It’s now been over ten years since dancers first stood at the foot of the world’s most versatile green-grilled sound system. With a continued ascent in popularity through meticulous quality and broad-minded adaptability, Sinai is finding disciples at events far afield from its primary lineage of Jamaican music.
This approach has given the Sheffield-based operation a panoramic seat over the European music scene, serving more traditional reggae and dub sound system events like Notting Hill Carnival and Rototom Sunsplash alongside work with modern names, like Outlook, Boiler Room and Timedance.
Huw Williams, founder of Sinai Sound, articulates naturally the way that this shape-shifting dynamism is achieved, revealing also the huge breadth of roles that are undertaken personally when leading an operation with such flexibility.
I've had vinyl DJs go: “*Sigh* I’m playing on Sinai, it's all fine”...
“My background in sound and discovering this kind of thing is when I was a teenager, and HiFi separates were a thing. Everyone was buying CDs and records. But you’d need something to play it back, and it felt like lads when they got to 12 or 13 were obsessed with buying separates. I started buying HiFi magazines and discovered this whole world of buying, like... new wires. I literally got an old stereo my dad had in the garage, and I don't think the amp worked so I got a new amp and suddenly it sounded better. I think I had my old CD boombox plugged in, then my mum bought a new CD player and it sounded better again, and then new speakers - better again, new speaker wires - better again! Then it went full HiFi, separate stands filled with sand and all that kind of stuff. That's when I used to - I hardly ever do it anymore - if ever - I would sit down with an album and just listen to it. It's like an alien concept these days. I grew up in mid-Wales, and the internet was years off, so if Woolworths or WHS Smiths didn't have it in the local town, I would have to travel an hour on the train to Shrewsbury to try and find it, and if they didnt have it, that was that. There was a process of discovering that meant that when you got that CD or record it would be so valued that you would actually take the time to listen to it. I had reggae, but also rock music, drum and bass, hiphop, pretty varied. That was when I first learnt what good sound actually sounds like, if that makes sense. And that's where I wanted to take my own sound system.”
But there’s a big gap between an interest in home HiFi and delivering tens of thousands of watts of sound to stages across Europe, so how were things managed when the time came to scale up?
“I'm so meticulous, I plan everything down to the last detail. When I first took my own system out I wanted to make sure that everything was mine. That I hadn't borrowed anything and that I had made my own cables, et cetera. I was keeping it in my house at the time. The more boxes you get, the more it costs to store it. So when I had no gigs at all, I had nowhere to keep it, and I would keep it in the front room of my house. There I would work the process, learning the nature of having to wire a SpeakOn socket up correctly, for example. If you’ve never seen one it's a bit bonkers to be honest."
"I colour coded as much as possible, which makes it easier to fault find. It's easy to troubleshoot in a quiet environment with all the time in the world, but when something goes wrong when the music is playing, and everyones looking at you, it can be quite stressful. So learning how to quickly troubleshoot in your head is important. Anything bass related was red, for example. I was nervous and apprehensive when I just started so needed to make sure that if I had to troubleshoot it was ready to go.”
“In a fixed club environment things might be pretty much set up and left, DJ gear maybe switched over and bits and pieces, but with our rig you're setting up, taking down, things might vibrate out, drinks being spilled... It's very meticulous making sure everything is perfect every time.”
“Running a sound system is more than buying speakers and turning them on, theres much more to it than that. Kind of things you'd never think of - learning how to speak and liaise with venue managers, appeasing promoters, learning to take care of logistics. Even down to things like how to lift boxes, the whole holistic process of running a sound system is more than turning up and making loud bass.”
Much of this was discovered during a formative half-decade spent touring with the now institutional Yorkshire based Iration Steppas Sound System, a system dating back to 1990 with a potent legacy all of its own, carrying the digital-era Dancehall sound through developments into Jungle, Drum and Bass, and Dubstep. It’s no coincidence that Sinai derives its name from the book of Exodus in the bible, itself the name of a pioneering dubstep night in Leeds, powered by none other than Iration. Huw details the importance of this hands-on experience.
“You are almost learning a trade, to an extent. If you take the example of any kind of skill that requires repetition or hands on experience. You could read books about something all day, but until you watch someone at work and observe the process, you won’t understand.”
You could read books about something all day, but until you watch someone at work and observe the process, you won’t understand...
Even now, watching someone like [Mark] Iration play, cogs are still going around in my head, still learning...
This approach extends from rigging and setting up into the performance itself, as Huw explains the way he manages the mix in real time to ensure the exchange between DJ and crowd is as smooth as possible.
