Despacio: the 50,000-watt sound system designed for discerning audiophiles
"With most gigs, people are turned toward the DJs looking at what you are doing. It becomes a performance," explains 2ManyDJs' David Dewaele. "With Despacio, the sound is the star. In Manchester, people didn't want to take pictures with the DJs, but with the stacks."
The stacks in question are the seven 3.5-metre-tall speaker stacks that make up a monster, 50,000-watt sound system called Despacio. It was designed by LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy, along with legendary audio engineer John Klett and mashup masters 2ManyDJs (David and his brother Stephen Dewaele). After two years of development, Despacio made its debut over three nights in Manchester's New Century Hall in July. In December, the team is bringing the ten-tonne system to London's Hammersmith Town Hall.
The idea for Despacio -- which means slow in Spanish -- was initially to create a night in Ibiza with a beautiful sound system, where DJs could play the sort of music they don't normally have the opportunity to play. And everything had to be vinyl.
"We wanted to take records and slow them down, taking 45s and playing them at 33. It gives another quality to music; it's swampy and sexy," Dewaele says, adding that it was in line with the New Beat music trend that emerged in Belgium in the 80s. They wanted to showcase an eclectic mix of music, combining new wave, pop and flamenco that would embody the "true" Balearic spirit.
Meanwhile, Murphy had been bouncing ideas off John Klett. Klett had been friends with Murphy since the mid-90s and had helped to build the studio for Murphy's record label, DFA Records.
The audiophiles had been texting each other about the relative benefits of two different models of Klipsch speakers: the Cornwall versus LaScala. Murphy had sent over the most recent LCD Soundsystem record, which Klett was playing "really loud" through the Cornwalls he had in his kitchen. Murphy wished he had a pair; Klett told him the record would sound better on LaScalas.
This time-shifted geek-out carried on for a few months until Klett received a message from Murphy. He was thinking about building a big stack of speakers, alluding back to the Klipsch conversation. They could search for second hand kit on eBay which Klett could recondition. Amp-wise, they wanted to use McIntosh, famed for supplying amps to Woodstock and the Grateful Dead's "Wall of Sound". "McIntosh used to be in a lot of recording studios and they still make the amps in the same way," Klett told Wired.co.uk.
Klett started to sketch out some designs, referencing the sound system installed at New York club Paradise Garage, which operated in the 70s. It was important to use vintage techniques.
All parties involved had a shared appreciation for analogue technology. "We use almost ancient techniques, which would be very strange for a 17-year-old kid who makes techno on a laptop," explains Dewaele, "We might be working for two weeks on a kick-drum. I'm pretty sure that there's nothing in James' studio or ours that is younger than 1984.
"We've all come to terms with fact that 80 percent of the work is in the details, which probably make no difference for anyone else," he adds.
BUILDING A BEAST
The overall ambition was to create a club sound system that was good as a big high fidelity audiophile home system as opposed to a conventional club PA system, which tends to use lots of processors and digital circuitry to project sound long distances.
"We are not doing that at all. We are back to basically the kind of sound system that you would have had in the 50s or 60s," explains Klett.
Over six months, the drawings evolved. The sound system grew bigger and bigger. The Ibiza night had fallen through, but a new opportunity at Manchester International Festival emerged. With a venue decided upon -- Manchester New Century Hall -- Klett was able to hone the scale of the system so that the sound would fill the room. "At that point I had to double up on the number of drivers and cabinets."
More cabinets meant "a tonne more amps". Thankfully, McIntosh saw an opportunity to be involved in this unique event.
"This is something we really believed in conceptually. To build one of the best sound systems in the world -- one that would only play vinyl -- with the focus being on the integrity of audio and music," says Ellis Reid, McIntosh Integrated Marketing Manager. "As a company we very much stand for the preservation of the appreciation of sound reproduction."
McIntosh lent hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of amps to the project, weighing in at 4.5 tonnes. "We are known for the Grateful Dead 'Wall of Sound'. That was 30,000 watts. We were talking about 50,000 watts of power," says Reid.
"That's leaving the [two 21-inch] subwoofers out of the equation," adds Klett.
The amps were needed to power the speakers in the seven towering stacks, custom-built with metal frames encased in wood. The lower part of each stack contains four 15-inch drivers, which supply the bass (between 100hz and 400hz). On top of them are two amp racks (supporting three McIntosh amps each) and four 12-inch drivers, these are responsible for the lower mid-range (400hz rising up to 2,000hz). The amp racks are covered with thick Plexiglas covers which act as an extended baffle for "keeping the energy of those 12-inch cabinets shooting their way into the room", as Klett puts it.
At the very top of the stacks sits "the birdhouse", which is where the four tweeters live, along with a horn, that runs from 2,000hz up to 10,000hz, providing the upper part of the mid range and the treble. "In older PA systems from the 70s and 80s horns tended to be very beamy and nasty sounding. But now with computer-aided design you can model and design things more accurately, so the new horns are really good," explains Klett.
The horn part of the birdhouse can be pulled out and angled down so that all of the speakers are physically time-aligned, as opposed to digitally aligned.
