DANIEL WANG _discotheque acoustics

Discotheque Acoustics
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by Daniel Wang
DISCOPIA: Hello, Daniel. Nice to have you at the radio station on the Discopia Show today. Actually, you are asking yourself questions about a very specific topic this time, right?
DANIEL WANG: That's right, Niall. I hope you don't mind me wearing a "Niall" costume and pretending to be a handsome chubby Irishman at the control desk here, ha ha! I've promised you to write this article for almost a year now, but I didn't want to be too academic about it. This is just a nice way to have a chat about a very important topic in an informal way and organize the article accordingly...

Daniel chats to his little bear friend
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So, the topic is acoustic spaces. In nightclubs mostly, but also in your average music studio and home listening environment...
Well, I've been playing and hearing records in many, many different places all over the world for the past 6 or 7 years, and it's remarkable how good or how bad the music can sound in these places -- mostly it sounds far less than ideal. It astounds me that most people who are involved in music or nightlife (in Europe, at least) seem not to care about the single most important thing in the entire experience: the sonic environment itself. A endless list of warehouses, train stations, and bunkers have been converted into nightclubs because they're spacious and "look cool", without any regard for how they SOUND. "This used to be a ...," someone always says, "And now it's a nightclub. Isn't that cool?" No, it's not cool! But I don't believe in just standing around and criticizing, so I hope as many people as possible read this little article and do something to improve the acoustic spaces where they go to listen and enjoy music.
Let's not get too technical yet. In a practical sense, what basic principles should we know in order to improve our acoustic space? Can you sum it all up in a few sentences, please?
Absolutely. If you don't want to bother reading the whole article, then just take the following three short paragraphs to heart: 1. Hard, flat, dense surfaces (like cement and brick walls) are bad. They bounce the sound waves around the room like a flurry of billiard balls, which means you just hear a sonic mess. And that means most clubs nowadays with untreated interior spaces. 2. Parallel surfaces are bad, and that means the way most normal buildings are constructed -- it's like an endless hall of mirrors, sonically speaking. You're just hearing echo. And parabolic and curved ceilings are very, very bad. Remember, as a child, using a magnifying glass on a sunny day to light a matchstick? A parabolic ceiling does the same thing to the sound. One corner of the club sounds empty, while another corner is ear-piercing.
Obviously, the reverse corollaries are true as well. 1. Soft, insulated, irregular surfaces are good. A club doesn't have to look like the interior of Barbarella's space ship (covered with plush golden fur!) to sound good, but that is an ideal to aim for. Lower-density materials with some degree of pliability (specifically, a wooden dance floor) are always better than cement, brick, or God forbid, ceramic tile. Wood is not only better for your ears, it is easier on the feet, too. And if you can manage to dance on it, carpeting is probably the best option of all. (I won't mention linoleum or other synthetic types of floors here, because although they can be quite absorbent, i don't think anyone expects to walk or dance on such a surface, unless it's a kitchen.) 2. Parallel surfaces should be avoided, flat surfaces should be treated. To be realistic, two parallel walls are forgiveable; but four untreated parallel walls are significantly worse. And if you add a low, hard, flat ceiling and a hard, flat dancefloor, then you have an acoustic disaster. 3. Speakers should be placed with consideration of the acoustic space. Often, you see people setting up speakers in certain way, so that they LOOK symmetrical or fit neatly into the corners of the room. This is just plain wrong. They need to SOUND good, not LOOK good as room decorations. (Corners amplify, and often needlessly exaggerate the bass. Move those speakers away from the corners, please!)
The quality of the sound system in a club is just one factor out of several, and it's always a bit annoying to hear how people talk about how much money this system or that system cost, as if that alone should impress us. An expensive setup without attention to acoustics is a bit like people who spend 500 quid on Gucci loafers and a Vuitton handbag, while acting rudely in public and never brushing their teeth -- the price tag alone of what you own doesn't make you attractive. If club owners would spend a small portion of their budget on styrofoam, wood blocks, bass traps, and a good acoustic interior in general, they would be getting many times the return on their investment. In brief: an average-quality sound system in a good environment can sound quite wonderful; whereas even the finest sound system on earth, in a bad environment, will sound like shit.
