What’s My Name?


With marquis installs and a sleek new line array, Martin Audio seeks to up its clubland profile. Operations director Rob Hofkamp spreads the word.

By John Landers

Rob Hofkamp is ready to mobilize. While his brand, Martin Audio, has built concert-styled speaker systems for over 30 years, and installed them in the world’s top dance spots for 10, it remains obscure to clubland’s coffee clutches. “We’ve got sound systems in clubs all over the place,” he says, “but nobody seems to know it.” But this year, armed with a hot new product and fresh high-profile installs, director of U.S. operations Hofkamp is prepped to fight for some brand awareness.

His mission isn’t impossible. In the mid-‘80s, UK-based Martin discovered that their big touring rigs were retiring to nightclubs after coming off the road, and decided to create boxes specifically for permanent installs. In 2001, the now-legendary London club fabric gutted their existing system in exchange for a Martin Blackline, and since then has loyally upgraded in pace with Martin’s new product releases. The 2003 Club World Awards recognized Martin with nominations for Best Sound Product (the W8LC) and Best Sound System (Balanced Input’s all-Martin system at Providence’s Therapy). And this year saw the debut of the W8LM, a shrunken version of the trendy line array, perfectly suited for mid-sized clubs; and the grand opening of Pulse, a lavish Florida lounge featuring Martin from dancefloor to piano bar. All in all, not a half-bad sales pitch.

Hofkamp spends a lot of time on the road, meeting with club owners, liaising with sound companies, and showcasing Martin Audio products at trade shows. We caught with him via cell phone, while he was driving to yet another client meeting somewhere in Arizona.

Martin Audio is a well-known name in Europe, and now the brand is becoming popular in the United States. How did the company get its start? Martin Audio has been in business since 1971 and started out as a concert sound company, building professional touring sound products. It was started by Dave Martin, a wonderful speaker engineer who designed low frequency horns, and was truly one of the pioneers of large format sound system design. There were only a few players in the business back then.

I understand that they were building systems for Pink Floyd, and groups like that. Yes, all of the supergroups in the ’70s. Back in those days, there weren’t regional sound companies. The bands would buy their own equipment and tour with it. When Supertramp came over and toured North America in the mid-’70s, just prior to the “Breakfast in America” tour, they brought all of their equipment over, and all of their own production staff, to do concerts. It was a way of insuring the quality of their product, and it helped them get into all of these venues where there was nobody who could provide gear for them. Those are our roots. We’re truly a touring sound company at heart, but today, we’ve gone into everything from arenas, to convention centers, restaurants, bars, churches, and any applications where high-quality audio is required.

When did you get involved? In 1991, Dave Martin sold Martin to [British group] TGI and stayed on as Engineering Director. He thought that it would be beneficial to get more capital into the company, to increase its engineering efforts and develop new products. He stayed onboard, and the Managing Director, David Bissett-Powell, came to head up the ship. That’s where I came in, because I’d been working with Bissett-Powell since his days at Tannoy back in 1982. Our North American operations for Tannoy were also part of the TGI group, and we took on distribution of Martin Audio in this market. In 1998, I left Tannoy as Sales Director, and proceeded to create a new company, wholly owned by Martin Audio in England, to distribute Martin Audio products in North America. That allowed us to take a more direct approach to the marketplace, and to the customers and users; both in the touring sound business and the installation business. It also allowed us to be a little more cost-effective, because there wasn’t a secondary layer of distribution costs.

How did Martin Audio get into nightclub sound? Years ago, in the ’80s, when a lot of our big touring systems came off the road and were ready to be retired, sound companies would sell them to nightclubs. Guys would end up installing these used tour sound boxes in nightclubs. We looked at that, and decided to build some boxes specifically geared for their needs. That was one of the things that pulled us into the club scene is the ’80s and early ’90s. Our boxes have such an enormous life cycle; I see guys using some of our subwoofer cabinets that are 15 years old. And they still work.

