Man from The Ministry
Ministry Of Sound
Article from The Mix, June 1995
Bob Green checks out the sound and lighting systems of the (in)famous club
The Ministry Of Sound may not be a quasi-autonomous government department, but it still lays down the law as far as garage and mainstream dance is concerned. Rob Green gets a daylight insight into the club's concept, design and hardware...
In the cold light of day, nightclubs lose their glamour like the people you sometimes meet in them. Yet it still came as a shock to find London's Ministry Of Sound nestling under some railway arches in the Elephant & Castle. It looked somehow different to the last time I had been there, at 12 o'clock one Saturday night.
It was the middle of the day, yet The Ministry was still a hive of activity. Engineers and film crews rushed about, actors and actresses ordered lunches from a caravan. It seemed like a totally different venue... and in a sense it was, as I was to find out from technical manager, Chris Langley.
That day, The Ministry was playing host to a film crew shooting a TV commercial for Bacardi. The atmosphere was tense enough, without us waltzing in and requesting pictures and interviews. Luckily, the main room, or 'box' that interested us was free on that day, and we were able to have a behind-the-scenes look at their stunning lighting rig and sound system.
The Ministry's history goes back about three and a half years, to 1991. From its old warehouse premises, you can still hear the dull rumble of passing trains. The club was based upon New York's famous Paradise Garage, which has since closed down. The idea of shipping the concept over here was to help deliver American dance music to the British scene.
"Basically, it legalised some of the rave scene," says Chris Langley, technical manager. "But it wasn't like, white gloves and sucking your dummy! The idea of the club is fashionable people, fashionable music, fashionable club wear, having a good time and educating people in music."
The Ministry have always tried to maintain a certain mystique around their club — hence the warehouse facade, and Chris's refusal to get hung up on the precise power rating of The Ministry's legendary sound system. The flagship system in the main room is a New York design by Richard Long, who sadly died shortly before it was commissioned. Its cabinets are custom-designed, and effectively housed in a 'dance box'. Built of breeze blocks within the warehouse, the dance box provides sound corridors to prevent noise pollution.
"Realistically, you can't actually hear the main sound system outside," adds Chris reassuringly. "Once, we had a problem where a part of the extractor system came off. People could hear the music in a tower block three miles away!"
When you consider the club's location, things don't seem to add up. It's almost the suburbs — totally dead, which perhaps isn't such a bad thing. In fact, a lot of planning went into finding the right venue for the club, and for London, it couldn't be much better. As it's quiet, there's more parking space, and as most of the buildings there are offices, complaints about noise are less likely. The building itself is perfect for the job. It's big, it's low-key, but best of all, it's versatile...
Because of the club's utilitarian layout, Chris and his team are able to radically alter the appearance of the interior.
"We regularly change the set, so when you walk into the venue, it looks like a different place. People hear the music, and they get into it. If they can see things as well, people will remember the night. One time they'll see it as an Indian temple, and their mates will say 'No, when we went it was like a shop.'"
Chris believes that the club owes much of its success to how difficult it is to get in.
"If it's difficult to get in, you're going to try that little bit harder. If it was just two arms, two legs, two quid and you're in, the club would lose its concept. A few years ago in night clubs, the DJs were talking on microphones — Sharon's birthday and 'Agadoo'! In the underground scene, people had been mixing for ages, but not necessarily in clubs. You'd go to other clubs like the Rank venues, to put on your own nights. For a big club, it was a big risk. If you're running one night in a club, you're just worried about that night. When you're running your own club, you have to worry about everything."
Basically, The Ministry team have taken specialists from all fields, put them in one full-time club, and it seems to have paid off.
"When people found out that we were going to open a big club in Southwark, they said 'Give it six months.' Here we are, three and a half years later, still going strong. We're now a strong multimedia dance promotion company."
A club, a record label, a clothing company, a film studio — something tells me these guys know what they're doing. They've even got another area at the front, that they're looking to convert into an extra room. United Artists shot the film Hackers here, while Alexei Sayle recently used it for a nightclub scene. It's also possible that they might set up Ministries in other countries.
"In the future, we might actually open a club in south east Asia, and perhaps the States — actually take American dance music back where it came from. It's still an underground, gay thing over there. Everyone else is still into their soft American rock!"
