Acoustic Expertise: Club Sound

Audio principles for nightclubs and bars. 7/27/2011 8:25 AM Eastern

Acoustic Expertise: Club Sound

Jul 27, 2011 12:25 PM, By Bob McCarthy

Audio principles for nightclubs and bars.

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The sound system needs for nightclubs and bars breaks down into two principal categories: performance audio and background music. We will take a look at both of these categories and consider some of their unique sound design challenges.

Performance Audio

These types of venues are like miniature-scale concert halls with a host of giant-sized challenges. Large concert tours will bring their own rental systems rather than the house PA at the local arena. Nightly adjustments must be made for the unique venue shape and acoustic properties, yet the overall sound system experience is one of continuity. As venue size declines, so does the probability of mixing on the same system every night. The level of nightly continuity shrinks to almost nothing. Successful engineers learn to adapt instantaneously to their nightly situation. Small clubs will usually have a house PA with which the mix engineer will have to become quickly familiar and comfortable. When faced with designing a house system we need a frank assessment of the key characteristics. First, the system must be totally indestructible. The owner cares about the system surviving until tomorrow, but the visiting band does not. This presents a very real circular argument. The system must have enough power to satisfy the visiting mixers, but not so much power that it drives the audience out. But as the old saying goes, give them a dB and they will take 10, so we have to assume that the system will be operated at the highest possible level. Therefore, great care must be taken to provide limiting protection that allows the maximum long-term sustainable level as well as the highest survivable short-term peaks. It may sound awful to say this, but we must design the system as if the engineers were trying to destroy it. As my long-term mentor John Meyer told me 25 years ago, “It does not matter how great the PA sounded if it didn’t make it to the end of the show.”

The mechanical and thermal limits of speaker components must therefore be respected in the selection of amplifiers, crossover points, limiters, and more. This makes a very good case for the modern self-powered speaker systems, which have a closed circuit design topology with amplifiers and limiting structures that are pre-optimized for the particular speaker enclosure.

This point dovetails nicely to the second design principal: standardize. A nightclub is not the place to try out the new cutting-edge philandromorphic waveguide with servo-dilithium crystal amplification. Give the visiting engineers tools they can recognize. Standard tools, even if they are not their particular favorite, move the visitors toward their comfort zone, whereas your really awesome, never-heard-before system (even if it sounds fantastic with a CD) leaves them nervous. In olden times, a visiting engineer welcomed a custom system from a hippie’s garage because the mainstream manufacturers had no idea what we needed in the world of rock-and-roll PA. The best the of old garage operations are now well-established mainstream players, and they have the R&D and manufacturing capability to handle this mature market.

The next principal is K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple stupid!) We have to assume that the installation will have a revolving door of personnel: nightly changes in visiting engineers and high turnover rates in the house engineer. We also must target the operability and maintainability to a very low level. The visiting engineer has to get to know the system in seconds. The house folks need to keep it working. Therefore, keep the signal flow as simple and straightforward as possible. Fortunately, this has become easier in the digital age. Wherever possible, minimize the number of makes and models in the system. Don’t use six different amplifiers where you can get it done with two. If you think you need 80-degree speakers here and 70-degree speakers there, pick one and minimize the learning curve, the spare parts pile, and the know-how required to keep the system alive night after night.

Another application for the keep-it-simple and keep-it-standard principals is the main speaker configuration. There are two choices: Make it L/R stereo or spend every night defending and explaining your non-stereo system. The fact that a mono center cluster would have far higher intelligibility and uniformity than left/right stacks is not sufficient reason to use it here. You will end up renting gear every night. How about an advanced system such as an L/C/R configuration? In a club? Absolutely not. For an L/C/R system to work well it must have an expertly divided stream of inputs into the three channels. This can succeed in the controlled environment of Broadway or a house of worship. To create a multichannel mix requires a great deal of time walking the room to map out how each channel covers the room. In the combat zone of a club, the mixer does not have this luxury. The addition of the center channel requires a matrix approach instead of the standard L/R panning, which can lead to unexpected results. Chances are we will end up with almost the same feed to all systems: left (90 percent mono), center (100 percent mono), and right (90 percent mono). We get to hear the show three times. No thanks, thanks, thanks.

There is a balancing act between ready flexibility and reliability. Many touring bands will travel with a front-of-house effects rack so that critical sound effects and cues can be reliably performed in each new venue. The easiest way to interface such gear would be via a traditional phone-jack patch bay. The ease of reconfiguration, however, must be measured against the hazards of exposed contacts in the harsh environment of a club atmosphere. Between smoky air, the high humidity of sweaty bodies, and the physical vibration from the subwoofers, the friction contact closure of a patch bay can prove to be nail-biting suspense story. While it will certainly take more time to patch, an XLR connection is worth its weight in stress reduction.

