Pro Sound News Logo

Industry Weighs Potential Demise of Grateful Dead:

The Ultimate Experimental Lab Closes
Pro Sound News - November 1996
By Joseph Spiegel

It may be some time before it totally sinks in, but the touring industry has suffered a massive loss. On so many levels, the potential dissolution of the Grateful Dead following the death of Jerry Garcia on August 9, 1995 spells the end of a unique era: sociologically, technologically, musically, and even commercially. In the financial realm, there will unlikely be another band which can pull in $52 million a year in touring alone (which the band has done consistently for about the last five years), 30 years after their inception. John Scher of Metropolitan Entertainment, the noted promoter, commented that the Grateful Dead, "are unquestionably the highest-grossing band cumulatively in the history of the music business."

On the live sound front, there has never been (nor may there ever be again) anything even approaching it - a full-scale testing ground each night for furthering the state of concert sound, along with nearly unlimited funding from the band. From their genesis, the history of the Grateful Dead's experiments in live sound could easily fill a book (or at least the Bay area chapter.) Such notable figures in the history of sound reinforcement like John Meyer, Jim Gamble, Ron Wickersham and Owsley "Bear" Stanley, participated over the years to the Dead's sound systems with their often radical new ideas. But without the support of the Dead, who were very concerned about pushing the limits of the total concert experience, this chapter could never have been written.

Pro Sound News which has covered various technological developments by the band over the years, queried key people who were involved in making much of this happen, as well as others who had strong sentiments about the contribution the band had made to the furthering of the art.

For the last 15 or so years of the band's existence, their sound needs have been assiduously attended to by San Rafael, CA-based Ultra Sound, headed up by president Don Pearson, and accompanied by a longtime Ultra crew consisting of (at various times) Howard Danchik, Mike Brady, Glenn "Chub" Carrier, Uwe Willenbacher, Fuzzy Frazier, David Robb, Mike Kelly and Michael Shawn Healy. Pearson was chiefly involved in many of the experiments the band did with their Crest-powered Meyer Sound based PA system and Gamble console based front-of-house. Of course, live house mix engineer John Cutler (who had previously been their studio engineer and came to FOH a few years ago), longtime house mixer Dan Healy (who had been with the band from the late '60s until he was replaced by Cutler), and monitor engineer Harry Popick were all involved in providing input into the team research efforts at various times. Console designer Jim Gamble was also integrally involved in many projects, as well.

"They're one of the few bands in the world that cared about technology," said Pearson, "along with Pink Floyd, that wanted to keep furthering the state of the art. If we came up with an idea, we could make any changes we wanted to make it better, as compared to most other tours where once it leaves to go on the road, it's the same. No changes, no anything. The band really supported our ability to do that. Even from the beginning with just starting with Meyer speakers when no one else would, to all the technology advances we made with equalization, analysation, rigging—all the little tricks and toys we've developed through the years."

After the tour was cancelled, Pearson unfortunately was left with a quite large Meyer PA and no tour. "I'm looking to rent this PA out," he said. "And it's a little late to be booking a fall tour. Anybody who's going out is already booked and I'm scrambling to find work for it. I've got a couple of good potentials. We have this Meyer/Gamble/Crest PA and a great crew available, as well as Future Sonics Ear Monitors and a selection of world-reknowned effects." In addition to Dave Matthews and Primus, the company has been working with Tracy Chapman as well as doing consulting on a number of other projects. Pearson made it clear that their diligent pursuit of audio quality would not end even if the Dead decided never to tour again. "Whatever client we have, we're not going to give up our research," he said. "We'll hopefully guide them into the technology and show them things we're working on that we haven't even shown to anybody yet, and which no one else is using."

Dennis McNally, publicist and spokesman for the Grateful Dead, could not provide any details as to the future of the band at press time. "The band has dealt with what it had to deal with," he said, "which was cancelling [the fall tour] and dealing with the immediate future of employees." As to the future, "the answer is, quite literally, that anything is possible. They haven't ruled out anything. They didn't walk into the situation and say, 'All right, that's it. It's over.' They have probably changed their minds about 40 times a day since." McNally explained that the band has been devoted to pushing the limits of sound since the beginning. "Very early on, the Dead were associated with a company called Alembic," he recounted, "which still makes instruments today and at one time was their PA company. Some of the people involved were Ron Wickersham, Bob Matthews and Owsley [Stanley or 'Bear']. Alembic is a word for the crucible, the place where the magic takes place, in alchemy. Ever since they met Owsley, they have tried to push the sound and performance to the ultimate, beyond any limits possible. That's precisely what they have been about from the very beginning. They created and defined the technical limits of sound in rock 'n' roll large-scale performance to this point."

