Episode 42. Everything louder than everything else
Ian Gillan’s famous words from Deep Purple’s Made in Japan album and which went on to become the title of Motorhead’s third live album, were said as a joke but they are closer to the truth than most people realise. The development of the rock Public Address system (P.A.) happened so quickly that in the space of less than fifteen years, it went from being a way to amplify the vocals, to a monster that could be heard several miles away. The modern P.A. system is a complex instrument in its own right which needs skilled operators. They play a very important part in the show and are arguably someone as valuable to the band as any band member themselves. Now, the live mixing console is computer based and I admit, I am lost on them. It’s a different world in most respects to when I mixed bands in the 1980s and that in turn was a different world to when the Beatles played to 56,000 people at Shea Stadium in 1965. They used four Altec 1570 amplifiers, giving a grand total of 700 Watts (700W). Think about that the next time you are at Tokyo Dome, Wembley or and other stadium but in the meantime, let’s give a big round of applause to and learn a bit about the man who started it all, Charlie Watkins.
Back in the 40s, amplification was only used for singers (if at all) and even then, it was through a small in-house P.A. system. The musicians backing the singer used their own dynamics to aid the singer’s performance but the advent of Rock and Roll and the electric guitar changed everything. By the early 1960’s, electric guitars, basses and pianos, along with the early keyboards such as the Clavioline, had become the fashionable instruments for popular music, all of which were independently amplified on stage. Then in 1964, Vox produced their AC100 Super Deluxe guitar cabinets with four speakers and two horns. They went to John Lennon and George Harrison who used them on The Beatles' first American tour but it didn’t make much difference; they still couldn’t be heard above the screaming. A year later, Pete Townsend and John Entwistle from The Who worked with Jim Marshall to develop the Marshall Stack, a 100W amplifier powering an eight-speaker cabinet which quite simply, was deafening. All of this development of course meant that the vocals also had to be somehow amplified.
The very early P.A.s were usually two columns of 4 x 12” speakers driven by a 100W amp. This was enough to hear the vocals over the 30W Vox AC30 amplifiers that the musicians favoured but the speakers were poor quality and quite often the microphone used was the cheapest the singer could find in the shop due to the band’s budget. This combination gave a very mid-range sound with no bass, very little treble and often produced feedback but the bands struggled through with it as there was no alternative. With bass, guitars and keyboards all now being highly audible, the vocals strained to be heard above the instruments so a new type of P.A. was badly needed but the problem was, valve technology. It tended to distort vocals at high volume and two amplifiers could not be linked together as it caused feedback. Then in 1966, RCA developed the solid-state guitar amplifier using transistors instead of valves. They were lighter and more reliable with a very clean sound but the transistors didn’t have the warm sound of valves so guitarists didn’t like them. Amazingly, only one man realized that the clearer sound was ideal for P.A.s and vocals, the aforementioned Charlie Watkins.
Charlie Watkins outside his first shop at 26 Balham High Street, South London.
Born in 1923, Charlie was in the Merchant Navy during WWII which is where he learnt to play the accordion. In 1945, after leaving the army, Charlie became a professional accordion player and then in 1949, with his brother, Reg, opened a small record shop in South London. Their business flourished quickly and relocating a few miles away to Balham in 1951 where they also started to deal in musical instruments, most notably, guitars and, of course, accordions. It wasn’t much later, aided by the Skiffle craze in the UK in the mid-fifties, that Charlie realized there would be a market for an acoustic guitar amplifier and developed one: the Westminster Amplifier.
The Westminster Amplifier was a success and in high demand and by 1957, Reg had opened a factory making Watkins guitars and amplifiers. The company was called Watkins Electronic Music (WEM) and their undoubted biggest success was a guitar effect, the Watkins Copycat Echo Unit* which along with the Vox AC30 and the Fender Strat, pretty much defined the sound of the 60’s in popular music. Indeed, they are still regarded as the standard by which all other echo units are judged and thousands are still used every night by bands around the world.
