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The Grateful Dead: A Continual Development Of Concert Sound (Circa 1983)

The evolution of the sound reinforcement approach for the iconic band - including the "Wall of Sound" - over the course of nearly two decades.
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Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the June 1983 issue of Recording Engineer/Producer magazine, the forerunner to Live Sound International.

The Grateful Dead have been playing their unique brand of improvisational, eclectic music going on 18 years now. Though their records are modest sellers, and more or less ignored by radio and the “establishment” press, the Dead are consistently among the highest-grossing concert acts in the country.

What they do musically is improvisational, existential, and not always satisfactory; but since the beginning the Dead has been attended and experimented upon by forward-looking sound specialists, always seeking to improve the quality of their live sound.

Dan Healy has been mixing the Dead’s concerts since the band first took to the San Francisco clubs and ballrooms, and he says he’s never been bored. To Healy, the Dead is “a vehicle that enables an aggregate of people to experiment with musical and technical ideas. It’s a workshop and a breadboard, as well as a dream and a treat. There’s no place in the world that I know of that would give me this much space to experiment and try new things and also to hear good music.”

The Dead’s own people have developed equipment and techniques to improve the state of the sound reinforcement art, and they have invited others to use their gigs as live testing grounds. “We live on the scary side of technology, probably more than we ought to,” guitarist Bob Weir concedes. But you don’t learn much from maintaining the status quo, and the Dead has always encouraged experimentation and sought new knowledge in many areas.

The Early Days

The first PA system Healy operated at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco consisted of a 70-watt amp, two Altec 604s, and a two-input microphone mixer. “And that was far out compared to what was there the week before,” he recalls. When Healy and his fellow soundpeople started trying to put better systems together, they found that the hardware available was not very advanced.

“The first thing we did was go get tons of it, only to find that that was only a stopgap measure,” he remembers. “It was obvious that there was nothing you could get off the shelf that you could use. Furthermore, there were no answers to our questions in journals or texts; where the equipment ended, so did the literature and research. What we needed was past the point where R&D had taken sound equipment.” So they set out to find the answers for themselves.

Healy and the Grateful Dead became willing guinea pigs for John Meyer, then of McCune Sound, Ron Wickersham of Alembic, and others on the scene who were looking for ways to deliver music painlessly and efficiently at the often ridiculously high SPLs of the San Francisco sound and rock music in general.

“Those guys were long in the design and prototype area,” Healy explains, “and we were long in the criteria. We built a system and scrapped it, built another one and scrapped it. We never had a finished system, because by the time we’d get one near completion it was obsolete in our minds, and we already had a new one on the drawing boards.”

A drawing of the Wall Of Sound by Mary Ann Mayer.

The concept of speaker synergy and phase coherency in particular was understood by the early Seventies, and several designers had come up with ways of implementing it. John Meyer and McCune Sound developed a three-way, tri-amped single-cabinet system with crossovers that reduced phase shift considerably. It was a significant improvement, but there was plenty of work yet to do.

While Meyer was in Switzerland studying every aspect of speaker design, acoustics and the electronics of sound, Healy and Alembic and the rest took off in other directions.

The Dead debuted a new system at San Francisco’s Cow Palace on March 23, 1974, in a concert dubbed “The Sound Test.” (It’s also more famously known as the “Wall of Sound.” – editor) Bassist Phil Lesh calls it the “rocket gantry” and maintains that it was the best PA the Dead ever had.

“It was the ultimate derivation of cleanliness,” Healy explains. “No two things went through any one speaker. There was a separate system for the vocals and separate systems for each guitar, the piano, and the drums. You could get it amazingly loud, and it was staggeringly clean, cleaner than anything today. It still holds the record for harmonic and most especially intermodulation distortion.”

He calls this system’s theory of operation the “as above, so below theory. If you stack a bunch of speakers vertically and stand close to one, you hear the volume of that one speaker. If you move a little farther away, you hear two speakers; move away some more and you hear three. If you have a lot of them stacked up high, you can move quite a ways away and the volume stays the same.”

The Wall of Sound at the Pacific National Exhibition Coliseum, 1974.

There was no mixing board in the house. Each musician controlled his own instrumental volume, because his speaker stack was its own PA system.

