I first found out about Paradise Systems back in June at Wire. It was Sub:Terranea presents 3AM, and Al Bradley was using a pre-amp, which made a significant difference to the sound. Records sounded clearer and richer. I wanted to know more, and Al introduced my to the guy responsible for building it, who was there that night himself.
Dr Steve Middleditch is a design engineer and sound engineer and set up Paradise Systems fairly recently, following a career which has included designing and installing sound systems in some of the greatest clubs of the 90s.
He was also a very friendly guy, and was more than happy to chat to me and Russell Master, who has been a resident at Sub:Terranea, about his work.
As well as the phono pre-amps, Steve also designs mixers, isolators and guitar amps, all of which are available from Paradise Systems.
He was kind enough to invite Russell and me to check out his workshop, which is situated underneath his home in Yorkshire, and to interview him about his work.
Russell came up with a few questions for Steve and did the majority of the interview, and I chipped in occasionally. By the end of it, it was like talking to a good friend, and I realised the interview was finished, turned the recorder off and we all had a beer.
We’ll be using the pre-amp at our next Schwein night at Wire, on Friday (Sep 14th), so you can come down and hear the difference for yourselves.
Here’s the interview:
Russell: What made you pick this location?
Steve: Well I did want to be right in Leeds at first, but it’s too expensive for the amount of room I needed. You get a lot more for your money out here.
I needed somewhere to work so I needed a lot of space.
Russell: So have you got the full floor plan down here?
Steve: No, just part of the area.
[We head down to the basement]
Russell: Oh – amazing!
Steve: Now this was just a hole before I converted it really, held up with toothpicks.
Russell: So what’s that side?
Steve: That’s not converted.
Russell: You’ve got more than enough down here though, haven’t you?
Steve: Well that’s why I needed a garage. The garage is where I can do all the metalwork. And this is one of my preamps…
Russell: Cool! Is that the one that we used at Wire?
Steve: No, this is a different one.
Russell: Is it the same model? It looks a bit smaller actually.
Steve: The one that Al’s got now has got the upgraded amplifiers in it.
Russell: Right ok.
Steve: So the amplifiers in the one Al’s got now are a lot more expensive.
Anyway, so this is the difference you get [puts a record on the deck] – sorry, this deck has just come out of storage and you can’t select 45 on it.
Steve: Everything’s a work in progress. Now listen to this…
[The difference the pre-amp makes is very noticeble. The sound is richer and cleaner.]
Russell & Roya: Yes!
Russell: Yes, we noticed it in Wire. We started off without it and then yourself and Al came down with it and then plugged it in, and I could really tell the difference.
Steve: Yes. And that’s the sister bit of kit [points to a rotary mixer next to the pre-amp]
Russell: So is this your rotary mixer?
Russell: You don’t often see them with a cross fader as well.
Steve: You can turn it on and off.
Russell: Right I like that.
Steve: So if you want a pure rotary, you can have one.
Everything like these is custom made.
So if you didn’t want a cross fader in it I wouldn’t put you one there.
And if you wanted one that you could turn on and off you can have one.
Russell: I really like the finish as well.
Roya: Yeah, it’s lovely.
Steve: Yeah, I’m working on the new product which is going to be that pre-amp and two of these in a box. This is a full isolater EQ.
Russell: Does it cut fully?
Steve: Yep [demonstrates]
Russell & Roya: Yeah it does!
Russell: Very nice.
Steve: Right, so, I decided to make two pre amps and two isolators in a box. But then the artwork’s just getting finished on the front panel.
Russell: So when did hum – when was Paradise Systems born?
Steve: I was living in Brighton, I’d sold everything, I was living in a bedsit, and I was walking past a record shop – and I like records, all of my records were one of the only things I’d kept – and they were all in storage.
Anyway, I walked past a record shop and I went and spent a hundred quid on records.
I didn’t have anything to play them on so I went back into the storage and I dug out this [the deck] and it was in bits, so I took that back to Brighton and I realised I had a power amp and a record deck and no pre-amp.
So I thought oh ok, I’ll go to Maplins – and then I was at work one night thinking I’m not really using my skills to their best here.
I’m an electronic engineer, so I thought I must be able to build one.
So I designed one. And I built it.
And I went up to a mate of mine who I knew in Manchester – you know Moodymanc?
Russell & Roya: Yep
Steve: Right well I told him what I was doing and says well bring it up and I’ll have a listen to it, so I took it up to Manchester and i showed him the prototype – it’s upstairs – and he loved it.
