This weekend, a swanky new dance club opens at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, but the bumpin’ high-end speakers there were made by a bunch of low-key audio geeks in a quiet Massachusetts town. I visited Fulcrum Acoustic to find out why its speakers are heard in Disney World, Bible belt churches, Canadian hockey rinks, venues around Boston and some of the hottest nightclubs in Vegas, LA and Singapore.
Finding Fulcrum wasn't easy. GPS doesn’t pick up the company's Linwood address because it isn’t even a town, it’s a post office in Whitinsville — a quaint, former industrial village in the Blackstone Valley about an hour from Boston.
"A lot of people have a hard time getting here," Dave Gunness said sympathetically, adding, "The UPS guy can find us, that’s all that matters."
Gunness founded Fulcrum Acoustic here five years ago.
"There are no high-intensity nightclubs anywhere near here," he said. "So yeah, it is a little ironic that this is where we do that kind of work. But there’s a core of speaker companies in this little neighborhood."
For example Bergantino, the bass amplifier producer, occupies space in the same building as Fulcrum — but the cluster is actually scattered throughout Massachusetts. The industry was seeded in the 1950s when inventor Edgar Villchur and audio engineer/MIT grad Henry Kloss created cutting-edge equipment at Acoustic Research Corp. in Cambridge.
Over the decades others followed, including Eastern Acoustic Works (EAW), where Gunness used to design speakers. When that company moved most of its production to China, he took over part of EAW's building and some equipment to open Fulcrum. Consumer-brand speaker manufacturers Bose and Boston Acoustics are nearby, too. Some of Gunness’s employees worked for those companies before joining Fulcrum, and now they share the old brick and wood mill buildings with a bunch of chatty birds in the rafters.
"They’re our tweeters," Gunness said with a smile.
"To go with your other tweeters?" I asked.
"Yeah," he replied. "They get a little upset when we make loud noise, but then they always come back."
Testing, Testing, Testing
Gunness and his team of audio engineers make a lot of noise as they obsessively test their tweeters and woofers. They produce more than 2,000 speakers a year at an average cost of $800 to $6,000. Gunness says the sound they’re after is robust and pristine.
He and Rich Frembes play a few short, whooping bursts of sound for me that are used to create visualizations of their speakers' audio patterns.
"There’s an awful lot of art in speaker design. It isn’t a purely technical pursuit," Gunness said. "And there’s a lot of aesthetic decisions that have to be made to really make it sound the way it needs to. So we tune speakers for a Las Vegas nightclub much differently than we do for a church, a jazz club or a theme park."
To illustrate, Gunness and Frembes flip through a test CD searching for songs. They and the other engineers have heard them countless times and know exactly how they should sound.
"They’re all very well-recorded," Gunness said. "But each one has something unique on it. One has a very well-recorded upright base, another a particularly challenging female vocal."
They use a BBC engineering CD to test speakers designed specifically for church sermons.
A female, British voice filled the room: “To administer medicine to animals is frequently a very difficult matter, and yet sometimes it’s necessary to do so, ” she intoned calmly.
But the Vegas nightclubs require something more aggressive and complex. Gunness explained how they boast 100 to 150 speakers.
"There’s an awful lot of art in speaker design. It isn’t a purely technical pursuit."Dave Gunness
"You know, a Las Vegas nightclub you have just an insane amount of low frequency capability," he said, talking about bass tones. "Sometimes 10 double 21-inch subwoofers all concentrated on a dance floor that’s only 20 by 30 feet — and that’s capable of deflating your lungs practically. You feel like you stepped under water when it comes on."
Like A Set Of Headphones
Electronic music DJ Zedd’s new remix of “Empire of the Sun” is not the type of music Dave Gunness usually to listens to, but it will be pumping through Fulcrum speakers at the new Las Vegas venue Light, which opens this week. Big names like Skrillex and Zedd have residency deals with the club, and they have requirements.
"Some people don’t realize how important good speakers are for the kind of music I make," Zedd said, speaking to me from Germany where he lives. "You know I would say the bass is more crucial for the kind of music I make — a lot of people call it bass music. It’s just because it’s getting to a point in the frequency range where if the speakers are good enough you literally don’t hear it."
Zedd refuses to play certain tracks if a club’s sound system can’t handle his frequencies.
But John Lyons, who installs audio systems for high-end venues, including Light, says the Fulcrum speakers can handle them. He trusts Dave Gunness to create the ideal audio environment for his clubs.
"Picture a set of headphones or a really great living room stereo system," Lyons conjured. "To be able to have that audio experience but on the dance floor with 1,500 people, it’s a visceral experience and it really is one of those things that causes people in a nightclub to be able to lose themselves."
Lyons used to own Club Avalon in Boston, but now he runs Avalon Hollywood and Singapore. He's been the conduit between Fulcrum in Whitinsville and Light in Vegas. Lyons relies on the Massachusetts-made speakers and confirmed that speaker designers are the rock stars of the professional audio world. But he compares Gunness to a more sublime character.
"I would say he's more of a Yoda," Lyons mused, adding that the engineers at Fulcrum can adapt to any audio situation. Their speakers are also used in professional recording studios and on tour.
The Goal: Being Invisible
Joan Baez’s live tour engineer, Jason Raboin, stopped by Fulcrum Acoustic earlier this month to pick up speaker monitors for the folk icon's upcoming tour. He’s the guy at the mixing board and is really into the fact that Fulcrum is a local company.
"I live about an hour from here," Raboin explained. "And they’re made here by people who care about how things turn out. And they’re not shipped in on a pallet from Asia. And on top of that, they sound amazing. They make my job easier."
And they also make it invisible. Fulcrum audio engineer Rich Frembes says that's the goal: The audience shouldn’t notice the speakers unless something goes wrong.
"Well there’s an old adage — and certainly in pro audio — that you only really know you did a good job when almost nobody comes up and says anything to you. If you remain invisible you’ve done a really good job," Frembes said.
And it seems that's the way the self-described Fulcrum audio geeks in the quiet town of Whitinsville like it.
This program aired on May 22, 2013.