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Sound Advice: Club Wars Heat Up

Oct 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Dan Daley

Nightclubs battle for supremacy by using sheer amplified power.

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In the meantime, Randazzo focused on containing the club's huge bass and not letting it invade neighboring spaces. Four Meyer 700-HP subs were stacked two per side inside cavities carved out of the club's walls. The cavities were lined with heavy-duty industrial acoustical foam and the boxes built to line the cavities were made as airtight as possible. “Low frequency always looks for a way to escape, so we had to make these enclosures as tight as possible,” Randazzo says. “For that same reason, we designed the boxes so that they were flush with the subs themselves. We wanted no place for the low-frequency energy to have a chance to slip through. We wanted to be able to direct that energy as much as physics allows in order to control it in the room and to keep it from getting into other areas of the hotel.”

It was a noble goal, but one not attained immediately. Morels, the ultra-high-end French steakhouse one level above the club, issued a stream of complaints about vibrations coming from below. The problem was less LF energy leakage than simple mechanical coupling between the walls and floors. That was able to be largely addressed after the room could be properly analyzed and the resonant frequencies identified and attenuated through notching on the Galileo's EQ. “The Meyer is pretty flat to start with, but once we were able to flatten the room out completely, the problem largely went away,” Randazzo says.

But what isn't going away any time soon is the tendency on the part of DJs to try to push the limits of the system and the room. “It's a constant tug of war between what the system can do and what the DJs want it to do,” Randazzo says. An Aphex Systems 720 Dominator II limiter had been installed as a governor on the overall system and was located in a locked rack, supposedly inaccessible to visiting DJs. But a service call revealed that at least one DJ had been able to break the collar around the rack and access the compressor, which was effectively bypassed, allowing the sound in the room to reach 116dB, which blew the cones out on four of the M'elodie loudspeakers.

“At this point, it's just noise, no matter how good the system is,” he says. “But you can't tell that to a DJ, who just wants to feel the low end, or even sometimes to the client, who wants the DJ to be happy so the patrons are happy. It's easier for them to blame the sound system than the DJ, and I understand that. But it doesn't change the fact that you're asking the system to do more than it's designed to. That's the club wars.”

Only In New York

For much of the century, New York City has been on a club tear. New discos popped up weekly in trendy neighborhoods such as Chelsea and the Flatiron District. When corporate ownership spotted the trend, it went into even higher gear. Clear Channel spinoff Live Nation took on the Roseland Ballroom and the Fillmore New York (actually the old Irving Plaza, rebranded and refurbished), as well as 600-seat Blender Theater on East 23rd Street and the Luna Lounge in suddenly-you-can't-find-parking Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Other once-grungy/hip properties such as the Bowery Ballroom and Mercury Lounge were resurrected as brands as the live-music industry picked up the slack for the record business.

But just as suddenly, a couple of years ago, the city put on the brakes; a condo market seemingly immune to the crash-and-burn of the rest of the country was making New York real estate too valuable for discos. But that's not stopping the clubbers. The latest trend is temporary event spaces: a disco one night, a fashion show the next, and a movie premiere on the weekend, followed by a corporate shareholders meeting on Monday. They all need installed sound, and it has created a unique business proposition for systems integrators.

At Espace on West 42nd Street, AV/lighting systems provider BML-Blackbird is not only the systems provider and integrator, it's also a partner in the business. The space is filled with JBL VRX loudspeakers, Crown Audio CDi 4000 and 6000 series amplifiers, and the occasional Yamaha PM5D digital console, as well as moving lights — all of which BML-Blackbird installed and maintains at its own cost. The payoff comes when the building owner splits the take from each rental 60/40 with Blackbird. Exact amounts are not discussed, but it's widely agreed upon that some spaces make their nut in a single evening. It's a scenario played out all over Manhattan every night, with major systems providers partnering with spaces such as the Toy Center, Espace, and Cipriani to create a menu of venues for any type of event — all of which clamor for high-end, high-dollar audio.

“One of the big challenges is creating a sound system that sounds as good as the best club systems, is as loud as the best club systems, has huge low end for disco nights, and excellent intelligibility for corporate meetings,” says Donny Quinton, senior audio engineer for BML-Blackbird, which also partners with promoters at Capitale and Gustavinos. “It's not like you do a club, you leave. This is an ongoing thing.”

Nothing about these spaces is conventional. Capitale was originally designed as a disco and thus needed a lot of audio firepower, in the form of 16 JBL Vertec PA boxes, arranged in clusters of four each in each corner of the room. The system is the size of a small touring rig, powered by Crown Microtech 5002 amplifiers and using BSS London loudspeaker control, Klark-Techik DN3600 processing, and a Crest X console. The space has hosted shows by A-list performers such as Wyclef Jean and Gnarls Barkley. “It can be insanely loud,” Quinton says, but it still manages to skirt the noise restrictions on clubs by virtue of its official status as a catering hall with a cabaret license, which permits music.

Part of BML-Blackbird's side of the equation was running additional cabling into the space, enough to have 32 pairs of multicore Belden cable feeding boxes on each wall. “We never know where each event is going to want audio coming from, whether it's a DJ or a live band or loudspeakers,” Quinton says.

Acoustical issues have been resolved in ways more familiar to Tony Soprano than John Storyk. When a 10th-floor resident at the condo on far West 42nd Street whose basement houses Espace complained about low-frequency noise, the promoter offered tickets to a Broadway show on nights the space is used for loud events. “Just like that; no more noise complaints,” Quinton says.

Welcome to New York.
— D.D.

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