End of 52, Start of An Empire
Studio 52 trades its inner suburban grit for a formidable bespoke recording and production space.
The drone footage of a demolished Studio 52 is confronting. Even more so for Paul Higgins, owner and studio manager of the much-loved Collingwood studio for some 35 years.
As the drone swoops in among the detritus of a site that is now a medium-rise apartment block, the numbers ‘1986’ are clearly marked on one of the few walls yet to feel the wrath of the wrecking ball.
“We etched that into the studio’s foyer wall, showing people when we were established,” explains Paul Higgins.
Paul plays the video sitting at the helm of Empire Music Studios, the bigger, better and more ambitious follow-up to Studio 52.
Studio 52 had been living on borrowed time for several years. The lease had run out and there were constant whispers of change and redevelopment. Paul Higgins and co-director Trevor Carter were forced to decide the studios future: was it all to come to an end, were they going to scale down or go bigger and better? They settled on ‘bigger and better’, and leased an industrial block in Heidelberg and began work on a new studio in late 2018. “We could have gone smaller and held on to much of our general clientele but it would have spelled the end for our much loved Kool Skools project which requires the large multi-studio space to work” — Kool Skools is the album in 1-2 days, high school recording initiative with a 25-year history. “We felt that this was worth preserving as it does so much good for the industry and for young people writing songs and recording for the first time, we just felt passionate about it. So we had to go bigger.”
Just as Studio 52 in Collingwood closed in November 2019, so too was Empire opening its first stage of completion. Paul and Trevor convened staff, industry luminaries and friends to celebrate the newly-minted Empire Studios with a Christmas party in 2019, “It was a great night of live music and a great chance to showcase the new facility,” recalls Paul.
Construction continued in 2020 and the larger Studio 2 opened in March. Covid hit Empire at the worst possible time. “You know when the Melbourne Grand Prix got cancelled? That was our studio open day [March, 2020] the weekend before the first lockdown.”
Covid put a halt to the festivities. It would take almost another year before Empire could really stretch its legs again.
“On top of all our other work lost, the entire 2020 Kool Skools Project was also cancelled — 28 albums of original music by all these young people who missed the opportunity. I think young people have really copped the worst of it, missing so many opportunities that may never be replaced,” said Paul.
But 2021 is proving to be more auspicious: “2021 has got off to a good start and we have been extremely busy working with a huge range of great people in all genres,” continued Paul. “Again the snap lockdown in Melbourne in May and June has had a huge impact and came at a really bad time. We had a Sydney artist and producer in to record and they literally had to turn around and fly straight back out the same day to avoid getting stuck in Melbourne. So many bookings postponed and then postponed again, it feels a bit like Groundhog Day.”
RECLAIMED & RECYCLED
Given Paul and Trevor were building Empire while Studio 52 was still trading, there was a limit to how many materials they could repurpose. Heidelberg is a furniture manufacturing hotspot and Paul got to know some of the local businesses. “We have recycled a lot of timber that has been considered as seconds or slightly damaged by the local furniture factories.” Including the gorgeous diffuser at the rear of Studio 1’s control room. Not only that, but many of the acoustic panels are made from reclaimed materials. “We also have installed a 30kW Solar system on the roof, so it’s great to be doing our bit to save the planet while saving a huge amount on power bills.
There are some reminders of Collingwood, including the main console desks which have been modified, there was also a mixture of components taken out a small studio in Balaclava that Empire acquired when it was closing. “Much of the gear is from Studio 52 but there is also a lot of new stuff we purchased for Heidelberg,” explains Paul. There are also some special pieces that used to belong to Steve Lincoln-Smith, founder of Innovative Music and great friend of Paul’s, who sadly passed away during the build. “It’s great to have his personal Kurzweil and Hammond along with a few other pieces I purchased from his estate”, they are now actively in use at Empire — a fitting destination for synths owned by such a fine player.
You won’t find large-format analogue consoles at Empire. We don’t record through the consoles, they are just for monitoring purposes. The setup is inspired by how people are comfortable working at home, each control room’s centrepiece is a keyboard and mouse, flanked by racks of preamps, EQs and compressors. Call the setup a ‘Frankenstein’ desk, if you like. Each is stacked with outboard many will remember from Studio 52. Paul and Trevor’s love for all the Universal Audio preamps like the 4710, 610 and 6176; certain key TL Audio models, including the PA-1 and VP-1, Warm Audio 1073s and many other sonic colours and flavours.
“You don’t have to patch anything. It’s all ready to roll so you don’t lose any setup time,” enthuses Paul. Everything in the control rooms is built for stability. “A 96-channel Yamaha DM2000 may not be the latest thing but we just use that for monitor mixes and playback control.” Similarly, racks of preamps may not have the sex appeal of an SSL K series, but they offer more sonic variety and you can rip out a channel and replace it instantly if needs be. Almost all the gear is hard-wired as ‘pure path’ with very little patching. You want the 6176? It’s on Channel 9. Recording guitar direct ? Straight from the Kemper, through tubes, into the RME converters.