And the band was not afraid to spend money on the pursuit of excellence. "They spent more money than God on sound and they certainly weren't afraid to take chances," he said. "God knows they loved to fail in public." John Meyer, speaker designer and founder of Meyer Sound, had a very close relationship with the Grateful Dead, especially with Jerry Garcia. He has been involved with them for a very long time, from a peripheral role in the Wall of Sound in the early '70s to the McCune JM-3 to the Meyer-based rig used by Ultra Sound. Meyer was involved very recently in doing low frequency beam steering experiments which he said the band found successfully eliminated a lot of the low frequency rumble on the stage.

"It's very sad," said Meyer. "I like Jerry a lot and we were just talking about doing things just a week before he died. We were planning to do more experiments with steering in future shows. It's a real loss. He was a special spirit. We'll definitely miss Jerry, there's no question."

"They were definitely leaders in the field of sound all along," continued Meyer. "They were always experimenting. We were getting involved with controlling where frequencies go within spaces. That was going to be the next series of experiments." Meyer explained that the multiple element steering technique which was used on the last tour involved "putting up different sections or arrays of speakers and steering them by their phase relationship, similar to how antennas work in underwater acoustics. We were able to move the energy off the stage by more than 15 dB, at will. That's what we were attempting to do and we did it successfully at several shows, including Las Vegas, Washington and Albany." Meyer said that the experiments will continue. "We plan to continue foward, but everyone's kind of in shock right now. We don't plan to drop it, for sure. But exactly how we're going to forward isn't clear at this moment."

One other area in which the Dead experimented was in-the-ear monitoring, now a popular trend, where they were one of the first bands to completely eliminate on-stage monitor speakers. The Steve Miller Band was also doing a lot of the same things, and in fact shared the bill with the Dead for a tour in 1992. But the Dead were very much impressed with the in-the-ear concept and said that it had helped their performance. Grateful Dead member Bob Weir commented in a July 1993 Pro Sound News interview that "it was like playing in the studio, only on stage. We had that kind of clarity and interaction. It's brought [our playing] up to a new level. It's a get-off for us to advance the technology, or at least use the best technology available. We've always been like that." Marty Garcia, president of Pineville, PA. based Future Sonics, which builds the Ear Monitors earpiece system that the Dead largely used, has worked very closely with the band since 1991 in their research of in-the-ear technology, along with Ultra Sound. Garcia has been a strong proponent of the concept and has built a very large client base of top-name acts. "It's been a moving experience with these guys," he said. "In the last five years that I have been working with them, they would never tour without having the best there was to offer. Money was not a factor. It was really a compliment to have been a part of that. They've always done research and tried everything that was available, and we kept up with their needs."

Because of the band's acknowledged reputation as innovators, as well as their unprecedented ability to consistently sell-out stadiums for years and years, they earned high regard and considerable respect in the touring industry, even from competing sound companies. Pro Sound News talked to two of the top sound companies in the business to get their views on the Grateful Dead.

Clay Powers, president of Showco Inc. in Dallas, was a bit broken up by the loss of Garcia. "I've got two perspectives," he said summing things up, "one as a fan, one as a businessman. I'm grieving in both respects. It's a sad deal." Powers remarked that the true "phenomenon" of the Dead was not the "Deadheads and tie-dyes and Volkswagen buses" that the news media was making such a big deal about but instead, this: "That here's a band that 30 years after their inception is still one of the top-grossing concert draws in the world today. They can still attract more concertgoers than the majority of bands out there. That's what is amazing. Not the Rolling Stones every five years. I'm talking about every year. It's unfortunate for this business that such an attraction could become extinct."

Powers openly acknowledged that "I wish they had been our client. People who said it was a waste of money to do all that experimenting were just envious of the situation. I'd kill to have a band that was willing to go out there and try our new ideas. They had great trust in their technical people to let them go out on a limb every night. It was a great deal for John Meyer and Don Pearson and now it's gone. It was a unique situation: a real, live testing ground for their ideas every night. So even though they must be distraught that this situation might go away, I think they should feel fortunate that they ever had it at all, because most of us will never get the chance. I applaud their attitude that no matter how good they were, they wanted to be better. If there was any chance that there was a better technique, a better piece of hardware, a more scientific approach, they were willing to try it. Most acts just want to settle into a routine, whereas they were willing to search for the ultimate performance."