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THE SCIENCE OF DANCE MUSIC The sound, the light, the tracks and what they do to your body and brain – we round up the experts and take you inside the mechanics of club music, dancing and all matters rave

Words Thomas H Green with thanks to Al Fierstein (www.acoustilog.com) and Sanj Bhardwaj at Fabric Illustrations Steve Stankiewicz WWW.MIXMAG.NET

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DANCE SCIENCE

DIRECTION OF THE SOUND

THE PERFECT SOUND SYSTEM DISSECTED

The low end sounds of a track (like the bassline) don’t harm your ears, are nondirectional and always at ground level. That means the sound spreads evenly round the room. The tweeters and mids are responsible for the high and mid-range frequencies. Fabric also uses a spacialisation effect which allows sound to be thrown around the room by the DJ using a joystick control.

The Fabric soundsystem might just be the best in clubland. Here’s how it works…

ACOUSTICS

High ceilings and metal surfaces may look great in a club, but they turn the sound into a crossfire of highend frequencies, the frequencies that cause most damage your ears. Getting the acoustics right is about minimising sound reflections so wooded dancefloors, drapes or other sound-absorbing materials make for clearer sound. Fabric’s walls are brick, but they get around the problem by minimising the reflections off the walls by tightly controlled sound dispersion.

YOU DON’T NEED to wake up next to a League Of Gentleman lookalike to tell you’ve had a bad night out. Wake up with a nasty ringing in your ear and its odds on you went to a dodgy club, with no respect for music and a soundsystem so abrasive your ears feel like they’ve been used as a pencil sharpener. A great soundsytem will make your night. And it can also save your hearing. Excessive high end frequencies (like overdoing the treble on your stereo’s EQ) do most damage to your ears rather than simply loud volume. The tell-tale sign of a good system is a sound so clear you can chat to your mates comfortably and still hear the music crisp and loud. Fabric in London is regarded as one of the world’s greatest soundsystems and it’s good because it adheres to some simple scientific principles.

…BUT IS IT THE BEST EVER? Larry Levan with the Paradise Garage’s legendary soundsystem

MAINTENANCE

The acoustics of a room change throughout the night as more or less people enter the room and absorb the sound. The type of music being played also requires changes to be made to the equalisation of the room. Bassy sounds like dubstep require different sonic treatment to a genre like electro. Fabric change their sound throughout the night by providing engineers with a handheld computer which allows them to roam around the room and alter the sound depending on the record being played and the number of people in the room.

SOUND ISOLATION

You might like it loud, but the club’s neighbours probably don’t agree. A controlled dispersion system means the angles of the speakers and how far the sound is thrown by them is tightly focussed so that the sound is concentrated on the dancefloor and not outside of it. It also means less of the sound bouncing off the brick walls and causing the reverberations that lead to damage to your ears.

ACCORDING TO THE veterans everything was better back in the day, but the fogeys might have a point when it comes to the sound at New York disco institution, the Paradise Garage. The difference between analogue and digital is the root of the issue. Digital sound means the sound is turned into numbers by the system and then changed back into sound by the speakers before it hits your ears. Analogue purists

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argue that sound quality is lost in the conversion. So if you side with the analogue lovers, the Garage’s analogue system was superior to anything achieved by digital clubs today. The Garage had the best DJ of the times – Larry Levan – as resident and the club’s system won awards. “Technology is more advanced today,”says Al Fierstein, Paradise Garage’s acoustic consultant, “but it’s not necessarily better.”

HOW DOES AN ICE CANNON ACTUALLY WORK?

HOW DOES A LASER BEAM WORK? THE BODY SONIC DANCEFLOOR

You’ve always wondered it and now you know

Amnesia, Ibiza: witness the fart of God

ICE CANNONS, LIKE the one that plunges Amnesia’s dancefloor into a plume of freezing fog, operate by taking air and mixing it with CO2 then propelling it forth in a cryogenic vapour. Prices have fallen dramatically (from £20,000 to well under £5000) explaining their recent appearance at clubs like Dirty Disco in Leeds or Syndicate in Blackpool. Part of the reason for this is that cheaper CO2 has taken over from nitrogen.

