Steve Waksman, Rock Musicologist: Part Two

Steve Waksman, Rock Musicologist: Part Two

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

(Author’s note: In our interview with Steve Waksman in TMT #102, he discussed the shifting social role of the electric guitar in American life; then we talked about Bill Hanley, the pioneering sound engineer who helped Dylan plug in at Newport in 1965. After that came the Beatles at Shea Stadium, Bill Graham’s Fillmore East system, and much more.)

Larry Schenbeck: Please tell us about Bill Hanley at Woodstock.

Steve Waksman: Right, Woodstock, almost certainly the thing for which Hanley will be best remembered. Michael Lang, the one of the four Woodstock producers who exerted the most creative control, picked a bunch of folks who worked for Graham at the Fillmore East to pull the festival together, and Hanley was one of them. Given his Newport experience he was clearly the best person for the job, but this was on a scale beyond what he had done before. Fortunately, the state of audio equipment had improved dramatically. When Hanley did sound for the Newport festivals in the early 1960s, he was relying on McIntosh MC75 power amps, which put out 75 watts. Now McIntosh had a 350-watt amplifier, and Crown had issued a 300-watt amp that was smaller and more portable because of the solid-state circuitry. Hanley used a mix of McIntosh and Crown units for Woodstock. The system had a total output of around 10,000 watts. Even that wound up being insufficient when the crowd far exceeded the expected turnout of about 100,000, so Hanley had to adjust the compressors he had hooked up to boost the levels further.

The McIntosh amps used at Woodstock. Photo courtesy of Commercial Integrator.

LS: Those “compressors”—what did they compress, exactly?

SW: Compression is a fundamental aspect of audio production. It’s talked about more often with studio recording than with live sound. In recent years a kind of hyper-compressed sound has become the norm on lots of commercial recordings. But Hanley used compression because it could limit the dynamic range of an audio output signal by reducing the levels of the peak (i.e., loudest) frequencies. Compression tends to flatten the overall output, which in turn actually allows the sound engineer to further boost the overall signal. By reducing the peaks, he or she can drive the system harder with less fear of blowing a speaker or having the sound distort like in Dylan’s Newport 1965 set. That’s why compression was a key strategy for Hanley in getting the system he built for Woodstock to project maximum volume.

LS: In your Boston talk, you also described the tower speakers at Woodstock in detail. Was this was another Hanley innovation?

SW: Yes, very much so. The physical geography of Woodstock was challenging because of the size of the crowd and the open-air nature of the event. Woodstock’s producers all said Max Yasgur’s land was perfect because it was a like a natural amphitheater, with the stage area set up at the bottom of a long rolling incline. Hanley realized that a standard speaker setup would not distribute the sound well, because the crowd continued so far up the hill and away from the stage. So he and his crew built two 70-foot-tall speaker towers. But his real stroke of genius was to install two levels of speakers on each tower—one on the top, directed back toward the highest part of the hill, for people furthest away from the stage, and one several feet lower, directed at the audience on the ground right in front of the towers.

Part of the Woodstock sound system.

This kind of creative engineering really shows why Hanley was such a groundbreaking live sound producer. While he was very much a self-proclaimed technocrat, caught up in equipment design, he also had that rare ability to think about sound from the perspective of the audience, about what would create the best listening experience.

LS: Was Woodstock the climax of Hanley’s career? It’s hard to imagine how he could have topped that.

SW: Yes and no. It was definitely the biggest event he did, and the one that got the most notice. But Hanley himself always seemed ambivalent about Woodstock. For one thing, he wasn’t a hippie. He was a bit older, and his sensibilities were more suited to the Newport festivals than to a scene like that. More to the point, he came to view Woodstock as the beginning of the end of a certain line of development. It became harder after that to produce big festivals, because, well, a lot of communities didn’t want a Woodstock in their backyard. So the situation for producing festivals became much more restrictive, even before Altamont, usually seen as the moment when the phenomenon started to fall apart. Hanley had a particularly hard time with an effort to put on a festival at the Powder Ridge ski resort in Connecticut, which was stopped in its tracks by local resistance.

Hanley’s career didn’t come to a standstill after Woodstock. He worked for a few years on the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. It was pretty small compared to what it would become, but Hanley definitely helped get it off the ground. By the later 1970s things were slowing down for him more.

LS: They say “journalism is the first rough draft of history.” Some of these things have certainly been covered by popular media.

SW: Journalists have covered Hanley to a degree, although during the prime of his career he rarely got more than passing attention. Lately he’s had a greater share of retrospective attention, mostly from specialist sources—the best published interview with him appeared in the audio-production magazine Recording Engineer/Producer, which some of your readers might know from years past. One scholar, John Kane, has taken on the responsibility of documenting Hanley’s life and career with an unprecedented level of detail. Keep an eye out for his book, The Last Seat in the House, due to be published in early 2020.

LS: As a historian and cultural analyst, your goals are necessarily distinct from those of journalists or critics. Why would someone like you study Hanley’s work?

SW: Hanley is a small part of a larger project I’m working on, but he’s a really important part. I’m finishing up a history of live music in the U.S. that covers the period from about 1850 to the present day. Yes, it’s as absurdly over-ambitious as it sounds! One of my many goals with the project is to reflect on how live music actually manages to happen. Which is to say, live music doesn’t just happen. It takes an incredible amount of work to put on a performance. The required infrastructure has grown dramatically over time. Hanley is one of many figures that allow me to get into what I call the enabling conditions of live music. With Hanley, we get to see how much problem-solving was required to develop the basic tools that allow a live performance to work, which then sets an expectation for how performances should work—in particular, how they should sound.

LS: Let me see if I get this: first you investigate what allows a performance to work. Then you determine how that sets up people’s expectations, whether for the next performance or for other matters. So what you’re really talking about is how people create cultures, which are based on things that work repeatedly, which means they reliably sustain and express our values, desires, fears, et cetera. Sometimes they help us revise all that: we go electric. In any case, we embrace these means of enabling performance.

SW: Yes, that’s a good summation. But in particular I’m looking at work that was ignored or dismissed by most historians. I do realize that looking at live music this way takes attention away from the artists we usually think of as the main attraction. Obviously, the audience that comes to see U2 or Kiss or Beyoncé is there to see that artist. To truly understand live music and the impact it has, though, you need to go behind the scenes. Economy matters—where does the money come from? And so I talk a lot about promoters and the business of concert promotion. But the details of staging and production are just as crucial. That’s where Hanley comes into play, along with figures like Chip Monck, who worked closely with Hanley on the Newport festivals and at Woodstock, and later toured with the Stones as their stage designer and production coordinator. Or Jules Fisher, who did lighting design and stage production for a host of 1970s touring acts—David Bowie, Kiss, the Stones again, P-Funk. When you’re dealing with artists of that caliber, you’re dealing with stars that have a larger-than-life presence. Yet when you’re in an arena watching them perform, they’re often reduced to a speck on the stage. Good production brings that larger-than-life quality back into play. It ensures that the audience has the experience they are there to have, that everyone can hear and see them in a way that brings them pleasure.


Photo of Steve Waksman by Julian Parker-Burns.

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