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In 1974, Owsley “Bear” Stanley, Dan Healy, and several others set upon the enormous task of assembling a huge sound system to provide distortion free sound for their employer / client, the Grateful Dead. Consisting of six independent systems utilizing eleven different channels, three tube amps and 48 McIntosh solid state amps putting out a combined total of 26,400 watts and depending on who’s telling the story, 586 JBL speakers and about 50 ElectroVoice tweeters, the “Wall Of Sound” is quite possibly, at least lately, the most gargantuan sound system ever created by a band, apart that is, from mega PA systems at huge coliseums. I wonder, with all that power, all those amps and what, over 600 speakers (depending on who’s telling the story), how far removed was this from live music and did it more closely resemble, I don’t know, an audio system? Not that the average audiophile system utilizes 51 amps, or 600 plus speakers!
Of course I neglected to mention all this equipment was driving live instruments and not a recording. In any event, I suspect this set up must have been not only something to hear but equally as impressive to see.
Harry Pearson, the late founder of The Absolute Sound always felt the sonic characteristics of an audio system were best matched against live, acoustical music and specifically classical or symphonic music. Hence the name of the magazine being “the absolute sound.” This, of course makes sense as the texture, tonality and timber of a piano, for example, is very likely best evaluated when a recording is compared to one played live.
I feel certain I will not dissuade anyone from the conviction that live music, amplified or acoustic, sounds better than a recording played through a source, amp and speakers. Nor is it my position to attempt to do so. As I have found myself saying quite often, live is live, everything else is not. It also stands to reason that probably without exception, audiophiles will universally agree live music is the standard by which everything else is judged. I wonder, could there perhaps be any “wiggle room” in that assessment?
When we attend a concert, whether in an enclosed space or a large open amphitheater or stadium, part of our total immersion into what we hear is bolstered by what we see. We stand on our feet, clap our hands, wave our arms and sing in gleeful harmony with the band. Is that condition a supportable reason why we tend to enjoy live music to such a great degree? Apart from most symphonic music, “live” music is still amplified. I am not attempting to compare that to a home audio system. Live is still live, but the music does go through an amp and speakers – though it could be reasonably argued guitar amps and stage monitors are quite different from an amp and speakers in the average audiophile system. So how much of what we purport sonically superior about live music is a result of the amps and monitors as compared to the combined result of music performed on a stage and the experience that performance delivers? Do we enjoy live music because we are more emotionally connected to the performance? Or does is simply sound better irrespective of the “show” that comprises most live performances?
Emotional connection. This is a condition that is often underrated and overlooked. When we are able to become engaged with our audio system, intently listening in the sweet spot with eyes closed, head, hands and feet moving with the music, or conversely, perhaps, jumping around the room singing into the handle of a hair brush, are we any less connected emotionally than we are at a live concert? If we are able to establish an emotional connection to an audio system, are there varying degrees of emotionality to which we subscribe? Are we more or less detached from an audio system as compared to a concert? And if that detachment is heightened with an audio system, and lessened at a live venue, is, therefore, the greater emotional connection the reason we have a heightened affection for live music? Or does it just sound better?
I have enjoyed countless listening sessions when I left my audio room mostly speechless. I’ve attended concerts where I felt the same way. But I will almost always cede superiority to live music mostly because of what I perceive as superior sonics. Maybe one comparison would be to put my audio system on a stage and sit in the audience and see what happens. Maybe I would also be wise to have some musicians jumping around playing “air guitars.” And given a correctly sized venue, maybe my system will sound equally magical as a concert hosted on the same stage, wherever that may be.
Then again, maybe my system would be sonically lost and I’d sadly walk away disappointed and unimpressed. Clearly, the design criteria of any of the components in my system do not include a live venue. Regardless, the question remains, is the listener’s engagement with live music amplified (no pun intended) by the fact that the performers can be seen as well as heard? Or is live music simply that much better? I’ve heard some systems that probably were very close to the sound the recording engineer heard. I’ve yet to hear a home based system I thought sounded in any way like live music sounds. So for any and all hopeful music lovers, it looks like the answer to the question is live still rules supreme. And if you really want to judge your audio system, a great concert in a proper venue is the best way to assess how remarkable, or how unimpressive a home based system really sounds. Hairbrush and all.
hi Paul, I would state that i have been to many live “non-classical” concerts where the sound was too bright and too loud (had to stuff cotton into my ears) and very little dynamic range, and i enjoyed the same musicians more at home. Classical is different obviously, and it is rare that a home system can equal a live orchestra. But the problem becomes the performance as often a local orchestra does not perform Mozart or Dvorak as well as a first rate orchestra such as the Concertgebouw orchestra of Amsterdam or Chicago. Even at home a first rate orchestra recorded well such as those by Reference Recordings is hard to beat.
