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Old 16th March 2011, 01:54 AM   #1
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Default Grateful Dead Owsley 'Bear' Stanley dies at 76

Pioneering audio engineer Owsley 'Bear' Stanley dies at 76


By Alan Brandon

18:28 March 14, 2011

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Owsley "Bear" Stanley, pioneering audio engineer for the Grateful Dead, died in a car crash near his home in Australia on March 13. The sound designer, artist, and counterculture icon was perhaps best known for producing massive amounts of LSD during the psychedelic 1960s. But it was his groundbreaking sound work that may have the most lasting effect on rock musicians and audiences.

Born Augustus Owsley Stanley III in 1935, in Kentucky; Stanley was named after his grandfather, the governor of Kentucky in the early 1900s. Stanley served in the US Air Force, studied ballet, and enrolled at UC Berkeley before joining the psychedelic scene in the Bay Area. Stanley became known for his production of LSD (reportedly manufacturing more than a million doses) and supplied Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Through Kesey, Stanley met the Grateful Dead and supplied LSD for the band's legendary Acid Tests and Trips Festivals.

Stanley eventually played a variety of roles in the Grateful Dead's organization, including acting as manager, confidant, and sound engineer. He was responsible for the band's live sound, and made recordings of the band's shows that were later released as live albums. Some of Stanley's innovations included stereo and multi-channel live sound, as well as on-stage monitors so the band could hear what they were playing.

Stanley also made live recordings for Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, and various other bands of the time. Stanley became such a fixture of the musical community that he inspired songs including Jefferson Airplane's "Bear Melt", Frank Zappa's "Who Needs the Peace Corps?", Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne" and even the Grateful Dead's own "Alice D. Millionaire" (named after a newspaper reference to Stanley as an "LSD millionaire").

With artist Bob Thomas, Stanley codesigned the Dead's signature lightning-bolt skull logo (known as "Steal Your face" to Deadheads). The logo was originally used as a stencil to distinguish the Dead's equipment from other bands' gear backstage at music festivals, but it was later used on the 1973 live album "History of the Grateful Dead, Volume 1: Bear's Choice", which was a tribute to Grateful Dead member Ron "Pigpen" McKernan. That album also popularized another Stanley-inspired Dead logo: the psychedelic marching bear.

But it was Stanley's design and engineering of the Dead's enormous Wall of Sound audio system that may have had the most lasting affect not only on the band, but on live rock music in general.

"He did phenomenal sound work," Jeff Tamarkin told Relix magazine, where he is a contributing editor and former editor-in-chief. "I think part of the reason the Dead had such an all-encompassing effect on an audience is because of the pioneering work Owsley did to create live rock sound that was both forceful and crystal clear. You could be sitting in the top row of the balcony at Fillmore East and you'd hear every nuance even when they played acoustically. I think it may be a long time until the extent of his effect on the '60s generation is truly appreciated."

The Wall of Sound was truly massive. Reportedly the largest concert sound system in existence at the time, the Wall was designed to give the Grateful dead a distortion-free sound and also act as its own on-stage monitoring system. The huge speaker arrays formed a wall on stage behind the band, and could reportedly reach a half-mile from the stage without delay towers or sound degradation.

Stanley, Dan Healy, and Mark Raizene of the Grateful Dead's sound crew, along with Ron Wickersham, Rick Turner, and John Curl of the Alembic sound company combined six independent sound systems using eleven separate channels. The vocals, guitars, and piano each had their own channel, and their own set of speakers. In a you-had-to-be-there design feature, Phil Lesh's bass was run through a quadraphonic encoder that provided a separate channel and set of speakers for each string. Additional channels amplified the drum set elements including the bass drum, snare, tom-toms, and cymbals. With each speaker array playing only one instrument or vocalist, the sound could be kept exceptionally clear and distortion free.

In terms of power, the Wall of Sound featured some 89 X 300-Watt solid-state amplifiers plus another three 350-Watt vacuum-tube amplifiers. The system produced a total of more than 26000 Watts of audio power, reportedly projecting "high-quality" audio at 600 ft (183 m) and "acceptable sound" for a quarter-mile (402 m).

