London's club soundsystems

As club systems get ever louder and more high tech, Time Out gets some sound advice on protecting your ears

  • London's club soundsystems

    Loud and proud: Mr C knew that The End's original sound system was awesome (image © Dave Swindells)

  • Plastic People is smaller than most of the bars in Shoreditch. It can hold just 200 yet this tiny basement club has attracted many of the best DJs on the planet. It’s a lovely, friendly space but the reason top DJs and record labels choose Plastic People is that it’s specifically designed around the Funktion One sound system. Its dancefloor is usually dark as a coal cellar, so it’s easy to imagine that you’re moving inside the speakers, feeling the pure sonic stream of the music wash over you (or the thud of the beats thumping you in the gut), which is where audiophiles want to be.

    ‘The only venues that have got really wicked sound and reasonable door policies are Plastic People, The End, Fabric and the Ministry,’ Gilles Peterson told Time Out recently, ‘but where else in London has world-class sound? For a city which has the most buzzing club culture by far in the world, it’s a shame that there’s not more quality.’ He was looking for a medium-sized venue in a good location to play regularly at, so new venue East Village recently came along at the right time.

    Peterson’s Brownswood Presents… night drew 600 to East Village at its launch in February and he’s impressed by the warm tones of its new EV system (the initials are a coincidence, honest), especially as the club’s sound engineer was EQing the set-up all night – adjusting the levels to ensure the optimum audio performance. Most new London venues have installed high-quality systems, but it’s clear that not all are well-maintained.

    As Sanjeev Bhardwaj, technical manager at Fabric explains, it’s not just about the hardware. ‘You can have the best equipment but if you’ve not got an engineer it’s not going to deliver. That’s why we always have two engineers at Fabric. We walk around EQing the system with hand-held computers all night. We change it because every record is pressed differently – we’re trying to get an average of the whole sound, but the sonic profile will be different for each style of music.’

    ‘It’s the clarity, not the the power that matters,’ he says. ‘What every club is trying to achieve is a hi-fi sound and I think I’m one of the closest in the world to it. That’s what the DJs tell me.’ When quizzed about the volume though, he recalls that ‘the highest we’ve ever been here was when Sasha and John Digweed were playing, and the sound was literally knocking champagne glasses off the VIP bar.’

    ‘Sasha was like a kid with a new toy when he played here in December,’ says Alex Barrand, head of sound at the Ministry of Sound. Both Fabric and Ministry have systems built by Martin Audio, but last autumn the Ministry’s system was rebuilt with custom-designed speakers. It’s hugely powerful, ‘but we would never think of running it at 100 per cent. That would be insane,’ says Borrand. ‘The amps here are ticking over, probably running closer to 40 per cent, because it’s not about the volume…’

    Sound engineers rely on their hearing and stress the importance of wearing earplugs to protect it. The End, Fabric and the Ministry all have free disposable earplugs available on request (we bet you didn’t know that). You’ll soon be seeing many more people in clubs wearing earplugs. On April 6, new ‘Control of Noise at Work’ regulations come into effect, making it compulsory for employers to provide suitable hearing protection to employees working in environments where the sound is consistently above acceptably safe levels (more than 85 decibels), which effectively means all clubs and DJ bars.

    It’s the length of time that clubbers are exposed to loud music (particularly excessive high-end frequencies, aka the treble on your home stereo) that puts their hearing at risk, even though rock gigs may be louder than most clubs. ‘Practice safe decks, wear protection,’ urges DJ Jazzy M on a Ministry of Sound TV film made in conjunction with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People’s Don’t Lose The Music campaign.

    Or, as Goldie has stated succinctly: ‘Get it sorted; you only have one pair of lugholes!’

    'Brownswood Loves... Bass' is at East Village on March 20.

    Go to or for information about protecting your hearin

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