Welcome to the Machine - the story of Pink Floyd's live sound: part 1

Pink Floyd Articles

  • The Piper

    The Piper Administrator Staff Member Your APFFN host

    Sound On Stage number 5, March 1997
    Welcome to the Machine
    The story of Pink Floyd's live sound: part 1

    By Mark Cunningham


    Over the 30 years that have passed since their debut record, Pink Floyd have remained unchallenged as the rock world's premier live attraction. In this unique and comprehensive four-part series, MARK CUNNINGHAM traces the development of the Floyd's live sound and talks to the key personnel who have contributed to some of the greatest shows on Earth.

    When Pink Floyd embarked on their most recent jaunt around the world with the 1994 Division Bell tour, no less than 53 articulated trucks were required to transport the PA and lighting systems, projection equipment, staging, and all the additional elements which went into what has so far been acclaimed as the benchmark touring production of the '90s. By contrast, at the time of the band's first single, "Arnold Layne", in the spring of 1967, they traversed the country in a humble van.

    Given the musical sophistication of their later years, it is equally difficult to conceive of Pink Floyd as a run-of-the-mill R&B combo, and yet this is precisely how they began when they were formed at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Architecture in 1965 as The Abdabs by bassist Roger Waters, keyboard player Rick Wright, and drummer Nick Mason and several others. Like most bands of their time, their early repertoire consisted mainly of R&B and pop covers, and was broadened when guitarist, singer, and Bo Diddley fan Roger "Syd" Barrett arrived in the line-up, conjuring their new name: The Pink Floyd Sound. Within a year, Barrett blossomed as a songwriter, producing whimsical numbers such as "Candy And A Currant Bun", which would steer the band in a new direction.

    Soon to drop the redundant suffix (and the definite article), their live set began to feature extended, feedback-drenched instrumental "freak-outs", largely dominated by Barrett's guitar experimentations and Wright's Stockhausen-flavoured organ solos. Arguably, the biggest influence on the band's development at the forefront of the psychedelic revolution was Barrett's appetite for a certain hallucinogenic substance. Musically, however, he relied heavily on his echo box and slide techniques, often involving ball bearings, plastic rulers or a Zippo lighter, to achieve his eclectic blend of guitar effects, while the other band members experimented with similar flair. You had to be there.

    By early 1967, Pink Floyd had secured both an EMI record deal and an enviable following as the darlings of London's underground scene with their "free-form", jazz-inspired, psychedelic noodlings, frequently accompanied by strange film sequences which were projected onto the band along with "liquid (coloured oil slide) movies" -- the product of experimental Lighting Designer Mike Leonard. Even at this early juncture, while their contemporaries were busy playing at pop stars, the Floyd placed little emphasis on themselves as performers, preferring to give audiences an experience that relied on this interaction of sound, light and atmosphere. Numbers like "Interstellar Overdrive", which often lasted one hour, were based around one riff or chord and, like rave music more than 20 years later, they sent audiences on a magnificent sensory journey.

    "Interstellar Overdrive", was, in fact, one of the titles performed by the Floyd at their "Games For May" at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall on May 12 1967, an event set up by their managers Andrew King and Peter Jenner of Blackhill Enterprises, and promoted by classical promoter Christopher Hunt. Not only did this mark the first appearance at the hall of what was essentially a pop band, this "happening" also marked the first appearance in Britain of a rudimentary quadraphonic PA system, effected by additional speakers erected around the room and an early version of an amazing device, which has now gone down in Floyd folklore as the "Azimuth Coordinator". This elaborate name was given to what was essentially a crude pan pot device made by Bernard Speight, an Abbey Road technical engineer, using four large rheostats which were converted from 270 degree rotation to 90 degree. Along with the shift stick, these elements were housed in a large box and enabled the panning of quadraphonic sound.

    To augment the music, Waters rented a basement in Harrow Road to record a number of effects tapes on a Ferrograph. These sounds included backwards cymbals, distorted percussion, and fake birdsong, and were played around the audience as the band performed. Waters explained at the time: "The sounds travel around the hall in a sort of circle, giving the audience an eerie effect of being absolutely surrounded by this music." From this point onwards, it seemed, the Floyd were destined to become pioneers in live sound.


