“Soundsystem culture” is a slippery concept, but it’s also a very real motivating force in 21st century culture. A certain combination of aesthetic and technique that originated with the jerry-rigged dancehall speaker-stacks of Jamaican dub reggae culture has spread globally via the dub diaspora through underground dance cultures like jungle and dubstep where it collided with digital innovation to create explosions of new technology.
In the 2010s there is more interest than ever in the technology that delivers sound, from ultra-hi-fi “listening lounges” to monumental festival rigs to homes filled with wirelessly networked speakers. And one particularly peculiar development is the Sub Pac: a wearable (or seat-mounted) “speaker” that delivers low-frequency vibrations straight to your spine which, in combination with headphones to deliver the higher sounds, approximates the effect of gigantic speakers without having to terrify your neighbours.
This is not just effective for gigantic reggae and rave basslines: it can bring to life the rumble of a church organ or an orchestra’s tubas and bassoons, or even rather uncannily give the sensation that Charles Mingus’s fingers are playing your back like a double bass. The device’s Canadian inventor, John Alexiou, is a man with a mission to get us listening with far more than just our ears, as theartsdesk’s Joe Muggs found out.
JOE MUGGS: Can you tell us a bit about your background: in particular, are you musical first, or technical first?
JOHN ALEXIOU: Music first, no doubt. I am particularly interested in the producer community, the quality of the tools we have to create in terms of hardware & software and how that impacts humanity moving forward. In one day or even one afternoon we have the ability to compose, produce, mix and master a piece of music that has as much polyphony, rhythm, frequency range and impact as pieces that took months or years to complete not too long ago. When you throw in the ability to share it with the world instantaneously, it boggles the mind…
What was the first inspiration for the Sub Pac?
Soundsystem culture. Specifically the physical impact that large systems have and how that improves the music experience. The first time I experienced a proper soundsystem was Kenny Ken playing jungle and drum’n’bass at a Toronto warehouse party, 1997 – my life was forever changed.
Did you rig up the first prototypes yourself?
Absolutely not. I’m not smart enough to do that. I pulled together some incredibly gifted people, including our head of R&D Sarosh Khwaja (A materials engineer) and Andrew Kilpatrick, a well known designer of modular synths.
Did you have a “eureka moment” that it was working and could be something people would buy?
The first time I listened to all of my old records (with the physical dimension that tactile sound delivers) – once you feel the music you have loved for years, there is no going back…
What have been your favourite responses from people using the Sub Pac – both immediate and long term?
The first 4 artists I brought the SubPac to were Kode 9, Gilles Peterson, Mala and Pinch. The impact these guys have had on music is tough to put into words – and their reaction to the Pac was life-changing for me. One story in particular (I won’t say from who) where a bed-ridden grandparent struck by illness was for the first time able to experience the full impact of music that this individual had spent a life-time creating. That meant a lot to me personally.
How has it made you think about music and the body?
For anyone that has experienced music on a proper system, you know how important the body is for a complete music experience. We believe that by offering a solution that addresses the physical dimension of sound, we can create a new way of experiencing music that is exciting to both the music maker and the fan.
What’s next for you? Are you inventing new things or do new iterations of the Sub Pac occupy you?
We are focused on a very specific mission – to make sure as many people as possible experience the physical dimension of music and sound. SubPac all day everyday!
More info on the Sub Pac website