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The Who’s PA: 1969–1970

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1969

As the Who began to play larger venues and saw success with Tommy, PA also progressed, growing larger, reportedly using 12 to 16 WEM columns per stage-side by 1969. Also in 1969, WEM had pioneered the festival sound system. Likely around this time, bands began miking up the drums and instrument amplifiers, bringing a more balanced mix to the overall sound, projecting both vocals and instruments. The Who had long established themselves as the loudest act, but were known for high-quality PA, not just brute volume.

The Who Concert File:

The introduction of Tommy into the live act coincided with a period when The Who had established a formidable system of amplification and on-stage sound. They could now vary their PA system to cover outdoor festivals and small college ballrooms and always deliver a trademark ear-splitting level of volume. But unlike a whole legion of heavy metal bands who took their cue from their pioneering “bigger-louder-wall-of-Marshalls” approach, The Who’s sound always had depth, clarity and musical muscle within the decibel output. The skills of sound-engineer Bob Pridden, and a commitment to developing and investing in new technology, mean The Who always sounded better than all other groups.

Richard Barnes:

Pete talked about “trying to sophisticate our sound a little, make it a little less ear-rending … We haven’t got any louder but our PA has got bigger. It’s now 1500 watts and it just chucks it all out. That is what’s deafening people. One our troubles is Moon — he’s so deafening. If we do a two and a half-hour show he just starts playing like a machine. I’m sure he pus out more watts than the rest of us put together.”

At some point, the Who began using the WEM Copicat (echo unit) to add sound coloration to the instrument amplification (the Copicat was not used for vocals; at times, Pete would even use three Copicats on his guitar!). The WEM Copicat first appeared in 1954 and had been used by bands in the early ’60s as a primitive PA mixer.

Moreover, the Who began using stage monitoring around this time, with stage-side and behind-the-drumkit speaker columns from WEM.

“Also in 1969, the idea of stage monitors was tentatively imported from the United States. Bobby Pridden, The Who’s sound engineer, persuaded Charlie Watkins to modify his Audiomasters, adding an extra output for stage monitors. The signal then passed to a WEM 100-watt amplifier and a speaker cabinet was placed in front of Roger Daltrey so he could hear himself. But monitors cost money and it was so unusual and satisfying to have a good PA sound out front that stage monitors were largely disregarded until the novelty of high-power PA had been surpassed.”

Festivals

The large US festivals, such as Woodstock, had festival-supplied PA. The PA sound at the Woodstock festival was reportedly “faint.” Reportedly 10 McIntosh MC-3500 350-watt tube amps powered the PA.

August 1969 – Second Annual Isle of Wight Festival

The festival featured The Who’s 2,500-watt WEM PA system. (The accounts from the era report: “WEM are supplying a 2,000 watts PA system which is claimed to be the biggest ever used anywhere in the world. … A 2,000 watt PA system is also being flown over specially from the States.”)

The Who Concert File:

The PA system was the largest that had ever been assembled at that point and Pete joked that it was built from Meccano. For The Who’s set, signs were erected on the speakers warning people to keep at least 15 feet away.

August 1969, the 2nd Annual Isle of Wight festival, which featured The Who’s 2,500-watt WEM PA system. Three of The Who’s Marshall 8x10 cabs visible at stage-right, and two stacked WEM cabinets as foldback seen at far right. © repfoto.com.

August 1969, the 2nd Annual Isle of Wight festival, which featured The Who’s 2,500-watt WEM PA system. Three of The Who’s Marshall 8x10 cabs visible at stage-right, and two stacked WEM cabinets as foldback seen at far right.

August 1969, the 2nd Annual Isle of Wight festival, which featured The Who’s 2,500-watt WEM PA system. A wider shot of the Who’s PA setup at the festival (though with Richie Havens performing). Three of The Who’s Marshall 8x10 cabs are visible at stage-right, and a stack of WEM slaves or PA amps are visible at far left. © repfoto.com.

August 1969, the 2nd Annual Isle of Wight festival, which featured The Who’s 2,500-watt WEM PA system. A wider shot of the Who’s PA setup at the festival (though with Richie Havens performing). Three of The Who’s Marshall 8x10 cabs are visible at stage-right, and a stack of WEM slaves or PA amps are visible at far left.

