Attack editor Greg Scarth goes behind the scenes at one of the UK’s leading pro audio companies to learn what makes a great sound system.
“There’s no such thing as the perfect sound system, they’re just different flavours of sound.”
I’m sitting in the Manchester warehouse of Neuron Pro Audio with the company’s founder and managing director, Kyle Marriott. I’m here mainly to discuss Neuron’s plans for this year’s Dimensions Festival, but over the space of a couple of hours I’ve had a crash course in sound systems, from 70s New York disco legends Richard Long and Gary Stewart through to the complex mathematical analysis used to refine today’s club rigs. It’s a staggeringly complex world of acoustics, electronics and digital signal processing, but fundamentally it all boils down to one thing: delivering the best sound to the crowd.
The only problem is that ‘best’ is a subjective term. “It’s all about picking your compromise,” Marriott explains; numerous factors play a role in shaping what you hear. Do you aim for minimal distortion in the name of purity or accept that a more imprecise signal might actually sound better to most people? Which of the thousands of different speaker units on the market do you like the sound of most? How do you account for the fact that everyone in the crowd is standing in a slightly different place, hearing a slightly different blend of the speakers around them?
[quote text=”each manufacturer has its own ideology when it comes to sound, and its own distinct philosophy when it comes to designing equipment”]
Pro audio is a relatively young industry compared to hi-fi or studio recording, but it’s still hugely competitive. As Kyle explains it, each manufacturer has its own ideology when it comes to sound, and its own distinct philosophy when it comes to designing equipment. Funktion-One has its roots in co-founder Tony Andrews’ previous company Turbosound, which was one of the leading live sound companies of the 70s and 80s. Martin and Void both come from similar backgrounds but with very different solutions to the same problems (“Void are the loudest kids on the block. Scary bass.”). The French company L-Acoustics are “a little bit more arty in their approach, talking about integrity and passion”, while German D&B Audiotechnik “talk about numbers and science and efficiency”. The highly technical American brand Danley Sound Labs, whose products are used in the Stables at Dimensions, is designed by former NASA employee Tom Danley (Marriott describes him with understatement as “a bit of a smart cookie”). How different are the end results? “When you get to a certain level, it’s just a flavour. It’s like… they’re all crisps, but I like ready salted.”
I ask how different modern club sound systems are to the technology found in typical hi-fi setups and, perhaps more importantly, studio monitors. Marriott says that the differences in technology are relatively minor: “The core principles of sound are the same everywhere in terms of the components, it’s just the way that the designer works with it.” Fundamentally, it’s still just a collection of amplifiers, crossovers and speakers, but the stereo signal runs through a digital processor first before being separated into highs, mids and lows, each of which runs to its own channel in an amplifier before being fed to the speakers. Many of the speaker boxes, from the high-frequency ‘tops’ down to the low-end subs, employ horn-loaded designs. That means the shape of the enclosure allows the driver itself to operate more freely. “Partly that’s to improve efficiency, but for dance music it carries a lot more impact. It adds a certain colour to the sound as well, so it’s not necessarily the purest and most hi-fi sound in some respects, but it has a lot more energy to it. There’s a bit of resonance but that’s actually quite a pleasing sound. It creates harmonics that we enjoy.”
[quote text=”Horn-loaded speakers add a certain colour to the sound, so it’s not necessarily the purest and most hi-fi sound in some respects, but it has a lot more energy to it.”]
Of course, picking the equipment itself is only one small part of the process; far more important is the role of the engineer in making sure that everything is tuned and optimised to deliver the best end result. “Up to a certain point, the gear itself is all good enough,” Kyle explains. “There’s not a huge distance between the mid-range product you could buy as an enthusiastic hobbyist and the gear you’d buy at a professional level. It’s all about how it’s integrated. What you’re competing against is the guys at the top of the game who can afford to pay a team of people to sit there and play with the [speaker] boxes, measuring them and aligning them and tuning them.”
This experimental aspect is clearly what motivates Marriott, who jokes that the company would probably make a lot more money if he’d just settle for an off-the-shelf system rather than constantly buying new “toys” to play with. Dimensions is a rare opportunity for engineers to have fun and push the limits of their equipment, free from the noise meters and complaints that you’d get in just about any club and most other festivals. One Neuron employee describes it as something of a “willy waving contest” between the friendly rivals who supply sound systems to the different stages at the festival. Although there is undoubtedly an element of macho posturing involved (pro audio is still an overwhelmingly male industry), it’s really more about putting the systems through their paces to deliver the best sonic experience for artists, DJs and festival goers. “The only stage at Dimensions that has an integrated, out-of-the-box, ready-to-roll system is the Clearing,” explains Marriott. The rest of the festival is based around companies playing with their toys, showing off their skills.