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OK, now we can elaborate on this topic a bit. First, why is it so important to diffuse and absorb the sound? You are aware that most classical concert halls, like medieval churches, aim to have a considerable amount of natural acoustic reverb coming from the interior architecture. Isn't this different from what you're telling us about reducing the echo?
Ah yes! That has been the beauty of certain genres of European classical music over the past 250 years or so -- the use of such reverb to make the choruses and symphonies so much more powerful. But did you ever go to the Limelight in New York, which used to be a real church? The sound was horrible. Modern recorded music designed for radio and nightclubs is quite different from live classical music. The bass and drums need to be relatively dry and crisp to communicate, while ideally, the vocals and other elements are enriched by a certain amount of reverb as part of the recording. I am well aware that a lot of modern "techno" sounds deliberately dry because it anticipates such bad acoustic environments; but such music is also harmonically impoverished. It can't indulge in finer details and musical creativity in the upper range, not only because the people who make it don't care, but also because one can't even count on those things being heard. Isn't it better to hope for a good acoustic space, and aim to make the richest, liveliest music possible, rather than dumb-down one's harmonic content, because one anticipates it being played in a shitty acoustic environment? This is where club owners, DJ's and producers have to recognize that their roles are deeply interconnected.
Dry, minimal, under-produced techno may be a response to bad acoustics in nightclubs, but that doesn't make it good music in itself. Whatever reverb it takes on is incidental and not posssible to adjust, and it almost always ends up boomy. If the record is well-produced, hearing it in a good space should only make it sound better, whether it's techno or not. Minimal music is hardly a new idea: it reaches far back, from Satie's piano music in the 1890's to Miles Davis in the 1950's. Minimal music in any form should be an aesthetic choice, not an excuse for perpetuating bad listening spaces.
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So, back to home improvements. Should I just go buy some carpet remnants and styrofoam and hang it on my walls? Is it that simple?
That's a good idea, but if you're doing this for professional purposes, you should take the whole frequency spectrum into account. Some of the following numbers may surprise you. For example, plain carpet on a concrete wall is great at absorbing frequencies from 1500 Hz to 4000 Hz (upper violins and high hats), but has almost no effect on the bass frequencies around 80-120 Hz. Carpet with some latex rubber backing works much better! Also, an ordinary glass window (not thick) can actually absorb some bass, but it will reflect the high frequencies. Thick, heavy plate glass, on the other hand, acts more like brick or concrete: it reflects everything. 100% absorption doesn't have to be the goal. That would be like a dead-silent laboratory in a spaceship, or a mattress-covered room in a psychiatric hospital. A good acoustic enviroment will have good absorption, but it can still "breathe" and give some reverb back. When people build professional studios for recording and monitoring, they actually slant the ceiling and build non-parallel walls to refract the sound and avoid "standing waves" (soundwaves bouncing back 180 degrees and doubling up on themselves). When you choose a room in your apartment to work and listen in, it's good to think of how to imitate these conditions, even if you can't duplicate them perfectly.
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More discussion about making your own listening space. What is a "floating floor"?
I have to acknowledge DJ Richard Hardcastle here (no relation to Paul Hardcastle!) and his two lovely friends, Tom and Sue, who all live in Sheffield, UK. I had been in recording studios in New York with such floors, but a few years ago, Tom and Sue showed me the listening room which they had built themselves in the basement of their own home, and there I really got to see that the theory works! They would go downstairs on weekends, shut the insulated door, and play all their favorite records: old rave tracks, soul classics... and their young son would be asleep upstairs, not hearing a thing. Amazing.
First, let's make a clear distinction. Acoustic insulation is what happens INSIDE the listening space. If I cover my bedroom walls, or even the walls of the DJ booth, with materials like foam and carpet, I might get better acoustics, but my neighbors could still be hearing some vibration from my walls. You need not-so-dense materials with irregular surfaces to reduce the reflections INSIDE your listening space, but you need dense materials (think of a cement bomb shelter) to isolate the sound from the world OUTSIDE. A floating floor means building a second layer over the original existing floor, and separating this new floor from what's underneath with plywood, carpet, shockmounts, etc. You can do this with the walls and ceilings too! The result: a room within a room. The INSIDE room is perfectly isolated, and you can play music as loud as you want. But close the double-layered door, and people standing right outside the room will hear practically NOTHING. It's the exactly same principle as a thermos bottle!