    WATKINS DOMINATED


    Little in terms of purpose-designed PA technology existed before 1967, the only options open to the Floyd being Vox or Selmer columns and 100 Watt amps. Therefore, when Charlie Watkins designed his first WEM single column PA, the Floyd took it to their hearts, and it remained with them for the next four years. The Floyd's system was based around the WEM B and C cabinets. The B cabinet housed four 12-inch Goodmans 301 twin cone speakers, while the C cabinet had four 12-inch Goodmans Audiom 61s. Pinned in between the B and C cabinet was an X32 horn in a narrow column. To drive the system, the Floyd used WEM amplification, and Road Manager/Sound Engineer Peter Watts mixed with four small five-channel WEM Audiomaster consoles whose comparatively primitive functions included bass, treble, and middle controls, presence and input sensitivity. This was the state of the art back in the late '60s.

    WEM founder and PA designer Charlie Watkins, who toured with the Floyd during this period, says of their introduction to his system:

    "A similar PA of mine had debuted at the Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival in August 1967, and in the following month, Pink Floyd played through one at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, and were immediately impressed, because it was the only proper PA system capable of taking more than 100 Watts. They soon invested in a system, and as they earned more money, they began to duplicate the amount of equipment until they owned the most sophisticated PA in the country."

    Armed with this state-of-the-art system, the Floyd -- now with ex-Jokers Wild and Bullitt singer/guitarist David Gilmour who replaced his drug-damaged pal Syd Barrett in March 1968 -- staged concerts, which were promoted as "sonic experiences", and toured in 1969 with their "Massed Gadgets Of Auximenes" extravaganza. A newspaper review of the final date of this British tour described the performance as including "electronic and stereophonic effects thrust around [the Royal Albert Hall] from a battery of boxes and speakers. Edge of the world sounds shiver; footsteps clump around the dome; voices whisper; a train thunders; a jungle erupts."

    Of an earlier concert at the Royal Festival Hall that April, Nick Mason was quoted as saying: "The Azimuth Coordinator system might have been improved if we had simplified it by having four speakers 'round the hall instead of six. I am sure a lot of people couldn't differentiate between each speaker. If we can develop this kind of thing into an even bigger and better stage without getting too technically involved, we will be going in the right direction." He would not have too long to wait.

    Meahwhile, Peter Watt's small crew (including Bobby Richardson, Brian Scott, and Lighting Engineer Arthur Max) was joined by roadie Seth Goldman, who began working for the band on their September-October 1970 "Atom Heart Mother" tour of America and years later would become their dedicated monitor engineer. Apart from the photograph on the reverse side of 1969's "Ummagumma" album sleeve, the best evidence of the touring equipment favoured by Pink floyd in the late '60s and early '70s is the Adrian Maben film "Live at Pompeii", which was shot in the summer of 1971 and shows the band's WEM system in all its glory. But the end of that year witnessed a complete turnaround.

    In 1971, Peter Watts became involved with audio pioneers Bill Kelsey and the late Dave Martin. It was Martin who allegedly followed a design by future Turbosound founder Tony Andrews and built the first bass bin, which revolutionised PA technology. Martin, who had built his first bass reflex cabinet at the age of 15, made a failed attempt at designing a 4 by 15-inch bin with a detachable flare before producing his definitive 800 Watt flanged 2 by 15-inch. The laws of physics now began to govern live performance audio and instead of literally adding more cabinets for extra reinforcement, bands were able to "throw" their sound much further by using a combination of the bass bin concept and Vitavox "voice of the theatre" horns.