Like so many people in the industry, Kyle got involved through his own passion for music, putting on “not-so-legal” free parties with the Manchester-based Daylight Robbery sound system in warehouses and fields. He was working in IT at the time, but when his housemate Nick inherited some money around 2004, the pair decided to buy a sound system of their own and start hiring it out. Their first system was a second-hand setup bought from a free party forum: “A pair of subs designed by Rog Mogale of Void Acoustics, a pair of Turbosound 15-inch kick copies, and a pair of Martin Audio Philishave tops.”
[quote text=”We didn’t come into it wanting to make loads of cash, we came into it wanting to put on a good party.”]
The aim was never to become a serious business, but things developed quite organically. “We didn’t come into it wanting to make loads of cash, we came into it wanting to put on a good party. Even if we weren’t necessarily the most professional people at the time, we gave so much of a crap about it sounding good and we worked our arses off.” Coming from a drum and bass background, the duo’s bass-heavy taste fit in perfectly with the nascent dubstep scene. “We rode that wave because we came from parties where we liked to have it loud, and people came to us because we were well into the music.” (As far as endorsements go, the fact that a DJ as exacting as Mala still calls on Neuron to supply sound systems for his Deep Medi nights speaks volumes.) “As it exploded,” he continues, “it became a lot more interesting than my real job.” Within a few years, things got much more serious. “We got a few people together and in 2009 Neuron officially started. Void had brought out the Stasys system and through them I went out to work at Outlook 2010, then it all sort of spiralled from there.”
Void Acoustics were only a couple of years old when Kyle bought his first system, but the purchase of a few early pieces of the Dorset-based company’s gear sparked the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership. Void now supply most of the equipment that Neuron use at Dimensions, with the obvious focus being the Void stage itself, where the company’s Incubus system gets tested to destruction. “We’ve got to the point with Void where we’re basically beta testers, and there’s no harsher environment than Croatia,” Marriott explains. “It’s hot, it’s cold, it’s wet, it’s dusty, it’s full volume all the time and it’s very discerning artists. We’ve blown up a lot of speakers in Croatia, but we’re finding the limits. The people who buy the final version of those products a few months later will know they’re rock solid because we’ve taken them to their limits.”
[quote text=”The system in Hidden is a combination of Jeremy Underground, Floating Points, Hunee and Prosumer. It’s all about collaborative efforts.”]
These days, Neuron supply sound systems for clubs and festivals across Europe; from Manchester venue Hidden in the adjoining warehouse, all the way to Croatia and beyond. With time has come a wealth of knowledge and experience that really can’t be underestimated. Kyle explains how the system in Hidden has been tweaked and upgraded every time he’s taken part in a sound check with one of the many visiting DJs that pass through the club. The current setup has been refined again and again until it almost takes on part of the character of all the people who’ve been involved. “It’s a combination of Jeremy Underground, Floating Points, Hunee and Prosumer,” he says. “It’s all about collaborative efforts. Even though I’m the head geek in the company, I’m left-leaning and I don’t believe in forcing people to do what I say.”
So, if there isn’t such a thing as a perfect sound system, or even an objective ‘best’ setup, what about picking favourites? Kyle is lucky enough to hear some of the best sound systems money can buy as part of his job. I ask what kind of setup he most enjoys listening to. What would he choose if he could listen to anything? “It’s not the be all and end all, but with the right guy at the helm I do love a really good vinyl setup done properly with an analogue rotary mixer. I grew up going to gigs in the 90s with lots of loud boxes. Having your face kicked in by a wall of massive speakers gives some kind of nostalgic pleasure. It’s not right, but it’s fun. It comes down to the best tool for the job. Without being big-headed, our systems are some of my favourites around the world, but for me it tends to be the smaller ones. I do love a good old six-point Gary Stewart-style stack, but it’s just different flavours. Fortunately I’m in a position where I can have multiple flavours at a time. I’ve got the biggest multi-pack in the world…”