"Dead Sound": The Grateful Dead and the evolution of modern concert sound

By Allen Peng and Gauthier Giacomoni

/ CBS News

Concerts are rewarding partly because your favorite artists are playing your favorite songs, and loud. But it wasn't always like that.

"Dead Sound," an audio documentary produced by CBS News Radio, follows how the psychedelic rock band the Grateful Dead developed technology and techniques used in concert venues worldwide today.

Nobody cared about concert sound in the early 1960's, according to writer Blair Jackson, author of a number of books on the Grateful Dead. Jackson said that was because there was no real concert industry until the late 1960's as rock bands became more popular.

Blair Jackson, author of "Grateful Dead Gear: The Band's Instruments, Sound Systems, and Recording Sessions from 1965 to 1995" Blair Jackson

"Then, as the bands got bigger and more popular, they started playing larger places," Jackson said. "So that's when you find bands starting to go into hockey arenas, basketball arenas, you know, all these giant places that were not really designed for music at all."

Music More

More in Music

The Grateful Dead and their sound engineers made considerable efforts to improve the listening experience of concertgoers. Their crusade began with Owsley "Bear" Stanley, who was the Dead's original sound engineer and also one of the developers of LSD.

The goal was that the equipment for amplification should not cause any distortion to the music.

The Dead's first significant sound system involved giant speakers from Stanley's home stereo system, according to Dennis McNally, former publicist and historian for the Grateful Dead.

73-c4-bear-mcintoshes.jpg
Owsley "Bear" Stanley, sound engineer Rosie McGee

"I mean, Lord knows it was sort of overkill in a private home," McNally said. "Ultimately, it didn't work all the time… but, you know, when it worked it was a thing of beauty."

Jackson said the speakers were actually refurbished movie theater equipment.

"He [Stanley] was the guy who pioneered the notion that, hey, some of these movie theaters, movie palaces have pretty good speakers why don't we try that for rock 'n roll," Jackson said. "So he put this system together and that became extremely influential."

They turned to movie speakers because most of the research that had been done for high-power, high-quality sound equipment had been done in the 1920's for the moving picture industry, according to Dan Healy, an audio engineer for the Grateful Dead.

Healy's goal was to contrive a live sound system that allowed everyone in the audience to feel like they were sitting in front of their dream stereo systems in their living rooms. He says over the span of the Grateful Dead's career they accomplished this dream with room to spare.

To get the music playing in their sound systems to come back out of the speakers more accurately, Healy started measuring how individual audio frequencies bounced around different rooms to tune their systems to each venue. Band members credit the original concept to Stanley and his Alembic Inc. co-founder, but everyone seems to agree that Healy is the one who figured out how to make it work.

"And they used a wave measuring device, which was actually invented to test the harmonic strength of metals, and this would measure the room, and you discover which frequencies would resonate too much, others too little," McNally said. "And so the idea would be to tune the room flat, and so you would start from there with equalizing the sound system to make it sound perfect to the audience."

mcnally.jpg
Dennis McNally, left, former publicist and historian for the Grateful Dead, with Jerry Garcia, right, lead guitarist for the Grateful Dead. Bob Minkin

Jackson said the Grateful Dead were a band of firsts, whether using stage monitors so singers could hear themselves, to using high-fidelity equipment instead of public address equipment.

danhealy.jpg
Dan Healy, Sound Engineer Facebook

"I mean very early on they got a reputation for having the best sound of any band that was out there touring," Jackson said. "A lot of the other sound engineers copied what they were doing or talked to them about what they were doing and how they were able to isolate instruments, and how they were able to combine instruments in interesting ways in the PA, and give a faithful reproduction of what was actually being played."

The Dead's innovation culminated in the Wall of Sound: more than 600 speakers, 40 feet high and 70 feet wide across the stage.

McNally said it could create perfectly acceptable sound at a quarter mile away.

