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Woodstock: 50 Years After

by John Kane • in
  • February 2019
  • Milestones
• Created: February 12, 2019

Revisiting the Roots of Festival Sound

Woodstock. What hasn’t already been said? With its 50th anniversary fast approaching, a flurry of media outlets are glomming onto topics addressed during previous milestone birthdays. More now than ever, the stories of Woodstock will be elevated in myth and lore. But this process will leave many in the Woodstock enthusiast community asking “isn’t there anything new for us?” Yet there still may be things to discover. By shifting focus away from the well-known timeline of events that led Woodstock Ventures to Yasgur’s natural amphitheater, what’s revealed is — its sound!

Brought together by peace, love, and music — Woodstock has had an unfading global impact. Held on August 15-17, 1969 amid the Catskill Mountains on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm, the event demonstrated that 400,000 individuals could harmoniously congregate in one place. Not unlike our current political climate, Woodstock happened at a time of social and political unrest in the U.S. Although declared a disaster area, it endured for almost four days. From late July until show time on Friday afternoon August 15, 1969, the Woodstock production staff worked tirelessly to get whatever infrastructure they could in place. This effort included sound reinforcement — a finicky yet indispensable element.

‡‡         Sound Sound

For its time, the sound reinforcement system at Woodstock demonstrated important things to the small 1969 audio community. Foremost, it proved that, if implemented well, sufficient sound could be projected a great distance while maintaining quality, clarity and intelligibility. It’s been said that the “Woodstock sound system” was the largest, most advanced, and expensive concert sound system ever constructed. Without it, there would have been no award-winning documentary, no soundtrack and no access to the countless stage announcements imbedded in popular music culture.

Not known to most, the system was designed and constructed in a non-descript storefront in Medford, MA just outside of Boston. The protagonist behind its creation and deployment was pioneer audio engineer and 2006 Parnelli Award honoree Bill Hanley.

Throughout his career, Hanley has claimed his modus operandi was that everyone should be able to hear all the way to the “last seat in the house.” This phrase, open to many interpretations, coming from the man himself, is meant quite literally. Regardless of how much money one might spend on a concert ticket, Hanley’s sole desire was that the person sitting in the back could hear just as well as the individual in the front. This is a clear and simple objective coming from someone who has mingled with hundreds, if not thousands of influential artists like The Band, The Beatles, Grand Funk Railroad, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan, to name a few.

In fact, it was Hanley who was operating the soundboard for Dylan’s infamous 1965 “electric” set at the Newport Folk Festival. Due to Hanley’s good work, for those sitting in the far reaches of Yasgur’s natural bowl, or even beyond the farmer’s gold and green alfalfa fields, the “last seat” was actually excellent. This was because the sound engineer already had been in the business over a decade before Woodstock occurred.

From 1957 to about 1973, Hanley was part of a small community of first generation sound engineers that set a standard for live concert sound application. Early sound reinforcement offered no guidebook. Many industry veterans claim it was totally “fly by the seat of your pants.” According to Hanley, “You simply couldn’t go and buy this sort equipment at Guitar Center,” adding “you either made what you needed, went without, or adapted to the situation.” Bill Hanley single-handedly brought quality sound out of the era of primitive public address. His way of operating was living proof that “necessity is the mother of invention.” Now 82 years old, he is one of the oldest living live concert sound engineers of this period.

Major developments in hi-fi, cinema sound and recording technology became available to Hanley when he began in the mid-50s. Although he didn’t invent the power amplifier, speaker or microphone, he did combine these elements with incredible results. By the 1960s, he was adapting and modifying recording studio miking techniques, home hi-fi (and military grade) amplification and movie theater speakers (Altec Voice of the Theater) to accommodate his clients’ evolving needs. By connecting multiples of these resources, Hanley was able to build “systems of sound” powerful enough support an emerging music business followed by growing audiences.

Bill Hanley at Woodstock, FOH position

‡‡         The Hanley Background

Born in 1937, Hanley was the eldest of five children. By the age of six, his father gave him his first crystal radio set, followed by a one-tube radio, then a six-tube radio, setting off an early interest in electronics. During his teens, he and his younger brother Terry would install TV antennas atop roofs of rural communities. Back in the basement of their modest Medford home, the Hanley brothers fixed their neighbors’ television sets for extra money. At Christmastime, they hooked up an amplifier they’d built to a large speaker, pointed it out their attic window and blasted holiday music for the community.

