The History of PA (Part 1)
the birth of loud
Ben Duncan wields the forceps at the birth of the PA system.
It's 1958 okay? We're in Liverpool, and it's skiffle. Even then, musicians were broke, but the vocalist had to be heard somehow above the guitars and screams and cat whistles.
So the ubiquitous Grundig tape recorder was borrowed from home and set up on stage with a microphone. A four-watt amplifier could be made by switching the machine to 'record', and then pressing the 'pause' button. A broom handle held up by bricks made a microphone stand. The mike was taped on to the broom handle and the Grundig sat on a beer crate in front of the singer.
Beyond the turn of the decade, as Merseybeat got underway, bands progressed to using equipment which, although primitive, was at least in part intended for the rigours of the road. One such set-up used a WEM 25-watt Dominator tube guitar amp with 2x10in speakers. Linear Conchord and Vortexion amplifiers were widely used. The Vortexions had integral mixers, inputs for four mikes, giant bakelite volume knobs for each, and a pair of tone controls overall.
Roadies also discovered that the WEM Copicat, with its two mike inputs, could be used as a mixer. At the same time, grass-roots stage mixers with four or six (!) inputs were being pioneered on kitchen tables, though in those days little apart from sax and vocals was miked-up. Reslo mikes were almost universally used. There was no time for soundchecks: the gear was just thrown on stage and everyone helped to set up. In this way, groups could do three or four gigs in a night. Phew!
For a while the Beatles brought Vox to the forefront; an early Vox PA system consisted of a 4x8in column speaker used exclusively for vocals PA in conjunction with a 50 watt valve PA amplifier. This had three inputs, the big novelty being the provision of bass and treble controls on each input. The column speaker with its spindly legs was manifestly impractical.
The idea was to raise the speaker above the heads of the crowd to aid sound projection, but roadies went one better; they hammered nails in the wall and hung the unstable contraptions upside down. Thus the roadies' toolkit of this era contained a hand drill, nails and a hammer.
In the middle of the 1960s, Jim Marshall introduced his legendary guitar amplifiers. Overnight, instruments became loud, and the vocals couldn't compete any longer. It was easy enough to lash together some 50 watt instrument amps to produce a notionally powerful PA capable of competing with the Marshall stacks, but guitar amplifiers – or PA amplifiers using guitar speakers – were not really suitable, because their peaky response made the PA go into feedback too easily, and howlround began before there was any useful amount of amplification.
New PA amplifiers appeared willy-nilly, but roadies had little time to think seriously about improving the PA, and the attitude of many musicians was one of total lack of interest. Then in 1967, Pink Floyd astounded their peers, by revealing that they had an 800 watt PA; they had enlisted the help of Charlie Watkins.
In 1967, WEM introduced the UK's first high-power (100 watt) transistor slave amps. Using ten or more of these in tandem produced an unheard-of power: one THOUSAND watts! And feeding them into a stack of WEM's column speakers gave not only LOUD results; the system had a relatively flat response, plus the clarity of transistor amplification. The result was that PA suddenly took a massive leap into decibels unknown, making large, outdoor festivals feasible.
The new WEM 1kW PA premiered with great success at the 1967 Windsor Jazz & Blues festival (predecessor to the Reading festival). It was arguably the world's first high-power rock PA system. Every British band now aspired to own a WEM PA; some vied to own the most power. But most important of all, the WEM factory became a meeting place where musicians who'd suddenly developed an interest in PA could exchange ideas.
Around the same time, the WEM Audiomaster five-channel mixer appeared. The Audiomasters were not only much more sophisticated than the mixers that had been built into tube amplifiers, but they could be linked together to provide as many input channels as were needed. This led to an interest in more refined microphones from abroad (Beyer, Shure, Electrovoice, AKG) and to the close-miking of instruments. Miking-up not only made instruments louder, it also gave musicians new sounds to play with. Miked-up drums were especially dramatic, and it became fashionable to put everything through the PA, even if some instruments were loud enough without. And so Audiomasters appeared in tandem to handle as many as 20 mikes.
At the 1968 Camden festival, Duster Bennett protested about WEM because he was unable to hear himself even though thousands were being deafened by the main PA. Later, at the Kempton Park festival, Charlie Watkins didn't want to miss the Savoy Blues Band, who were playing on a second stage, in a marquee, 200 yards from the main stage. So he had a 1x12in speaker and a 40 watt amplifier rigged up on a long lead from the marquee. Back on the main stage, blues singer Tal Farlow (the type who would contort his face, because he couldn't hear himself...) heard music coming from the 12in speaker and, thinking it was his own voice, gestured wildly: "Turn it round to me!" So Charlie moved the speaker, and gave him an earful of the Savoy Blues Band!