A key question in day-to-day operations is where to draw the custody line between the visiting engineer and the house. The visiting engineers want unbridled artistic control because their job depends on pleasing Attila the Manager. We sympathize. On the other side, we have the club owners, who were shocked they had to spend more than $200 on the whole PA and they want to save money for the new video screen. The easiest place to make peace is to make the handoff at the house EQ. This is a parametric or graphic EQ patched between the main console outputs and the sound system inputs. This EQ is not part of the installed system’s tuning but rather a choose-your-favorite-color option for the visiting engineer. If the system is in good working order and provides enough level at the mix area (bonus points if it does so in other locations), this will usually provide sufficient flexibility for the mixer to meet their needs. Even if your sound system was designed and tuned with the most rigorous scientific methods available (and even if it cost a lot of money), the mix engineer should always have the flexibility to create their house EQ. This will not detune the system or endanger it and it can be reset back to neutral as soon as they leave the building. If you don’t give the mixer a house EQ, you will find it much harder to keep them out of your racks.

Acoustic Expertise: Club Sound

Jul 27, 2011 12:25 PM, By Bob McCarthy

Audio principles for nightclubs and bars.

If the system is poorly designed, poorly maintained, or just got completely reconfigured by last night’s mixer, it will be much more difficult to prevent a nightly round of build-a-band workshop. A well-designed and calibrated system should have no need for nightly adjustment of crossover points, amplifier gain trims, and most of all, limiter thresholds. Adjustment of any of these parameters will open a Pandora’s box of bad outcomes for the sound system.

The seating in a club environment will range from the edge of the stage to the back wall. The ceilings are generally lower than concert hall venues and therefore the speaker positions are often quite close to the front-line listeners. This informs the design of the main speaker system and also the peripheral systems. The main systems in small venues should be made the most compact arrays and not comprised of super-narrow components. Small spaces simply will run out of room before long arrays or extremely narrow devices can fully combine to create a uniform shape. The reality in small venues is that it will almost certainly be louder in front than at the rear. The direct sound from the musicians and the stage monitors make it very loud in front without any help from the PA. This is why front-fills are minimally required in these applications, and if used, should be fed by a matrix output that contains only the channels that are not already too loud off the stage. As we move further back into the venue, the PA becomes the dominant sound source (hopefully) and a balanced mix can now be spread over the room.

One of the casualties of club settings is sound image. In the near area, the image may be very realistic for the drums and guitars because the direct sound is what you’re hearing. But once we move out into the room, the sound image is destined to move out to the stacks. This not Broadway. We are not trying to fool anybody into thinking they are hearing unamplified sound. Spoiler alert: The lead singer is holding a mic up to her lips; I guess we are hearing the PA. In a club environment, things are so small that we don’t have to worry about the sound being out of sync to what we see. Therefore, the only type of image distortion we are concerned with is placement, and that concern is far down below making sure we have enough power and coverage.

One of the unusual aspects of club sound is determining where we don’t want coverage. This contrasts to a concert hall environment where we want to uniformly cover all of the listening area enclosed by walls and doors. Entry and service areas such as the bar are isolated from the listening space to keep noise in, and to keep noise out. In a club setting, the bar area and entry area are often in the same room as the entertainment. These are areas where patrons need to communicate with bartenders and other patrons. This is also the area where pickup lines are tried out. It’s hard enough to deliver these lines once so it’s a bummer when your well-crafted intro line is met with, “Huh? What?” Therefore, careful consideration should be taken to aim the speakers so that these areas are on the outside edge of the coverage pattern.

In a disco environment, for example, uniformity of level over the space would be a bad idea. Make it hot, hot, hot on the dance floor and then cool it down in the peripheral areas. This will allow the patrons to move in and out of the sound energy field and allow for in-depth meaningful conversation between the gyrations. Since the music never stops, it is important to provide the opportunity for a sonic downtime without forcing people out of the club. The LF range will still be present everywhere so people will still feel the music, but bringing down the mids and highs reduces ear fatigue and clears the vocal range for communication.

Background Music

Which brings us finally to the background music side of things. There are a couple of cardinal rules about background music (BGM). Number one is don’t make it FGM (foreground music). Keep the level down so that it does not stop the conversation. Rule number two is don’t make it flat. Let the low end be the dominant range so that it sounds like speakers from far away. Why? This gives us the essence of the music and fills the gaps but does not compete with the conversation. Next: don’t use an audience level sensor that causes the BGM level to rise up as the patrons make more noise. It is bad enough that we are trying to talk over the noise of everyone else without adding an ever-rising tide of BGM to the mix. Sensor systems in clubs (and restaurants) should work in reverse, ducking out when the joint is jumping. The final rule is so important that it seems that no ever violates it, but I just felt like it had to be said: If there are music videos playing on TV screens, always play a different song through the speakers so the video people look even sillier than they would with their own song.

Hopefully these considerations will be of some use to you in your designs for nightclubs and bars. Bottoms up!

Bob McCarthy is president of Alignment and Design. McCarthy specializes in the design and tuning of sound reinforcement systems and conducts trainings around the world. He is the author of the book Sound Systems: Design and Optimization.

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