If you’ve attended a brand-name festival anywhere in the world, or hit the dancefloor at any internationally-recognized club, chances are you’ve experienced the handiwork of George Stavro.
The easiest way to explain what Stavro does is to say he’s “audio engineer,” but that’s only part of the story. He designs full-on audio systems in large-scale nightclubs, specifically for dance clubs and massive dance music events.
A native of Sydney, Australia, Stavro has been in the audio game for 34 years. He founded the company Sound Lighting and Visual Equipment, then another called Phazon Sound with Steve Dash in New York. Currently, he runs an installation company called Integral Sound, and a production company called Sonic Lab Audio. Suffice to say, Stavro’s talents have had a global impact.
He’s not one to namedrop, even when pressured, but he’s worked with DJs from the old school to the new school, maintaining great relationships with all of them through the years. He has also worked on EDC Las Vegas, BPM Festival, All Day I Dream, just to mention a few.
That’s why we sat down with Stavro to hear the full tale of his professional journey; to learn what makes him tick and what advice he might have for those who seek to break into the world of events and sound.
Photo courtesy of George Stavro
What lead you to become an audio engineer?
My background is electrical engineering: designing and building power stations, substations, electrical systems of large buildings and stadium lighting.
I DJed for many years during the ‘80s when DJs were getting paid nothing. I would go to New York to buy records. I’d hear the records in the clubs in New York and they’d sound different when I played them back home.
Through the generosity of information from New York sound guys—Steve Dash being one of them— I started manipulating the sound systems and got them to sound more like a New York system. One of the partners at one of the venues had another venue where he spent money on technology every year. He had faith in me and entrusted me with a lot of money to build a sound system with absolutely no credentials.
Within months of doing that venue, I was inundated with calls from other venues, and I started my company.
Why specialize in dance music?
With live music, you’re pretty much stuck with the sound that’s coming off the stage and trying to amplify it. With dance music, you have more creative freedom to manipulate it and color the sound.
What do you mean "color the sound"?
When you do a rock concert or a rock festival, the explosion of sound and loud noise to the punter can only happen for 45 minutes to one-hour intervals with some kind of break in between. With dance music, you can walk into a nightclub at 10 p.m. and have maximum exposure to the sound system at maximum volume until 10 a.m.
If the system is tuned quite bright and aggressive, it’s going to be fatiguing, number one - and number two, it’s going to leave you with ringing ears. We tune the sound system so you feel the physical presence, but it’s not overwhelming to the ears. To do that, you need to attenuate the medium and higher frequencies.
You don’t have that aggressiveness, so you don’t have that fatigue.
Why is coloring the sound possible with dance music but not with other styles?
If you have a band playing, the engineer isn’t allowed to interpret that any way they want. To color the sound with live music, the voices and the guitars would be caught back in the mix. You can’t really do that, because that is the signature sound of a lot of artists.
Dance music you can manipulate to exaggerate the bass; to give you a physical feel without altering what’s coming off the stage. It leaves more creative freedom to do that. Some engineers balk at that and say a sound system should be flat regardless of what you put into it, it should output it identically, but that doesn’t work in all instances.
I have a particular sound and methodology, and it seems to work.
George Stavro at Electric Zoo Festival
For many years, the sound was turned up very loud at dance music events without any regard for quality or hearing damage. What brought about the change?
An obligation and a responsibility toward the punter. There are very clear guidelines on what is safe and unsafe as far as sound pressure levels. Occupational health and safety standards worldwide [dictate] what you should be exposed to, [and] for how long per 24 hour or eight-hour shifts.
You would not get any sort of physical feel and excitement from a sound system in a nightclub if you don’t abide by those standards.
How do you work within those parameters?
Some European countries are introducing maximum levels at 90 dBA [relative loudness of sounds as perceived by the human ear, i.e., 90 dBA is 90 A-weighted decibels above the threshold of hearing]. In a very large event, crowd noise can exceed that, so you need to get above that. As a sound designer, you want to create the maximum experience that you can, but you still have to be responsible so you don’t send people deaf.
Lower frequencies carry more energy and read higher on any noise meter. Plus, your ears are less sensitive to lower frequencies at higher levels. To cheat the levels and make the levels go higher, you attenuate the lower frequencies and you push the mid and highs up. Your perceived loudness goes up, but your measured levels don’t.
There’s a bit of a roadblock when you deal with maximum levels, but outside of that, there’s a way you can create a lot of energy down low where you have a physical and a tactile feel to inspire people to dance and not overwhelm their hearing. That’s something we figured out early, and it’s been our trademark.
You could be at our clubs, at our events, have your bowels shaking and still carry on a conversation, and not have the distortion and the excessive mid-high frequencies.
Expectation for high quality audio is a lot more commonplace these days...
Different places have different cultures.
When you look at sound systems in the United States; for example in New York, Chicago, and Miami to some degree, [this is] where sound systems were a big thing. The way the alcohol licenses and the trading hours are set, the venue owners can spend more money on that sort of technology.