"Visualize 440 yards. Being that far back from the stage, and I'm talking about just the speakers on the stage," McNally said. "And a quarter mile away, you could still feel that sound as a powerful and palpable thing. It was extraordinary."

wall-of-sound.jpg
Wall of Sound Meyer Sound Lab Archives

One of the challenges of the Wall was time smear, or the idea that since the speakers were all different distances from the audience, their sound output would not reach their ears simultaneously.

John Meyer, president of Meyer Sound, likened it to controlling the water ripples after tossing rocks in the water.

"You get all kinds of grading loads or waves that go everywhere," Meyer said. "I mean, you could imagine like trying to throw a bunch of rocks in the water and making it coherent enough that it would just look like a big rock."

According to Meyer, the Wall also required the Dead to invent a phase-cancelling microphone to prevent feedback loops, due to the speakers being directly behind the microphones. Each microphone was actually two thin microphones, one for the vocals and the other to cancel out the sound of the music.

That technological concept was derived from fighter pilot microphones and is used today for noise-cancelling headphones.

By the late '70s, the concert industry had begun to catch up with the Dead's innovative approaches to live sound.

In less than a decade, the Grateful Dead changed the landscape of live music performances. You can hear the difference in a montage from 1968, 1972, and 1974.

The documentary was produced and edited by CBS News Radio assignment editor Gauthier Giacomoni and narrated by CBS News Radio correspondent Jim Chenevey.

The full documentary is available via Soundcloud, the CBS News Radio app under "Podcasts -> Special Programming," or your local CBS News Radio station. Full transcript is available here.

Music Credits:

First published on May 22, 2019 / 3:16 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

blair-jackson-2019.jpg 73-c4-bear-mcintoshes.jpg mcnally.jpg danhealy.jpg wall-of-sound.jpg

Judge overturns conviction of innocent man who served 33 years

"We believe Keith Bush did not commit this murder," Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini said

10M ago

Trump awards Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor

The president is holding the ceremony after his impromptu Rose Garden statement

updated 3M ago

Ice Cube remembers late director John Singleton as his "mentor"

"I felt like I was working with a champion," "BIG3" founder said about the late director

42M ago

McDonald's workers say restaurants are a magnet for crime

Employees of the fast-food chain report gun-toting customers, assaults and other threats in urging OSHA to investigate

50M ago

Nevada could become the 15th state to ditch Electoral College

Several Democratic-leaning states have already adopted legislation to allow its electoral votes to go to the winner of the popular vote

1H ago

Trump awards Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor

The president is holding the ceremony after his impromptu Rose Garden statement

updated 3M ago

Nevada could become the 15th state to ditch Electoral College

Several Democratic-leaning states have already adopted legislation to allow its electoral votes to go to the winner of the popular vote

1H ago

John Hickenlooper releases plan to reduce gun violence today

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and former governor is calling for national gun licenses and raising the legal age to own a firearm

1H ago

Stacey Abrams says "anti-abortion is not the will of the people"

The former Georgia gubernatorial candidate denounced a series of legislative efforts in red states designed to severely limit women's access to an abortion

2H ago

Trump cuts meeting with Democrats short over "cover-up" comment

The president addressed reporters just after speaking briefly at the White House with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer

updated 37M ago

Rising sea levels could displace millions in 2 generations

A new study lays out a range of possible outcomes "that go from bad to worse"

4H ago

North Korea calls Joe Biden "an imbecile" over Kim criticism

North Korea has often unleashed crude insults against U.S. and South Korean politicians

4H ago

Canada tries to avoid an all-out trash "war" with the Philippines

Philippines' battle to get Canada to take back tons of mislabeled garbage highlights increasing reluctance in developing nations to be the world's dumping grounds

5H ago

Russian warplanes intercepted off Alaska for 2nd day in a row

NORAD sent F-22s to ward off Russian bombers and fighter jets that entered the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone twice

updated 34M ago

World getting better in spite of "authoritarian populism," UN told

Harvard psychology professor tells leaders "there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge," and history shows we will

9H ago

The Grateful Dead and the evolution of concert sound

CBS News Radio documentary explores how the Grateful Dead developed live sound techniques used in concerts worldwide

