Long interview with Jerome aka Breezak, the man behind Mungo’s HiFi’s sound system and his own Bass Alliance Sound System. Here he talks about the technical issues one faces when running a sound, the importance of DIY culture, and how the sound system becomes part of the crew’s identity.
So for beginners, could you explain briefly how a sound system works ?
I think we should stat even before that, that is : why do people build their own sound systems
OK, let’s hear it :
The main reason is that very often there is no sound system in venues. So when you want to organise a night, either there is no sound, or the system available doesn’t sound good. So that the main reason people bring in their own sound systems.
So that you can have that sound that is right for you
Exactly. But everyone has their own system. There are some who buy factory-built systems, so they have a very clean sound, that corresponds to the brand of equipment they bought.
But you can also go with the home-made sound systems, so like us, like Iration… the sound system in the traditional jamaican style. Thiis system is more or less home-made, with sometimes a few things that are factory-bult.
We use a digital crossover, and we feed the signal into that, which then goes into each speaker. We split the signal into 5: the sub or the low bass – whiich goes from 85Hz to 30Hz), then the upper bass or the kick – which is between 85Hz and 140Hz. And then to have a much clearer soundn, but which isn’t traditionally done in ‘old school’ sounds, we have mids, high mids, and the tops or tweeters.
Each frequency is specifically for each speaker
Well each frequency will correspond to what kind of box you feed it into. The signal you enter will be between 20Hz and 20kHz. Whether you use a digital crossover or a pre-amp, you cut the signal in ways that will give you best frequency for each speaker.
You could technically put a full range signal through a scoop, but it will sound really bad in the upper frequencies. So to have the most power and the clearest sound, we put only 30Hz to 80Hz through the scoops, because that’s when the speaker is best. You will get the best sound for that range.
[…] You can’t have one speaker that plays all the frequency ranges at high volume. Take a ghetto blaster, and let’s say it can reproduce form 50Hz to 15kHz. It might sound as thought it plays all the frequencies well, but only at a low volume. As soon as you want to play it louder, you are going to have to separate each frequency. But of course you have to make sure all the speakers and frequencies work together.
Reggae Sound Systems have a lot more colour, a sound that is – and not in a negative way – muddy. It’s warmer. It’s not a clear. And to the human ear, if it’s too clear, it doesn’t sound right.
That’s why even with new technologies, you can have a very clean sound, which one would think would be good, but that people will not enjoy. Because the human body is not used to something that clean. It’s too clinical.
So what happens with the pre-amp is that the signal at the beginning is weak, then it goes through the amplifiers, where it is amplified, and then into the speakers. But there is also something else to take into account : the alignement.
So if you take a scoop for example, the sound comes out from behind the speaker, goes through the horn. So the horn is what will amplify the signal as well. But when the sound comes out of the speaker, and goes into the room, it will not be in line with the other speakers. The horns of our scoops measure 2m20. So when you stand in front of the speaker, the you hear the sound from the scoop will be 2m20 behind the other speakers.
So the bass will be a little late.
Exactly, it’s a bit offbeat. Which will give it a certain style. But it can also cancel certian sounds. I mean it’s a matter of taste.
So that’s why often in raves and free parties, when they string up loads of speakers togethers some of them can cancel each other out ?
Adding up lots of bass speakers will not necessarily make it louder if they aren’t of the same design.
i’ve had the experience before, if you reverse the polarities – you turn one scoop on, it becomes louder, you add another one the volume goes up, you add a third the sound actually goes down… You’ll still hear the sound, but the volume will go down.
So that is something else that has become possible with the digital cross-overs, you can put everything into digital. You can align the sound output. So i put in the length of the horns – 2.20 meters, the length of the kicks speakers – 80cm – and it aligns it for me, so that when you are in the room, the wavelength of all the speakers come out at the same time.
So you don’t have to adjust it manually
I enter the information manually for each speaker, I tell it the distance and it puts a delay of several milliseconds where it is needed . But it’s something that wasn’t possible on older pre-amps, and which gives a certain style. You could say it’s better, ot worse. It depends what you like.
Then you also have the equalization. The speakers will not have the same volume, they won’t have the same frequency. Big tournig companies who equip huge rooms with sound systems for gigs, they will equlize all the speakers so that all of them are aligned : all the frequencies are at the same level. That’s why it often sounds a bit shit. So the bass will be at the same level as the tops.
And that’s where in regae we tweek it much more. It depends on what you like, what music you play, but a reggae sound system will not be ‘flat’. The bass will be a lot more powerful, the tops might be pushed as well. Traditionally in the roots style, there was nearly no kick. They simply didn’t reproduce the frequencies they didn’t need.
But it’s also in the speaker cabinet that another part the magic of acoustics happens.
