Sing Sing South, Sing Sing East: The Continuing Legacy of Australia's Famed Recording Studio

Kaj Dahlstrom has been operating Sing Sing Recording Studios for over 30 years, weathering all of the changes that the music industry has gone through in that time. The studio was founded in 1982 in Melbourne's Cremorne on Gordon Street, and the list of artists who have recorded there is essentially a who's who of Australian music—Nick Cave, Powderfinger, The Living End, Killing Heidi, John Butler Trio, The Cat Empire, and Augie March have all worked there, along with many, many others.

If you can think of a favourite Australian album, chances are pretty good that Sing Sing was involved. It's not only native Aussies who have graced their halls, though. There are plenty of international acts who have recorded there as well, including Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra, The Killers, The Mars Volta, and Cat Power.

Although Sing Sing had expanded to include a second complex with the opening of what was then called Sing Sing South in the mid-1990s, the Gordon Street studios (the "classic" Sing Sing studios) closed down in 2016 and have since been redeveloped into a multi-storey building. While the loss of the Gordon Street studios is a heavy blow to the Australian music scene, it survived an awful lot of changes in the music business.

Sing Sing's SSL Room (All photos provided by Kaj Dahlstrom/Sing Sing)

Dahlstrom nominates the early 2000s as a time of major upheaval, due to the rise of online media platforms, and says that the restructuring of record labels made things more difficult. "Recording contracts naturally began to diminish, as did a label's stable of artists, and over time, we found that less work flowed from labels to our studio," Dahlstrom says.

At the same time, recording sessions are much shorter than they were, with studio costs and rates for engineers and producers beginning to decrease. "Studios rates today are only equal to half—or less—the rates that were being charged through the 1980s and even up to the early 2000s," he says.

Perhaps the key to Sing Sing's survival has been adaptability. Remarkably, the revamped Sing Sing South (and previously, the Gordon Street studios) is flexible enough to accommodate just about any style of recording an artist could want.

Sing Sing Sessions - Studio Tour & Biography

Dahlstrom has previously pointed out in a Audio Technology interview that, at Sing Sing South, "If people want to mix in the '70s they can go fully analogue if they want to. Or if they want to go '80s they can still record analogue but do it on the SSL. But if they want to work in the box we've got all the plugins as well. The Pro Tools HDX gives over 200 input channels. Workflow-wise, we can cover anything from the '50s right up to the current, because we have the whole range."

Still, even this kind of flexibility isn't everything. Given the rise of home recording and the prevalence of cheap gear, it can be difficult to ensure that a professional-level studio remains economical.

Dahlstrom tells Reverb, "Over the years we have seen sessions drop from three months to a couple of weeks in duration, then to a week, a couple of days, or even just one day. We have seen that clients are choosing to only carry out certain sections of their projects at our studios. While we still do get complete projects done at Sing Sing, overdubs and mixing are [sometimes] taken elsewhere."

Most studios have made changes to stay competitive, with Sing Sing's approach being to simply ditch most overtime charges. Likewise, the use of studio gear has changed.

"Back in the '80s and '90s, studios generally had less equipment than present-day studios. It was common for clients to pay extra to hire in both instruments and particular pieces of outboard gear for their sessions. It was also usual for studios to own certain choice items (both instruments and outboard gear) and to charge higher rates for those particular items," Dahlstrom says. "Obviously this significantly increased client costs. Nowadays it is expected and, we imagine, pretty standard that all the items that were once 'hire' items are included with the studio cost and are used for free. It is certainly like that for Sing Sing."

These kind of changes and reductions are a practicality for a studio that's run as long (and as successfully) as Sing Sing has. Unfortunately, the closure of studios that haven't been able to adapt is all too common.

Sing Sing's Neve Studio 2

"Sadly, we have seen quite a number of bigger studios bite the dust during our years in the business," Dahlstrom says. "Unsurprisingly, the more clients had access to [DAWs and owner-operator run studios], the more the competition changed for us as a studio over the years, and the more our client base changed as well."

Sing Sing's Recorded Legacy

One of the most beloved albums recorded at Sing Sing is undoubtedly Cat Power's 1998 album Moon Pix. It's an album that Australians adore. Chan Marshall performed the album in full as part of the 2018 Vivid festival in Sydney to rave reviews, and singer of Australian band The Preatures, Izzi Manfredi, wrote a heartfelt letter in tribute to Marshall before the event.

Cat Power - Moon Pix

The sessions may not have happened at all if it were not for an Australian band. Sound engineer Matt Voigt discussed the sessions in a 2004 interview, saying that Marshall "ended up in Australia because she was friends with The Dirty Three and then realised, 'Oh my God, I've got to provide the record label with an album. What am I gonna do?'" So she turned up at Sing Sing and was, you know, "'Give me four or five days, I need to do this album.' And The Dirty Three were going to help her out."

The recording was not without difficulties. Voigt recalls Marshall during the sessions, saying that "She was fine, a lovely lady. Very emotional. We would do takes and she'd start crying in the middle of a take. Then she'd say 'Stop, stop, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.' And I'm like, 'It sounded great!' … I think she was very hard on herself. I mean, with her voice you hear all the emotion she puts in to her singing. She feels it a lot. But I didn't intrude. It's who she is and that's fantastic, I'm recording it and I'm here to make her happy and that's it."

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Nocturama

Brooding Australian treasure Nick Cave is another notable fan of Sing Sing. He recorded parts of Murder Ballads (1996), the entirety of Nocturama (2003), as well as having recorded demo tracks for Push the Sky Away (2013) there. Cave often turns to engineer/producer Nick Launay, who's called Sing Sing's Gordon Street studios "one of my favourite studios in the world."

In terms of purely Australian output, one of the brightest spots in Sing Sing's catalogue is the records made there in the late '90s and early 2000s. There's a veritable cavalcade of Australian classics from the time, including Powderfinger's Internationalist (1999) and Odyssey No. 5 (2000), The Living End's self-titled album (1998) and Roll On (2000), and parts of Killing Heidi's Reflector (2000).

The final mixes for The Avalanches' Since I Left You (2000), heralded as one of Australia's best albums, were done at Sing Sing as well. That's not to say there's not more recent Australian bands who've recorded at the studio, though. Among others, punks The Smith Street Band (with their 2014 album Throw Me in the River) and psych queens Stonefield (with their 2013 self-titled album and 2016's As Above, So Below) continue to push the revered studio into the future.

What's Next for Sing Sing

Although you'd think your main studio being closed would be enough to put anyone off, Dahlstrom is sanguine about the change of studio. After giving the South Yarra studios a facelift, he says, "It now has more of a comfy, homey Gordon Street feel about it, and we have added some great gear to the rooms. We currently operate two main studios at South: the Neve room for tracking and the SSL room for overdubs, vocals and mixing."

That's not all, though. In June 2018, Dahlstrom opened up the brand new Sing Sing East. This is a collaboration with Box Hill Institute, a provider of vocational education. The engineers of tomorrow will be learning from the best, although it can be hired by outside clients as well. Sing Sing East has an enviable array of gear from the Gordon Street studios, including a 72-channel SSL XL9000K console, as well as plenty of other vintage equipment.

Sing Sing's East Studio

With the upgrading and improvements made to Sing Sing South (now the flagship Sing Sing) and the opening of the brand-new Sing Sing East, it's clear that even the closure of the Gordon Street complex has only spurred the studios on to new opportunities.

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