Feb 10, 2022

September 1974: The Wall of Sound

The unique sound of the Grateful Dead 
Here it is. The sound system you always dreamed of. In the Dead corner, weighing in at 28 tons, the Bear-Healy-Razine-Wickersham-Turner-Curl-Alembic-PA-system. Except that it isn't a PA system - but read on. 
The Grateful Dead's sound system has evolved over eight years of gigging and tryin' to get it right, man. It still ain't quite right. In fact the one you see here has already been superceded by a slightly refined, more up-to-date model. 
If you got along to any of the Dead gigs at Alexander's pad this week, then you'll know how well it works. I've only got the word of Rock Sculley, their road manager. 
According to him it's so perfect it's like listening to the band in your own living room. "At any of our concerts you can hold a conversation just like we are now. It makes difference if you're standing right next to Jerry or way out in front." 
To achieve this, and near-perfection in sound, you may notice one or two unusual features about the system. And there are further, quite revolutionary aspects which are less noticeable. 
To begin with, all the speakers are behind the musicians. Every last one of 'em...all lined up in regimental fashion ready to number off from one to 640. In a conventional sound system the vocal speakers - at least - occupy the front corners of the stage. 
Trouble with the conventional system is that it creates a blind spot for people sitting in potentially good seats, and the band themselves don't really know how they sound - because the sound is being projected away from them. To fill in for this the conventional system must employ monitors and the musicians have to rely on these, and on echo, which can be a problem. 
The Dead system overcomes that. The band are listening to the same thing as the audience - just as if they were out there in the hall.
There's not a PA system in the conventional sense because it requires no mixing console. In case you don't know, there's normally a guy somewhere in the audience twiddling knobs and levelling things up to what he thinks is a really nice sound (but which is often bloody awful!). 
Well, the Dead can hear themselves, so they double as their own sound engineers. Each mike has its own volume control so the band can mix the vocal sound from the stage. In addition, each musician has his own sound environment and controls to vary it as he pleases. He can adjust the sound of other instruments in his area as well as his own. 
Now this is lovely in theory and it probably works in Utopia - if they've got halls there big enough to take it. But the super-human musician is only mortal after all, and a little avarice is likely to creep into a personal balance in favour of one's own instrument. 
You'll notice how I've been careful not to say: "Garcia likes the sound of his own voice, so he turns his own mike up to full to drown everybody else out." 
That doesn't happen, but it might tend that way, so Rock Sculley (all right, what's your real name?) and his road crew have to be out there checking and leaking bits of delicate hint back to the band - like, "For Gandharvas' sake turn the guitars down, you're drowning your own vocals." 
Let me quote you a bit of this nicely-written blurb I was given. 
"The sound system is actually a combination of six individual systems, each being electronically separate and having a specific purpose and function. No two musical voices go through the same system. Thus the vocals, piano, drums, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, and bass each have their own channel (bass having four and drums three). 
"This separation is designed to produce an undistorted sound, a clean sound in which qualities like 'transparency', 'brilliance', 'presence', and 'clarity' are substantial musical dimensions." 
What you've got then (or what YOU wish you had) is 11 channels of sound feeding into 48 Macintosh valve amplifiers which drive: 89 15 in. speakers 178 12 in. speakers, 320 5 in. speakers, and 54 tweeters. And doesn't that mean carrying an awful lot of spares? I asked. "Not really. Only about 50," they said. 
It pumps out 26,400 watts RMS. In the open air it doesn't begin to distort until you're 600 feet away and is still quite acceptable at a quarter of a mile. You could get the same volume with half as much power, but you wouldn't get the quality. 
According to Rock, if you compare it to your average hi-fi with a volume control that has a dial with 1 to 10 on it, then you are only playing it between three and five. 
The vocal system is rather exciting. Each singer has a matched pair of Bruel and Kjaer microphones hooked up out of phase. They feed into a summing amp. He only sings into one mike. Any sound which goes equally into both mikes is cancelled out when the two signals are added together. This minimises leakage of instruments and background noise into the vocal channel. 
The summing amp feeds a crossover where the frequency range is divided into four bands - high, upper middle, lower middle, and low. The signal in each band is then separately amplified and fed to the JBL 15 in., 12 in., and 5 in . speakers and the Electrovoice tweeters. 
And that's about as technical as I'm prepared to go. As it is, I'll be inundated with letters from people wanting to know what "out-of-phase" is and what "tweeters" are. 
The piano uses five Countryman custom pick-ups and the crossover in this case divides the vocal range [sic] into three parts. This used to feed a similar bank of speakers to the vocal central cluster, but now feeds a set of open back speakers. 
Each pick-up has its own volume control so that Godchaux can balance the sound. Garcia and Kreutzmann both have piano monitors or fills in their areas of the stage which they can adjust independently. 
The drums have two independent parts. The bass drum uses one channel and 16 15 in. speakers in a column, while the other drums and cymbals are miked through a three-way crossover which separates the signals into highs, upper-mids and lower-mids and feeds them to tweeters, 5 in. and 12 in. speakers. This second part uses two channels as it is in stereo. 
Both guitars use columns of 20 12 in. speakers. Garcia's guitar has extensions beside Godchaux and Kreutzmann. He uses a Doug Irwin/Alembic custom guitar which has a Les Paul-type body with a Strat pick-up. Weir is using a Gibson 335 through things like an Eventide Clockwork Digital Delay unit for repeating notes and an Alembic Parametric Equaliser which gives him complete control of frequency response. 
Phil Lesh has a quadrophonic bass built and designed by George Mundy and Rick Turner. 
The system didn't just happen, it evolved, and it is still evolving. It has to be changed for every venue, according to the size and shape. Surprisingly, it only takes four hours to build, but as it weighs 28 tons and is supported on trusses, the stage must be especially sturdy and in this connection supports take a further four hours to build. 
The sound system travels in a 40-foot semi, stage and scaffolding on two flatbed semis, and lights in a 24-foot van. Altogether the set-up weighs 75 tons. It works OK for other bands, too. Maria Muldaur, Commander Cody, Beach Boys, and the New Riders have all used it and loved it - it can be quite something for a musician to hear his or herself on stage - maybe for the first time. 
Rock says it's a new orientation for a musician and sometimes it's difficult for them to get used to it. 
Finally: The whole thing is insured for 250,000 dollars. 
I'll have two... 

(by Rex Anderson, from the New Musical Express, September 14, 1974) 
Thanks to Dave Davis.

This article was condensed from: 

1 comment:

  1. Not much new info in this piece, since it mainly repeats text from the Dead's own technical blurb (also printed in their newsletter) for the benefit of English readers; so see that piece for more details. But this has a few extra comments from Rock Scully, including the road crew's role in checking the sound balance so the band didn't screw up their own mix.
    Note that this sound system wasn't called the "Wall of Sound" yet; that didn't become the commonly used name for it til years later.

    The comment that the Beach Boys "used it and loved it" may have been a slight fib. (Maybe Scully was hoping in vain that other bands might adopt the Wall of Sound.)
    The Beach Boys' road manager recalled the Oakland 6/8/74 show:
    "I knew the Dead's crew already and they showed me the in and outs of the wall of sound concept. Amazing!! No monitor console, they each mixed their own monitors onstage! Which is why The Beach Boys had their own PA system. Our production manager didn't trust the concept of the wall of sound... After we did the set change, Owsley Stanley came up to me on the side of stage to ask me why the Beach Boys weren't using the wall of sound. He told me he had designed the PA himself and was a bit upset by our decision not to use it. I explained to him it was not my call."