The Journal of Sonic Studies

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Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 1, nr. 1 (October 2011)

AUDITORY AND TECHNOLOGICAL CULTURE: The Fine-Tuning of the Dancehall Sound System “Set”

Julian Henriques


This paper describes how sound engineers in Jamaica fine-tune the huge and powerful dancehall sound systems to achieve their best auditory performance. This provides an example of how cybernetic systems combine musical and technological processes. The phonographic apparatus of the set utilizes three basic material electromagnetic processes: (1) power; (2) control (Bateson 1987) and (3) transduction (Simondon 1992). The sound System engineers fine-tune with a technique of compensation, described in terms of two corporeal sensorimotor practices: (1) the kinetic motor process of manipulating the value of particular components, or substituting one for another and (2) the haptic sensory process of monitoring the auditory output of the set. Further, the engineers are engaged in (3) evaluating or skilled listening (Sterne 2003) for the particular sonic qualities such as “balance,” “weight” and “attack” that the fine-tuning aims to achieve. Engineers learn to evaluate, select and combine sounds in the sociocultural milieu of an apprenticeship – as elements of a communication system (Wilden 1972).[1]


The apparatus of the dancehall sound system set is a particularly valuable one for investigating how auditory culture actually works in a given setting. This being a series of practices that combine technological and creative processes together into a single system.[2] Based on research with engineers from Stone Love Movement - Jamaica’s leading dancehall sound system - the main aim of this paper is to illustrate how this takes place.[3] The issue of human-technological relationships has been addressed in various theoretical contexts: in terms of cyborgs (Haraway 1991), human and non-human actants (Latour 2005), body-machine systems (Ingold 2000), and Social Construction of Technology (Bijker et al 1987), for example. In this paper, the electro-mechanic technologies are described in terms of cybernetics,[4] the performance skills of the crew in terms of qualitative evaluations.


Figure 1 Sound system speaker stack collage

The technology of the sound system “set” of equipment is itself very accessible.[5] It is huge in scale, with columns of speakers standing two storeys high around the dance floor (Figure 1). Most often three of these speaker stacks are configured as a triangle, with two left channels and one right, rather than in stereo pairs (Figure 2). Furthermore, the apparatus of the sound system is firmly embedded in the cultural context of the dancehall scene.[6] The open-air events of dancehall sessions, held every night of the week on the streets of downtown Kingston, have been the heart and soul of the popular musical and social life of the inner city since the 1950’s[7] (Figure 3). Indeed, the musical apparatus of the sound system exercises considerable influence on Jamaican reggae and dancehall music in generalas well as, for example, Hip-Hop.


Figure 2 Field notebook: the configuration of speaker three stacks

The Sound System Set as Phonographic Apparatus

The sound system set is a ­phonographic apparatus designed to play previously recorded music, as with a CD or MP3 player (Weheliye 2005). The set assembles together a large number of component parts, including amplifiers, pre-amps, FX boxes, equalisers, crossovers, mixers, microphones, cables, driver units, speaker bins, record and CD decks, mixing consoles and numerous other gadgets and devices that the maintenance crew unload and erect every night that the sound system ‘plays out.’ This technology was developed largely in the 1970’s, when a second turntable, cross-fader mixer and headphones for the selector were introduced.[8]


Figure 3 A Dancehall session: Passa Passa, Tivoli Gardens, Kingston. Photocredit: Varun Baker

A set functions with three electromagnetic and electromechanical processes in the material milieu. In the first place, power processes amplify the recorded music, increasing its intensity and energy in order to give the crowd, or audience, in the dancehall session their uniquely embodied experience of sonic dominance (Henriques 2003). Today the top range sound system sets, such as Stone Love’s, produce about 15,000 watts of music power.[9] Power processes are associated with technology. Secondly, the music power of the set is governed by certain control processes, which involves the control of volume with instruments for amplification and attenuation. In addition, the key technique for the engineers to control the power of the set is filtering, with a variable gate applied to select a particular frequency, with, for example, a crossover circuit, which restricts the frequency delivered to a particular speaker. Control processes are associated with the human use of technologies. The engineers’ amplifying, mixing and filtering techniques are akin to the selectors’ for cutting, mixing and repeating the records or parts of records they play on the turntables (Henriques 2011).

