These drawings of the Dead’s sound system by Mary Ann Meyer appeared in Dead Head newsletters in 1973 and 1974. They show the metamorphoses from a conventional PA system (below), arranged on towers to stage left and right, to the Wall of Sound, which moved the voice PA to stage center and integrated instrument and voice sound.
The Dead’s speakers were usually arranged onstage like this: First of all, the monitor speakers for the musicians to hear themselves. That’s four stacks of speakers — 12-inchers, 5-inchers and a bunch of tweeters — with a total of 4,000 watts power. Then there were the bass guitar extension speakers on either side of the stage, a vertical stack of a dozen 15-inch woofers on each side. The two guitars and the piano had six or eight 12-inch speakers apiece. Then the quad-ramped PA system for the singers and the drums; 16 15-inch woofers, 20 12-inch lower-mid-range speakers, 64 4-inch upper-mid-range speakers, and upwards of 40 tweeters.
That’s a lot of power. But you know, if you were to listen to it side by side with another system with the same wattage, the kind of system a lot of promoters put up, the other system would probably sound louder. It’s because it would be putting a lot of power through low-budget equipment and PA getting a lot of distortion. Distortion makes sound louder even though the power is the same. Loud, distorted sound is fatiguing after a while. It’s because subconsciously you’re trying to disentangle the distortion from the music. And you’re straining to make out the words. This is why, for instance, we have two mikes for each singer, one three inches above the other. This system phases out any signal received by both the speakers, which cuts down on background noise and feedback.
Donna Jean Godchaux