@kenttager:disqus – I share the same thoughts as you. I’ve been to live performances where I thought that the singing didn’t sound as good as the recorded version. To go “old school,” I think the Scorpions sound great live, while Metallica does not. I’ve never gone to see a live orchestra but I would imagine it’s mind-blowing.
Paul – For me, I enjoy the music a *lot* more when I can watch the performance. I’m sure the thousands of fans around you getting into the event heightens my emotions as well. I even like watching cover bands on YouTube because of the performance aspect. Watching accomplished drummers going at it on an upbeat song is my favorite.
Dan was not a part of the design team for the Wall of Sound. That was Owsley (Bear) Stanley, Ron Wickersham, John Curl, and a committee of others of which I was a part. Dan came on board after the Dead’s long hiatus and when they switched from using the Wall to using a Meyer System. Dan’s expertise was (among other things) mixing live sound, and with the Wall there was no job for a mixer; the band mixed themselves with volume controls on their instruments, instrument preamps and amps, and on the vocal microphones. There was a submix for drums.
Rick, thanks for pointing this out. A first hand account is always welcomed. My research actually showed a number of different people who were supposedly involved, different numbers of amps, Electro Voice tweeters and, oddly enough, a surprising amount of differing information about who, what, how many, etc. Because I found so many discrepancies across a number of web sites, I used Wikipedia as my main source for most of the information presented regarding the Wall Of Sound. While not assessing blame to anyone or anything, I would contend that because you were a first hand participant, your recollection of what took place would be the more correct. I do remember seeing Ron’s name but I did not ever see John’s name in regard to that particular sound system. Regardless, it must have been one heck of a show. And a heck of a sound system! Thanks for your comment.
Geoff Cook was the “Chief Circuit Designer” designated in the credits of the Grateful Dead movie. John Curl and Bascom King worked under him, ask them. Geoff actually pioneered the use of line array speakers at the Soundstorm Festival in Wisconsin where the Dead played and ultimately hired him for about a 10 year stretch. Dan Healy mentioned him in The Absolute Sound article/interview (misspelled as “Jeff”) on the Dead’s sound system and he was a close friend of Bear and Jerry too. Geoff had bought the entire first run of Macintosh 2300 amplifiers for Soundstorm prior to working for the Dead financed by Bobo. He also helped Bob Carver complete the design for the Phase Linear 400 amplifier. What I am sure he designed were the huge passive crossovers used in the wall, the redesign of the W-boxes, the curved, and spherical arrays in the Wall at Bear’s direction and who knows what else. He did sound for JGB after that and then has been working as an industrial designer since, now retired. Possibly some tube amps being made for commercial sale. This man has the best ears on the planet and is a fantastic designer of audio but no one knows his name. I hope more people discuss his work.
Live music is just that much better. In June I drove 500 miles to Bakersfield California to hear a concert in a very good venue. Well worth it.
Live Rock can be awesome. I have seen dozens of shows and many can be fantastic. I have found that certain artists take there sound systems, lighting and special effects very seriously. Elton for example has had superior systems in Madison Sq. Garden. Very low distortion and so loud that the drums sounded like explosions.
Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Bowie and The Who also had great systems at MSG and Jones Beach too. But when systems are not great live rock can me painful. I recently saw Michael Mcdonald in Huntington LI and the system was too loud and full of distortion, I had to wait for my friend in the lobby.It was hurting my ears I like my rock like Bowie suggests in Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars “To Be Played at Maximum Volume”. So while the live experience is thrilling, listening to my audiophile system at home can often sound better. Classical music is a different story, the visceral impact of live in a fine concert hall is amazing.
Paul, I really enjoyed reading this article. The concept of how we enjoy music and further, how we are engaged in a performance is something I’ve given great thought to. By trade I am a researcher who studies human experience (typically more public health and child/family interventions, but the methods and concepts translate).
I think that our enjoyment of live performances is quite different from our perception of the realness of the sound. For some people, the accuracy or realness of the sound might improve their enjoyment. For others, I suspect most, it’s more a whole package sensory experience. Seeing the band live, the movement, dancing, lights, crowd, friends, etc. it could be that this is the first time in weeks or months that someone felt like they could let their hair down. All of this can induce those endorphins we crave, along with reductions in cortisol levels, increases in serotonin and dopamine (the more enjoyable the greater the happy hormones).
I think it’s likely the hormones that drive our perceived enjoyment. It’s very much a chemical experience. It likely starts with a more cerebral enjoyment. Following that the brain then elicits further bolstering through this release of a hormone cocktail that literally mimics sex (and any number of other highly enjoyable events, like a really good meal).
Separate from that is our perception and enjoyment of real sound. My personal opinion is that while live amplified music still has something special about it, a lot of modern “live” music isn’t so live. Even those live performances are sometimes so rehearsed as to remove any semblance of artistic intent. With a good rhythm or a catchy hook this can still be plenty enjoyable. I think true live performances with some level of improvisation (that feels the live performance) is more enjoyable. That this probably helps us get into the music and feel it at a deeper level. It’s why I think we (especially those of us with musical training or knowledge) further enjoy such performances.