In these sound systems, as with many others, the power and control processes operate together, as Bateson (Bateson 1979) demonstrates, using the example of the energy of the pressure of water in the pipe and the control mechanism of the tap to turn the flow partially on, fully on, or off. “The combining of the two systems (the machinery of decision and the source of energy),” Bateson tells us:

Makes the total relationship into one of partial mobility on each side. You can take a horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink. The drinking is his business. But even if your horse is thirsty, he cannot drink unless you take him. The taking is your business (102).

The engineers’ control of its power outputs allows them to adjust the set’s performance.[10]

Thirdly, transducing processes translate electromagnetic signals from the milieu within the apparatus into the corporeal or sensorimotor milieu of the auditory sound waves to which the ears - and bodies - of the crowd are sensitive (Henriques 2007a and 2007b). This transduction takes place in the electromechanical instrument of the speakers. The DJ’s microphone does the reverse, converting audible sound waves into electromagnetic signals for the set to amplify. The cartridge is another transducer, converting the stylus’ vibrations triggered by the mechanical indentations in the groove of the record into an electronic signal for amplification and transduction. The tympanic ossicles of the ear function similarly, to transduce auditory waves into nervous impulses (Sterne 2002: 77-85). The proportional relationship of transduction (Simondon 1992; Deleuze 1997; MacKenzie 2002) models that between three material, corporeal and sociocultural media, or milieux, within which the set operates. The engineers configuring the speaker stacks to suit a particular site can also directly manipulate these transduction processes.

Fine-tuning the Set

The engineers’ fine-tuning of the sound system set is a maintenance procedure, such as when replacing a damaged component, like a blown speaker, for example (see Sound Clip 1). Fine-tuning also serves to optimise the set’s auditory performance, as with a musical instrument, to harmonise its entire frequency range and to ensure that it is free from interference or distortion and has a pleasant tone, texture and timbre. Such qualitative evaluations are just as important for the set as an instrument for phonographic reproduction, as they are for ‘original’ sonic production.[11] Stone Love engineer Horace McNeal expressed it as follows: “With a sound system you’re reprocessing a product that has been processed already. That’s the big thing about it” (emphasis added).[12] In this respect, each sound system adds its particular mix to the already-mixed record, but without the individual pre-mixed tracks available to the music producer in the recording studio.

Two corporeal or sensorimotor practices are required for this fine-tuning. One is manipulating the signal flow as a kinetic motor operation on the part of the engineer (Figure 4). This makes use of the instruments for incremental analog variation, such as potentiometers, crossovers, filters and so on, by means of knobs, slide-faders or computer screen and mouse.[13] “Back in the day,” Stone Love engineer Denton Henry told me, tuning the setrequired manual dexterity, such as the skilled use of a soldering iron to replace one component with another of a different value: “At that time when you tune, it was fixed. You couldn’t go out there and use the equaliser and vary it. No knob, couldn’t adjust it. Afterward now, I put on rotary switch.”[14] Monitoring is the other corporeal or sensorimotor skill that the engineer requires in order to be able to fine-tune the auditory output of the set. Monitoring may make use of the visual representations of an oscilloscope, computer screen, graphic equaliser visual display, or even refering to a technical manual. But most often, as Horace McNeal puts it, for fine-tuning the set: “You use your ears… sound system on the whole deal with your ears.”[15]


Figure 4 Diagram of the Engineer’s manipulating techniques in relation to those of the selector and dancehall crowd.

The engineers’ fine-tuning technique of compensation combines hand and ear, that is corporeal manipulating and monitoring practices, in a cybernetic negative feedback loop. When I asked him “what was the most important thing you learnt from your teacher?” Denton Henry replied with one word: compensation. His teacher:

… Always tell me to compensate for this and compensate for that. If it don’t sound right, use the condenser and the resistor to compensate to get the sound that you want to hear… (You) either cut the bass, or to lift off the high frequency, cut the treble. With this, now can juggle, juggle. Compensation is a filter circuit. You set it up for any frequency you want to hear (emphasis in original).[16]

Every electromagnetic power, control or transduction device can be the subject of compensation, from the needle on the record to the speaker cones. The engineer listens and then adjusts, monitors, and then manipulates the value of a component. He monitors, he substitutes, he listens again, and so on. Based upon the auditory feed-back of what he hears, the engineer gradually closes he gap between what he is hearing and that for which he is listening.


