Most of us understand that great sound is a pillar of an epic night’s raving to electronic music: power, volume and clarity arguably matter more than in any other genre you could name. Few of us, though, know how a good sound system actually works. That’s understandable. Audio nerds tend to talk about their craft using impenetrable industry-specific jargon. Sound is obviously a science. Getting a basic handle on what makes for good or bad systems, however, isn’t hard.
Loudspeakers seem like a logical place to start. To the layperson, they’re the part of a sound system that’s most easily identifiable. Good loudspeakers are all about “head room,” says Jason Baird, R&D Director at Martin Audio. He’s a man that should know. Baird’s been working with sound for over 20 years and has been involved in some of the world’s most celebrated sound installs: fabric’s room 1 and Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage to name a few. To Baird, “the ability to go loud without running out of steam or sounding harsh” is key.
“Typically when you feed too much power into a loudspeaker system then it no longer behaves in a linear manner. So when you’re designing a sound system to produce higher levels, then you need to take that all into account.”
When speakers start to behave in a non-linear manner—”distort” to you and me—the drivers of the speaker start to add their own, often unpleasant frequencies to the overall sound. (Been in a club where the sound feels like it’s going to take your ears off? That’s probably a compression driver distorting.) Drivers are the components within the loudspeaker that convert electrical energy to sound, ranging from sub-woofers at the low frequency range to tweeters for the highs.
Funktion-One‘s founder, Tony Andrews, has a good explanation for why speakers are split in this fashion: “Sound covers a range of ten octaves, and we’ve only got one with light which is the rainbow. So it’s quite easy to get a full range of frequencies of light out of one light bulb because you’ve only got one octave, but in sound you have ten. So the differences between the top octave and the bottom octave in terms of wavelength and the amount of energy you need to make them is huge. The engineering requirements are almost contradictory between the top octave and the bottom octave, and that’s why it gets divided between woofers, mids and tweeters—or even four or five ways. It’s very hard to get all the frequencies out of one speaker because it’s so broad.”
In order to cover the entire frequency range of music smoothly, speaker manufacturers have to use different materials for each driver. This can range from stiff yet light carbon fibre for bass frequencies, to delicate materials like paper for mid and high frequencies. The drivers in good speakers will also be highly efficient in the sense that they are very good converters of electrical energy to audio energy. They don’t have to work too hard to do their job. This helps create the aforementioned “head room” and allows the speakers to go loud for long periods of time without distorting, something that’s especially important in night clubs where the clientèle can be exposed to music for longer periods than almost any other scenario.
Getting your mitts on a set of top quality speakers is a starting point, but in some ways it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The acoustics of a room play a huge role. So much so, in fact, that a bad acoustic environment can make even the best speakers sound crap. Rich Cufley of Sound-Services is someone who’s passionate about this point.
Cufley is the go-to sound guy for some of London’s best underground parties. When Ostgut Ton roll into town, Cufley is the man who’s taking care of business. He often deals with rooms that were never designed to be used as nightclubs, and makes them sound like ones that were. (All the while attempting to meet the lofty expectations of demanding international DJs and hard-to-impress London clubbers.)
“Next time you walk into an empty building, no matter what it is, if you just clap, the time that reverb takes to disappear is the key to how it’s going to sound.” Cufley’s job when getting a room ready for a club night is to try and get rid of as much of the reverb as possible. As Cufley explains, “The first port of call with trying to improve the sound in a building like a warehouse would be heavy theatrical draping. It’s one of the thickest things you can put on the wall temporarily. It really helps with the high-mid and high frequencies, and it will stop the clatter and the reverb.”
This added reverb not only sounds unpleasant, but it also “tires your brain” over the course of a night’s clubbing. Your mind is hardwired—from the hunter-gatherer days—to judge space and time through sound. Reverb bouncing around the space of a building—”secondary reflections” if you want to use the technical term—puts your brain into overdrive as it attempts to unscramble the flood of information it’s being sent.
As you may have guessed, improving acoustics can be an expensive business. According to Cufley, the average quotation for a Funktion-One rig is probably half the price of what it would take to drape a building properly. Unsurprisingly, some promoters and club owners are reluctant to shell out this kind of cash, a point reiterated by Baird at Martin Audio.
