October 23, 2014

How LSD Guru/Grateful Dead Soundman Owsley Stanley, Dead at 76, Changed Live Music

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set up of Grateful Dead's humungous Wall of Sound
The cost: $350,000

“When I build a sound system,” Owsley Stanley told Rolling Stone reporter Robert Greenfield, “I do it in a single cluster, because everything in the hall must come from one spot in the room. The sound turns into something you’ve never heard before. It’s absolutely clear. It is loud without being loud. It is articulate. Every single note is separately placed in space as well as in time. Once the system’s set, you can walk away from the board. Musicians can adjust it. It all comes from what the musicians do, and that was my goal from the beginning.”

Owsley Stanley, the “Artisan of Acid,” died an exile in the Australian northwest this weekend, in a car crash. He was 76.

Though many remember Owsley as the indefatigable alchemist who synthesized his own brand of pure LSD and set the 1960’s counterculture on its groovy and colorful course, Deadheads know him as an audiophile of impeccable taste and clarity, whose contributions to live sound mixing and recording were years ahead of their time.

The following paragraphs, highlighting his contributions to audio, are taken from a Rolling Stone article.

Robert Greenfield writes on Owsley and the Dead in 1966:

“At the time, live sound at rock concerts was extremely primitive. Musicians plugged their instruments into amplifiers connected to single-channel speakers. There were no onstage monitors, so musicians couldn’t hear one another. Owsley wanted the Dead not only to be clearly heard but also in stereo, a concept so far ahead of its time that it would be ten years before such systems were installed in movie theaters. Thanks to Owsley, the Dead were soon playing through four immense Altec Voice of the Theatre A7 speakers powered by four McIntosh 240 stereo tube amplifiers as delicate as they were huge.”

“Because he wanted to keep a “sonic journal” of his work, Owsley began plugging a suitcase-size Ampex 602 tape recorder into the sound board each night as the Dead played in 1966. By doing so, he compiled a historic collection of live performances.”

“The band’s impatience with how long it took Owsley to set up its equipment and then take it back down again soon led to a parting of the ways. Even though Owsley had already put about $50,000 into the band and would no longer be working for them, he told the Dead to pick out new equipment and send him the bill. After selling his Voice of the Theatre speakers and McIntosh amps to Bill Graham, who installed them in the Fillmore, Owsley donated most of the band’s other gear to the Straight Theater, a hippie venue on Haight Street. Concerning Owsley’s legacy to the Dead from this period, Dennis McNally, the band’s biographer, says, ‘Bear gave them a vision of quality that quite frankly influenced them for the next thirty years. And that alone gives him credibility for that scene.’”

Upon returning to the Dead fold in 1972 after serving two years in prison:

“After being thrown across the room by one of the roadies during an argument Owsley asked the band to give him the power to hire and fire the crew so they would know they were working for him. When the Dead declined to do so, Owsley found himself in what McNally calls “limbo.” Shifting his focus to what he knew best, the science of sound, Owsley began working on a revolutionary new system that would deliver crystal-clear audio in the big hockey arenas and indoor stadiums the Dead were now selling out. ‘Phil Lesh and I would talk about this,’ Owsley says. ‘We would liken it to alchemy. “As above, so below.’ We called it the microcosm and the macrocosm. If what happens onstage is perfect, you put it out there to the audience.”

On the famed Wall of Sound (pictured above):

“After two years of planning and problem-solving, the “wall of sound” made its debut on March 23rd, 1974, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Forty-feet high, it was composed of 604 speakers using 26,400 watts of power supplied by 55 McIntosh 2300s. With nine independent channels, the system was so powerful that the amps only needed to be turned up to two. Because the Dead controlled everything from onstage, no one had to mix from the house. Lesh likened the experience of playing through the system to “piloting a flying saucer. Or riding your own sound wave.”

Lesh also noted that the music made during the forty-odd shows when the system was used is still “regarded by Deadheads as the pinnacle of live performance.”

“The problem was that the system was so huge and required so much setup time that the Dead had to use two separate stages and two crews so the next show could be put up while the last was still being taken down. At a time when the Dead were trying to keep ticket prices down, the wall cost about $350,000. “It was brilliant and it worked,” McNally says. “But they had to double the size of the crew and, in the process, the crew took over the band.”

“Because the Dead were unwilling to fire any members of their large and sometimes dysfunctional family, the band decided in 1974 to instead take a break from touring, not going on the road again until the summer of 1976.”

RIP Bear.

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