Words by Neil Boland
Photography supplied by Justin Humphries
Justin Humphries knows a little bit about determination. Like anyone who chooses a life of music, he faces the same challenges that all other musos do — a relatively small Australian music industry, paired with a smaller population than say, the United States. A decline in record sales due to illegal downloading, a nation of folks who’d rather watch sport on the pub’s telly over your head than hear what you’re singing….who’d want to put themselves through that?
Yes, it’s tough. But we do it for the love of it. Justin Humphries’ Hurstbridge recording facility, Phoenix Sound Studios, is a result of many years of hard work and an unwavering love for music. And that hard work started way back behind the starting line.
Having become well known on the Melbourne scene, as a drummer and knowledgeable producer, Humphries’ studio chops started in a humble manner. The upward trajectory – however – was destined to be tested by the one thing humans have the least control over: natural disaster.
“I was running my own studio. It was really more like a bedroom studio, but you know, I was working from it. That was in a place called Strathewen, which is sort of further out…north from here. And I lost that place in the Black Saturday fires. In fact I lost everything in the Black Saturday fires,” says Humphries.
It’s one thing to lose material objects, but it can be another to lose that which can never be replaced. Rest assured, Humphries is grateful for his survival and health, but as all musicians can testify, there can be an almost human attachment to some instruments.
“My vintage drums and cymbals I had, of course all went,” says Humphries, pointing out his shiny new in-house drum kits in his new studio’s main tracking room.
Of course, instruments can be the least of your worries, within the dawning days that follow a major setback to your life’s path. Before settling into this large yet cosy Hurstbridge dwelling and studio, Humphries had to do anything possible to survive financially.
“It was a big financial issue for us six years ago. Since then, my partner and I have moved about six times. But finally we found this place. We’d been living in limbo for a couple of years. I’ve owned the place for about four years. And I’ve been running the studio for about the last year, you know, between other bits and pieces, little jobs and things.”
Phoenix Sound Studios is not a converted garage. In a case of ‘if you buy it, they will come’, Humphries’ patience and persistence has paid off. He has managed to find the perfect purpose-built facility – originally constructed and owned by John Farnham’s sound engineer in the 1980s – to suit the needs of a large variance of clients. And he’s pretty much got it back to optimal gear capacity for making great sounds again.
“Officially, it’s been run as Phoenix Sounds Studios from just this year as I’ve been constantly renovating. I built the desk and gradually bought back my gear — mics and stuff.”
The studio is attracting everyone from talented locals to internationally acclaimed musicians. Never too old to be a little bit star struck, Humphries admits to feeling like an excited teenager when it came to one particular visitor.
“I’ve had a Melbourne guitar player here by the name of Nick Freer recording an album, which is a project that has been going on for the last year,” says Humphries. “It’s attracted some pretty amazing musicians from not just Melbourne but from around Australia, including the drummer Andrew Gander.”
Humphries stresses that Phoenix Sound Studios is not a bed and breakfast, but for Gander, well, why not bend the rules?
“He’s just like, one of my drumming heroes and he stayed here for a week.”
For anyone else, Hurstbridge is full of charming little accommodation options within walking distance of the studio…
Phoenix Sound Studios features a beautiful-sounding main tracking room with a combination of timber, double brick and angled ceiling and just by the clap of a hand, you can tell that acoustic instruments in particular would really come to life here.
The control room is also acoustically treated, so that anything heard in mixing or mastering phases is literal and true, guaranteeing a high quality recording. Perhaps –on top of a pretty location, a professional engineer and relaxed atmosphere – this is why Humphries’ next recording chapter is sure to contain many great instances of legendary music going down on tape. He’s sure as hell earned it.
Check out Phoenix’s accessible website here