We at McIntosh Labs were pretty impressed with ourselves when we realized the McIntosh 2K reference system weighed in at close to one full ton. It never even occurred to us to imagine what kind of McIntosh system might weigh 75 tons. As it turns out, our imagination was not required. Nearly 32 years earlier, Owsley â€˜Bear’ Stanley, Dan Healy and Mark Raizene of the Grateful Dead sound crew and Ron Wickersham and Rick Turner of Alembic Sound dared to dream of such a system.
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Shortly before the 35th anniversary of the official March 23, 1974 dÃ©but of the legendary Grateful Dead Wall Of Sound P.A. system, I had the great luck and honor of spending some time with photographer Richard Pechner. From 1969 to 1974 Pechner worked on the Grateful Dead sound crew, helped build the wall and chronicled the adventure that was the Grateful Dead in photographs.
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The McIntosh/Dead connection started with a PA system the then local San Francisco band had in their house at 710 Asbury St., which included several McIntosh MC240, 40 watt stereo tube amps bolted to a piece of heavy plywood, dubbed “The Lead Sled”. At that time, Richard was a student at San Francisco State and worked with a group called The Diggers that distributed free food and similar activities in Haight Ashbury. “I met Danny Rifkin, who was managing the Deadâ€¦ the band wanted to play for free in the park (Golden Gate) so the deal was, we (the Diggers) would get the flatbed truck.” Richard drove the flatbed to the Dead house, picked up the gear and took part in the now infamous free concert.
As the band became more popular and started playing large venues, McIntosh MC2300, 300 watt per channel stereo amps were used. Mr. Pechner says ” When we started, they were just sitting there on floor, it was ones and twos, but as we got more, then we got into racking stuff, so we used to go down to Palo Alto to some surplus supply houses. Dan Healy used to pride himself on knowing where these places were, we would go down there with a van and there were these racks with wheels and we said, “This is what we need”.”
By the early 1970’s, the band had accumulated quite a bit of gear and, by combining 3 current and previous systems, plus a lot of acquisition and fabrication, created the wall of sound. Consisting of 11 separate mono systems, the Wall of Sound gave each instrument its own set of amplifiers and approximately 40 foot tall stack of speakers. With each system directly behind the performer playing through it, the band was able to hear what the audience heard, and, with only one source of sound per instrument, created a natural stereo image in the same way a group of un-amplified instruments, like an orchestra or string quartet is heard, with sound coming directly from the acoustic instruments. The obvious problem of feedback from speakers placed directly behind the microphones was solved by inventing a noise canceling mic system, consisting of 2 out of phase matched mics per vocalist and some sophisticated associated electronics.
noice cancelling mic
The completed wall sound consisted of 586 JBL woofers and mids, 54 Electrovoice tweeters driven by 48 McIntosh MC2300s and two McIntosh MC350 mono tube amplifiers for a total of 29,500 watts.
wall of sound
“We were told it was the most powerful touring PA system in the world at that time” said Pechner, “it occurred to us that we, well nobody, had really seen what it looked like (with the band on stage) because, during shows, you couldn’t see any of that stuff, it was just too dark.” Richard convinced a fork-truck driver to lift him up to stage height and just keep backing up until the whole system fit in frame of the standard 50mm lens of his camera. Via 2-way radio, he instructed the light guy to bring the house lights up, much to the band’s chagrin, and took what is now the iconic image Dead Heads around the world associate with the Wall of Sound. “It was one of those opportunities that just come along and you go, “Oh, I know what to do”.”
Ironically, McIntosh was partly responsible for bringing Richard Pechner’s career as a roadie to an end, when an amp rack, thought to be empty, was slid to the back of a truck and He tried to take it off the truck. The rack turned out to be full of MC2300s, gravity and McIntosh jerked the rack and Pechner to the ground, injuring his back and effectively removing him from the equipment handling part of his job. “I stayed on for a couple of tours, mostly doing photography.” When the band took it’s hiatus in 1974; Richard and the wall of sound moved on after the Wall’s last show on Oct. 20th 1974.
Mr. Pechner continued work as a photographer, getting shots of rock bands and other related work. He now works freelance out of his home studio, doing commercial photography and shooting folks like Lance Armstrong and the San Francisco Giants. His work can be seen at his website: www.pechner.smugmug.com