Volume #18, Issue #5 Ė October 1991
By Toni A. Brown
Our conversation with Dan Healy picks up from the last issue, in which he discussed One From the Vaults and future release plans, tapers, sound challenges, and the use of FM signal broadcasts in venues.
Relix:† What are some of your favorite venues from the perspective of sound?
Healy:† First of all, outdoor playing is a joyful celebration for me.† The worst outdoor venue is infinitely more desirable than the best indoor venue.† Unfortunately, weíre in sports arenas most of the time, [which is] mandated by the size audience that weíre playing to.† And sports arenas probably care more about everything else but sound.† Little or no effort has ever gone into anything that helps it, even though, when civic committees raise bonds to build these places, one of the things they always sayóitís like the famous campaign speech stuffó[is,] ďWeíre gonna build a new sports arena/music arena.Ē† Thatís part of how they raise the money and sanction to do it, itís just like campaign promises, all the good stuff gets shined on.
††††††††††† Because of that, there are only one or two arenas that have fairly decent sound.† I think that one of the nicest sounding indoor arenas is Brendan Bryne in New Jersey.† That is one of the few places where they actually did put some effort into the acoustic properties.† It makes it possible to sound fairly good in there.† It ranges all the way from that to just awful bellowing, echo holes.
††††††††††† One of the challenges to me over the years was, in view of the fact that weíre stuck in all these awful sounding places, to try to endeavor to create sound equipment and procedures and techniques that minimize the echoes and the undesirable aspects of it.† I feel that my sound crew guys and I are probably on the cutting edge of the best ability to deal with acoustics and indoor venues and stuff like that.† There are many times when we play the Oakland Coliseum, which is not a bad place, but itís not a good place, itís somewhere in the middle, as an example.† When we play three or four nights there, by the second night itís remarkably good sounding.† Itís amazing how 20 years of studying places like that has actually taught us techniques and caused the development of procedures and equipment to actually do something about it.
††††††††††† I go to other shows, and I canít believe that people buy tickets to go to those concerts and donít demand their money back.† Some of the shows I see are just awful sounding.† You canít tell the difference between guitars and voices and stuff.† I know that our shows are much better than that, even though there are things that Iíd like to see get better and Iím of course continuously on the case of developing new ideas and better equipment.† Our system is going through a real big change right now.† Weíre right on the verge of digital sound.† We have pretty much all of the elements together, and weíre just heading towards the final stretch to completely close the loop and create a sound system that is fully digitally based.† I think the reason why thatís significant is because it will give us the ability of computer power to deal with the acoustic properties of a place.† So, in essence, itís going to come down to giving us the best-yet handle on how to make an awful sounding hall sound good.
Relix:† When you schedule a venue, a computer diagram is created that allows you to design the sound system.† When you get to a location, the entire set-up is blueprinted out, and then the crew and yourself setup speaker locations, seating advantages, etc.
Healy:† There are not too many days off on the road.† First of all, itís prohibitively expensive to be on the road with our entire crew.† The object is to put a tour together that conforms with the full amount of time we want to be on the road and that also fits realistically into the different cities.† We get an architectural lay-out and then do scale drawings of the venue.† We have a special computer that runs a program called Autocare, which architectural designs are based on.† We scan into the computer the architectural drawings in a given venue.† Also, already in the computer, we have the size and shape and the ability to project any configuration of our loud speakers and of the stage itself.† So you can take that computer and build any stage inside of a venue, and then you can set the sound system up on it or around it, in any way you want.
††††††††††† The computer also can show projections of what each speaker does and how far the sound travels and how wide and how high and low and areas of dispersion and stuff.† From all of that, you plot the sound system at any given venue, and the object is to try to devise a set-up that yields smooth, even sound for every seat that youíre selling tickets for.† It helps keep the sound off of areas that donít have people in them.† It keeps them off the walls and ceilings, because those are all elements that add to the echo and reverberations in the halls.† The reason for it is to be able to devise a set-up thatís most desirable visually and aurally for everybody and has minimized all the undesirable effects.