“The appreciation of how much difference good acoustic treatment can make to a sound system is something that people don’t really understand. They have enough trouble getting their head around (the fact they’re) paying a lot because of the sound system, never mind paying a lot of money to acoustically treat the room that they’re in. ‘What? I’d rather spend it on a lighting rig or a new bar.’”
Even if the money’s not there, however, simply having an idea that acoustics matter can make all the difference to promoters and club owners trying to find new spaces. Cufley talks about times when he’s used materials like camouflage netting to improve the sound of a room when nothing else is around. Recently he used hay bales stolen from a roller rink to provide the finishing touches at Loco Dice’s Under 300 gig. They “absorbed loads of bottom end,” as straw has surprisingly good acoustic properties.
So it’s clear speakers are not the beginning and end of good sound. There are always going to be other factors at play. Nevertheless, one speaker brand in particular seems to have developed a reputation as a golden bullet for great sound. Funktion-One speakers are now treated as a marketable feature of a night. A simple Google search will reveal the amount of club promoters who use Funktion as a talking point. One promoter has even gone so far as to describe the music played at their night as “Funktion-One fuelled house.” Tellingly, if you search for similar use of a rival sound system manufacturer, you see only a few results. In some ways this is nothing new, big sound systems are an obvious selling point. But to see a brand pushed to the forefront—and gain recognition from not only audio geeks, but Joe and Jane clubber too—seems like a recent development.
Funktion-One’s moment in vogue would seem to have some substance behind it. F1′s founders also started Turbo Sound in the ’70s, a company that made several notable leaps forward in speaker technology and worked with bands like Pink Floyd. Funktion’s Tony Andrews has over 40 years of experience with audio, a pedigree that’s given him strong and unusually outspoken convictions on sound systems. He’s openly critical of competitors and describes line arrays, the speaker set-up used at most major live gigs, as “not really proper audio.” F1′s stance against line arrays—and therefore lack of presence in the live music market—is one of the reasons they are so focused on club music.
Andrews says that it’s the ability to focus sound onto a small space that makes F1 speakers great at working in acoustically poor spaces. “We’re much better at dealing with problematic rooms because with line arrays you have fixed dispersion. You almost need a room to fit the dispersion of the PA, which is the wrong way round in my opinion. Because you can cater the dispersion of the [Funktion-One] speakers just beyond the audience and nowhere else, I would say generally we are better at dealing with difficult acoustic spaces.”
Narrowing the dispersion of sound cuts down on the amount of music bouncing off the walls. If you imagine a long thin room with speakers at one end, if the sound comes out at a 60 degree angle rather than a 90 degree angle, then it’s going to hit the walls much less. This will give a smoother sound. F1 speakers are designed with this in mind. It’s one of the reasons the speaker’s distinctive polygon-shaped horns look the way they do. (Though it must be said F1 are not the only brand that can achieve these results.)
So there are reasons why F1 stacks are so popular with dance music promoters using off-the-radar spaces. It’s Funktion’s club installs, however, where its products really shine. Celebrated systems in Berghain and Space Ibiza cement F1′s reputation week in and week out. F1 speakers are both simple and efficient, which means they can effectively produce smooth audio for long periods of time without need for correction from sound engineers. The end product is consistently excellent sound.
While it’s clear Funktion-One are the most talked about sound system brand in the dance music world, many others provide comparable results. DC-10 uses a Void Acoustics rig, while Ministry Of Sound and fabric both have multi-award winning sound systems powered by Martin Audio.
As Martin’s Jason Baird tells it, “If we take a client to either of those venues and demonstrate the system to them, then it’s quite a persuasive demonstration.” Baird speaks of a “premier league” of manufacturers that make the best products—of which he naturally includes Martin Audio, but also Funktion-One. Rich Cufley, whose favoured speaker brand happens to be F1, also backs up this school of thought.
“I think a properly set up system, (set up) with someone who’s passionate about how that system works and is designed, with good engineering know-how, can really get good results out of most modern day systems. You could give me a stack of Turbo Sound, though it’s 20 years old, and I’d hope to get something that was really great.”
Having that person—usually a trained sound engineer—to set up and oversee a sound system is something that shouldn’t be overlooked. Cufley talks about times when he’s seen Funktion-One systems set up badly and they’ve sounded “atrocious.” Sometimes he doesn’t even need to hear a system to know it’s going to sound dodgy: F1 speakers should be stacked at a specific angle, and ones that aren’t signal an engineer with all the right gear but no idea.
