Pollstar Live! Preview: Legendary Grateful Dead Sound Engineer Dan Healy On The Evolution Of Concert Audio

Courtesy of Dan Healy
– Sound Innovator
As the Grateful Dead’s sound engineer for the bulk of its three-decade career, Dan Healy pioneered new audio frontiers with the relentlessly innovative band.

Outside of the band itself, few played a more critical role in the Grateful Dead’s trailblazing, three-decade career than Dan Healy, who served as its sound engineer from 1967 to 1994.

Healy was more than a run-of-the-mill sound guy. Throughout its career, the Dead innovated constantly, and when those innovations related to audio – such as the ambitious Wall of Sound system it introduced in 1974 – Healy was a key driver. As the band tested musical limits, Healy experimented with just how good cutting-edge technology could make that music sound.

Healy, now 74, doesn’t sugarcoat his first impression of the Dead: When he saw them at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium in 1966, shortly after the band’s formation, the sound appalled him.

“I was staggered at how awful the fucking sound was,” Healy says. “How totally, utterly inadequate. There was one small speaker cabinet on each side of the stage. Pigpen was trying to sing, and it was just gurgling noise.”

The poor quality was stark to Healy, who at the time worked in a recording studio.

“Because of that – plus probably the help of some psychedelic drugs and stuff – I heard the Grateful Dead in my head,” he says. “I heard the model of what was trying to happen. So I just set about seeing if I could realize it in front of the audience in real time. That was really, for me, my endeavor.”

Ahead of his Feb. 4 appearance on the “Evolution of Sound” panel at Pollstar’s Production Live!, Healy connected with Pollstar to discuss his tenure with the Dead, advancements in sound technology over the last half-century and why stellar sound isn’t the final arbiter of a great show.

POLLSTAR: What new trends are you seeing in sound technology?
DAN HEALY: The whole thing right now is focused on minimizing equipment and minimizing expenses. The entertainment industry, in terms of large concerts, has really become a matter of economics. For us, it’s how to get maximum sound out of the minimum amount of equipment with the minimum amount of set up time, the minimum amount of truck space, and the minimum of crew requirements, and so on and so forth. It’s really about efficiency right now, if you wanted to use one word. But that word “efficiency” is not just the conversion of electricity. The definition also includes economics and practicability and manpower sort of stuff. It’s one word with several different facets to it, but it all leads to one thing: how to get quality sound, or at least quantity sound, for the least amount of money.

Decades later, how do you view the Wall of Sound’s legacy? It was the peak of a maximalist setup, very expensive, a lot of manpower to do it. And now you’re talking about efficiency.
The Wall of Sound was a turning point in the entire world of sound reinforcement. You gotta understand that the sound equipment I inherited in 1964 when I did my first large PA was designed by [and] the research for was bought and paid for by the movie industry. When I started in the early to mid ’60s, the design of all of that equipment stemmed from that. It was all virtually the same. It was a little shinier hubcaps, but it was the same design. By end of the ’60s, myself and others like me had hot-rodded it and milked every nuance out of it. Ultimately, the theory itself had to be abandoned. We had to move to a whole new concept, scrap everything and start over. That was the purpose of the Wall of Sound. And while it in itself wasn’t that successful, the endeavor, the goal of it was completely successful: completely rethinking and revamping the entire approach to sound reinforcement. We tore through everything, we abandoned everything, we started from the plug into the wall. Everything got revamped, and a whole new paradigm came into existence.

Even if it was inefficient and burdensome, it set a standard: “We’re going to prioritize high-quality sound.”
It was sort of a building block set, and it was intentionally created this way so that we could configure it in any imaginable configuration. That’s where we learned about sound distribution. Before that, they just put a speaker on each side of the stage and that was it. If you were up in the balcony, you didn’t hear shit, and that was just too damn bad – you were supposed to listen harder. Well, obviously that’s not the answer!

All through the Grateful Dead, but [starting] with the Wall of Sound, [I did] architectural drawings of the venues. I had little cardboard models of the dispersion of each speaker. I had a whole bunch of sets of these and i would sit and plot them, and then from that I would derive a setup. No matter where you were in that place, you heard the same sound. That was unheard of!

Kirk West / Getty Images)
– Best In Show
The Grateful Dead perform at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on June 16, 1974, in front of the beastly Wall of Sound system. Though only used for a brief period, the Wall of Sound had a lasting impact on the industry’s approach to concert sound.

What are the most consequential advancements in sound technology you’ve observed over your career?
I’ll give it to you chronologically. It was crossover technology, multi-section instead of full-range stuff and the quality of the crossover, the nature of the phase shift. The whole concept of time alignment. After that, it became better amplifiers, better speaker design, speaker cabinet design, and the concept of the distribution of sound – don’t just put it somewhere because that’s where it fits, but actually take the trouble and time to make it work. The next thing that happened was computers. One of the first ones to break away from analog equipment was Richard Factor; he had Eventide Clockworks, he did the very first digital delay. It was crude as hell by [modern] standards, but it had no moving parts. It was portable and you could get delay up to 10 seconds, which was unheard of back in those days. The advent of digital sound processing made it possible to create effects via software and via the digitizing of the audio. Today, it’s better than any analog. 

The next thing that happened was digital outboard equipment, and that started in the ’80s. Today, the frontier is real-time computer correction of acoustic changes within the environment you’re doing sound in, so that when you put a sound system up you can correct the delay to different parts of the room. As the place fills up and the acoustic properties change, the computers can sense it and alter the sound, so that the system stays pure and stays true whether it’s hot or cold, full or empty, and so on.

Ebet Roberts / Redferns / Getty Images
– Arena Ready
The Dead perform at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 16, 1993. When the Dead became an arena staple, Healy included sound quality provisions in the band’s rider.

