Kerri Chandler's homage to nightclubs
The “Stevie Wonder of house music” uses tech to bring listeners into clubs alongside him.
Written by Harry Levin
Illustrations by Kaitlin Banafsheha
When listening to Kerri Chandler’s latest LP Spaces and Places, you might find yourself transported to Printworks in London, Halcyon in San Francisco, Kaiku in Helsinki, or any one of the 24 different clubs where he recorded each of the album’s 24 tracks. The LP is an attempt to give listeners a tour of the world’s best nightclubs with all of their quirks and intricacies, pay homage to the places that helped build Chandler’s 30-year-long career, and create tracks that sound exactly as they would inside each club.
“Spaces and Places is celebrating club culture,” says the renowned DJ over Zoom. “All of these clubs are like family to me. They honestly feel like a second home. So I’m trying to immortalize the clubs in my own way.”
Immortalization, in Chandler’s view, requires technical accuracy. For each of the 24 songs, he set up a mobile recording studio in the center of the club’s dancefloor, with his laptop, interfaces, and all of the equipment he needed to produce a full-fledged track. Before recording, Chandler sat at a desk in the center of the room and imagined the way the clubs were usually filled with moving bodies.
He turned performance speaker systems, which are usually used as sound systems for big club nights, into studio monitors — although Chandler could have just used headphones to make his music, he explains that the sound wouldn’t have been as accurate. “I’m taking into account what the walls are made out of. What the floors are made out of. How many people are going to be in the room.”
Then, he would start recording, with an ear for exactly how a song might sound in a club.
Take, for example, Chandler’s production “Subbie (The Jackpot Mix)” in Glasgow’s famed nightclub Sub Club, which some consider to be the longest-running underground dance club in the world.
“If I wasn’t working on music on the stuff I love doing, I’d probably work at Dolby as an engineer,” Chandler says.
Chandler found specific frequencies that would vibrate different parts of the club’s low basement ceiling, similar to how the club might sound on a big night when people would hit the ceiling with their hands as they danced. Chandler also observed how SubClub would pick up sounds from the trains in Glasgow Central Station that it was located underneath. He recorded the sound of a train in the station and integrated it into the track, just like how it might sound in the club at peak time.
Or consider the buzzing, squawking cicadas at the end of “Who Knows,” set in Barbarella’s Discotheque in Perovic, Croatia. Chandler, a self-professed “audio perfectionist,” removed the insects from most of the recording.
“Croatia’s really known for all the cicadas,” says Chandler. “Even when we were recording, it was really hard to get rid of the background noise of the cicadas, but we did it. I just did a lot of filters and a lot of crazy stuff but it worked.”
Still, Chandler retained the unmistakable sound in the final moments of the track, which disappear into buzzing. All to ensure that the track sounded as close to reality as possible.
Simply put, Chandler, often described as the "Steve Wonder of house music," is a sound perfectionist — his high standards extend both to himself and to those he works with.
When Chandler got to the clubs he was recording at, he implemented the same soundcheck process as he would before a performance. At least among those who work at clubs, Chandler’s process is a famous one. Every time Chandler enters a club, whether he’s never played there or taken the stage hundreds of times, whether he’s performing or recording, he has a whole process to bring the best out of the room.
Oftentimes he’ll start by playing old jazz songs from his childhood, from artists like Steely Dan. “As an audiophile, there are certain songs that I know exactly what they are supposed to sound like. I’ll know what’s too low and what’s too high,” Chandler says.
Then, he gets to work fine-tuning. He resets the system’s audio frequencies with a 31-band equalizer (EQ). Each band represents a different frequency, from low to high, and he can adjust the volume of these frequencies within the system. He’ll also spot whether anything rattles in the room while the speakers are running, like doors and ceilings.
He also runs white noise, pink noise, and a filter sweep through the room to collect convolutions, which helps him create a visual guide to what’s sonically happening in the space.
