I have always had what I would term as “an undying fascination” – excuse the irony – with the now defunct Bophuthatswana recording studios, or simply BOP studios. Being an avid student of the local music space, you can imagine I have come to hear and learn of “BOP studios” plenty a times. Be it of the number of monumental works of art produced there, the telling of the faces and stories that have graced the studios or simply the constant emphasis of how colossal the studios were – I have been here for it all.
Naturally, fascination leads to curiosity and that all but explains why I have taken the initiative to write this post. My curiosity in this instance shows concern with not only the reasoning and initial conceptualizing of the studios but also shows concern with their eventual decay. And with that, what follows is an assessment of the concept behind BOP studios, their significance and prominence and lastly a look into their current state and factors that led to this state.
Now, any telling of the story of BOP studios has to begin with Kgosi Lucas Mangope, who to me alongside Khosi Khulu Patrick Mphephu, remain folklore heroes to tales of the places I have come to call home over my lifetime. To date, Ntate Lucas Mangope is spoken highly of in areas that occupied the former Bantustan of Bophuthatswana, he is credited as being a visionary of sorts and a key contributor to the advancement of the community in many senses given his belief in a capitalist free enterprise . He saw value in infrastructure investment and because of this, the area of Mmabatho, now primarily Mafikeng, saw huge infrastructure upgrades during his tenure. Among them was the Bophuthatswana Recording Studios.
Situated in Mmabatho and with the intention of furthering the region and country’s allure, BOP studios were built in 1991 thanks to controversial funding from a government pension fund, this funding was rumored to be in the excess of 900 million rand. Ownership of the studios was held in the pension fund trust while the Bop Broadcasting Corporation installed the recording equipment. Given the large amount of investment, the studios became the third most advanced residential studio in the world.
The studios were built conveniently close to most of the other landmarks of the growing Bophuthatswana economy with the Mmabatho International Airport being only 19 kilometers away.
“A trio of huge, brick-built studio suites are joined together with a two-story building that houses offices and other ancillary rooms. Amusingly, the studio buildings were laid out to resemble the outline of a Rhinoceros, Studio 3 being the head, Studio 2 the forelegs, Studio 1 the hind legs, and the ancillary offices the backbone — with the residential hospitality building forming the rhino’s horn!” ~ Sounds On Sounds
The three studios that were collectively known as BOP studios were designed by American designer Tom Hidley who formed a reputation for himself as a master craftsmen having previously designed studios all round the continent and having over 400 studio designs to his credit. BOP studios all had simillar volume and layed out control rooms but featured different equipment types and sizes of live rooms. Each control room was equipped with a set of flush-mounted Kinoshita RM-7V monitors by Rey Audio featuring T.A.D. transducers, capable of 130 dB. The studios also hosted the first ever installation of the Kinoshita Infra-Sonic systems which could reproduce 9 Hz at 105 dB, something never done before at the time.
Studio One featured two spacious isolation booths, a drum podium, a Fazioli 9-feet Grand Piano, a Sonor Signature Series drum set, and a custom built Focusrite Studio Console number 5 which is the largest of only 10 ever built. The studio 1 live room can accommodate a 120 piece orchestra.
Studio Two also had the Fazioli 9-feet Grand Piano and Sonor Signature Series drum set. In addition they were also fitted with a custom built NEVE VRP96 console. The studio two live room was acoustically designed with a suitability to a “rock and roll” feel, it could accommodate a 60 piece orchestra and also had 2 seperate isolation booths and a drum podium.
Studio Three was fitted with a Solid State Logic SL4000G+ custom built console, nicknamed “The Dream Machine”. The studio was the smallest and best suited for overdubs, sequenced projects and mixing of albums.
In their first few years of existence prior to Bophuthatswana’s reincorporation to South Africa, BOP studios operated independently. Albums by Stimela, Sipho Mabuse, Prophets Of da City and Mahlathini and The Mahotella Queens were some of the first to be recorded in the studios. However, given the ongoing political tensions in South Africa in that period, the international appeal the conceptualizers of the studios had hoped for was put on hold as there was a reluctance from international artists to work there.
Greater prominence was gained post 1993 when the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) took over the studios allowing for the likes of Lucky Dube (the album Trinity among others), Hugh Masekela (the album Sixty), Letta Mbulu (Not Yet Uhuru), Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba, and Sibongile Khumalo (Ancient Evening) to record projects there. Another prominent recording was that of Disney’s award-winning The Lion King soundtrack with Elton John.
In addition the SABC also used the studios for in house recordings for both TV and Radio content. The SABC Choristers also made use of the facilities.
… and Now?
The demise of BOP studios began on the dawn of South African democracy when Bophuthatswana was reincorporated into South Africa in 1993. The reincorporation meant that the South African Broadcasting Corporation took over the studios, however, given the ownership deal mentioned above the SABC only took ownership of the assets, in the form of recording equipment, and were left paying rent to the pension fund trustees. The SABC then effectively abandoned the assets to the Public Investment Commissioners (PIC) – who manage government assets – in 2001 after complaining about excessive rental fees. Inevitably the PIC sold off some of the equipment for lower unrationed prices. Thus begun the demise and initial abandonment of the studio.
In 2006, the studios were then bought from the trustees inclusive of assets held by the PIC by a private consortium led by Chartered Accountant, Saj Chaudry, who for a while seemed to have revived the studios. For a spell, the studios were back in operation predominantly as a music academy campus alongside a resort and restaurant operating in the same premises, but eventually Saj too seemed to not have the resources and the “know how” to keep the studios going.
In 2019, news came out that the remainder of the studio equipment and more specifically the still state of the art Focusrite custom produced console 5 desk was disassembled and set to be shipped off to Phoenix, USA. In Phoenix it would be reassembled as part of a new studio located at The Platinum Underground facilities under the watch of writer/producer Ken Hirsch. Now, I do not know the figures or terms of this deal but I do know that BOP studios owner, Saj, was part of this moving of equipment hence proving the legitimacy of the move, be it with merit or not.
Sadly these colossal structures of my tales have now been scrapped beyond recognition with little to no hope of any form of redemption. How unfortunate.