Volume #18, Issue #4 Ė August 1991
From the Vaults to the Pyramids
By Toni A. Brown
For many, the availability of the Grateful Deadís live concert archives in soundboard quality would be a dream come true.† After two decades of sending out set lists and making taping contacts, tape collectors may soon have the material at their fingertips, and the entire taping scene as we know it may become obsolete.
††††††††††† In the following interview, Dan Healy discusses the Grateful Deadís latest effort, One From the Vaults, released through their own Grateful Dead Merchandising.† We delve even further into his views on the taping section, some obscure locations relating to sound, and what the future holds for that most innovative of bands, the Grateful Dead.
Relix:† Where did the idea to go into the vaults come from?
Healy:† Since day one, weíve tried to record as much of our shows as we possibly could.† In early days, like the Ď60s, the tape recorder technology was not as advanced.† It was before the days of portable equipment and cassettes.† If you were to record something with any kind of quality, it was a big ordeal.† So the tapes are somewhat sketchy, but by 1969 we were able to maintain a good quality standard collection of shows.
††††††††††† Some of the old stuff has fallen out from sitting on the shelves because the earlier formulas that tapes were made of, it was before the days of plastics that donít ever go away, so while itís bad for the environment, itís good for tapes.† But at any rate, because the old tapes are starting to get flaky, we decided that it was time to go through our entire collection of tapes and convert them to digital tapes and restore them on modern format and modern media.† At the same time, thereís been requests for years from our audience, from fans wanting us to pull out favorite old shows and release them.† We know that this has been coming for a long time, but itís also true that the technology up until recently was such that it would have been diminishing returns to try and master some of this older material.
††††††††††† Weíre now on a monumental project because thereís 80-some-odd shows a year average for 25 years, so that gives you an idea of the wad of tapes we have.† Weíve got three rooms, and each room is about 20 x 20, and itís full to the door with tapes.† Itís a really ambitious task to do it, but modern technology being the whole digital format provides us with the means of retrieving the old tapes and restoring them in a much longer lasting format in such a way that he audio quality will be enhanced or at least not [degraded].† As long as weíre going through the tapes and weíre going to update them all, we figured while weíre there doing it, we can also select various shows from the past and make them available to our audience through our own merchandising at a lower price than sort of the record company/record store version of studio releases and stuff like that.† The object is to get the music to our fans, while at the same time weíre developing a database, and weíre going through and updating all of our old tapes.
Relix:† Are your tapes chronologically by date?
Healy:† Pretty much.† Weíre in the mid-Ď80s now, so weíve gotten that far.† What weíre doing is, we are developing a computer database that has all the shows and each tape listed individually, various comments about the tape and notes about what formats theyíre on and so on and so forth.† Weíve recently constructed a new part of our studio rehearsal complex in so far as weíve built a room that is strictly for listening, editing, and dubbing tapes.† It has the computer in it thatís doing the database of all our tapes, but it also has other computers in it that [are] converting the analog tapes to digital.† Plus, it has all the format machines of the past years that can play the various formats of the tapes because our tapes exist on every known tape format, like cassettes, multi-tracks, two tracks, and even some of them are old monaural tapes and stuff like that.† So this little room is like the work center where weíre going through the vault, noting what weíve got and retrieving it and converting it to digital stuff.
Relix:† Some Deadheads have actually been collecting reel-to-reel tapes over the years, which is almost an obsolete format at this point.
Healy:† Weíve certainly got our share of those!
Relix:† Theyíve stocked away extra equipment because they know at some point theyíre not going to be able to get the machines anymore.
Healy:† I still have a machine from 1967 that we did Anthem of the Sun on.† It was a machine that was a radical format not compatible with any other machines, but we built it because we wanted to have a four-channel tape recorder, which in those days was big news, but it also needed to be portable.† So itís a ľĒ four-track.† The tape is really strange in terms of its format, so I packed away the machine, and now I have it.† I actually have a number of machines.† There was a period of time when we had three-track tapes and I saved the old three-track tape machine, too.† Iím glad I did now, because I go through hell trying to play back some of these old tapes.
