Take a snapshot of the top recording artists in Australia at any time over the last 30 years and it will likely resemble the recording alumni of Sing Sing. The Cremorne site on Gordon Street was founded in 1982 and was near synonymous with Australian rock history until 2016. Australian heroes such as Powderfinger, The Living End, The Avalanches, Killing Heidi, The Cat Empire, and Augie March all frequented the space over their recording careers. Nick Cave once famously invited an entire audience at Richmond’s Corner Hotel to visit the studio after the show, much to owner and managing director Kaj Dahlstrom’s surprise. International heavyweights are also no strangers to the iconic space, with The Mars Volta, The Killers, Cat Power and even American rap powerhouses Jay-Z and Kanye West among the alumni.
When the Cremorne studio was slated for redevelopment in 2016, Dahlstrom assumed it was a sign to wind down, moving to the far smaller B studio in South Yarra and placing the business for sale. Box Hill Institute Music Director Ben Wiesner and long time sound engineer of Sing Sing Matt Voigt offered to buy out the studio; however, the financial reality of refurbishing the old building crept in. Voigt and Wiesner decided expanding the Box Hill Institute provided an opportunity to build the grander Sing Sing East.
“[Wiesner and Voigt] were really interested in our K room and Neve room,” said Dahlstrom. “Our Neve room had a huge tracking area in it. They amalgamated both of them together, so they used part of the Neve room design and made that the recording area. They put three isolation booths down the back like we had in Cremorne, but bigger again. They built their own K room control room, which, again, was much larger.
“They floated all the floors too, so you can have a rowdy rock band in one room and put a baby to sleep in the next.”
Dahlstrom proudly declares Sing Sing East has transformed Box Hill Institute into “the best school in the Southern Hemisphere to learn your trade” and it’s hard to disagree on gear alone. The colossal new studio boasts the characteristic Sing Sing mix of vintage analogue equipment and cutting edge digital set-ups bought from the Gordon Street studio. This includes its singular collection of top of the range outboard gear and the 72-channel SSL XL9000K console. Voigt said he had eyed off the gear at Sing Sing his entire career.
“Some of that original pool tech, the 1176N amplifiers… Putting sound through those pieces of gear just changes things.”
Sing Sing East also features a flexible 250-seat performance space, slated for orchestra and jazz use, fit with a brand new Hammond organ and Fender Rhodes piano. The facilitation of music education may have been the only way to see the Sing Sing name live on in this fashion, according to Dahlstrom, as big budget studios have closed all around them.
“It’s not a profitable business anymore,” he says. “It’s basically like a hobby that you can pay your way through. People think, ‘I’ll build a studio ‘cause they’re successful’, but the pie is only so big – it just gets smaller and divided up differently.”
Voigt added that although the studio’s financial tact had changed, its functionality as a premiere destination for top-tier recording artists hasn’t. “The business model is completely different, but the idea of having high standard facilities is now to attract high calibre artists that all of the students can have access to.”
The increasing array of options for home recording and online distribution models has meant the curatorial gatekeepers of the music industry that once propped up huge recording budgets have receded over the last two decades. Many artists merely use records as cyclical promotional tools, although Dahlstrom remains confident of the need for places like Sing Sing to exist.
“You can’t put a band like The Living End in someone’s house,” he says. “If you’re recording a serious record and you want to play live, you need to have separation between your amplifiers. There’s no comparison there.”
Since opening in June, Sing Sing East has already hosted one of its largest recording efforts ever with the Australian Girls Choir, while artist in residence projects from Xylouris White and superstar producer Victor Van Vugt will fill out the rest of the year. Much of the slated recording, however, remains too unconfirmed to print. Whether Kanye West and Jay-Z will waltz in again remains to be seen, although Dahlstrom thinks it might fray his nerves.
“It’s a lot of pressure. Most regular artists use plug-in synthesisers, but they [Jay-Z and Kanye] want all the original stuff. We have some, but they have this long list of equipment they want. Of course they only use one or two of them, but you have to have it all together there anyway.
“The bill is not a big issue for them; the bigger issue is if you say sorry, we can’t get that and they go, ‘What did you say? I didn’t hear that.’”
Voigt emphasises Sing Sing’s philosophy when describing its continued relevance.
“When I started working, studios had huge payrolls; receptionists, business managers, constant staffing through the day. [Sing Sing] did everything themselves – the dishes, cleaned the toilets.”
Dahlstrom, however, is characteristically modest. “I think we just roll with the punches.”
Sing Sing East is now open for bookings, situated at Nelson Road Campus, Box Hill. Visit boxhill.edu.au/for-students/sing-sing-east for more.