Production Live! Coverage 2020: From Woodstock To Wireless, Legends Trace Sound’s Evolution

Black Coffee Productions
– Sound Planning
Audio legends Bill Hanley (left) and Dan Healy (right) discuss the evolution of sound.

“The most important aspect of the show is it’s gotta come off,” Oak View Group Media & Conferences president Ray Waddell explained at the outset of Production Live! on Tuesday. “You gotta make the magic happen, and these are the folks that will make the magic happen.”

The assertion was immediately demonstrated with the day’s first panel, “Evolution of Live Sound,” which featured an all-star cast that ranged from Hanley Sound’s Bill Hanley, who served as sound engineer at Woodstock in 1969, to Mixhalo co-founder Ann Marie Simpson-Einziger, who is pioneering a new, digital frontier of live sound.

True to its title, the panel, which was moderated by Jake Berry Productions’ Jake Berry and also included Clair Global vice president Shaun Clair, L-Acoustics CEO Laurent Vaissié and longtime Grateful Dead sound engineer Dan Healy, was a 45-minute crash course in the history of live sound and what lays ahead for concert audio.

Given his decades in the business, Hanley began the conversation.

“It was a really big challenge,” he said when reflecting on live sound in the late ’50s and early ’60s, “because nobody was interested in the [high-quality] sound systems, because the promoter had to pay extra money.”

But music was changing rapidly. Hanley engineered sound at Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the year Bob Dylan went electric, and joked that, “Distortion became part of the music scene. Didn’t I work all my life to keep it out?”

Into that void rushed engineers like Healy, who in the mid-’60s was working at a studio owned by folk group The Kingston Trio. There, Healy had access to top-notch sound equipment, which meant he was appalled when he went to see fresh psych-rock groups play with subpar audio setups at venues like San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium.

One 1966 evening, Healy was loading in equipment at the Fillmore for Quicksilver Messenger Service and happened to hear the opener – a new act named the Grateful Dead. Displeased with the sound, he approached Jerry Garcia afterward and broached the subject; Garcia challenged him to devise something better.

“The next time [the Dead] were going to play there was in two weeks,” Healy said. “I went to McCann Sound Service and Swanson Sound Service. Through a surreptitious set of events, I derived some finances.” (With a laugh, Healy explained that his funding method “had something to do with sales.”)

“I took all the money I could get, I rented all the equipment I could get and I went to the secretary lady that ran the Fillmore Auditorium,” he continued. “I conned her into letting me in a day ahead of time. I set up this monstrosity on the left and right side of the stage and we played a show. You could hear everybody.”

The strategy foreshadowed the next several years of sound production, where artists and their teams became increasingly ambitious with their audio design, and pumped time and money into delivering increasing better sound. The approach reached an apex in 1974, when Healy helped introduce the Dead’s mammoth Wall of Sound.

“The last thing in the world it was was efficient,” Healy said. “What happened was there was no attention paid to the economics of transporting, and it was awful – the sound system was a complete wash from that point of view. But we didn’t really care.”

But the music industry at large – the “beancounters,” in Healy’s parlance – cared.

“It’s an interesting balance between fidelity and production, because if we can’t cost effectively move the products around the world, money can’t be made, and then we’re all out of a job,” Clair said.

The same year the Dead introduced the Wall of Sound, Clair Global – then Clair Brothers – introduced the S4 speakers, which revolutionized live sound. The high-quality speakers fit neatly in American trucks, helping to standardize and mainstream the transportation of audio systems.

“Fitting in the truck made global touring possible,” Vaissié added. “The reason it was so successful so quickly was that everybody gained. The audience got a better experience, the front of house engineer was able to get better out of the mix, the promoters, also, were getting the money back, because it was easier in and out, lower fuel costs and smaller trucks.”

Vaissié drew connections to the present, comparing L-Acoustics’ cutting-edge, immersive audio technology L-ISA to the Wall of Sound.

“What Dan talked about – trying to get the audience to experience the same sound everywhere you are and getting the vision of the artist represented through the sound system into the audience – what Dan tried to do with the Wall of Sound is essentially what we are doing today with L-ISA,” he said. “Essentially, we’re still fighting the same problems.”

The sound visions of Hanley, Healy, Clair and Vaissié are all reflected in Mixhalo, the new technology that allows fans to wirelessly stream soundboard-quality audio on headphones via their smartphones at shows. 

Simpson-Einziger invoked Healy’s mission of “democratizing audio,” and explained that “Mixhalo is doing exactly that. You can be the furthest seat away from the performer onstage and hear as if you’re in a recording studio, or you can be right up at the front where the speakers are deafeningly loud, because you are very close, and with isolation headphones, you can actually turn the volume down, protect your hearing and hear with a lot more fidelity.”

One of Mixhalo’s challenges is simply educating listeners who may initially balk at the idea of wearing headphones at a show.

“It’s not a second-screen experience,” Simpson-Einziger said. “It allows you to have deeper engagement with your fans. This is going to benefit everybody; it’s a win-win technology.”

Healy said that even if he wouldn’t have envisioned something like Mixhalo decades ago, “it’s obviously a natural progression. One of the nice things about it is that the audience shares part of the burden. They have to have their own listening devices. It makes it more feasible and possible from a band and production point of view. The intense expense is defrayed.”