| Oppressive heat,
numbing cold, rats, fires, last-minute speaker swaps: After
over a year of work on this dark Rhode Island dance club, sound
installer Mark Waker just might need some professional help.
By Mark Waker
Coming just weeks
after the hideous attacks of September 11, Thanksgiving 2001
was a muted and subdued event. The day after, I met with entertainment
impresario Alex Tomasso in a dank, unoccupied industrial building
on the west side of the northeastern renaissance city of Providence,
Rhode Island. The grey November sky and the cold, damp, unlit
space seemed eerily suited to America’s mood.
The building needed total rehabilitation and now, at the end
of the project, so do I. The impresario had already committed
to going into therapy, but that’s another story entirely.
Don’t worry, this is not Psychology Weekly, it is Club
Systems International, and this article is about a club, a smidgeon
of serendipty, and a vision.
The New Providence
Alex Tomasso has always been a risk taker – a real entrepreneur,
pushing the envelope wherever possible, practical, and profitable.
His Rhode Island-based company owns and operates Viola’s,
a high end restaurant in Providence’s fashionable Federal
Hill, Bar One (a bar!), Pulse, a high-energy dance club, and
Sanctuary, a Mayan temple-like club catering to Rhode Island’s
growing Hispanic population.
At that post-Thanksgiving meeting, Alex outlined his plans to
me. Oh? Who am I? I am Mark Waker, principal and owner of Balanced
Input, a Massachusetts-based sound consulting and contracting
After examining the space, the dialogue began. Alex outlined
his idea for a real performance space; art gallery by day, sound-sculpting
studio by night. He wanted a club that would make a statement
and redefine standards in Providence, a city that has largely
redefined itself over the last decade. Home to Brown University,
Rhode Island School of Design, and a large Italian population,
the city is stylish and has some of the best places to eat in
the Northeast. The building that would house the club was a
dark satanic mill that had originally serviced the electric
trucks that moved the Providence trolley car system. Although
almost 55 feet tall, there are only two floors, but just making
those two floors fit for use required major work.
The interior design, by Alex and Kyla Coburn, would be distinctive
without cluttering the clean lines of the now power-washed brick
building – something special was expected. The same mandate
was delivered to general contractor Joe Ricci, and to Brian
Jay of newly formed Euphoric Lighting. Work began in earnest
in January of 2002, but the building, having been vacant for
some years, had no electricity, heat, or running water, and
it was really cold! A new power service was ordered and promised
for early March.
“A Neutral Palette”
The lower floor of the building-that-would-be-Therapy is basically
four parallel tunnels. The two center ones house the offices,
bathrooms, coat check and storage, and the outer two are, by
day, the art Gallery Insane, and a quiet area for the club by
night. The upper floor measures 90’ x 45’ and is
almost 40 feet high, with a massive crane from the trolley car
days still high above the floor. Service areas now occupy the
west wall; entrance and VIP zones are on the south, bleacher
style seats/dance areas are on the north side. The DJ booth
occupies the northeast corner, sitting above the amp room.
After developing a number of proposals for the sound, distribution
changes ruled out one major speaker company which narrowed the
field to three. My recommendation and the mention of one particular
English nightclub, Fabric, clinched it for Martin Audio. I was
fortunate enough to have met the late Dave Martin at an A.P.R.S.
exhibition in London and have always been a fan of their well-developed
Alex already owns two nightclubs with big audio systems and
to sell him on my idea meant adjusting his mindset a little,
so we had to return to the fundamentals. Q: What is the prime
objective of the system?
A: To make people dance!
Q: When do you want to open?
A: Memorial Day or around there.
Q: What is the budget?
A: Less than you would like, more than I would like!
Q: What will it be called?
A: I have no idea…..yet!So I had a 90’ long x 45’
wide x 36’ high brick and steel box within which I had
to create audio nirvana! Fortunately we live in an era where
there are many manufacturers who offer high directivity speaker
systems, some of which actually meet the claims made for them.
Given the available budget, I decided to focus on just covering
the dancefloor (because we can add perimeter coverage later),
and steering the sound away from the walls and the ceiling.
Any large reflections would then be coming from an empty dancefloor
which, thank the Lord, is not part of my bailiwick.
The finished design called for Martin Audio Blackline H3 full-range
speaker systems to be flown at each corner of the 35’
x 27’ dancefloor, with Martin Audio H2 mid-hi packs filling
in on the long axis. These elements are suspended around 12
feet above the floor and raked steeply downward at 45° pouring
all the energy down. Six Martin Audio S218 subwoofers would
be configured in a single block, to be located under the bleachers
on the north wall, (well, that was the idea back in February!).
The amp room would be under the booth with the electrical load
center installed barely two feet from the amplifier rack to
minimize voltage sag.
Above-Ground in Sub-Zero
For the lighting Brian Jay designed an octagonal truss, suspended
by three CM Lodestar motors with a custom controller. This truss
would carry Elation Professional moving heads and Diversitronics
strobes, and have a range of vertical motion exceeding 25 feet.
Additional equipment including Martin Professional Atomic 3000
strobes, more Elation heads on the walls and pillars, and a
really powerful four-head Jem fogger, all located around the
perimeter of the dancefloor. The entire lighting system is controlled
using Martin Professional’s LightJockey, the software
residing on a PC custom-configured by Brian.
By the end of March, Joe Ricci and his crew had cleared and
cleaned most of the building, internal electrical work was underway
and Glenn “Rainman” LaFlamme, my lead installer,
and I were enjoying installing conduit 36 feet above ground
in sub-zero temperatures. Although the electrical sub-station
was visible from the front door of the building, there was still
no power. A Memorial Day opening was now out of the question,
but we continued to work, albeit slowly so that we could have
the system ready within days of getting electricity.