Then there is sound. I can’t believe anyone hearing an amplifier concert thinks that sounds real. An amplifier voice doesn’t sound like a human singing with no mic. Artists even play with the mic intentionally to modify their amplifier voice in a desirable way. Drums, piano, bass, guitar all sound quite different. Not only have I attended live musical events of all kinds (broadway, symphony, ballet, rock, blues, acapella, soul, pop, jazz, venues of all size) but I’ve been a guitar and piano player since I was very young. Further, I’ve been a tone person my whole life. I have more guitars and amps than necessary simply because of the fine differences in tone I hear and play with when i play. When I hear a reproduced piano (one of the most revealing recorded instruments) and the timbre or decay is unnatural, I instantly hear it (and it normally is off). When I’m at a live amplifier event, I hear these errors. They bother me. They may not stop my enjoyment, but I hear them. I wish they weren’t there. For certain kinds of music, I enjoy the sound of the music more in my own system simply because he timbre is more natural. I actually find that a lot of live concerts are tonally nearly unlistenable. Too loud, too compressed, and way too bright. That is no point of reference for me.
On the other hand, Dr. Lonnie Smith as part of a trio of Hammond B3’s with the great Jimmy McGriff and Joey DeFrancesco at the Iridium, a jazz club in New York is. That event forever changed my perception of the sound of a Hammond, the soundstage, dynamics, timbre, etc.
Thanks MJ, glad you enjoyed the piece.
Interesting take in your comment, by the way.
Having just attended the Monterey Jazz Festival, I find this particular question definitely intriguing. EVERY performance I attended was augmented with amplified music. Even when Fred Hersch played piano solo, in a relatively small room, mind you, he was reproduced by a sound system for the attendees. I don’t think there are really that many performances where the music is really just what is produced by the instruments, including the human voice. So, that question comes down to “How can you tell which is better, when it’s all electronically reproduced? ” I realize there are performances in specific venues where the acoustics are such no amplification is needed, (the Maybeck Recital Hall in Berkeley, California comes to mind) but they seem to be fewer all the time. Part of that may be the performers wanting more control over what is heard. I know, sitting through the sound checks for the individual sessions was informative, but deadly boring. However, each performer wanted changes to the sound. Which means, I’ll venture, I’m not hearing exactly what the instruments sound like. So, again, how can you really tell?
I have attended two live shows featuring trumpeter Chris Botti and I have several of his live concerts on Blu-ray and DVD discs. The first concert several years ago,was superb – sound levels were excellent – dynamic and loud but not blasting. At the end he played one selection without any amplification – just piano and trumpet – and the effect was magical to me because, as a trumpet player, I relish the real, natural sound of the horn. There is no sound system made that can reproduce that sound with total accuracy ( or any other acoustic instrument for that matter). The whole concert was an experience that I enjoyed more than watching the recorded concerts.
The Chris Botti concert I attended this year was a different matter – I had to use my ear plugs at least half the time to avoid hearing damage. While the live experience was still great, the sound quality was not anywhere near what I hear in my home theater room with the Blu-ray disc, because everything was overdriven – the sound system, the room my ears – all were stressed beyond their capability.
As to rock concerts, I suspect there are few home system that can generate the dynamics and excitement of the live event but in terms of pure audio quality, even a modest system will be more musically accurate than virtually any PA system.
Putting your sound system on stage to compare to the live PA is not a valid comparison, just as inviting the band to your living room would not be.
If wikipedia is any indication, I guess maybe I didn’t see/hear the full blown Wall Of Sound after all. But it sure was something to behold whatever it was I did see… late 73 (first Dead concert), 76/77 a time or two come to mind around then. Hell of a thing.
In more recent times (this century) I’ve taken to wearing earplugs to protect what’s left of my hearing, not quite what it used to be. So my sound system, even my car radio, sounds better than a live concert with earplugs.
I am one of those fortunate few who actually heard the Grateful Dead perform with the Wall Of Sound. I saw them at the Olympiahalle in Munich in September 1974. I had attended many concerts prior to that night, but I had never seen a sound system of that size. I must say that the system sounded (at least on that night) better than any concert I had heard previously. What surprised me most was that the overall volume in the arena was much lower than most concerts. The band played at a volume not that much louder than I would hear in my own listening room. It was certainly loud enough, but not the ear-shattering volume I had been accustomed to at other concerts. When I saw the Dead in 1989 at the Forum in Inglewood, CA, the sound system was about one-fourth the size, but the sound was still very high quality. These days, concert sound can be quite good with the technology now available, but sharing the live experience with the musicians and the fans can be approximated but not be duplicated in the home environment.