††††††††††† It also goes for outdoor shows.† The difference between that and an indoor place is that itís much larger.† Thereís not only the stage, but thereís also the sound reinforcements, speakers, towers, and stuff like that.† Theyíre all carefully designed and drawn into the different venues to reflect smooth, even coverage sound everywhere.† So, yes, a lot goes into planning a show.† This all happens months before we actually leave to go on the road.† Then, of course, after these drawings are completed in the computer, itís printed back out into blueprint fashion and the blueprints are duplicated and distributed to the builders of the stage and the builders of the sound system and the seating people, to let them know where to put the seats and so on and so forth.
Relix:† Youíve experimented with many different sound techniques.† What are some of the more successful techniques youíve picked up?
Healy:† The Wall of Sound itself was probably the big workshop of sound.† In the early Ď70s, by the time we started to construct the Wall of Sound, that was probably our third or fourth generation sound system.† In the early days of sound reinforcement of all audio, it really came from research done in the Ď20s and Ď30s by Bell Labs, who at the time was the authority on sound reinforcement, and they did everything from designing loud speakers for theaters to making air raid sirens, which used a similar technology.† So, that was all the real research that was done, and all the textbooks and all the information you could get really stemmed from that period and that era of research.
††††††††††† By the time we got to our third generation sound system, we had already exhausted all of the technology and all of the research that had been done previous to us.† Yet we had questions we needed answered in terms of the pursuit of better sound, and there was nowhere to get information.† So, it became obvious that we were going to have to create a model whereby we could test their hypotheses and new ideas and stuff that we were coming up with.† And that was basically the crux of the Wall of Sound.
††††††††††† The Wall of Sound was a culmination of ideas from myself and a number of other people that were, like, sound audiophiles and designers, and some of them were mathematician-based people.† Some of them were loud speaker design people, some of them were electronics design people, and some of them were musician sound mixer people, and that was more the area that I was in.† But in order to move to a newer technology, it required incorporating all of these people, so it was like a group venture.† There were some various people, like Alembic had played a role in it.
††††††††††† They didnít really design and build it, but they did do some consultation towards it.† But there were a number of other peopleóa guy named John Curl, a guy named John Meyer.† I donít want to name a lot of people because I donít want to burn anybody.† What Iím trying to say is, there was a cumulative endeavor by a half a dozen really knowledgeable sound people and really knowledgeable mathematicians.† Because by the time I got to the place where I was asking questions there werenít really answers for, I noticed that the other sound freaks around me were in the same dilemma.† So, we got together and decided to do something about it, and that became the Wall of Sound.† It was predicated on raising issues and then finding solutions for them.† Without going into tremendous detail, I think that the main thing to say about it is that while it was extremely extravagant, it was very effective.† It provided knowledge and answers that still havenít been exhausted.
††††††††††† It gave us the grounds for another 20 years of research and development, and by the mid-Ď70s, when our nationís economy and our nationís government crapped out on us and everything skyrocketed, the Wall of Sound was already nearly prohibitively expensive, in terms of both money and energy.† When that happened, it pushed it over the top and made it impossible.† We were working 11 months of the year, and we were broke all of the time, and we were fried.† Thatís in fact why we took a year off, because we were just exhausted.† When we did that, we also retired the Wall of Sound, the theory being that, okay, it served its purpose, and now itís time to come up with next generation that takes into consideration as much of the technology that we learned from it, as well as incorporates efficiency in terms of size and the ability to move it around the country and how much time it takes to set it up.
††††††††††† The Wall of Sound is like all other test endeavors, itís not practical on a day-to-day basis, and itís designed to be able to develop information.† It wasnít designed to be practical, it was designed to give answers.† Now that we had the answers, it was time to regroup, scrap that system, and come up with the next generation, which began to address the practical issues in it, how long it takes to set it up, how many people it requires to set it up, how many trucks it takes to haul it around.† Those became the new important considerations.
