Studio Focus: Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio (Mess)


9 May 2016

Half a million dollars’ worth of vintage synths tucked away in a back alley shed near Melbourne’s CBD might be some people’s idea of heaven.

For Byron Scullin and Robin Fox, it’s that and much more. 

Welcome to MESS, the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio where, Robin enthusiastically states, “you can get your hands on the entire history of electronic music.”

MESS is a not-for-profit organisation birthed by these two guys who share a passion for nostalgic music machinery. The inventory is nothing short of impressive — name a synth brand from yesteryear and you’ll doubtless find a well-preserved model sitting on the shelves. 

The philosophy behind building a coveted collection like this is to make the signature sounds of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s accessible to everyday musos. For $220, you can purchase a one-year membership at MESS which gives you access to the space as often as you like (with an entry fee of $40 per four-hour visit). Bring your laptop and interface, grab a synth from the shelf, set up on a workbench, and inject some vintage vibes into your tunes. Or, you can simply spend your four hours patching leads on a gargantuan, limited edition Moog System 55 (MESS has two of those) or custom-built Transaudio modular synth. You won’t be judged. 

But where did all this gear come from? Good question. It’d take more than a lifetime for any one person to acquire a room full of synths with this kind of desirability, which is why they’ve come from several sources — some from donors who’d rather have their synths played than nestled in a cabinet at home, others from educational institutions, others from the manufacturers themselves, and many from Byron and Rob’s own collections. 

BUCHLAByron: “Buchla synths are quasi-scientific and almost mystical. The oscillator knobs are deliberately wonky so you can wiggle them for a little tremolo. The idea with a Buchla is you almost can’t make ‘traditional’ music with it. If you try to, you’ll send yourself insane.”

Robin: “The thing that modular synthesists seem to be really interested in is this slightly generative, slightly random, not-quite-sure-what’s-gonna-happen, chaotic aspect.”

TRIADEX MUSERobin: “This was touted as one of the first artificial intelligence sequencers ever built. If you read the manual to the Triadex Muse, they start off by saying you can’t make current music with this; you can only make the music of the future. At that time, there was this really utopian, almost science-fiction relationship to the sound of music which was saying this is literally the future of music.”

MOOG SERIES 55 MODULARByron: “The Moog 55 is essentially a big mono synth. Moog has only made 55 of these reissues and we have access to two of these in the MESS collection. When Moog first started creating modular synths, they were a la carte systems. But later on down the track Moog started to produce pre-designed modular systems, and that’s what the 55 is. With the way Moog designed its synthesizers, the 55 was designed for accuracy. If you go to this machine with intent, you’ll get the sound you’re looking for.”

Byron: “In some ways, what we’re about here is trying to give people the full experience of electronic music. Everyone’s using laptops, there’s all this software out there; but if you’ve got five grand in your back pocket, are you going to buy an old mono synth, that probably needs a lot of maintenance, or are you going to buy a gang of plug-ins that’ll give you such amazing functionality? The problem is, they give you so much functionality that it can be really hard to penetrate beyond presets and the vast array of options.

“In here, the idea is that you sit down with one of these old machines and come face-to-face with the people who designed them and their ideas about how electronic sound should be produced. With all these machines, you start from zero. Whichever way you get to the sound, it’s your experience, it’s your journey that you go on.”

From the quirky Buchla to the straight-laced Moog, MESS is the gourmet kitchen for the electronic music chef de cuisine. You can whip up virtually any concoction of other-worldly sounds with the extraordinary variety at your disposal. While there are too many to mention in two pages, here’s the lowdown on some of MESS’s most prized possessions.



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