Relix:† How far back do the archives date?
Healy:† They date back to the very beginning, clear back to the Warlocks days in sketchy forms.† Itís fairly sketchy until about í68-í69.† First of all, you have to realize that in the early days none of us realized that the Grateful Dead was going to become what it has become.
††††††††††† [The decision of what tapes will be released] is sort of mix between the from-day-one concept and from the most-noted-event concept and try and use those as a vehicle to get to the meat of whatís going on.† I try to receive as much input from fans and friends.† One of the things I discovered is that for everybody you talk to thereís a different opinion.
††††††††††† I listen to and keep track of everything everybody says.† I obviously have to figure out some way of making a decision because thatís a situation that would have wound up going nowhere.† So I took all of that that I described to you to this point, and I also wanted the first attempt at the releasing of the vault to be a significant event.
††††††††††† Just the task of making a record and releasing it in itself is a whole job.† So rather than pick something that had really poor audio quality from maybe an obscure earlier show and add the amount of effort trying to retrieve that and make something cogent out of it, along with all the business of putting together a release and doing all the cassette manufacturing and stuff was an impractical large thing to do.† So, I decided instead to make the first one, at least draw from it, takes that I knew were fairly well recorded, that were cogent in quality and cogent in event significance.† So, while the next one might not be something like that, I might go back and apply something closer to the day-one theory without that much emphasis on audio quality and stuff.† I arrived at this because it was the most viable version to attempt to release.
Relix:† Your first From the Vault release was from a significant year, considering that the Grateful Dead hadnít really been touring.
Healy:† That was part of it.† We recorded the Blues For Allah album at Bobby Weirís house, where he has a recording studio.† We hadnít played for almost a year, and we were anxious to play with eachother.† We took the year off because when we developed our Wall of Sound system, which was a really magnificent thing, it was also very complicated, very time consuming, and very costly.† We were working 11 months of the year and we were broke all the time supporting the sound.† So, when the nationís economy went out the window with the gas crisis and all that, it took an already difficult situation and sort of made it prohibitive.† So, it was no longer feasible to carry around the Wall of Sound and to tour with it.† So, we retired that.† But we were also fried ourselves, and it wasnít a statement of, ďWe donít wanna be a band anymore,Ē it was more a statement of, ďMan, Iím tired, Iíve gotta take a break.Ē† So we kinda laid back for almost a year, but during that time we recorded the Blues for Allah album, and we were all very busy together as the Grateful Dead, it was just that we werenít doing tours and stuff.† So, it looked from the outside like we werenít doing anything, but actually I probably did more Grateful Dead stuff that year than I do in a touring year, because we did the Grateful Dead movie and things like that.† So, I didnít have a single day off that whole year, and I think thatís true for most of us.† At any rate, when we finished the Blues for Allah album, it was also the first album on our own record company, which was another celebration and another event that happened.† So, we were very anxious to play together, and we wanted to celebrate the completion of Blues for Allah, and we also wanted to celebrate the announcement of our own record company.† So, we decided that at the end of the recording of the studio album that we would pick up all our equipment, and we chose the Great American Music Hall.† We had retired the Wall of Sound and we didnít have a large sound system because we hadnít played in a while.† We didnít really want to get involved in a large-scale gig, but we figured this would be a good way to get to play together and to sort of start back up playing again and also celebrate all the other aspects of it.† So, we made up announcements, and it was by invitation only, and it was directed mostly towards the media and record companies.† So, it was kind of a record company/press party sort of thing, whereby we performed the Blues for Allah album live and in its entirety, plus a number of other tunes.† Somehow, we had the presence of mind to bring a 16-track, which was the state-of-the-art technology in those days.† So, we recorded the shows on 16-track.† We also broadcast the show live over, I think, KSAN.† But they actually taped it and didnít play it live, but played it the next day, and edited a great deal of it out.† So, nobody on the outside got to really hear the whole thing.† Finally, the tapes went back to the vault and stayed there forever, and finally when this project began to happen I was going throughÖ well, I have Dennis McNally, and I have Dick Latvalla.† Thereís a number of people in our scene who are taper aficionados, not to mention all the general tape people.† So, I started collecting and wound up with maybe a choice of 20 different shows to consider for the first release, and so, after carefully listening to them all and trying to fit it in with all the other requirements and things that needed to be done, I arrived at that show.
