Behind a nondescript door at the end of a cobblestone laneway, in the shadow of the Royal Women’s Hospital, is a private bunker to make the most seasoned music nerd blush.
M.E.S.S. (Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio) is a new, not-for-profit initiative by sound artists Robin Fox and Byron Scullin. They have banded together to create an electronic sound studio they hope will attract newcomers and experts to the world of synthesised sound.
Fox and Scullin are experienced vets of sonic manipulation. Fox is perhaps best known for his inventive, laser-orientated audio-visual work. Scullin lectures and works prominently in sound design and mastering. They’re also at the forefront of sound installations – if you’ve been to the Dark Mofo festival in Tasmania you’ve probably had your organs rattled at Scullin’s Bass Bath, or ogled Fox’s White Beam installation.
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While the personnel are formidable, M.E.S.S. aims to be an inviting, inclusive space. In person, though, it’s hard not to be a little intimidated by the Aladdin’s cave of vintage synths, drum machines and oddball artefacts (MIDI saxophones! Theramins!). Some pieces are borrowed from a range of long-time collectors. The scene does look like an off-limits museum. But Scullin says it’s less about putting the collection on display than preserving and celebrating the machines through use.
“We want it to be like a museum, but one where you can use and touch everything,” says Scullin. “And also like a gym – come down and work out on a synth. If you leave these things locked away, they’re like a vintage car – if you don’t take it for a drive then the whole thing seizes up. That’s why the musicians who the collection is pulled from are very interested in this process. They have more instruments than they can possibly use at one time, so keeping them active will help them stay alive. It also means new music is created on them.”
M.E.S.S. hopes the instruments’ use comes via memberships that, for now, are limited to 500. For $220 a year, members (and a guest) can book an instrument online and come into M.E.S.S. to use it for a four-hour session, at a cost of $44. A maximum of 16 members are allowed in at any one time. “You reserve a machine, bring your laptop or portable recording device, make some sounds and walk out the door,” says Scullin. Novices and experts are equally encouraged, with workshops for both slated for the future. “The people who get on board early get access to everything and become the bedrock of the community we want to build. But we also hope it becomes a bit of a drawcard for international musicians to come to Melbourne and work with these amazing machines.”
So vast is the M.E.S.S. collection that Scullin says only a third can be on display at any one time, so the machines on offer will change every 22 weeks. Members will get discounts on workshops that will also be open to the public, something Scullin hopes to expand to school groups and touring artists alike as the M.E.S.S. community grows. But for now, it’s about inviting anyone curious about these rare (and in some cases, prohibitively expensive) instruments, to investigate the unknown.
“So many people nowadays make electronic music on their laptops at home,” says Scullin. “But the thing about making music that way is there’s often not a lot of cross-pollination that happens organically. Get a bunch of people in a room like this and it’s a bit like bumping into people at the record store. We’re excited to see what collaborations and partnerships might come out of it.”
Dowling Place, off Wrecklyn Street, North Melbourne
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