If we quote a price that’s $300,000 and everyone else is quoting $200,000, if [a club owner] looks at that $100,000 extra to go from an average sound system to the best sound system, and you amortize that cost over two nights over the five-year life expectancy of the venue, you’re talking about $150 a night.
It makes sense when you look at it long term. Unfortunately, no one looks at it that way.
How much does a venue operator dictate your installation of the sound system?
Budget usually dictates it, then scenic. If the production has a big scenic element and sound is a secondary consideration to the aesthetics, then you need to be able to design in a way that’s not overly obvious. People come to us for a particular result, and they’re usually okay to give us free reign to get that result, so generally it’s budget that dictates it.
On the other side of things, if you go into a room that is an echo chamber, it’s hard to get any sound right. That’s a big consideration. People have big parties in reverb room barns which are not conducive places to good sound. I’d rather have an average sound system in a very good audio environment than a great sound system in a crappy environment.
What can you do in a crappy environment to achieve better sound?
You can hang drapes. You can create bass traps. We’ve done it with old canvas tarps which have been wet so we can almost create a damper. A lot of softer furnishings. You need something to absorb, diffuse and minimize reflections. There is a Dutch company that makes inflatable noise attenuators. They’re in the ceiling, and when you look at them from a distance, they look like a big air conditioning duct. They’re almost studio grade sound treatment. You can do it, but the cost of doing that for a one-off production is quite excessive.
Are organizers able to port sound systems to new venue locations?
Yes. Club Shelter in New York, the sound system they bought when they were on 39th Street was the old Twilo system. Shelter moved from there to Hudson and Hubert, and now they’re in their third location on Varick Street, and they’re still using some of that system. A custom system is primarily designed for that venue, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be adapted or moved if need be.
When you’re talking about productions, it’s a different thing. In a production, we put it in the most suitable system for the space you have access to. Generally, when you do a production, you have a better chance of getting it right because the cost of implementing a good sound system is a lot less. You can do a sound system for $10K a day, but the cost of ownership would be a lot more.
What is the difference for you in building systems for a venue versus a production?
System design in venues is where we come from. That’s still our core business, our strength and where we like to be. When you’re doing installations, they’re a more exact science where you’re designing a system to suit a venue but you also have the time to go back and revisit and tweak it until it’s the best it can be.
When you’re doing production, you’re pretty much limited in time. You have a fixed budget, and you’re getting it the best it can be for that event. For something that’s a one-day event, you’re not going to go back the next day and make it better. The time constraints really limit you in how much you can do.
There is an audio struggle between what is happening on the dancefloor sound-wise and what is happening in the DJ booth. How do you address that?
You’re pretty much doing two sound systems.
You’re building a DJ monitor system that will keep the DJ happy. You’re also building a sound system for the crowd. The DJ will always say they want to hear what the crowd is hearing, but in reality, they want to hear what they want to hear. Because they monitor at such excessive levels, over the course of hours of hearing fatigue, the further from this set up they go, the louder they need to go to be able to hear at the same level that they think they need to. They’re altering the tone of the sound for their monitors but also altering the tone for the punters.
We’re constantly fighting that to try and make it sound right. A lot of the DJ mixers have tone control now, so they can alter the tone of their monitors separate to what’s heard in-house. That’s making our jobs a little bit easier.
Speaking of DJs, you’re working with Harvey on a new venue in Bali. What is the new space?
The project in Bali is attached to the Potato Head hotel and hospitality complex. They wanted to have a traditional, old school New York dance club with a stacked sound system, using the best of the older sound designs with the newest technology.
Harvey is an audiophile. He’s been overseeing the process. We have a very good client who has an understanding of what it takes. We designed a system that is very reminiscent of Twilo, Sound Factory, Crobar, Roxy, classic clubs and iconic New York parties of the ‘90s and early 2000s. It’s very music-oriented and very audio-centric. To have a client or a designer sacrifice the floor space to have a sound system is a huge thing. They look at every square inch of the place as revenue, and to chew up a fair number of square feet with speakers stacks, particularly on the dancefloor - it’s a big thing, especially when sound systems want to be heard and not seen by most interior designers.
What is the day-to-day of your job looking like at the present time?
We’re working on future projects. We do custom design stuff. We’re building private venues. It’s been a trend in clubbing meccas like Ibiza where wealthier clients are building private venues in their villas. Rather than being at a club, spending $60,000 at a table to try and get an experience, they’re building their own clubs and having their friends over for an intimate party.
We also do top-end music rooms for domestic clients, as well as some product design and some consultancy for manufacturers.
What is the first in-person event you’re working toward?
BPM Festival in Costa Rica. That looks like it might happen in March 2021.
There have been some small events that we provided sound for and larger, drive-in type events. The great experience we create at such a scale is so cost-prohibitive that we haven’t gotten any of them over the line. A space that can accommodate 10,000 people will only have 300 people there. The distances are so far that, to create the energy, you would need a humongous sound system. It doesn’t make sense as a viable option.