It was a journey that took him from university, via the legendary Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield and the caves of the Peak District to London warehouses. Flare Audio director Waq fell in love with sound at an early age after being captivated by the allure of the hand drum and finding inspiration in the power of nature’s sounds.
“How we harnessed the sounds of dance”
I was a student at the height of London’s pirate radio boom in 1986, and became vice president of the Student Union at possibly the largest technical college in Europe, South East London Technical Education College (SELTEC). The pirate stations reflected the music of the communities so much better than commercial radio. I had a budget of £30,000, so I bought a PA for the common room, (about 100 capacity) and organized events in south London clubs where we played the latest sounds of the day which, like the so-called pirate stations, reflected what the people wanted.
At the same time Acid House was starting to bubble away and, in late 1988, I moved to Nottingham, just as the DiY sound system phenomenon was emerging. This scene focused on the joy of partying and was a reaction against promoters cashing in on music. It was a huge influence both on me and many of my colleagues, some of whom I started a club night with, in Nottingham. The Box Club ran for five years and the scene inevitably shaped my current profession.
From there, I scraped enough money together to co-found Yellow Arch Studios in Neepsend Sheffield - then a largely abandoned industrial area - where we leased a 4,000 square foot factory. It was derelict and roof less and we turned it into a nationally known music production hub for artistes, writers and bands. We attracted and supported many of the city’s established and soon-to-be-known acts: The Arctic Monkeys, Jarvis Cocker, Reverend and the Makers and Richard Hawley, who has recorded seven of his eight albums there.
Concurrently with the studio, I was running Sama Roots, a reggae sound system hosting dances and playing events and carnivals. It attracted the attention of Red Bull, who used it at some of their events. I also worked with bands, doing everything from driving the van to tour managing and backline for artistes including The Arctic Monkeys, Milburn, Paul Heaton, Jarvis Cocker and international acts from the USA and Japan.
Having worked in the studio environment and heard instruments played acoustically, “through the air”, I became aware how lacking live sound often was in the concert environment. I love sound, rather than just music, and the best sounds I’ve heard are from nature, such as the sound of a weather front from the plains hitting a mountain range.
Sama gave me the musical nourishment I needed but I now had a quest: to seek out audio systems which transduced sound as closely as possible to the original voice or instrument which created them.
My audio work took me across borders and, whenever I heard about a new speaker system, I would check it out, which often involved a journey of several hours. My pursuit of the emotion which acoustic instrumentation sparked in me developed into the world of PA systems.
It inspired me to found Mustt Audio in 2004 – Mustt (pronounced Mast) is a Persian word meaning a spiritual euphoria, an intoxicated or overwhelmed feeling often induced by music, poetry or dance.
As an audio supplier, I aimed to ensure that the artiste felt in safe hands from the moment they entered the venue: they would do the soundcheck and sense that, “This is going to be a good gig.” This confidence would allow them to tap deeper into themselves, feed the audience who, in turn, would send energy back to the performer.
I revelled in transforming unusual spaces, from funeral parlours to caves, creating a show that no-one would forget. One such event was a mid-winter concert by Richard Hawley set in Peak Cavern, colloquially known as the Devil’s Arse, in Derbyshire’s Peak District. It was a challenge in all respects, from having to reverse a VW combi van along a narrow footpath where van scrapes were inevitable to taming the cave’s acoustics. It held about 400 people and the concert was recorded and released on CD.
I first met Flare Audio founder Davies Roberts at the PLASA trade show in 2007. Around that time the band I was tour managing was playing at the Forum, London. The monitor engineer Ollie Weeks, who now operates monitors for George Ezra, told me he also worked for Purple Audio (Flare’s forerunner), and that they’d made a bass box better than that of another highly respected system. I was intrigued and travelled from Sheffield to Shoreham on the South Coast to hear it.
