Gowanus’s Analog BKNY takes its name from owners’ passion to rethink club sound, by going back in time

by Ellen Kiselewski

On September 22, the six month-old Gownaus-based Analog BKNY bar/dance club hosted “Palladium Rewind,” a musical homage to the legendary ’90s club on East 14th Street in Manhattan. The event brought famed DJs and producers like Freddy Bastone and Robbie Leslie and club impresario Steve Lewis—along with hundreds of dancers—in a night devoted to ’80s and ’90s tracks.

This gathering of legends wasn’t accidental. The aim of Analog BKNY, according to owners Craig Bernabeu (seen above) and Michael Bruno, is to create a new brand of 21st-century audio…by going back in time. A longtime sound designer, Bernabeu expresses guarded contempt for the antiseptic nature of modern digital club systems, which he explained, simply can’t compare to the warmth and passion of analog (think ’40s jazz on vinyl compared to an mp3 download). Digital sound is a binary code, he explained, “like a musical paint-by-numbers; analog, however, is like a finger-painting.” So, for decades, he has designed and built equipment that pokes digital processors in the ears, as it were.

Though it might seem counterintuitive, it actually takes sophisticated equipment to chuck the traditional digital racks, so Bernabeu owns and operates his own SBS Designs company in New Jersey and installs amplifiers with vacuum tube and solid-state processing, as well as loudspeakers, in clubs across the country.

Analog BKNY’s assembly of processors and crossovers and MOSFET amplifiers is housed in a closet-sized room just behind the DJ station—dozens of components strong—and feeds signals to the four main speaker arrays, also designed and built by Bernabeu. All this effort is an attempt to short-circuit what the veteran sound engineer refers to as the inherently diminishing results of typical digital processing.

“A lot of the unpleasant ‘crush of sound’ sensations you get in some modern clubs is simply the result of distortion,” he explained. “Ideally, you should be able to stand pretty close to a 10-foot-high club speaker and appreciate the sound without having to raise your voice to be heard.” Digital music, he added, “seems to focus only on the final result, instead of showcasing each small part of the whole, as analog succeeds in doing.”

As I stood on the dance floor of the 5,000-square-foot space and listened to Bernabeu play a vinyl record massaged by various custom settings at the booth, I wasn’t exactly certain why the experience seemed so different, but then I looked over at the owner in the booth.

“I can’t tell you what makes a good tomato sauce either,” he said with a smile, “but I can tell you that it’s unbelievable!”

“Here, I was allowed to create my fantasy,” Bernabeu added. “Yes, I’ve installed analog systems in other clubs and other spaces, but here I gave myself license to design something totally unique. My end of the partnership in this business is this sound system. That’s my buy-in, and I wanted it to be extraordinary. For the most part, club owners don’t have the budget or the vision for a system like this. They think, ‘Well, people won’t hear the difference,’ and will spend money on something else. We didn’t compromise here.”

The club took over the space from an old mechanic’s shop, with original wooden beams high above the handmade lighting grid—its dance floor flanked by two bars and an elevated seating area. During the tour, Bruno boasted that the lighting architecture, as with the sound, is all built and designed from scratch; that he painstakingly picked out every rotating LED bulb, every gobo lighting piece…even the giant disco ball centerpiece that can be raised or lowered with a pulley system (also of Bruno’s design), one strong enough to suspend an aerialist should a party ask for one.

“We’re running the club the way clubs we fell in love with were ran,” Bernabeu offered. “We want you to feel at home here…wanted to build a place that had that great ’90s looseness, where you can be whoever you want inside this room.”

“This is our playground,” added Bruno. “In the end, it’s all about the party.”

Analog BKNY
177 2nd Avenue / 732.991.0899 / analogbkny.com