Relix:† The CD is very clean. †Itís almost crystalline, and that sort of takes away from the live feel of a tape.
Healy:† Youíve got to remember that the Great American Music Hall is a very small place, so it doesnít give the impressions of large audiences.† Two of the 16-tracks were microphones that were in the audience.† The main theme of the vault releases in one word is honesty.† Most bands, including ourselves, whenever they prepare live tapes for release, thereís a lot of cosmetic stuff that goes on, replacing guitar parts and drum parts and vocal parts and so on and so forth, and there was a large controversy in our scene about whether or not we should doctor the tapes before we release them.† Thereís a whole contingency of us that think we should be doctoring them.† My own personal opinion is that part of the definition of the vault tapes is to present them in the original fashions the way they really were and not do all of that stuff.† It took me a year to convince everybody that that would maybe be the best approach.† So, when I mixed this show down, I didnítí use any processing or equalization or any gimmicks or tricks.† Itís absolutely straight-on tour recording and tour mixing techniques, and I built the mix around the ambient sound in the room.† So, believe it or not, it very much carries the characteristics of what it actually sounded like in that room.† Again, itís a very small room, so I think if youíre imagining that it should have a large, huge ambient sound, that is a misnomer because I would have had to synthetically create it to make it sound like that.† It wasnít there.
††††††††††† To make a long story short, itís the truth.† Whether it sounds big or not, like a large audience or not, itís the truth.
Relix:† Itís just naturally clean.
Healy:† Well, yeah, itís very clean.† I mean, I think that what weíve done is, Iíve achieved the essence of honesty in reproduction of this.† I didnít manipulate it, I didnít doctor it, and I intentionally set about to do it that way.† Also, you have to remember that it was sort of a formal affair, and it wasnít necessarily Deadheads in the audience, it was record company execs and the media, so the audience wasnít screaming and raving and flipping out like they typically are at a show.† So, these are all things that contribute to the reality of it.† Actually, thatís a misnomer, it isnít very, what you call, clean.† What I call clean, by the way, is not distorted, but the reason why what you said, which I gather to mean lack of ambience is because whatever ambience was there is there.
Relix:† So, you did all the mixing yourself?
Healy:† Yes.† Iím in charge of the vault-release project.† Probably because of the number of years Iíve been here and because Iíve mixed all the tapes.† So, I think that the consensus is that I probably am one of the most likely ones to do it.
Relix:† What other shows do you have in mind for release?
Healy:† Well, I havenít decided.† Let me just say that Iím hoping to do maybe four releases a year, plus maybe at the end of the year do, like, a 10-CD set of bits and pieces of stuff that we can sell real cheap so the idea is a bonus thatís virtually free at the end of the year.† Later on, ultimately, it might get down to one release a month.† But those are all sketches of ideas in the future.† The main goal is to get the most significant shows out, to retain the honesty in audio quality and in performance, and to make it available packaged nicely, at a much lower price than the record industry would try to sell it at, and so those are the guidelines.† It also has to be done interspersed with my other Grateful Dead activities, namely live shows and stuff like that.† I donít have unlimited time to spend doing it.† Because of that, even four years is a fairly ambitious project, because by the time you actually get it ready to be released, thereís a surprising amount of time that goes into it and a lot of effort.† Itís not the type of thing you are going to say, ďOh yeah, here, letís release this tape,Ē and tomorrow itís ready to go, because while in theory it seems like that, in reality it never seems to work like that.