In his teens, Hanley developed a knack for roller-skating. Eventually he grew to love the sound of the Hammond organ being played at a local roller rink called the Bal-A-Roue. He was also impressed by the quality of the rink’s sound system. While studying radio and electronics at the Medford vocational school, he became increasingly frustrated about the quality of public address systems used for live music. Leaving his parent’s basement, the young engineer’s business was moved to a rented two-car garage just around the corner.

By 1957, he had chased down Newport Jazz Festival impresario George Wein with emphatic fervor. It was the case that he often needed to convince promoters and musicians that quality sound was important, and Wein was no different. Such fortuitous and strong convictions led to a long and successful career with the festival producer, and as a result, Hanley Sound established itself as the premier company for both the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals. With his reputation growing and other larger contracts coming in, he eventually opened Hanley Sound Inc. from a storefront on Salem St. in Medford’s Haines Square.

In 1966, a gig for the local Boston band, Barry and the Remains, allowed Hanley an opportunity to support the group when they opened for The Beatles. Soon Hanley found himself behind the mixing console in front of hordes of screaming fans for the eastern portion of the Fab Four’s’ final tour. With several concerts and festivals in between, by 1968, the Hanley Sound calendar was overflowing with events. Eventually that led him to some of New York City’s preeminent music venues. After a healthy stint at the legendary Café Au Go Go nightclub in Greenwich Village, one of Hanley’s custom sound systems was installed at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East.

By the end of the 60s, Hanley’s reputation for quality sound was huge. The moniker “Father of Festival Sound” is a felicitous one, as he and his crew provided sound reinforcement for some of the largest pop and rock festivals in U.S. history. By 1969 Hanley owned more live sound equipment than anyone else in the business. With these resources, he and his crew could handle multiple touring schedules and festival dates at one time. In 1969 alone, the company provided large-scale systems for several back-to-back concert tours and festivals including Toronto Pop, Denver Pop, Laurel Pop, Atlanta Pop, Texas Pop, Blind Faith, The Rolling Stones, Steppenwolf, The Turtles and Seals & Crofts.

For Hanley Sound, a flurry of national festivals varying in size and production requirements occurred right up until the Woodstock weekend. It was a time when most existing sound companies in the U.S. were either limited or discordantly unsuitable to handle such big jobs. These mass gatherings also included anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, some ranging into the hundreds of thousands in attendance. Yet, no festival could match Hanley Sound’s culminating performance in sound reinforcement application at Woodstock, the pivotal gig in live event history. Because of this important work, the company has been cited for leading the way on how “festival sound” should be executed.

Bill Hanley today

‡‡         The Right Sound Company

Choosing Hanley for the Woodstock festival was “natural” according to Stan Goldstein, who was in charge of hiring the production staff. Hanley had already worked with most of the acts on the stellar lineup, making the decision even easier. In a 2011 interview, Goldstein recalls, “Hanley was the guy who was doing large outdoor P.A. gigs. The audio community was quite small at that time. The number of people working in the field was small, number one; number two, the number of people working with large systems was even smaller. Hanley was the guy.”

Yet the final word rested with festival producer Michael Lang, who told this writer that he was initially considering Grateful Dead sound engineer Owsley Stanley for the job. But Lang admired Hanley’s confidence, claiming it made him feel “comfortable.” Lang recalls, “We came to a situation where I wanted great sound. Bill [Hanley] said to me that that ‘Great sound for an event like yours doesn’t exist, but I can build it’ and he sold me.” Those who worked with Hanley recall a personality that was “oddly unique.” According to Woodstock director of security Lee Mackler-Blumer, “Bill was really the mad scientist. The only thing he didn’t have was a white coat flying behind him! Truly he had these visions, and he had this knowledge. He obviously had spent years in a room with a pencil, figuring all this stuff out.”

Before Bethel, Woodstock was slated for a different locale in Wallkill, NY. Because of anti-festival community resistance, the location was moved, leaving very little time to secure the new site. This sent production crews scrambling. Shortly after the first-site debacle, Hanley was called in to survey the new location and plot where his sound system should go. At this meeting, Michael Lang and Max Yasgur showed the sound engineer the proposed field. Once Hanley saw the natural amphitheater, he instantly visualized the placement of his still-to-be sound system. “I met Michael and Max, and we drove to the site,” Hanley remembers. “I got out of the limousine and said, ‘That’s it!’” He felt the spot was ideal due to the unique shape of the land. Its size and geography could accommodate sufficient staging, sound equipment deployment and projection. Hanley was also instrumental in developing the idea for the security wall located in front of and around the stage. This unique V-shaped design allowed for better crowd control as well as a natural egress to the side and backstage areas.

