As preparations are underway for the launch of Abbey Road Institute Johannesburg in early 2020, we will be giving you insights from the team behind the new school. In our first interview, we introduce you to Christi van der Colff, an experienced sound engineering graduate with over 20 years of experience as well as an avid businesswoman. 

Christi has been the head of successful companies in the music industry and her career in music has been something of note. Currently, she runs Mastermax Studios in Johannesburg, (where the new Institute will be located). She also heads up the international post production facilities network Post|City. She won a SAMA (South African Music Award) for Best Engineer for her work on Zahara’s hit album ‘Loliwe’ and is also known for her work with Mumford and Sons, One Republic, Jennifer Hudson, Westlife and Joyous Celebration. Her work in film includes movies like Liefling, The Roar, Jagveld (Hunting Emma), Bhai’s Cafe, The Legend of Tarzan, The Giver, Intonga and many more.

Recorded and mixed by Christi van der Colff (previously known as Johan van der Colff)

As part of her role at Abbey Road Institute Johannesburg, she will give regular guest lectures to our music production students. We caught up with Christi to discuss her love of music, education, business and Abbey Road Studios.

How did you get into music production and audio engineering?

I grew up in a musical family and although I learned to play the guitar and later piano I was more interested in the technical side of things from the onset.  While still in school, my grandfather gave us some money to buy a small sound system and I used to mix while my brother performed at events. Later the music bug bit me and I spent my time learning how to play various instruments and expand my own instrumental and singing skills. In my final year of school, we started a band and I ended up taking care of our album recording on a friend’s office computer with a stereo sound card and Wavelab through a very basic live sound-mixing console.  My parents saw that music production and sound engineering was becoming a strong interest for me and encouraged me to pursue a career in the industry.

And what’s an average day like for you now in terms of studio life?

When I’m working on a project, I like to get started early in the morning, even way before dawn as I feel less distracted at that time of the day.  That would normally be when I start prepping for a session. When I’m recording I first plan my workflow, choose the microphones I want to use, allocate pre-amps etc, or I will get started on the session setup for a mix. Once the day gets going and the artists arrive and we get into the creative space of creating music there isn’t always time to go back and re-think the setup and planning side of the process and therefore the quiet time in the morning is very important to my ritual in designing the sound I want to create. 

The rest of the day really depends on what we are busy with.  If we are recording, the days can get very long and be very busy but when I’m mixing, I like to take lots of breaks to let my ears rest and give my mind time to refocus.

You run different studios across South Africa, what has your experience been working in the music industry across those different cities, how does it vary?

Well, for me, music is universal and although we might be working on different genres, in different cities or even with worldwide collaborations sometimes, it stays music at the end of the day. What varies is more the personalities and styles of the artists we work with and that does bring interesting dynamics to the creative process as your environment, headspace and style do play an important role in the creative arts.

Johan van der Colff, Mastermax Studios, Post City

And now you’re opening the first Abbey Road Institute in South Africa. For those that aren’t familiar with Abbey Road Studios, what does it mean to you?

I think for most people in the music industry that have had a bit of global exposure, Abbey Road Studios will ring a bell. Abbey Road Studios has been an Icon in the music world for so many years with a wealth of historic recordings, technology development and award-winning artists being a part of its rich history. The studios also represent much more than just the artists it has produced… it brings forth a legacy of innovation and quality, which is unrivalled. Through the years the growth of my studios and a lot of the methodology I used in production was inspired by Abbey Road.

I learned about Abbey Road Institute from a friend that lectures at the Institute in Paris and through following his posts on Facebook, I became more and more interested in the programme as I have been passionate about education in our industry for many years and seeing their methodology I knew that this was something that we needed to bring to Africa. I am a firm believer in the apprenticeship approach to learning and being able to be immersed in the wisdom and experience gathered over years of music innovation at Abbey Road Studios as well as having access to the worldwide network of connections built, it creates an educational experience that will save students an immense amount of time giving them a springboard into their industry-related chosen careers.

What have been some career highlights for you over the years at Mastermax studios?

There are just so many that we will need to do a separate blog on it! A highlight for me from our international clientele was working with Ryan Tedder and One Republic.  While they were on tour in South Africa they came to Mastermax Studios to work on some music for their album Waking Up. Before they came we were busy with a film score of an African genre film and we had a lot of African percussion in the studio.  Ryan came in early and started playing around with some of the African drums and laid down a loop over which he then started putting down some song ideas. He grabbed our old crappy acoustic guitar that we use when working on song ideas and recorded an epic acoustic rhythm to complement the African percussion beat. The song Everybody Loves Me was born. Over the years I have had the privilege of working with amazing local and international artists and having some musically historic moments in the studios.  We worked with Lebo M (from the Lion King) on the 2010 Fifa World Cup opening ceremony and the whole musical score for the event was recorded and mixed at the studios working with both African and International artists creating a truly World Class African opening ceremony. I also got to record and co-produce the vocals for Westlife’s track Lighthouse from their final album and we made history with the debut album of Zahara called Loliwe, winning the most South African Music Awards for a single album in the history of the awards.

How do you see Abbey Road Institute Johannesburg working alongside Mastermax Studios? What does that mean for your students?

The concept we are following is one where the Institute and the commercial studio integrate seamlessly into an apprenticeship-training programme.  Creating the opportunity for students to be present and involved in commercial world-class recording and music production projects from as early on as possible in their training which provides an invaluable learning opportunity.  Just to be able to sit in on sessions seeing how the established producers, engineers and artists interact, learning first-hand studio etiquette, mic’ing and production techniques, arranging etc, will give so much “real world” experience to the students, enabling them to be fully immersed in the course curriculum offered in our Advanced Programme in Music Production and Sound Engineering, which in turn will enable them to be more employable and ready to launch their careers on successful completion of the course. 

What would be your top piece of advice to aspiring music producers?

Think outside the box and be willing to always keep learning!  We are living in a new world economy where technology is at our fingertips, budgets are tight and clients need service providers that can deliver broad services and quality. Whether you will be working for someone or starting your entrepreneurial journey you will need a broader skill-set that includes musical, technical and business knowledge, as well as a good attitude which combined, will be your key to success.

Are you an aspiring music producer?

If you’d like to find out more about the Advanced Programme in Music Production and Sound Engineering and be part of our first intake get in touch with one of our team.