sonic wizardry of Dan Healy is as well known to Grateful Dead fans as
it is to those who follow innovation in sound reinforcement systems. Dan's
association with the Dead goes a long way back, but not so far back that
Dan doesn't remember.
"It's a story that I've told
so many times that I've got it down pat now," he says. The story
takes him back to the days when he lived on a houseboat in Corte Madera,
Marin County, CA. One of his neighbors was John Cipollina, who was
putting his tremoloed guitar to work for a band called Quicksilver Messenger
Service. For struggling musicians, having a neighbor and friend
who works in a recording studio and knows about electronics and equipment
repair is better than befriending the owner of a pizza parlor. Dan was
frequently visited by Cipollina and his bandmates.
"Nobody had any money,"
Dan remembers. "There was no such thing as a spare amplifier. You
were lucky to have a spare string. If you broke a string, you frequently
would play the rest of the night with 5.
"So those guys were always,
'Hey Dan, would you fix my amp?' And I didn't mind doing it. They were
all people in my age group and we all had a common interest in things."
In exchange for his repair services, Dan had a standing invitation to
Dan continues, "This one
night, Quicksilver headlined and the Grateful Dead were the opening band."
An amplifier on the fritz nearly ended the night for the fledgling Dead.
"The music had stopped and it was, 'Is there a doctor in the house?'
kind of thing. And of course John Cipollina immediately volunteered me,
the son-of-a-gun. He pushes me up on the stage, 'Hey, this guy knows how
to fix it.' " Dan fixed the amp and the band played on.
Dan picks up the tale, "I
stood at the back of the stage and watched the rest of the Grateful Dead
set. I remember having the sensation that, 'Hey, something's happening
here. This isn't just more rock 'n' roll.' This was a whole new
kind of music. A new approach. A new philosophy. So I began
to tune into it. I liked it. I liked the approach, and I liked
the idea of all of the movements that the Grateful Dead was into, and
the different songs all strung together and things. And there
was something new and really rewarding, and something bright and really
boss about it, you know. It was very interesting."
Dan never did hear Quicksilver that
night. Instead, he accepted the Dead's gratefulness and spent the
rest of the evening in their dressing room, shooting the breeze. During
one of the qsts in the breeze, Dan commented on teh Dead show he had just
seen, saying, "It's too bad you can't hear the voices." Since
the sound system consisted of a pair of home bookshelf-like speakers on
each side of the stage, that was no surprise.
"They sort of challenged me,"
Dan continues. "It was kind of, 'Put your sound system ideas where
your mouth is.' So I took them up on the challenge."
Dan financed his plan by supplementing
his recording studio paycheck by "doing what you did in those days
to earn some money." With his ill-gotten gains he rented all
the sound equipment available from the three generic Bay Area rental companies.
"I went to the old lady that
ran the Fillmore Auditorium," he continues. "I conned
her into letting me in there a day or two ahead of time to set up. Of
course, the equipment I rented wasn't mutually compatible. I had
to make it all into one big sound system, piles of speakers on each side
of the stage. We played the shows. Man, you could hear Pigpen
and Jerry and everybody singing right up with the music. I was mixing
on the side of the stage. The first time Jerry opened his mouth
and sang, he looked around at me, and it was like, 'Yeah! This is
obviously what it is we're looking for.' That was the birth of the
way it is. We had unearthed a big piece of the answer. At
that point I quit my job at the studio. I quit everything else and
just went with the Grateful Dead."
Fortunately for Dan's emotional and
legal well-being, as the Grateful Dead's financial footing improved, he
no longer had to create "independent" financiang for his sound
Dan relates, "The Grateful Dead
has always been unbelievably supportive. They would get royalty
checks for records and instead of buying houses and cars and yachts and
all of that junk, they would give me the money back to put into the sound
system and stuff. And so we reinvested emotionally and materially
for years. By the early '70s we were the leaders in the field. By
1969 I was asking questions that had no answers. I had bottomed
out all the research which [had basically been done] by the Bell Labs
in the '20s. During that period a number of now-famous audio people
sort of collaborated on the Wall of Sound." By working together,
Dan claims their collective knowledge moved ahead by leaps and bounds.
"It caused major, major changes,"
he says. "Changes that are still going on in the sound industry today.
We debunked so much stuff that you'd be amazed. And we verified
so much stuff. In the period from 1969 to 1974, the entire audio
industry completely turned upside down and the Grateful Dead was at the
hub of it. Just that alone is something to have lived through and
seen. And now we're into our seventh or eighth-generation sound
system. And we're so many years ahead of everybody else." The
band has recently unveiled their lateest wrinkle.
"We've gotten rid of all the
loudspeakers on the stage, which is really another monumental step,"
Healy says of the newest innovations. "The band uses earphones,
but they're extremely high quality. They come and make molds of
your ears and they build these things to fit inside of your ear. Sort
of like what the newspeople wear, only a real high-end audio quality version
of it. They're stereo, one for each ear. Each musician can
make his own stereo mix. And it's just being developed right now. We're
developing the software to do computerized mixing and stuff like that,
so we've removed all of the monitor speakers and all of the instrument
speakers from the stage. Now, if I shut off the sound system, you don't
hear anything except for the drummers on the stage. All the sound
comes out of the sound system.
"The advantage is that the monitors
were so dense and so complex on the stage that it was like standing knee
deep in mud. As a sound mixer, I could only be so subtle. Below
that threshold, I was continuously plagued with resonances and feedback
and stuff. I could only go so far and then I might as well go into
the dressing room, sit down and drink a beer.
"But lo and behold, it turns
out that the same thing were causing different sets of complaints with
the band members. So collectively we realized that we've got to
get rid of the speakers on the stage. We've now known that for a
long time. So in wonderful, wonderful Grateful Dead fashion [this
past may in Sacramento] we jumped right off into no speakers and it worked.
"You've got to keep doing it,"
he says. "I mean, I don't ever stop. I'm never satisfied. I
mean, ever concert is good, but I'm already scheming on what I can do
better, and we start planning the next show."