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Pioneering audio engineer Owsley 'Bear' Stanley dies at 76

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March 14, 2011

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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5 Comments

(t)RIP.

Alan Belardinelli
15th March, 2011 @ 06:30 am PDT

My humblest of condolences to the family. Truly a great man of our times.

YukonJack
15th March, 2011 @ 07:01 am PDT

Thank You for the tribute.

ejbisch
15th March, 2011 @ 07:26 am PDT

I think his life was one of the first examples of a modern day "thinking-outside-of-the-box" paradigms. That he was involved in the LSD culture of the day only helped define his "box" that he wanted out of, and consequently his invention of the "Wall of Sound" that still exists in one form or another to this day.

My condolences to his family, and his fans.

Edwin Wityshyn
19th March, 2011 @ 09:05 am PDT

I have bought the book: Grateful dead: Gear . And I own a 5.1. P.A. system. I would have loved to meet this illustre figure in the art of amplifying sound. It would have been awesome to pick his brain.

If there ever is a book with his thoughts about Public Announcement systems I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

If the family would have notes I'd write the book for them. My condolences to the family. I live in the Netherlands. But he has reached out to me. Thank you Bear.

Frans van den Berge

Frans van den Berge
19th March, 2013 @ 10:30 am PDT
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