13M ago

Highest-grossing movies of all time, ranked

What's the highest-grossing movie of all time? It might be one of your favorites

May 20 27 photos

Ice Cube remembers late director John Singleton as his "mentor"

"I felt like I was working with a champion," "BIG3" founder said about the late director

42M ago

Ice-T blasts Amazon after he "almost shot" delivery driver

"They don't wear ANY uniform. Just regular people workin"

3H ago

DJ Khaled talks working with Nipsey Hussle before his death

The music mogul reflects on the slain rapper and the role of his family in his career

3H ago

A medical diagnosis leads to an innovative fashion design

Emily Levy launched Mighty Well after she discovered there was no practical medical product to protect her catheter

1H ago

Amazon shareholders push retailer to cut back on fossil fuels

Online retail giant has never disclosed its total carbon footprint — some investors had hoped to change that

1H ago

Apple updates MacBook Pro laptops, including new keyboard design

Responding to customer complaints, Apple makes changes to the butterfly switch keyboard in its laptops — including new 2019 MacBook Pro models

18H ago

Tesla slices prices on Models S and X as stock plunges

After a big first-quarter loss, and signs of slowing demand for its cars, Tesla is under pressure to deliver profits

22H ago

Lyft riders can soon dial 911 from the app

Lyft is joining Uber in adding more safety features following the death of a college student

May 21

Giant asteroid with its own moon to pass by Earth this weekend

The asteroid will be visible until May 27

2H ago

Rising sea levels could displace millions in 2 generations

A new study lays out a range of possible outcomes "that go from bad to worse"

4H ago

Amazon shareholders push retailer to cut back on fossil fuels

Online retail giant has never disclosed its total carbon footprint — some investors had hoped to change that

1H ago

Costa Rican meteorite is rare "extraterrestrial mud ball"

"It formed in an environment free of life, then was preserved in the cold and vacuum of space for 4.56 billion years, and then dropped in Costa Rica"

22H ago

Great white shark tracked in Long Island Sound for "first time ever"

Ocearch, a group that tracks ocean life, posted a picture of "Cabot," a nearly 10-foot-long fish swimming near Greenwich, Connecticut

23H ago

A medical diagnosis leads to an innovative fashion design

Emily Levy launched Mighty Well after she discovered there was no practical medical product to protect her catheter

1H ago

Simple ways to avoid misery during allergy season

More than 22 million people in the U.S. live in areas with high pollen levels

3H ago

Eli Lilly's half-price insulin goes on sale, but critics say it's still too costly

Eli Lilly's lower-cost version of its Humalog insulin still costs much more than insulin sold outside the U.S.

6H ago

Starbucks accused of using poisonous pesticide in NYC stores

Coffee chain dismisses claims in suits, saying accusers trying to "incite public fear for their own financial gain"

22H ago

California bill would provide free abortion pills on campus

The bill would require all 34 public university campuses in California to offer no-cost medical abortions to students

May 21

McDonald's workers say restaurants are a magnet for crime

Employees of the fast-food chain report gun-toting customers, assaults and other threats in urging OSHA to investigate

50M ago

Sweetgreen extends paid parental leave to 5 months

The benefit extends to "mothers, fathers, adoptive parents, foster parents and others with new additions to their families"

1H ago

A medical diagnosis leads to an innovative fashion design

Emily Levy launched Mighty Well after she discovered there was no practical medical product to protect her catheter

1H ago

Urban Outfitters launches clothing rental service

Urban Outfitters jumps into the clothing rental market to please young consumers who want variety and sustainability

2H ago

Ben Carson confuses real estate term "REO" with "Oreo"

Asked about "REOs" during a House Financial Services hearing, Carson responded, "An Oreo?"

5H ago

Crime

Video shows police putting "spit mask" on boy

A cellphone video showing Sacramento police detaining a 12-year-old boy and putting a "spit mask" over his head is going viral. The boy's mother is demanding an apology over how her son was treated, CBS Sacramento reports.