Well that was the next question: how do you decide which scoop, which type of speaker and speaker cabinet is best for you?
Well it gets very complicated. But a speaker moves air. So you can have huge speakers – the biggest i’ve seen was 26 inches – and a speaker like that moves lots of air.
But it’s the combination of the speaker and the speaker cabinet that creates that. You can put as many PD18 speakers in a room, but if they are just placed with no cabinet behind them, nothing will concentrate their effect.
The most important is the combination of the right speaker with the right speaker box. You can have a really good box with a terrible speaker inside – by terrible I mean weak.. You can put a 2KW speaker in a speaker box and a 500W speaker in another, the 500W one wil sound better of it is optimat for the speaker box’s design.
Then it’s a question of volume and ‘path’, the way the soundwaves will move inside the cabinet
That’s why they expand the space behind the speakers in scoops ?
Well bass have a very long wavelength, so that’s why it’s best to have cabinets with long horns. Whereas the tops have vey short wavelengths, so the sound can come out pretty much directly. But you still need a guide that will control the dispersion. But bass doesn’t have any direction, it goes everywhere.
But i mean you have loads of different speaker box designs. If you take of 5cm from the horn behind the speaker, it will completely change the sound when it comes out.
That’s why on forums for example you often have people asking « i bought this speaker, i was thinking of building this kind of box » and somone else will say « no that will not do anything, you’d rather use this design… »
Exactly, and more Kilowatts do not means a better sound. It’s really the way everything is put together. Then obviously it’s also a matter of taste. Some people will prefer a certain sound, while others will go for another.
So the difference between your sound system and let’s say OBF or Iration Steppa’s sound system is how the different parts are put together.
The principle is the same : it’s crossover – amplifier – speakers. But the combination will be different. So I use a digital crossover with my settings inside, they use a pre-amp with it’s own secrets. That the beauty of the pre-amp, you don’t know what’s inside of it. Each pre-amp is different depending on who built it, how they were designed.
Amplifiers will also give a colour to your signal, so we each use different amps. And the design of each speaker box will also change – I’m not sure what they use, but the design is not the same, so it will sound different.
So you base it really according to what you play, what sounds best for you.
What is best for you, and also according to what you can find or can afford. There are often things I would like to change on the sound system but that I don’t, mainly because of costs. Because of costs, of habit, personal reasons – some people prefer using one thing instead of another… it’s very personal. Everyone will assemble it in a different way, have a different sound, and that’s part of the charm.
But what happened with the Dub Smugglers, who have their sound system setup in a completely different way… They have different amps, different speaker designs. But the way they tuned their system and the way we tuned ours, once we put both in a room, they sounded really similar. It’s quite impressive when everything we used is different.
The music you play will influence how you set up your sound. For us, I will often change the settings several times between the warm up and the end. If Tom plays a Roots-Ska selection on 7”, I will boost the tops and the bass, because the sound of the record is not the same [as on serrato].
Your systems has to follow what you play. If you play a recent digital production that has been mastered, well of course the settings on the sound system will be closer to the flat response, because the song itself will be have a perfect sound.
Several sounds have told me that often if you produce a tune that is meant to be played on your own system, and that you play it on someone else’s, it can sound completely different.
Tom trials his new tunes on the sound system. And it’s true that they are mastered mainly to play outside. When he masters a song for a vinyl or a CD, it will not be the same.
And that’s the good thing about having two producers here, it’s that they produce music specially for the sound system, they know how it will sound.
Dubsy and Chikuma often used to come round during the set up to test their new tracks. And sometimes it could sound really good in the studio, but it would sound shit on the sound system.
So it’s really according to what you play, to how the session develops
According to the venue, the vibe…
Regarding the venue. At the Art School you place the system in a certain way. Is that a constant layout, or do you change that depending on where you are?
That brings us back to acoustics. Part of it happens in the box, and another part happens in the room.
When you are outside, there are fewer problems, that’s why often we add stacks because need to cover more space.
Inside there are several things. With a traditional sound system, you hear the music you play directly from the speakers. That’s the difference between a sound system session and a gig. When you go to a gig, the artists are on stage, the sound system is in front on them and facing the audience. But with a sound system, the crew always have at least one stack facing towards them. You them place other stacks to cover at best the room.
What you can have in a venue then is bounce-back, echoes against the walls. If you place your stacks in the wrong way, there are times they can cancel each other out, or create dead spots – places where you won’t hear any bass.
Here are several ways to avoid that, and they are more or less personal. If you want to hear what you play, you place one stack on the side, and another one directly in front of you.
often we put one right next to us, and another one in front of the other, at the other side of the room.
And you don’t put them in front of you?
It depends how many stacks we have, if the room is big or not. If it’s a small venue, what I often like to do is to have one in the corner – because the corner amplifies the sound too, it will send the bass into all the room. So often if you put a stack in the corner it gives you a better bass.
the easiest is with one stack.
