How the Grateful Dead’s “Wall of Sound”–a Monster, 600-Speaker Sound System–Changed Rock Concerts & Live Music Forever

There is a scene in Return of the Jedi when Luke Sky­walk­er defeats the mon­strous, man-eat­ing Ran­cor, crush­ing its skull with a por­tullis, and we see the beast’s keep­er, a port­ly shirt­less gen­tle­man in leather breech­es and head­gear, weep­ing over the loss of his beloved friend. I think of this scene when I read about a night in 1974 at San Francisco’s Win­ter­land Ball­room when Grate­ful Dead drum­mer Mick­ey Hart walked on the stage and found the band’s sound engi­neer Owsley “Bear” Stan­ley stand­ing in front of “a sol­id wall of over 600 speak­ers.”

As Enmore Audio tells it:

Tears streamed down his face and he whis­pered to the mass of wood, met­al, and wiring, with the ten­der­ness of any par­ent wit­ness­ing their child’s first recital, “I love you and you love me—how could you fail me?”

The sto­ry sums up Owsley’s total ded­i­ca­tion to what became known as “The Wall of Sound,” a feat of tech­ni­cal engi­neer­ing that “changed the way tech­ni­cians thought about live engi­neer­ing.” The “three-sto­ry behe­moth… was free of all dis­tor­tion… served as its own mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem and solved many, if not all of the tech­ni­cal prob­lems that sound engi­neers faced at that time.” But, while it had required much tri­al and error and many refine­ments, it did not fail, as you’ll learn in the Poly­phon­ic video above.

Live sound prob­lems not only bedev­iled engi­neers but bands and audi­ences as well. Through­out the six­ties, rock con­certs grew in size and scope, audi­ences grew larg­er and loud­er, yet ampli­fi­ca­tion did not. Low-wattage gui­tar amps could hard­ly be heard over the sound of scream­ing fans. With­out mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems, bands could bare­ly hear them­selves play. This “noise cri­sis,” writes Moth­er­board, “con­front­ed musi­cians who went elec­tric at the height of the war in Viet­nam,” but it has been “rou­tine­ly snuffed from the annals of mod­ern music.”

In dra­mat­ic recre­ations of the peri­od, drums and gui­tars boom and wail over the noise of sta­di­um and fes­ti­val crowds. For ears accus­tomed to the pow­er of mod­ern sound sys­tems, the actu­al expe­ri­ence, by con­trast, would have been under­whelm­ing. Most Bea­t­les fans know the band quit tour­ing in 1966 because they couldn’t hear them­selves over the audi­ence. Things improved some­what, but the Dead, “obsessed with their sound to com­pul­sive degrees,” could not abide the noisy, feed­back-laden, under­pow­ered sit­u­a­tion. Still, they weren’t about to give up play­ing live, and cer­tain­ly not with Owsley on board.

“A Ken­tucky-born crafts­man and for­mer bal­let dancer”—and a man­u­fac­tur­er and dis­trib­uter of “mass quan­ti­ties of high-grade LSD,” whose prof­its financed the Dead for a time—Owsley applied his obses­sion with “sound as both a con­cept and a phys­i­cal thing.” To solve the noise cri­sis for the Dead, he first built an inno­v­a­tive sound sys­tem in 1973 (after serv­ing a cou­ple stints in prison for sell­ing acid). The fol­low­ing year, he sug­gest­ed putting the PA sys­tem behind the band, “a crazy idea at the time.”

His exper­i­ments in ‘74 evolved to include line arrays—“columns of speak­ers… designed to con­trol the dis­per­sion of sound across the fre­quen­cy range”—noise-canceling micro­phones to clear up mud­dy vocals, six sep­a­rate sound sys­tems that could iso­late eleven chan­nels, and a quadra­phon­ic encoder for the bass, “which took a sig­nal,” Enmore notes, “from each string and pro­ject­ed it through its own set of speak­ers.” The mas­sive Wall of Sound could not last long. It had to be stream­lined into a far more man­age­able and cost-effec­tive tour­ing rig. All the same, Owsley and the band’s will­ing­ness take ideas and exe­cu­tion to extreme lengths changed live sound for­ev­er for the bet­ter.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

11,215 Free Grate­ful Dead Con­cert Record­ings in the Inter­net Archive

Jer­ry Gar­cia Talks About the Birth of the Grate­ful Dead & Play­ing Kesey’s Acid Tests in New Ani­mat­ed Video

The Grate­ful Dead’s Final Farewell Con­certs Now Stream­ing Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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