There is a right way to do this, and various audio engineering handbooks can show you which materials to use. (I am referring to a standard American textbook, "Modern Recording Techniques" by Hubert & Runstein, Chapter 3: Studio Acoustics and Design. But there are other books which offer similar information.) If you're a music buff with a free-standing house or a big shed, and time and money to spare, try building such a listening room for yourself. You may never want to step outside to an acoustically inferior environment ever again!
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You're talking about recording studios and intimate, smaller spaces. Isn't it much more relevant to talk about acoustics in big clubs where people come together -- legends like the Paradise Garage or Sound Factory?
Oh, of course! A powerful system and a huge room are not antithema to good acoustics. They should work hand in hand. In fact, a mass of human bodies is one of the BEST sound absorption materials possible! Its absorption co-efficent is around 0.55, with unglazed brick being 0.03, a poor material all around, and 1.00 being perfect absorption. Very few materials exceed human bodies in absorption, except large wooden pews in a church, or other sorts of large, uneven furniture which you wouldn't find on a dancefloor; see the chart below. Well, human bodies can cover a dance floor, but they can't cover the walls. So it's not acceptable to me when DJ's and club owners say: "The sound is not so good right now, but it's OK when the dance floor starts to fill up." That dancefloor would fill up earlier, and stay fuller, if the sound were good from the start of the evening. And you know how some dancefloors suddenly become empty at a certain time, and then NO ONE stays around for the last hour (which is often the best part of a DJ set)? Blame it on the acoustics. When the dancefloor empties in such clubs, then the sound becomes shit again. No wonder people just want to go home. It's not a random occurrence!
Some longer /deeper wavelengths in the bass range are not even audible in smaller spaces, are they?
Ah yes, this is related to the previous question. You know, some deep bass frequencies can easily have a wavelength of 2 or 3 meters -- that's like a very long, invisible snake flying through the air. So actually, you're not even really hearing such tones when you're in some "intimate listening space". You're hearing the overtones -- for example, any bass frequency of 60 Hz which is not a pure sine wave will also contain overtones at 120, 180, 240 Herz, etc. Deep bass tones are indeed "heard" by the whole body, probably in a different, more primal way. That's a good argument for going out to clubs with big spaces (and creating good sound in them) and not just sitting at home in a tiny but acoustically perfect living room.
For technical reference, I will cite here from the Huber & Runstein book. Next time you go to a club, observe how the sound interacts with the space. These are some of the "absorption co-efficients" of various building materials. It's simple: thick, hard, dense materials are the worst sound absorbers. But notice the difference in what each one does to low and high frequencies.
Material type , at: 125 - 250 - 500 - 1000 - 2000 - 4000 Herz. Concrete: 0.01 - 0.01 - 0.015 - 0.02 - 0.02 - 0.02 Unglazed brick: 0.03 - 0.03 - 0.03 - 0.04 - 0.05 - 0.07
Heavy carpet on concrete: 0.02 - 0.06 - 0.14 - 0.37 - 0.60 - 0.65 Carpet with 40-oz. rubber backing: 0.08 - 0.27 - 0.39 - 0.34 - 0.48 - 0.63
Ordinary glass window: 0.35 - 0.25 - 0.18 - 0.12 - 0.07 - 0.04 Plywood, 3/8 inch: 0.28 - 0.22 - 0.17 -0.09 - 0.10 - 0.11 Human bodies in upholstered seating (like in a concert hall) : 0.44 - 0.54 - 0.60 - 0.62 - 0.58 - 0.50 Heavy wooden pews (in a church) : 0.57 - 0.61 - 0.75 - 0.86 - 0.91 - 0.86
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Hmm, I don't see balloons listed in that chart. Any comment on David Mancuso and his Loft parties?