2H ago 01:54

Video shows police putting "spit mask" on detained 12-year-old

Police say officers on the scene followed standard policy in detaining the boy

1H ago

Possible link between attacks on trans women

A transgender woman was found shot to death in a Dallas neighborhood. Now, police believe her case may be linked to two other attacks on transgender victims. Mola Lenghi reports.

20H ago 01:32

"Similarities" in crimes against 3 transgender women, Dallas police say

A murder and an assault on transgender women have "similarities" to the killing of Muhlaysia Booker, police say

21H ago

Officer says he exaggerated charges against Eric Garner

Officer Justin D'Amico testified Tuesday during the disciplinary trial of his partner officer Daniel Pantaleo

22H ago

Costa Rican meteorite is rare "extraterrestrial mud ball"

"It formed in an environment free of life, then was preserved in the cold and vacuum of space for 4.56 billion years, and then dropped in Costa Rica"

22H ago

High winds scrub SpaceX launch of internet relay satellites

While disappointing, SpaceX was taking no chances with launch of its heaviest payload to date

May 15

NASA wants to send first woman to the moon

NASA is gearing up to send American astronauts back to the moon by 2024, and it hopes to include a woman for the first time. The Trump administration has asked Congress to approve an additional $1.6 billion for NASA's budget. CBS News space consultant Bill Harwood joined CBSN to discuss the ambitious plans.

May 14 04:35

NASA vows to make ambitious plan to return to the moon "a reality"

The newly announced Artemis program, named after the Greek goddess of the moon, intends to land astronauts on the South Pole of the moon by 2024

May 14

Trump backs early moon landing with funding request

Trump administration asks Congress to kick-start NASA moon mission with $1.6 billion in additional 2020 funding

May 14

Highest-grossing movies of all time, ranked

What's the highest-grossing movie of all time? It might be one of your favorites

May 20 27 photos

Britain's royal great-grandchildren

Prince Harry's new baby Archie is the eighth great-grandchild for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip

May 8 9 photos

Met Gala 2019: Red carpet looks

See what all your favorite celebrities wore to fashion's biggest night

May 6 80 photos

Dale Pike murder: Evidence photos in the case against Enrico Forti

In 1998, Dale Pike came to Miami to discuss a business deal with Enrico Forti — the next day he was dead, and Forti was the prime suspect

May 3 17 photos

Worst movie sequels since 2000, ranked

These are the lowest-rated sequels this century, according to Metacritic's rankings

Apr 30 51 photos

Popular

Trump to take in some sumo in Japan

President Trump, long a fan of pro wrestling, will get a seat of honor in Tokyo as he attends a national sumo championship. As CBS News' Lucy Craft reports, it may be a way for the Japanese to flatter the U.S. leader.

updated 7M ago 02:17

More Americans give Trump credit for economy

A recent CBS News poll found that seven in 10 Americans say the economy is in good shape. And more Americans are giving President Trump's policies credit for a strong economy than last year. The poll also found his approval rating is still at 41 percent. CBS News political correspondent Ed O'Keefe joined CBSN to discuss Mr. Trump’s approach to the economy in his 2020 push.

updated 6M ago 09:30

Dressbarn to close stores amid retail decline

Nearly 7,000 employees at the chain will likely lose their jobs. Retail store closings have already outpaced closings from last year. Brookings Institution senior fellow Mark Muro joined CBSN to discuss the state of U.S. retail.

updated 41M ago 04:23

Pelosi, Schumer slam Trump for bailing on infrastructure

Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer slammed the president for cutting a White House meeting on infrastructure short, citing ongoing investigations into his administration. CBS News' Nancy Cordes and Ed O'Keefe have more on the latest developments.

updated 59M ago 23:16

Trump cuts meeting short over "cover-up" comment

President Trump addressed reporters Wednesday after speaking briefly at the White House with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Mr. Trump suggested he would not negotiate an infrastructure plan while Democrats continued to pursue investigations of his administration.

2H ago 12:02