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Stereo Montreal: The continuing sonic saga of the audiophile’s Promised Land in Club Systems International

Stereo Montreal:  The continuing sonic saga of the audiophile’s Promised Land in Club Systems International

By Kerri Mason

Sound engineer Shorty is in his car, somewhere on the endless stretch of Interstate 87 between New Jersey and the Great White North, and his cell phone, as expected, isn’t cooperating. He gets disconnected, calls back, erupts into a burst of static, calls back, blanks out entirely, and calls back. He can’t wait – not even for a few hours, when he’ll arrive in Montreal and have clear if couture-priced cell service – to share what’s in his head: The entire schematic of the revamped sound system at Stereo, heralded the world over as the best place to listen to house music.

“David and I are both audio whores,” says Shorty through the crackle, referring to Stereo co-owner and DJ/producer legend David Morales. “We love the finer things that money can buy, and we like audio reproduced the best it can be. And I think that’s what the people coming through the doors at Stereo deserve, as well as the DJs.”

The ultimate analog dance system (the building’s only bit of digital is the requisite pair of Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD players – with Ashly preamps, of course) didn’t come easy or cheap. Shorty started work in February 2003, and with monthly visits like the one he’s making now and an investment well into six figures, he completed the revamp of original creator Angel Moraes’ system in late 2004. But as Shorty is quick to point out, “We’ll never ever stop grooming this sound system. It will always be improved; it will always be a work-in-progress, so it’s never finished.”

The system is a patchwork of vintage components encased in custom-made boxes, $6,000 hanging tweeter clusters fashioned out of $30 plumbing pipe, and a comparatively small arsenal of Bryston, BGW and Crown amps pushing a mere 19,000 watts to power the whole thing. “Seventy-thousand watts is for Britney Spears at the Meadowlands, not a nightclub,” says Shorty. 

There’s no DSP, no zoning, not even a compressor or a limiter. And the resulting sound is so alive, so human, that a visiting DJ once seized the moment and played Bach, for a dancefloor packed with 800 people. “You’d think playing a recording like that for a full room would be offensive, because it’s all mid-range,” says Shorty matter-of-factly, “but it was actually very pleasant on the ears. It’s a very versatile sound system.” 

We asked Shorty to break down one of Stereo’s six 14-foot-tall stacks, which he did: Over the phone, straight from his head. Labor of love, indeed.

1 One JBL 2395 acoustic lens horn, loaded with one TAD TM 4002 
neodymium upper-mid horn driver. 

“Lens horns aren’t manufactured anymore. There are people out there who do custom-make them, but they cost a lot. Manufacturers offer CD horns because they can build more of them for a lot less money, since they’re an injection-mold or fiberglass. And you can get better and more accurate coverage with a CD horn.

“But we happen to like the sound of the lens horn – there’s a sweetness to it. The way the metal plates radiate to the soundtrack, that adds a sonic texture and flavor to the midrange that we find very attractive. That’s why we still use it over a CD horn: At the end of the day it’s about the way it sounds.

“When David Morales hired me to come in and reengineer Stereo with him, this was one part of the original system that we did not want to get rid of. If they were available today, I would still use lens horns over CD horns for their sonic flavor.”

2 One JBL 2405 slot-loaded tweeter. 
“That’s for the full-range high-end, to give a little spice to the music on the top of the full range.”

3 Two SBS (Systems By Shorty) SH 112 front-loaded horn cabinets loaded with two TAD TM 1201 mid-woofers.
“Most manufacturers today aren’t really designing front-loaded horns; it’s a design that stems back to the ‘50s and ‘60s. There are companies starting to come back out with them lately – they’re becoming very in-vogue – but most are still doing direct-radiated low-mid sections. The theory of late has been that you get a lot of output from a direct radiator box with high power.

“But a front-loaded horn really projects out the sound, and you get a lot of accents out it that really are appealing in dance music, which a direct radiating box doesn’t create. It really images out nicely on the dancefloor. And it’s very projective in the vocal range and the lower mid range, for percussion.”

4 Two double-15-inch rear-loaded scoops loaded with four 
TAD TL 1603 mid-bass woofers.

“Scoops have always sounded good to me. That’s another design that was engineered in the ‘50s, and adds efficiency. These add a lot of whomp on the bottom and give the bass a very round sound. It’s an exaggerated sound, but it’s pleasing to the ear with dance music.

“Most people, again, are using direct radiator boxes for mid-bass, with the theory that you can get the same amount of output with a lot of power but with a smaller box. But with the rear horn-loaded box/scoops in a properly designed sound system, you can use better quality power amplifiers with real high quality drivers, and get a more efficient and better quality output, as compared to direct-radiating enclosures using very high power.
“Guys who are into dub and reggae are using scoops because of what they do to low-end kick. I mean they’re not the most accurate, but they sound good to the ear. And what dance music is really accurate? I mean, you’re not playing David Sandborn here. There are some exaggerations, some distortions in the music that you do want; that make it more alive and a lot more exciting when you’re dancing.”

5 Beacon lights.
“David wanted to have these in the speakers; they have an amazing effect on the dancefloor. Richard Long had them in a few clubs, the [Paradise] Garage had beacons, Zanzibar had beacons in the Berthas.
“The lights don’t affect the sound with the scoop, because the cabinet is rear-loaded and all the fidelity is coming off the cone. So as long as they’re not blocking the cones, you know you’re not going to have a problem.”

6 One Levan horn (built by Steve Dash) loaded with two JBL 2242 18-inch drivers.
“This is a horn-loaded box that works on compression theories. It takes a sound coming off the face of the woofer, pushes it through a compression chamber, expands and contracts it a few times, and then once it comes out it expands again, and the waveform completes itself at the mouth of the horn. 

“I really love the Levan horn for its high efficiency. I mean if you wanted to, you could use it with a Crown PSA2 amp at about 400 watts and it will shake the building and kick your ass. I love its chest-pounding impact. It adds the right type of exaggeration and distortion to dance music. It really gets that roar out of the crowd, especially when David kicks the system. It just gives you that ‘holy shit’ effect.

“These boxes are not the lightest or the smallest or the most attractive things in the world, but in my opinion they’re the best disco subs available.”

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