The Martin Audio W8LC was nominated for the 2004 “Best Sound Product” Club World Award. Like many of your company’s products, it has a reputation for having a “British” sound. How would you differentiate that from the “North American” sound? British sound has a tonality that doesn’t come across the same in American-made products. In our case, one of the reasons for that is our horns, and how our horns are designed. Also, we’re big fans of 1-inch compression drivers.

As opposed to the 2-inch drivers that are found in certain nightclub speakers? Yes, the large-dome HF elements that are used today in some horns. I have to say that more and more of our competitors are beginning to produce [speaker systems with 1-inch horns]. It’s because above 8,000 Hertz, the large-format compression drivers have a hard time reproducing those frequencies without increasing the distortion, because of the size of the diaphragm. High frequencies are very short in wavelength, and the larger the diaphragm, the more difficult it is to reproduce those frequencies. Another concern with the large format compression horns is the 1,000 Hz to 2,000 Hz range. This is why we design our systems with a paper midrange unit. They offer a more natural sound with increased warmth and
less distortion.

And that’s a critical range for the human ear…
It creates a lot of the sparkle, without hanging tweeter packs over dancefloors. That’s one of the advantages of line arrays, too. You can generate an extreme amount of energy in a confined space, on a dancefloor, with the right line array product.

I’ve never been a fan of using hanging tweeters to compensate for sloppy nightclub sound system design. Much of our hearing depends on phase shift and time arrival differences. [A poorly-designed tweeter installation] just causes a tremendous amount of weirdness for your ears. Some people like it if it’s used as an effect, which can be interesting. When you think back to way some of these clubs were designed in their day, the higher frequencies were just not getting to the people on the dancefloor in the way that designers felt they should. Their solution, to increase that high frequency energy, was to put [tweeters] up in the air so that sound was coming from everywhere. When you understand the human ear, and the fatigue that goes along with some of those driver installations, [then you know that] it makes you tired when your ears sense all of this phase shift and distortion. You end up with a tired group on the dancefloor.

Which is exactly what you don’t want, if you want a profitable nightclub. Speaking of profitable nightclubs, how did Martin Audio first get involved with London superclub fabric? At that time, fabric already had what would be considered a world-class sound system. They needed some DJ monitors, so one of our application engineers took them a pair of our F12 Blackline series speakers. The DJs loved them, and the owners began asking, “Why can’t we have this sound on the dancefloor?” They ended up taking out the entire existing system and replacing it with our equipment, which was a major step forward on their part. We originally started out with a product that we had available at that time called the W8C, which was a horn-loaded 12-inch low-mid, a horn-loaded 6.5-inch upper mid, and a 1-inch high frequency horn. We put some of those in, and we replaced their bass cabinets with about half the number of boxes they had previously, but they generated more SPL, because they’re more efficient cabinets. It was a lot of money, but they just wanted to be on the cutting edge of sound. They’re known around the world for the sound in that venue. They were really happy with it.

So, they got more sound and more floor space at the same time? Yes, so they were very happy with that installation. Then, about 18 months later, we tried out some of our first-design line arrays called the W8L, kind of as an experiment. They said, “We want to go up again.” These guys are always investing money back into their club.

How very refreshing. It’s nice not to just take money out, but to actually re-invest, because if you don’t – as a club owner – you’re better off just selling it and letting someone else lose their shirt.

Because your patrons are going to get jaded. Exactly. You have to create a reason for them to come back. You need alcohol, women, and excitement. Without that, your audience will go to the club that will out-do you. In the club scene, re-investment is critical. Being on the leading edge is important if you want to retain your audience. So, we put in these line arrays, and they were really, really happy with that.

Which model was that? In fabric, we put the W8L in, but there are two new models that we make now, the W8LC and the W8LM, the new mini line array. That cabinet is 29 inches by 9.5 inches and weighs 53 pounds. It’s a very small speaker with some great applications. Some of our guys are working on designing specific systems with them and double 15-inch and double 18-inch subwoofer.

Is that the future of nightclub sound? As far as line arrays, they’re not necessarily the right tool for every job. However, with the size of line arrays shrinking, they’re becoming much more appropriate for more venues.