Something Mancuso said to me once did impress me. He said that the Loft tradition of covering the ceiling with balloons was his semi-secret way of making the acoustics better. I think this really needs to be tested, but it seems like a ceiling with lots of round rubbery surfaces would sound better than a flat, hard ceiling. (Although, then again, the balloon skins are thin and possibly create sympathetic vibrations -- maybe they act like a coral reef of miniature bass units?) As purely personal opinion, I think that his insistence on such things as the Klipsch speakers, a certain brand of mixer, and "not mixing the songs" are of dubious value and make "good sound" into a cultish, mystical thing rather than a doable, learnable practice. I'll choose a Urei or a Rane mixer over a Pioneer, of course, but good sound doesn't have to depend on certain brands or props. A "Loft party" with Klipsch speakers in a boomy, rented warehouse space with lots of Loft revivalists is not the same Loft as Mancuso's was in 1976, and doesn't sound anything like it either. But, if you have adequate knowledge and materials, you can improve the sound in any space, even with an old Numark mixer, some generic-brand speakers, and a good equalizer.
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Can you talk about your personal experiences from so much traveling and DJ'ing?
It would be great to do an international rating chart, but we can only do it informally here. The good clubs should be praised, and the bad ones should be condemned. I think many other DJ's will agree with my comments here!
London is homebase for the European DJ scene, and of all the spaces, most of my friends agree that Plastic People is a gem. Bravo to Ade, the owner and sound man. Notice how the factors match up: the wooden floor, low dampened ceiling, lack of hard parallel walls, and the attention to volume and proper EQ'ing. A few years ago, I visited The End in east London, and the main room sounded wonderful -- wooden floor, all that. But then I had to DJ in the side room, and I remember, there was no isolation -- the entire time, you could hear the music from the main floor spilling over. I haven't been there for over 3 years, so this critique may now be totally irrelevant. Fabric has booked me often, and the staff and the selection of DJ's are truly nice, especially for a megaclub! Room 1 can sound great, but when I DJ in Room 3, I sometimes have the urge to take a chunk of my fee out to buy some rubber foam for the ceilings. They are made of unglazed brick, and vaulted! (Biting the hand that feeds me? I wonder if Judy is reading this - I only mean the best, my dear...) And one always wonders: why is the sound so tinny in 93 Feet? Curved walls, perhaps? (At Rangus Tangus in Stockholm, in about 2001, I had to play theremin and vinyl under a PARABOLIC TILED CEILING! Uh, hello? What was the promoter thinking?) Horse Meat Disco, a gay Sunday tea-dance at the South Central pub in Vauxhall, was voted Best Night Out in Attitude magazine last year, beating mega-events like DPTM and G-A-Y at the Astoria. Has anyone ever considered that, aside from the loyal crowd, HMD actually sounds better than most gay clubs? The sound system is NOT powerful, but the walls are made of wood with two sides open (no echo!), and the space is always full enough to totally absorb excess sound. The result: very good acoustics. Bravo James Hillard and team!
I do live in Berlin afterall, and yes, it is frequently a nightmare for those of us here who care about good sound and soulful music. The vast majority of clubs (Weekend at Alexanderplatz, Maria am Ostbahnhof, Pfefferberg especially...) seem to not give a care about acoustics. A small basement dive called Kinzo, also near Alexanderplatz, can sound OK sometimes, if patrons have filled its tiled dancefloor. Its ceilings are relatively low. But Watergate, that stunning cement and glass structure on the Spree river, was (until last year?) a perfect example of this rule of thumb: "slick modern architecture = bad acoustic space". I heard that they installed a new system, but I wonder if the sound has actually changed. The techno Leviathan here is, of course, Berghain. The sound system on the main floor cost a small fortune, although the huge untreated cement walls really don't enhance the sound at all. The glass windows on one side of the main floor might help a bit, but not when the music is too loud, which is often. Panorama Bar upstairs sounds better -- irregular full-wall seating blocks and and thin glass windows on one side definitely make the acoustics superior to what lies below.
Ah yes -- if only there were any credible musical events there, then this would truly deserve a mention. The basement of Cafe Moskau, on the old East German boulevard here called Karl Marx Allee, offers amazing sound. It was the disco for the elite of the Communist Party back in the 60's and 70's, and it is covered in red velvet and carpet, with a small, wedding party-like wooden dance floor. Sadly, it is only used on Sunday nights by the tanning salon- and spiky gel-hairdo gay crowd to listen to wretched commercial house music. And the WMF ("vay-em-eff") summer location in 2005 was a miracle -- those boys had covered the walls of their HUGE space with styrofoam and wood panels and painted it all olive green, so it didn't even look like acoustic padding! I heard someone play Garage classics there, and there was a warmth and naturalness to the sound which I haven't felt since in Berlin. Wouldn't it be nice if these boys shared their knowledge with the other Berlin clubs?