Anyway, getting back to the valve and transistor amplifier comparison, it was Charlie who saw the potential of the transistor amplifier and developed the world’s first P.A. as we know it today by slaving amplifiers together and linking them to multiple speaker cabinets (called ‘columns’ due to there being 4, 12” speakers arranged in a column). Charlie also separated the mixer from the amplifier which meant that the sound could now be controlled from the front with the audience rather than at the side of the stage. That first ‘out-front’ mixer had five inputs and was called the Audiomaster. In 1967, on August 11th to be precise, Charlie unveiled the world’s first 1000W P.A. system at the Windsor Jazz & Blues festival in the UK but it was not without its problems, breaking down on several occasions, causing delays in the schedule. There were also complaints from the local residents as well so the volume had to be turned down halfway through the festival much to the disgruntlement of the bands and audience. Despite these setbacks though, it was hailed a revolution in sound amplification and soon every band across the UK was using a WEM (Watkins Electronic Music) system. A modification to the five-channel desk meant that two or more desks could be linked together and it soon became common practice to run all the instruments as well as the vocals through the P.A. to give an overall better balance of sound.
Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac onstage flanked by Charlie’s 1000W P.A. at the 1967 Windsor Jazz & Blues festival.
The next development in the P.A. came from the USA in the early 1970’s and that was the use of speaker cabinets designed for cinemas instead of the WEM columns. Cinema sound was a lot more technical than P.A. sound at that point and the cinemas used something called a horn-loaded bin which is to say it has a woofer (speaker) for the lower frequencies and a tweeter (horn) for the high frequencies in the same cabinet. The two parts were separated by a crossover which stopped the bass sound going into the horn and treble sound going into the speaker. The human ear is much more sensitive to horn frequencies and the position or angle of the cabinet could be used to throw the sound in a particular direction helping to give the same sound balance in all seats of the venue. Rather quickly, the bin and horn system phased out the column P.A.s but with this added volume came another problem: the bands could not hear themselves play and so a monitor system was introduced. Often called the foldback, it is actually a mini-P.A. system in itself. The microphones are all plugged into a stage box (also known as a splitter box) which simultaneously sends the signal to the out-front desk for the sound engineer to mix for the audience and another smaller monitor desk at the side of the stage that is used to balance the sound onstage for the band. It took great skill and a good ear to avoid the original 1960’s problem of feedback and also to provide the clarity that the audience and the bands demanded, as two engineers vied for a good mix from the same show.
Size escalated rapidly and during the 1970’s, a big P.A. of between 20,000W and 40,000W became a boasting point of the bigger rock bands such as Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. On August 1st 1981, the biggest ever P.A. was assembled by the Audiolease P.A. company in the UK. The venue was Port Vale football stadium where twenty-two P.A. staff spent two days putting together a system for the Heavy Metal Holocaust festival headlined by Motorhead. The P.A was not only either side of the stage, it ran the full width underneath the bands, blasting out 120,000W and entering the Guinness Book of World Records. It had taken less than fourteen years to go from Charlie’s 1000W milestone to an ear-bleeding wall of sound.
The Grateful Dead’s ‘Wall of Sound’ was designed for their US tour in 1974. It was comprised of 604 speakers and 92 amplifiers generating a total of 26,400W.
These days, computers run everything and P.A.s are no exception. Sound systems can be fine tuned with the aid of a tablet as the engineer walks around the venue using digital compressors, limiters, 31 band graphics and a deluge of other effects to enhance the sound. Not all venues are kind to sound however and no technology yet invented can cancel out the horrible reverberations that bounce around places like Tokyo Dome but the sound engineer lives in hope as he twiddles knobs and pushes faders, countering feedback, echoes and bad acoustics to give everyone in the audience a CD quality mix. These guys are the unsung heroes of a show so the next time you go to a gig and the sound is good, give the man behind the desk a thumbs up to say thanks for a job well done because without him, you wouldn’t hear a thing.
As for Charlie Watkins, well, he lived his life and developed his P.A.s but closed his WEM P.A. company when in 1974, after it was revealed to him that there were now possibly dangerous levels of sound at Rock concerts. He went back to playing the accordion but his love of electronics and sound never left him and he was the man who many years later, developed the accordion MIDI interface. A long time after I moved out of South London, I discovered that I lived just a couple of minutes’ walk from his house. I probably saw him in a shop, exchanged pleasantries on a sunny Sunday morning or stood next to him in a local pub and didn’t recognize him. Never one to boast of his achievements, he was awarded the Audio Pro International Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to loudspeakers and PA for outdoor Rock events. Charlie died at his home, in Balham, on 28th October, 2014.
The principle is the same, i.e. instruments in, balanced sound out but I’ll be darned if I know what all that does now.
*The first Watkins Copicat Echo Unit was sold at Charlie's shop to a man named Joe Moretti. He was the guitarist in Johnny Kidd & The Pirates and he was the first person known to have used it on a recording. That was Shakin’ All Over and it gave them their first UK No.1 in August, 1960.