“There’s people out there and they buy the front ends and the obvious Funktion-One stacks that everyone’s going to see, but they power it with the wrong amps, they use the wrong crossovers, they might not be the most competent engineers. It breaks my heart when I walk in somewhere like that.”
Amplifiers can also have a huge effect on the overall sound. As with loudspeakers, head room is key. You don’t want the amps straining to power the speakers. It’s also important to use amplifiers that are a suitable power rating for the speakers in order not to blow them up. Cufley warns that “you could write a book on the subject,” but it’s clear that in listening to him talk that a great sounding amplifier can make a dramatic improvement. (Cufley specifically uses Full Fat Audio with his existing equipment). There has to be a cumulative approach in order to get good sound, all the way down to the cables. It might sound obvious, but if every element is of a high standard, the final result will be improved.
Having a full knowledge of the ins-and-outs of a sound system is something that seems to come primarily from experience. Cufley, for instance, says that “if you put me out there in the real world, I’m absolutely useless.” Ask him a question about a sound system, however, and he’ll informatively nerd out over all aspects of audio—usually at a length that will get uncomfortable to the casual listener. He’ll even forfeit meals in favour of working and has a semi-religious abstinence policy for all of his team.
“We don’t allow any drinking from our crew when they’re working. I hate that cliché of a drunk engineer. You can’t hear properly if you drink. Even worse [is] a coked up engineer. The protection hairs in you ear—as soon as you do cocaine—go into protect mode and you can’t hear properly. Any sound engineer that has put cocaine up their nose [should] go home immediately. You are no use to anyone.”
Baird from Martin Audio also points out how important sound engineers can be to a night’s success. Chiefly because modern sound systems are more complicated than ever before: “If the people setting them up haven’t been trained to do it then it’s easy to make a mistake. When I hear a sound system that’s been set-up badly, then it’s [not an] intrinsic problem with a particular loudspeaker. It’s more the way it’s been configured.”
So the next time your hear bad sound, don’t just divert your anger at the speakers. Perhaps you’d be better off blaming the inexperienced sound guy or the club owner who scrimped on acoustic treatment. In fact, the weakest link in the audio chain is not usually the hardware, or even the guy who set it up, but the person supplying the music—the DJ.
Tony Andrews is a man who’s explicit about his thoughts on this subject. “The performance of the whole system will come down to the least good bit. It’s like a chain of events: from the DJ to the loudspeaker. I don’t particularly want to pick on DJs—and all engineers out there know this—[but] it’s just staggering how many DJs will drive the mixers into the red. If you drive them into them red… How can I put this? The whole thing’s fucked before you even start!”
A system can only work with what you put in there and, as such, a good DJ should take care to play the best quality music at their disposal at the best possible sound quality they can manage. In other words, if the record the DJ is playing sounds bad, then no matter how good the speakers are, the audio coming out is going to sound bad too. Most experts will say that to achieve the best sound quality, DJs should be playing either WAVs or vinyl (provided the decks are set up correctly). And if anyone’s thinking of turning this point into a tedious digital vs analogue debate, Cufley references Andrew Weatherall as the man to put the argument to bed.
“What I like about Weatherall is he’s playing off of CDJs, but he’s ripped it from the vinyl and he really cares about how it sounds and he’s got a great pair of ears. He’s got this amazing vinyl, he’s cleaned it, he’s taken his time, he’s listening to it on his studio monitors and he’s ripped it onto a CD, so he doesn’t have to carry records around. He’s playing it in a CDJ2000 which is a great-sounding CD player so the warmth and the feeling’s there. All the components are there for a magical, magical night.”
That elusive feeling when the bass drops back in, your fist pumps and your hackles rise… That’s something that is just less likely to happen with low quality files and bad speakers. To sound experts like Cufley, it’s still the unquantifiable aspects of audio that are most fascinating.
“A human being’s hearing is capable of more than we could possibly measure and understand. We need to treat audio and human hearing with the respect that it deserves, and we need to push it forward. All we can do is get the technological sound of it as perfect as possible, but there are still things we don’t understand about how humans react to sound. The only thing we all agree on is that when’s it’s right, it feels amazing. You look at how many people get addicted to a good club at the weekend and sound is beyond drugs. Absolutely.”
Published / Tuesday, 15 May 2012