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STUDIO FOCUS: ROCKINGHORSE STUDIOS - AudioTechnology

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October 9, 2018

Byron Bay’s famous Rockinghorse Studios fell into the hands of developers, with a heart of gold.

Story: Mark Davie

The collision of real estate developers and recording studios usually spells bad news. That somewhere, out there, a studio is making way for yet another apartment block. Even Australia’s largest studios aren’t immune. Sing Sing Studios in Melbourne had to pack all its gear into the smaller ‘South’ studio when it couldn’t afford the asking price; Studios 301 also relocated to a completely new-built studio to escape development. Up in Byron Bay, the script has been flipped. 

When Taryn McGregor and her husband Rob bought the 70-acre property with Taryn’s father two years ago, they never expected to end up running a studio. Their family-owned real estate business specialises in regenerating land into the perfect plots for someone else’s dream home. Other than Rob’s profession as a tiler, they don’t do much with buildings, especially not commercial recording studios. “We bought Rockinghorse for the land, not for the studio,” said Taryn. “But when we got here and looked at the 70 acres, we realised there was a big opportunity here.”

Taryn and Rob have lived in Byron Bay for the past 12 years, “another 10 or 15 years to go” before qualifying as locals reckons Taryn, but long enough to have heard of a studio nestled up in the hinterland. Once they bought the property, they realised every man and his dog in the industry had a story about Rockinghorse. “You’d run into people on the street who would say they’d known Rockinghorse from way back,” shared Taryn. “But it also felt forgotten about. People knew it was still there but nobody knew what was going on.”

ROCKINGHORSE OVERGROWN

Rockinghorse was built on the Byron Bay property’s garage slab in 1992 by Alan De Vendra, who had been the sole owner until recently. It was originally a control room, with two live rooms and a Neve V series console. The list of artists who’ve recorded at the facility include a who’s who from Wolfmother’s Andrew Stockdale, Grinspoon and Spiderbait, to Olivia Newton-John and Yothu Yindi. Most recently, Sticky Fingers’ latest gold record came out of there.

To a group who have built a reputation for reviving sites, making a decision to break up an iconic studio felt counter to their life’s work. When they met the two engineers who were running the studio at the time — Anthony Lycenko and Nicholas Wilson — it cemented their inclination to keep Rockinghorse’s legacy intact. “Amazing, passionate people who were already here and wanted to run it,” recalled Taryn. “They really influenced our decision to set it up again.”

While the studio had remained relatively busy, it was clear the couple needed to not only perform their regeneration routine with the surrounding land, but to the studio and house, too. They got to work on the land, clearing swathes of Camphor Laurel trees and overgrown Lantana, then replanting almost 4000 endemic plants. The house was in good shape, but they replaced the weathered verandah, added a roof over it, and upgraded the facilities and furniture to resort levels. It already had a pool and immaculately-tended garden, but the refresh has certainly re-invigorated the spot as a holiday destination.

In the studio, a good spit and polish brought out the lustre of the wood finishes, Taryn removed and reclad all the acoustic treatment, and commissioned a local indigenous artist to tell the story of the area on canvas. 

The lion’s share of the work was a complete overhaul of the studio electronics. With guidance and a wiring diagram from Bruce McBean (lead engineer on the Custom Series 75 console), in-house engineer Nicholas Wilson completely re-wired the studio. “It hadn’t had a renovation since it was originally built,” said Taryn. “Thousands of connections later, a whole new look for the colouring and tone, and a good scrub. It just felt so fresh and new again.”

Something had to be done about the Neve V series console, too, which had seen better days. After a lot of thought, the console was decommissioned and Nicholas and Rob drove the modules down to Rob Squire in Adelaide to be racked up into channel strip bays. There’s now eight professionally-racked channel strips sitting on either side of a Slate Raven touchscreen controller. The rest have been racked up into pairs, not that Rockinghorse needs any more Neve outboard. It already has 24 vintage Neve 1272 preamps and four Neve 1064 channel strips to go along with its API and Avalon preamps. It’s world-class gear everywhere. Loads of Teletronix, UA, Neve, dbx and Smart compression; a pair of original Pultec EQP1A EQs and a stereo GML EQ; plus an effects rack packed with an Ursa Major, Sansamp, Lexicon 480L, and Roland Dimension D units. They also have a Studer A820 tape machine and an EMT gold foil plate.

