plugins specifically for this desk to emulate the channel strips. Brainworx then tried to do the same and I think they came closer. The plugins are getting better and better because the computer processing power has become available that can handle more and more.
The computer we use here at Melpro Studio has 64 gigs of memory so it can deal with what the big plugins require. Even though I’ve got mastering hardware there are specific mastering plugins that I will never bypass. I have been trying to marry digital and analog for more than 30 years. I used to run the vocals through analog tape machines and the rest through digital. I have done things backwards and upside down just to get the best sonic sound between analog and digital for what I wanted. There is no real best between the two. It comes down to what suits your project.
When you work with an artist what do you expect from them? What must they bring to the party to put out a great record?
How do you define attitude?
Mick: One thing I am good at is reading people. I get a lot of emails every day and people are sending tracks all the time. I listen to everybody’s music, I always do. For some, I will ask to come back in 6 months’ time cause people get better at everything. As far as I am concerned if you can play an instrument or sing you can make a record. If you come to me with an ego it’s not going to work. But I also insist that you have an ego otherwise you will not be on stage. That is where your ego shines through.
But when we are here in the factory, the personalities have to click for me. I am not here to take your money if we don’t click, cause the pain I am going to go through is not worth it. You got to have attitude and you got to believe in yourself. I usually ask the artist, who are you? Then they will say something like: Well, I want to sound like Rihanna. Well, that’s all well and good but unfortunately, she is doing a very good job of being herself. She has already done it.
Rebeka: And you are never going to do it quite as well.
Mick: Then I all say to them is to come to me with who they are and then we’ve got something to work with.
Rebeka: The most exciting artists to work with are those who know who they are and what they want, but they are not precious about it to the point that it has to sound like this or be exactly like that.
Mick: In the 80’s they used to dress us up because beauty became a marketing thing. So when you finished a record they would put you on a plane to Hollywood and there was a company that would listen to your music and then design you. Haircuts, costumes, everything. Now I would say come to my factory as you are and let’s design to that. No one can do you better than you. Own you.
I am now at the point where I am giving my knowledge back. Although I am still learning every day, I am not holding anything back. I am giving away information to others and hopefully, they will take it and evolve it and it will become a new thing that someone else will capture. You’ve only got so many days to live and you should make it count. We are fortunate and lucky in doing what we do. We have our factory and we come and work in our Melpro Studio factory. We are here 7 days a week.