    In the May of that year, during a break from their "Atom Heart Mother" tours and sessions for the "Meddle" album, Pink Floyd hired the Wandsworth Granada [venue] to evaluate a new two-way passive Bill Kelsey system, which initially incorporated seven-foot, 500-lb. RCA "W" cabinets before switching to Martin's 2 by 15-inch bass bin. Kelsey, who had already built PAs for King Crimson and ELP, recalls:

    "What happened was indicative of the way the Floyd used to do business in the days when they were more of a cult band. Peter Watts and Steve O'Rourke (Floyd's manager) said they'd like to try a system so I went down with all the gear, and then found there was another PA company there and that it was to be an A/B test. Feeling a bit miffed that I hadn't been told, I set up the gear as did the other company, and they tried it out with the mixing console at the back of the hall.

    "It seemed to be going all right, but Peter said, 'To be quite frank, I'm disappointed... it's rubbish.' And Steve cut in, 'You realise you've wasted my whole day, not to mention the cost of the hall.' Peter continued to push up one fader to produce this horrid, muffled sound, while the second fader produced a nice, clear sound. I just wanted the ground to open up. Suddenly they both burst into laughter and admitted they'd crossed the whole thing over." Despite the elaborate wind-up, Kelsey's system was taken on board at the beginning of the following year.


    THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON


    Recorded over the course of seven months with the working title of "Eclipse (A Piece For Assorted Lunatics)", "The Dark Side of the Moon" catapulted Pink Floyd from their enigmatic cult status to the stadium rock elite. Released in March 1973, it signified the first major switch from their earlier psychedelic formula and set a new precedent for record production which Floyd continued to build upon. As was the case for many bands who moulded their material on the road for sometime before committing it to tape, the Floyd performed an embryonic version of "Dark Side" both prior to and during their sessions at Abbey Road throughout the whole of 1972.

    The live rehearsals for this new concept piece were initially held in Januyary 1972 at the now-defunct Rainbow Theatre in London's Finsbury Park, and they were notable for both the first use of their new sound and light systems, and the introduction of a new team member. Mick Kluczynski had worked with a number of Scottish bands since 1965, one of whom received an offer to record in London in 1971 as Cliff Bennett's backing band. Kluczynski accompanied them but the whole deal soon fell to pieces. One of the band members, Chris Adamson, survived by working as a Floyd roadie and arranged for Kluczynski to also join their small team as part of the "Quad Squad".

    "There was no formal crew, just four of us loosely employed to handle all aspects of the sound and rigging," says Kluczynski. "My first job was to empty the tour manager's garage, which was full of all the old WEM PA columns and return them to Charlie Watkins, because we had just taken delivery of the latest generation of PA. The 2 by 15-inch bins had a Vitavox horn on the top and a JBL 075 bullet super tweeter -- I used to carry these things on my back up into balconies! When we played the first Earls Court show, we used our maximum number of Kelsey and Martin bins and horns. The bins were three high, with 13 at each side of the stage, and in the centre piece where there were bins missing was a column of JBL horns. On top of those, we had a row of double Vitavox horns, on the back of which were throats that we had made up, which took two ElectroVoice 1829 drivers in the same throat. ElectroVoice claimed it wouldn't work, but we got up to four in one throat. One quad section would drive two horns in one phase direction, and another quad section would drive another two in the opposite phase direction. But EV wouldn't believe it until they saw 15,000 people walk out of Earls Court at the end of the night dazed and speechless."

    In an A/B text during rehearsals, the band's existing WEM amplifiers came second place to the new American Phase Linear models, discovered by Kelsey, and so yet another injection of quality was given to their PA. It was common for Pink Floyd to modify off-the-shelf equipment for their own purposes, thereby creating unique products. Along with Crown and BGW, Phase Linear became one of the few brands of amplification taken seriously by the top touring bands of the early '70s. Whilst the Phase Linear 400 and 700 models were taken on board by the Floyd, because of their superior sound quality, in their regular domestic format they were unfit for the rigours of the road due to their slight physical construction and the weight of the transformers on their chassis. To compensate for this, the band's technicians designed a new metal chassis into which the amp would fit, while the mains transformer was removed from the amp and supported horizontally on the outside of the chassis.

