Club Spotlight: L.A.'s Conga Room

Merengue, charanga, mambo, son every Thursday through Sunday, sizzling Afro-Latin music, both traditional and modern, draws dressed up crowds to the Conga
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Merengue, charanga, mambo, son — every Thursday through Sunday, sizzling Afro-Latin music, both traditional and modern, draws dressed up crowds to the Conga Room, Los Angeles' intimate and upscale showcase for salsa, Latin jazz and world/alternative music. Buoyed by the boom in Latin music's mainstream popularity, and by celebrity investors like Jennifer Lopez, Jimmy Smits and Paul Rodriguez, the Conga Room opened with a splash in 1998. Since then, the club has attracted a crossover audience that comes out to see national acts like Celia Cruz, Chucho Valdez and Jose Feliciano, and local favorites such as Ozomatli and Poncho Sanchez.

At the Conga Room, people come to dance and get up close and personal with the music. We're talking all the way live here: Typically, 10 to 12-member salsa ensembles featuring timbales, congas and bongos, as well as a piano, a horn section and several singers, perform on an elevated stage in what is essentially a long, narrow ballroom with a wood floor, brick walls and skylights. The main P.A. board, a 32-input Allen & Heath GL3300, gets a workout handling FOH and monitors for the 350-capacity main ballroom along with a stereo feed that's piped throughout the complex to the restaurant, bars and lounges. It's a fact: Mixing in this environment requires mucho cojones.

“We do everything,” says head audio engineer George Acuña with a laugh. “From concerts to TV, videos and dance lessons. It's a very bright room, and it stays bright even with a lot of people in it. It's great for the acoustic sound of the music, which is very percussive and horn-oriented. But when it gets really hot and heavy, it can be a challenge.”

Originally designed for the minimal requirements of traditional salsa bands, the sound system has undergone constant refinement: The most recent addition is four built-in JBL SRX Series subwoofers under the stage. EAW LA Series mains and delays hang from the ceiling, onstage monitors are JBL MR902s, and both mains and monitors are driven by QSC PowerLight amplifiers. Four A/B dual 31-band EQs are inserted across mains, delays and the four monitor mixes, and a Symetrix delay unit handles speaker delays.

Typically, 12 to 17 mics are live onstage; the workhorse mic collection comprises Shure 58s, 81s and Beta 57s and a complement of Audix D Series — Acuña says he is partial to Audix D-2s and 3s on percussion.

“We're pretty much miking everybody,” says Acuña. “Not because we need them in the P.A., but because we have the auxiliary send to the rest of the venue — we have to make a mix that works everywhere.”

To do that, Acuña relies on his trusty Sony MDR-7506 headphones, in combination with a listening “sweet spot” behind the bar at the back of the room. “No, I'm not back there drinking,” he laughs.

“The original design of the system was for salsa only,” he explains. “Based around a set of timbales with a cowbell, then conga and bongos. Now, a lot of the timbale players are bringing in a kick drum that I'll need to gate or compress. And other instruments show up; the newer generation is adding lots of different things.”

Acuña's outboard collection includes an Aphex Dominator for the main stereo bus, a dbx 262 for horns, a Behringer Composer for vocals and PreSonus ACP8 compressor/gates. Effects include a Yamaha REV-500 and a TC Electronic M1.

Acuña, who has worked with all genres of music from rock to classical and jazz, explains the philosophy of this particular gig. “Mixing here is about working with the room,” he says. “And working with salsa, it's not about your standard bass drum and bass. It's about piano and percussion and horns. This is a very special room: The groups are powerful and energetic, and people can get up close to them. Usually at least half of the room is dancing, and the energy in here gets truly amazing.”