West Cork sound system creator Toby Hatchett has put his furniture-making skills to good use for a special listening lounge at Body & Soul this weekend, writes.
In bars, venues, restaurants and clubs, speakers are everywhere, a functional testament to our ever-present amplified music. Most people, hi-fi aficionados aside, hardly give them a second glance; they’re just the black things the music comes out of.
Not so for West Cork craftsman Toby Hatchett, who wants his handmade speakers in the spotlight. Hatchett’s eye-catching work is designed, he says, to bring the quality of the sound in a space to the fore.
“I don’t want to build something that looks like it matches the space; I want something sympathetic, but also something that people notice,” Hatchett says. “I want someone to walk in and say, ‘Wow, that’s the sound system?’ Even if you know nothing about it, you should be able to go, ‘That’s cool’.”
Then, when it looks different, I think people pay more attention to the quality of the sound. Normally, you wouldn’t even notice where the speakers are.
Hatchett has designed and hand-crafted sound systems with a distinctive aretro sensibility for some of Ireland’s hippest venues and festivals. But branching out into the world of audio to become the only person
in Ireland producing bespoke handmade speakers from his workshop at his home in Timoleague has been a fairly recent departure for the UK-born craftsman.
The origins of his new-found trade are in over 25 years of boatbuilding and furniture-making.
After stints yacht building in South Africa and running his own business in London, Hatchett washed up on Irish shores in 2000, where he met his wife, Jess; following the birth of their daughters, there followed a decade of fitting kitchens to make ends meet. Then, in 2011, he volunteered as a carpenter at the Body & Soul festival.
“It changed our lives,” he says. “When I started working at Body & Soul it became a massive creative outlet. I could go wild, we were building these structures and venues and coming up with mad ideas. I had never realised that what I needed to do was design and create stuff at a more artistic level.”
Hatchett and his wife devised and ran Body & Soul’s house-party themed area, My House, for several years. Part DJ booth, part bizarre theatrical installation, the tented area featured a host of Mrs Doyle-esque housekeepers, danceable disco beats and a fridge that was not what it seemed.
“I built some speakers for My House because the ones we used the first year looked so crap. They were just these horrible black boxes and I thought, I can do better than that. They were a massive success.”
The speakers were spotted by Sam McNicholl of West Cork music venue Connolly’s of Leap. He was the first to take a “leap of faith” in ordering a custom-built PA for his establishment from Hatchett.
“It was a leap of faith for both of us really,” he says. “I was way outside of my comfort zone. But it paid off and started the ball rolling. Next, I did Hang Dai [buzzy Chinese eatery] in Dublin.” “It seemed to just go around via the bush telegraph that I was doing this: ‘There’s a lad in West Cork making speakers’.”
In just six years, Hatchett has transformed his business, from furniture to bespoke sound systems.
“I’ve given up everything else and I just want to do this,” he says. “I feel very excited, but also a bit sad, because then I think, ‘I could have started this a really long time ago.’
But when I look at the skills I have and my workshop, it’s only now I can use all that machinery and skills and knowledge from 25 years of making stuff and apply it to this thing I really want to do.
While Hatchett had always been a music fan, doing occasional DJ sets, collecting vinyl and selective about his own home audio, his recent career change has meant a massive up-skilling and the advice of an acoustic consultant, Carlow sound engineer and acoustician Abe Scheele, to bring a quality of sound that matches the beauty and visual appeal of his work.
“When you get into rooms with multiple speakers it can get incredibly complex,” he says. His most recent commission, a PA system for Lost Lane, Dublin’s new venue in the former Lillie’s Bordello nightclub, the space, which accommodates both live acts and DJs, required 35 speakers.
“First I speak with Abe and get a rough idea about how many cabinets we need and where they should be placed,” Hatchett says. “It gets very complicated to make sure everything gets delayed correctly so that you can have clean sound throughout, even standing at the back of the room.”
“There’s a lot of work gone into getting that right, because I want it to be as good to listen to as it is to look at. There’s no point building a beautiful-looking speaker that sounds like crap so I will employ experts to get that done. That often comes down to the choice of hardware; amplifiers and components that we buy.”
Hatchett is conscious he’s making a statement with his speakers, so getting the sound right is his first priority.
It’s only after that that I think about the look, and what’s going on in my head at that point of time design-wise, and I incorporate that into what the venue’s after.
A lot of the craft of building the speakers is, he says, essentially cabinet-making.
“I’m really into mid-century, modern-style industrial finishes. I use birch plywood, with oak and mahogany veneers and paint finishes, but that’s what I’m into now; that can change. Lately, I’m fabricating all my own brackets and fastenings and working with stainless steel.”
It’s a job laden with both stress and satisfaction, Hatchett says. “There’s a continuous worry that something will break and you’ll get a call. It happened recently when I was away: The Big Romance blew up all of their speakers. It’s a horrible feeling.”
Although seeing a crowd hopping in a venue brings a measure of satisfaction and the sense of a job well done, Hatchett’s moment of realisation on completing a project in a venues comes earlier and is rather more private: a listening party for one, where he plays his favourite
records through the new system, in part for his own pleasure, but also to test that the sound is functioning as he wants it to.
“Abe comes in with a computer and tests the whole thing with microphones, and I’m getting better at that, but until I’ve tried it with music, I don’t know if I’m happy with it. There’s a guitar stab in a particular Grace Jones song that’s a really good indicator as to how the mid-range is going to sound. There’s an Elbow song, some Gregory Porter,” says Hatchett.
“But I’ll usually just sit for a couple of hours and play all my favourite songs and listen to it. And that can actually be quite emotional; I feel so happy, and this sense of, ‘Thank God it worked.’”