While many producers might toy with the romantic notion of setting up a portable studio in the African bush, few actually do it. To capture the indigenous sounds of the environment, create something that is genuinely representative of its surroundings, use local musicians and traditional instrumentation—the very idea of it throws up logistical and financial roadblocks. For their third album, Makes A King, The Very Best’s John Hugo and Esau Mwamwaya went ahead and did it anyway.
The two rented a house in M’dala Chikowa, a five-hour drive from Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, from where Mwamwaya hails. Here, the Sweden-bred Hugo set up a makeshift studio with whatever he could fit in his hand luggage from London, where he resides. This includes his laptop loaded up with Ableton, a Sontronics Saturn microphone, a pair of stereo STC-1S microphones, as well as a set of speakers and an interface with maximum number of ins and outs.
“We recorded a lot of the album outdoors or semi-outdoors,” says Hugo. “[Mwamwaya] will sing in the Saturn and I’ll use the STC-1S pair further away, outdoors, to capture the ambient sound of where we are. If it’s daytime, that means kids, people washing clothes in the lake, birds. If it’s night, that means a lot of insects, or thunder, because we did most of the record during rainy season.”
A strike of lightning that took off the top of the mosque next to the two’s house also destroyed a Saturn mic on the first of the two month-long trips to M’dala Chikowa for the recording of Makes A King. “The outdoor sounds are not over-prominent in the final mix,” says Hugo. “I thought it might be problematic, but I ended up compressing and taking up the volume, putting expanders on the silent parts to bring out those sounds more. A bad room will always sound like a bad room. If you’re outside, you’ve got no room at all, but you’re picking up these other things that are much more natural and nice feeling.”