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Club audio: A healthy dose of unreality

Clubbing is all about putting the real world on hold for a few hours. And that, finds Gez Kahan, means clubs are still investing in providing a better experience.

Any business is ultimately based the equivalent of bums on seats (although in the case of nightclubs, it’s more likely to be bums on bars stools, feet on floors and chilled out bodies on sofas). Of course funding plays a part too – you need cash to pay your way while the business grows and you need to splash out a bit on making your offering attractive – but in the end, return on investment will only come from turnover, and profitable turnover at that.

That nice balance between investment, cash flow and profitability is hard enough to achieve in an economic boom, let alone when times (and lines of credit) are tight and competition is fierce. And the risks – for an investor – become higher.

In most industries, that would dampen investment. People would cut costs, cut margins and cut corners where possible, and play a low-risk game until things started looking up. 

Fortunately for pro audio, club owners tend to be inherent risk-takers. Perhaps they’re so rich that a multi-million pound investment in a venue is a mere bagatelle. Maybe they’re more flamboyant than your average property dealer or business angel, and their nightclubs are an extension of their personalities. More likely, though, is that they’re aware that nightclubbing is a form of escapism, and – especially when times are tight – cutting back on the experience would represent the greatest possible risk to their bottom line.

And so scarcely a week of economic gloom goes by without counter-intuitive news of some new venue opening, extravagantly themed in homage to imagined good times gone by. But glitz and opulence alone are not enough.

“Clubbers now expect better dance PA systems,” says Mark Flanagan, communications manager at Tannoy/Lab.gruppen. “Today’s electronic music is increasingly demanding on systems – more detailed, complex rhythms and sonic textures and more physical bass presence all demand club systems that can deliver greater fidelity and clarity at very high SPL. Even ‘mainstream’ techno and conventional dance music tends to be more complex and sonically demanding than it was a decade ago.”
 Better speakers are obviously part of the requirement, but so is acoustic design.

“We have always had an understanding and concern about the acoustic properties of a given venue,” says Funktion One’s Tony Andrews. “It is shocking that architects and interior designers can design a club venue and give no thought to the fact that there will be tens of thousands of watts of sound in the space.”

Shocking, but it happens. Andrews, whose firm, as well as manufacturing and supplying systems, offers advice on acoustics and necessary treatment, has long bemoaned what once appeared to be an endemic lack of forethought at the early planning stage. But the message finally appears to be getting through.

“What we are experiencing recently is that venue owners are much more willing to accept our advice in this area,” he says. “It has not been unusual to find ourselves liaising with interior designers and architects to mitigate a bad sound experience before the sound system is actually turned on.”

One club where Funktion One’s expertise has long been in demand is Space, Ibiza, whose F1/MC2/XTA audio refit PSNE covered in November.

“There are several areas or clubs within the Space, Ibiza club,” explains Andrews. “All of these have different requirements. The opening and closing parties in the outside car park require full concert touring systems; the main Discoteca has a powerful iconic custom designed system; the Premier Etage has a distributed system giving more of a cocktail bar feel; and the Terrace and Red Box required a traditional dance club system.“

Underpinning each of those designs was the desire to deliver better sound. “This upgrade was all about the audio quality,” commented the installer, David Cole of Pro Audio London.

It was the same story for DC10, (also in Ibiza and also featured in PSNE November). “All the clubs having been upping their game,” says Andy Kayall, the club’s in-house sound engineer, and DC10 is no exception. A couple of years ago it chopped in its unbranded main room system for a Void Acoustics rig – while also undertaking comprehensive acoustic treatment to the roof.

Although that might look like a textbook example of market forces at work – increased competition driving improvements in the offering to the consumer – there are other factors at work. While it’s true that the clubbers, having installed better systems at home and in their cars, and being used to better audio at live gigs, might have higher expectations these days, business has rarely kowtowed to them. And to some extent, the public’s uncomplaining acceptance of compressed audio from MP3s shoots the argument in the foot anyway.

Scott Gledhill, Meyer Sound’s sales manager for much of Europe, advances an alternative theory. “Systems need to be more rider friendly, just as live systems have had to be for years, because of DJs being headline names. They are clearly putting pressure on club owners and asking for better systems. The organisers don’t really take much notice of the public, but the club owners need to get something that all DJs will accept.”

The end result, however, is the same – standards have risen. That applies as much, if not more, to the front end as to the speakers. “’Trends’ [as distinct from a general improvement in output quality] are happening at the control end with Native instruments Traktor, Serato Scratch etc,” says Jerry Gilbert, a respected industry commentator.

That, as previously noted by Flanagan, has led to increased musical complexity and therefore a need for increased clarity. It has also encouraged makers of mixers to up their offerings, both in terms of quality and functionality.“Our new Xone:DB4 and Xone:DB2 digital mixers,” says Allen & Heath’s Xone product specialist, Greg Ibbotson, “offer onboard studio quality effects, trimodal EQ on a per channel basis, MIDI functionality, and a soundcard interface to PC, all of which reduce dependency on the laptop screen and promote creativity.”

Alongside those, the company has recently launched the Xone:K2, a slimline professional DJ MIDI Controller, which Ibbotson describes as “perfect for use with leading DJ software such as Traktor Pro and Ableton, but which also integrates with other requirements, so for example it can also be used to control lights or VJ software.”

It’s not just the DJ and the mixer that have to be flexible. The same applies to the club as a whole. Take Pulse (also known as Bankside Vaults), for example. Built into interlinked arches beside Blackfriars Bridge in central London, it naturally forms four spaces, the main one equipped with a performance stage and able to accommodate more than 2,000 people.