The funny thing, however, is that several smaller clubs in other German cities sound far better than anything in the capital! Of course there's the classic Robert Johnson in Frankfurt, home of Playhouse Records, with its wooden floors and foam panels on the low ceilings. But here was a surprise discovery: Hotel Shanghai in Essen, which is in northwestern Deutschland, near Dortmund. I had a gig there with about just 30 people on the very narrow dancefloor. Even though there were only 2 main speakers, it was as if the owners had read an engineer's manual and then decided to disguise their acoustic improvements as "artsy decorations". There were huge surfaces of the wall covered in irregular cubes and blobs cut from styrofoam, just like a pro recording studio, but painted over with gold color. Ordinary guests wouldn't even suspect that this was done for the sound, but to the initiated, it was obvious. A work of love. Gerd Janson and I played Laid Back's "Walking in the Sunshine" at the end of the night and it was like heaven. (Two weeks after that, mid-March 2006, I was at the Rose Garden in Helsinki, and the sound was again so lovely, it renewed my faith in all the Casablanca disco classics...)
For a city so into superficial appearances, Paris has an amazing number of clubs which actually sound really good. Bravo to the handsome lesbians who run Le Pulp (wooden floors and low ceilings again), to Nouveau Casino (the ceiling is covered with special irregular geometric metal surfaces with small holes, like those used to break up frequences inside a microwave oven -- very deliberate and truly unusual!), to Paris Paris (cramped, but actually the sound is not bad thanks to all the furniture) and even to the super chi-chi La Scala, right next to the Louvre. Although La Scala boasts a glossy metal dancefloor, the interior space is actually irregular, with two levels, balconies, and carpeting, so the sound ends up diffused rather than reflected. Fantastic sound, even when the club is relatively empty.
I heard that there's a new club in New York City called Love -- an amazing sound system, with a young and well-off owner who got into house music in the early 1990's, but I haven't heard it yet. For a law-abiding party, it seems that the music-lovers have often been at APT in the Meat District, which can sound amazingly crisp and clear. But there is no dancefloor, and when the music is loud, there's a feeling of "no escape" from this tiny box. But for every club done well in the capitals of pop culture, I've had to experience disappointments. I can't and won't recall them all, but somehow, Culture Club in Ghent stood out as a villain. Maybe because I arrived there late in the night and, with such nice promoters for this particular party, expected something better. The club was sleek, with white walls, a slightly fashionable crowd, and constantly changing lighting scheme. These white walls were hard flat cement, freshly painted. Great for posing, but by now, you should get the point. There was just no way to improve the sound under such conditions. And I've never played in any club in Spain (Mondo in Madrid, a grand ballroom in Barcelona) with truly good sound. Too much emphasis on posing, again? There ought to be SOME good club there...
Finally, a few comments about clubs in Japan. I know there are myths about the wonders of Japan, and not everyone will get a chance to travel there. But then, the Japanese have also mythologized all the great clubs of the western world, so we need not feel that the grass is greener in the East. I've definitely played a few events there with less-than-ideal sound. But on the whole, people in Japan DO pay great attention to the details, and it especially impressed me when the lighting-man at one party, Masuo, coordinated his color schemes with every tune i played, so that we had blood-red, white flashes, and sudden blackouts matching the mood of the music at every second! One never finds such attention in Berlin.