The Wall of Sound was also the first sound reinforcement to use large-scale line arrays (although they were not called line arrays at the time). A line array is a loudspeaker system that employs multiple loudspeakers coupled together to create a linear source for sound. The arrangement of the drivers enables them to work together to send sound waves farther than traditional horn-loaded loudspeakers, and with a more controlled, evenly-distributed sound output pattern.

The Wall of Sound acted as its own monitor system, and its location directly behind the band meant the musicians could hear exactly what the audience was hearing. Because this arrangement is prone to feedback, Stanley and Alembic designed a self-canceling microphone system to prevent the squealing distortion. Their system used pairs of condenser microphones, with one microphone out of phase from the other. The vocalist sang into only one of the microphones, and the other microphone picked up whatever other sound was present in the stage environment. A differential summing amp added the signals together so that the sound common to both microphones (the sound from the Wall) was canceled, and only the vocals were amplified.

A prototype of the Wall of Sound system was unveiled at Stanford University's Roscoe Maples Pavilion in 1973, and every tweeter promptly blew as the band began their first number. The Dead began touring with the full system the following year. The first show to feature the complete Wall was on at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California; on March 23, 1974 (a recording of the performance was released as "Dick's Picks Volume 24").

Despite its success, the Wall of Sound had a few drawbacks. Keyboardist Ned Lagin did not have a dedicated input into the system, and had to use the vocal channels. His parts were often lost in the mix when the system was switched to the vocal microphones. Also, the quadraphonic format could become compressed and tinny sounding when it was recorded from the stereo soundboards of the day.

Because of its huge number of components, the Wall of Sound took a long time to set up and to take down at each show. Because of this, the Grateful Dead employed multiple stage setups. One stage set would be in use in one city, while another was being erected at the next venue. Throughout the concert tour, the stage setups would leapfrog each other to the next performance. It took four trailers and 21 crew members to move and erect the 75-ton Wall.

"Bear" Stanley's Wall of Sound did much to define the Grateful Dead's sound, and to shape the band's concert experience as well. But logistically the system was a beast, and when the Dead briefly retired from touring after 1974, the Wall of Sound was retired as well.

Stanley himself moved to Australia in the early 1980s and became an Australian citizen in the 1990s. He battled throat cancer in 1994, losing a vocal cord in the process. Stanley was known for his claim that he ate only meat, eggs, butter, and cheese since the 1950s. He rarely made public appearances in his later years, although he would occasionally turn up on internet forums or on the radio.

A statement released on behalf of Stanley's family said he died in a car crash on March 13. The car crash occurred near his home in far north Queensland. He is survived by his wife Sheila, four children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. He was 76.
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Old 16th March 2011, 02:48 AM   #2
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Wonderful input on Owsley. It's all true as far as I know. I learned more from him than almost anyone else, he just had an 'instinct' for good sound.
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Old 16th March 2011, 03:17 AM   #3
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Wow, Mar 23, 1974, the night I went on the astral plane with Ram Dass, after being introduced to him by Bear. Very special experience.
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Old 16th March 2011, 03:48 AM   #4
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Never knew him or even heard of him before except the (I assumed) legendary Owsley of purple fame...enjoyed his work (both kinds) & the sound was spectacular, but the purple might have been a big factor. RIP
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Old 16th March 2011, 04:50 AM   #5
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I wasn't aware that Ned Lagin ever played live gigs with the Dead?? I know he did an album, trying to recall the name, maybe "Seastones"?? Think I have it.

Afaik, it was Pigpen, TC, then Kieth Godchaux...

I traded a few emails with him a number of years back, he was quite adamant and protective of his sound recordings. He referred to them as his "journals"... He wasn't easy to talk to via emails.

I heard the system in person a few times, one of them was at Roosevelt Stadium in New Jersey... you can download the tapes on Archive.org... when Phil went low you literally felt the ground dish a bit... Roosevelt Stadium was an antique ball field, probably minor league, that was in a state of rot and the steel for the stands was black from pollution... quite a scene...

Not sure how it got called "wall of sound" since that was well known as Phil Spector's "sound". At least in the crowd on the east coast it was usually referred to as "the monster system".... Dunno what John Curl and the folks who made it called it...?

At the time I had issues with the way the central tweeter array was done, I felt that it was a mistake. But it did solve a few issues and I think I understand why it got done that way.

