Kensington has changed considerably since Dex Audio – once one of the biggest cassette tape, CD and DVD duplication facilities in the country – began business there in the early eighties. Piers Morgan sat down with Dex Audio’s co-founder Greg Williams for a chat about adapting with the times in a fast-moving industry, and how Kensington has changed over the years.
The offices and sound studios of Dex Audio look out over Macaulay Road in Kensington. I’m talking with co-founder Greg Williams, and he gestures at the footpath out the window where an impromptu crowd would gather to watch the ‘gig’ on the odd Saturday afternoon back in the 1990s. When Dex Audio was commissioned to produce an outdoor sound system, the audio engineers would have to test the rig in open space – so they would pull up the roller door and blast music out to the street.
The factory buildings that Dex Audio has occupied over the years had been used variously as wool stores back in the 19th century and an icing sugar manufacturing plant in the mid-20th century, before the cassette tape, CD and DVD duplication facilities which became some of the busiest in the country. At one point they were producing 400,000 tapes per month, later it was a million CDs per month. If you’ve grown up in Australia, there’s a good chance you’ve handled a Dex Audio recording.
The business began when Greg, having left his job as an audio equipment technician, needed to come up with the rent money. He started repairing his mates’ broken guitar amps that were lying around his house in Hawthorn. He and co-founder Daniel Desiere would start their work day around lunch time, and keep the repair shop open until after midnight so that bands and roadies could drop their busted equipment around straight after their gigs. From there they started building PA setups, studio monitoring installations, and developing audio hardware. Greg tells me that Dex Audio developed the world’s first active DI box. When I confess that I have no idea what this means, he tells me that it’s a device similar to a preamp used when plugging a bass guitar directly into a studio mixing console. Their device dramatically decreased noise and preserved the full spectrum of the bass guitar tone. They had orders coming in from around the world and couldn’t build them quick enough.
Their big break came in 1982 when they were asked to build the sound system for Australia’s first IMAX theatre, and from there the business expanded to nearly all aspects of audio production.
Around this time they had a small recording studio and also maintained the equipment for a tape duplication company in the neighbourhood. There was a quid-pro-quo arrangement whereby Dex Audio would get tapes produced for their recording artists. The usual wait time for tape duplication was four weeks; “In four weeks, in Melbourne, bands could form, do their first few gigs, and break up.” The manufacturer would get stuck with the tapes, and eventually they went bust. Dex Audio took over the lease on their duplication equipment, and began producing all orders on a five-day turnaround (and a 50 percent deposit). They still keep to this schedule, regardless of format.
As Dex Audio got more orders – from universities, government, big business – the studio took on more equipment and more staff, often hiring local musicians when they were between tours. Greg says, “They struggled with the early starts, but it was nice to be able to throw them a bit of work when they needed it.” In 1990 the business purchased the red brick building on the corner, 393 Macaulay Road, and, in 1992, expanded to the property next door.
Dex Audio continued manufacturing cassette tapes long after the market had shifted to CD audio, as it had a contract with Victoria Police for their interview recordings. The cassettes had to have particular anti-tampering features to ensure the authenticity of the recordings to be used as evidence, and few manufacturers could meet the exacting standards.
Kensington has changed considerably since Dex Audio moved in. On the high street, there wasn’t much more than a pub and a hamburger joint. There used to be more light industry in the area, which was great if Greg needed to get a part manufactured to service a piece of equipment – he could just walk around to a nearby fabrication shop.
In the 1990s, Dex Audio produced the sound system for the slice of Melbourne suburban architectural history, the all-you-can-eat, dinner-and-show restaurant, Smorgy’s. Greg worked closely with architect Peter McIntyre, who imposed very strict conditions on the equipment, wanting to keep it out of sight. One of the few places they could install the subwoofers in the Polynesian-themed restaurant was hidden in the vaulted ceiling, which made for a natural bass horn. It was so effective that children would become frightened when the floor shook at the dramatic crescendo of the evening as the volcano ‘erupted’; they had to dial it back a notch.
Dex Audio doesn’t need as much space in Kensington for its equipment, so it’s moved out of 393 Macaulay Road, but remains just next door. Greg shows me the audio mastering studios they’re currently fitting out. He’s constantly experimenting and testing ideas. The bundled straw panels that will line the ceiling have an incredibly low environmental impact, and work very well acoustically – the irregular texture disperses high frequencies. The cable tray covers are affixed with magnets, they simply pop off for easy access. The audio is distributed over standard blue network cables, a system he employed in the fit-out for a local community radio station: much of the work was done by volunteers. These cables can be installed by anyone with an electrical or IT background, without requiring specific audio-wiring expertise. The studio spaces are visually connected by windows to each other and to the office and (unlike most sound recording rooms) are flooded with natural light. This makes for better communication and a more comfortable, collaborative work environment. He’s not happy with the external double-glazing: it functions well thermally, but the gas-filled chamber is causing the panes to resonate. He tells me this is why he tests ideas in his own studios before deploying them in installation for others.
The responsible, environmentally friendly practices that their new factory in Derrimut has instituted also make good business sense.
The excess polycarbonate from the CD manufacturing process becomes a high-value waste stream as it is optical grade, and better quality than most virgin polycarbonate. They have a 30,000 litre underground rainwater tank, and do not use any tap water for their manufacturing processes. The 100-kilowatt solar array on their roof provides 100 percent of their standby power and 25 percent of their operating power, and will pay for itself in around four years. Greg would like to see the nationwide energy grid upgraded to support small-scale power generation, so that Australia’s energy needs could be fully supported by renewables, but an upgrade like this requires leadership on a federal level and would take 20 years to roll out. “But we have to start today, in order to be able to make a difference in 20- or 30-years’ time.”
As well as catering for the renaissance in cassette tape production, Dex Audio is now going back to its roots, working with guitar amps. Greg bemoans the fact that many new amplifiers are not designed to be serviceable, and are simply thrown out when they break. Dex Audio is bringing out its own line of amplifiers, designed to last, and able to be repaired when necessary. The engineers are restoring vintage microphones and analog recording equipment, drawing on the trove of equipment Dex Audio has kept as a museum to vintage recording technology.
There is clearly still a place for manufacturing in Melbourne’s rapidly changing inner-suburban industrial areas such as Kensington. Greg has considered moving the premises to the outer suburbs, but his current location is convenient for his clients and employees, and he’d rather stay put, adapting to changes in the industry and the area.
Illustrating Greg’s point about change in the local area, the building Dex Audio recently vacated has been acquired by Assemble for the first Assemble Model project. The site’s important industrial heritage is central to the design by Fieldwork. For more on Assemble’s projects, follow this link.
A big warm thank you to Greg for sharing your story, and to Piers for taking the time to craft this piece. For more on Dex Audio, check out their webiste. And to read and see more of Piers’ work, follow this link. This story also appears in AP print issue #12: (Future) Legacies, free to pick up all summer from MPavilion.