As the months passed the interior progressed. At the outset,
Alex had indicated his desire for something a little different
but wanted to pay homage to the milestones of dance culture,
specifically the NYC scene of the ’80s. In late June,
just as things were starting to get really warm in the unpowered
building, a number of large, dusty pieces appeared, obviously
part of a larger construct. Hidden by tarps they languished
unattended, or so we thought.
An inspection one day revealed that the paiper-mache material
used to make them was the entrée of choice for the local
rodent population. The pieces were then relocated to the upper
floor and placed on the truss, now suspended five feet above
the floor. This more spacious dining room proved even more appealing
to our uninvited guests as they simply ran along the temporary
electrical cords to get to their dinner! We raised the truss
and made sure there were no cords within yards.
Rattus Norvegicus and his relatives had inflicted considerable
damage on the structures and would need major repair, but now
the pieces were in the open, we could all see what interior
designer Kyla had found. The large, Adonis-like angels that
once kept watch over Palladium and Limelight’s congregations
in New York City were destined to soar again, this time in Providence.
Hooray! September is here, and finally, so is the power! Now
it was a scramble to get the venue ready to open as soon as
possible. Balanced Input’s normal modus operandi is to
build and test amplifier racks in our warehouse and then roll
them into the venue. As the amp room is on the second floor,
the amplifiers are heavy, there is no elevator and I am too
old for that kind of stuff, we decided to assemble the rack
on site. Fabricated in our shop, the rack is a “double
wide” on wheels, housing all the processing (BSS and dbx),
power conditioning (ETA), and amplification (Crest Audio). It
weighs about 800 pounds.
The DJ booth houses the usual complement of three Technics SL
1200s, Rane MP 2016 with six-pack EQ module, and a Denon DN
2600F CD player, all of which are powered by an ETA power conditioner.
The monitors are Martin Audio F12 systems, which are flown close
to each side of the booth, and powered by a Crest Audio 7001,
with a BSS Minidrive 344 providing equalization and delay. We’re
hoping to install a subwoofer system for the booth just to add
a little kick for the DJs.
By the third week of September all systems were active and we
were indulging in a little fine-tuning when I received a phone
call asking if it would be possible to move the subwoofer array,
and I feared the worst. The DJ booth had been judged to be too
high and an extension had been built out over a corner of the
dancefloor. The dreaded question was finally asked: Could we
put the subs under the booth?
Fear and Mounting
I have to admit that I was not scared witless by the prospect
of placing twelve 18-inch drivers directly under the turntables;
I was scared by the idea of connecting them to a couple of 6KW
amplifiers and turning it up! After the shakes had passed, I
realized that it could be done and called Alex back and said,
“Yes, I can make it work, but it won’t be easy.”
“Good!” says Alex, as if he had just asked me to
change a door handle. “And we have a name! What do you
think of Therapy?” I replied that I thought it would benefit
Much to Glenn’s sorrow, his wonderfully neat pipe runs
and 500-feet of 10-gauge cable went into the dumpster and reconstruction
began. The big problem, make that the really, really big problem,
of how to stop the turntables from skipping with every bass
transient was attacked on three fronts. First, the turntables
were mounted on a cinderblock wall in the new booth area, filled
with concrete to add mass. Second, every effort was made to
couple the subwoofers to the largest thing around, namely, Mother
Earth. Joe Ricci’s assistant, Tommy, skillfully cut holes
through the cosmetic floor and, using epoxy adhesives, secured
small stone blocks to the concrete floor beneath. These were
covered with a sheet of perforated foam, the type used to prevent
area rugs from slipping on hardwood floors and the first two
enclosures were set in place. Foam was also placed between each
layer of cabinets to minimize movement, and finally, load straps
were used to ratchet the whole assembly together as tightly
The third part of the solution is electronic. Once everything
was in place, the process of wringing out the system began.
Once the troublesome frequencies had been traced, appropriate
filters and a slight delay were dialed in on the BSS processors
and all was right with the world. Again.
Enjoy The Silence
On October 4, 2002, Therapy opened and the system was run hard
for the first time, with no problems. Some minor tuning was
performed the following day and on October 5, NYC’s Shawn
Ink ripped the roof off with a blistering set. Comments about
the sound system often include the word “pristine”
and “insane,” frequently in the same sentence. It
also completely silent and often scares people who are used
to the steady hiss and hum that populates so many systems. As
only minimal compression and equalization are in use, the dynamic
range of the system is unencumbered and the quality of the music
shines through. It also scares young children and destroys Radio
Shack SPL meters.
The Fire and What Followed
In February 2003, the club world suffered two tragedies, the
worst of them happening just a few miles away from Therapy in
West Warwick (The Station fire, which killed 98). This resulted
in a deluge of inspections, venue closures, capacity reductions
and lawsuits. Therapy, which did not have a sprinkler system,
was approved for 290 occupants on the upper level in September
2002. The capacity was reduced to 100 in March 2003, seemingly
arbitrarily, although other venues suffered in a similar way.
So, even though the building has high ceilings, minimal furnishings
and no acoustical treatment, the owner has had to install a
sprinkler system, remove the ticket booth and carve a new exit
through the two-foot-thick walls in order to become profitable.
The capacity will then (we are assured) be raised to around
500. The life of the nightclub entrepreneur is so rewarding,
not to mention glamourous!
The sound system has been 100% reliable and has needed only
minor tweaking since day one. I recently relocated the booth
monitors to bring them closer to the artists’ ears. The
headroom of the system has rarely been tapped, but when a DJ
who really understands dynamics is on form, the results are
staggering! Spleens move, retinas jiggle, a truly visceral experience!
And that is a good thing.
7 Dike Street
Providence, Rhode Island