Toby Hatchett's Sound & Atmosphere
“With everything I do, it comes down to: how does it make me feel?” says Toby Hatchett.
Over the last decade, ever since he built an audio system for Will Dempsey’s Hang Dai Restaurant in Dublin that attracted major audiophile attention, Toby Hatchett has become the go-to guy in high-end restaurant and bar audio.
Those are his speakers in the new Allta and his speakers have been one of the most prominent design features in all of the Allta iterations, from multi-storey car park sites to tented set-ups on the banks of the River Boyne.
Take a seat in Row Wines in Dublin and the cool sounds emanate from Hatchett speakers. He is excited for what lies in store in Fidelity, a listening bar from the people behind Whiplash beers and The Big Romance on Parnell Street. “I think Fidelity is going to be one of the best audiophile bars in the world,” he says.
The curious thing about Hatchett’s emotional approach to audio is the fact that audio freaks usually favour engineering over emotion.
He could certainly tell you that with the first commercial system he designed in Ireland, in the legendary Connolly’s of Leap, in West Cork, close to where Hatchett is based, that he used “3 way fully active Reflex speakers with B&C and BMS drivers. SAE Amplifiers with dB mark processing.”
But he doesn’t dwell on those details because “I came at it very much from the aesthetic. I want to make these things that are quite prominent in rooms, and I want to make them pretty. In Japan they have been doing this for decades. There are these bars where you can go and listen to records and drink fine whiskeys and I went to a couple of them and it was fantastic! And now everyone wants to do it, they want that vibe.”
To get that vibe, of course, is no simple matter. “It doesn’t matter if the sound system is really good if the room is really bad”, he explains. Before a Hatchett system is installed, the groundwork has to be done in order to maximise the efficacy of his work.
“So in Allta the whole roof is acoustically treated. Row Wines was an easier space as it has a lot of angles, so you get more breakup of the sound, it lent itself well because it’s such a weird shaped room.”
We spent an hour in Row Wines one Friday lunchtime, and the sounds were so cool we could have sat there all day long. The music had perfect balance and directness, and felt like it was all around you.
What modern restaurants and bars are chasing is that ideal scenario where you can hear the music, and also hear the person across the table from you. And then, when they want to let the djs loose on the decks, the system can ramp up so everyone can cut a rug.
“I work with people who can tell you ‘Oh there’s too much kilohertz on that’. I can’t do that, but I do know when I don’t like it. I will use the technology to measure things, then I will listen to it with the music I know well. But I don’t have a brain that can mathematically measure things. I don't think like that. I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I'm still learning it.”
People chase after perfect sound with an obsessiveness that borders on madness. Audiophile dudes – and they are usually dudes – will spend any amount of money and go to outrageous lengths to get close to the magic. That’s something Hatchett understands:
“There is a guy in America, Devon Ojas, who builds these incredible sound systems based on analogue systems, based on Japanese-style technologies, the purest reproduction of a record you can have. I follow this guy on insta, and I was a bit sceptical but, we went to the Listening Gallery in London to hear his system, and there was a guy there playing 1950’s original jazz pressings. And then, after about ten minutes in, you were transported, and the guy said: “This is essentially a time machine and this is the most faithful reproduction of this record we can do. This record was pressed in 1959, and you are listening to what they pressed”. And it made me cry. It was phenomenal. I’ve never heard anything like it: every breath, every rustle of the drums, you could hear everything, you were in the room.”
Toby Hatchett has followed a meandering path to his current status as a globally-in-demand restaurant and bar audio guy. He has worked as a boat builder, a designer and a cabinet maker, and built high-end kitchens until the audio side of his design work took off. That craftsmanship still shines in his work, which always has a finessed aesthetic residing within the practical side of sound production.
He worked festivals, including Electric Picnic, and it was here that the audio career really began: “We built a sound system for My House at the Body & Soul festival, and I lent that system to Connolly’s of Leap because when they re-opened they didn’t have any speakers. And it was on the back of that that Sam McNicholl said: “Would you like to build something for us?”
His festival experience with stages and tents allowed him to help create the tented spaces that became the Allta Summer House and Winter House, and he approaches each job as a conceptualist.
Whilst his growing profile means that Hatchett is flat-out working on new systems, he still works alone, in his studio near to Clonakilty. “The sound-system stuff has really snowballed a bit. There’s nobody else doing it. It’s just me, I work in a very particular way, I’m into complete flexitime, I can’t have anyone else around, it doesn’t work.”
Running a great restaurant, or managing a great bar, is the most operatic of professions. Problem is, restaurateurs and bar owners have mostly neglected the soundtrack of the opera. Toby Hatchett’s work corrects that deficit, and brings us close to the goal of the total restaurant, the listening bar. So, next time you’re sat at the bar or at your table, and you become aware of the music, just ask yourself: how does it make you feel?
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