New York Metro

A look at the sound system in the NY punk mecca, CBGB

From left: CBGB’s founder Hilly Kristal with Carol Costa-Marshall, Charlie Martin and Alvin Robertson

Photo: David Weiss

CBGB — it seems like no matter how many times you see those letters, the mystique remains. A bar originally built in 1973 to be the forum for New Yorkers who dug “country bluegrass blues,” it instead became one of the most revered locations in rock 'n' roll. The number of pivotal bands who launched their careers there is long and well-known, including The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and Television. The likes of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and The Melvins had gloriously loud shows there, and any true New York City rock musician has played there at least once.

But in 2005, time may finally catch up with the grungy black hole of a venue at 315 Bowery, as the club remains locked in a bitter feud with its landlord that leaves it operating without a lease (as of September) and just a court decision away from closing for good. CBGB's cultural impact is the stuff of legend, but besides its advanced booking policies, the club has another secret weapon worth documenting before it's too late: an awesomely powerful and accurate sound system designed by a team of fanatics hell-bent on ripping people's heads off with the best live audio imaginable.

System co-designer Charlie Martin clearly remembers the first time he ever laid eyes on CBGB's famously feisty founder, Hilly Kristal, on a rainy day three decades or so ago. “He was playing his guitar at the front door,” says Martin, seated behind the front-of-house Soundcraft console as he scans the club's flyer-plastered walls and angled stage on a recent afternoon. “Hilly was the first music impresario I ever met who was in it for the music. In a very short amount of time, I started working for him as a stage manager and evolved into engineer. I did most of the mixing there for the later part of the '70s.”

But Martin did more than mix the multitude of bands who played at CBGB. Along with the late Norman Dunn, who passed away just a week before this article's interviews were conducted, Martin spearheaded a complete overhaul of CBGB's sound system that would help assure the club's place in rock history. The year was 1976. “As the focus on the club from record companies and the media started to really grow, the bands became more and more important and had to run at a very high level,” Martin recalls. “It was decided to install a state-of-the-art sound system. Hilly, of course, being 100 percent committed to the music, was willing to purchase what at the time was the most expensive sound system created for a place of this cubic footage.”

Kristal remembers things a little differently. “What happened with the sound system was that they put something over on me,” he says. “It ended up costing $130,000 in 1976. It took me years and years to pay for it, and probably ultimately cost me $200,000. The sound was always important to me, but I didn't know how good the sound could be until they put this system in here. It's really amazing how clear and wonderful it is.”

The haphazard appearance of CBGB's interior belies the scientific approach that Martin and Dunn took to the system's design, which was undertaken with the utmost respect for live psychoacoustics and the artistic integrity of the venue's performers. “We talked about the goals of creating accurate tone from the front of the room to the back,” says Martin, “and came up with a sound system that comprised the best JBL components available from lows to mids to highs. There was a 16-channel Soundcraft Series 2 mixing board, and we also included an Ampex 16-track 2-inch deck. The idea was a completely accurate environment for the bands to play in and for us to mix. The bands would be in the same acoustic space as the mixer — in fact, the levels we ran were so high that the mix backed up onto the stage monitors! The approach was sort of similar to what the Grateful Dead was trying to do. They had their sound system behind them at one point, mics right next to each other, slightly out of phase so they would be in the same acoustic space as the audience and the mixer.

“This sounds like crazy idealism, but it's important: We were nuts trying to create and record. We were into a dynamic. Every show was an adventure. We would record it with the 16-track, then later on that night, after we closed at 3 or 4 a.m., we would mix the tracks on the sound system or JBL monitors we'd set up on chairs. We discovered a band could evolve much more quickly if we had the 16-track of them playing. We could isolate everyone's contributions, and so the pace and evolution of their playing was much faster for obvious reasons. Cutting, we had strips of tape hanging all over the place. My personal record was three-and-a-half days of shows without mixing and without sleep, but I must say that just before I passed out, I was doing punch-ins with complete accuracy!”

The speakers, cabinets and horns that Martin, Dunn and company set up in the final year of Gerald Ford's presidency remain intact and fully functional at CBGB, meaning that until a judge decides otherwise, an earful of history is just a cover charge away. Arrive onsite, squint really hard at the ceiling around the stage, and as your eyes adjust to the dark, you'll start to see the loud, loud monster they created. For the long-throw, lows are handled by five boxes (originally six) holding three 15-inch EVM 15L drivers; low mids come from six boxes with 12-inch JBL drivers; high mids come from two (originally three) Community M200 2-inch drivers on 90-degree JBL horns; and highs from one B&C DE45 1-inch driver on a JBL horn. The near-field highs come from two B&C DE750 2-inch drivers on 120-degree JBL horns, while the highs mid-field get the same drivers on 90-degree JBL horns. The original crossover setting is lost to all time, but the current ones are handled by a dbx DriveRack 480. The first Crown DC300A amps have been replaced by Crown C2000s and C1000s and Crest V900s.

For those who haven't experienced it in person, the result is clear, accurate sonics from top to bottom, with the potential of decibel and sound pressure levels so high that they can literally rattle the earplugs inside the ears of those smart enough to have them. “It's perfect for powerful rock 'n' roll,” Martin states. “We were just making sure in the hall that you heard all of the elements of the sound. If you look at it, you've got a wide variety of horns all over the place, but each one carefully directed and tuned. If you're here for a concert, you can walk from the back of the room to the lip of the stage and hear the full range of sound with excellent tone.”

Kristal points out that the rabid audiences weren't the only ones who got off on the powerful system. “It's not only the clarity, but there was a real energy, and I think this makes a band want to play better,” he says. “They feel they did a great show. Even if it isn't their best, it felt good. The most important thing is the room is good and engineering the system to fit the room is crucial. Norman, Charlie, Mark Morris and whomever else made a perfect design for this room. Actually, it was designed for something four times as big, which provides a lot of dynamic range and headroom. One thing I must add is that we kept it up all the time. We test it quite often and make subtle changes every month or two.”

But you can only go so far in analyzing what makes a place like CBGB sound so amazing — the true spirit of rock thrives in this frighteningly dim music Mecca and that's that. “It's idealism,” Martin concludes, “that's really what this place is all about. The Buddhists talk about the hole in the center of the wheel, and without that void things can't function. In some ways, CBGB was that unconditional void that originality could flow into and out came great sound and great bands.”

Martin dedicates his interview to the vision and integrity of Norman Dunn. Special thanks to Alvin Robertson for his role in facilitating this article.

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