Klett explains this for non-audiophiles: "When you put sound into a speaker system, the 15s, the 12s, the horn and the little tweeters all have to be in time. Part of the sound can't arrive earlier or later than the other parts of the sound. The horn can't be late by a millisecond, so a drawer pulls out and lines it up so it's physically in time. We don't have to use a processor, it's all done by mechanics."
The system couldn't just sound good, it had to look good too. Dewaele points out that something he, his brother and Murphy share is a love for old instruments and records, all highly driven by aesthetics. "If a great piece of machinery looks ugly it will never be in a studio," he says.
Dewaele talks fondly about the blue light that comes from the McIntosh amps. "The blue light emanating from all the stacks is a really beautiful thing, even when all the lights are turned off. The amps are a design classic, like an Eames chair or something. And the woodwork is amazing."
When the seven stacks are arranged in an oval around the dancefloor they are as imposing as they are mesmerising. The DJ booth -- where Murphy and the Dewaele brothers spend the set -- is relegated to outside of the circle, going against the current trend of superstar DJs being the focal point of the club.
"DJs are at the back of the room listening with the audience instead of being at the front throwing sound at them," Klett explains. "That's kind of the overall philosophy with this system: let's get back to the point, which is to have a good time and listen to all kinds of good music in a way that you can't hear it at home."
He cites an analogy that Murphy had made. "If you are in a restaurant, the chef isn't at the front of the room throwing food at you. He's in the kitchen and when the food comes out you are with the food and not with the chef." Despacio is about immersing yourself in the music, not fawning over and fuelling the ego of the person behind the decks.
IF MUSIC BE THE FOOD OF LOVE
The moment of truth came two days before the opening night at the Manchester International Festival. The speaker cabinets had been arranged at New Century Hall and Klett turned it on for the first time. He started by testing the "normal bleeps and bloops" and then ran "pink noise" through the various speakers. "It sounded pretty good."
He then hooked up his laptop and ran some music through it, "and I was like, holy crap!" He started with some Aphex Twin, "because lots of systems can't handle impolite sounds", before moving onto Will Nelson's Teatro, "which has a really nice depth and that sounded really good".
"Then the guys showed up with the turntables and we played ACDC, Philip Glass -- a very eclectic mix -- and everything sounded really good."
"With a normal club system, you have a very heavy base with a big scooped out mid-range (for health and safety reasons) and a sizzling high end. But with Despacio you could put a Bonnie Raitt (blues singer-songwriter) record on and it sounds like you are playing it on a home audiophile system."
One of the most important characteristics of the system is the amount of headroom it offers. When a powerful system is run at its maximum, the sound can distort, which can make the clubbing experience hard on the ears. "Sometimes you go to a club and you come out and are tired, beat up, irritable. That's not the experience you get form Despacio," Klett explains.
By having an incredibly powerful system that's not being run anywhere close to capacity (Dewaele said it was run at around 20 percent), but with the full range of EQ and dynamics of the tracks, the experience is radically different. "There is tonnes of headroom. It's very clean, very relaxed. You are subjected to sound pressure levels that are really up there, but it sounds so clean and free of stress that you don't perceive it to be loud. You are awash with sound," says Klett.
Dewaele would go into the middle of the dance floor, with the music at 105dB, "and the quality of the sound is so high that you can still have a full-on conversation with the person next to you."
"If we ran the system at its full capacity, people would die. People's ears would literally be bleeding," he adds.
For the opening night the Dewaele brothers and Murphy had around 35 tracks that had been remixed or reedited pressed on vinyl dubplates specifically to play at Despacio. The set perfectly captured the eclectic Balearic spirit they had aimed to deliver.
"We played all these tracks we can't really play normally in clubs. You can't really play Steve Miller in front of 10,000 people at a festival. It just doesn't work. But if you are in the right environment and you have a Serbian disco track with an amazing percussion and the right sound system, then it works," Dewaele says.
Every twenty or so tracks, the DJs would mix in a crowd-pleasing piece by Talking Heads, Kraftwerk or Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust".
"I'm sure everyone will have a different experience of [Despacio] but I felt like there was a physical presence to it. It was like instead of hearing or listening you were feeling it. The vocal was sometimes up where my eyes are, guitars where my throat is, bass was where my knees are. It was a physical thing."
"There was one time where we played 15 minutes of just percussion. You would be bored out of your skull on a normal system, but it made everyone go nuts," Dewaele enthuses.
McIntosh's Reid adds: "It's really hard to explain if you haven't experienced something like it. It was a really refined audio reproduction and it made all the hustling worth it."
Klett agrees, saying that the system sounded better each night. "The third night was transcendent. Everyone's face hurt because they were smiling so hard."
The quality of the Despacio soundsytem became even more apparent when 2ManyDJs and James Murphy had to fly straight to a gig in Germany after their three-day Manchester run. "Even though it was a great crowd, it felt like a let-down," Dewaele says.
Financially, Despacio has been somewhat of a black hole, running massively over budget. "But after so many years, we are finally in a position where we can take all of those things that have annoyed you and make them exactly how you want them to be," Dewaele adds.
"Instead of sitting in business class with your DJ friends complaining about how some promoter is bullshit, do something about it. Use your powers and your crowd to take it to a new level. We are doing something positive rather than complaining about what other people are doing," he concludes.
Despacio comes to London on Thursday 19 and Friday 20 December.