††††††††††† The system that we have now has kind of achieved or accomplished the best of both worlds.† The sound is as good as or better than the Wall of Sound and is also definitely less complicated and costly and time-consuming to set up and move around.† I think the centerpiece of it all was the Wall of Sound, and from that, technology has been sent ahead instead of backwards for the first time in history.
Relix:† A Relix reader sent me some pages from a book on sound equipment, and the Wall of Sound was pictured.† Alembic is listed as the credit.† Nowhere does it mention the Grateful Dead, you, or anyone.
Healy:† The Grateful Dead put up all the money for it, all the energy for it, and the knowledge and inspiration of it came from a number of people, myself and John Meyer and John Curl and people like that.† As a matter of fact, they wound up actually being removed from it because they were in it for business and we were in it for knowledge and technology.† I can assure you that it would have happened even without Alembic.† I donít mind helping to set the story straight.
††††††††††† The name Alembic was derived from Owsley.† Heís the guy who came up with it, because heís actually an alchemist.† And the original Alembic was Owsley and myself and a guy named Bob Matthews.
Relix:† What was one of the most unusual venues youíve had to work the sound system into?
Healy:† I get asked that a lot, and the best answer I can derive is that over the years now, weíve played every place a number of times and in every place weíve played Iíve had horrible times and then Iíve come back and had wonderful times, or vice versa.† So, I sued to think that I had† favorite and non-favorite places, but now I think it has more to do with who I am and what Iím doing and the band and the day and where the moon is and Lord knows whatever.† The things that make a given show more exciting or not really exciting or really fun and edifying or really not rewarding have to do with things that arenít that tangible.† It has to do with moods and atmospheric conditions.† Like, cold weather, the sound doesnít sound as good as warm weather.† And the human elements and stuff have more to do with it than the actual venues themselves. Because, as I say, I think all of us would agree that weíve had wonderful and horrible times in the same places on different occasions.
Relix:† I heard about an experiment you tried in Egypt, where you piped the bandís sound into the Kingís inner chamber in the Great Pyramid and wanted to mic it back out.† That sounds very interesting.† Did it work?
Healy:† Um, no.† It almost worked.† And it worked sporadically, but for some reason, thereís no electricity over there, no anything over there.† So, everything you have, you have to bring yourself.† The distance between the stage at the base of the Sphinx and the Kingís Chamber of the Great Pyramid was maybe a quarter mile, and we had wireless radio rigs that sent and received the signal to and from the chamber.† For some reasonóand this is where it can get into the cosmic aspects if you want toóthe equipment would just work intermittently.† It would all be working, but the signal wouldnít get from one place to the other.† So, who knows.† Maybe the king himself didnít dig his bedroom being used as an echo chamber.
††††††††††† But I did go and spend the night in the Kingís Chamber.† They have tours in there, but between five in the afternoon and nine the next morning, they lock the place up.† We conned them into locking us in there for the night.† Myself and David Freiberg and, I think, Jerry and somebody else all went in there.† We took acoustic guitars and flutes and harmonicas and stuff, and we spent the night in the Kingís Chamber playing music and witnessing the acoustic properties of it, which hare very, very unique.† For the size and shape of the room, it doesnít sound at all like any other place that has that size and shape.† It has its own unique characteristics, and it was a very warm and friendly feeling.† The density of the stone from there to the outside means the place is so incredibly quiet.† Itís like youíre not on the earth.† Itís like youíre in outer space or something, like a whole different place.† But it was a very interesting experience.
††††††††††† The experiments were interesting, and from time to time the echo thing worked, but it didnít work totally.† I donít think the importance was whether or not it worked, the importance was the fact that we took a shot at it.† I have to say that I didnít really feel like the spirits were against it or anything, but at the same time I would say that it didnít work.† To get into the Kingís Chamber, you have to climb this long ladder thing, kind of a board walkway, and there was no real safe place to put all the wires that went from the inside of the Kingís Chamber to the outside where the radio links were, and that got destroyed.† Just a lot of stuff happened.† And getting the show itself on was monumentally difficult over there.† With no electricity, we had these old funky generators, and just trying to get them to run.† At a show like that, you have to be a diesel mechanic and a sound maker and an electrician and a stage conductor.† You have to be able to do a little of all that stuff if you want to survive.
