Empire Music Studios is a world-class, multi-faceted recording facility located just half an hour from Melbourne’s CBD. Empire is the reincarnation of the long-running, renowned Studio 52 after 35 years in Collingwood.
Australian Musician caught up with Empire’s co-founders Paul Higgins (Studio Manager) and Trevor Carter (Studio Engineer) to talk about the creation of the new studio and it’s unique facilities.
MORE ABOUT EMPIRE MUSIC STUDIOS, MELBOURNE (FORMERLY STUDIO 52). A BIT OF HISTORY
Back in the early eighties, music enthusiasts Paul Higgins and Trevor Carter were fledgling songwriters, penning songs out of a home studio. They then decided to step up their endeavours by taking the reins of a proper studio, which became Studio 52 in Collingwood, not so much intending to create a studio business for themselves but merely hiring it out to others to help pay the rent for their songwriting purposes. Paul had been working in the music products industry with Yamaha Music and Teac Australia and was able to purchase gear at wholesale prices which gave rise to “Gear Aquistion Syndrome” and it was Paul Keating’s “recession we had to have” that forced the studio to become a business overnight, as all the bills literally doubled.
As Studio 52 grew, so too did the clientele. Higgins and Carter recorded a lot of blues music in the beginning, pioneering the Melbourne blues recording scene with their Real Australian Blues series and working with local blues legends such as Dutch Tilders and the first recordings of Geoff Achison.
Over the years Paul took on the management and marketing of the business while Trevor being the greater creative force, became the head producer/engineer and today is highly sought after for his incredible years of experience and skill.
The other light bulb moment the pair had was to create Kool Skools in 1996, a writing and recording experience for school kids. Surprised at the level of talent and enthusiasm of students who had already been recording at the studio, they asked themselves, how do we do this more often? They developed Kool Skools, a contemporary music program whereby kids get to write their own songs in the genre of their choice. Studio 52 provided the audio and recording expertise for the studio first timers.
“It’s so important that we give them a positive experience and encourage them,” says Paul Higgins. “Kool Skools has benefitted kids who aren’t sports mad or don’t fit into a lot of other school programs and it’s good for their mental health and well being, as well as the possibility of being a pathway for emerging artists.”
In 1997 Studio 52 recorded 20 Kool Skool albums but that grew over the years to almost 50 per year nationally, until Covid hit of course. “We intend to grow the Kool Skools Project back to previous levels and even greater strengths,” adds Paul. “It has lost a huge amount of momentum with Covid and schools are still trying to rebuild their music schools and school ensembles, which were decimated by being relegated to playing individually via zoom.”
NEW BEGINNINGS AT EMPIRE MUSIC STUDIOS 9 Northern Rd Heidelberg West
Just prior to Covid, the owners of the Studio 52 building asked their tenants to vacate as they’d sold the premises to developers. And so the search for a new home began. Paul and Trevor could have gone smaller and manage a boutique business but didn’t want to harm the legacy of their Kool Skools program, which has now been going for 26 years. They needed something bigger to accommodate large school groups, which required multiple recording rooms. A new venue was eventually found at 9 Northern Rd, Heidelberg West, a blank canvas for their recording studio ideas.
“If we hadn’t set up a bigger studio, Kool Skools would have ceased to exist and it would have been a huge shame,” said Paul. “The program gives hundreds of kids their first shot at recording and many have gone on to professional music careers, such as Delta Goodrem, Casey Donovan and Missy Higgins, and lesser-knowns like Andrew Christie, who works with Hans Zimmer and creates music for The Simpsons. They all came out of the Kool Skools program.”
The new Empire Music Studios facility is the largest studio in Melbourne. The main room is a huge 200 square metres, the only other studio comparable in Australia would be Studio 301 in Sydney. Since Sing Sing closed down it’s the only studio in Melbourne available for large ensembles. Even studio 2 is 85 square metres in size.
