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The Wall of Sound

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The Wall of Sound

FEATURES| By Brian Anderson|Jul 5 2015, 11:45am

The untold story of the Grateful Dead’s short-lived mega PA, arguably the largest, most technologically innovative sound system ever built.

It sounds like it was just another band meeting for the Grateful Dead.

Three-fifths of the Dead’s original lineup were holed up in Novato, California, at the band’s practice space in a Pepto-Bismol colored warehouse located behind a pizza shop. Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia, and Phil Lesh, then just in their twenties, were joined by a small circle of gear heads, audiophiles, and psychonauts who’d become instrumental to the band’s growing popularity. It’s unclear who called the meeting, why it was even arranged, or what, if anything, was supposed to come of it. 

They brainstormed over “the technical, the musical, and the exploratory,” remembered Rick Turner, an instrument and amplifier designer among the Dead kin gathered that day in Novato. “There were no constraints.” 

It was a signal moment in the history of sound that set in motion a years-long work in progress that would culminate in what’s arguably the largest and technologically innovative public address system ever built, and it started not with a bang, but with something of a casual, stoned proposition. This singular work of engineering would come to weigh over 70 tons, comprise dozens and then hundreds of amps, speakers, subwoofers, and tweeters, stand over three-stories tall and stretch nearly 100 feet wide. Its name could only be the Wall of Sound. 

The Wall of Sound, or simply the Wall, would occupy only a blip on the long horizon of the Dead’s history, though it remains a touchstone for sound systems of all shapes and sizes, from boutique disco PAs to the massive PAs deployed at any of today’s mega festivals and at 61,500-seat stadiums like Soldier Field in Chicago, where the four surviving members of the Dead, including Weir and Lesh, wrapped up a string of farewell shows this weekend to commemorate the band’s 50th anniversary. 

Back at the pink warehouse, they were about to revolutionize sound engineering, acoustic theory, and the way people experienced live music for decades to come, and they likely didn’t even know it. Someone lit a joint.

“You know, the solution is the PA system has to be behind the band”

It was 1969. It seemed the sounds of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, the psychedelic rock Holy Land to which the Dead were revered almost as gods, had beamed to the Moon and beyond. Compared to virtually all electrified musical output to that point, music was louder and more urgent than ever before. Perhaps the drugs had something to do with it, but there was a vitality to music, something unprecedented that resonated for those who believed their generation’s moment had come. 

There was just one problem. Even the day’s leading edge of amplification technology carried bands only to a point, before the mixes muddled. Put frankly, Garcia or Jimi Hendrix live, at their loudest, sounded chaotic—in a not-so-good way. Today, defenders of How Things Sounded in 1969 must face critics who argue that everything back then sounded unsound on account of these gear constraints. That’s not necessarily to question the pure, unbridled daring of baby boomer bands like the Dead, at least not in their prime. The point is that amp tech just wasn’t keeping up with their sonic ambitions. 

Conventions like using on-stage monitors (speakers pointed back at performers so they could hear themselves) were still in their infancy. This confined sound techs at both indoor clubs and outdoor venues to jury-rigged public address systems, which rebroadcast the noise of a band toward the audience—at the time, PAs were positioned level with, if not slightly in front of the musicians, and were distinct from the musicians’ backline speakers and amp. The result was that a performer’s chops often were undercut by blistering volumes, roiling echoes, harsh distortion, and feedback. Unstable audio frequencies skipped over audiences, ricocheted between walls, and decayed into space. 

This meant it was hard for Weir, Garcia, Lesh, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, and Bill Kreutzmann—the rest of the Dead’s founding lineup—to hear themselves individually as well as their bandmates while playing live. 

This noise crisis that confronted musicians who went electric at the height of the war in Vietnam is a dissonant truth routinely snuffed from the annals of modern music history, a poignant example of technical difficulties being overlooked in favor of a higher narrative. The sounds that so radically realigned the arc of history, musical and otherwise, were not perfect, and this imperfection was largely due to rudimentary PAs. From a highly discerning, or modern sonic perspective, live music in 1969 sounded bearable at best, and messy at worst. That was about to change. 

Bear talks about seeing sound. 

If the meeting had an adviser, it was one Augustus Owsley “Bear” Stanley III, the renowned LSD chemist and audio visionary who’d been financing the Dead and recording the band live since some of their earliest shows. 

Bear, a Kentucky-born craftsman and former ballet dancer, was obsessed with sound as both a concept and a physical thing. Mickey Hart, the Dead’s on-again, off-again second drummer, told Rolling Stone about one night in 1974 before a Dead show at the former Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, when he caught Bear in an intimate moment of sonic communion with some of the band’s speakers. Bear was alone, as Hart remembered. Sobbing, he spoke tenderly to the electronics as if they were people. 

“I love you and you love me,” Bear wooed the speakers. “How could you fail me?” 

Bear had a good ear and money. He had already established himself as the point source for mass quantities of high-grade LSD that flooded the Bay Area and beyond. He was a natural fit as the Dead’s audio guru and benefactor, and if anyone was poised to see the band up and over its noise troubles it was him. Bear knew the band could sound better—clearer, more robust—during the winding live shows that any seasoned Deadhead would now consider part of the band’s most important block of work. Bear had been quiet at the pink warehouse meeting, Turner said, when suddenly he chimed in. 

“You know, the solution is the PA system has to be behind the band,” Bear said. 

His thinking was that this configuration, which positioned the band and the audience to hear the same thing, would eliminate feedback, the result of an output signal directed (fed back) to an input. Bear envisioned the band and crowd experiencing the same thing. This would close the gap between performer and audience, who would both hear the exact same mix shot horizontally from a unified backline “as though everyone was playing acoustically,” said Turner, who told me Bear was one of the only attendees at that meeting who didn’t think the band would drown in feedback if their vocal microphones were pointed back toward their amps and speakers. 

Put the PA behind the band? It was a crazy idea at the time—and precisely what made the notion of positioning the whole band in front of all their amplification reverberate with such prescient foresight. 

Turner told me Bear’s motion was “filed away” after the meeting, but the idea of having all of the band members play in front of their PA would begin to seep into the forefront of the collective mindset of the Dead and its expanding crew. A crackling, albeit brief stretch of experimentation, ending in 1974, forged a PA that was placed behind the band and effectively served as its own self-contained monitor system. It separated the vocals from all the other instruments, which each got their own dedicated PA. This produced a striking clarity in the Dead’s live mix and gave way to an almost primal audio-visual continuity. 

The system also pioneered the use of line arrays—columns of speakers (literally one speaker stacked on top another) designed to control the dispersion of sound across the frequency range—as well as a unique noise-cancelling microphone system meant to reduce backing bleed into the vocals. 

There had been nothing quite like it. The Wall’s scientific base was seemingly so far ahead of its time that everyone interviewed for this story, including some of the Wall’s many original engineers and crew members, said that most everything about this particular system has gone virtually unmatched ever since. 

“The tones of the instruments—the clarity of the instruments—has not been matched,” said Turner, who worked for Alembic*, a custom electric guitar, bass, and preamp company whose close working relationship with the Dead proved indispensable in conceptualizing and building the Wall from the ground up. “It’s just as simple as that.” 

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