One restaurant’s sonic quest for the ultimate soundsystem
Audiophiles Will Dempsey and Karl Whelan on setting up the decks and getting the sounds right in their new Dublin restaurant
The view from the decks in Dublin’s Hang Dai restaurant
If you’re going to do it, do it right. That’s the ethos that lifelong friends Karl Whelan and Will Dempsey put into practice in the preparation of their recently opened Chinese restaurant Hang Dai on Dublin’s Camden St (the name translates as “brothers”).
Getting the food right took them to the best backstreet restaurants in Beijing, and getting the music and the soundsystem right involved just as much research, if not more.
Whelan is a chef who has worked at Fade Street Social, Chapter One and Luna. Dempsey is a self-confessed audiophile and vinyl DJ with an interest in sound that means his house has a rotary mixer, high-end cables, fancy needles and his records get a regular cleaning.
“I’m always listening and trying to make it that little bit better,” says Dempsey, sitting in the Hang Dai’s Deadwood-themed wood-panelled office.
Dempsey’s quest for improvements lead him to read up about venues such as Brilliant Corners, a Japanese bar and venue in London, which is renowned for its audiophile-friendly soundsystem.
“It made me take an interest in the acoustic of a room, the value of a good soundsystem, whether sounds bounces off a surface or whether it’s absorbed, what frequency they’re set at and what can interfere with them – be it people chatting or knives and forks.”
The beginning of a sonic quest
Two and a half years ago, while working with Choice Cuts as a promoter, Dempsey showed Sam Shepherd, who makes music as Floating Points and is a notorious audiophile, his plans for a restauran
“We were back in my gaff and he was helping me rewire my new mixer. I showed him him the plans for the restaurant and mentioned Brilliant Corners. He knew the guys there so he organised a meeting.”
Dempsey met with the owners of Brilliant Corners, Amit and Aneesh Patel on two separate occasions to get their advice. They imparted their experience in setting up a great soundsystem. Justin Greenslade of Isonoe, a former audio engineer at the London club Plastic People (also famous for its sound) who makes hi-end shock absorber feet for decks offered some advice in the build.
In September 2015, Whelan, who worked at Luna at the time, hosted a backstage BBQ for James Murphy and 2manydjs’ Despacio tent, a space that prioritised high-end audio systems. They offered advice on the type of speakers to get - namely, old JBL speakers from the 1970s and 1980s.
Dempsey and Whelan hatched plans for their sound system to have custom-built speakers to match the rare JBL speakers they recommended and to treat the restaurant’s acoustics so that would support an all analogue, all vinyl setup.
“This was a whole different league now,” grins Dempsey.
These two friends’ stubborn quest for perfect sonics met a lot of resistance along the way.
“We had certain companies from here banging on the door saying we wouldn’t be able to do an all-analogue setup, who told us to buy a Funktion-One or a Void (both are soundsystem manufacturers) and they would make it sound analogue,” says Dempsey. “They said it would last a few weeks, that it would blow. That spurred us on more.
“How did they have soundsystems in clubs in the 1970s and 1980s and have DJs playing vinyl on them day and night and they worked so why can’t we do that now? Why does it have to be digital? Let’s go back to basics.”
They enlisted the help of West Cork man Toby Hatchett, a furniture-maker who ran My House at festivals such as Body&Soul. Hatchett had recently begun making his own soundsystems and testing them at Notting Hill Carnival in London.
In June, when they poured the concrete floor, the DJ booth was also poured in concrete to help eliminate feedback and vibrations affecting the sound coming out of the speakers.
“No matter how hard you kick that table – you could drive a car into it, and hopefully the needle wouldn’t skip,” says Dempsey.
The tables in the restaurant were packed with foam and made thicker to reduce echo and to help soften the room. Teak and cedar, woods which are known to be good for sound absorption were used where possible in the speakers and the room’s finishings.
The walls were soundproofed in the restaurant creating two and half foot-thick walls that couldn’t be heard by neighbours or on the street.
“I’d read there are nightclubs in hotels in New York in the basement which have thousands of people in them and no-one could hear anything,” says Will. “I wanted to make sure that if I was standing out the back or on the roof, that I’d hear nothing.”
No screw left unturned
Their attention to detail meant buying acoustic-friendly office ceiling grids and they even specified to their builders the type of screws and glue to use in the restaurant’s construction. A Japanese-made custom-built mixer from Alpha Recording Systems was also ordered and took three months to arrive.
Both of them are happy to admit that Hang Dai could have been open a year earlier if they had lowered their ambitions.
“We didn’t want to compromise,” says Whelan of the build. “That’s what you have to do – you have to dig your heels in as soon as you make one compromise, they will push you on something else.”
Abe Scheele, a sound designer and engineer was brought in to scientifically perfect the room’s acoustics.
“It takes him all day,” notes Dempsey of the process. “He sets up microphones around the room was playing pink noise - high-pitched noises and low-end rumbles. It’s quite upsetting and harsh on the ears but it was worth it.”
The result in the room is certainly very impressive. The sound affects the atmosphere in a positive way and the acoustic treatment means the chatter in the room never reaches polluting noise levels. The music can be heard clearly at a low volume, as can a conversation at a table during dinner.
“The room feels soft, there is no echo,” observes Dempsey. “If you drop something, or smashed a glass, it won’t clang like a normal room that has a lot of hard surfaces.”
It’s a lot of work, money and time to invest in what is still clearly a restaurant first and foremost. Hang Dai has vinyl DJs playing on Friday and Saturday nights when the restaurant turns into a late-night disco bar. There are plans for the occasional international guest, live-streaming and mixes too.
For Dempsey and Whelan, the attention they paid to the soundsystem is as important as the food and the decor. Running a restaurant together was something that they talked about for so long and music was always a part of the plan. Whelan talks about a sound that Scheele heard treating the room as an example of their audiophile commitment.
“Abe was playing this really high-quality track that Funktion-One give engineers when they’re setting up a system with strings, really high-pitched vocals, a lot of bass so it’s good to test with. He’s heard it a thousand times and he said he could hear the sound of the drumstick hitting the tom-tom - the sound on the skin before you actually heard the tom-tom. It sounds alive.”
For more, see hangdaichinese.com