‡‡         The System

Early on, Hanley and most of the promoters were expecting between 150,000 to 200,000 people. For the event, he and his crew prepared and built specially designed speaker columns powered by over 10,000 watts of McIntosh tube power amplifiers located below the stage. According to Hanley, “We built two speaker towers each of which had two levels containing its own speaker cluster. The highest one was 70 feet high to accommodate the audience in the middle of the field and high up on the hill. The lowest one, at 20 feet, was for the audience nearest to the stage. There were four cabinets arrayed on both towers on each level, which had about 32 woofers each.” This unique and logical design pushed the music into the ears of the audience without much slapback, “The dense crowd conveniently absorbed some of the sound,” claims the sound engineer.

Hanley and his crew custom designed the HSI 410 (Hanley Sound Inc.) speaker cabinets out of marine grade plywood. For the upper stacks, two bass bins were strategically positioned with high frequency horns on top. This was no easy task, especially as each pair measured 6x4x7 feet, and weighed close to 1,000 pounds. These four upper bins came loaded with four 15-inch JBL D-130 drivers. The four lower bins contained four 15-inch JBL D140 drivers for additional bass. Hanley recalls, “The high frequencies were handled by model 1003B 5×2 Altec multi-cell horns (300 Hz min frequency) and my custom-built 2×2 horns, all with Altec 290 compression drivers.”

Part of the high-tech FOH rig: a Teletronix LA-2A limiter, Altec 1567A tube mixer and one of many Shure M67 mixers in the signal chain. The gaff tape securing the LA-2A is a nice touch.

Perched above the audience, approximately 75 ft. stage left into the field, Hanley (and a rotation of engineers) mixed the event on a modest platform constructed of plywood and scaffolding. Known in the industry for their performance and quality, the engineer’s microphone (and mixers) of choice for the event were Shure, “We used about 20 Shure Unidyne SM545 microphones which were modified. I also used four modified Shure M67’s with input pads, two Shure Audio Masters for EQ, an Altec 1567A tube mixer and four Teletronix LA2A tube limiters between the mixers and the power amplifiers. Below the stage, we had over 20 McIntosh MC3500 series 350-watt RMS high-fidelity tube amplifiers.” From this location, a sound crew of around 12 were able to execute the applied science of sound reinforcement with very few hiccups.

Live concert recording was also in a phase of infancy. It was Hanley, and engineers Lee Osborne and Eddie Kramer, who were responsible for recording the event in a trailer backstage. According to Woodstock head of production and emcee John Morris, Hanley’s involvement was significant, covering not just sound but other essential production elements like crowd control, miking, amplification, power distribution and large speaker system deployment. “Bill put everything together; this is why he always had a soldering iron — during Woodstock and after. He literally made the pieces and put the pieces together to make the sound work, and it got bigger and bigger at Woodstock. Bill made it possible for people miles away to hear.”

Bill Hanley at the site today. Photo by Jennifer Kane

‡‡         Woodstock and Beyond

Post-Woodstock, Hanley’s social conscience led him to support several anti-Vietnam war rallies, at one point even shipping his entire Woodstock sound system to South Africa to help with the anti-apartheid movement. At the time, many considered Woodstock a disaster, frightening government officials and communities across the U.S. Several festivals that Hanley planned for either fell apart last-minute or were canceled by court injunctions. As a result, by the mid-70s the once-successful sound company began to experience huge financial losses. In time, Bill Hanley witnessed the industry that he helped build slip through his hands. In time it became difficult to match the competition, as talented new companies exploded onto the sound reinforcement landscape. Hanley Sound eventually closed its doors in 1984.

After 50 years, the story of Woodstock has grown exponentially, and for many its music has become the soundtrack of our lives. In this way, Hanley’s system has indirectly affected generations of fans, many of whom were born long after the actual event. By applying innovative ideas in sound delivery to a 1960s counter-culture screaming for change, his influence allowed many voices to be heard. Every time since, when we hear Richie Havens words “Freedom! Freedom!” echoing over Yasgur’s fields, we have Hanley to thank.

John Kane has spent years studying the life and career of Bill Hanley and authored the books The Last Seat in the House: The Story of Hanley Sound and Pilgrims of Woodstock.
Visit him at www.thelastseatinthehouse.com.

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