Meet Stefan Du Randt | From recording on Mac Miller’s Circles to mentoring the next generation of audio engineers
“I wanted to be that mentor for someone coming through. Trying to convey to them the things I wish somebody had told me 15 years ago. I want to help young engineers, artists and producers become the best version of themselves.”
Learning directly from industry professionals is invaluable to gaining experience and knowledge. The mentorship approach puts you in a position to learn from the source about how the industry works. For Abbey Road Institute trainer Stefan Du Randt, mentorship, constant learning and consistent hard work are themes that he’s carried all the way through his career from South Africa to Australia.
As a result, Stefan has built a reputation as a prolific producer, mixing and recording engineer. His credits are highlighted by his work on Mac Miller’s posthumous album ‘Circles’ and include many exciting artists from Australia and abroad, including Kimbra, Guy Sebastian, Delta Goodrem, Coldplay, Zedd, Katy Perry, Elton John, Touch Sensitive, A$AP Ferg, The Script, Wolfmother, Peking Duk, Daniel Johns and countless others.
Currently working out of Sydney’s iconic Studios 301 facility, Stefan can now add Lead Trainer at Abbey Road Institute to his impressive CV, as well as head of his own record label, Interface. Now, Stefan’s journey comes full circle as a mentor for the next generation of engineers, producers and music makers.
We sat with Stefan to hear about his introduction to music and recording, and how he navigates the music industry and continues to push the boundaries.
Let’s start from the very beginning. How did you get into music?
My dad is obsessed with music – he used to have hundreds of vinyl and played acoustic guitar. In fact, most of my family played music; my uncles on the farm, or my grandpa, he would play the organ. We would sing in church, and that’s how I learned about song structure. When I was about 10 years old, I took a long 18-hour bus ride to see my uncle, who lived in a different country, and I had a Walkman with Queen’s Greatest Hits on it. I listened to that tape over and over and over again.
It was the thing that connected me with my friends as well. We got into Green Day and the “cool” stuff at the time. I started playing the guitar in high school, and my dad and I had this thing together where he would play and sing, and I would play all the lead parts. So we’d play Stairway to Heaven, then I’d play the solos and stuff, or Metallica, and I would play the solos.
At 15, I hit a crossroads; I was doing really well in academics, but I decided I wanted to dedicate my energy to music which is when I started playing in heaps bands at school.
How did you discover sound recording and music production?
As a kid, I always wanted to be a musician, but I was obsessed with everything about music. So I’d buy these guitar magazines, and one day there was an article about music production or recording. I didn’t understand what that was at the time, but as I kept reading the article, I was like, “Oh, this seems good; this is actually a job that you can do and make a living from; that’s not just a musician.”
After reading that, I wanted to learn more about recording; eventually, I got this four-track tape recorder when I was 15, which I still have, and then I started recording the stuff we were playing in bands. From there, I started recording the school band and other friends’ bands, and then I got into the “scenes”, like the punk scene connected to the skatepark.
I had these heroes in school that were a few years above me, and they were in the cool bands, so I would go wherever they were playing. I bought a PA, and I talked my way into doing very basic PA live sound for them, then I’d be like, “Okay, you want to come to record your tracks?” I remember going to a house where these guys were staying, and we spent three weeks writing music, drinking beer and eating pizza, and I would just sit there and record them.
When did you first study music production?
When I was 18, I saw that ProTools was the thing that all the pros were using, so I started doing night classes after high school every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That was my first official education, and at that time, ProTools was tough to get because it was so expensive. You needed the hardware to use it.
After high school, a new program started at SABC Studios, which is like the ABC here, and they were the first ProTools-certified school in South Africa. The teachers there were engineers, so I was learning from people doing really cool things at the time. For instance, the guy who recorded the Lion King soundtrack and other big bands worked there, and I worked for him later.
So I moved cities to study there, and I was very into it, having a great time, and my band got pretty successful there for a bit, playing a few festivals and stuff like that. Towards the end of the course, I began interning in the SABC Studios, working on some big sessions, and then I started my own little studio in Johannesburg when I was 20.
What was it like running your own studio?
It was pretty stressful. I borrowed a lot of money at the time to buy an 8-track Focusrite Preamp and some good cheap mics (57’s, 421’s, 451’s etc.), and it was just me running it on my own, but what I had was good. I could record drums, then bass, then guitars, then vocals, and so on.
The problem was I couldn’t record everyone at the same time, and the acoustics were just terrible, so after a few years, I closed the studio and started working for Darryl Torr.
Was this your first mentorship?
Yeah, Darryl was my first mentor. He is a famous producer in South Africa because he won a Grammy for Best Traditional World Music Album.
I interned there for a few months, but I was pretty far along versus the others, so he took me under his wing. It was really hectic, it would just be work, work, work. Very different to internships these days, but that’s how I built up a lot of “grit” working there, which is something you really need in this industry. We worked with big bands like Zebra & Giraffe, Prime Circle, etc. and won many awards in South Africa; he had a cupboard full of awards. We recorded for months at a time, so I learned a lot.
I worked with Darryl for about five years before moving to Australia. In South Africa, I felt like I had a glass ceiling as to where I could go. Even the most professional studios didn’t have the same level of gear that we have at Studios 301. For example, since I was a kid, I have always wanted to use Neumanns, Neves, tape machines, etc. so I decided to visit my parents, who had moved to Australia and soon after, my partner and I made the move.