He said Right, I want two of these in a box.
Russell: When was this?
Steve: That was a couple of years ago now.
Russell: Right – so still very new then.
Steve: Yeah. So that was a couple of years ago and so I put two in a box for Danny [Moodymanc], and so at first I did all the maths trying to find people in the UK that would make the circuits for me, that would etch the circuits – that’s these bits – and the company I found in England, that was forty pounds.
Russell: And you’ve got how many of them in there?
Steve: Five. That’s without the components. So I ended up going to China. So I’ve had these made in China and then I buy everything else in England and populate it here. So I build them over here [gestures to the other side of the room].
Anyway so, I’ve saved a load of money and I thought well if vinyl’s coming back, you know, maybe there’s something here – I mean, I didn’t think anything of it – and I went to see – do you know Lee James? From Up Your Ronson?
Russell: I know of him, but not personally.
Roya: I know of the night.
Steve: Well he’s one of the resident DJs there and he’s another old friend of mine, and I took this to him, to his house, I was up in Manchester, called into Leeds, went to see Lee and I said check that out, what do you think of this?
And he had a listen to it and his said it’s great, Steve, but I don’t play vinyl any more, I use Traktor.
Steve: And he said ‘Where’s the mixer?’
Russell: Right, ok, so then that was the birth of the rotary?
Steve: Yes, that was about eighteen months ago. So I said ok, and designed a mixer.
Russell: So what are we calling the mixer?
Steve: This is the RM2.
Russell: RM2 – why complicate it?
Russell: So have you done a four channel as well?
Steve: Well everything I design I can modify. So this is a prototype.
Roya: So if anyone asks you for a four channel then you’ll make one.
Steve: Yep. You just need a bigger box.
So – yeah – so I built that, and then I figured rather than – you know if you don’t play vinyl why pay for a load of preamps. Bit like the Bozak and the Urei, you buy the preamp, you buy the phono cards to put into them. So if you buy a normal Urei it’s all line inputs and you can take the card out and put a phono one in.
So I thought if you don’t play vinyl, you don’t want this, do you? And this is quite expensive, so I thought the way to do it is in two halves, so you can have one or both, and if you don’t have this one, because this power supply runs that, that power supply comes with it. And what a lot of people don’t realise is, the power supply is where the money goes.
Russell: Right, ok. Why is that?
Steve: For audio you don’t want any noise on the signal, so you need a power supply that supplies a very good DC level. Then what happens is you get a record deck that will change the speed – and that’s wow and flutter. In an amplifier if what’s powering the circuit isn’t DC it will wobble a little bit. So you’ve got to get the best amplification you can. You get me? It’s called distortion. But not the sort of distortion you’re thinking of.
So let me show you one of my other products…
So I also play an instrument and I’ve got a big amplifier over there. But it’s a bit noisy when you’re living in a bedsit. So I thought well, I need a small amplifier. So I designed and built one.
Russell: That’s very nice. I was looking at that on the website.
Steve: Well after that my brother saw it. In fact my brother made the chassis for me. He a fabricator in America and I needed someone to do this special work so I asked him to make one of these and that chassis for the mixer.
He flew over with them and insisted that I make him one of these [indicates the map] for his trouble.
Russell: So does he do all the fabs for your products.
Steve: No, unfortunately it’s not practical. But he has sorted me out with the prototypes. That was eighteen months ago. So now I have to get that made – well – that’s the whole point of me building the workshop. So I’ll make them. I’ll make everything.
Russell: Yeah the finish on them is just amazing. So – are we going to have a listen then? You can’t show us it, and then ‘this is what you could have heard’ [everyone laughs]
Russell: So how have you been promoting all this? How are people getting in touch with you to get these products?
Steve: Well the website and Facebook, but mainly – well all the sales I’ve had so far have been through word of mouth.
Russell: So obviously you came down to Wire when we had Subby T [Sub:Terranea], and brought the pre-amp down, but have you been to any other events with it?
Steve: Yeah, Boggy took it out a while back – you know James Holroyd, Danny took it to refuge, a few other people. Done some birthday parties with it – the mixer and the pre-amp.
Russell: So are you finding now that obviously with vinyl coming back that people are noticing that they’re not getting that sound quality that they expect with a lot of the other gear that’s on the market?
Steve: A lot of people need to be shown, otherwise they don’t even realise.
Roya: Yes, I have to say I wouldn’t have thought about it if I hadn’t heard the difference the pre-amp makes at Wire.
Steve: Yeah – like – that’s what you hear, that’s ok.
