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Fabric's Techie Has Been Tripping Clubbers Out For Two Decades

Sound and lighting designer Dave Parry on striving to create the sublime clubbing experience.
October 22, 2014, 7:02pm

Aside from playing a significant role in supporting drum and bass and the emergence of the dubstep scene in the early 00s, London's Fabric nightclub has also been pioneering - and still is - in its adoption of technology. Back in 1999, when the club opened, it appeared on an episode of Tomorrow's World, in which DJ Kid Batchelor demonstrated the club's vibrating dancefloor – the first of its kind – to presenter Jez Nelson. Since then it has established a reputation for itself as the best sound system in London, becoming the benchmark to which other clubs are compared to, much like Ministry of Sound in its heyday. As DJ Hype – co-founder of Real Playaz, who have held a weekly residence at the club since its opening – told RA back in 2009: "There's nothing like it… Most normal clubs weren't really equipped for a music like drum & bass at the time. If the system isn't good, drum and bass sounds fucking awful. Because if you can't feel it, it's pointless."

Fabric turned 15 this weekend, so to learn more about how its legendary sound system was designed, we turned to its creator, sound and lighting maestro, Dave Parry. Parry has worked in nightclubs for over two decades years and when we spoke over email he was out in Shanghai working on yet another. He told us about how he came to meet Fabric's co-owner Keith Reilly, his ambition to create the sublime clubbing experience, and the very special guests he invited to Fabric to test his creation.

THUMP: To start with could you tell me about your career prior to Fabric? From what I gather you had already worked at a number of legendary nightclubs, like Powerhouse, Koko and Ministry, before Fabric. 
Dave Parry: I originally started as a breakdancer working at the Powerhouse [in Birmingham] – at one point we were supposedly the UK champions. I really hated the way we were lit while performing and wanted our performances to have more of a visual impact so I worked with the lighting technician there and really got into it. When he left to go and work at Camden Palace [what later became Koko] he asked me to join him. During that heady time I also worked at Heaven and Limelight as well as some corporate clubs. Then a friend of mine became the manager of Ministry of Sound and asked me to come down and work there. It was there that I was able to put some of my ideas into practice by redesigning the sound system and lighting rig.

Was rave a formative experience or influence on you? Or were there other light shows or sound systems that left an impression on you?
Raves allowed us to do what we wanted and how we believed it should be done. Rave culture also bought with it huge changes in both lighting and sound with the advent of intelligent lights. I worked on a few raves and while they were a lot of fun and creatively inspiring they were generally a load of hassle and even worse often unpaid. I enjoyed the underground parties that were springing up when rave died down more than the raves but with clubs I was able to experiment and refine or change things which gave me more insight into making people connect with the music and also introduced me to people who would influence my work to a great extent on the technology side.

But also Pink Floyds Pulse tour was totally mind-blowing, the way Mark Brickman used colour and movement is still embedded in my mind and the mirror ball moment still gives me shivers.

How did you come to meet Keith Reilly? And is it true that you turned up to your first meeting with him on a skateboard?
I met Keith through Nicky Smith, who I had worked with previously at Club Coliseum and also at Peach (Camden Palace). And yes, it is true that I turned up on a skateboard to our first meeting. In fact I still skate everywhere and my board is next to me as I type (I'm heading to Shanghai Mega park later this week).

Fabric's lighting rig in full swing

How much freedom did Keith give you to design Fabric's sound system? Were there any precedents that you were aiming to match or better?
Keith is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met and gave me complete freedom to do what I wanted. I actually wasn't too happy with the original system and we spent the first 6 months changing it around to suit our needs. I have to really thank Keith for supporting me: ripping out a hugely expensive system for another even more expensive one so soon seemed insane but he backed me in the decision despite some severe pressure as he believed that sonically it was the right thing to do – and that sound system is still in there now.

I have always wanted to innovate and have constant technical change. I wanted to manipulate the sonic and visual aspect of a club to fuck with people's heads and take them away from everyday life and immerse them in the most beautiful music played on a sonically amazing sound system. I also wanted to give the DJs the best platform to perform on, giving them access to cutting-edge kit which allowed them to manipulate the system and, with a good lighting engineer, to accentuate the music visually.

Fabric's state-of-the-art system back in the 90s.

Could you tell me about some of the innovations that you made with Fabric's sound system?
A big thing for me was the ability to control the system digitally, this allowed me to move the sound around and place that control in the DJs hands. Room 2 at Fabric was an example of taking existing technology (a Timax sound processor originally created for opera) and using it to give your ears a stereo feed wherever you were in the room rather than the usual hot spot in the centre, which meant you could not escape the full sonic experience!

