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Milestones that matter

In this week's report, Phil Ward talks to one of the key musical figureheads behind the anti-apartheid movement, Warrick Sony, who is based at Milestone Studios in South Africa

We thought we’d celebrate the 21st anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release by talking with a key musician and producer of the anti-apartheid movement, Warrick Sony, who continues to campaign for human rights while remaining – based at Cape Town’s Milestone Studios – a much sought-after composer, engineer and producer in film, TV, sound art and pop. How long have you been at Milestone Studios and how did that relationship develop? “I’ve been at Milestone since 2001. It’s a great place and it’s in the best part of Cape Town. I first met owner Murray Anderson while working on my album (as Kalahari Surfers) Turntabla with UK producer and Orb/Youth collaborator Greg Hunter. We worked at my studio in Cape Town – I’d just moved there after being shot in a hijacking from Jo’burg! – for a couple of months and then moved to Milestone to mix. Greg blew his main speakers. After the dust had settled I merged my gear with Murray’s and we started tackling film scores, sound design and album work.” What gear and techniques do you use for your various projects? “I do everything using a combination of Pro Tools and Ableton live. For sync to picture and set piece recording work I use Pro Tools, but export files to Ableton for editing and punchy production. It’s hard to beat the versatility of Ableton Live for sound design and music composition. I also use the new Melodyne Software for fine control over multi-chordal tuning and experimental techniques. You can make a Mozart piano piece sound like Schoenberg. I can do a wild solo on a weird, out of tune, homemade African instrument then edit and tune it in Ableton, do a whole lot of MIDI work and export the whole thing back to Pro Tools to master.” Is there anything you miss about analogue recording? “I liked the fact that the gear was real. Professional gear was expensive and chunky and you felt like you were getting what you paid for. You could unplug a reverb unit and carry it across to another studio or lend it to a friend… it was a solid piece of metal with cables. I hate the software rip off where one pays the same money for a product that exists more or less virtually. Another thing: the invention of CDs was dumb. Before this your master tapes were sacred; vinyl and cassettes were inferior then suddenly we were handing out master tapes to everyone. This was the cheapening of recorded music.” Do you still feel a political agenda of any kind? “My most recent album is called One Party State. We live in a democracy where if the ruling party were to lose an election – like in Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and elsewhere – the losers would resort to civil war. It’s scary to see the way our rulers are behaving. Corruption and cronyism are undermining our country and sapping our resources. Plus, a new and ugly racism is emerging into the mainstream with ruling party utterances sounding a lot like before. It’s a very political environment and anyone who doesn’t see that is half asleep…” What’s exciting you about the South African music scene at the moment?

“I like the fact that the scene here is so varied. We have small sales and it’s difficult for professional musicans to make huge money like their counterparts in Europe and America, but there is passion and fierce dedication – especially in our live music scenes. Huge crowds support concerts of African house music, called kwaito, as well as trance, dubsteb, rock and Afrikaans-language hip-hop – plus all the possible fusions in between.”