Wall of Sound

grateful dead

The Wall of Sound was an enormous public address system designed specifically for the Grateful Dead’s live performances by audio engineer Owsley ‘Bear’ Stanley. Used in 1974, the Wall of Sound fulfilled the band’s desire for a distortion-free sound system that could also serve as its own monitoring system. The Wall of Sound was the largest concert sound system built at that time.

As Stanley described it, ‘The Wall of Sound is the name some people gave to a super powerful, extremely accurate PA system that I designed and supervised the building of in 1973 for the Grateful Dead. It was a massive wall of speaker arrays set behind the musicians, which they themselves controlled without a front of house mixer. It did not need any delay towers to reach a distance of half a mile from the stage without degradation.’

After Stanley got out of prison in late 1972, he, Dan Healy and Mark Raizene of the Grateful Dead’s sound crew, in collaboration with Ron Wickersham, Rick Turner, and John Curl of Alembic combined six independent sound systems using eleven separate channels, in an effort to deliver high-quality sound to audiences. Vocals, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, and piano each had their own channel and set of speakers. Phil Lesh’s bass was piped through a quadraphonic encoder that sent signals from each of the four strings to a separate channel and set of speakers for each string. Another channel amplified the bass drum, and two more channels carried the snares, tom-toms, and cymbals. Because each speaker carried just one instrument or vocalist, the sound was exceptionally clear and free of intermodulation distortion.

The Wall of Sound consisted of 89 300-watt solid-state and three 350-watt vacuum tube amplifiers generating a total of 26,400 watts of audio power. This system projected high quality playback at six hundred feet with an acceptable sound projected for a quarter mile, at which point wind interference degraded it.

The Wall of Sound was the first large scale Line array used in modern sound reinforcement systems, although it was not called a line array at the time. Four semi-trailers and 21 crew members were required to haul and set up the 75-ton Wall.

Though the initial framework and a rudimentary form of the system was unveiled at Stanford University’s Roscoe Maples Pavilion on February 9, 1973 (every tweeter blew as the band began their first number), the Grateful Dead did not begin to tour with the full system until a year later. The completed Wall of Sound made its touring debut on March 23, 1974, at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California.

The Wall of Sound acted as its own monitor system, and it was therefore assembled behind the band so the members could hear exactly what their audience was hearing. Because of this, Stanley and Alembic designed a special microphone system to prevent feedback. This placed matched pairs of condenser microphones spaced 60 mm apart and run out of phase. The vocalist sang into the top microphone, and the lower mic picked up whatever other sound was present in the stage environment. The signals were added together using a differential summing amp so that the sound common to both mics (the sound from the Wall) was canceled, and only the vocals were amplified.

The Wall was very efficient for its day, but it suffered from other drawbacks besides its sheer size. Synthesist Ned Lagin, who toured with the group throughout much of 1974, never received his own dedicated input into the system, and was forced to use the vocal subsystem. Because this was often switched to the vocal mics, many of Lagin’s parts were lost in the mix. Also, the Wall’s quadraphonic format never translated well to soundboard tapes made during the period, as the sound was compressed into an unnatural stereo format and suffered from a pronounced tinniness.

The rising cost of fuel and personnel, as well as friction among many of the newer crew members and associated hangers-on, contributed to the band’s October 1974 ‘retirement.’ The Wall of Sound was disassembled, and when the Dead began touring again in 1976, it was replaced with a more logistically practical sound system.

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