Once, before a gig at London’s Ministry of Sound, a club featured on the album, Chandler made a physical map of its sound system to find faulty drivers in the speakers that were blown after a drum and bass event the previous night.
Chandler showed the club’s boss the damage. In response, the club upgraded the entire speaker system. “I’m not trying to just have myself do well. I want to see the club do well. I want to see other DJs do well,” Chandler says. “It helps the scene.”
Perhaps that’s why a major theme of Spaces and Places is community, an homage to clubs past and present. Some of the clubs featured on the album like New York’s Output, Sir Henry’s in Cork, Ireland, and Amsterdam’s De Marktkantine closed down after Chandler made his track on their dancefloors
Chandler tapped into his extended family of artists and in-house sound engineers to make the album. “At first, it wasn’t going to be an album, but I had this idea of making some songs in a club,” Chandler says. “So every few days before I went to another club [on the road], I would see who would be interested in it. Overwhelmingly, every single club said yes. It was beyond saying yes with these guys. They bent over backwards to make sure they could accommodate what I wanted to do.”
“Who Knows” was recorded with the help of sound engineer Kim Lewis, whom Chandler has known for over 20 years. The track also features a native Croatian vocalist named Dora Škender. Like all 12 of the guest vocalists on the album, Chandler welcomed her into the space to record on the dancefloor with him. But the collaboration didn’t stop there. Almost one year after recording, Chandler was playing Barbarella’s again, and he invited Škender to perform the song live in the space where she sang the track for the first time. It was his way of paying homage to her service to his album, to her career, and to the clubs.
“It went extremely well,” Chandler says. “I was so happy for her. She brought her mom out. She did soundcheck, and she was such a pro.”
Built community is one aspect of Chandler's inspiration; he also credits his family for his interest in music and technology.
“Everyone took listening to music very seriously in my family,” Chandler says. “This is really a family business. A lot of my family are DJs and sound people.”
Chandler’s family, including his father Joseph and his uncles, all had massive sound systems in the ‘70s, long before the technology was popular. Joseph, who was a DJ, started bringing Chandler to his gigs when he was 13-years-old. Chandler remembers spotting notable music brands in their homes, like Altec Lansing, which supplied the system for Jimi Hendrix’s legendary 1969 performance at Monterey Jazz Festival.
Initially, Chandler wanted to become a physicist or an engineer, with dreams of working for an audio company like Dolby Labs. “If I wasn’t working doing the stuff I love doing, I’d probably work at Dolby,” Chandler says. “My job became my hobby, and my hobby became my job.”
So when Chandler started getting more serious about his music, audio technology still played a role. “Dolby is now like my second family. I know everybody there on a first-name basis, and they’ve just been so behind everything I’ve ever done.”
Chandler is now Dolby-certified. He mixed Spaces and Places himself with Dolby Atmos spatial audio, which is a new immersive sound format that allows sounds to travel within real-life spaces (like theaters or nightclubs) by adding height channels to the system. That means that the sound, instead of only moving backwards and forwards, also moves up and down. Atmos also adds another layer to Chandler’s perfectionism — with headphones, the tracks sound even closer to the clubs than ever before.
Among Chandler's accomplishments include three prominent record labels: Madhouse, Madtech, and Kaoz Theory. Next, Chandler hopes to take Space and Places to the metaverse with Meta’s Oculus. He is building a virtual space that will include replications of all 24 clubs, whether they exist today or not. Users can visit all 24 dance floors with their avatar. Chandler’s tracks, which were recorded using a precise sonic picture of each space, play in the background using Dolby Atmos Spatial audio.
“This thing actually takes you from place to place, from space to space,” Chandler says. “It’s a museum. It shows what’s going on in the club. The songs are in the club. It has exhibits. Even the closed down ones.”
The project is currently stalled with some technical difficulties. But Chandler still hopes to make it happen. For Chandler, the ideal outcome of Spaces and Places isn't just to have people go through a journey around the world — it's also to have them go on a journey through time.
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