When someone mentions the Wall of Sound, what comes to mind is usually the signature sound of Phil Spector that he created by using dense layers of sound with large amounts of reverb. He used this recording technique because the sound reproduced very well on small record players, jukeboxes and of course, the AM radio dial. That’s cool – for a studio recording technique. But…what if someone really built a vast sound system that was so big and so good that it would become a figurative rock ‘n’ roll monument and so memorable that people would write about it 35 years later?
Someone did exactly that. An actual physical Wall of Sound that was created in 1973 solely for the live performances of the Grateful Dead. It was designed and built by legendary LSD chemist and audio engineer Owsley Stanley. The band used this enormous sound delivery system because their sound reproduced very well (distortion free) in the concert venues that the Grateful Dead used for their live performances. And, the entire system was self-monitoring (foldback system) so the musicians could stay in tune during the performance while experiencing minimal feedback.
The Wall of Sound was the combined strength of six totally independent sound systems that used a total of eleven separate sound channels. Owsley and the Grateful Dead were sincerely concerned about the quality of sound they delivered to the person who attended the concerts. Supposedly, the Wall of Sound sounded best when one was just far enough in front of the system to see all of the speakers. Because the Wall of Sound had its own monitoring system, the sound heard by the audience was the same thing heard by the band. Each instrument had its own dedicated amplified sound channel which produced an extremely clear sound with no distortion.
“The Wall of Sound is the name some people gave to a super powerful, extremely accurate PA system that I designed and supervised the building of in 1973 for the Grateful Dead. It was a massive wall of speaker arrays set behind the musicians, which they themselves controlled without a front of house mixer. It did not need any delay towers to reach a distance of half a mile from the stage without degradation.” Owsley “Bear” Stanley
The only notable shortcoming of the Wall of Sound was the sheer enormity of the whole thing. Because of the huge size of the Wall of Sound, the Grateful Dead employed two stages for their tour with the second stage staying one gig ahead of the stage in use so the set-up process could begin as soon as possible. The Wall of Sound commanded the use of four semi-trailer trucks and the muscle of twenty-one crew members to move the sound system to the various Grateful Dead tour stops.
Wall of Sound Specs
- Approximate Cost $275,000
- Acceptable Sound Quality At 1/4 Mile
- (11) Separate Sound Channels
- (89) 300-Watt Solid State Amplifiers
- (3) 350-Watt Vacuum Tube Amplifiers
- Total Watts = 26,400 (RMS)
- Total Weight = 75 Tons
- (586) JBL Loudspeakers
- (54) Electrovoice Tweeters