    Acclaimed by critics as "rock's first conceptual masterpiece", "The Dark Side of the Moon" was premiered as "Eclipse" over the four nights of February 17-20 at the Rainbow, by which time the band had been touring in the UK with their new system for a month. The standard show at the time consisted of two sets: the first featured earlier numbers such as "Set The controls For The Heart Of The Sun", "Careful With That Axe Eugene", and "Echoes"; the second consisted of what was to later be known as "The Dark Side of the Moon" (then without the "Eclipse" finale which was yet to be written). "One Of These Days" was reserved as a breathtaking encore. These previews of the forthcoming album amounted to something of a bootleggers' paradise. A poor live recording of "Dark Side" was available through the German black market for around a year prior to the studio album's release, and although the band were horrified, it could be said that this created even more interest in the real thing.

    Kluczynski recalls that his first show as a crew member, the opening night of this tour at the Brighton Dome, ended in disaster. He says, "In those days, we didn't understand how to separate power sufficiently between sound and lights. That was the only show that we had to cancel and reorganise, because we were all sharing the same power source. The Leslies on stage sounded like a cage full of monkeys, because they were sharing a common earth. It was the very first show that any band had done with a lighting rig that was powerful enough to make a difference. So we had this wonderful situation where the fans were actually inside the auditorium, and we had Bill Kelsey and Dave Martin at either side of the stage screaming at each other in front of the crowd, having an argument."


    BOARD DECISION


    Another vital piece of kit added to the Floyd inventory at this time was a 24-channel mixing console manufactured by Ivor Taylor and Andy Bereza of Allen & Heath, a new company which took its name from a defunct toolmaking firm. Bereza, the man resonsible for inventing what became the Portastudio, originally built mixers at home in the late 1960s under the trading name of AB Audio and was responsible for the board used in the live soundtrack recording of the cult movie "A Clockwork Orange", as well as mixers for bands including The Bee Gees. The Allen & Heath business grew steadily in its first year with its small six-channel boards, many of which were used in cathedrals, churches, and small theatres, as part of installed public address systems. Then an opportunity arose for the company to build a quadraphonic desk for The Who, news of which filtered into the Floyd camp, and an order was placed for a custom quad board in advance of the first "Dark Side" rehearsals.

    Future Floyd Production Director Robbie Williams, who joined the crew in January 1973 just as Seth Goldman took a long break to work with ELP, Three Dog Night, and T. Rex, remembers his first sighting of the desk. "This board was actually the reason for my involvement with the band. I was a frriend of Peter Watts and had always been interested in the audio business. One day in November 1972, I went 'round to his flat to see him in the process of taking this console to bits and rebuild it in time for some shows with the Roland Petit Ballet in France the following January. To me at the time, it was the most magnificent piece of electronics, about the size of my coffee table. Peter had bought the very first Penny & Giles quad panners on the market, and I spent the next month helping him rebuild this thing."

    The quad function on this desk was given the name "Sound-In-The-Round", and unlike conventional quad, the speakers were positioned front, back, left, and right in a diamond, with the front channel situated behind the band. On the desk, any channel could be routed into the quad section, which was operated via the pair of joysticks on the right of the board. The quad function, however, came into use as an enhancement for sound effects or occasional solos.

    Williams, who in the late '60s earned his roadie stripes through working for the seminal lighting company Krishna Lights, says: "After helping Peter get the desk match fit, I asked him, 'Does this mean I'm part of the crew?' To which he replied, 'Well, I guess you'd better come out to Paris and give us a hand, just in case anything happens to the desk.' And it went from there. When I joined, the crew consisted of Peter, Mick, Chris Adamson, Graeme Fleming, Robin Murray, and Arthur Max. I was very much the under-assistant truck packer for the PA department, and through the '70s as Pink Floyd's fame grew, so did my responsibilities."