“Attentiveness; that's where I see myself. So I watch peoples faces, standing in the crowd, thinking “Is that right?”. I don't try and EQ every single track, but I try to make sure its right for the moment. Managing levels so I wont be ramming the system up hard for the warm up DJ, It’s about riding that level. The first DJ might be playing a more downtempo version of whats going to happen later, so I balance the sound accordingly. Your ears are more sensitive depending on what frequency it is and how loud, so I have to EQ the rig at different volumes. When it's quieter then the bass needs to be a bit louder, and the tops a touch louder. As the volume increases it needs to be rebalanced again. The crowd will notice it subconsciously. If there's a particular energy rise in the crowd, I might start pumping it. If it dies down, I will roll it off again. Lots of clubs are just left at the same volume all night, ‘Set and forget’. But when a DJ’s playing on our system, I'll be stood there, which gives confidence. If the crowd is more enthused, I will get booked again, so it works like that, its part and parcel.”
It’s a unique position for an individual within the modern music industry, as Sinai maintains a sound system tradition of not only being a physical provider of sound for hire, but also expressing a creative personality in its own right, straddling the sometimes tall boundary between artist and crew. This means that another one of the many roles is performing as a DJ, and a show billed as a Sinai Sound DJ set will likely be controlled exclusively by Huw and his team all the way down the chain from rig to record.
“As a reggae sound system you are both the performer and the audio provider. So you have to learn the technical aspect and also the entertainment aspect as well. The music you can play as a sound system can come from a range of 60 years of history, from which we can play up to 10 hours worth of entertainment.”
“Seeing how to play the right tune at the right time, and how it's presented to different crowds in different cities in different countries. Seeing that in person was quite an eye opener. Even now, watching someone like [Mark] Iration play, cogs are still going around in my head, still learning. Transcending the different crowds, playing at a stage at Glastonbury versus a community centre in Leeds. The demographics - perhaps a festival they want more familiar tunes, whereas the hardcore sound system session will want something a bit more more raw, perhaps.”
He also identifies a shift in the presentation of fixed club systems more associated with electronic music, which have begun to tilt from an incognito technical necessity towards the proud and colourful statement of the Jamaican style sound system.
“Historically there are some manufacturers, and its totally fine, where the boxes simply exist to facilitate the playback of the music, and the rig is just part of the club. They are sometimes hidden in a club. But with most touring reggae systems, they are unique and stand out, thats kind of part of the fun. These days you do get clubs where its more on show. They can be popping with colour, it’s becoming more of a thing.”
So, if club systems are beginning to take notes from the traditional systems, its easy then to question wether the dialogue is a two-way conversation. A dive into the hybrid nature of the organs of Sinai reveal that the character of the system is indeed influenced by both old and new.
“When you are in the world of travelling, loading and unloading vans, you also enter the world of compromises. Originally I had a rack of all analogue amps, but then some friends from Manchester, Neuron Pro Audio, had some digital amps made by a company called Powersoft. The X series from Powersoft, in a 23 kilo amplifier, we have 40,000 watts. With two of those amps and the right amount of speakers, we can do 1700 capacity. These two amps weigh as much as one of our old bass amps, but can do everything, and sound really good. If I could keep one thing in one place, maybe I would have a full analogue setup, but currently this is what I like. Recently, a big addition has been a fully analogue mastering processor from a company called SSL. It has a dynamic high-frequency compressor, and a vintage overdrive thing that gives colour, but I'm always trying different equipment out.”
But it's more than just making the heavy-lifting a bit easier. Huw expounds on Sinai’s undogmatic views on genre, and how the hybrid approach makes it all possible.
“Originally I built the system for me to play my music on, but every so often, people would hire it for their own events. Jungle, Bassline, Dubstep, Drum and Bass, anything. If they're paying me for the service, I think it should sound better for their music. So certain people started to hire the system. Timedance (big up Batu!) was kind of an in into this techno world, and thats effectively where the new systems roots have come from: Trying to marry the worlds of kind of pro-audio clarity with a DIY aesthetic, mixed in with heavy bass. It was never a game plan. That's the beauty of what I do, I'm a music fan, and I enjoy the techno events. It's nice to hear something different and nice to try and make it sound better.”
So how are the varying sonic demands of different genres met by the system itself?
“The beauty of a DIY sound system is that you can pick and choose certain boxes, and certain systems accentuate different aspect of a sound. Without probably the customer/promoter realizing it, what I bring to the event is determined by the music being played. If it's more dubstep, I might bring a valve compressor for the bass, but for a techno night that might muddy the sound up. And that's when you start diving into the world of preference: Which is the better curry? Which is the better beer? Pepsi or Coke? I actually got a little bit of critique for it being too clean, but the side effect of that is that other music genres might like that. “
One path of experimentation led Huw to us at MasterSounds. After being asked to perform solo as a DJ minus the speaker stacks and 5 foot control station, Huw was seeking a portable DJ mixer and accessories that leant more towards the traditional sound system setup of rotary faders, frequency isolators, and the crucial dub-style delay.