Davies is one of those people who takes an object, smashes it on the floor to see what’s inside and then says, “I’m going to build it this way.” Uncannily, we had both made many of the same audio equipment choices, using an Audient Aztec mixing desk, which is not especially popular in this country. And we both had the same shared gripes about other loudspeaker systems we were working with. On auditioning, Davies’s bass loudspeaker buckled my knees. As a reggae lover, bass was one of my passions and I was captured!
There was remarkably little sound from the back of the box, a virtue that we later used to spare a nightclub from massive noise mitigation costs: it was having to regularly block book several hotel rooms to avoid noise complaints from the hotel and its guests - we managed to fend off the local authorities by reducing the noise level in the rooms by 12dB.
I reported my experiences to my colleagues in Sheffield and, knowing my penchant for excellent heavy bass sounds, they were also fascinated. For several months I regularly travelled to London on journeys of discovery, just to hear the boxes in action. During this period Davies developed a complete audio system.
He demonstrated it to me in his annex. Although it was far from the finished article, I heard something I’d never experienced before: a “superhighway” of highly defined high frequency (HF), confounding everything I’d known about sound until then. It triggered responses that I’d never previously experienced. That evening I committed to purchasing the system, turning my back on a well-known premium brand for this completely unknown PA system.
Davies rebranded Purple Audio to Flare Audio, while another engineer who worked for him, Loz Poulton, went on to become production manager for London’s biggest underground event organiser, LWE Events. He introduced Flare to them and their venue, Tobacco Dock in East London. As soon as LWE heard the system they appointed Flare their exclusive sound supplier. Audiences have a sixth sense about sound and dance music fans, in particular, know exactly what they want. Critically, we were able to meet the stringent noise levels for the Grade 1 listed building of 55dBA at the nearest resident, 80 meters away, while surpassing the stated FOH sound level by 7dBA for the 5,000 party goers.
As Mustt Audio, I began to inherit a lot of Purple’s work. Then in 2014, I became an official reseller of Flare. The two companies ran concurrently for a while, then Mustt was absorbed into Flare and I became a director in September 2015.
Perhaps the most challenging event at that time was Rob da Bank’s London Electronic Arts Festival (LEAF) at Tobacco Dock, which was a daytime conference with shows starting in the afternoon. There were 23 separate events in multiple locations within the venue. We did everything from a kids’ play area and seminars to a concert featuring the most intense astral techno you could get. The daytime featured a Q&A with Nile Rodgers, after which we turned it round from a conference to a gig venue for shows by Modeselektor, 808 State and an electronic ensemble with orchestra, among others, all with their sound designs and production.
So often people at gigs can just be spectators. I wanted everyone not only to get into it but for “it” to get into them.
For the main room I used Flare’s second-generation PA, the X5A (mid hi) and the Q18 (sub bass). We had just two X5A’s with four Q18s per side as the FOH system, with rear delays (as a four-point system) of one X5A and two Q18 per side. It was a very small PA for a crowd of about 5,000 but the rear stacks kept the coverage even and high intensity, exactly what a dance audience demands.
Another virtue of the system is the lack of listening fatigue experienced by the audience, and the higher sound levels attained as a result. The artistes achieved greater impact with their shows and made that elusive connection with the audience.
Technology has brought in a new age of connectivity, awareness and authenticity. Flare has assimilated these elements into audio products, something we’ll shall continue to pursue within all our products.
My Favourite Flare Products …
Having such a fondness for the bass audio spectrum I have to mention the Mike Tyson of bass boxes, the Q18. In my experience it is unrivalled for the sheer finesse and intensity it delivers to audiences of all genres.
The pinnacle in audio reproduction for me is the Zero system.
It’s a step change not only in the sound it reproduces but the technology it employs. Gone are the cabinet, the wadding and the need for electronic correction. In their place are the recycled paper vortices, which remove cabinet pressure - the Achilles heel of traditional loudspeakers - unleashing previously unheard acoustics.