Roya: Yeah, it seems normal until you hear it can sound better.
Steve: Yeah it’s only when somebody shows you that there’s a change for the better available that you realise that what you’re working with is not doing the best job.
I’ve A-B’d the pre-amp against Urei, Pioneer, Allen & Heath and Formula Sound Mixers and – well, you’ve heard the difference. That’s the sort of difference.
Russell: So even in – you know for example your high end rotary mixers, would you still use your pre-amp even when using some of the high end rotary mixers?
Steve: I don’t know what’s in there, but I can guarantee mine will sound better.
Russell: It’s very noticeable once you’ve heard it. It’s like drinking a nice bottle of wine and then going back to Lambrini.
Steve: Yeah that’s the problem [laughs] I am finding that with some people giving my gear back after I’ve lent it to them.
Russell: You’ll have to come down and supervise when we use it.
Russell: So next project is…?
Steve: Next project is – what I showed you before was the combination pre-amp and three band isolator – so you can have the three band isolator on your record deck before it goes into the mixer. Or you can have two pre amps and two isolators.
Russell: And was that just an idea that came to you? Or was it a request?
Steve: It was just through taking to people. When I show people stuff they’re like ooh I like that, I like that but I could do with something like that – and I’ll listen.
Russell: Listen to what the people want.
Steve: All of my designs I’ve build very modular stuff. So I can mix and match without much of a problem. That pre-amp took probably a year part time to design.
Russell: And what are you looking at with regards to build time?
Steve: No more than a month.
Russell: From order to at their doorstep.
Russell: And that’s the same whichever product it is?
Steve: Yes. Pre-amp would be the quickest. But no more than a month for any of them.
The thing about the other products – the mixer for example is because it’s fully custom, the holes might not be the same. There might be more holes or less holes according to what the customer has decided they want. It might be bigger or smaller.
The ISO-PPA, which is the isolater phono pre-amp, that going to be pretty much in between the cost of mixer and the pre-amp.
Russell: And what are we looking at for the RM2 costwise?
Steve: On its own it’s about 18 or 19 hundred quid according to what you want in it.
Roya: That’s very reasonable really, when you think of the cost of products that aren’t custom made.
Steve: Yeah, it is. And if you want the RM2 with the PPA it’s going to be around 24 to 25 hundred according to what you have in it.
Obviously all these prices vary according to what you want.
Everything I do per customer. For example if you wanted the two pre-amps, but you didn’t want – you know there’s filters on there? You know about the rumble filters?
Russell: No, educate us…
Steve: Let’s go downstairs and I’ll show you. Right so that is the preamp and the bottom layer is the rumble filter. So if you didn’t want the rumble filter it’s £150 less.
That’s the whole point of me doing this. I thought if you don’t want it, you don’t have to have it. When you go to a hi-fi supermarket, you’ve got to buy what’s on the shelf. Well – do you want everything that you just bought in that box?
Roya: Usually not.
Steve: Exactly, but you’re paying for it. Well, why pay for it? So my whole thing is…
Steve: Yeah. It’s custom built for you. So hi of for musicians, it’s custom made, you’re not paying for stuff you don’t want.
Russell: So what sound difference are we going to hear with the rumble filter?
Steve: Well the rumble filter cuts off all the sub-harmonic frequencies that you don’t hear. So if you have a bad 70s pressing for instance, you get a load of noise at 15 hz and 2 – 1 or 2 hz. A warp for instance is a one Hert tone.
But do you want your amplifier and your speakers trying to project that?
Because you can’t hear them. You can’t hear below 20, 25 hz. So the rumble filter cuts all of that off.
So it frees up your amplifier to amplify the stuff you’re going to hear. So it’s a very subtle effect, it’s easier to see it than hear it.
I haven’t got a bad enough pressing of anything here. I’m going to have to go through my records and find one.
But the way to tell is if you put a bad pressing on this cone is going going to be giving it this [indicates a lot of fast movement in the cone] because the lower the frequency, the more air has to be moved. So the cone has to push and pull back a lot more.
So if you watch the cone and turn the filter on. If you’ve got very good ears you’ll notice that what happens is the bottom end – there’s greater separation.
Roya: It does make a difference. Like in mastering when you get rid of the extraneous frequencies it does make a difference to the whole sound.
Steve: Yes it does. It’s a very small change, but it makes a difference. And you don’t get a lot of speaker excursion. Which is a good thing.
