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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.

The 1970s

Hanley was still doing touring work in 1970. He was involved in Festival Express, probably the only major rock tour to travel by train.

“That was a lot of fun. It was a really great time:’ He recalls an incident with Peter, Paul and Mary: “They had a really sharpy sound man, they had to mix their own thing and just send me a feed. This was the same guy who did ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ They had to close the show for three weeks because the sound was so bad. One night it sounded terrible, and their manager, Albert Grossman, was screaming at me, ‘None of my acts will ever use your system! I’ll send letters! You’ll never work again!’

It was just luck that I had a Nagra on the limiter input from their feed that night, and it came to me distorted. Garbage in, garbage out. So, I’m saying, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute: “Back in those days at the festivals, you never really got a chance to do a sound check. The pressure was really intense. I guess that’s what I liked about doing it live instead of in the studio.”

Hanley has many memories of the developing concert sound business. His position as one of the earliest participants gives him a unique perspective.

“We were the first people who were temporary sound reinforcement engineers. I had to learn the hard way that in dealing with live performance, I was dealing with sound reinforcement instead of sound reproduction. It’s a different school of thought.

“There wasn’t anyone else when I started. I started with six, eight, 10, and finally something like 30 Altec 210s in running inventory. That took some serious trucking:’ It took quite some time before Hanley was forced to think about the need to make money at it, and not do it just for satisfaction. “I got so much positive feedback from what I was doing that I never came to terms with the need to make money at it.”

For Hanley, strong idealism often led him into conflicts with his employers. “When you take the laws of physics as your ideals, you get overconfident. It’s still the musicians that call the shots on who gets the jobs.

“Arthur Fiedler used to get mad at me because I wanted to put up lots of microphones, get as much direct sound as I could get, and then add reverb artificially. That way, everyone would hear what’s going on in context. When you have a solo flute playing, you drop 30dB in level, and the people 300 feet away are now in the ambient noise. I used to think that was poor. The conductors at commencements would ask for one mic for a 35- or 40-piece orchestra, but now they often go along with multiple-microphone techniques.”

In the early days of touring sound, the manufacturers did not look at it as a serious market.

“I had a good relationship with Macintosh, but other manufacturers weren’t as cooperative. I had talked to JBL about getting into it, but they thought it was stupid:’ Now, of course, portable sound reinforcement markets likely make up a significant portion of professional audio sales. At that time, it wasn’t seen as a growth market or a good test bed for new products. The needs and demands of touring sound were not yet a concern.

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Current Projects

Hanley’s current project is an automated stage, a folding structure that would contain a stage pre-wired for mics, monitors and ac. It would include ac distribution, monitor power and light dimming equipment in it. In conjunction with that, lift systems to hoist sound systems into place, pre-wired and configured.

“I’ve wanted to mechanize this for 13 or 14 years. It’s insane: you hump all the stuff into and out of the truck; you do the same thing all the time. All these men doing all this work, two-day marathons to set up a stadium system. I just wanted to push buttons and make it happen.”

It’s an ambitious project that has been consuming a lot of time and capital, but it gets closer all the time. “It would be nice to go to the store and buy one,” Hanley said.

Bill Hanley, now 50, still does a few commencements, such as MIT’s, and other interesting sound jobs, operating from Hanley Sound, in Peabody, MA. His brother Terry operates Terry Hanley Audio in Cambridge, MA. The history of the concert sound reinforcement business has never been as well documented as the movie sound business, but it is every bit as interesting, and, in some ways, more relevant to many of us, amplifying, as it did, the soundtrack of our lives.

(Read more about Bill Hanley and see his latest info at billhanley.org.)

Editor’s Note: This is a series of articles from Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P) magazine, which began publishing in 1970 under the direction of Publisher/Editor Martin Gallay. After a great run, RE/P ceased publishing in the early 1990s, yet its content is still much revered in the professional audio community. RE/P also published the first issues of Live Sound International (LSI) magazine as a quarterly supplement beginning in January 1992, founded by Mike Joseph (RE/P editor during that period), and LSI grew to become the monthly publication that continues to thrive to this day.

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