The sound system in the main room is loaded with JBL speakers — the result of an amicable deal they struck with JBL. They also took a JBL system to Notting Hill Carnival this year, which apparently went down well. They use amps without limiters, meaning that a mistake in overloading them can be costly.
"It's flying on the edge that gives you the clarity — without compressing the whole system," says Chris. "In a lot of clubs, the whole signal will be compressed before it gets to the amps. Here, only the top and bottom are limited. Up until six months ago, it wasn't like that. We had an act on stage, and he accidentally hit a pad, and put an extra 20dB on the kick. Because there was no limit, it blew half the subs."
Chris believes in protecting the system to an extent, but advocates a balance between safety and over-the-top sound quality. Most DJs who see The Ministry's mixing desks for the first time are probably underwhelmed, but what they lack in size and flashing lights, they make up for in sound quality and durability. One's a Rane NP-24 crossfade mixer, and the other is a Urei 1620P with rotary knobs, the latter being the most regularly used.
"It's a radio production mixer, and it has such a powerful output that you've got to step it down slightly. Other DJs still think they have to drive it hard. We've got the headroom — our amps are only running at 60%, which means if they do drive it, we've still got that extra bit more."
But what of CDs? Are there no plans for a change in the near future?
"The Ministry is a vinyl club, and it's very difficult to get the DJs to change to CDs. We're actually having the booth rebuilt, sponsored by Pioneer, and they're putting CDJ-500s in there. The way the system is EQ'd — the room itself is very flat and harsh — flat walls, lots of reflection, a lot of metal girders up top, CDs on there sound fantastic."
At the moment they've got fixed graphics, by Klark Technik — 31 bands per channel. The graphic set-up is designed mainly for house and garage music, which is predominantly bass and tops, lending the graphic a 'smiley' contour.
"The bass will carry along on its own, but when you bring the subs in, you can hear the crowd cheering." But Chris isn't too fond of the kill switches idea. "When you've got kill switches, you've got the possibility for all kinds of noise that switches produce. If they could make a kill switch that was the same quality as the stuff we're using, maybe we'd think about it."
Temperature is a fundamental catalyst to the efficiency of a large system. The 'box', or main room, is probably the worst environment you could put speakers in. It's hot and humid at night, and then it gets cold again as there's no heating in the room.
"It varies at different times of the year," explains Chris. "I've found the best time is at the beginning, or at the end of summer, but in the middle, it's too hot. Different drivers and diaphragms respond differently at temperature. When they're getting hot, the diaphragms work more efficiently, but the bottom end becomes a bit more 'flabby', and doesn't have the tightness and rigidity."
They're looking at the possibility of an air conditioning system, which would also help the system to an extent.
"You can start the system at the beginning of the night, and like a car, it warms up. At about 5.00 in the morning, the room will sound incredible, and you can drive the system really safely, yet you've got so much power there. You can really hear the resonance, which means you don't have to have the subs that far up — only at one or two o'clock." For the many live acts The Ministry see from month to month, the place must seem to run like clockwork, but have there been many hairy moments to deal with?
"Once I had a DJ spill a glass of champagne in the deck, and by the time he'd come to mix the next record, we'd actually stripped the deck, cleaned it out, dried it and put it back together so he could mix on the next one, while someone else went and got a spare deck. They're all on XLR connections, and that handles the left, right and earth. Other places just haven't got that back-up."
Besides audio, The Ministry also have some of the best lighting equipment to add to their fearsome arsenal. Pulsar & Clay Paky have the monopoly here, as they made every light in the main room. All told, they have four Golden Scan 3s, four Super Scan MRGs, two Super Scan Zooms, and ten Silverados as stage lighting. I asked Chris why he preferred Pulsar & Clay Paky's equipment.
"On all the tours I've done, and all the gigs, Golden Scans have looked to be the industry standard. They blow everything else right out of the water."
For Chris and his team, it's a working project all the time. They often move the lights and experiment, and have an interactive relationship with Pulsar throughout the whole process.
"You can draw from theatre, you can draw from touring. It's great to have a night club, because everyone comes in, and you've got all week to work on that room to make sure it looks great. Mostly, they're amazed."
Feature by Bob Green
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