You don’t have to have a superclub to take advantage of that technology. Especially not with something like the W8LM, the mini, and it’s very inexpensively priced compared to what else is out there. There’s a bit of a backlash or a rebellion in the marketplace today, where people are saying, “Line array, schmine array. I’m sick of hearing about line arrays,” because they’ve been pushed so much on the marketing front. But the benefit of that vertical controlled dispersion in a nightclub is very positive, because it controls the energy and puts it on the dancefloor – where you want it to be. When a club owner and I do a walk-through, he’ll say, “I want to have some chill-out areas, but still have them within the actual club. I don’t want a separate room that I have to herd my patrons into.” I’m always challenged with the task of putting as much energy on the dancefloor as possible, but not too much everywhere else, so that people can still be in the room, but not be physically assaulted by the PA.

So they can converse and order drinks. If bartenders can’t hear their orders, that has an immediate and significant effect on a club’s bottom line. I have great sympathy for bartenders.

You mentioned that the W8LM is relatively inexpensive. In this industry, there’s a perception that Martin Audio products aren’t exactly cheap. How cost-effective are your speakers? A lot of people may think that our products are beyond their reach, but, in truth, we’re very competitive with any of the four top American loudspeaker manufacturers. It’s kind of funny, a lot of our customers say to me, “Rob, your low frequency boxes are really expensive.” They are when you look at them on their own, but when you get down to the whole system design and look at how many subs you’re actually going to put in the room, and how few amplifiers you’re going to use with our loudspeakers…

Because they’re so efficient? Yes. You’re going to save money and floor space. You’re going to end up putting in fewer cabinets with half the amount of amplification, and get more SPL. Our subwoofers hit 107 dB @ 1W/1m. That’s a lot of horsepower.

With the growing interest in line arrays for club sound, do you think there will still be a place for traditional speaker systems, such as Martin Audio’s Blackline series, for the foreseeable future? Most definitely. Line arrays will not replace everything, but they certainly are part of the next generation of club sound. It’s part of the evolution, always improving the quality of the audio experience for the club-goer.

What’s next for the nightclub audio industry? I don’t see club sound slowing down at all. If anything, I think it’ll continue to expand and flourish. There’s definitely a demand for nightclubs, and the expectations for quality audio have increased exponentially for the last twenty years, from the advent of the CD. People are less and less tolerant of poor audio.

Pulse, Orlando
New Florida venue showcases Martin's many moods.


New Orlando uber-lounge Pulse is an example of the distinctive Martin Audio personality. According to installer Jeff Kenney of Florida-based Heavier Than Gravity, the venue’s owners were seeking a specific sonic experience: “They wanted the kind of ‘wow’ sound they’d heard about in London’s fabric club,” explains Kenney, “and that’s exactly what they got.”

The three-room venue features a variety Martin Audio loudspeakers, most of which are part of the club-specific Blackline series. The plush red Jewel Box room, for instance, is equipped with two-way F15 speakers for both the dancefloor and the DJ booth. Below the booth, Kenney notes, “Blackline F8s provide all we need and more as stage monitors, while doubling as VIP room fill.”

The basic black Adonis room was a challenge for the installer. The long, narrow dimensions demanded a different approach, so Kenney placed two Blackline F12’s up against the ceiling at one end “to provide enough throw to get the tunes down most of the length of the room.” Additional cabinets were arranged to compliment the main speakers. “A pair of F8’s at the back of the room are used to pick up the rest of the sound,” says Kinney, “and we used another pair of F8’s as stage monitors.”

The all-white Martini room features a more architectural approach, with a dozen C115T surface-mount loudspeakers from Martin’s Contractor Series. Also, three compact, trapezoidal-cabinet EM15T’s work as piano monitors for a Yamaha baby grand in the satellite bar.

According to Kenney, the speakers need minimal fine-tuning. “From the start, with flat EQ and no processing, the rooms sounded nice,” he says. And the end result, in each of the three areas, is a unique “British” sound that pleases patrons, employees, and management alike. “The owners were knocked out by the sound,” Kenney says, “in all parts of the club.”






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Copyright 2004 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2004 TESTA Communications