Guitarists Weir and Jerry Garcia each had about 40 12-inch speakers in vertical columns and bassist Lesh had a quadrophonic system. Vocals also were delivered to the band and the audience by the same speakers. Each singer had a pair of mics, wired out of phase so that background sound arriving equally at both was canceled, while what was sung into one mike was passed on to the amplifier.

Healy recalls one unfortunate incident a year before the gantry system was officially unveiled, when some of these principles were tested at a concert in Stanford University’s basketball arena.

“We spent maybe $20,000 on amplifiers, crossovers, and stuff,” he recalls, “and we rebuilt a lot of Electro-Voice tweeters. We pink-noised the room from the booth and got it exactly flat. If you flatten a system from a hundred feet away, it’ll sound like a buzzsaw, and it did. We started the show, and in the first two seconds every single one of those brand-new tweeters was smoked. We went through all those changes to put protection devices in, and they never worked, they blew long after the speakers were gone.”

There was no hope of replacing the 80 or more tweeters they’d blown, so Healy says they “opened up the tops of the crossovers, equalized a little bit and faked it.” He points out philosophically that recovery from such catastrophes is “another thing that you learn after enough years. Recovery is your backup buddy.” He also notes that the years of experience make it much easier to estimate what will work and what won’t, so it’s easier to avoid disaster.

It was economics that caused the Sound Test system to be dismantled. The gasoline crisis of the mid-Seventies made it unfeasible to truck tons of speakers, amplifiers and spares plus two complete stages which leapfrogged so that one could be set up before the PA arrived from the last gig.

“It began to eat us up after a while,” says Healy. “Remember that we were trying to take this across the country and interface with halls: set up the equipment, play a show for 20,000 people, tear it down, then show up the next day in another city and do it again for three weeks in a row, or a month, or six months. “We were damn lucky. We got a tremendous amount of knowledge out of that system before it became such a burden that it started to distract from the music.”

Smaller Can Be Beautiful

When the Dead resumed touring in 1976, after a 21-month hiatus, PA technology had advanced sufficiently that it was no longer necessary to isolate each instrument and run it through a separate speaker system – not to mention the fact that it was economically impossible to truck those mountains of gear around. “Efficiency comes down to the number of boxes that you have to carry, of weight in a semi-truck going down the highway,” Healy observes.

Not only was it impractical, but it was no longer necessary. In the intervening years, what Healy and the Dead wanted – a system that performed as well as the Wall of Sound but which was “one fourth the size and four times as efficient” – came into existence. “The system we have now is better than the ‘74 system, overall, even though the ‘74 system may have been better in certain ways.”

The Dead currently tour with a PA owned by Ultra Sound using loudspeaker systems and associated electronics by Meyer Sound Labs. “Meyer has been able to extend the low and high frequencies without hopelessly distorting the rest of the sound,” Healy notes. “That’s actually the main significance.” And by arranging the speaker cabinets to work together in a very precise way across the whole frequency spectrum, it takes fewer drivers to cover the desired area, and intelligibility is uniformly good nearly everywhere.

Ultra Sound concert system for a Grateful Dead concert at the Oakland Auditorium, 1981. The main flown loudspeaker system is made up of Meyer Sound Laboratories MSL3 cabinets.

With the quality of the PA hardware firmly in hand, Healy says that the Dead’s concert setup these days goes through subtler changes and refinements. One interesting development came to Healy almost by accident and resulted in a very useful device to make his job easier.

“The vocal mic is the loudest one in the mix,” he explains, “and if it’s open on the stage it’s picking up drums or guitars from 15 feet away, and adding them in 15 milliseconds later – which is that many degrees of phase cancellation – and the net result is a washing-out of the mix. You can’t use audio amplitude to gate those mikes, because the guitars are frequently louder at the mike than the voice that’s standing right in front of it.

“So a certain amount of me always had to be on the watch for the singers so I could turn their mikes on,” he continues. “That was annoying, and it kept me from being able to listen on a more general level. The Paramount Theater in Portland, Oregon, has a balcony that’s right on top of the stage. I was looking down at the guitar players, and it all connected for me. I’m a musician myself, and I know that one of the most embarrassing things that happens when you’re playing rock ‘n’ roll is running into the mike and banging yourself on the lip or being a mile away from it when it’s time to sing.

