In The History of Live Sound – Part 1, we covered 90 years of advances in audio technology, from the invention of the microphone to the world’s first stadium concert. The Beatles’ 1965 performance at Shea Stadium was incredibly significant for the live sound industry because it showed there was a huge demand for large-format concerts, but the equipment wasn’t quite there yet. Thankfully, there was a new generation of pioneers ready to take things to the next level.
The aspirations of bands and expectations of audiences drove innovation on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1960s and 70s. While many companies contributed to the advancement of live sound systems at this time, there were two in particular that deserve special recognition: Charlie Watkins of Watkins Electric Music and Bill Hanley of Hanley Sound.
Charlie Watkins – The Father of the British PA System
Charlie Watkins was a British audio engineer who established his company, Watkins Electric Music, in 1949. During its early years, Watkins’s company was known primarily for guitar amps like their unique, V-shaped Dominator. Watkins is also responsible for the famous Copicat tape delay unit, which is still used today by musicians seeking an authentic, vintage echo effect.
During the 1960s, Watkins began experimenting with building custom sound systems with improved frequency responses. He believed that general-purpose loudspeakers had cones that were too stiff, producing bandwidth too narrow for the subtleties of the human voice. After testing out the Goodmans Axiom 301 speaker, he discovered that its softer cone moved more easily than other speakers, producing a flatter frequency response. He combined the Goodmans Axiom 301 speaker with a custom-built amplifier based on an RCA design to create his first live sound system, which was generally considered to be louder than other systems at the time.
Watkins was able to achieve this level of loudness with a unique power solution. Watkins connected a main amplifier to an array of gain-matched amplifiers, and when he adjusted the gain on the main amplifier, it would increase the level of all the amplifiers with a single knob. Watkins debuted his PA at the 1967 Windows National Jazz & Blues Festival, and it was so loud, he was arrested for disturbing the peace. Thankfully, the judge threw his case out of court and allowed Watkins to continue operating his PA systems.
Bill Hanley – The Father of Festival Sound
Around this same time, American audio engineer Bill Hanley was experimenting with his own custom-built PA systems. Not satisfied with common PA speakers of the time, Hanley designed his own speaker boxes by combining Altec Lansing cinema horns with JBL D130 15-inch drivers. In 1965, Hanley provided the sound system for the inauguration ceremony of President Lyndon B. Johnson. That same year, Hanley’s system was used at the famous Newport Folk Festival where Bob Dylan stunned audiences with his first electric performance.
In 1969, Woodstock Festival organizers were struggling to find someone who could provide an adequate sound system for their projected audience of 200,000 people. Bill Hanley jumped at the opportunity to showcase what his custom speaker systems could achieve for large concerts. At Woodstock, Hanley built a massive system using his custom Altec-JBL speakers on two levels of scaffolding and augmented the main system with satellite speakers around the festival grounds. Hanley utilized Macintosh and Crown amplifiers to provide an unprecedented 10,000 watts of power to his speakers. Much has been written about the chaos that ensued at Woodstock, but Hanley was proud to state that the only things that didn’t fail during the event were the water supply, the stage security, and the sound system.
The Dawn of the 70s
After the news of Hanley’s gargantuan Woodstock sound system spread, audio engineers started to find new ways to build larger, more efficient sound systems. Charlie Watkins built a new system that split audio signals into four parts: low, low-mid, high-mid, and high. He discovered that individual amps could act more efficiently by focusing on a narrower band of frequencies.
In 1971, McCune employees John Meyer and Bob Cavin unveiled their JM-3 loudspeaker system, which was a powerful three-way active speaker system. Meyer and Cavin enclosed the amplifiers and electronics into an external equipment rack with no controls. Their idea was that the system was calibrated and optimized by the manufacturer, and all bands needed to do was plug their signal into the system and they would be good to go.
During this period, it was common for bands to mix their own microphones from the stage, but as systems got bigger and more complex, the need for a dedicated system operator became clear. In the early 1970s, an entire generation of roadies was promoted to the position of live sound engineer.
Birth of the Live Mixing Console
At the time, it was common for mixers to be built into the amplifier, but as bigger speaker systems needed more amplifiers to drive them, it was necessary to separate the mixing controls from the amplifiers. In 1974, British manufacturer Soundcraft revolutionized the industry with the Series 1, the first mixing console built into a flight case. The Series 1 was available in 12- and 16-channel versions and helped establish the vertical channel design that became universal among analog mixers.
The Soundcraft Series 1 and its successors made another evolutionary step possible: the front-of-house mixing position. Before that time, it was common for the sound to be mixed from the side of the stage. But now that the mixer was separate from the amplifiers, audio engineers could mix from a position in front of the loudspeakers, allowing them to hear the mix the way the audience experienced it. This enabled engineers to deliver better-sounding mixes and established an industry-wide practice that is still observed today.
The Arrival of Stage Monitors
The next challenge that needed to be tackled was that these larger sound systems were making it difficult for musicians to hear themselves and each other. This was because the main sound system was pointed away from them, and the resulting sound would echo off the venue’s back wall and arrive back at the stage a few seconds later.
Bill Hanley was inspired to remedy this situation when he discovered that bands were renting his PA systems and using them as monitoring systems for rehearsals when they weren’t on tour. Realizing that the band needed sound reinforcement, he developed custom speaker enclosures that could be mounted on the floor at a 45-degree angle. The only problem was that simply directing the main mix back at the band resulted in feedback and muddy sound.
Mixing console manufacturers quickly responded by developing desks with dedicated monitor outputs, and bands with a large enough budget began to employ secondary audio engineers to mix their monitors from a separate monitor mixer. With the arrival of stage monitors, we begin to recognize the basic configuration used in live sound reinforcement, which is still being used today.
As we start to move forward through the decades, excessive stage volume became the driving force behind the next big innovation. As early as the 1970s, bands like Pink Floyd began wearing headphones during live performances to minimize the volume needed on stage to hear themselves. In 1987, Garwood Communications produced the Radio Station, the first commercially available wireless IEM system. In addition to solving stage volume issues, wireless IEM systems also gave musicians the freedom to move around large stages and still hear their monitor mix without being tethered to a single position with a wedge monitor.
1987 also witnessed the birth of another innovation that would change the live sound industry forever: the digital audio mixer. Yamaha created the DMP7: a recallable mixer that enabled keyboard players to manage their increasingly complex array of keyboards and automatically change settings during shows.
As more manufacturers hopped on the digital trend and sound quality improved, sound engineers began favoring digital mixers over analog consoles because it allowed them to save their configurations and deliver more consistent audio mixes night after night. When factoring that digital mixers can handle significantly more processing, advanced routing, and internal effects engines in a smaller design, the dominance of digital consoles became inevitable.
The final innovation that changed the live sound industry came in the early 1990s. Until this point, PA systems were commonly ground-stacked, point-source systems that produced high sound pressure levels near the front of the stage but lost volume over considerable distances. In 1993, Christian Heil of Heil Sound provided a solution with the unveiling of the V-DOSC, the world’s first line array speaker system.
Line array systems work on the principle of closely aligned adjacent speaker drivers, which reinforce each other and push the sound further. The benefits of line array systems include more consistent volume levels over distance, wider horizontal dispersion and less vertical transmission, which results in enhanced frequency response balance and loudness throughout a venue. Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine attending a festival or stadium concert without seeing the familiar J-shape of the line array.
These developments show how the audio industry is constantly evolving and illustrate why live sound is such a satisfying field to work in. I hope you enjoyed this article, but I also invite you to view the video replays of my full JBL Learning Session Webinars: The History of Live Sound – Part 2 and The History of Live Sound – Part 1.