Relix:† Can you give us some insight into the use of MIDI technology?
Healy:† Basically, MIDI amounts to the ability to control and manipulate musical instruments via computers.
Relix:† The band seems to be going further into that.† Does that affect your working with the sound?
Healy:† It makes it easier because ultimately it isnít just the band.† Iím into MIDI myself, a lot of what I do and the ability to process sound and stuff, I use MIDI, too.† Iíll tell you what my analogy is.† If you image yourself as an artist, and back in the early days the biggest thing an artist did that made him or her famous was, you made your own canvas, and you stretched it yourself, and you dyed it yourself, and you made your own paints and stuff.† I look at it as, the use of computers and the use of digital technology and the use of any kind of technology helps me create a smoother, flatter, nicer stretched canvas with more uniformed tone to it and gives me better, richer colors to paint with.† It really makes my job more desirable, because it gives me more flexibility in the creative aspects of it.
Relix:† Garcia was quoted as saying, ďWeíre starting to deal with the possibility of having a permanent venue of some kind.Ē† Can you speculate as to what that would be like?
Healy:† Some variations go from someplace like Shoreline, for instance, that we would say, do two or three months a year there, some long run, and the idea would be people would come like they go to Disneyland or something.† Thatís one variation, but now thereís some other new possibilities.† Weíre working on an exhibit of high definition TV, HDTV, and we will do that the next time we play at Shoreline in August.† The program will originate there.† It will be distributed there.† And it will be distributed to theaters around the country.
††††††††††† High definition TV is just infinitely more of a higher resolution than regular TV as we know it.† The screens will be 40-foot-wide screens, which is the width of our stage.† So, the scale will be one to one, and the picture and color and texture will be absolutely pure, even better than 35 mm film.† Itíll rival 70 mm film, extremely good quality.† And then each one of these places will have a custom-specified sound system by one of us that will go with it, so that each place will have an immensely beautiful picture and an immensely great sound system.† This is a test, another one of the Grateful Deadís firsts that weíre famous for, and this will be our first endeavor at high definition TV.
††††††††††† Thereís only six of these projectors that c an project high definition TV in the country, and the idea is that from Shoreline weíll send a signal to the satellite, and then it will come down into these six cities that we have yet to pick but will pick.† And then each one of these six systems will go into one of those theaters, and itíll be like a custom exhibit.† So thatís another possibility.† I donít think that itís really known yet whether the place will be a place where people actually come to or will exist in the form of some electronic conveyance.
††††††††††† The thing is that itís difficult and expensive to tour, and I think that we might be getting to a place in our lives where being on the road all the time isnít that desirable.† So, the object will be to get a place thatís more consistent with the time that we have to spend on it and still enable our fans to see and hear the music.† Those are just some suggestions and ideas, but I donít think that itís necessarily become a fixed reality yet, itís something thatís still an exploratory.
††††††††††† Buckminster Fuller once designed for us, that I have the blueprints for, like a floating venue that looked like a spaceship and held about 10,000 people.† The object was that we could go to different cities and have our permanent set-up, like the carnival shows, and thatís another possibility.† That happened about 15 years ago, before he died.† He came up with a design that worked similar to a dirigible.† You could take on or remove buoyancy, and you could float to a different city and then you could lower it down and tie down and everybody would come and see the show.† Thatís a more space futuristic version of it, but it certainly is a good idea.† I would like to see something like that happen.† I donít know if it will happen in my lifetime, but it sure would be nice.
Relix:† You folks are the forerunners in so many realms of musical technology.† It might not happen in your lifetime, but who knows?