Inspired by Mr Farlow's indecent remarks, it seemed like a good idea quickly to link the 40 watt "monitor system" to the main stage's mixer. That done, Farlow's face took on an unbelieving, ecstatic look. The horrific grimace came off, his hand came down from his ear, and the quality of his singing improved dramatically. The news of the stage monitor circulated around the other groups in a matter of minutes, and when Roger Chapman came on stage with Family he snatched the 1x12in speaker down from the scaffold, tore off his jacket, rolled it up, put the speaker on the stage, and then used the jacket to tilt it upwards. Thus, in one evening, at one festival, both the side-fill and the wedge monitor were developed. "Of course the 1x12in must have been entirely inadequate, but it was so much better than nothing," mused Charlie 16 years later.
Until 1969, the mixer was placed at the side of the stage, the roadie periodically racing out into the audience to check the sound; mixing out-front was considered too complicated, not to mention dangerous with the, er, hysterical audiences of the early 1960s.
At the first Shepton Mallet festival, WEM came armed with a massive bunch of extra-long mike leads, and proceeded at the last minute to lay these out for Ten Years After, who had decided to try out-front mixing just before they were due on stage. The ensuing delay caused a hail of beer bottles to rain upon the stage-cum-jobsworth compound. Luckily, sound engineer 'Dinky' Dawson (from Fleetwood Mac) was helping at the festival, and mentioned the massive Belden cable – 1in in diameter – which he'd seen used in the US for factory intercom systems. With up to 20 pairs of wires inside, this would make the extra setting-up needed for out-front mixing quicker, and more feasible. Later, 'Dinky' brought back a massive reel of Belden from the States and, using three Audiomasters, mixed out-front for the first time at the Lyceum.
By 1970, and within the space of three years, the basis of PA as we know it today had been developed. But one big augmentation had yet to come: speakers.
Public address-type sound systems (announcement only) using trumpet horns had provided crude vocals PA in the early 1960s for the Beatles' concerts at the giant Shea stadium concerts in the USA. For smaller venues the column speakers used up to the end of the 1960s tended to lack low bass and high treble; their forte was a controlled dispersion of the sound and a relatively smooth, detailed response. But they were also insensitive and, pending the development of high-power drivers (in 1969, a 12in cone speaker could handle 25 to 50 watts; today, 750 watts is possible), the only answer was to use lots of them.
Pretty soon, the sheer bulk and weight puts limits on your PA's power: to make a 1k system twice as loud, we need 10kW, so a van loaded with 10 columns becomes an artic loaded up with 100 column speakers.
Naturally something smaller, lighter and most of all louder was sought, especially by the wealthier bands, whose appetite for LOUD music was well and truly whetted. Thus by 1969, US speaker techniques had begun to attract attention.
At the Fillmore East, for instance, Bazz Ward (who's still on the road in 1984, and is Britain's longest serving roadie), then road manager of The Nice, was impressed with the Altec 'Voice of the Theatre' cinema-style, horn-loaded PA speaker system. It was compact, yet loud for the power involved. American bands had always enjoyed the luxury of these house PAs which, while relatively low in power, were at least designed for music (column speakers are mainly intended for vocals only). Ironically, the existence of credible (if not perfect) house PAs initially appears to have stymied the development of touring PA in the US: the sound at the first Isle Of Wight festival had no rival in the festival at Woodstock in the same year.
During the 1940s and 1950s, horn speakers with the loudspeaker driver coupled to an expanding tunnel or tube were developed to a high level of sophistication by companies such as Altec, JBL, RCA, Electrovoice and, in the UK, Vitavox. The impetus for all this had come from Hollywood, and as the 1950s drew to a close, the advent of TV shifted massive R&D funds into other media.
But one or more decades later, cinema sound technology had found a new owner: bands suddenly wanted to use the horn-loaded speakers they'd seen in the States. These were dubbed "bin-and-horn" systems because the huge bass horns were like bins – or bathtubs. Bass "bins" were especially attractive to the people making or hiring PAs because in many instances the patents had lapsed and the wooden enclosures were easy to copy. And although bulky, in being more efficient (about ten times the acoustic power for the same size of amplifier), they ended up using less space.
In 1970, US band Iron Butterfly toured Britain, bringing a horn speaker system on the road for the first time. Knowing that their break-up was imminent, Iron Butterfly sold the PA at the end of the tour to their support band, a group called Yes. The system consisted of one giant, eight-foot-high RCA 'W-Bin' and one sectoral horn on each side of the stage. The size of these speakers matched their loudness, and they caused something of a sensation.
So what had been good technology in the cinemas of the 1940s was found to be good technology in the concert halls of the 1970s. Bill Kelsey and Jim Morris duly began to manufacture modified versions of cinema horns in Britain. Bands also turned to Vitavox, the indigenous manufacturer, who had been producing horn speakers for cinemas for years.
Feature by Ben Duncan
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