Anyhow, in Tokyo, whether it's at the big clubs like Ageha, Liquid Room or Velfarre, or in small gems like Loop in Shibuya, I've experienced great sound everywhere. Even at a small club like Mago in the city of Nagoya, the wooden floor, proper isolation and top-quality speakers made an Andreas Vollenweider electric harp disco groove the highlight of the evening. But Precious Hall in Hokkaido (the furthest northern city -- snow festivals all winter) is the stuff of legends. I had heard of Francois K. and Maurice Fulton playing there, but my first and only gig there was in 2005. It is truly a temple of sound created by Satoru-san, the owner, and his staff and permanent clientele. My DJ gig there was un-hyped and only about 50 people turned up. It was cool weather that night, and with so few dancers, the club never got very warm. Satoru-san said that there hasn't been much new blood in the city since the club opened in the early 90's. The club is a converted underground parking-garage in an old office building, so it is spacious, flat, and well-isolated from the world above. Now here's the thing: everything in Precious Hall is covered in wood, much of it hand-cut to fit each particular niche. Not only the dance floor, but also the walls and the 7 huge Klipsch speakers: they're all wood. The DJ booth is built out of cement blocks, but only to support the turntables and equipment. All around the booth, I found only more wooden panels. The sound in the booth was as warm and crystal clear as in almost every corner of the dance floor! SO clear was the sound, in fact, that it was a bit disturbing, since most of us are accustomed to some tension and difference between what the DJ hears and what the dancers hear. I didn't want to touch the EQ, and I had difficulty choosing what to play, because almost everything sounded equally good, even boring, too-obvious old disco classics like First Choice "Doctor Love". As a gig, it was unexciting that night, but as an experience in good acoustics, it was a master lesson.
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Well, since you've seen so much, we heard that you have a fantasy of opening up your own club in Berlin, which would be dedicated to good sound?
Unlike Sven Vath, I don't have a fortune to blow on an egomaniacal techno-palace like the Cocoon Club. Obviously the sound system and decor there cost a fortune, but apparently the club looks tragically empty unless 1500 people are on the dancefloor -- I don't know if that happens very often in Frankfurt! But if I talk a bit about this fantasy of mine, maybe someone will help make it a reality. Part of Berlin's charm lies in its old cobblestone streets, its "Antiquariat" shops full of old books and things. I'd love to do the opposite of these big techno-clubs -- an intimate club on the edge of Berlin Mitte, filled with shelves of these odds and ends which one finds only in Berlin -- deer antlers, East German vases, old books, crockery. Of course, that's a camoflouge. In fact, the walls are covered in styrofoam and carpet, painted or disguised, and the shelves piled high with old books and records serve to break up the flat surfaces and improve the acoustics (they really do). Since it's a fantasy, i'll make it a bit more Japanese: the floor is gently carpeted, and people have to take off their shoes to get in - there's a row of shelves at the entrance for checking in your shoes. This would be a place to hear all kinds of music as it was meant to be heard. Of course people can get up and boogie if they want to. It would be called "die Bibilothek" -- the Library! And maybe then people would stop thinking that Germans only listen to bad techno in industrial warehouses, because I've met many here who enjoy anything BUT that.
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So, to conclude -- a padded room and a perfect sound system are the only solution?
Not necessarily. In the end, we all understand that every DJ has to improvise with the space and the equipment they're given. Surely we've all had more fun in a sweaty, tiny club with a shitty sound system than in some clean, sterile disco palace with a perfect sound system! But we have to clearly distinguish between these two factors: quality of sound system vs. quality of acoustic space. Good sound in any club depends on both, but these are two different things. We've been concentrating on the acoustic space in this article, so let's mention something briefly about the equipment.
Sometimes "bad speakers" can sound exciting, and this is not (ooh ooh, ah ah!) just an illusion: a certain amount of distortion and overheating from the sound system can please the ears, the same way that blues and rock guitar players used their cheap tube amps in the 60's and 70's to create those gritty, crunchy solos. Distortion is at the heart of producing interesting sounds -- any instrument producing only pure, whistle-like sine waves would be extremely boring, and that's why Leon Theremin and Bob Moog used various circuits to distort the waveform in their synthesizers to create a more buzzing, humming, singing tonal quality. If you have a crunchy sound system, then work with it as you see fit. A strident midrange and dirty bass sound can really get people dancing. But acoustic space will always determine what the audience ultimately hears, whether the output from your speakers is distorted or clean. Finally, and obviously, good sound should never get too loud. Ideally, you shouldn't have to wear earplugs to enjoy the music. That's the responsibility of the club's sound engineers as well as the DJ's. And again, the acoustic space is paramount here. Playing music is a profound form of communication. In a good space for such activity, one shouldn't need to shout in order to be heard. And that... is everything ! could possibly dream of saying about good sound in clubs! For the time being.
DISCOPIA: Okay! Thanks for sharing with us, Daniel!
DANIEL WANG: And thank you, Niall! See you in Glasgow again in October 2006!

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