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RE/P Files: An Interview With Bill Hanley

A pioneer of large-scale sound reinforcement, including systems for the Beatles, the Filmore, and Woodstock, reflects on the early years of rock and roll.

“One of the other things that drove me bananas happened in Newport. I remember having a constant tone on the system. It was four or five 210s on each side with some two cells and 10 cells for inside close, and I walked across the stage and there was no sound. I walked a little further and there was sound again. It was going on and off with phase cancellation. You beat your head on getting everything flat and then you find out it depends where you stand whether you hear it or not. I will never forget that day when I walked across the stage. I knew about phase cancellation indoors, but I never thought about it in an outdoor situation.”

Supporting the separation of church and state Hanley was not doing concerts exclusively, however. In addition to college and university commencements, he provided sound for the presidential inauguration in 1968. In doing so, he introduced the Whitehouse to high-fidelity sound and Shure microphones.

“They had a whole bunch of those University spun-aluminum speakers with the 12-inch woofer and the tweeter in the center, up on scaffolding towers. They were awful. I put up six 210s, three on each side, and blew them away. They had taken pictures at Kennedy’s inauguration, and the head sound man for the Catholic churches wrote the specs for the sound system from looking at the pictures. They had lights marked down as speakers and all kinds of things.

They threw the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at me at the last minute. This was a great opportunity to bring in my 210s. We set up two systems and `A -B’ed them, and never listened to his system again. That was the last time I did an inauguration; he never let me come back,”

Hanley did not jump on new technology just because it was new. Other than equalization in the channel strips, Hanley had not yet found any pressing need for more elaborate equalization, such as the Altec Acousta-Voice process introduced by Don Davis.

“I had talked to him a couple of times out in Anaheim, but it looked like something more for voice systems, not music. I wasn’t having any feedback problems. I maximized the front-to-back ratios and tight-miced everything. I never got into EQs; I never learned to use them until later. Then I used them in ways not originally intended, more for artistic purposes.”

It’s not surprising then that Hanley’s favorite feedback story doesn’t involve feedback at all.

“I was doing Satchmo’s birthday party at the Sugarbowl. It was a rush job, and I had just built a new console, checked it out on the bench, and it looked OK. In the middle of the introductions, all of a sudden, it squealed like crazy. Here we are, in front of 20,000 people, and George Wiens is on stage, screaming at me, ‘Don’t you know what you’re doing after all these years?!’

“He’s standing on stage, all but calling me a f – – -—a – -—in front of these people. I didn’t know if there was a problem with the console I had never heard before. It sounded like it was going into oscillation: It wouldn’t snap on, it kind of rose up in level. Here I am, banging on the console. Someone spotted this guy standing up by the mic box. Here was this jerk from a recording studio, plugging his signal generator into the mic inputs. Luckily, someone caught this guy. Was I embarrassed!”

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Hanley’s experience with large outdoor festivals such as the Miami, Atlanta and Dallas pop festivals and the Randall Island festival had established the reputation that led the promoters of Woodstock to him.

Michael Lang, the executive producer, wanted a sound system with no screwups, regardless of cost. At that time, there were no precedents for a venue as large as the one contemplated on Yasgur’s 700 -acre field. After some inquiries, several sources recommended Hanley, because of his involvement in the other festivals. Because of the scale of Woodstock, Hanley built custom speakers for the event. The low-frequency systems were similar to Altec 210s, but contained four Above those were boxes that each contained eight direct-radiator JBL 15 -inch drivers. There were two of each system per side on the lower tier of scaffolding and four each per side on the highest tier. Multidriver 10-cell Altec multicells with 290 drivers provided highs.

“We had done a lot of tests and had a lot of failures with JBLs on the high frequencies, and they wanted a fortune to re-diaphragm them for us. We got into the 290s because they would stay together longer. Then we used 288s turned around with the back covers off as direct radiator HF because that’s all there was. I wasn’t into speaker design.”

The system was passively bi-amped and driven with a combination of Macintosh MI200 and MI350 amplifiers and the then-new Crown DC300 for a total power of more than 10,000W.

Stage monitoring was done with a pair of side-wash monitors, each consisting of a JBL 4530 LF enclosure with a JBL driver, and an Altec 311 -60 horn with 290E driver for highs. These were driven by DC300s. The console that he had planned to use for live sound had to be diverted to recording at the last minute. Hanley had chartered a plane to bring a console up at the last minute.

Typical of his consoles, they used Langevin pre-amps and EQ. The 20-input house sound console was augmented by Shure M67 mixers as required and fed the system through LA2A limiters. These limiters were also used on the vocal tracks that were layed down on the 8 -track Scully recorder. The stage featured a turntable to allow quick changeovers of the acts. Two 19-pair snakes, custom-built by Bill and Terry, were fed into a custom switchover box that allowed fast changeover at the console.

“We were mixing blind. We were way out from the stage, and by the time someone got out to you through the audience with the microphone list, they were already playing:’ Hanley credits mix engineer Lee Osborne for much of the success in these difficult circumstances, citing his quick grasp of problems under pressure, and his knowledge and experience in live sound work. Despite the well-publicized problems at Woodstock, the torrential rain and the financial problems of the promoters, it went well for Hanley.

“The only things that didn’t fail were the sound system, the water supply and the stage security. We’d have been OK if the turntables had stayed together. There were three half-moons that could be set up and hooked to the turntable. They used these cheap 8-inch casters, and the plates eventually tore out of the platform.”

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Hanley had no equipment failures, having been prepared for the worst that Mother Nature and rock music could muster. “We’d done lots of outdoor shows; we were prepared. It was a matter of good planning.”

“Woodstock didn’t feel like a historic moment. I never thought about it in those terms from an intellectual, historical point of view. You’re busy making everything work, making it sound good. It wasn’t as dramatic for me as it was for everyone else, it was old hat. Being a technocrat as I am, I was shut out of the political and historical significance.”


That’s not to suggest that he was unmoved by the experience.

“All those people, the joy of the people that were there, the idealism of all those people -it was a culmination of that kind of thing. A lot of high idealism was why I got into it in the first place.”

The console Hanley had built was curved, with inputs in groups of 10. Multiple planes allowed the mix engineer to see and feel every knob. The work with this console led him to start work on an even-more-elaborate console.

“Right after Woodstock, I had started to build a console in the round, a semicircular shape that had three planes, two two-band EQs per channel, and presets. No one’s figured out yet that what’s important in a sound reinforcement console is speed. Get everything into the audio engineer’s field of vision; you’ve got to be able to touch and feel everything. This thing where it takes two or three guys to mix or you need roller skates is crazy.”

The console remains three-quarters built, a victim of the cash crunch Hanley encountered after Woodstock.

“After Woodstock, the festival markets dried up. I lost a quarter of a million bucks worth of business in three weeks, and I was already three or four hundred thousand dollars in debt:’ Competition was starting to heat up; other people like the Clair brothers were getting into the market.

“I was believing my own bull—-, I wasn’t countering the competition.”

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