The club decided it needed to resite the performance stage along the long wall for its recent Soul Heaven event, featuring a host of DJs with Masters At Work’s Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez topping the bill. VibaSound – whose Hugh Sadlier had installed the original Nexo Geo S12 double-hang arrangement supplemented by eight RS15 subs – reconfigured and augmented the systems into clusters of three S12s flown in the corners plus two pairs either side of the DJ console, while a dozen RS15 subs were ground-stacked along the edge of the dancefloor area. 

Clubbing may be a synonym for all-night dancing, but ‘nightclub’ has traditionally had a more general meaning, with food, drink and general entertainment being equally important elements. That calls for even more flexibility in the design of the audio system.

That’s particularly true of nightclubs within hotels, which will change throughout the day from meeting area to lounge bar and then gradually morph into a late-night watering- hole and disco. An example is Le Madison at the Maison Blanche hotel in Tunis. It combines French-influenced opulence with the service ethic of a top hotel, but still needs to compete with dedicated clubbing clubs. 

The room recently invested in a brand new reinforcement system, choosing Dynacord D8W speakers for their compactness as well as sonic performance, along with Dynacord subs, amps, processing and mixing. Regular guests, reports Manel Khammouma of the installer, ADB, immediately commented on the improvement in sound quality.

Similarly the Peavey installation at the Embassy Beach Club in the Algarve, Portugal, needed to cater for more than just dancing. Owned by Iron Maiden’s bassist, Steve Harris, it draws inspiration from Embassy London in Mayfair (co-owned by Iron Maiden’s management), and had the same installer, Ian Dunn. Like the London club, where the system has to be adaptable between dance (where speakers surround the floor) and live performance (a typical stereo FOH configuration), the Algarve club called for several zones covering bar, stage and DJ areas.

All of which should have been simple – except that there was no opportunity for a site visit before the install. Peavey’s PA specialist, Virgil Lund had to design the system remotely with just a photograph of a rough sketch as his guide.“As we couldn’t communicate directly with the end users, we needed the system design to have a large degree of versatility to allow for any conceivable alteration to the room layout or zone configuration,” says Lund. His solution was to use Peavey’s Digitool MX – a fully programmable processing and control system – to provide a menu of in/out options, with the ability to update with a new project file should revisions be required at a later date.

“Modern electronic music demands more than ever when it comes to clarity and definition,” says Flanagan. “It’s no longer a case of straightforward 4/4 and mashed up sound. Distortion must be kept at minimum.” This is especially important since listeners in clubs are typically much closer to the sound source than in live music applications. And that proximity equally puts a premium on aesthetics as well as compactness.

“Achieving the desired SPL levels and full-range performance in very compact form is the key,” he says. “That minimises impact in what is often a limited space. Tannoy’s VQ is one of the smallest format boxes able to achieve that level of sustained acoustic performance. A single VQ 60 can easily match or rival a four-box line array hang – which is often impractical in a club situation. Plus, owners are looking for something iconic that doesn’t detract from the style of the club interior. In the same way that other manufacturers have a recognisable styling, Tannoy’s VQ, with a deep coned horn and twin angled 12” LF array, has a similar unique appearance.”

“JBL has long been involved with the dance club market, supplying components for custom systems in top clubs worldwide since the early 1970s,” comments Jon Sager, senior manager, installed sound, for JBL Professional. “Later we designed custom systems like Dance3 and Dance5, while more recently club designers have used VerTec, VRX Series and many other JBL systems.”

But Harman sees it as an important and growing sector, Sager says, hence the release last year of eight new loudspeaker models specifically for the dance club market. “The Marquis Dance Club line of speakers is designed with high fashion and high performance in mind and they deliver both at the highest possible level of fidelity. We believe this already strong market segment is growing and there are a number of opportunities for this new product line in clubs of all sizes everywhere in the world.”

Meyer, by contrast, doesn’t have a dedicated ‘club speaker’ range. “We make neutral systems, thereby catering for all kinds of music, says Scott Gledhill, noting that, “there are definitely more multiple-room venues. The club needs a variety of options to draw the public – big-name DJs, other nights for live music and so on. Multi-purpose systems fit in with the trends for live performance plus functions etc as well as pure dance nights.

“We don’t specifically tune our systems for club use – instead we make sure there’s plenty of headroom. Our big seller is the JM1P (along with the UPQ series) together with the 700HP 2x 18 sub. These are trapezoidal, three-way speakers, designed to be flown, and they are sonically linear… input equals ouput.” 

There are two selling points he picks out. One is “ear fatigue – or rather the lack of it. With Meyer’s systems, the audience doesn’t experience compression and attenuation” meaning the clubber will come back because he didn’t end up with a 12-hour headache after his night out. 

The other gets to the heart of why people go clubbing in the first place. Oh, sure they go to dance, and for that you need to “feel the sound in your chest. But the guy must still be able to flirt with the girl. So you have to demo it, you have to talk to your customer with the system up high. For that you don’t need to design a ‘club speaker’ – just give them headroom.”

The world outside is struggling to keep afloat, but the club market still appears to be buoyant. There are, however, warning signs. There may be bums on seats, and escapism may still rule, but realism isn’t so far behind. Attendance looks stable but there’s anecdotal evidence that spend per punter is down. So there’s work there for the pro-audio installer – but expect margins to be just as tight as in the real world.