“It’s a creative hub where a variety of people can be working on different projects simultaneously. There’s a smaller studio suitable for pop, hip hop and RnB, it’s also where we do our mastering,” said Paul. “We have production suites which can be hired by producers, there’s an art department and a photography studio.”
Like Abbey Road in London, it’s also suitable for corporate functions, events, private concerts and filmed live performance recordings. Empire Studios has presented almost a dozen live performances to the public in the main studio, with full bar available as well as quality catering provided.
Paul and Trevor went to great lengths to get everything about Empire Music studios just right.
“I looked at every studio that I could find online and I have toured many studios around the world in past years including The Village Recorders, The Record Plant and Sunset Sound in LA, Platinum Sound in NY, plus several in London, Singapore and other parts of Asia. Over the years I have also visited, hired or worked in many Australian studios including Metropolis, Platinum, Sing Sing, Studio 301, Gingerman, Velvet Sound, Troy Horse, Megaphon, Damien Gerards, Red Planet, Mixmasters, Fat Trax, Planet sound, Black Pearl and of course I built all the studios at Studio 52 Collingwood, personally on the tools … and I don’t mean Pro Tools. Some studios I liked but many I disliked for acoustic reasons, too corporate or no vibe, bad layouts, too many racks of gear and patch bays, cabling everywhere rather than a couch for the band to listen in to the recording. I prefer some sense of order rather than complete chaos, I also like it when everything just works seamlessly and engineers aren’t ripping out cables and patching in endless pieces of rack gear, trying to fix noises and problems, “said Paul. “Probably the studios I liked the look of most and took most inspiration from were, Henson in LA https://hensonrecording.com/studiod.html and Guilford in New England http://guilfordsound.com/studios/studio-a/
ABOUT THE MAIN STUDIOS AT EMPIRE
Studio A can be hired for all traditional recording purposes including large ensembles and orchestra as well as for live events and other functions and showcases. Studio A is based in Heidelberg West as part of the all new Empire Music Studios complex which has replaced the previous Studio 52 in Collingwood.
With Studio A we always wanted a main recording room that was balanced and natural for strings and orchestra but not so reverberant that everything sounded like a church and took off. We wanted a degree of control, for example if you take out all the carpets and spread out a string ensemble it has great energy, pleasant and natural reverb, a robust and sweet-sounding liveness. Recently we recorded the B Sharp Big Band and several of the musicians said it was the best room they had ever recorded Brass instruments for the same reasons, natural energy in the room, their instruments were natural and loud but without losing the combined sound image of the whole band together. We also needed further control when using the room as a live venue, again we have the perfect balance when you put down the carpets, tables and chairs with a hundred+ bodies in the room the stage and PA just sounds like a big HiFi system. The massive amount of diffusion and smart use of angles in the roof and walls has the result of an even sound throughout the space – there are no dead spots or nasty corners, the whole room sounds even wherever you are.
Studio 1 is our smaller studio at Empire but is still probably bigger than most studios in Melbourne and has its own separate drum booth and a control room big enough to hold 10 people comfortably on leather couches. Studio 1 caters for smaller bands up to 5 piece, vocalists, Pop and RnB production, Hip Hop along with mixing, editing and mastering type work. It has all the same essential ingredients needed to produce world-class results as the larger studio 2 and Studio A including a vintage Baldwin ex-Pianola Upright Piano which sounds amazing particularly for Blues, Rock and Jazz.
Studio 2 is our large studio at Empire but is still smaller than our extra-large Studio A. It has a large acoustically designed control room big enough to hold 12 people comfortably on leather couches. Studio 2 caters for bands of all sizes, vocalists and small choirs, music of all genres and is a fantastic mixing room due to the great acoustics and awesome monitoring from the new Adam Audio S3-H and the 15″ 3way soft dome tweeter classic design from EAW. It has an abundance of the ingredients needed to produce world-class recordings including 32 mainly valve based input channels, a huge 85sqm recording space and a fantastic Yamaha C7 Grand Piano. The room also comes with a variety of great amps, guitars and now boasts 2 extra booths which enable total separation between drums, bass and piano, perfect for any live band recording.