August 1969, the 2nd Annual Isle of Wight festival, which featured The Who’s 2,500-watt WEM PA system. Visible are three Marshall 8x10 PA cabinets per stage side, and WEM columns and cabs set up in the backline as foldback.

August 1969, the 2nd Annual Isle of Wight festival, which featured The Who’s 2,500-watt WEM PA system. Visible are three Marshall 8x10 PA cabinets per stage side, and WEM columns and cabs set up in the backline as foldback.

August 1969, the 2nd Annual Isle of Wight festival, which featured The Who’s 2,500-watt WEM PA system. WEM speaker columns and cabinets as foldback behind John and Keith.

August 1969, the 2nd Annual Isle of Wight festival, which featured The Who’s 2,500-watt WEM PA system. WEM speaker columns and cabinets as foldback behind John and Keith.

August 1969, the 2nd Annual Isle of Wight festival, which featured The Who’s 2,500-watt WEM PA system. WEM foldback speaker column behind Keith’s kit as foldback.

August 1969, the 2nd Annual Isle of Wight festival, which featured The Who’s 2,500-watt WEM PA system. WEM foldback speaker column behind Keith’s kit as foldback.

29 Sept., 1969, Amsterdam, Concertgebouw. Courtesy The Who Netherlands Photo Gallery. ©Henk Hulstkamp.

29 Sept., 1969, Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, with Hiwatt SE4122 4x12 cabinets as foldback (and spare guitar stand) at stage left. Courtesy The Who Netherlands Photo Gallery (offline). ©Henk Hulstkamp.

10 Oct. 1969, Boston

10 Oct., 1969, Commonwealth Armory, Boston, with Marshall 8x10 cabinets and WEM column.

10 Oct. 1969, Boston

10 Oct., 1969, Commonwealth Armory, Boston, with Marshall 8x10 cabinets and WEM column.

1970

14 February 1970 – Leeds University Refectory. Photo: John Standerline, Leeds University Union Entertainments Committee, 1967–1970

14 February, 1970 – Leeds University Refectory, showing WEM/Marshall PA setup for small hall. Features three Marshall 8x10 cabs per side, and various WEM 4x12 columns and miscellaneous cabinets, likely including 2x15. Photo © and courtesy: John Standerline, Leeds University Union Entertainments Committee, 1967–1970.

14 February 1970 – Leeds University Refectory, mixing equipment. Photo: John Standerline, Leeds University Union Entertainments Committee, 1967–1970

14 February, 1970 – Leeds University Refectory, mixing equipment. Photo © and courtesy: John Standerline, Leeds University Union Entertainments Committee, 1967–1970.

Late 1969/early 1970, for front-of-house amplification, the WEM PA designed by Bobby Pridden employed 12 4x12 column speakers on each side of the stage, totaling approximately 1,500 watts power output for the PA.

Remainder of 1970, the speaker system contains no horns, just banks of cone devices in 10, 12 and 15 speakers (approximated: six 8x10 Marshall cabinets; 4x12 WEM PA columns; WEM 2x15 and 4x12 cabinets).

Foldback comprises a collection of WEM columns and cabinets variously placed around the backline, including behind the drumkit, angled forward at the far left and right sides of the stage, and directly at the front of the stage from the left and right. In addition, the first instance of the guitar and bass signal being “monitored” at the opposite sides of the stage, by a single Hiwatt amp and cab at each side of the stage — a Hiwatt amp and cab at stage left next to Pete’s four Hiwatt cabinets, and a Hiwatt amp and cab at stage right next to John’s rig.

The Who also began developing their own stage lighting in 1970.

Of note, the 3rd Annual 1970 Isle of Wight festival in August 1970 relied on the Who’s PA and featured a WEM 5,000-watt PA, the loudest ever assembled, comprised loads of WEM 4x12 PA columns and various WEM 8x10 and 2x15 enclosures, among others, per side, plus more on the towers. Each stage side was topped by WEM’s parabolic focusable reflector. (See ukrockfestivals.com for a collection of Isle of Wight photos depicting the PA.)

