We couldn’t host Pollstar Live! in San Francisco without featuring a panel on the Grateful Dead. After all, as renowned music photographer Jay Blakesberg pointed out, the band is synonymous with the city.

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Photo: Jason Squires

Grateful Dead

One lesson to take away from this discussion is not to be discouraged if others don’t immediately catch on to new ideas. Grateful Dead touring sound engineer Dan Healy shared how Meyer Sound Laboratories’ John Meyer took a chance to follow his dream and make a change in the concept of sound reinforcement in the early ‘70s. Healy noted that manufacturers weren’t interested in making changes because they felt they were selling equipment as fast as possible.

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“So when we went to them and talked about amplifiers that you could roll down flights of stairs that we were also hoping [would] sound good – that was more than they could conceive of. The industry in general really kind of considered us as crackpots that weren’t ever really going to go anywhere,” Healy said. A few years later “that entire situation turned around.” 

Promoters weren’t so keen about Healy’s request for a stereo sound system that would be “100 feet out in the audience and … exactly center,” rather than on the side of the stage or “off in some little cubby hole.” Healy got his way after Jerry Garcia backed him up, telling a promoter that if he wanted the Grateful Dead to play, they would let Healy put his mix board where he wants it.

Naturally, tapers wanted to be near Healy. The Grateful Dead was one of the first bands to allow fans to tape its concerts, despite warnings from recording companies and others in the biz that taping would harm album sales.

“From my point of view, I really like the tapers,” Meyer said. “Here we have people with very high-tech equipment recording these shows and they’re going to pass them around. It just means that all of us are going to work harder to make sure the show is clean. It’s self-fulfilling. We don’t have to market it.

“I like the idea because it promotes all the work that we’re doing. There were people watching the amplifiers to make sure the amps weren’t clipping, because we didn’t have clipping indicators. …We were trying very, very hard to make this high-fidelity and this helped drive it.”

Of course, not all ideas work out. Skywalker Sound’s Dennis “Wiz” Leonard, who was in the recording truck during the entire Europe ‘72 tour, shared a story about how he came up with a “harebrained contraption” that would blink green, yellow or red to indicate if the band was running out of tape. Yellow was a hint to the band to wind down the performance because the tape was almost out.

“The very first time I threw a yellow light – we had a little 13-inch black and white monitor in the truck – I look up at the monitor and Garcia is playing, he looks down at the wedge, looks over, right at the direction of the camera … and just nods [no.] And they just kept freakin’ playing.”

Garcia later told Leonard, “Don’t fuck with the music, man.”

The stoplight contraption ended up in the trash.

After guiding the panel through a conversation about the technical details of production, Blakesberg noted that Healy had mixed the band longer than anyone else and asked him to talk “from the heart about mixing sound to blow people’s minds.”

“I always believed that if the audience could hear what I heard in the music, they would be blown away,” Healy said. “My goal … was to see how often and to what degree I could bring forth what I heard and translate it. My objective was to erase the venue and the sound system and just have you as an audience and the band as the band. [I wanted] to take me out of it, as opposed to being a filter through which you see or hear it. It was a process of elimination.”