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Talkback: Ross Dorkin

South African Musician & Producer By William Stokes
Published July 2023


“The joke, for me, is that on some level, you only become a producer when you start calling yourself a producer,” laughs South African musician and producer Ross Dorkin. “I probably realised a bit too late, maybe six to eight years into doing it, that I was actually producing!” Having grown up in the coastal town of Pietermaritzburg, it was while studying in Cape Town that Dorkin met future bandmate Matt Field. Together with drummer Robin Brink they would form the band Beatenberg, fusing indie rock and pop with distinctive South African rhythms and playing techniques. Arguably the band’s biggest break came courtesy of Mumford & Sons’ Johannesburg EP, a collaborative body of tracks recorded with Beatenberg, celebrated Senegalese singer Baaba Maal and Malawian trio the Very Best.

Since then Dorkin has diligently cultivated his career as a producer and engineer alongside his work as an artist. Having travelled to London to undertake a Masters degree at Goldsmiths University, specialising in spatial audio composition with Dolby Atmos, Dorkin continues to live and work in the city, but remains “very much plugged into the African continent”.

At the moment I can’t stop listening to

There are at least two things that I can’t stop listening to. One is Oklou, she’s a French alternative pop singer. For me, she’s just a got completely unique voice, harmonically and timbrally. She’s got a mysterious sort of background — you don’t really know exactly what she studies or what she’s about. But if you see her show, or hear her Galore recordings, they’re a beautiful, unique approach to harmony and melody. I think, in the same way that Caroline Polachek and Rosalía have grown in the last three or four years, she’s the next wave.

With Rosalía, it all just comes back to rhythm, you know, which is a big thing for me. And I don’t want to say it’s just because I come from where I come from, but those are the idiosyncrasies that you bring to different countries. More than almost anything else, it’s your sense of rhythm, your sense of groove, your sense of syncopation: that feels very endemic to where we’re from, and it’s not something that you can really fake. I think with Rosalía; the rhythmic identity, the melodic focus, the production focus, they’re never superficial. There’s never anything unnecessary. It’s just so beautifully executed, always.

The project I’m most proud of

I think, probably, the last Roo Panes record [The Summer Isles], just because I had so much fun doing it. I think we got a lot of really beautiful moments recorded on that. It’s very acoustically focused. From an engineering and a production perspective, it was something where I just felt like I got the sounds that I wanted. It was the most ideal record making process, really: we literally just went in, recorded the sounds and then barely had to mix it! And it was done! I think we did most of the mixes in one afternoon, on the final day. I did one revision, and I had, maybe two notes. For the whole record. That’s how smooth it was.

It was also the process, as well, just being in the studio. We just had a really good time and enjoyed it so much together. And I felt like I made really good friends with the guys I was working with. So it was a real pleasure. It’s funny, you can be proud of the result of something, but you can also be proud of something because of the experience that you had. And the experience the artist had too. It’s not always just about the sonic product, if that makes sense. Right from the first test sessions that Roo and I had, we just got a sense of ease with each other and I felt we could be really honest. We could trust each other’s decisions without having too much conversation about what the reverb sounded like, or whatever. For example, Roo doesn’t really like having any bass on the recordings. I think I played, like, three bass notes on the whole record! And It was quite fascinating to work in that way. For me it was so stimulating, in such a different way, I suppose. And I really do honestly feel like production is about making someone feel like they can be more themselves. I hope that he felt that way about this record. I think he did.

The first thing I look for in a studio

Does all the gear work? That’s probably the first question I’ll ask: what works and what doesn’t, because there can be so much superfluous equipment around that just doesn’t function. And maybe that’s cool. I can dig it. You can work around that stuff. But, man, I’ll just need to ask, “Is there a good basic vocal chain? Do I have a set of Coles 4038s?” I can do a lot with three mics. I just need a good vocal chain: a [Neve] 1073... An SM7, for that matter! It doesn’t have to be a fancy vocal mic, but you need a good vocal chain and at least a clean stereo pair, and some extras that actually work. That’s key, for me.