Relix:† Since it is impossible to release the entire back collection of tapes on CD, do you forsee a time when the band might make the archives available to Deadheads directly?† Letís say they send in money for a specific show.
Healy:† That idea has been kicked around a lot, and Iíll tell you where that idea is right now.† Weíve just recently, as Iíve described to you, put together a room that is solely for listening and digitizing and working with the tapes, I think later on, one of the considerations is to maybe have a mail-order basis or something, whereby if you have a specific show in mind, you can write in and then weíll make you a CD or tape of it.† Itíll be along those kind of lines.
Relix:† That would be interesting!
Healy:† Weíve definitely thought about it, itís definitely in the dialogue.† I think that [it is] the type of thing that if it happens at all it has to be consistent with the whole unfolding of the larger scale picture of it.† But the answer is yes, thereís a good chance that that could happen in the future.
Relix:† Itís an interesting perspective, really.† So many tapes are available anyway, but such poor quality is in circulation.† Howís the tapers section been working out?† Do you still feel in control of it?
Healy:† Well, the tapers section has been a mixed blessing since day one.† My own personal philosophy, since Iím an engineer and a recordist, Iím naturally sympathetic with it.† The main friction is the tapers colliding with the rest of the audience that could care less about the tapes, but are there to enjoy the show.† What happens is, the tapers tend to become abusive to the rest of the audience, as they push people out of the way and set up their equipment and force people not to talk in the vicinity of their microphones.† Those are all things that are really anti-Grateful Dead, and so a few years ago, before I formed the tapers section, the mandate was laid on me by the band to do something about the tapers, and it was looking like there would be no more taping because it was the type of thing that was only being allowed to happen, but it was by no means a right that anybody in the audience had.† So, at the last minute, somebody came up to me with an idea.† I think it was my wife that said, ďWhy donít you form a tapers section?Ē† The idea being that if all the tapers will go and be in one section, in return for that weíll sell tapers tickets at the same price for the section, and you can buy it, and if youíre in that section with your ticket, you actually have rights.† And the idea of that is to get everyone together and to get them out of the general dispersion of the audience whereby they were trashing the rest of the audience around them.
††††††††††† Itís unfortunate, but life has people who canít seem to enjoy a good thing, and always have to be pushing at it, and so thereís been a number of people pushing up front, which is something I donít understand because it doesnít sound good up there, anyway.† But I think itís a combination of getting away with something and thumbing your nose at authority, which is kind of ridiculous in our scene, because itís not like our scene is an authoritative kind of scene.
††††††††††† So, over the last few shows, in Las Vegas and in Sacramento recently, Iíve been having the security guards bust people up there, and if you get caught, you get busted and you get thrown out of the concert, completely outside.† In the future, I think Iím going to confiscate the equipment permanently and throw people out, because itís a situation that Iíd really rather not have to deal with.† But since Iíve by vacuum become the defender of the tapers, then itís on me, and if I donít stop that from happening, then thereís going to be another mandate to end it completely, and I donít really want to do that, and most people are cool.† I provide the section for the tapers there, right in the center so they get a good stereo, blend, and everything, and our spirit is to try and really make it right.† But people continue to violate it, so the typical scenario is that some 16-year-old kid will come to me crying, saying that he and his girlfriend stood in line for five hours to get a ticket, and they got their seats and some taper came at the start of the show and beat them up and threw them out of their seats, saying that they want to be there, and thatís actually what the tapers have been doing.
††††††††††† I try to provide everybody an honest trip at it.† Iím not trying to hurt anybody.† All I want to see is harmony at the show.† I want everyone to get away with whatever they want to, but the bottom line is that there must be harmony at the shows.† And so the very people who tape the shows, that pull those shenanigans, are the self-proclaimed knowledgeables of the spirit of the Grateful Dead, so I donít really understand it myself.† It turns out, to add another little twist to it, that the people who are doing most of the bootlegging are the ones who are doing this.† Thereís this one guy who I donít need to name, who knows that we already know who he is, he buys other people equipment and tickets and instigates getting them up front.† This guy is one of the guys who set the roots of all the [bootleg] CDs that are coming from Italy and Japan.† He may not know it, but heís going to fall.† But the point is that thatís very un-Grateful Dead and itís very unhumanistic.