Where has sound made the greatest advances in your career: clubs and theaters, arenas, amphitheaters, festivals?
Arenas and nightclubs are the two that have really gained the most. Nightclubs, particularly since the ’90s, have been designed with acoustical properties and designed with the sound system figured into the design and architecture. People like us have spent our lives fighting the beancounter version, which is “You know, the audience is just coming there to get crazy, and they don’t really give a shit what it sounds like. They came here to get high and scream and holler with everybody.” That’s true in part, but it’s not totally true.

In the ’70s and into the ’80s, we were the first ones to get promoters to put sound property correction inside of [arenas], temporarily hang ’em inside. Sports arenas, the last thing they thought about was what it sounded like. In fact, I’m sure they thought that the noisier it was, the more the crowd got excited and the more tickets you could sell. “Well, we can use this sports arena as a music venue too, we’ll just say it’s great for music.” But it wasn’t! I had in my rider that the promoters had to hang battens, suspend them from the ceilings and stuff to cut down on the echo.

What about festivals? I’ve heard stories of Summer Jam, the massive Watkins Glen show with the Dead, the Band, and the Allmans, having some rough sound. Now, festivals are such a huge part of the industry.
The very first delay towers were my towers. The way the towers work is that the sound that comes out of the towers has to be delayed, because let’s say you’re standing 20 feet past the towers, you hear the sound come off the stage, as it comes by the tower then the tower speakers want to reproduce it so that it all sounds like one wave front. If you didn’t do that, it would sound stupid because you’d hear the sound first at the tower that you’re close to, and then the stuff from the stage would come out.

Before the days of digital manipulation we used tape delay. We had these modified tape machines. You would record on the tape and then you could slide the playback head back and forth. The closer you got the playback head to the record head, the less delay; the more you slid it away the longer it was.

The very first digital delay line I ever used was at Watkins Glen. That was Richard Factor, Eventide. It was grainy and weird sounding because of the digital capabilities in those days, but it worked principally. And I used Dolby Noise Reduction, a device that Ray Dolby originally designed to remove hiss and noise from the transatlantic cable. That wound up coming into play in the studio world in the ’70s for noisy tapes, for analog tape which had a lot of tape hiss. Richard Factor’s delay line was noisy, so I just took it and put double Dolbys around it. I shut it all up.

Clayton Call / Redferns / Getty Images
– Audio Help On The Way
Healy mans the boards at a Dead show at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre on May 14, 1983.

With the Dead, you had a front row seat to one of the most taped bands of ever. Now, sites like nugs.net provide official, crisp live recordings for fans, sometimes just hours after a show ends. What has observing the evolution of bootlegging and live recording over your career been like?
The whole taper scene were audiophiles. When they came to Grateful Dead shows, it was so radically better than all the other shows in terms of sound quality that they instantly wanted to know more about it. They began bringing their machines and taping because they wanted to go home and study it. They wanted to hear it on their favorite home sound system; they wanted to understand and know more about this phenomenon that was happening called great incredible concert sound.

I was always out in the audience, so I got attached to the tapers – which is absurd on the face of it, but nevertheless it happened. Somehow the tapers became my fault and the record companies were like, “Well, if you let people record your concerts they won’t buy your records.” I always knew that was bullshit. The ones that come there and record, they were the first ones in line to buy your records because they wanted to know all about [your music]. I got that from inside the band and outside the band. I was accused over the years of bootlegging tapes and selling them. Eventually, I put it to the record company: “You show me one shred of evidence of letting people record your concert detracting from your record sales and I’ll make ’em stop doing ’em.” I couldn’t have made ’em stop doing it, because I didn’t start it and I couldn’t stop it, but that shut ’em up for a while.

I try not to get into the political philosophy of all that. I’ve always believed the music should be free, but at the same time, the wherewithal to make the music exist is not free. There has to be some compromise. Yeah, conceptually the music is free, but in the real world it costs money to run the trucks and run the equipment, to move the people and get that auditorium. You can’t just be completely ignorant of the economics involved. The concept of being able to sell high-quality recordings of your concerts at or after each concert is a nice compromise.

What tools do modern sound engineers have at their disposal that you didn’t?
Computers and all the things that became possible at the advent of computers. It’s removed the limitations to creativity. Nowadays, in terms of concert sound, you can not only correct the sound for any room, you can ongoingly correct it in real time as the room changes and as the temperature changes and as the humidity changes. We used to do that in the ’80s and ’90s – I had a complete weather station at my mix board and we tracked temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, because they change sound dispersion, sound quality. We corrected the systems accordingly. We did long, long studies and mapped it out, and we had curves so we could predict where the sound was going. We had to do that by hand. Nowadays, it happens all by itself.

This generation doesn’t have to do all that by hand, but it almost feels more noble in a way that you guys used to be sitting there, plotting out all your stuff.
It’s true, but the Wright Brothers could say the same thing, you know? Every generation has something that they come up with. The present is up to what you do with what you’ve got and build on that.

Any favorite live shows you’ve seen recently?
There is no answer to that. It’s an unanswerable question, because it is so horrendously subjective. I’ll give you one example that’s extreme, but it says it. There have been times where my sound sucked, the Grateful Dead played like the most dumbass pieces of shit I ever heard in my life. Some guy and his girl got married that day and they were there in bliss and they write to me and go, “Can I get a tape? That was the most marvelous show I’ve ever been to!” And I’m sitting there, like, “Are you fucking kidding me?!” It’s really, really subjective. To ask me what a favorite show is, it depends on what mood I’m in. There might’ve been something that everybody else thinks stinks and I would’ve said, “Man, that’s fucking great.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.