The person I would consider my mentor

I think it would be my childhood music teacher, Jimmy Freeborn, who I studied with for eight years. He was certainly a mentor for me in terms of getting into music and thinking about music in this dynamic and open, and — for lack of a better term — a spiritual way, reflecting on the spiritual dimension of music. He had a really balanced view on genre, on approaches to making music, and on why you even make music, as a person. Most of our lessons, after six years, were more conversations than they were about learning anything! He taught me guitar, bass, music theory, composition... He was quite a mad guy. He looked almost like a doppelgänger of John Lennon. He had a massive, incredibly well organised vinyl library, a cassette library, a CD library, and also an actual library of books. Everything was meticulously catalogued. So if I asked for, say, a certain kind of choral music, he would give me a mix CD of that. If I was like, “I want more of that,” he’d give me five more CDs! I was 13 or 14 years old, getting into things like the Residents and their album Duck Stab. And just lapping it up. You know, that’s the kind of thing that not many 13‑year‑olds in South Africa have access to. He had actually played with my father, who was a musician for 25 years, playing in bands. My father passed away when I was 10, and I only started playing music a few months after my dad died. So his best friend was my mentor.

My go‑to reference track or album

It’s probably gonna be ‘Malamente’ by Rosalía. That on the speakers always gives me a very good indication of things in the room. And also, more recently, some of the tracks from Marcus Mumford’s new record that he made with Blake Mills, especially the first couple of tracks. They’re just a really good indication of a good vocal sound and a good acoustic guitar sound. And then, probably Caroline Polachek. Probably like ‘Bunny Is A Rider’, or something like that. That also gives me a good feeling for the room I’m working in.

My top tip for a successful session

Leave your shit at the door! Don’t let your stress influence the temperature of the room. If you’re able to keep talking and keep the energy up without anyone knowing what’s going wrong then you’ve won. And there might be some legitimate issues going on. It’s a lesson every day. And it’s hard, but that is the job. It’s keeping the energy good and relaxed, no matter what happens. And things are gonna happen! I think that’s the actual draining pressure on engineers or producers, on a long‑term basis. You are the temperature in the room, all of the time. You have to keep up that energy, and people expect that of you. And, I think, rightfully so.

Ross Dorkin: The best productions and recordings, for me, feel like they couldn’t possibly have been made in any conceivable, physical, brick‑and‑mortar room on this planet.

The studio session I wish I’d witnessed

Oh, well: Voodoo by D’Angelo. Obviously! To get more specific: ‘Untitled (How Does It Feel)’, that track. Can you imagine just being there! The best productions and recordings, for me, feel like they couldn’t possibly have been made in any conceivable, physical, brick‑and‑mortar room on this planet. It just feels like there’s no way you could visualise that magic, of what that room could actually be in reality. It’s so beyond that. It’s intimate, but it’s expansive. Deep, which is a very hard thing to get right. But it’s dry and close. It never feels like it’s lacking, never feels like it’s wanting for anything.

The producer I’d most like to work with

At this point, probably Blake Mills. He seems like the kind of person who would allow people to go wherever the hell they wanted, but still be able to get an incredibly unique, almost iconic result.

The part of music creation I enjoy the most

Is it cheesy to say it’s just when you enjoy the process itself? I’m trying to find a better way of wording it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m less interested in the final product, and more interested in the process. Because I know that if the process is good, the final product will be good. And I know if the artist enjoys the process and I enjoy the process, and it’s a good energy in the session, then even if a vital part isn’t good, it’s still gonna be good. Because the whole feeling towards making the music will be good, and it will make you want to make more music. That’s my feeling towards it. If you get that right, then everything else will follow naturally.

The advice I’d give myself of 10 years ago

Don’t always think that everyone else in the room knows more than you. I think impostor syndrome is a difficult thing to deal with, in different environments and with different engineers, but try to find a way to maintain being yourself, asking questions when you need to, but don’t always assume that everyone knows. It’s about finding a balance between having a thirst for knowledge and not feeling like you’re constantly the least knowledgeable person in the room. Your ideas are always valuable, regardless of your technical knowledge.