What started as a story about perfecting a sound system for clubs ended up traversing history, family connection, sound geeks and ... a ghost. By Russell Brown
We live in a noisy world. Music pokes at us through earbuds and laptop speakers and Bluetooth devices. It blares down on us in cafes and bars and belches out from passing cars. It's crunched down for streaming and compressed to sound louder. For the most part, it doesn't reach us as its creators intended it to sound, but we accept the compromise for its convenience and portability. Well, most of us do.
In a 2012 TEDx talk titled Bad sound is a vexation to the spirit, fabled sound system designer Tony Andrews railed against the "dumbing down of audio", which he believes keeps us from "the fantastic transportation of your mind" that organised sound can conjure. Andrews, as much an audio mystic as a builder of speakers, believes that fixing our sound "may be a door to a badly needed new state of being" for humanity.
Three years ago in Auckland Andrew Newman had a similar epiphany. Back in New Zealand after working around the world for years, and with his first child on the way, he decided to build a sound system. It was, he says, the stuff of mid-life crisis. What followed was a classic Kiwi DIY venture, an expression of the soul and a new chapter in a remarkable family story.
Nearly 80 years ago, Bruce Powell helped defeat the Nazis. He was trained to build and operate mobile GL Mark II systems, which used the technology later known as radar to guide Allied weapons. He stayed in the British military for a while after the war, and used an old radar tube to build a television so his neighbours in Bath could watch the coronation in 1953. The homemade telly was packed up when the family moved to New Zealand, where the Powell family became some of New Zealand's first viewers. Bruce Powell built two more TVs before the family thought to buy one.
By that time, Powell was into computers. After the New Zealand Herald was put to bed each night, he'd come over and run critical-path programs for the Navy on the paper's computer (yes, there was just the one). But internal rivalries – the Navy had its own computer in Wellington, and "the experts" there got involved – eventually prompted him to retire at 61.
He kept up with computers, in part because his grandson Andrew was interested. The kid would come over and stay most weekends and they'd tinker with the Sinclair ZX81, and then an Amiga. ("Much of today's technology was stolen from the Amiga," he observes.) They joined an Amiga club at a local school, which was eventually shut down, Newman recalls, "because the amount of copying that was going on was intolerable".
The pair of them laugh like drains at the memory. The chemistry between 41-year-old Newman and his grandfather, now an impossibly sprightly 101, is evident. It was rekindled a few years ago when Newman decided to build a Pultec passive equaliser, a classic piece of audio equipment that has added the magic to thousands of classic recordings, including most of the Motown catalogue. Unlike most modern equipment, the Pultec uses valves and manually-constructed circuits, something the old man knew about, so they spent nights talking about how to do it.
"I definitely got from you a love of learning and a confidence that I could figure something out," Newman says, turning to his grandfather. "I think that's the biggest thing – you just have to do it and have the patience to figure it out."
They figured it out – and the equaliser was the entree to a much bigger project: the sound system. While Newman worked on the electronics in his mother's garage in Beach Haven, his brother-in-law, a carpenter, built the cabinets. Unlike most modern PAs, theirs – which they call The Ghost – is horn-loaded. It's inspired by the systems made by Tony Andrews (dating back to the rig he installed at Glastonbury Festival in the late 1970s) and his fellow audio apostle Thomas Danley.
The science of sound systems is forbidding, but what you're hearing at large concerts nowadays is almost always coming from a line array – a set of many identical speakers focused on the crowd. Line arrays are powerful, compact and efficient, but they're difficult to work on a smaller scale.
They're also on one side of a kind of audio nerd holy war. Point-source systems like The Ghost are on the other. It's complicated, but let's just say that The Ghost looks really different. Inside its largest speakers is a four-and-half-metre horn chamber coiled, as Newman puts it, "like a conch shell".
It wasn't an easy thing to build, and Newman and his brother-in-law spent money – about $50,000 – as well as three years of their time doing it. Buying a similar system made up would run to nearly $250,000, which is why you don't see them. After one heartbreaking evening where the two-tonne system was installed for a club gig and failed to work, it made its debut a couple of months ago at a sold-out show at Galatos by the Detroit DJ Omar-S. It was revelatory.
In place of the thud and distortion usually generated by club systems in this country, The Ghost produced a striking, colourful musicality. It also spoke to another of its influences. Although he has been involved in dance music since he and his mate bought a drum machine together when they were 15, Newman's longtime day job is as an acupressure therapist.
"I spend all day in a quiet room listening to people and helping relax their bodies," he says. "I'm dealing with the waves of the body and resonance. It's kind of come from that, from me enjoying music and understanding what environments the body feels comfortable in. And these frequencies are kind of healing, in that music hits us with these different frequencies, some of it hits our ears, some of it hits our gut and some of it even hits our loins."
Newman trained in acupressure practice in South Korea, where he also moonlighted managing nightclubs and their sound systems.
"I could see that if it wasn't done right, the customers would get fatigued – and a lot of club owners just don't get that. You think that your sound system is loud and people like it loud, but they'll just get tired and leave early – and they won't spend as much on the bar. It doesn't need to be loud if it's impressive."
The Ghost gets its next outing on October 18 when the Dutch DJ Martyn plays Galatos, but Newman is open to packing it into its trailer-with-a-cage for the right dance shows and listening parties. For now, Bruce Powell is deeply proud of his grandson.
"He stuck with it through thick and thin," says Powell. "I mean, half the time it was crap and didn't work."
He appreciates the "purity" of the sound. But does he, at 101, enjoy the techno music his grandson is passionate about? "Oh no," he says. "Not my scene at all." And they both laugh like drains.
The Ghost will be rolled out on Friday, October 18, for the visiting Dutch DJ Martyn at Galatos.