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The Past And Present Of PA

PA History

Article from Making Music, October 1987

PA is a history of noise and coincidence. You don't believe us? Tony Bacon will convince

1927 Loud, good quality sound requirements for big audiences take shape as Western Electric produce the first 'talkie' film "The Jazz Singer", premiered on Broadway, New York. The first prophetic talking sequence was Al Jolson saying: "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You ain't heard nothing yet!"

c1935 An American telephone company invents the 19-inch rack mounting system.

1930s/1940s/1950s American companies Altec and RCA (particularly) and British firm Vitavox develop and perfect the cinema sound systems that would later influence rock sound systems.

1965 Selmer produce their TC300 100 watt PA system — four mike inputs, and two 4x10 speaker columns, soon competing in the UK with similar systems from Vox and Marshall.

1967 Pink Floyd buy a mega-loud 800 watt WEM system from Charlie Watkins, maker of the dead fashionable WEM systems (WEM = Watkins Electric Music). This unheard-of power came about thanks to the brand new WEM 100 watt slave amps — eight of these stacked up produced the 800 watts. Later that same year, WEM's first 1000 watt system premiered at the Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival; WEM also introduced the Audiomaster five-channel powered mixer.

1968 Charlie Watkins invents the sidefill and the stage monitor thanks to bluesman Tal Farlow and Family vocalist Roger Chapman at the Kempton Park Festival. Charlie, positioned at the side of the main stage, had linked up a single 12in speaker to the PA on the second stage so he could hear what was going on. Tal Farlow, performing on the main stage, insisted it be turned round to him, thinking it was his voice and guitar coming from it. Charlie quickly connected it to the main system's mixer, instantly improving Farlow's performance. That took care of the sidefill. Chapman came on later with Family, pushed the speaker to centre stage in front of him, took off his jacket, rolled it up and put it under the speaker to tilt it upwards, and thus was bom the wedge monitor — though it wasn't developed usefully till the mid-1970s. Historic day!

1969 Engineer Dinky Dawson does the first out-front mix for a Fleetwood Mac gig at London's Lyceum using a multicore cable brought back from the States.

1970 US band Iron Butterfly tour Britain; their bin-and-horn PA speaker system (four large RCA bins, developed originally for the cinema in the 40s/50s) is the first of its kind seen and heard on the road in this country. At the end of the tour IB sell their system to support band Yes. Also this year, the first big PA hire company in the UK begins business, IES Entertainments, supplying gear for noisy chaps like Led Zeppelin over the next few years.

1971 Pink Floyd insist on their new miniaturised Kelsey-Morris passive crossover systems being built into tobacco tins. John Robson, sound engineer with ELP, gets the cinema-system bug and fits his band up with four 10ft folded horns with twin 15in drivers for bass, four Vitavox horns and two JBL horns for highs, all powered by Crowns.

1973 Midas put on the market the first integrated multi-amp, the Block, containing four separate amps, which would drive four different sets of speakers for different frequencies and would deliver 1000 watts in all.

1974 Crosby Stills Nash & Young's system, weighing 72,000 pounds, is flown in a Boeing 707 to London, along with 36 technicians, for the American group's concert at Wembley Stadium in September (plus The Band and Joni Mitchell). Receipts for promoter Mel Bush included £250,000 from ticket sales. Expenses included £20,000 VAT, plus stadium hire, stage construction, electricity supply and security at around £65,000 all-in, and £20,000 for the above mentioned Boeing.

1975 The Who's first tour where engineer Bob Pridden uses an out-front mixer. "It worked out really well," said Bob, "because I can concentrate on my own mixing — before, at the side of the stage, I had to be like an octopus."

1976 The Who play at Charlton football ground and are measured as the loudest pop group — 120db 50 metres from the stage — thanks to a Tasco 76,000 watt system powered by 80 Crown and 20 Phase Linear amps. This concert remains the loudest concert entry in the 1987 Guinness Book Of Records. "I've always been embarrassed by that," says Nick Blyth of Tasco. "We've done bigger systems than that — say at the Castle Donnington Monster Of Rock festival in 1986 and the year before. We had 220 stacks in the main PA, which you could say are 1500 watts each, but quite honestly I'm not interested in power. When I see someone saying they've got the biggest system, I think 'What a prat'."

1982 Turbosound, a PA company clearly interested in the development of high power, high quality speaker systems, launch their compact TMS3 speaker, bearing out this philosophy — twin 15in bass bins, twin midrange 'turbo' horns, and twin radial horns in each, handling a staggering 1500 watts.

1983 Rob Cowlyn, sound engineer for Duran Duran, claims that the 'anticipatory screaming' before the group even took the stage at an Australian concert in November, exceeded 120db.


"Guinness Book Of Records 1987"
Ben Duncan "PA Volume 1/2/3" One Two Testing, June-August 1984
Tony Bacon "Rock Hardware", 1981

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Oct 1987



Feature by Tony Bacon

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