This document is provided for the purpose of making publicly available the requirements necessary for the design, configuration, and operation of sound systems for the optimal reproduction of “underground” dance music. By implementing these principles, the experience of all participants in a dance music event or club will be substantially improved. This document is intended to be a practical entry-level reference source.
To many people, sound systems seem simple – some speakers and some amplifiers, and you’re all set. In addition to this frequent perception, some defining elements of a good sound system are a matter of opinion. Any combination of low-grade speakers and amplifiers are enough to make some noise, but the accurate reproduction of music, with flat frequency and phase response across the entire audible spectrum, at high volume levels, is a science and art that still has plenty of room for improvement, and that will continue to evolve for centuries to come. Tradeoffs are made by all audio equipment manufacturers between accuracy in frequency and phase response, efficiency, equipment volume and weight, and materials and R&D costs. For many applications, such as a low-cost public address system or guitar amp, 1950’s era technology works fine. On the other end of the spectrum there are audiophiles who insist on cables costing hundreds of dollars, or engineers who are particular about certain vintage gear over other models that may have nearly identical specs.
The fundamentals of connecting various pieces of equipment together and operating a sound system are not covered here, as there are many other reference materials that explain the basics of sound systems. Due to the small size and non-mainstream nature of the underground dance music market however, sound schools, books, and other educational resources do not devote much attention to its unique needs. This document illustrates the main design issues for electronic dance music, and makes clear that its unique characteristics require a different approach to sound system design than is followed for most other music types. With an understanding of the principles covered here, you will be better able to set up a sound system that makes dance music sound as good as it can.
The Real World
It is very important to carefully review the motives, experience, and training of anyone you talk to about sound systems. Hype and marketing are the way most business gets done in consumer markets – particularly in the music world. When seeking out information, keep in mind that the credibility of various information sources is often less than ideal. The opinions of many people are biased toward their own financial interests, and/or their own lack of knowledge or experience in a given area. Only those who put the time into seeking out a wide array of information resources can achieve true quality and sophistication.
There are many preconceptions that people have which can appear sensible on the surface, but that are often completely wrong in the context of underground dance music. In reality, most people in the mainstream audio world don’t know much about the unique requirements of DJ’s and of dance music. When you are getting advice from a salesman, sound guy, musician, electronics guru, engineer, friend, family member, etc., remember that setting up the best sound system you can for the money is not a simple thing, and the only people that know how to do it the best way are the people who have been doing it themselves for many years.
Undoubtedly some readers will be thinking, “Why is anything a DJ knows important in setting up a sound system? They just play records…” The answer is, there are 2 kinds of DJs, those who are just trying to make a few dollars or who like to be the center of attention, and, those who have an intense passion for the music and for the underground dance music culture. Let’s be a bit bold here and refer to the latter category as “DJs with class”. If you want to do a club or provide sound in such a way as to have a bit of genuine class and sophistication in what you do, and in the clientele you attract, you must ensure that DJs with class like to play on your sound system or at your club.
Most non-DJs do not know that some systems are much easier and more enjoyable to play on than others, and being a top DJ is not as easy as it looks. It takes talent, years of experience, and tremendous focus to mix records perfectly on numerous different sound systems, each of which often have various issues such as excessive turntable feedback, needles that skip from being bumped by dancers or from floor vibrations, booth monitor systems with output levels that are too low, too high, non-adjustable, or halfway blown-out, large sound delays resulting from speakers placed too far away or from echoes off of overly reflective surfaces, lost dynamic range and responsiveness due to over-compression, and various other issues that make it more difficult to play the best set a DJ can. If your system is designed to prevent these sorts of issues, DJs will like playing on it, the music will be better overall, and you will be that much more likely to be successful.
As with most other things in the world, a club or event is only as good as its weakest link. The club/event markets in most cities are highly competitive, and if you want to be successful you can’t have any weak links. In the underground dance music market this means you need to have a comfortable venue, good sound, good DJs, friendly and unobtrusive staff/bartenders/security/doorpersons, clean bathrooms for the ladies, reasonable cover charges, interesting and fresh decor and layout, professionally done promotions and marketing, and the list goes on. If all these elements are done properly, your success is almost assured. If any of them are missing or not right, you risk your entire investment.
If you design your sound system as is suggested in the remainder of this document, it will indeed be “DJ friendly”, and will be more likely to sound as good as it should. Many venue owners and promoters take it for granted, but a quality sound system is one of the most important ingredients in the success of clubs and events. A top quality sound system is also a great marketing tool, that can be a key differentiator between you and your competition, and that helps make clear to your market that you don’t compromise when it comes to quality. We have seen 100’s of clubs and club nights come and go in the past 15 years. Our view is that doing a club is an all or nothing thing. If you’re not willing to put everything you can into it, to make it something really outstanding and exceptional, then why waste your time?
It can take a lot of research, time, and travel to design the best possible system for your budget and your application. Even if you are fortunate enough to find an educated, talented sound specialist, he or she is likely not a DJ, or has not worked with dance music sound systems enough to fully understand the differences. Fortunately, the founder of Sunsonic has been a DJ since 1991, and is a degreed Electrical Engineer who has specialized in sound systems since 1993. After years of research, testing, and traveling, in early 2002 we upgraded our main rig to one of the highest technology systems available (Nexo Alpha Series), and are now San Diego’s preferred sound provider for dance music events.