Outside, if the crowd isn’t too big, one stack is also better. You can cover the space, it’s easier to manage. But if you have a big crowd, you have to add one, two, three stacks. And if you look well, they are always at angles; you try and avoid having them directly opposite one another.
We aren’t really fans of the single stack facing us, as opposed to sound systems who are maybe more roots. Roots sounds like having one stack on the side that gives them feedback, and one facing them. What happens with that, is that when you are DJing, the sound will have a delay.
If you select like Channel One or Shaka, you’ll notice they don’t mix. But if you mix, you don’t want that delay.
That is why we don’t often have our stacks facing us in front, because it can become a problem when you are mixing.
Yeah it makes sense. All the sound systems who play with the sound in front of them generally only have one turntable.
Yeah if you have only one turntable, it’s good to have it facing you. And you don’t really care if when you stop the tune you have a delay of a few milliseconds.
When we mix, we have monitors next to the turntables, which means the sound is aligned with the mixer. Because if you have one stack in front of you, by the time it comes back to your ears, it’s gone through all the amps, 30m of cable and across a room… that’s quite a lot of delay. And if you try to mix with that, you can’t.
So whether or not you mix, how you select your tunes will influence how you place your speakers.
And the home made aspect, what does it bring?
It’s a sound system’s identity. If you look at old speaker boxes – one came up on ebay recently, it was hand made, hand painted… Mungo’s started with speakers they found in the bins.
But back in the days, the sound systems in the ghetto, they would start with a wardrobe. That would be their wood, they hammer some pieces together and add speakers. Home-made gives it that DIY aspect, that you made it yourself, it’s yours. And when you take it out, people recognise it.
Nowadays, you can buy factory made speakers. The superscoopers we have are from a design that isn’t ours, but we built them ourselves, so we can add the finish we want, the grids we want.
And also you’re not as dependent. If you buy factory made speakers, you will have that brand’s sound, that you won’t be able to change.
With the home-made, you can combine things. Our tops and mid cabinets are from Voids, but I changed the speakers inside. I can add what I think sounds better.
You can improvise
Yeah it’s maintly that. To be able to do what you like, to have it look however you like.
Albah from Welders Hifi was saying that you could guess if a sound system plays mainly roots, or steppas just by it’s appearance.
Yeah from the look. If a sound has a lot of Piezos [tops] a range of mids and scoops, you will think they play more roots and dub. If they have loads of subs and tops, you’d assume they’ll be more steppas.
I think what is good with our sound and why we are often hired for festivals, is that it’s multipurpose. We can play roots, steppas, dubstep… I did a few drum & bass nights, and I noticed that old school drum and bass doesn’t sound very good on it. But in that case you tweek it a little, and it sounds better.
But the appearance is important – it’s the sound’s identity. I mean if you look at King Earthquake, it’s got a beautiful finish.
Yeah and you can see straight away that he plays heavy steppers
Yeah just the boxes, they have huge grids, it’s painted in camo. You can look at a picture of only one of his speakers, not even of the whole sound, and you know it’s a King Earthquake box.
And then you have Channel One, and it’s all in wood, the grids are round… It looks more roots.
And a mix of speaker cabinets. You can see that they are not all the same design, the same year.
At first some of our boxes were purple, so we sanded them, so that it would go with the rest. Now people can see that they are from Void, but they know it’s Void Mungo’s [laugh]
But even if you go on the forum “speakerpla”, there are people who are surprised by our combination of spakers. I’ve seen comments like: “Mungo’s do it and it sounds good”. There are people who say it’s not going to work, but it depends on the way we cut them and everything.
If you look at OBF’s boxes, they have the stencil with the logo, their own colours.
It’s part of the logo, if you look at the mungo’s logo, our identity is based on the sound system.
Yeah it’s your brand in a way
Yeah it becomes your brand. If you want a good example, it’s Dandelion Sound in Germany. They have spent a lot of time on their system. It’s a work of art.
Another system, I can’t remember which one, they cut a star in the bottom of the scoop. It’s a purely structural feature, but they still made it into a star. It’s those small details.
Yeah it’s different from factory made stuff, where everything looks the same
In most venues and gigs, people go to see what’s going on on stage. They don’t care about the sound system.
In reggae nights, the sound system is part of the night. It happened a few times where I actually put the sound system on the stage and the DJ on the side. And that’s what people look at in those nights, it’s the sound system. You don’t have that focus on the DJ or musicians as much. Especially in France, people don’t look at the DJ, they have their heads in the sound system.
A few people have talked about that, and how it supposedly came from rave culture
Yeah because in raves they have the DJ behind the sound system. The DJ isn’t what people want to see.
