Ah, the precious SPL: "That's your sound-pressure level," explains Rob Randall of the United States Autosound Competition (USAC). For the clueless, he offers a simpler definition: "That's the volume."
The Autosound Challenge arrived last week at the Sound Room in Chesterfield, and the fattest car stereo systems in the city boomed for judges, boosted their bass, turned it up to 11 in a competition among kindred ears interested in strutting their stereos. The owners of fancy and not-so-fancy cars, their vehicles' trunks and hoods popped and stereos maxed out, converged to compare and contrast their db's and dbx's, appreciate the hardware used to unnerve neighborhoods and rattle windows.
"We have a sound-quality competition," says Randall, "and an outlaw-SPL competition. Sound quality is very in-depth: The cars are judged based on their installation quality, their creativity, their ergonomics and their safety. We judge them through the installation category, then we sit in them and listen. We're looking for recreation of depth and ambiance, as in a live performance; we use specially recorded music, recorded on an eight-track player -- not eight-track as in the old cassettes but an eight-track recorder -- and this music is then put on CD and is specially designed to stage an image, like a real performance, so we can evaluate the systems.
"The SPL competition is totally different. That's nothing but bass. The loudest car wins. These guys build their systems up; they put the walls in there, put as much system as they can in there. We measure the system to see how loud it is, and the loudest car wins."
There are some loud cars in this parking lot, and about two dozen are pushing the limits of their stereos throughout the day. The result is a kind of floating bass fog that consumes the area, one that doesn't have a center at any one car but wanders throughout, rumbling the bowels, caressing the eardrums in that magical way that only deep, subharmonic bass can. It tickles as you walk around the parking lot; the vibrations rattle the body in funny ways, and you never know when a particularly poignant bass note is going to hit you where the sun don't shine.
"The system consists of 18 12-inch Earthquake Magma subwoofers in a hexagon-tunnel design," says Eddie Martin, leaning on his primer-gray 1946 Ford flatbed truck. "Each ring consists of six subwoofers and is three rings deep, for a total of 18. It's run by six amplifiers. Each amplifier produces about 1,800 watts. Strictly for SPL competition." Do the math: That's 10,800 watts coming out of this fucker. Imagine how sweet "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" would sound booming out at full tilt.
The truck's not much to look at, though. The inside's unfinished -- it's all plywood, rugged and worn -- and behind the seats, said hexagon-tunnel design is simply a bunch of speaker cones positioned in more plywood. The six amplifiers are screwed to a wooden box on the flatbed, about the size of a big air-conditioning unit, and wires connect them together. There's nothing protecting the amp system from the elements, so it's impractical for cruising; a rainstorm would kill the thing. But Martin doesn't use this system the way you would use it; it's strictly for auto-sound competition. In fact, when asked what music he likes to listen to on his beast, the question seems to confuse him: "Music-wise? I don't really play music in this. It really just makes a solid note. It's strictly for sound-pressure-level competition. It's not to listen to music in."
In fact, many individuals at the Challenge, especially in the "pro" class, don't listen to any other music besides the official judge's disc, the one designed for optimum sound quality and used as a standard measuring device. It's curious, to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a sound system and then to only listen to one generic CD on it. But these people in the pro class clearly are a bit funny in the head: Their passion for the peacock strut overshadows all other considerations, including music appreciation. Others, though, simply like a big system to highlight their favorite music. " I listen to mostly rap," says Tony Franks, whose system consumes his trunk. "But also R&B -- Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson. Michael Jackson sounds great in this car. I like the way it sounds in here better than anything else."
The obsessives, though, chase SPL. Volume. "We had a guy at a show yesterday come in," says Randall of the USAC, "and the whole car -- he built a box and then poured concrete, and the whole car is filled with concrete, the doors, the ceilings. The car gets off the trailer, and the back axle's sitting like this (he makes a V shape with his fingers). He said he's broke three axles so far. He has to keep buying new ones." Others are so sick of blowing out windshields with bass that they've switched to the heavy-duty bulletproof variety. "We've even had people in the modified class put in steel windshields," continues Randall, "and then they put in video-camera driving systems -- have you ever seen those video goggles? Those TVs inside the goggles? They'll put the goggles on and have video cameras outside. They get pretty crazy."
But inside the craziness is a passion. It's especially apparent when you walk by Nate Henke's cherry-red four-wheel-drive pickup. "I've spent 600 hours of labor on it," Henke says, "disassembled everything, gutted it. I did everything on it -- the suspension work, everything. When I took it apart, I took it apart. A lot of kids, when they put a system in, they put a system in. I wanted to involve (the truck) in the system. The only thing that isn't 100 percent rebuilt is the dash. But I did cut it up and changed the color scheme."
The result? "Even at full-tilt boogie, it doesn't rattle. It just sits there. It might shimmy and shake a little bit, but there's very little noise." Henke's even got a VCR in his truck. And a Nintendo. A Nintendo. ("Multimedia is the new avenue for this business," explains the Sound Room's Jerry Moser, "which is navigation, video, that type of stuff. It's an information system now. I've been in the business 25 years, and when I started it was eight-tracks, and there were power boosters. Now there's component speakers, amplifiers, crossovers, and then all the navigational stuff, the video stuff -- and most of the video systems have Nintendo.")
Dustin Angell's got it all in his late-model purple Mustang. DVD on the dash, Nintendo and one of the loudest, freakiest systems you'll ever hear. When he sits in the front seat and runs through the list of his Mustang's accoutrements, there's a twinkle in his eye. He's obviously proud of his car, and he travels around the country competing in auto-sound competitions. He used to drive it, he says, "But I got into an accident once -- no big deal, just broke a tie rod -- but it scared me, so I don't drive it anymore." Instead, Angell hauls it to and from competitions.
But how does the thing sound with, say, a classic drum & bass cut blasting at full volume, like Alex Reece's "Pulp Fiction"? Angell's happy to oblige. When he puts the CD in, the DVD screen/stereo display lights up, and a virtual equalizer starts rolling the highs and lows. "You want the bass on?" asks Angell. He pushes a button, and the bottom drops out of the cut. A burst of thunder erupts inside the car that overshadows all the subtlety inside the song, until what's left is the bass and snare and not much else. It's loud as hell, though, and nothing rattles inside the car. But in the ears, there's static; the system itself may be clean, but the inner ear's system isn't up to snuff. Isn't this volume going to kill your hearing?
"Well, you think it is," says USAC's Randall, "but believe it or not, they've actually done studies. Most of the frequencies that we do our sound pressure at is below 150 Hz. A jackhammer will make you deaf five times quicker than any of these sound systems." And though that's not the most reassuring testimonial, it'll work, and when you've got a monster SPL consuming your body, who cares about your ears?