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Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Grateful Dead's Wall Of Sound

 I can across this page recently about the incredibly innovative "Wall of Sound" sound system used by the Grateful Dead for their 1974 tour. Since the band only used the system briefly, not many people know about it, but it certainly was very forward thinking in so many ways.

For as good as recording was in the 60's and 70's, live sound system technology had really only started and lagged far behind. The systems were tiny by today's standards, with a lot of non-matching components used by PA owners just to be able to cover the audience. Plus, on-stage monitoring was still in its infancy, so every artist had a difficult time hearing themselves. This is what prompted the Dead's sound crew and Alembic to come up with a way for the band to not only hear themselves, but to give the audience the best possible listening experience as well.

The "Wall of Sound" was actually comprised of 11 independent sound systems, as you can see from the picture on the left. There was one system for the vocals placed in the center, one for each guitar, one for each string of Phil Lesh's bass (yes, you read that correctly), one for the piano, one for both drummer's bass drum, and one each for the rest of each drummer's kit. Each system was placed behind the player so they could hear it, and since each system was made up of multiple speaker cabinets, could be directed so that most of the sound was aimed directly at the audience instead of bouncing around the venue. The individual systems were powered by 300 watt per channel McIntosh amps, which were always noted for excellent sound and about the most powerful amp that you could get at the time.

The crew came up with an innovative idea for vocal miking using differential mics that really made the whole thing work however. They put two directional mics out-of-phase with each other and spaced them 60mm apart as on the left. This meant that anything coming into the mic other than a vocal sung very close to one mic would cancel out, so you'd only hear the vocal in its particular sound system and nothing else from off the stage.

The reports were that the system sounded incredible and was insanely loud and clean for the time, so it garnered nothing but raves.

Back then this system was light years ahead of any other sound system on the planet, and in many ways, it's never been duplicated. The Dead only used it for a single tour because it was unusually costly to transport and very labor-intensive to set up, but it's something to marvel at even today. You can read more about it here and here, which has mostly the same info but different pictures. The pictures were taken by Richard Pechner, and you can view more images of The Grateful Dead and their Wall of Sound on his website.
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7 comments:

Christian said...

Hi Bob!! I was reading the article, and the "one system for each string of Phil Lesh's Bass" comment break my head in two... I searched everywhere and finds out that that bass was called quad bass, but i didnt find nothing more about this, some vagues explanations but nothing more... Did u know something else or know some website or book that can tell me more??
THe blog's the best for any musician or producer in ways of learning such things!

Greetings from Argentina!!


Christian

Bobby Owsinski said...

Sorry, Christian. I don't know anything else about it.

Andrew Hicox (aka "Dr. Plurgid") said...

that system of vocal mics is ingenious.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately all reports are that the vocals did not sound good.

Kaje said...

Phil talks a little bit about it in "The Grateful Dead Movie" and as the cameraman gets closer, his bass starts to feedback, so he asks the cameraman to move in even closer so he can play with the sounds...

Edwin said...

The deal with the bass is that it's quad in the sense that it had a pair of regular pickups as well as a quad pickups that sensed each string separately. There was a routing matrix (all the knobs along the top) that allowed Phil to assign each string to a portion of his amps. The way the amps were set up was that there were two 40 foot stacks of 15" JBLs. So, each string could get assigned to a half stack. One big thing that was behind the wall was attempt to deal with intermodulation distortion, which was more of an issue back then with the more primitive electronics and speakers. So, the baroque option was to make sure that each electronic path and each speaker only reproduced one instrument. With Phil's bass, it was taken to the extreme of having the signal path and speaker only reproduce one string. Thus, chords could be very very clear sounding. A cool side effect was the fact that each string then came from a different place in space. Alembic, who built the whole thing, was fearless in embracing the coolest but perhaps least practical solution to the problems of the day.

Edwin said...

The deal with the bass is that it's quad in the sense that it had a pair of regular pickups as well as a quad pickups that sensed each string separately. There was a routing matrix (all the knobs along the top) that allowed Phil to assign each string to a portion of his amps. The way the amps were set up was that there were two 40 foot stacks of 15" JBLs. So, each string could get assigned to a half stack. One big thing that was behind the wall was attempt to deal with intermodulation distortion, which was more of an issue back then with the more primitive electronics and speakers. So, the baroque option was to make sure that each electronic path and each speaker only reproduced one instrument. With Phil's bass, it was taken to the extreme of having the signal path and speaker only reproduce one string. Thus, chords could be very very clear sounding. A cool side effect was the fact that each string then came from a different place in space. Alembic, who built the whole thing, was fearless in embracing the coolest but perhaps least practical solution to the problems of the day.

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