“One of the reasons I bought it was to not use on the sound system, but for situations where I’ve been booked personally. In a bar or smaller environment, due to the nature of how I play, sometimes some DJ mixers don't suit my style. But I can take the MasterSounds [Four Valve] and FX Unit in my car to a small bar to play for a short period of time, that's one aspect. It allows me to almost scale down my big setup to a smaller setup.”
Going further than just convenience, Huw explained a little more about how his MasterSounds setup can work to benefit classic sound system performance techniques through the more old-school aspects of its design, such as the three-way master frequency isolator, and characterful analogue valve stages per channel.
I can take the MasterSounds [Four Valve] and FX Unit in my car to a small bar to play for a short period of time, that's one aspect. It allows me to almost scale down my big setup to a smaller setup...
“Most reggae preamps are effectively… kind of, rotary mixers… *kind of*. This is kind of delving into reggae nerd world, but I use a preamp, although it's a ‘system controller’ for want of a better description. For the longest time everyone had a three way preamp: mids, tops, and bass. Mine [on the main Sinai control unit] is a five-way. Jah Shaka used a two-way, splitting the frequency bands. This is what’s great about the MasterSounds. With the [three-way] infinite kill, being able to fully cut the sub, in the classic reggae way, its a vibe.”
“I like to play 7 inch records, which are not renowned for their sound quality. On some DJ mixers you just can't make them sound good, they just sound muffled. But with the high frequency isolator, for records from 1962 for instance, you can really sculpt that sound out. When I'm on the full system I can control every aspect of it, But I took it onto a canal boat in Manchester and it was much more fun than using other brands.”
“I like the valve compressor. If you've got a system thats rough around the edges you can't take that roughness out. But our system is so clean that adding the valve mixer can add a small amount of that roughness in just the right possible way.“
As well as this, the FX Unit serves as a portable dub-delay unit, capable of providing the well-known send/return echoes and resonant filter to gracefully sculpt the sound when necessary, such as between records.
“Having the FX Unit, [I like] having the delay because I don't really mix per-say, so the delay is almost an essential part of it, and the highpass filter whoosh, another classic reggae thing, it's a boon. I don't always have it, it depends on the situation but always comes back to trying things out.”
Adding our LinearPOWER external power supply helped to bring the very last details of the sound forward and push things that little bit further.
“The first time I tried it out, before we bought the LinearPOWER, it just sounded diving. Super clean mid range, nice top end, and really well defined and clear. Sold. With the LinearPOWER, I watched a YouTube video comparing with and without, and I could hear it, on a YouTube video! A lot of this is delving into the last five percent, there's an exponential curve of improvement, but at that last five percent… take my money!”
Kind words! It’s fascinating to hear how our mixers can work in such a wide range of applications.
The future of Sinai is bright, as the business side still continues to prosper, funding the ongoing development of scale and adaptability.
“I am really enjoying the larger events at the minute. I'm still enjoying challenging myself. In 2019 we went on a European tour for two and half months and did some really big shows. One in France was 4000 capacity. It was fine, but I could hear the failings of the system, compared to what it could be like. That’s the reason for building a new system. I felt I was resting on my laurels and wanted to challenge myself again. Being able to scale up - the crowds I can do now with boxes are way larger than before, so we can give that clarity on a louder scale. Even crazy things like stereo, which is not common in soundsystems, usually for reasons - but people were shocked that we could do it.”
But it's not just scale, as Sinai continues its mission to spread into new spaces, and accommodate new styles of performance, challenging the limits of what a DIY sound system can do.
“When we went to London about a month ago [January 26th 2023] we had a band play on the system for the first time. Joe Armon-Jones from Ezra Collective with Mala - live soul-dubstep, kind of jazzy (Watch here: A Way Back). But every act that played was a renowned musician in their own field, and that show I was like: “This is why I've built the system”. It was a full band on stage, microphones, keys, sax, singer. 1200 people. They had mastering engineers that came down and said they didn't need their earplugs.”
“An issue will be people who have riders that say “I want a specific PA”, which is where the word of mouth and reputation comes in. Building that up so people trust me to do something crazy. Ultimately if someones paying you to do a job you should do it to the best of your ability. And it's me going back to “If someones paying for my services I want to do the best possible job”. As the pay increases, they deserve the best possible service. Being able to take effectively a DIY system that my friend Callum built and take it to do shows with thousands of capacity, that's the goal. Joining the dots between pro-audio and soundsystem culture. I don’t want someone to be annoyed! That's why you care. I just… do good things.”
Photos: Dantex, Sinai Sound System
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Written by Ed Jackson.