Has the so-called vinyl resurgence changed the experience of playing vinyl in clubs? Kristan Caryl speaks to some of the UK’s leading sound engineers – and a couple of committed vinyl DJs – and discovers that the answer isn’t so simple.
Whether you believe the hype or not, the purported resurgence of vinyl has been well documented from the perspective of labels and record stores. What’s less often discussed is the impact on clubs and the DJs who play in them.
Just a few years ago, even the most hardcore vinyl DJs had to contend with poor vinyl setups in clubs. You’ve likely heard the horror stories many times over: “We turned up and the decks were being used as a CDJ stand,” they cry. “How can we play on 1210s with no needles?” So, given that vinyl sales appear to be on the up once more, is the resurgence of the format manifesting itself in booths around the world? And if so, have said nightspots started to up their game in response? In speaking to vinyl freaks Soul Clap, and clubs that range from small and intimate to large and cavernous, we hope to find out more about the current state of club vinyl systems, whether vinyl really works as well as digital in club environments and exactly how booths and sound systems are fine-tuned for optimal playback.
Starting with a club known for doing things the right way, Fabric’s technical manager Sanjeev Bhardwaj opens with an obvious point, but one that clearly evades many: “The club is set up and tailored to every DJ,” he says. “This is done by asking for their tech specs before the night.” Although it’s not actually possible to tailor a sound system for a specific format, he concedes that “all medians have to be considered and accounted for on their own merits. Everything must sound as good as we can get it… but don’t get me wrong, I can’t make a 128kbs MP3 sound as good as vinyl, otherwise I would be loaded.”
As a larger and more spacious club, one of the main potential pitfalls of Fabric’s setup might be feedback, but the booths have been set up and built in a way that minimises that as much as possible. “There are many things we consider, from turntable setup to the positioning of turntables and what they rest on. All our turntables use the Isonoe feet and that’s a major upgrade that helps with feedback and stability.”
Depending on who is playing and when, Fabric will cater as much as possible to a certain DJ’s requirements. Recently, for example, Sanj completely stripped the booth in Room One to accommodate Richie Hawtin and all his hyper-specific kit, but he himself says that despite all the technological advancements and the budget he has available to him to fine-tune the Fabric system, he still prefers vinyl and thinks it’s the way to go when playing the club.
“I’m old school, so nothing will ever beat the sound of crackling vinyl to me – staring at it and hoping it won’t skip is part of the fun of DJing,” he reckons. “When I set up for Serato and Traktor, it just brings in one extra element to the chain – a computer. These crash every now and then. Vinyl, on the other side, is what it is: if kept clean, it works every time.” And with that Sanj touches on the problem he encounters most when dealing with DJs that play vinyl.
nothing will ever beat the sound of crackling vinyl – staring at it and hoping it won’t skip is part of the fun of DJing
“The only recurring problems are simple to resolve: clean your records before playing them! How a vinyl DJ can turn up to a club without a record cleaner still baffles me, but luckily we have one or two in the club.”
At the opposite end of the scale is The 212, a new bar in Leeds that holds just a handful of people and is primarily set up for DJs to spin records. “To me it’s the perfect medium for playing music,” says proprietor Jacob Kelly. “I haven’t anything against other formats, but I just prefer everything about vinyl. You know that when you buy a piece of wax it’s been through a long process to get it sounding right. I prefer playing with it as it’s more tactile and I have more of a relationship with it due to storing it all around my house!”
The booth in The 212 is a beautifully hand crafted, boutique affair with custom slots for everything. “I designed it around playing vinyl first, but every surface in the booth has its own purpose for controllers, CD wallets, record ‘in and out” boxes and places for laptops. I wanted it to be as user friendly as possible, and of a very high quality. I have owned an Urei 1620 rotary mixer and three-band isolator for some years now, so that had to go in, then two mint Technics 1200s and CDJ1000s that will soon be upgraded to CDJ2000s. I use Ortofon Concorde carts, the decks are on stabilisers and there is no feedback at The 212. As for the soundsystem, it was hand pieced together by me. The tops are vintage d&b horns, the subs are Funktion One but in specialised cabinets, and there’s a sub in the DJ booth along with a normal monitor. The most important thing is making sure that everything you have works to its best quality: there’s no point having all the equipment but having a dodgy lead or shit needles. You’re only as strong as your weakest link.”