Now that – interestingly – was an idea I had, but what happened is – when I talked to Danny quite a lot, I was telling him what I was up to and I said right I’m going to design the pre-amp and I’m going to put on a separate rumble filter, and he said ‘That’s great Steve, that sounds great, but I’d like to be able to turn it on and off without changing the sound’. You know making it seamless.
Well that took another three months to design. Because rather than having the audio go through the switch, switches are inherently noisy, right? So you don’t want audio going through a switch.
So I’ve put on here two gold terminal relays so the sound doesn’t go anywhere near the switch.
In the end I guess it all adds up. But I don’t charge for the development. I couldn’t. It wouldn’t be practical. So I only charge for the labour and costs.
Now I told you about power supplies earlier – that’s the power supply for the pre amp. You’ll find in most mixers the power supply is about a third of that size. Again these are to make the DC very smooth. And that’s where the money is.
Most power supplies don’t spend that much making it smooth. The smoother the DC is, the better the sound. But a lot of companies don’t do that.
Let me give you an example – say you went into a hi fi shop and said I want a four channel mixer and I want to spend five hundred pounds please. How much profit does that company make from that machine? And how much do you think they spend as a percentage on the phono stages? It would be a very small amount.
Russell: Yes, especially because we went so deep into a digital age as well, so I guess they’d think why spend extra money on the phono components.
Steve: Exactly. So it’s no surprise that my stuff sounds so much better. I’d be rather disappointed i it didn’t. [everyone laughs] I think I’d give up and go home.
Russell: I think though – as you were saying earlier – vinyl’s coming back, and people are understanding and realising that you’re not getting that sound quality that you should be getting from vinyl.
Steve: Yes… So I guess you guys don’t know how I started. Do you know my pedigree? I guess you don’t.
Russell & Roya: Nope
Steve: Ah – well – a brief history… I designed and installed most of the sound systems in Leeds and in a lot of the the big clubs in the UK the 90s.
Roya: Yes, I remember you saying at Wire. Where?
Steve: I did the Dry Bar at the Hacienda, Cream, Gatecrasher, Tall Trees Bed, Home, Cut the Crap in Coventry, Sub Club – that was outside Leeds.
In the 90s I started off as a mechanical engineer, then I was a chef, and then I came to Leeds for a party. And I stayed for 22 years.
I’ve always played and I used to do sound at college, I came here and quickly realised that I was a far better sound engineer than I was a guitarist. So I’m a failed musician really. And then I ended up running a few clubs in Leeds and designing systems.
And in the end I had pretty much of all of them at one point in Leeds. I did the Warehouse, Basics, Up Your Ronson, Porto, Jakes, Normans, Europa, NATO – that’s where Hard Times was.
I freelanced for a company that hired out gear so I went in, designed the system, put it in, and maintained it. I didn’t have the capital to do that sort of stuff on my own.
Russell: I feel that unfortunately there’s very few venues that concentrate on sound.
Steve: Yes. That’s always been true. It’s always been the way.
I’ve opened up a lot of new clubs and what happens is the owner or management – the money will come in and they’ll say right – we’re going to assign X amount for this and that – pretty much the same way most mixers work – you’d open a new club in say Timbuctoo or Leeds, we got X amount.
Russell: And the majority of the budget goes on your aesthetics.
Steve: Yep. Right. They build the bar, decoration, place looks stonking. And then – oh! We need some lights and a sound system. Here’s the change.
And to me a nightclub is selling – people go there for two things – to listen to music – number one – and to dance and drink. So if you’ve got the money, surely the first thing you should spend your money on is why they’re going there.
If you can have a great sound system in a dingy little place, it’ll still go. I’m sure of it. Look at the Cosmic Slop soundsystem. Awesome! And it’s not fancy in terms of a nightclub is it?
Roya: That’s usually better really.
Steve: But a lot of people don’t see that. You know businessmen don’t necessarily go to raves. And they’re looking at the bottom line. They’re not looking at doing the right thing. It’s all about the money. So what tends to happen again is these people run out of money doing all the building work and decorating and then realise that they need sound and lights. So they don’t spend what they should. And the few places that did spend that money – you ask anybody about those clubs in the 90s.
Russell: I think things are getting better. I think sound quality is becoming higher on some peoples agendas. At least in the places that matter.
Steve: Well my mission is to bring hi fi to people that play records.
I mean there is that group of people – the hi fi nuts – that spend £2000 on a cable. 20 grand on their record player. What I’d like to do is to bring a little bit of that quality to the masses. So people that are DJing in their bedroom. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t have decent sound.
Interview: Russell Master & Roya Brehl
Words: Roya Brehl