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PHOTOS: TINA PAUL, ANDY COTTERILL

With the death of analogue, some experts believe the best soundsystems are lost in the past

Something to bear in mind the next time you reach for the lights

Fabric’s floor is so sci-fi it was featured in Tomorrow’s World. Pistons in the wooden danceloor allow it to be raised and the space created means the floor acts like a sub bass speaker. Opinions differ but the oblong shape provides better sound dispersion. “If we were going 40 metres wide, we’d go 60 metres long,” says Paul Sayer of Audio Plus High Performance Systems, “it’s just about throwing the energy.”

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THERE ARE TWO types of club lasers. In older systems argon gas is processed through a glass tube and hit with a pulse of electricity, plasmatizing the gas and resulting in a green laser (mixed gases produce other colours). Newer devices use a diode which is gas free. “In 18 months,” says Andy Martin, who has provided lasers for Gatecrasher, “there’s going to be a huge breakthrough in laser technology, making them much cheaper.”

OCTOBER 2006 059


DANCE SCIENCE HOW TO DEAL WITH BOUNCERS

WHAT HAPPENS TO YOUR BODY IN A NIGHTCLUB?

Not as mean as he looks

ANATOMY OF A TRACK

The trials and tribulations that you put yourself through on an average night out

What’s the difference between the part of a track that makes you put your hands in the air, or get your head down and dance?

EARS

Sound reaches the ear and is channelled along the ear canal to the eardrum, which vibrates. This causes three little bones in the middle ear to, literally, rock, passing the vibration onto sensory hairs in the inner ear (aka the cochlea) which, in turn, translate the vibrations into signals the brain understands. Sounds over 80 decibels knacker the sensory hairs and in a survey by Deafness Research nightclubs came in at 120 dB. Solution: Invest in high-quality earplugs.

BRAIN

Abnormal noise frequencies and disorientating lighting create a supernova of electro-chemical reactions throughout our ten billion neurons. If you’ve taken ecstasy the seratonin system at the base of the brain will flood the neuro-transmitters with 5HT. Studies at the University of San Diego have shown stimulation of the B1 receptors strips away inquisitiveness, replacing it with enjoyment of repetition. Overwork your brain with parties, drugs and clubs and you’ll suffer from headshocks. Solution: Get some sleep!

Inside the minds of clubland’s most feared species

METABOLISM

EYES

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The stop-start explosion at the centre of most dance tunes. The breakdown is distantly related to the embarrassed silence in a room when no-one is speaking. “There’s a tension in silence that needs relieving,” explains Brighton musicologist Geoffrey Randall, “In the case of the breakdown in dance music, this has been enhanced to create acute, often chemically enhanced, pleasure.”

THE BASSLINE

Bass is the rhythm section and the reason why you dance. It provides the low-end sound in a track’s sonic spectrum that links right back to the primal feelings invoked by early instruments like didgeridoos. 1970s avant electro-punks Throbbing Gristle looked into going low enough to make listeners ill but, more cheerfully, research has also revealed that bass positively effects the female libido.

THE MIDRANGE

“Cut the mid-range, drop the bass,” ran the sample through many an early 90s rave anthem summing up how clubbers felt about dance music’s most anonymous aspect. The midrange is essentially the meat’n’potatoes of a track, the often faceless leftovers after the bumping fun of the drums, bass and hook. Without it, however, unless you’re more minimal than even Hawtin, the tune sounds naked.

THE HOOK

Whether it’s a Shapeshifters vocal or simply a series of robot bleeps in any minimal 12”, the hook is a tune’s signature element and the more different it is, the more successful a track will be. “It’s the main idea and strongest element,” says Silicone Soul’s Craig Morrison, “the rest of the track is built around it.” As musicologist Geoffrey Randall says, the hook is the bit which defines most club music.

“X marks what, again?”