How hard was it to relocate and start again?
It’s a massive thing. I was well established at this point as an audio engineer, I was moving into music production as well, and we had a streaming business at the time that was doing quite well, so in that sense, we were leaving a lot behind.
Once I arrived in Australia, I had a list of studios where I wanted to work in order of preference, and I tried to contact everyone and set up meetings. I had meetings at the Sydney Opera House with Song Zu before I eventually did some work at REC Studios, where I got to record I Know Leopard, Polish Club and a few other artists.
When did you start at Studios 301?
During that time, I was emailing Studios 301 every few weeks and eventually, they got back to me and offered me an internship around the time the bands I recorded at REC studios were starting to get some traction.
This was the fourth time I was an intern, which I didn’t want to do again, but thankfully they saw quickly that I was valuable from the work I had done and how obsessive I was. I made sure that despite all the work I had already done, I tried to be the best intern or general assistant possible, ensuring everything was good and perfect.
When did you start making a name for yourself in Australia?
I expanded my portfolio by being in bigger sessions with more prominent artists. For example, Daniel Johns was the first big name I recorded at 301 by myself, just by being the only person around.
When Studios 301 closed in 2016, I started working freelance and returned to REC as the main engineer, which is when I recorded artists like A$AP Ferg. There was a spot at REC for me to be the main in-house guy and run my sessions. I had sessions with Guy Sebastian, Delta Goodrem and artists from The Voice. That is also when I worked on Mac Miller’s album Circles and was really starting to build my name in Australia.
Fast forward to now, and I’ve been back at Studios 301 as a recording engineer since the new facility opened at the start of 2018. I took all the experience I had gained since I left and capitalised by being able to start engineering since then. In between, I got a chance to create a record label and work on the creative side, being a producer working with excellent upcoming artists. In the last 12 months, alongside joining the Abbey Road Institute team, I’ve been working on launching Dolby Atmos mixing at Studios 301. I’ve done nearly 100 mixes in that time. I’ve just signed off on the Dolby Atmos mix of the new Kimbra album. It’s been a wild ride!
Taking a step back, How crucial was it for you to find a mentor like Darryl?
Having a mentor is essential – the most important thing. Very few people can, in a void, become great; you need people to help you. And not necessarily just producers or engineers. It can be anyone in the industry that can help you along your journey. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a part of Abbey Road Institute – I wanted to be that mentor for someone coming through, trying to tell them the things I wish somebody had told me 15 years ago. I want to help young engineers, artists, and producers become the best version of themselves.
How do you find a mentor as a young sound engineer or music producer?
You must show the right people that you’re willing to do the work. If you come and sit with me, doing a session and then I see you at the studio all the time on your own, trying to get better, then I’m way more motivated to come and mentor you. It’s like a personal trainer; if you don’t follow the program they write for you, you will not see any improvements, and neither of you will be motivated to keep going. It’s a two-way relationship; you need to help us help you.
What do you teach at Abbey Road Institute?
I teach the tools that get used in music production: frequency, EQ, dynamics, effects, panning, and the building blocks of engineering. I also teach the processes such as pre-production, going into production, into post-production. Once we go over the tools, we actually get in the studio and start mixing, using patch bays and learning recording techniques. Finally, you’ll finish the course with your own recording and mixing project, where you record and mix two of your own productions using everything you’ve learned.
Teaching at Studios 301, with access to professional gear, million-dollar consoles, and the best microphones money can buy, is a great environment I didn’t have until moving to Australia. So the only limit is how hard you’re willing to work.
What is the most rewarding part of being a Trainer?
Seeing how people get better over a short period of 9 months. If people put in the work, they will get noticeably better. I never improved as much over 9 months as the students here are improving over the course. Students have gone from not knowing how to mix to running their own sessions, which is incredible!
What are some of the biggest misconceptions and mistakes when starting out being an audio engineer?
Everything is driven by insecurity. People might listen too loud because when you listen loud, it sounds better, but when you listen loud, you don’t actually know that it will make your production sound small.
Also, not comparing enough to professional productions. It can be pretty depressing when you start out. Comparing references to commercially released music is a horrible experience. It’s much more fun just to pump your music really loud. So you’re working in a “void” in a way, but then your bubble will get popped when you try to show it to anyone else or anywhere else that’s not your bedroom.
So for me, it’s like I wish somebody had just told me: “try to be more realistic”. The bedroom recording you did with your really cheap drum microphone set into your four-track tape recorder will not sound like this massive thing you idolise.
What is the most essential piece of gear that contributes to your process?
Once I got headphones that I trusted, they really helped my mixing and recording. Since every studio has different monitoring, I knew I could always return to the headphones I trusted.
Finally, do you have any tips for aspiring music producers and sound engineers?
You have to start comparing your recordings and music right from the start, even if it’s hard. You have to obviously work hard, and you also have to be a pleasant person to be around, someone that everyone wants to work with. Also, become really dependable and reliable. Always show up to sessions, and do a good job, so the client has no complaints. That’s something that helped me a lot in my career.
Find out more about Stefan:
Watch Stefan’s mix breakdown where he explains his process of mixing “Ancestor” by DOBBY in Dolby Atmos: