In Conversation with Craig “Shorty” Bernabeu
Craig Bernabeu is the man behind the SBS Slammer, the soundsystem at one of the finest sounding clubs in NYC today, Nowadays. Systems By Shorty was founded in 2001 with the intention of bringing high quality audio, vision, and innovation back to the pro audio industry. Craig “ Shorty” Bernabeu has been in the audio industry since 1985. He has an extensive career working on some of the finest sound systems available to nightclubs, such as the legendary Club Zanzibar in Newark, NJ, and in this conversation we’ll get to hear how he’s shaping the current landscape of high quality soundsystems in today’s scene.
We spoke with Shorty about his earliest experiences with sound, his process with designing a system, and more.
We spoke with Shorty about his earliest experiences with sound, his process with designing a system, and more.
Coloring Lessons: Hi Shorty! Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with us, we really appreciate it!
Shorty: Thank you guys for having me!
CL: To start, where are you from and what were your early experiences with music and sound?
S: I’m actually originally from Brooklyn. I grew up on Avenue V and East 15th Street, right by Coney Island Ave.
When I was a teenager I worked in a Hi-Fi shop, in the car stereo division. It was a local shop, not too far from where I lived and I’d constantly go in and bother the staff until they hired me. At first, they had me working in the car shop, sweeping up the wires that were cut from installing the radios. I then started to assist with installing the radios and eventually moved on to sales.
My father was an audiophile and his friend was the owner of an audiophile shop and they would always bring in new speakers to test out. I was constantly surrounded by audio during my youth.
CL: Did that experience of working at an audio shop inspire you to want to build your own equipment?
S: Outside of working at the shop, I was also doing custom installs. I’d hangout in Brooklyn on East 86th St, and back in those days people would drive around, pumping music out of the sound systems in their cars. That was the place to hangout at that time! If you weren’t going out to a club, you’d go there. I kinda came out of nowhere and word got out that my equipment sounded great, so I managed to pick up clients and provide custom stereos.
CL: Was there a specific genre at the time that did these sound systems justice? Perhaps something everyone was listening to at the moment?
S: The early Dance Hall stuff was my favorite to listen to. It sounded the best to me and really made the systems pump. Everyone else would listen to Freestyle and the Club music that was out at the time, but I loved those Dance Hall records.
CL: and what were you listening to on your own at the time?
S: I always called danceable R&B “Uptempo Soul”, that’s what I would listen to along with Colonel Abram’s early work. That’s when more of the four to the floor stuff started to arrive on the scene. I just gravitated to records that were produced well and sounded the best on a system.
CL: What were those records? I’m assuming the same tracks that you use as a reference when tuning your sound systems?
S: Yeah it depends on what I’m listening for. If I want to hear what the bass sounds like I’ll play Music by Al Hudson. Those records back then, we thought had a lot of sub bass, but they actually don’t. It was the trickery in the electronics that made it sound like there was a lot of sub bass. Richard Long’s systems, there was trickery going on there to make the records sound so massive, especially at The Paradise Garage and Club Zanzibar. When I’m playing a record to test the system, it’s strategic towards a specific frequency to make the sound system come to life.
CL: We hear the name Richard Long dropped a lot. Can you tell us what he means to you? Do you have anyone or any place that inspires you and your work?
S: When I started going out to discos, hearing Richard Long and Alex Rosner’s systems really got me. I’d watch crowds dance and react to music through a sound system, and realized that this was a completely different experience. I was used to listening to a beautiful recording coming out of a pair of loudspeakers, but hearing the music on Rosner and Long’s systems was something else entirely. That’s what inspired me to start building sound systems.
Alex Rosner is really the godfather of it all. He designed systems that would not exaggerate the music. Every time I had the opportunity to hear one of Rosner’s systems, it sounded incredible. Between Alex Rosner and Richard Long, they had two different styles. I would say that Rosner’s style was like a luxury automobile— all the records sounded beautiful. Richard Long’s style was more like a muscle car— it hits you with power. They are both amazing, but two different characters.
Richard Long (Left), Alongside Larry Levan.
CL: So you have all of this experience with car stereo systems and then you discover the sound systems of Alex Rosner & Richard Long. I’m sure this played a major part in you starting to design your own sound systems.
S: Yeah, I was actually starting to get into it at that time. In 1996, I was working for Phil Smith and Steve Dash at Twilo, doing the sound for that club. Steve was aware that I had worked on some of Richard Long’s systems at Club Zanzibar and Club 88. I became friendly with Steve when he was doing the Sound Factory. What Phil and Steve had going on over there was killer!
CL: You’ve worked on the sound system for Stereo, a night club in Montreal, Quebec. How did that come about and what was that experience like for you?
S: While I was working over at Twilo, David Morales was having difficulties with people servicing his system. Scottie, the owner of Eldorado Bumper Cars in Coney Island, put in a good word for me with David. Shortly after that David called me and asked me to come over to Def Mix to work on his system. When Angel Moraes left Stereo, David had asked me to come up to Montreal and re-do the sound system. We re-worked the amplifiers, cabinets, drivers, etc. That was my contribution to Stereo.
CL: Today, it’s pretty unique to come across a venue with a nice sound system. At that time was it common for a night club to have a quality sound system?
S: The only other venue that had great sound at that time was Twilo. At the time, people were telling me about Fabric and Ministry Of Sound in London, but I have never been to either.
CL: So this seems like it has always been this way. What are your thoughts on where sound system culture is headed?
S: With my SBS Slammer line, I’m sticking to a traditional audiophile design. I think what’s happened with the technology in nightclubs is that a lot of companies are selling line array systems to clubs. Line arrays were not intended to be installed at discos, they’re live PA’s. The system is easy to pack, build and ship and so it’s a convenient option for club owners. You miss out on a lot of the nuances in music when listening on a line array, because the technology just can’t produce it. Club owners are spending a lot of money on a system that wasn’t intended for a dance club.
For example, I was at a club last summer that has a digital line array rig and heard “I’ll Be Your Friend” by Robert Owens. The way that David Morales had mixed that record, there’s a hi-hat in there that indicates the record taking off, and I couldn’t even hear the hi-hat on that system.
CL: The SBS Slammer line is part of system that you designed, built, and installed at Nowadays, yes? Was that based on Richard Long’s specs?
S: No, not at all. The only thing that it’s based off of, which you would see back then, are the stray horn stacks. The technology from back in the day worked well with the music coming out at the time. But with today’s music the production tends to be over-pumped which doesn’t mix well. I designed my cabinets with that in mind, figuring out ways to give the music punch, snap, and tightness.
CL: Tell us about Nowadays? I think part of what makes that club so special is that it has by far the best sound in our city. What was your vision for that?
S: I had a client, Matt Bush, and I did the sound for him at a loft in Brooklyn. Matt reached out to Justin Carter and Eamon Harkin of Mister Sunday, and told them that he had a sound system and would like to provide the sound for one of their parties. They told Matt that they already had a sound system that they’re happy with. Matt replied back emphasizing that the system he had was special. Matt mentioned that the system was designed by the guy that worked on Stereo in Montreal and Club Zanzibar in New Jersey. They were open to the idea of testing out the system. I set it up for them at one of their parties and they loved it.
A few years later, I got a gig doing sound at Liberty Theater in Time Square and Justin Carter called me. He wanted to come down and hear what I was doing at Liberty Theater. He came by, he really liked it, and invited me to check out a new spot in Ridgewood that they were working on. This was 2013 and at the time, Nowadays was just an empty, open warehouse. They called me back and asked for a quote on the space, so I went in, took some measurements, and the rest is history.
The dance floor at Nowadays (Ridgewood, NY).
CL: Did it take you a while to build it out?
S: That build took about four months to make. Getting everything into the building was tricky, because they were putting the kitchen in, so there was just a narrow hallway for me to load the equipment. It did take me a while to tune everything to my liking. Originally the system was just the four stacks, there was no center channel bass horn at the time.
A year and a half later, Justin asked me if there was anything else that I’d like to add to the system. I said that a center channel bass horn would be great, and that’s how that came about.
Justin and Eamon are intentional about how the sound affects the listener, they don’t want people leaving the venue with their ears ringing.
CL: Very true...so how did the idea for the outdoor system transpire? Was this more of an intentional idea around enhancing the backyard?
S: Justin and Eamon had asked me “what could you do outside? Why don’t you put some ideas down on paper for an outdoor system”. Since there’s no roof or walls outside I had to design something bigger, or it would lose a lot of sound pressure.
Even though we have a lot of room in the backyard, we didn’t want the speakers to take up too much space. In order to keep the sound consistent with the indoor, we didn’t want to use over the counter amplifiers, so we used amplifiers from my SBS line to achieve that same signature sound.
You guys, along with Justin and Eamon were the first DJ’s to play on the outside system. When we put the amplifiers outside, I didn’t take into account that the sun would beam down onto the amplifier room. The amplifiers are running at 100 degrees in that room and then there’s the hot weather outside, which means the amp room is now running at about 170 degrees. It was an everyday process, but I had to figure out a way to get air conditioning in there to cool the amplifiers down.
The R.T. Series; the outdoor sound system at Nowadays (Ridgewood, NY)
CL: How did you manage to make the system weatherproof?