Relix:† In true Grateful Dead fashion, many Deadheads will not even buy the stuff, so thatís nice to know, but on the other hand, there are plenty of others who will.
Healy:† Itís really mind-boggling, because itís unfortunate.† You set out to do something nice, and you get trashed for it.† Itís really amazing, and itís too bad.† And again, Iím not directing it at most tapers.† Most tapers are really good people and very conscientious about that kind of stuff.† Itís the old famous few sour apples.† I hate to use all those dumb clichťs, but itís kind of like that.† Itís a sore subject, because the last few weekends Iíve had to really deal with it heavily.
Relix:† Back to the Vault release, what made it come about now?
Healy:† This is something that we all, and myself particularly, have been considering for years.† This is no spur-of-the moment thing.† And in those years, weíve tried as hard as possible to consider every aspect of it and hopefully the end result being the nicest presentation that can be had.† Itís something that we sincerely care about.† And yet, for instance, the long box packaging is something that is just a terrible waste of paper, and I would like to see it abolished personally.† Have you seen the new box?
Relix:† I think the small cardboard packaging is very unique.
Healy:† Well, people are really complaining about it.† I got a stack of letters this morning from people disgruntled about it not being in a plastic box.
Relix:† The cardboard could wear out.
Healy:† So what?† Everything wears out.† Itís not meant to last forever, is it?
Relix:† Weíd like something to pass on to the grandchildren.
Healy:† Well, Iíd like it to also, but a higher priority is our planet, and those are the motivations.† People come onto me as though Iím intentionally interfering with their desires, and it had nothing to do with that.† It had to do with trying to look out for our planet.
††††††††††† I think that everybody from a musicians point of view, everyone thatís doing records, got together and said no more long box, the record companies and record stores could adapt, they could adapt to anything when it comes down to it.† Itís just a question of enough people being aware of the severe waste.
Relix:† They have to know that the consumer knows it, and the demand has to be that it change.
Healy:† Well, itís typical of Grateful Dead fashion.† Weíve always been the leaders of new ideas, and theyíve always been deemed radical, but many of them have wound up becoming accepted standards.† So, this is just another one of those examples, Iíd say.
Relix:† Well, go for it, because this is a good one.† On another note, have you seen changes in audience taping with the new standards of equipment available now?
Healy:† Yeah, the audience has very sophisticated equipment.† And itís, of course, largely digital and stuff like that these days, and they use good microphones.† And our sound system has really gone through a number of significant changes.† I mean, the sound in the audience is just outrageously good these days, and so that, plus the better quality equipment that the tapers have, and I think the tapers, particularly the older ones, begin to learn more and more about the ways of doing it.† Iíve heard recent audience tapes that are quite nice sounding.† I applaud all those people, basically, Iím on their side.† Iím a taper at heart.† So, Iím glad to see them doing well.
Relix:† At one point you had been experimenting with an FM broadcast method during one tour.† Was that working out?
Healy:† yes, but what happened is that the FCC was about to come down on me, so I had to stop doing it.† In order to do it with good quality, I had to use more power than they allow you to have.† The amount of legal power the FCC will give you without a license is about enough power to go about 20 feet.† So, it doesnít really work.† I was directly in violation.† And people like the FCC would love to come down on people like su, so it started getting hot, and I got a few indications that they were about to make an issue out of me, so I backed off for a while.† Thatís not to say I wonít ever do it again, but what Iíve done is, Iíve decided to let it rest for a while, and Iím gonna do it on more of a hit-and-miss basis.† And so, I would say that the answer to the tapers is that if you were to bring a tuner, bring a little Walkman radio that you can plug into your tape deck or something, because you never know when I might be doing it again.† But officially speaking, Iíve never done it.