    Kluczynski says of the Allen & Heath mixer: "It did tend to be a little unreliable, but it kept going, even though Seth Goldman and I would each have to take a corner and jolt it into life every day! We'd even driven it with truck batteries at the Rainbow during the power strikes. We would be in Newcastle one night and have to nip back to London to get it fixed in the middle of the night, and then travel back up to Sheffield or somewhere for the next gig. The quad panner for the second Allen & Heath desk we used [built in the bottom of a lift shaft in Hornsey in 1973] was actually made from cut Elastoplast cans and there was a read-out panel in the middle, which was a circle with quadrants in it. As you panned, you could see the quadrant you were in which pulsed from green to red. When you removed this panel and looked underneath it, you saw that these Elastoplast cans had been cut to make a spiral in which the LEDs were inserted to give you the pulse reading."

    This was not the only amazing do-it-yourself story... "Around late 1974, we bought a Sony hi-fi crossover, but before that we were running the PA full-range," says Kluczynski. "The only protection Bill Kelsey put in for the high end was through having crossovers built into Old Holborn tins and placed inside the cabinets. In the more sophisticated version, there was a light bulb in line. If you were to overdrive the cabinet, the light bulb went white hot, but the horns didn't blow up!"


    PARSONS'S MIX


    Towards the end of the recording sessions for "Dark Side" in January 1973, Pink Floyd relocated to Paris to work on music to accompany the Roland Petit Ballet. Added to the growing crew on this occasion were Robbie Willams and Alan Parsons, the "Dark Side" Studio Engineer who had been lured away from Abbey Road to replace Chris Mickie behind the front-of-house console. Parsons's appointment began an unusual trend for Floyd to hire the services of whichever studio engineer had worked on their latest album (although this ploy was not always successful), and like many of his successors, he was a total novice in the concert environment.

    Parsons, whose only other work as a live sound engineer was for Cockney Rebel at Crystal Palace, says: "I was due to go on a skiing holiday when I was asked over to the Palais des Sport in Paris to learn the ropes at some shows they were doing with the ballet, and I remember that a lot of the movements were based around "One Of These Days". They should have done more of those performances, because the whole concept of a rock band with lights and special effets, and a brilliantly choreographed dance routine was just stunning. I was literally dropped in at the deep end when they said, 'Come and see one of the shows, and then you can take over as our engineer.' So after watching Chris Mickie behind the desk in Paris, I took over and stayed with them on the road for about a year or so, which included two American tours."

    When mixing the Floyd, Parsons says that his obvious main concern was avoiding feedback -- a task made difficult by the speaker positioning and the close proximity of the front stack to the band. "You'd be standing on stage and almost have the horns pointing straight at you," comments Parsons. "But the performance of that rig was so pure; there was no pink noise, no graphic EQ to tailor the sound, it was literally down to how you drove the bottom, mid, and top."

    As well as recalling the excellent quality of this PA's sound, Parsons casts his mind back to an American tour date in Detroit when many of the system's components were wiped out by pyrotechnics. "By mistake, the flashpots at the front of the stage had been filled twice with explosives. The result was a double-strength explosion, which ended up injuring several people in the front row of the audience. Unfortunately for us, it also destroyed about 60% of the horns and bins, so we had to struggle on for the rest of the show with less than half our PA rig. Of course, we had a gig the next night and finding replacement gear was a major headache."

    The aspect of Floyd's sound that Kluczynski remembers most was David Gilmour's guitar sound.

    "Gilmour was always loud, especially at Earls Court where, during the solo in 'Money', his four 4 by 12-inch cabinets were screaming away at such a level that we couldn't physically put him through the PA. Most of the time I'd mix the solos, because Alan was a bit shy of pushing up the faders compared to me, so I'd nudge his arm a bit!"

    In complete contrast to today's standards, Pink Floyd employed just two outboard devices for use at front of house on the "Dark Side" tours, and both of them were Echoplexes for the repeat vocals on "Us And Them". Williams says: "The band members would treat their own sounds and produce effects on stage themselves, which is essentially what happened in the studio. So the sound heard through the PA was generally what came from Gilmour's amps, for example. Each of them had a stack of those dreadful Binson Echorecs and Echoplexes [based on circuitry designed for a GPO telephone switching device]. Rick Wright had a little keyboard mixer that had a couple of effects sends on it, which used to go into various Binsons, and there was a feed going from that to front of house. For the early "Dark Side" concerts, he also had personal access to the "Sound-In-The-Round" via a joystick on his mixer."