The mic cabinet includes a pair of vintage tube AKG C12B condensers, a Neumann U89i, U87, U47 FET, a couple of TLM170s and three KM184s. There are more AKG C414s, and a range of dynamic options from Sennheiser, Shure, AKG and Electro-voice. As well as the Slate Raven, the desk has a Slate Control hardware monitoring system integrated into it, which feeds a pair of the new KRK V8 midfields, Yamaha NS10s and Genelec 1032As.

There are three recording spaces at Rockinghorse. The control room looks directly out into the main live room, which has a wood-panelled, dome-like vaulted ceiling at one end. Its asymmetrical design gives engineers plenty of options when placing drums, and there’s loads of height in the ceiling for capturing ambience.

It also looks out over the incredible landscape, giving a connection with the outdoors no matter where you’re sitting in the studio. To the left of the control room is another space with a slightly tamer acoustic. It has a direct line of sight from the engineer’s chair to the talent, which Nicholas uses to communicate during vocal takes. The renovation also converted the entrance way into another live room. Sliding wooden doors can create a connection or separation between the two smaller rooms where required. It’s a great set of rooms to work out of and plenty for a large band to make themselves at home.

THE PRIVATE STUDIO

There was previously a second studio on site; a 5.1 post production suite in a large water tank just to the left of the main studio. “It’s more of a reverb tank,” said Taryn, alluding to what the engineers had been using it for lately. “It always had wetness issues, so we had to gut it and waterproof it. Understanding it’s structure, we thought it wasn’t really going to work.”

The plan is to convert the water tank into budget accomodation, for bands that can’t afford to rent the house. It’s adjacent to the studio’s kitchen and lounge facilities, and still has a killer view.

Out on the property, down across the gully, was another shed that wasn’t seeing much use. Although it’s only a couple of hundred metres away, it was completely obscured by Camphor Laurels before they carved out a clear view between it and Rockinghorse.

“We had a bit of a go to see what we could come up with,” said Taryn. There’s now a commercial, ‘for hire’ second studio there called The Workshop, that’s also home to composer and producer Murray Burns of Mi-Sex, and producer Paul Pilsneniks. Murray helped design the original studio over 25 years ago, so it was like bringing back the original family when he and Taryn worked on The Workshop design together. It’s a homely studio, full of recycled paint and timber, and some of the pieces from the old studio. It has an oversized control room that could easily house an entire band. It’s stocked with some esoteric organs and keyboards, has an eclectic amp iso booth with everything hooked up and ready to go, and a reasonably-sized iso room, big enough to record drums. Outdoors, there’s a shower, and fireplace and full-size outdoor kitchen under the verandah. For ultra cheap stays in the outdoors, bands can simply bring a swag with them and camp out undercover.

THE APPEAL

There have been a few shifts in the recording industry. Home recording cut away at the viability of commercial studios, and as recording equipment became more accessible, an appetite developed for location recording. Artists started scouring holiday rental sites for re-purposed chapels and Mechanics Institutes; somewhere with decent-sounding acoustics and a bed to sleep in. Partly for the experience of getting out into the countryside, and also to get a bit of space from neighbour’s sleep routines.

Of course, setting up a makeshift studio can be a drag. 

That’s the whole appeal of Rockinghorse. You can have both: an incredible view and a working, top-flight commercial studio — 24/7. No need to lug anything more than your instruments; no need to find a spot where your monitors don’t sound like puss; and no need to travel 100km to the ‘local’ music store when you forget that one lead.

You can also have the experience within a range of budgets. Go the full-hog and rent Rockinghorse and the five-star resort accommodation where you’re literally a 20-second stroll to the studio, at most. Or camp out in a swag under the stars. “60-70% of artists are making use of the house as well, and staying for a few days or weeks,” said Taryn. “They’ve been loving the experience of staying here, and being able to record late at night or in the morning.

“A lot of the reason people come to Byron is for the arts and culture, and connection to the land. This place inspires that connection to the land. You just want to sit still and enjoy the space. When people take time out, creativity flows!”

ROCKINGHORSE PEOPLE: NICHOLAS WILSON

In-house engineer and producer, Nicholas Wilson, is an Australian citizen, but grew up in Switzerland and studied audio engineering there. He had the opportunity to return to Australia and complete his last year of study at SAE in Byron. After that, he got straight to work. “I went down to Melbourne to work at Johnston Audio doing live sound, and was there for about eight months. Then I wanted to come back up to Byron and got a job here. I’ve been doing a mixture of live and studio work over the last 12 years, but I’ve been an engineer since I was 16.