S: I spoke to an industrial paint company, and explained to them what I was working on. We had experience with weather proof paint on the picnic tables, and found that the sun would eat up the paint. So they had to overdo the paint, and they applied sand to it, which acts as a buffer so that the sun won’t damage the paint. Each cabinet took us about a week to go over. The system’s been hit with all types of weather, snow, heavy rain, intense heat from the sun, and we haven’t had a problem!
CL: Can you tell us more about SBS designs? What makes your products so unique?
S: SBS designs is my design company where I make processors and amplifiers. SBS Slammer is for my loudspeakers, and my audiophile line is called Annabella Audio (Anna for analogue and Bella for beautiful). That consists of higher end wooden horns and a variety of loudspeakers for home use.
CL: Do you do mobile sound systems for day parties and DIY spaces?
S: Yeah I have my MS series, which is my mobile series. I’m also currently building a large mobile system for a well known local DJ at the moment. The MS series is entirely analogue and horn loaded. It can be set up and broken down in about an hour, so it’s pretty convenient!
CL: Outside of the sound system, is there anything else in the room that you pay attention to?
S: Oh yes, when designing a layout, I try to make sure that there are areas where the sound falls off, dead spots. It’s important to have a place where the sound is quiet enough for people to have a conversation. Personally, if I’m at a venue, and no matter where I go the sound is constantly in my ear, I’m leaving. It gets aggravating after a while, especially if you’re trying to verbally connect with people. There’s no need for the sound to be everywhere.
CL: On a side note...you were close friends with our mentor, the DJ & producer Carlos Sanchez, who unfortunately passed away last March. How did the two of you connect and do you have a special memory of Carlos?
S: I met Carlos in the 90s, at Eight Ball records where he was the dance music buyer. We always spoke about audio and he was always supportive of what I was doing. I remember this one time when we were on the phone and I was singing a song to him, and he told me that singing is definitely not my calling (laughs), I really miss him. He turned me on to so many great artists! Rachelle Farrell, Ledisi, Meshell Ndegeocello. I actually used to run into Meshell back in the day, she was neighbors with a friend of mine in Brooklyn, and we would see each other in the laundry room.
CL: He would show us so much music. We also trace our knowledge of Rachelle Farrell & Ledisi back to listening sessions at Carlos’ house.
S: He was so great, man. His latest productions were great, too.
CL: We’ve actually stumbled across a few records that you had produced in the mid 90’s, in record stores and on Discogs. What inspired you to make music at that time and were you building sound systems back then? Are you still working on music today?
S: I actually never wanted to produce music, I just wanted to play records. At the time people would say that you need to produce if you want to get booked. I didn’t enjoy it, it wasn’t for me, I preferred to play other peoples music and work on achieving the best sound possible.
CL: For club owners, DIY DJs and event organizers, is there anything that they can do to achieve better sound without the money or resources that’s usually needed?
S: Basic things can be done for improvements. Processors, amplifier upgrades, the DJ mixer and making sure to play high quality files can help!
CL: We always see you tweaking the system at Nowadays so we know there’s so many little details that go into getting the best possible sound.
We also wanted to chat a bit about your new club! Can you tell us about Wonderland and how that came together? Congratulations are in order.
S: Thank you! A close friend who’s into analog systems and is the owner of various nightclubs, approached me about becoming a partner, owner and stockholder in a project that he was working on. I told him that I’m interested, as long as I have flexibility and the room sounds acoustically right. I had a chance to survey the space and really liked it! So far the response has been great.
The main room at Wonderland (New York, NY)
CL: When it comes to different genres of music (as Wonderland is mostly hip-hop), how is your execution different?
S: The execution is the same, I design all of my layouts with the same approach. SBS Designs is intended for studios, clubs and home hi-fi. Regardless of the music genre, anything will sound great on the SBS Slammer. I believe that a hi-fi sound system should be able to handle whatever you throw at it!
CL: As an expert in the field, what is your advice for others who want to figure out how to start breaching the world of hi-fi audio?
S: Yes, I would say go into hifi shops and take time to listen to a lot of speakers, amps, etc. Don’t get so caught up on what new equipment the magazines are praising. The magazines are persuaded by the advertisers. Your ears are never going to lie to you!
CL: Thank you again for chatting with us Shorty! Are there any upcoming projects that you’d like to mention?
S: I’m working on a new A3 for my Annabella Audio Line. It has wooden horns and is a 3-way or 4-way loudspeaker. The S7 amplifier, I’m getting into that. Also, all the things going on at Wonderland!
CL: That’s exciting, we'll definitely be on the lookout for that. Take care Shorty!