    As for microphones, for years Roger Waters insisted on their trademark rectangular Sennheiser vocal mics (gold one side, black the other). Parsons says: "The choice was certainly individual, and they didn't sound bad. Generally, we used dynamic mics. There were a lot of SM58s floating around for backing vocals, as part of a Shure setup. At nearly every gig, I would have to re-position the mics a foot away from the guitar cabinets, because the crew would always ram them right up against the grilles, which in my mind was ridiculous. I was always frustrated that whenever I got a really good sound on one gig, the crew would break down all the gear and load out at the end of the night, and all my settings would be lost. So I literally had to start from scratch every night, checking the mics through the desk. The crew would say, 'Oh, we've put the guitar on a channel over here, because that channel wasn't working,' so all of my previous checks were rendereed useless. Drums were always critical, so I had this idea of buying a little six-channel Allen & Heath mini mixer which I took home with me every night in a briefcase!"

    Crucial to the "Dark Side Of The Moon" concept, both on record and live, were the sound effects which included various human voices, a heartbeat, explosions, the "Money" cash register, and, for "Time", the (alarming) clocks. Parsons himself recorded the clocks for the album on an EMI portable quarter-inch tape machine and later fed through the live quad mix to the astonishment of audiences around the globe. He says: "We went back to the album multitrack tape to copy those clocks and other effects for the live shows, and played them through the quad system on a TEAC four-track deck. For some reason, the board was miswired inside and instead of playing them through the PA as tracks 1,2,3,4, the board sent them out as 2,4,1,3. I was never able to remember exactly which order it was, so I always carried a test tape with me to ensure that the channels were all coming out in the right place. I had Mick Kluczynski firing up the tape machine and would give him a nod to hit the play button in the right places. We had a tape for 'One Of These Days', which included the big, thumping drum sound and Nick Mason's distorted vocal effect which said, 'One of these days I'm going to cut you into little pieces." Mick had been touring with the band almost as long as they had been performing it, but it seemed he could never fire up the tape in the right place without a cue from me."

    Kluczynski confirms that prior to the four-track TEAC machine, he had been using a four-track Sony for sound effects. The band later progressed to eight-track Brennells when, Kluczynski says, "Allen & Heath ceased to exist for a while as we knew it, and the key personnel had moved to Brennell, including Nigel Taylor [brother of Allen & Heath troubleshooter Ivor], who we later poached for our crew."


    THE MONITORING VIRUS


    The 1972 and '73 "Dark Side" tours were notable for the Floyd's first use of stage monitoring, although it remained minimal until their "Animals" tour four years later. Never a fan of monitors, Kluczynski says that once the first wedges appeared, they began to spread like a virus and front-of-house engineers quickly realised a they had a struggle for control on their hands. Before the advent of monitoring, Kluczynski maintains, the band were able to hear each other clearly by keeping a sensible level on stage. "During a show, you could walk around the back of the Floyd stage and have a normal conversation, because overall they never played too loud, apart from Dave. The band literally heard themselves off the backline and what was coming back at them from the PA. They were very much into the environmental sound of the house and the pure feel of their music. Because they had no monitoring, there was never the battle between the instrument and the wedge. Subsequently to hear themselves, they kept the general level down, which was really good and incredibly well-disciplined. There was never any ego bullshit in that department.

    "The first monitor we brought in was when Dick Parry came on the tour as sax player. Dick had to have a monitor, because his instrument was so loud to him that he couldn't hear the band without one. The next addition of wedges came when our three female backing vocalists walked on stage and said, 'We'll come back when you've finished setting up.' We said, 'We have finished.' They said, 'Where are the monitors then?' 'The what?!' So we got a couple of Tannoys and stuck them in boxes for them."

    Williams, who loathes the very concept of monitoring with a vengeance, comments: "Dave, who stood next to the girls, said, 'Oh, I'll have one.'

    Continue reading Welcome to the Machine - the story of Pink Floyd's live sound: part 2...
     

Comments

Share This Page