“I’ve worked with Seasick Steve, and had the benefit of working with John Paul Jones in the live environment. I engineered Sticky Fingers’ album Land of Pleasure, along with producer Dann Hume. I’ve worked with Art vs Science, did quite a bit of work with Wolfmother, and engineered most of Andrew Stockdale’s solo album.”

Nicholas was instrumental in getting Rockinghorse back to where it is today. He’s been there since 2009. Originally, he and Anthony Lycenko (who’d been there since ’98) were working on it together, when Lycenko suddenly passed away in 2017. “The two of us got very involved in changing things around here; making decisions about how the studio should operate, and figuring out a good workflow for external producers and engineers,” said Wilson. “He was very dedicated to what he did. Anything I’ve ever heard him produce was world class. He passed away a year ago, and it was very tough, because we’d been working on redeveloping the studio, it was a bit of a shock. I ended up having to make a lot of decisions, it was hard for everyone and no one expected it.”

Wilson said the decision to part out the Neve console wasn’t an easy one. If they did, he still wanted to have a tactile workflow, which is why they opted for the Slate Raven. “We wanted to update and modernise it,” he explained. “We’ve changed it into a more modular space. We’ve still got all the outboard gear we’ve always had, but we’re running Pro Tools into a monitor controller. You can plug ’n’ play anything in the studio without having to learn a console.”

These days Wilson lives in an onsite cottage, and gets to appreciate the beauty of the property every day. The appeal is not lost on him, and as a producer, it’s got a lot to offer his clients: “When people come from Sydney or Melbourne, they feel like they can really escape from their everyday lives and focus on what they need to do in the studio.”

ROCKINGHORSE PEOPLE: PAUL PILSNENIKS

Paul Pilsneniks has been in Byron since 2000, but he’s done a lot of travelling production work over the last few years and is excited to have a place to call home in The Workshop. He’s always felt a call to engineering, splicing cassettes as a kid, and recording on his four-track around the house. After school, he went searching for a job and was lucky enough to land a position at Studios 301, when it was at Castlereagh Street. He’d been looking for the opportunity to travel, so when owner Tom Misner offered him a job at the new Studios 301 in Byron, he jumped at it. Over the years he’s engineered acts like & Julia Stone, Van Halen, Alanis Morisette, Grinspoon, Powderfinger, and the Mars Volta.

He and Murray Burns have always been close by. They became friends at 301 in Sydney, then Murray had the other room at 301 in Byron while Paul was there. “We’ve always been neighbours, and now we’re sharing this room,” said Paul of The Workshop studio, which is also for hire.

“The Workshop encompasses all the gear Murray and I have accumulated over the years. We’ve just gone with a lot of mix ’n’ match flavours down here. We’ve got a couple of Neve preamps, APIs, MCIs, Focusrite gear, Joe Malone custom mic pres and a bunch of different mics. There are a couple of Urei 1178s and 1176s, dbx 160s, Neve 2254 reissue, and a big old tube AWA compressor. We’ve got some old school reverbs — like a Yamaha SPX990 and Evans spring reverb — and a couple of Urei filter sets. There’s enough to keep everyone happy and find a sound that will work. 

“I love the acoustics and the way it feels, with the open doors, natural light and fireplace. It’s a homely feel with a professional setup. I’ve always been into the bigger control rooms for the workflow as well as the social aspect. We’ve got ties all throughout the studio, so if I want to overdub a guitar or bass, I can have the artist in the control room and still have tons of space to breathe.”

Paul admires Taryn and Rob’s tenacity and the way they’ve grafted to the music industry. With De Vendra ageing, and looking to sell, the studio had been in a stagnant holding position and slowly falling into disrepair. “Taryn and Rob hadn’t been involved in the music industry before this, but were passionate about making this space creative and working again,” said Paul. “They’ve stepped in and poured money into getting the gear back up to scratch and creating a thriving hub for people to make records in a space that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

“You’ve got a creative hub that’s so beautiful and inspiring, but you’re also close to the airport. If you need to get back to the big smoke, it’s easy enough to do so.”

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RIDING THE TRIPLE J WAVE

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READ ONLINE NOW
Issue 59