ABOUT THE STUDIO GEAR
Paul and Trevor refer to their consoles as ‘Frankenstein desks’ and in Studio A the console is a whopping 5.4m wide. In 2006 they were the first commercial studio to swap a large format console for a hybrid system of gear with the computer screen in the centre.
The desk includes a DM2000 digital console, or ’96 channels of silence’ as Paul calls it. It’s used as a headphone and monitor mix, for talkback functions only. All the signals are recorded using 64 separate preamp channels including 28ch Solid State, 10ch of SPL180 Volt Line and 26 Valve channels. They send 2 digital feeds from RME convertors, one for the computer for recording and one to the DM2000 which provides zero latency monitoring.
Throughout each studio you will find a lot of Focusrite ISA gear, the locally made Sebatron brand, Universal audio, Neve, TLA, Warm and SPL, which has a super high dynamic range, perfect for orchestral and classical music.
“There’s a mixture of preamps at our fingertips, not in a hard to access rack below or behind the desk.”
“Plus there’s ADAM Audio… we have the new S3V which we think are the best monitors ever! We also have the ATC SCM25Pro and JBL 15’s soffit mounted above. We use ADAM audio in all our studios and supply them to our customers and home studio clients.
RME – M32 AD interfaces in all studios, (remembering our dear friend Steve Lincoln from Innovative Music, who supplied so much gear to the studio over the years)
Mogami cabling throughout. (Also from Steve Lincoln)
SE Electronics and Rupert Neve Mics, Audio Technica Mics and headphones throughout the building, we particularly love the Rupert Neve models like the RNT and the Ribbons.
For the live venue we have a MIDAS M32 Live audio console and Chamsys Q10 lighting console, JBL speaker system and wide variety of lighting fixtures.”
WHAT EVENTS ARE COMING UP AT EMPIRE?
On Saturday Friday 15th September there’s the Bowie Unzipped show from Sydney featuring the legendary Jeff Duff.
On the Saturday 16th September, Empire presents Groove Dimension, who will be playing uplifting 70s funk, RnB, disco and soul. They are sit down shows limited to 100 people, with canapés served throughout venue and share platters served at each table and of course, a fully serviced bar.
Tuesday September 5th Also of note – there’s a music product event coming up soon too, the MAILA LD Systems launch on Tuesday September 5th featuring Geoff Achison and the Souldiggers live. AVE Corp is hitting the road for its first ever roadshow to launch the LD Systems MAILA line array system across four cities and the Melbourne event has chosen Empire Music studios as its venue. AVE Corp will be displaying a range of solutions for event rental, production, integrators, and retailers. Audio industry folks are encouraged to bring your team and also invite your customers. Register for the Melbourne launch HERE
Below, check out Stylus performing live at Empire Music Studios in April this year
Looking to the future, Empire Music Studios five main future objectives are:
- Make Great recordings with great musicians and singers of all genres – make great records!
- Become Melbourne’s major studio for all large ensemble, strings recordings for TV and Film
- Rebuild the stature of the Kool Skools original songwriting & Recording Project plus do more large ensemble recordings with schools
- Build the live music venue and do a whole range of shows, album launches, product shows and music industry parties/events now that we have a fully licenced venue
- Build our retail arm and ebay store, increase our sales of music instruments, live and studio gear direct to schools and home studios
Since opening the main studio recently, Empire has already hosted everything from the B Sharp Big Band, to large string ensembles and The Black Sorrows new album. Get in touch with Paul Higgins about your next event or recording project and come on down to one of the live performances to check out this fabulous facility, unique to Melbourne.
EMPIRE MUSIC STUDIOS 9 Northern Rd, Heidleberg West 3081
Phone: (+61) 0412-686-252