Music, Audio, and Other Illnesses

The Great Wall

In the early 70s, the Grateful Dead were the most interesting organization in rock music.

To the world outside of San Francisco, they may have seemed a “Warner Brothers act” –– they were signed to the label from 1967 – 1973 — but they rarely acted like it.  The band had put out a number of albums on the label, including some that were very commercial, but in plain sight of anyone interested, anything but hidden away, they grew from a group of five guys in 1965 to a pretty massive assemblage of companies and people — about 75 people in all.

There was Out of Town Tours, a travel agency called Fly By Night, the Dead’s publishing company Ice Nine[1], as well as Alembic, the most advanced instrument builder of the day, which had its beginnings under the Dead’s wings in this same period. In the last WB period, they had learned to become totally self-reliant. Every aspect of their existence was independent except their records, and by 73, they issued their last WB album and they launched Grateful Dead Records and Round Records. Freedom at last — for a few years.

Their utter uniqueness was commemorated in an issue of Rolling Stone dated November 22, 1973, in a cover story called “A New Life for the Dead: Grateful Dead Handle Their Business”, and a cover that proclaimed, above an airbrushed picture of an ebullient Jerry Garcia,  “Welcome to the Wide Open World of the Corporate Dead”. I want to encourage anyone reading this piece to read the RS piece, too. It’s a wonderful document of the band and company at a phenomenal time in their adventure.

An excerpt to suggest the spirit that pervaded the band:

One other side trip needs to be mentioned: the Neal Cassady Memorial Foundation. Ron Rakow had mentioned it as “one of the measures we’re taking to ensure that the Dead are never financially secure.” Jerry Garcia gives the details:

 “When I recorded Garcia, I found for a while I was rich, so I started giving the money away. And I found after a while that it cost me $1500 to give away $1000. So we’re getting an institution registered to promote research in the arts, sciences and education so I can give away my money easier. So far it hasn’t done anything.

 “Well, yeah, it ought to keep us insecure.”

So, you understand — the Grateful Dead did not think like any other band.  Success to them meant things it didn’t mean to most other people. And so, the great Wall of Sound: it was mostly the inspiration of Augustus Owsley Stanley III, otherwise just called Owsley or Bear. He called everyone to a meeting in 1969 at what was then the band’s rehearsal room in Novato, California, to brainstorm about, basically, his dissatisfaction with the band’s sound. It was a topic Bear knew well — he had appointed himself the Dead’s chief soundman after witnessing them at an Acid Test in 1965, close to their beginnings[2]. And he was after something more. Rick Turner remembers him saying, “You know, the solution is the PA system has to be behind the band.[3]

And so began a process of figuring out how to do that. It was an ingenious, almost completely insane solution, took a few years, and almost broke the band, financially and otherwise. Their near-breakup and yearlong hiatus when the Wall was retired probably had as much to do with hauling it around as anything else. But it worked — really worked! I heard it in 1974, and have never heard anything like it. The combined efforts of Bear, the illustrious John Curl, Ron Wickersham and Rick Turner of Alembic, as well as a few others, paid off in spades.

Imagine an amplifier set-up for each instrument, blown up to arena-filling proportions. Or rather, imagine six of them: one for each instrument (including drums), plus vocals. And then arrange them all in vertical line arrays. And then have the vocalists sing into phase-cancelling microphones.

Let me talk about the bass first, since I know and care more about that subject. The bass, besides bass and treble (or neck and bridge) pickups, had a quad pickup. Each string could go to its own amplifier — or not — selected by push-button switches on the instrument’s face. From there the signal went to four separate preamps, four McIntosh 2300 600-watt amps, and then on to four groups of 9 JBL D140 15” speakers in separate cabinets, arranged, in its final configuration (and as I heard it), as two columns of 18 — slightly over 30 feet, or one full low E wavelength. In practice the bass was rarely used quad, except during a bass solo. And then, it was unbelievable. I was pretty far back in the Philadelphia Civic Center when Phil Lesh soloed, but the clarity, especially of chords, was truly something to remember.

The guitar set-ups were simpler, consisting of smaller amps driving columns of 12s, but the drum, piano and vocal systems were more complex multi-way systems: all in all, almost 600 individual speakers, 50 E-V tweeters, and 50 Mac tube (3500) and solid-state (2300) amps[4]. It was BIG.

But it didn’t sound big. It sounded like a group of people playing their instruments, pretty intimately, in whatever space they were playing in.  And it did what it was expected to do — at least almost. By putting almost all the speakers behind the band, and by controlling vertical spill, the overall color of the band was preserved. The one drawback was the vocal mics, which could sometimes, not always, sound thin owing to their genius arrangement, as a pair per singer of mics run into a differential circuit that would reject anything that went into each mic identically — oh, say, like the massive wall of speakers behind them, while the vocalist sang into one.

And, importantly, it was the first of its kind in many ways. A lot of what’s known and put into practice nowadays was discovered in the band’s Wall period, and in small systems like the Bose portable L1 line array system, which does an admirable job of doing, in miniature, what the Grateful Dead, en masse, learned from the Wall of Sound.

 

[1] Named for the water with a higher melting point from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cats Cradle”

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_4IBpkTgsY

[3] https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/wnnayb/the-wall-of-sound

[4] Rick Turner adds: “You might just mention that the 2300s were used for everything except the EV tweeters where the tube 3500s sounded better, and that the PA portion was a four way system with the height of each frequency band array designed to give optimal dispersion for the wave lengths projected.  The ultimate goal was equal dispersion at all frequencies…with reality kicking in a bit.“