Anyway Anyhow Anywhere:

The Who arrived in America in June (1970) for a month-long tour, commencing with two concerts at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Setting standards for sound and presentation, this was the Who’s first meticulous juggernaut around America, requiring three tons of specially built Charlie Watkins gear to be flown in, including a 4000 watt stereo system, designed by Townshend and Bob Pridden, that incorporated mixers placed at the front and back of each venue. A special custom-built truck, with a five-man crew, transported it across the continent.

For better or worse, the Who were pioneering that dubious animal, stadium rock.

30 Jan., 1970, Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, view of Bobby Pridden’s mixing desk next to WEM foldback columns. Courtesy The Who Netherlands Photo Gallery. ©Henk Hulstkamp.

30 Jan., 1970, Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, view of Bobby Pridden’s mixing desk next to WEM foldback columns. Courtesy The Who Netherlands Photo Gallery (offline). ©Henk Hulstkamp.

30 Jan., 1970, Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, view of WEM foldback stack next to Bobby Pridden’s mixing desk. Courtesy The Who Netherlands Photo Gallery. ©Henk Hulstkamp.

30 Jan., 1970, Amsterdam, Concertgebouw, view of WEM foldback columns stacked next to Bobby Pridden’s mixing desk. Third single 4x12 Hiwatt SE4122 is monitor of bass. Courtesy The Who Netherlands Photo Gallery (offline). ©Henk Hulstkamp.

14 Feb. 1970 – Leeds University.

14 Feb. 1970 – Leeds University, Marshall 8x10s visible at far right.

14 Feb. 1970 – Leeds University.

14 Feb. 1970 – Leeds University, WEM foldback column on stand visible at right.

14 Feb. 1970 – Leeds University.

14 Feb. 1970 – Leeds University, WEM foldback columns on stands visible at right.

14 February 1970, at Leeds University Refectory, with “Frankenstein” and Hiwatts.

14 Feb. 1970, at Leeds University Refectory, WEM foldback columns on stands visible at stage right.

16 Feb. 1970 – Hull City Hall. Photo: Chris McCourt

16 Feb. 1970 – Hull City Hall.

14 June, 1970, at Anaheim Stadium, Anaheim, Calif., showing WEM columns at backline and far left of stage.

14 June, 1970, at Anaheim Stadium, Anaheim, Calif., showing WEM columns at backline and far left of stage.

August 1970, 3rd Annual Isle of Wight festival

Click to view larger version. 1970, showing third Isle of Wight Festival WEM PA.

Click to view larger version. August 1970, 3rd Annual Isle of Wight festival, The Who’s PA and featured a WEM 5,000-watt PA, the loudest ever assembled.

Click to view larger version. 1970, showing third Isle of Wight Festival WEM PA.

Click to view larger version. August 1970, 3rd Annual Isle of Wight festival, The Who’s PA and featured a WEM 5,000-watt PA, the loudest ever assembled. WEM’s parabolic focusable reflector visible at top right.

Click to view larger version. 1970, showing third Isle of Wight Festival WEM PA.

Click to view larger version. August 1970, 3rd Annual Isle of Wight festival, The Who’s PA and featured a WEM 5,000-watt PA, the loudest ever assembled.

Click to view larger version. August 1970, third anual Isle of Wight Festival, The Who’s WEM PA during Jimi Hendrix’s act. (Photo: SoundCityChris)

Click to view larger version. August 1970, 3rd Annual Isle of Wight festival, The Who’s PA during Jimi Hendrix’s act. (Photo: SoundCityChris)

Notable events:

1970:

WEM introduces the Watkins Festival Stack, consisting of 2x15 woofers, 2x12 in high bass, 6x10 in mid and high-mid range, and Vitavox or Celestion horns.

Phase Linear introduces the 200-watt power amplifier.

Resources and Information

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to John Hughes (john@pureneasy.fsnet.co.uk) for assistance with this page.

Sources and related sites:

Articles

  • “Rock hall hails Heil’s wizardry. Metro-east native created equipment for stars.” From the Belleville (Illinois) News-Democrat (archived version), Tuesday, 9 May, 2006
  • “Bob Heil: A Living Live-Sound Legend,” from Musician’s Friend, May 2006
  • Guitar Player: The Who’s Sound System. How it grew from 200 to 75,000 watts. By Steve Caraway and Tom Wheeler. November 1977.

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