Part of what makes a great club is a great soundsystem, but what makes a great soundsystem? Chris Lyth meets the man who built Amnesia Ibiza's to find out
From The Loft, Studio 54 and Paradise Garage to Berghain, fabric and Amnesia, there’s one thing that all legendary clubs have in common… great sound. The soundsystem is such an integral part of the clubbing experience that a party can be made or broken depending on how well the system performs.
So when Amnesia reopened its doors in May premiering a new custom-designed, state-of-the-art KV2 Audio soundsystem, the iDJ tech department got a little bit curious. The new system was designed to accommodate the many and diverse audio requirements of artists from all across the electronic music spectrum, producing clear, nuanced precision sound as well as hyper-loud, chest-rattling bass.
So what goes into building a soundsystem? We were fortunate enough to be able to put some questions to KV2 founder and audio pioneer George Krampera about the deep alchemy involved in designing what has been called the world’s most advanced soundsystem, and unsurprisingly, there’s a whole lot more to it than just getting a few decent speakers and amps and putting them in a room!
It’s rare that you get the chance to speak with a bona fide master of their craft, and George was extremely generous sharing the knowledge he's gained from nearly 50 years working in the business. So if you're thinking of putting together a system or are just curious about the mechanics, read on…
A system will sound very different depending on the acoustic environment. Can you explain your approach when designing a system for a particular room?
"The most important thing in any system design is to start off with the cleanest and most accurate source, including both the source material and mixer, but then of course the loudspeakers and amplification as well.
"I would always recommend acoustically treating a reflective room, as this will improve things dramatically. If that is truly not an option then at least with a KV2 system, through the quality, control and clarity of the reflections created, the end result is still more pleasing to the ear and less disruptive to the brain than with many alternative products."
How does the quality of a soundsystem affect the audience and their perception of the music?
"It delivers the emotion that a performance should always have, but that is so often missing in live performance reproduction today. It is amazing what a positive effect lower distortion sound has on audience retention, as well as improving the feeling and mood in a club environment, which in turn causes less problems for the security team.
"People often also comment, after an evening experiencing a KV2 system, that their ears aren’t ringing. That is a common problem for many systems that inherently produce a high level of audible distortion."
Put simply, what makes a good soundsystem?
"Again, linked with the above, of course dynamics, definition, clarity, neutrality and low distortion, but then delivering every nuance of mix and transferring that performance with all of its emotional content to an audience. We want to create a sound that is immersive and truly makes people smile."
Digital technology has come a long way in recent years, and is very much part of the furniture in today's systems. How has your approach to designing systems changed over the years?
"There are many companies just following the latest technology and creating ‘me too’ products. We want to always use the BEST possible technology, and while we embrace the latest technological advancements, we do not always take for granted that they are an improvement without thorough, serious evaluation. How old is the wheel? Yet after all these years since the Stone Age, they still haven’t found a better shape for the job.
"Digital electronics have played a really important role in loudspeaker design and processing over the last few years. But much of this has been based on DSP chipsets that were originally designed for the telecomms industry, so it is no surprise the way it sometimes sounds. We of course have embraced digital at KV2 Audio, but we have instead created a brand new system based on Pulse density modulation (like DSD, which is used for SACD) and we run that system at a staggering 20MHz, which we believe is the highest sampling rate of any professional loudspeaker system in the world today."
How do you achieve such low distortion in your designs?
"Of course the electronics and digital advances like the ones mentioned above, but more importantly taking care of every single detail.
"Starting with the transducer design, we have a system called Transcoil AIC (active impedance control) which reduces the distortion almost 10 times by reducing the induction that a speaker creates every time it moves in and out. We then match this to the fastest possible electronics. Recent academic research has shown that human hearing can recognise time differences from as little as 5 microseconds, but many of the top amps on the market are not able to reproduce that speed in a real life situation. So by using electronics capable of working down to almost 1 microsecond, we create a missing third dimension to the sound, with space around the instruments and real vocal imaging.
"Perfectly matching the amplifier designs to the components they drive takes this even further. Don’t forget there are different types of distortion: by definition, distortion is simply a change to something (compare the input to the output). Everybody is obsessed with electronically measuring the harmonic distortion on their outputs and then claiming incredible figures close to zero, but if that same piece of equipment receives a signal in and produces something different on the outputs, or has content and detail missing then, it's introducing distortion and changing the sound, even though the measurement says it isn't!
"CD was a revelation to many, but if you compare the original signal going in from the analogue studio masters to what comes out, there is again a huge change (distortion) This comes down to simple loss of information: once it has gone, it can never be recovered further down the chain."
What, in your opinion, were the biggest developments in soundsystem technology in the last 20 years?
"In many ways, I believe the quality has gone backwards, however the convenience and availability of music these days is so much easier. I think too many companies rely on DSP (digital sound processing) as a magic wand to fix problems in a system, even with the acoustic designs of their boxes. Our ears tell us very clearly that this is not a solution, because each time we introduce more DSP we also introduce more distortion (change to the dynamics of the source). In the recording world, it works much better, because we have time to process things and latency is not such an issue. But live, we are just not at the level yet where affordable digital processing has the power to get close to what our ears are capable of hearing."
As someone with a wealth of experience in soundsystems, do you have any advice for producers making music to be played on these systems?
"They have a tough job. The industry is financed by an audience streaming at low bit-rates on iPods, phones or computers, through small headphones and speakers. It is obvious that a sound that suits that playback system as the default will then have some restrictions in scaling up to a truly dynamic, club-style presentation.
"Dynamics are so important to preserve the light and shade or emotion in a performance. We have developed a system called Compex which adds a little dynamic sparkle to these kind of problems, but there isn’t really a one solution fits all for this type of situation. Perhaps if the producers created a mass-market mix and then a completely separate one, from the ground up, as a true pro audio version?
"The misconception is that by simply raising the sample rate or bit rate, you can then market a ‘hi-res’ version of a track. But, again, you can’t put back in what has already been lost, and in fact a different approach at the recording and mixing stages would really be needed to fully embrace the potential of a KV2 Audio system in a DJ playback situation."
So there you have it: the finer points of high-end soundsystem design, straight from the designer's mouth! What came across most when we spoke to George wasn't just his mastery over the minutiae of every step in the signal chain, but the innate musicality that liest behind it. Perfecting the art of capturing music's emotion, dynamics and atmosphere is George’s life work and his recent installation at Amnesia is one of the best truly high-fidelity soundsystems ever developed, making the club a destination for hedonists and audio enthusiasts alike.
Words: Chris Lyth