But how does the engineer know when the tuning is complete? What exactly is the goal of his or her fine-tuning? Musical sounds are notoriously difficult to describe, but “clarity,” “bounce,” and “sweetness” are some of the terms used for the desired sonic qualities of the set. Most import of these is “balance.”[17] Denton Henry told me “I put balance between the bass, the mid and the top (ibid.).” Further, Horace McNeal explained how: “I listen for everything I know in the tune supposed to come out of my box. If I don’t hear what I know in it, I not stop tuning, turning, push down this, carry up this, until I hear what I want (ibid.).” This business of fine-tuning a set is a subjective, personal and embodied issue, as DJ Squeeze described while fine-tuning his sound system truck:

… There’s this frequency here at 100 hertz, take it down just a little, a real little nasty bugger… No, no, not every sound man will say that, that is my harmony with the sound, what is comfortable for me is not necessarily comfortable for another person…(emphasis added).[18]

Besides the qualities of balance, the sheer quantities or amplifying power of the set, described as “weight,” “attack,” “punch,” or “force” are also of considerable importance, particularly the lower bass frequencies, especially for the ritual competition between sound systems, known as clash.

This indicates how in addition to the corporeal practice of monitoring, fine-tuning also involves the sociocultural procedure of evaluating the outcome of the procedure: setting the thermostat dial in the classic example of a cybernetic system, as it were. Sound engineers muxt professionalize their listening and develop specialist skills and expertise (Levin 1989). As Denton Henry told me, his teacher, John Jones “shape my whole listening.”[19] This illustrates the critical distinction between the hearing in order to monitor, and the listening in order to evaluate. As Sterne (Sterne 2003) emphasises: “Listening is a directed, learned activity: it is a definite cultural practice. Listening requires hearing but is not simply reducible to hearing” (p. 19). Indeed, it was discovered that Stone Love sound engineers acquired their skills through a well-established system of apprenticeship, with the current youngest engineer, for instance, being the fifth generation of engineering apprentices and connoisseurs of sound.[20]

The concluding question becomes, then: how do the engineers’ sociocultural and, indeed, personal evaluations combine to form an integral part of the technological process of the fine-tuning of the set? The engineers use two operations to manipulate a set’s performance. One is the mixing and combining of several signal channels into a single one, such as using a fader, for example, to combine turntable and microphone sources. The other operation is separating, cutting, or selecting the different parts of a single signal, such as using a crossover to select out different frequencies to channel to separate amplifiers. These two processes are usually identified as procedures by which a language system generates representation and signification (Jakobson 1971: 58). However, this research suggests that the sonic engineering of a non-representational communication system, such as the sound system auditory output, also shares these selection and combination operations. Wilden (Wilden 1972) makes this point as follows:

Selection from the code and combination in the message must and do occur in any communications system whatsoever, whether in the genetic code of the DNA molecule, or in the organism, or in the life processes of bacteria, or in a social system…All communication in systems of communication – ecosystems – involves an axis of selection and an axis of combination (352).

In this respect, the engineers’ fine-tuning should be considered as highly elaborated, and as rational, as any language system. This returns us to the Ancient Greek kybernetes, or helmsmen, from whom cybernetics took its name. At that thim, the concept rationality was related to the concept of ratio, that is as an evaluative proportional quality or analogical relationship rather than, as it is commonly understood today, only as one of logic, quantity or calculation (Critchlow 1998). Bateson (Bateson 1972 and Bateson 1979) developed a so-called first-order cybernetics to human behaviour by emphasising the importance of relationships. Bateson defines information as "news of difference" (Bateson 1979: 69) and "differences that make a difference" (99).[21] Information is thus not an object, or a statistical probability, but a human evaluative relationship. This removes rationality from an imagined position of isolation within the material physical world of quantities, as Bateson explains: "difference, being of the nature of relationship, is not located in time or in space" (Bateson 1979: 98, additional emphasis added). Such relationships , as with any dynamic, intensity or movement, are only tangible, that is, grasped through the senses, by means of the medium through which they are expressed – through sound, therefore, in the case of the sound system. Thus, the engineer fine-tunes the set as a proportional evaluative relationship, or ratio, between material, corporeal and sociocultural milieux.


1. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 18th International Conference on Systems Research, Informatics & Cybernetics. 7 to 12th August, 2006, Baden-Baden, Germany.

2. As considered elsewhere (Henriques 2011; Henriques 2010; Henriques 2008; Henriques 2007a; Henriques 2007b and Henriques 2004).

3. During this research I tended to assume a homology between the engineers’ understanding or know-how of their own practices and the researcher’s theoretically informed conception know-what about their practice.

4. The discipline was defined by Norbert Wiener as “the science of control and communication, in the animal and the machine” (see Wiener 1948, Ashby 1956 and Heylighen 1993).

5. This is not to say that the sound systems themselves are easily accessible as they often operating in some of the roughest areas of downtown Kingston. This research has benefited from several years living in Jamaica and writing and directing documentaries and a feature film on the dancehall scene (Babymother, 1998).

6. The term Dancehall refers both the contemporary genre of Reggae music and the place it is enjoyed.

7. See Cooper (Cooper 1993; Cooper 2004) Katz (Katz 2000), Bradley (Bradley 2000), Stolzoff (Stolzoff 2002), Stanley-Niaah (Stanley-Niaah 2004) and Hope (Hope 2006. For the British sound system culture see Gilroy (Gilroy 1987) and Hebdige (Hebdige 1979; Hebdige 1987).

8. Interview with Stone Love Sound engineer Denton Henry, Kingston, 24th June 2004. The 1970’s rock band, Grateful Dead’s ‘Wall of Sound’ stage rig is most directly comparable to a sound system set, see http://www.dead.net/cavenweb/deadfile/newsletter19soundrap.html

9. This is with solid-state transistor amps that replaced valve, or tube, technology in the 1980’s, ibid.

10. Women play a crucial role on the sancehall scene in numerous important respects, but none, as far as I have found, have become sound system engineers. I therefore refer to engineers with the male pronoun.

11. This undermines Walter Benjamin’s famous concept of the ‘aura’ of the original (see Eshun 1998: 189).

12. Interview with Stone Love engineer Horace McNeal, 18th September 2003.

13. Currently the graphic equalisers and variable crossovers with their own visual displays offer the engineer an even finer degree of control and different mixes can be digitally stored ready for use at different venues.

14. Interview with Mr Denton Henry, Kingston, 24th June 2004.

15. Interview with Stone Love engineer Horace McNeal, Kingston, 18th September 2003.

16. Interview with Mr Denton Henry, Kingston, 24th June 2004.

17. The ear, it should be remembered, is the organ for both hearing and balance.

18. Interview with DJ Squeeze, a.k.a. Mr Glenworth Samuels, Kingston, 22nd June 2004.

19. Interview with Mr Denton Henry, Kingston, 24th June 2004.

20. This was initiated by the inventor of the sound system set, Mr Hedley Jones, as is detailed in Henriques 2011.

21. This is taken as favouring MacKay, as against the widely accepted Shannon-Weaver Information Theory, see Hayles (Hayles 1999).

Dr Julian Henriques has worked for London Weekend Television, BBC Television, Music and Arts Department and run his own production company, Formation Films. He is writer-director of the feature film Babymother. Julian ran the film and television department at CARIMAC at the University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica and is currently senior lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications, at Goldsmiths, University of London, convening the MA in Script Writing programme and leading the BA Music as Communication and Creativity course. He co-author of Changing the Subject, a founding editor of the Ideology & Consciousness journal with chapters and articles in Auditory Culture Reader, Sonic Interventions, Sonic Synergies, African and Black Diaspora and Body & Society. His monograph Sonic Bodies was published in 2011.


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