A View From The Side - Bob Heil, Part 2
By Chris Marion |
A View From The Side - Bob Heil - Part Two
In my 30 plus years in the music business, I’ve been blessed to meet some really interesting people with compelling stories. I’ve found more often than not that success is a result of charisma combined with a great work ethic rather than talent. Then, on a rare occasion I come across someone who possesses a generous portion of all three of the aforementioned components. Their lives and their careers are graduated by one great achievement after another. Interestingly, you usually find a healthy dose of humility present because these individuals have a sense of blessing. As I spent an incredibly rich hour and a half chatting with Bob Heil, I knew immediately that this was going to be one of those occasions. Trying to pick the best pieces of his interview for this article is like trying to pick your favorite chocolate from a Whitman Sampler. You know each choice is going to be amazing no matter what corner or layer (except for those horrible chocolate covered cherries – those things are nasty). I found that the best approach was to pop a general question and just let Bob go. Enjoy, my friends!
CM – Bob, you’ve had such an amazing and enduring career on so many levels that it’s difficult to really focus on specific topics but, let’s start logically at the beginning. Are there some specific points in your early years that directed your career toward audio and sound reinforcement?
BH – It really started for me as I was playing the theater organ at the Fox (Theater) in St Louis. I played for about 15 years on a regular basis. The Wurlitzer Organ at the Fox is one of the few original setups still operational today. Part of my job was tuning and voicing the 8,000 pipes from 32 feet to 1 inch and the amps/speakers that were part of the system. I learned so much about frequencies and tone. Each pipe had a reed and various sized horns that help to create the timbre and pitch as the air flows through. It’s those nuances that really developed my ear and ability to translate the knowledge to live audio. Along with that was this ham radio thing. I love that; I love to build and I had some wonderful mentors. One of them was the chief engineer of KMOX, CBS radio in St Louis who taught me how to soldier and build stuff.
I started to get tired of playing 4 hours every night so I began to look for something different to do. So, in my little hometown of 2000 people Marissa, Illinois I started a music store called Ye Old Music Shop. I ended up getting a Hammond Organ franchise – probably shouldn’t have gotten one that close to St. Louis. But, Chris, I look back and realize that so many blessings came to me at just the right time. I turned that into a great opportunity because I started renting Hammonds to concert promoters. Most dealers were also Steinway Piano sellers and all the salesmen wore suits – “ooh lah lah”. If you came in with hair down to your shoulders and jeans, they would kick you out. And, with my background at the Fox to guide me, I built dozens of crazy Hammond set ups with 3 manuals and even multiple Leslies. So I got this reputation among promoters as someone who could hook them up with special set ups and Hammonds. I would go into the huge concert halls with as many as 19,000 seats and the PA was just these column speakers, like the Shure Vocalmasters.
CM – Wasn’t that the same type of PA that the Beatles used for the historic Shea Stadium Concert?
BH – Yeah, and literally you couldn’t hear the band for the crowd noise. Not putting anybody down; that was just what we had to work with. So I thought, ‘wait a minute’ and the ham radio guy in me kicked in. I bought like 48 A7’s (Altec Voice of the Theater) and a bunch of Mcintosh amps. I heard that was the best stuff. I was not really into audio per se in those days, just Hammonds and ham radio. So I put this PA together with a little Altec mixer with 6 knobs and mixed from the stage. We were doing Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and all these incredible people with that rig. Man it was big and loud – 24 of those mothers a side. Nobody had ever done that before. Then I got hooked up with the James Gang. Belkin was their manager and he hired me to go out on a tour, something I had never done.
CM: So this was the point that your friendship with Joe Walsh got off to a start?
BH: Right, a couple of dates into that tour, Joe and I found out that we were both hams (radio operators) and our whole relationship changed. He had someone he could experiment with. Since I mixed from the stage, he could look back during a song like "Funk 49" and we could make changes on the fly. We couldn’t mix from the front because those little mixers didn’t have line drivers and the long cabling was not functional. But my relationship with Joe has been one that has endured throughout my sound reinforcement days and even when I started making microphones. There’s nothing like having a global band like the Eagles to beta test prototypes on.
CM: From the James Gang, you really stepped up onto an even bigger stage with the Grateful Dead. Can you talk about how that all came about?
BH: I was going by the Fox Theater one day and noticed 4 huge A4’s just sitting in the parking lot. I ask the stage manager George Bales what he was doing with them and found out they were going to trash them. I called a friend who had a big truck, took the cabinets home and started building my biggest PA yet.
A few months later I get a call from Bales from the Fox again inquiring about those big speakers. I confirmed that I had them put together with amps and a new console that I had bought from a studio. He said talk to this guy because they showed up without a sound guy and a PA then handed the phone to Jerry Garcia. Their sound guy and production manager had an outstanding drug warrant and had gotten taken into custody in the previous town along with most of their PA.
