The Legendary Phazon Sound System at Twilo | NYT

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Company Gives Dance Club Patrons A Sound That Transcends Hearing
September 9, 1999
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ON any weekend night in New York City, 3,000 twenty-somethings crowd into Twilo, a 10,000-square-foot dance club in the Chelsea neighborhood, to twirl and gyrate to a pulsating techno beat until 11 A.M., while thousands more wait outside the club’s West 27th Street entrance.

But the owners of Twilo, Steve Dash and Phil Smith, hardly resemble typical New York nightclub impresarios. Mr. Dash, 52, is a Vietnam War veteran who feels most comfortable tweaking Twilo’s sound system while wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Mr. Smith, 56, is given to wearing pastel golf shirts and Docksiders. If anything, they look more like chaperones than club owners.

The pair not only run Twilo, but in the past 15 years, through their affiliated company, Phazon, they have also designed and installed sound systems in more than 200 dance clubs around the world, have contributed to five speaker-related patents and have built a reputation among many as the best sound designers in the club world.

And sound, not celebrities, makes their clubs popular. Twilo is carefully calibrated by Mr. Dash to give its patrons the visceral experience of music. The result is as much about bodily sensation as it is about hearing.

Mr. Dash is the technician of the pair. Working with well-known techno-music deejays like Junior Vasquez, Sasha and Carl Cox, Mr. Dash has turned Twilo into a showcase for his systems.

”It’s magical because working here, you can really take people to another place,” Mr. Cox said. ”It’s a bit like creating another world or taking a trip in a spaceship.”

That’s a more helpful description than the one provided by Mr. Dash. Sitting in one of Twilo’s two deejay booths recently, Mr. Dash tried to put his magic into words while adjusting the system’s frequencies. ”You plus the plus, minus the minus,” he said. ”Sometimes you want to make it minus the plus. I don’t want to make it too technical.”

Mr. Dash learned his trade during the Vietnam War. He had an aptitude for electronics so the Army trained him in electrical engineering. In combat, his job was to align the radio waves and microwaves that guided surface-to-air missiles. But his superiors had him doing double duty fixing their stereos. ”The stereos were always getting blown from surges caused by the generators, so for 20 bucks a pop, I’d fix them,” he said.

Spending many years after the war ”just trying to get by” in Philadelphia, Mr. Dash also did graduate work in electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Dissatisfied with a job setting up hotel sound systems that played elevator music, Mr. Dash started working on equipment for a New York nightclub called the Paradise Garage, where Phil Smith was one of the owners. Famous for its powerful sound system, the Garage closed in 1985, but Mr. Smith and Mr. Dash paired up to open the Sound Factory one year later.

Mr. Smith told Mr. Dash to ”do whatever he wanted” at Sound Factory. What emerged was a system that set the standard for high-end club sound, and other club owners wanted the pair to build their systems as well. So Sound Factory became, literally, that.

”During the week, we’d build speakers and other components,” Mr. Smith said, ”and on weekends we’d sweep away the sawdust and make it a club.” After changes in ownership, Sound Factory reopened as Twilo in 1995.

”People are still promoting their clubs in England by claiming their system is as good as the one at Sound Factory,” said Tim Fielding, part-owner of a London nightclub called The End. Though The End is a showcase for a competing English sound company, Thunder Ridge, Mr. Fielding tips his hat to Mr. Dash. ”They may not know his name,” he said, ”but people in the club world know that the guy who developed that system is a genius.”

Mr. Dash and Mr. Smith are currently working on three new systems, one for a club in Sydney, Australia, and two for clubs in Britain. ”Our systems are strictly for a type of dance music known as techno or trance music,” Mr. Smith said. ”That’s all we’ve ever focused on, and that’s why we’ve become popular.”

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Popular, but not cheap. The average system costs $170,000. Phazon was recently awarded a $500,000 contract to design and install the sound system for a London club called Home. ”Whether we do a club or not depends on the vibe they have, what kind of deejays they are booking and the budget they’re going to give us,” Mr. Smith said.

The first step is to analyze the room. While conductors have been known to walk around a room clapping to measure reverberation, Mr. Dash sets off an electronic device called a bomb, which produces and then measures an array of sounds. That data, along with detailed information about the room’s surfaces, is plugged into a program that produces a color scheme of the room’s acoustical values.

Much the way a doctor might analyze a CAT scan, Mr. Dash looks over the report and decides what is best for that room. Dark areas on the screen indicate problems — excessive reverberation in one corner or uneven sound distribution. A pink screen means that all 3,000 patrons of Twilo should experience the sound in the same way.

Map in hand, Mr. Dash then calculates which speakers are best for the room and designs them on a CAD program. A contract factory in Philadelphia then uses high-tech computerized saws to make them.

”Getting those missiles to hit their targets was a hell of a lot easier than getting a room to sound right,” Mr. Dash said.

Mr. Dash’s aim was on display on a recent Friday night at Twilo. When the needle is put on a record by Sasha, the deejay, the sound is immediately sent to a back room, where a bank of equalizers and computer processors break it down into bass, mid-range and high-range frequencies. Digital signal-processing chips that have modified by Mr. Dash to clean any unintended noise from the track.

Since bass sounds tend to reverberate longer than treble sounds, a time-alignment program feeds them to the amplifiers at minutely different speeds, insuring that they will arrive at the listener’s ear at the same moment.

Sampling from three turntables, Sasha uses a mixer to control not only which frequencies are emphasized but also the area of the room the sound goes to. As if to demonstrate, Sasha silences the room around 3 A.M. As the crowd quiets, people hear a high-pitched chirp. Faintly at first in one corner, the invisible electronic bird, controlled by Sasha, circles the room. Piece by piece, layers of different sounds are added that seem to interact with the bird.

In the course of three or four minutes, the entire room of 120 speakers is filled with the visceral and aural equivalent of a raging thunderstorm. Without pause, that collage of sound becomes a driving dance beat — the intense peak music that the twenty-something patrons came to experience.

”Without a doubt, the Twilo system is the best sound system in the world,” Sasha said. ”It’s like a Lamborghini in constant need of tuning. But when it’s in fine shape, nothing can compare to it. I have no idea how he does it, but Steve makes sure this thing works great.”

An experiment is pushing the dance club further into computerization. ”One of the things Steve is working on now is a joystick,” said Mr. Smith, imitating the joystick action with his hands. ”So Junior Vasquez can move sounds around the room better. It works, too.”

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