Karl Denson at The Independent
There's no status in status quo.
Photos by Alanna Hale
There’s no way to tell the story of the Independent without a declaration.
The mid-sized San Francisco live venue has been the defining statement of its owners, a local promotions company called Another Planet (anotherplanetent.com), started by Gregg Perloff and Sherry Wasserman in August 2003. The former heads of Bill Graham Presents/Clear Channel Entertainment West, Perloff and Wasserman brought 60 years of music promotions experience to their fledgling company, which they started after experiencing intense dissatisfaction with the Clear Channel business model.
With some bravado, the team presented its first Another Planet concert, a 40,000-seat Bruce Springsteen show in Pacific Bell Park, in 2003. “I don’t know how they did it, but it set the tone for them as an agency,” said John Karr, lead engineer of The Independent and 20-plus-year San Fran live sound guru.
Shortly thereafter, Another Planet found a third partner, local promoter Allen Scott, and joined him in his mission to reopen a longtime favorite nightclub on Divisadero. There since the 1930s, the club had been known as The Vis, The Kennel Club, and Justice League. They decided to call it “The Independent,” as a statement of purpose and opposition to their former employers. “The whole idea of the ‘Wal-Marting’ of America applies to the music industry, as well,” Scott told the Contra Costa Times in 2004. “We wanted to stand alone: independent thinking, independent music.”
The space Scott and his partners got had earned its Kennel Club name: It was a gritty edifice with concrete floors and graffiti murals that catered to underground indie and hip-hop crowds. The partners decided to renovate and, since launching in 2004, The Independent has become a premier mid-sized venue in San Francisco, boasting a powerful sound and light system, great sight lines, and a friendly and quick-moving staff.
The Right Men For The Job
John Karr walked into a pro-audio shop called Audio Images (audioimages.com) in San Francisco, looking for a cable. There he met partners Ron Timmons and Jim Chen, who asked him what he was up to. Karr mentioned that the Justice League was changing owners and that the new ones were putting in a new system. Karr is the venue’s longest employee – serving as sound engineer for four owners – and this was his first time designing a system for the space.
“San Francisco is a big JBL and Meyer kind of town. The reps have been in place in various clubs for a long time. I wanted to get away from that and try something new,” he said. He had his eye on an Electro-Voice (EV) system, but was putting together something more provisional when Audio Images came up with a plan.
Chen and Timmons met with club partner Ryan Cox. “If you shoestring this and put together a bunch of used equipment, you will not be able to host national acts,” Chen told him. “What you need is a system that is up to the job.” Together they hashed out a lease program that fit the club’s budget. Karr got just what he wanted: “The EV X-array rig was the choice of the Rolling Stones in L.A. I’ve mixed on them on tour. They’re very, very nice.”
Audio Images specializes in studio, smaller club and dance club installs, but still does five or six live venues a year. “We both grew up on the live side of the house, not the studio side,” says Chen. “I ran live sound at UC Berkeley, where I got my undergrad degree, for all the student events from the Police and Talking Heads to protests. Audio Images was my class project for my MBA at UCLA.”
Timmons has done live sound for almost 30 years, from clubs to arenas. “I didn’t have any particular dream sound, but I always preferred to have things clear,” he says. “The louder things get, the less clear they are. I’m always trying to get bands to turn down. The only band that got that was the Grateful Dead. They kept all their gear offstage and had in-ear monitors. There were only drums on stage.”
“Were you a Deadhead?”
“Sure, of course.”
Knowing that “you can’t make money doing live sound,” Timmons was always on the sales side of the business, as well, owning AIC Pro Audio in Concord, Calif. In the summer of 1986, the company Sound Genesis left the San Francisco market, leaving a void of pro audio vendors, into which Audio Images was born.
Since that time, the company has followed pro audio trends from analog to computer-based home studios and, most recently, guitars. “I play guitar and so we carry Burns Guitars from England,” said Chen. “Being a huge Queen fan, I was excited to carry the Brian May guitar. We also carry the Krank amplifiers. The most popular Krank amp user was Dimebag Darrell from Pantera and, when he died, sales really picked up. We have metal guitars come in from 300 miles away; we’ve specialized to that market. I like those guys; they’re fun.”
No expense was spared when it came to a new sound system.
At The Independent, Chen and Timmons had a blank slate on which to craft a perfect mid-sized live sound system. They installed an EV X-Array three-way speaker system in two stacks of three trapezoids. Four 18" EV dual-output subwoofers stand at the front of the stage. “The idea was to put out so much sound without stressing the system,” said Timmons, pointing out that the 40,000 watt system needs only be barely turned on for a club with a 400-person capacity.
Chen praised the X-Array for its ease of use. “It’s a portable system. It can be taken down and rolled away. The club wanted to be able to do that so, if a touring act had its own sound or special requests, the system could be changed.”
“The room is basically a box,” said Karr. “The way that the stage was set up, the trapezoidal shape of the EV system wraps around the room a lot easier than would a line array.”
Audio Images maintains it own walk-in showroom in San Francisco. “It used to be the match.com building, so at least someone profited of the dot.com crash!” said Chen. Here, the team pre-wired the Independent cabinets, then transported and installed the system in the club in two days.
The key component of the system is its speaker management system. “The X-Array amplifier is more than an amplifier,” says Chen. “There’s total control over the processing.” The 11 P3000RL remote-controlled amps give real-time feedback on the performance of each speaker. “The club owner can run diagnostics on the system from his computer at home and check on all the speaker components to make sure everything is working correctly. During the show, there’s a constant readout to make sure nothing is malfunctioning,” said Timmons.
“Because everything was EV there was very little tuning, just selecting the components from the presets,” said Chen. Operators can run the sound system with everything set flat. Timmons said that this is one of the features that really helps out a live venue in controlling the consistent quality of its live sound: ”Rock engineers like to mess with the EQs and at a normal club it can be a mess, but here you just set everything back to zero.”
Karr agreed. “Bands treat a club like a rental car. Some people have a lot more class and style than others. This is not a punk club; this is quality gear, and people can’t just come in here and wreck things. I have pulled people off the mixing console and told them they can’t do it because they were being too abusive. My job is to protect gear and ensure quality of the show.”
Karr took particular pleasure in the finer points of the Audio Images install. “They built the racks, which are custom-made and incredibly flexible,” he said. “[They had] creative solutions, like making speaker snakes so we could configure monitors in places. Seeing the details on their work – they were darn nice, little things like well-done soldering. It makes life great when everything just works and you can go get your job done putting on a great show.”
“Most clubs don’t spend enough money to do the job, so people couldn’t believe how good [The Independent] sounded,” said Timmons.
The club has won numerous local awards for best sound, and many local acts come into the Audio Images shop to say “the sound at The Independent is incredible,” said Chen. Timmons also mentioned that, since the club opened, other venues like Bimbo’s, the Great American Music Hall, and Mezzanine have upgraded their systems, because bands have been demanding similar quality in their sound.
From Clear Channel control to the excellence of an Independent; from installing massive analog 24-track studios to slinging Queen guitars, Another Planet and Audio Images have followed their hearts out of the traditional path for live venues and live sound. From Karr standing tall near the touring mixers every night to Audio Images’ quality soldering, there is strong evidence that good sound and good live shows are still the domain of the dedicated craftsperson, the audio enthusiast and the music lover. San Francisco sounds better with folks like this.