Yeah people come for the sound system
And thus why it’s important to have it custom made, to have a different look.
And also the financial aspect. You can built a home made sound system for a lot less than if you bought everything factory made.
There is that idea that very often sound systems never really start with loads of cash.
And you can go further with the home made. You could even design your own speakers boxes, built your own amplifiers, your own pre-amps. That’s the more electronics side, where you build everything from A to Z. That’s the next level of home made.
We are often on the road, we tour a lot, so it’s best for us to buy something that has been tested and been in R&D before. Because if you make I yourself, there’s not that guarantee that it will last or hold.
But with the home-made you are always changing stuff. After a year of playing at session, you can still say “hang on I actually preferred how it sounded before”, or “hey this new thing just came out”. You can test it, and it evolves. You can change it bit by bit, you don’t have to change everything in one go – and that’s what you would have to do with a factory built sound. Either you keep it or you change everything.
You also mentioned how you tune your sound system during session, you said that it’s based on how it feels. Is it different from a sound engineer at a gig?
It’s a matter of feeling. If it’s a long night that begins with a very small crowd, you are going to start easy. If people start arriving ,then even through the settings you can bring them into the dance. You can’t start with everything full blast, you have to ease the people into the dance. It’s as if you were bringing them in with the sound system, and once they are warmed up, then you can start pushing things.
The role of the engineer is as important as the selecta’s during a dance.
The ability to read the crowd?
Well old school sound systems often only had one person, who was the selecter and the engineer – he would push his sound system as he was pushing his tunes. Now I’ll be doing the engineering stuf behind while the DJ select in front. And we work that way. Often Craig and Tom will give me a small signal, and I know what kind of tune is coming up, at when it will drop. If it’s a big tune, that’s when you push your system.
So you have to read the crowd but also read the others in your crew.
And little by little you get to know how your system works. You know when to push it. I push it too much, but you can’t do that all the time. It’s also a risk that we see more and more now – maybe because I go to a lot more sessions now – but there is a danger in pushing it too far at the end of the night, and it becomes too loud for people.
Yeah I remember New Year’s Eve party at Stereo, downstairs with the two stacks, there was a point where I couldn’t stay there anymore.
Downstairs it’s a concrete square; it hits you from all sides. And it was too much, and that was my fault, I couldn’t be in two places at the same time. Two speakers died that night [laugh].
It’s a rig that’s not meant for a space that small.
There will always be people who will ask you to put it louder, but then the next morning they’re like “yeah that was a bit too loud”.
So you have to keep a balance between the two. I think today we are a lot more careful, we have to think about our crowd. And I think there are more and more sound system at the moment – well it’s just that I’ve been noticing it more – but more and more of them seem to be pushing their sound all the time.
Personally I like to start off easy, and then as the night goes on get louder. Some people they’ll just start straight away really loud. It’s not because it’s a sound system night that it had to be loud from beginning to end. It can be dangerous.
One comment that is often made is that sound system play above the acceptable noise limits
Often reggae sound systems will seems really loud but that’s because of the bass. If there is a complaint, it will be because of the bass. We are often beneath the noise limits, but the bass will be a lot louder.
The frequencies that can damage your ears are those around 2KHz, and I often lower them. The mids and tops, their frequencies can cause damage if they are too loud even for a shot moment. But the bass, before you can even reach those levels… it’s a lot harder. And even then, it’s not going to damage your ears. It will seems to be above ‘health and safety’ regulations, but all the frequencies that are dangerous will be underneath.
But that’s our job, to control that. And reggae music in general is not a music that can hurt your ears. If you compare it to a rock concert, you will probably get hurt a lot more than at a reggae dance. And that comes from the signal, from the distortion. An electric guitar with distortion will have a square wave, and that kills your ears. Whereas a big bassline, you will feel it and it will seem loud, but without entering the frequencies that are dangerous.
One study of Stone Love Sound System argued that sound systems go against general ideas of ‘modernity’, where the visual was seen as the master sense. In a reggae night, it’s sound that takes over. Even in a normal gig, if you close your eyes, you’ll still miss out.
Yeah you can close your eyes and listen. During a gig you have a whole performance aspect.
And also you also feel the music, in addition to hearing it
Yeah sometimes a tune will have a bassline, and when you feel it it gives you chills – there are so many vibrations. You feel it, and people love it, that’s why they come.
Okay, and that comes back to a question, it’s how to explain this feeling to someone who has never been to a sound system dance
You have to go. It’s an experience. After the night in Leicester where we played this weekend, we saw comments on facebook with people saying “you could feel the bass”. Every time we look at comment after our nights, they are always about what the people felt, which is not really what you get at gigs.
There are those two aspects, the music and that sensory thing which is hard to explain. But it’s also what makes me addicted to it.