There is one thing for sure, it was hands down the cleanest system of it's day by several orders of magnitude. Probably this remained so for at least 2 maybe 3 decades to come. Imo, the only reason that some PA/SR systems today approach the fidelity and low distortion of the Grateful Dead's system is the advent of very high power and lightweight amplifiers coupled with substantial improvements in the design of drivers, enclosures and systems thanks to things like FEM and acoustical modeling software. In other words, it's not so much because of brilliant system design as it is due to an overall improvement in the average as well as the best available today...

And, fwiw, and afaik, Owsley never did anything "purple", although others may have first hand knowledge. Clear, I think. Orange, perhaps. Purple comes mostly from the Jimi Hendrix song, "Purple Haze." (afaik)

_-_-bear (not Owsley - a different bear) <--- I used to have this in my sig file MANY years ago.
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Old 16th March 2011, 05:48 AM   #6
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Always a critic. Were you at Roosevelt Stadium in 1973? I was. Bear made all kinds of acid.
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Old 16th March 2011, 06:31 AM   #7
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Grateful Dead gear: the band's instruments, sound systems, and recording

(excerpt from google books)
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File Type: jpg _wall of sound.jpg (66.5 KB, 103 views)
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Old 16th March 2011, 01:21 PM   #8
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Quote:
....when I actually saw sound coming out of the speakers...
Cool, way cool.

I have always found it curious the number of world luminaries who attribute at least part of their success to 'dabbling' in the sixties and seventies.
Life experience is part of what defines the stars from the 'also rans'.
That JC hears, notes and describes audio qualities that many here are unable to grasp is testimony his open mind combined with technical knowledge that brings first class real world results.
In the past long before I heard of the 'wall of sound', I dreamed of such a setup.
That this concept was conceived, built and perfected in the times with the available technology only reinforces the ingenuity and dedication of those involved - I am sure there are a few here who would have been willing to give their left nut to be part of that project.
John, I am sure you have fond memories of those formative years.

Eric.


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Old 16th March 2011, 03:31 PM   #9
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Originally Posted by john curl View Post
Always a critic. Were you at Roosevelt Stadium in 1973? I was. Bear made all kinds of acid.
sure was John... I think we spoke of this before in private communications... think I made several dates in '73 in that place...

_-_-bear (the other bear)

And, no I'm not being a critic as much as saying that at the very same time that you and those folks were doing that rig, I had been already working on line arrays for home hi-fi and thinking about PA/SR applications - so when I saw that monster I immediately wanted to communicate with whomever was doing that, since I too "saw" things... getting anyone to listen was and is a problem then as now.

It was frustrating as hell.

The idea of the sound coming from behind the band is precisely what I thought independently of Bear (Owsley). That occurred to me as I was both (at the time) a wanna be musician (I had stunted development in that area due to childhood traumas) and was doing tech work professionally and hanging with the NYC music scene - noting that the musicians at that time could not literally hear the same performance as did the audience... of course you folks solved the biggest problem with the differential mic scheme, which was so far beyond my budget to even prototype as to make it merely an exercise on paper or in the mind.

Even later, like before 1980 I had come up with a superior stackable bass bin system for small and mid size venues for bass guitarists - admittedly gathering inspiration from Phil Lesh's sound and style - and trying to offer it up to musicians (some who I knew rather well and personally) and saying, HEY THIS WILL GIVE YOU AN EDGE OVER ANY OTHER BAND THAT IS ON THE SAME STAGE WITH YOU (etc.) and finding that glazed look as a response.

So the fact that you John, and Bear and the others DID THIS is an incredible outcome and achievement. A true LANDMARK and MILESTONE in the history of live sound, SR/PA. People who were not there and did not hear this can not fully comprehend that this system was in essence BETTER than most (home)Better still than almost all pro PA/SR rigs. That it FILLED OPEN SPACES with totally effortless sound that had NIL DISTORTION, when it got loud it was just BIG is something that can't be explained in words.

In audio terms, given the technology available, this is an achievement that is and was strikingly similar to the accomplishment that was the Lunar landings - orders of magnitude beyond.
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Last edited by bear; 16th March 2011 at 03:50 PM.
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Old 16th March 2011, 03:46 PM   #10
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I only went to the one after Watkins Glen.
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