***(EDITORIAL NOTE: that night has been dubbed by an entertainment writer, Dan Daley, as “The Night That Modern Live Sound Was Born”. The massive system that Heil put together featured the big A-4’s as the base of what was over a 5 foot stack with 60 and 90 degree radial horns – a combination that was not being used in live sound at the time. He also minimized feedback in the wedges by taping a second smaller microphone behind the main vocal mics which he ran out of phase with the monitors cancelling out leakage and potention feedback. For a FOH console, he adapted a Langevin studio recording console and culled a technique from his ham experience that used a balanced passive attenuator at the input stage of the console to allow adjustable gain on each channel input. The result of all of these unorthodox and untried methods - Heil could push his PA to almost 120 dB.)
BH: Man, did Jerry like it loud and that PA was loud. The guys hired me and my crew on the spot and we hit the road with the Grateful Dead. That show with the Dead in St Louis changed live sound history and it really changed my life. I continued to fine tune my system and even created multiple rigs to keep up with the demand our reputation was creating in rock and roll.
CM: Well, you definitely had such an incredible impact on live sound that is still reflected in the way we do sound reinforcement even today. The Dead tour established a new level of achievement in touring and live sound. But the next big call you received gave you an opportunity to expand your influence and your brand outside of the US to Europe as well.
BH: We were out on tour in Chicago with Chaka Khan. I got a call from the Sunn sales manager saying that we needed to get that PA to Boston. The Who had just started their Who’s Next Tour in the US and it was off to a rough start. I asked when they needed it and he said tomorrow night. I literally leased a 707 and even loaded the truck onto the plane and we made out way up to Boston to meet up with the Who. We did the Who’s Next tour for a year and a half across the US, Europe and back here again. During that time, Pete Townshend and I became very close. He called me a while after we returned to the US and said he was conceptualizing a quadraphonic arena tour which had never been done. Of course, that was a challenge to me and I assured him that we could do it. Amazingly, as I designed and put the system together, Pete was still writing the music for the production.
BH: When we debuted Quadrophenia at Madison Square Garden, we were able to fly Roger’s voice around the room from corner to corner. It was a massive PA that could hit 115 dB before it would feedback. The Who loved it loud. That Quadraphenia mixer along with the first talk box is on display in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We were the first company to be invited to display at the Rock Hall.
CM: How did you make the transition from live sound to microphone production?
BH: The connecting thread through all of this is my ham radio work and even my relationship with Joe (Walsh). I left live sound in the 80’s when punk rock invaded. I started concentrating on building and developing products for ham radio. I had a home in California and would visit with Joe periodically or keep in touch on amateur radio. He called me one day with a request. He said he had been using my Goldline ham mic for vocals live and it performed better than some of the other popular mics they were using. When we bench tested and compared some of the mics, there was a common inconsistency in the mass produced microphones from the assembly lines overseas. So I started building different mics and sending them out with the Eagles to experiment with. That’s basically how my commercial microphone line got started.
CM: Bob, you’re 74 still tooling around back stage areas and as healthy as ever. What’s on the horizon for Bob Heil and Heilsound?
BH: One thing that we’re working on right now is a prototype headphone. We’ve taken the David Clark style headsets that the pilots and aviators use to communicate and modified them to make them more comfortable. Those headsets are like a vise squeezing your head. Ours are more comfortably functional and still have 26 dB of passive noise cancellation; even have a phase reversal switch. These headsets will also have a great live sound application for talkback and clear com communication on stage.
CM: Do you see Heilsound making the jump into consumer headphones that are so popular now for hifi audio?
BH: I did make a set of headphones for Bob Workman, Charlie Daniel’s FOH engineer that are very high fidelity and we’re looking at that for possible mass production. The important thing to me is consistent production quality. I was in Best Buy the other day looking at some popular headphones and most of the thin spindly wires coming out of the phones were broken. It’s all about brand name and marketing and there’s no concern for quality or durability. That’s not the way we do things here.
CM: Bob, looking back at your career I can see that "no" was never part of your vocabulary.
BH: There really weren’t many of who really knew what we were doing. Anyone from that era who says they did is lying. When we needed something, we had to design it or make it. Often it was the formally trained folks who would say ‘no, it can’t be done’ or ‘that’s not the way you do it’. I never settled for that. So many of my ideas and designs were out of necessity and not knowing any better than to just try it. I have been so fortunate and blessed with great timing and the right opportunities to try.
END OF INTERVIEW
This is a small but rich portion of my conversation with Bob Heil. I was taken aback by his humility and approachability. Here’s a guy who’s known everybody and worked with so many superstars but he would still take an hour and a half to tell me stories. The coolest thing about Bob is that he still gets excited about the music business. He’s still innovating with an unwavering desire to be excellent. That, my friends, inspires me and I hope that it does the same for you.
Next week, we’ll take a look at what one “heil” of stage set up looks like with some of Bob’s best products.
For a closer look at many of Bob’s Heilsound products, visit his website here:
If you missed Part 1 of this interview - Click Here