On top of that we modelled the room in 3D which allowed the DJ to "move" the sound across the floor in any direction. DJs are performers and all I try to do is give them the best tools to perform at their best, it's up to them how far they take it but it will always be there when needed. The other important thing I was able to achieve was to have an engineer who cared and tried to ensure the sound was consistent throughout the night: the fact that Sanjeev [Bhardwaj, Technical Manager] is still there is testament to that.

One of Fabric's most famous innovations was its underfloor transducers, perhaps because of how futuristic a concept it seemed at the time (and still is to a certain extent). Where did the idea come from and how important was it to give clubbers a physical experience?
The idea originally came from Japan but was used more in seating than floors. Luke Pepper (who bought it over) and myself have modified it over the years to the point now that we can go well below sub-bass and produce a euphoric experience. I don't know if you have ever been to a cathedral with a large air powered organ and when they hit a certain chord the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? This is down to the subsonic vibrations which the floor emulates. To experiment with this we bought thirty deaf children into the club and sat them on the floor, the instant we turned on the music they all jumped up as one and started to dance and that basically is what the floor is meant to do.

I have always wanted to involve people in the music I love, not just with the ears, but also through vision and subsonic vibration and the floor is just one of the things I can use to immerse people with.

Do you have a certain vision that you aspire to for creating a clubbing experience and if so what is it?
I have always believed that throughout mankind's history there has been a primordial urge to dance and that from the earliest days of humanity people have come together to dance to a beat. Modern day clubbing I feel is just an evolution of cavemen dancing around to a drum beat; firelight providing the equivalent of a modern day light show. This desire to dance is, I think, to escape the drudgery of everyday life. In the past, escapism was more of a religious experience with the constant beat and movement of devotional music sending worshippers into a trance-like state allowing them to commune with the spirits and achieve a state of euphoria. This state of euphoria is what I have always tried to achieve and I have researched a lot of weird and wonderful things to try and recreate it including colour and sound therapy and Wassily Kandinsky theories on vibration and colour.

Looking to the future, the rise of video has given another boost to the tools available to me but as with everything it needs to be in sync with the music and work with it, not against it, as is often the case. But used correctly it can enhance your perceptions and totally trip you out.

With music there is always a certain tune that will take you to a certain point in time and you will recall all the emotions and feelings you had at that time when you hear it: that's what I have always wanted to create, a memory and emotion that will live with you forever.

Fabric launched with a drum and bass night and played an important role in supporting the emerging dubstep scene. How did the music which the club played influence the way you designed or programmed the system?
It all goes back to the components and the amount of control you have. The speakers we use cover all frequencies in a reasonably flat manner meaning we can add and take away to create the best sound for each night and to a certain extent each DJ. Having a system built purely for a certain genre doesn't really cut it when the scene changes and new styles come around. I like British-made speakers the best as they tend to run flat allowing you to customize them to suit. I do have a theory that speakers built in other countries are voiced to that style. American speakers generally work with rock, French with lounge and jazz, but then again it's only a theory and I'm probably talking bollocks.

How important was volume and bass to you at Fabric? Has sound system culture and musics been an influence on you?
Volume is just really a cock waving exercise and means nothing, the same generally applies to how many watts you have which again really doesn't mean anything at all. And as for bass… well come on, where would I be without it.

Most of the time a system seems loud because it's distorting, Fabrics doesn't. If we ever got to the point that it was loud enough to distort then you wouldn't be around to hear it.

Although, there was the time when we were setting up the new PA and tried uncorking the subs: we found we had extreme difficulty in breathing due to the amount of air they were pushing out but that's the reason we have limiters.

Forgive me for asking but was there a particular artist that caused you a lot of trouble/stress at Fabric? Or perhaps pushed the system to its limits?
Jesus now you're asking. How long have you got… As much as I would love to mention specific people I think discretion is the best course… There was a certain DJ who constantly caned the shit out of the system and, despite being asked, refused to turn it down and basically told me that he was a recording artist and who the fuck was I to tell him how it sounded. So the next time he played we bypassed all the EQs and gains and after about half an hour of him mincing around it was pointed out to him that he obviously knew sod all and could hear even less.

There was also another DJ who thought that stubbing his fags out on our new (200-year-old aged wood) DJ box was okay, despite having an ash tray placed next to him. I wish Sanj had not held me back.

The plush DJ booth in Fabric's Room 1.

What advice would you give to DJs and bands performing on your sound systems?
Just because it's in the red does not mean you're "aving it". Sound systems use compressors, so if you go 1db above the limit the system will be turned down by much more. So when an engineer says 'turn it down' it's because it will actually get louder.

To end on a more positive note, any nights that stood out for you at Fabric or were particularly special?
I can't think of any specific ones but we had some crazy times in my office with the guys who worked on the lights and sound (Sanjeev, Chris, Phydeaux and the Fly). I guess just looking out over a sea of people having a good time and knowing I played a small part in will always be my standout memory. Thanks Keith and Happy Birthday Fabric.

You can find more about Dave Parry through his Facebook and website.