LEGS

When we dance, blood is pumped through our leg muscles. The longer we dance, the more it strengthens muscles, lubricates joints, and gets rid of tension. Consumption of drugs and alcohol, however, lead to dehydration and increase the tendency for lactic acid to pool in the musculature, resulting in aches and cramps over the next few days. Which perfectly explains Sundays on the sofa. Solution: It sounds lame but eating carbohydrates and stretching helps prevents the aches.

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Fed up with the endless queue of people trying to walk by you on the dancefloor? FINDING THAT ELUSIVE spot untroubled by movements of people is tricky. Start by working out where the exits to the room and bars are and avoid the human corridors that form. Don’t stand too far away from the speakers, otherwise the quality of the sound worsens. If your spot is under an air vent that lies in the intersection of

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WHY DO WE LIKE RAVING?

She’s having a 2001: A Space Odyssey moment

The real reason we love dancing in dark rooms to repetitive beats

FIND THE BEST PLACE IN A CLUB TO DANCE

PHOTOS: GETTY, DAVIDE BOZZETTI

The persistent blasting of retinas by strobes and lightshows is tiring for your eyes. The condensation of a hot club and dirt particles that are carried by dry ice also mean your eyes have a lot more gunge to expel than normal. The only health concern of the Government Code Of Practice For Running Safer Dance Parties is lasers, as these can cause permanent damage if not operated professionally. The highest clubland risk to the eyes, however, judging from statistics at the nation’s casualty departments, comes from nearby dancers who have a hands-inthe-air moment whilst puffing on a ciggy. Be warned. Solution: Saltwater eyedrops help keep your eyes clean and prevents them from drying out or developing eye infections.

THE BREAKDOWN

Hitting the dancefloor for a few hours dramatically speeds up the metabolism, increasing the heart rate and heating up the body. To cool down, the body perspires and can pass between one and five litres of sweat during a decent-sized session on the dancefloor. Stimulant drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine or amphetamines cause ‘motor-restlessness’, a temporary psycho-physical state that can be relieved by movement and exercise. The most obvious sign of this is ‘bruxism’, a compulsive chewing that causes many clubbers to embrace chewing gum or, in the case of oldskool tranceheads, a baby’s dummy.

ONE OF THE more unpredictable forces faced by clubbers is door security. Dr Frank Salter of the Max Planck Institute For Human Ethology in Andechs, Germany, has spent over ten years studying club security. His advice to clubbers is “a friendly, respectful yet confident approach. Individuals who argue too hard wipe out any chance of being admitted.” Doormen are experts at dominance, so any attempt to match them will fail. Instead, the best method for contesting bad treatment is to reason quietly while demonstrating the ability to maintain a friendly, unthreatening demeanour. “Doormen rapidly form likes and dislikes, and I’ve seen them persuaded by strangers who come across as one of the fellas,” says DR Salter.

the dead space created by the room’s traffic that’s closest to a rack of speakers, you’ll keep cool and hear great sound without getting trampled on. George Denton, corporate convention planner, simply advises: “If drinking, find the furthest bar from the entrance and stand away from human corridors, such as the route to the WCs.”

ONE SCHOOL OF thought argues that the dark warm environment of the club and the steady beat of the music reminds us of the comfort of being in the womb or perhaps the safety of the cave. “It could also be the sense of an environment full of strangers each possibly representing a threat,” says Professor Maggie Dobson of the Californian Institute of Behavioural Science who surveyed a selection of Los Angeles nightclubs. “The bass frequencies below 20 hertz might also tune into primal alert stimulae for sounds such as a tiger’s roar or a volcano.” Throw in a bundle of stimulants and it becomes clear ravers are deliberately scrambling their senses to create what Professor Dobson refers to as an “ersatz illusory excitement” but most of us would call “ a buzz”.

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Classic Mixmag Feature – The Science Of Dance Music – October 2006  

The sound, the light, the tracks and what they do to your body and brain – we round up the experts and take you inside the mechanics of club...

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