A diagram of the Dead’s system provided by Ultra Sound in Oakland in 1981. The main loudspeakers were flown, comprising 12 Meyer Sound MSL3s at each side of stage plus a center cluster of eight (four left and four right channel), also above band. Suspended from the side clusters are three [Meyer Sound Laboratories] UPA cabinets, angled downward to fill in for those at the front of the audience.

“That night in Portland I realized that every musician has a kind of home base where he puts his foot in relation to the stand so he knows he’ll be right at the mic. It was duck soup: I got the kind of mats they use to open doors at the grocery store, then designed and built the electronics that gated the VCAs [to control the mike-preamp gain], and lo and behold, it worked!”

It’s Never Routine

For keyboardist Brent Mydland, the situation wasn’t so simple. John Cutler, who works with the Dead in R&D as well as other capacities, designed a system around the sonar rangefinders used in Polaroid cameras. Using discrete logic rather than a full-blown microprocessor, Cutler came up with an automatic gate that opened the mike when Mydland’s head came within singing distance of either of his two mics.

“It’s just one of those things that came about as a means to an end,” says Healy. “I built the floormat [device] just so I could be freed from switching on microphones.” Rather than get involved in marketing a device like this, which Healy says is “not my business,” he just has a few extra circuit boards made. “If somebody comes by and wants to try it, we give them the cards and a parts list.”

Because every Grateful Dead gig is different – no songlist, plenty of room for instrumental improvisation, no pre-arranged sound cues to speak of – mixing for the band has never settled into a routine for Healy.

Detail of the right-hand cluster of MSL3s at the Oakland Auditorium in 1981. (Photo Credit: Kurt Anderson)

“Some nights they start out screaming and get softer, and some nights they start in one place and stay there,” he says. “There isn’t really any good or bad in it – it’s just a different night in a different way. From the start to the end of the show, it’s a continuous progression, figuring out how to spend the watts of audio power that you have in such a way that it’s pleasant and human.”

It’s been years since Healy went into a hall and pink-noised the sound system. “I leave my filter set flat, and I dial it in during the first couple of songs. After enough years of correlating what I see and hear, I know what frequencies, how much, and what to do with it.”

Test equipment is on hand for reference, but Healy prefers to rely on his ears. “You have a speedometer in your car, but you don’t have to use it – or even necessarily have it. You don’t need it to know how fast you’re going, but it’s there for reference: That’s how I use the SPL meter and the real-time analyzer.”

In the “hockey-hall-type spaces” the Dead plays in these days, Healy likes to set up about 85 feet from the stage. “In my opinion – and my opinion only, for that matter – the ideal combination of near-field and far-field is 85 feet. I don’t like to be far enough into the far field that it’s a distraction, but for me it’s important to hear what the audience hears. Healy considers himself the audience’s representative to the band, comparing notes with the musicians after shows, and telling them things they might not want to hear “if I feel I have to.”

He also encourages – within reason – those members of the Dead’s following who bring their recording gear to concerts. “I’m sympathetic with the tapesters, because that’s what I used to be,” he says. “I remember buying my first stereo tape machine and my first two condenser microphones, sweating to make the payments, and going around to clubs and recording jazz. So I’ve sided with the tapesters, helped them and given them advice and turned them on to equipment.

“I learn a lot from hearing those tapes,” he continues. “The axiom that ‘microphones don’t lie’ is a true one. If you put a microphone up in the audience and pull a tape and it doesn’t sound good, you can’t say, ‘It was the microphone,’ or ‘It was the audience.’ You’ve got to accept the fact that it didn’t sound good. When you stick a mic up in the audience and the tape sounds cool, it’s probably because the sound was cool. So it’s significant to pay attention to the tapes.”

Even after 18 years of working with the Dead, Healy says he still enjoys going to work every day. “I’ve been doing it so long that I don’t even look at it as a job,” he explains. “It doesn’t get stale for me on any continuous basis. I react more to ‘Tonight was a good night,’ or ‘It wasn’t so good.’ I can have a bad night and go home discouraged and kicking the dog, grumble-grumbie, but I’m always ready to start again tomorrow.”

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