BIG SKY AUDIO
“Did you find the place alright?” Asked Neil Gray as he opened the screen door to a very unassuming suburban home in Hoppers Crossing, 30 minutes west of Melbourne. Having viewed a couple of the ‘in progress’ shots of his studio, and seen the seriousness of the undertaking, I assumed there would be more signs indicating a studio from the outside. Inside, other than a couple of talkback speakers in construction and studio memorabilia lying around, there wasn’t much to give away the studio either. Even heading out the back of the large suburban block, past the saltwater pool, the large shed at the back of the property still doesn’t belie the gem inside.It’s been about six years in the making, and a few more years planing before that, but Big Sky Audio is now a reality.
While it’s technically a studio in a home, the operation inside the shed is a full commercial facility. Gray used to run True Form, a rehearsal and recording studio facility in Spotswood. For 20 years, it was a go-to spot for artists like Jim Keays (The Masters Apprentices) to pre-produce new material, while others like the The Living End, Dan Sultan, Vasco Era recorded projects there. He still works with a lot of those artists, in both the studio and live.
Personal circumstances changed, and after 20 years Gray closed down True Form and started dreaming of a studio where the occupancy rate didn’t have to be close to 100%, and he wouldn’t have to worry about getting a frantic call from a client while on holiday.
Slowly but surely, he’s realised that vision. It started with a garage shed on the back of the property, which now houses the foyer, kitchen, control room, machine room, and iso booth. He poured an adjoining slab and erected another identically-coloured shed; it has the main live room, a second, larger iso booth, storage, bathroom and a long corridor Gray deigned to be an echo chamber. It snakes down the side of the building, with no parallel surfaces and a sculpted ceiling line that Gray fashioned out of plywood and plaster. While Gray has opened up the doors to the hallway to capture extra ambience for drum recordings, he’s in the middle of fitting a speaker to turn it into a dedicated reamping space.
Over the years, Gray has collected some incredible instruments and outboard pieces, like a ’73 Fender Telecaster Deluxe, an untouched Ludwig snare still in its plastic case for $200, an ADR Compex F670, Kush Audio UBK Fatso, and a Neumann U87 from Richmond Recorders used on countless Australian hits. Gray also custom built and soffit-mounted his own speaker boxes for a pair of Tannoy HPD-12 dual concentric speakers that deliver pinpoint imaging. His central piece is a 1978 38-channel MCI 538B console he bought off Mick Wordley at Mix Masters, with Rob Squire giving it a good work over. It’s a legendary console, and this particular one was originally built for Devonshire Studios in North Hollywood, where it tracked artists like The Ramones, Billy Joel, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Gray is unabashedly in love with analogue recording. His gear list is long — check out the website for the full list — and his mic collection has a substantial number of classy dynamics and esoteric ribbons to go along with his condensers. Likewise, you’re not going to want for pedals, hardware synths, guitar gear or percussion. He has Antelope Orion converters, or a Mackie 24-track hard disk recorder, depending on how you want to track, a Benchmark DAC for monitoring and an API A2D preamp/converter for the final conversion into his print rig when mixing analogue.
It’s been a labour of love and thoughtful design. Owning a studio for 20 years and having 10 years to think about your next one means you focus on the details. Like not only mic, but instrument and speaker tie lines throughout; a wired up, flexible mic gooseneck in the ceiling; and sight lines through all the rooms.
Gray completed a lot of the construction himself, with help from friends, including fellow in-house producer Nathan Freeman. The main room is devoid of parallel walls, with plenty of height for acoustic recordings, a painstakingly erected rock wall, skyline diffusors in the roof, cylindrical diffusors on the walls, a smattering of absorption throughout and large bass traps at one end. Parts of True Form, including the framing timber and floorboards, have been repurposed in the new studio. The walls have a thick, double leaf construction, with properly constructed windows and heavy doors; all designed to isolate Big Sky from its suburban neighbours. Just as you wouldn’t notice the studio from looking at the house, there are no giveaway noises either.