A View From The Side - Bob Heil
By Chris Marion |
One of the best advantages (of the many) of being in a successful band is access to great gear often before the general public. Obviously, manufacturers want to spotlight their latest and greatest with artists who will use it publicly and endorse it on their tours. It’s great reciprocal promotion. More often than not, the exchange and relationship is very sterile – you deal with an artist rep who coordinates the gear you need. Most CEO’s just want the promo picture with you and carte blanche access on the premier shows if at all.
From my first encounter with Bob Heil of Heil Sound, it’s obvious that he is a different breed of executive and an exceptional kind of human. He definitely has the creds:
- a pioneer in large arena sound reinforcement having provided PA and tour support for The Grateful Dead and The Who including the Madison Garden Quadrophenia Show
- invented the Heil Talk Box that was synonymous with 70’s classic rock and roll with Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh and Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi.
- First manufacturer to have an exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
- Helms a globally successful microphone company that has products on multiple world tours
- Champion of amateur radio having invented numerous products improving the transmission and reception of signal.
- His company was the first to install home theatre systems in the US
- Part of development team for RCA Direct dish system
Most guys with this type of scientific brilliance and pedigree would put a speed freak to sleep within five minutes. Yet Bob is a natural conversationalist and having spent many years hanging out backstage with the likes of Jerry Garcia, Pete Townshend and Joe Walsh, he has some colorful stories to tell.
“I remember some of the best times hanging around Fremont Street in San Francisco back in the day”, recalls Bob. “We weren’t consumed with causes or politics – it was just about having fun and creating great music.”
Heil’s giftedness is in his ability to apply his science and creativity toward making music and the experience of music greater. He made his entrance into music in a very unique way as an organist at various venues in Missouri and ultimately became the house organist at the Fox Theater in St. Louis at the age of 15.
“I learned how to voice and tune the pipes as well as operate the amps and speakers that were part of the system,” Bob remembers. “I actually adapted some of the old speakers from that Wurlitzer System for my PA that I used for the Dead show at the Fox.”
A theater organist has to approach musical performance as if he is the entire orchestra. You are in command of the arrangement and tonal nuances utilizing the various pipe and reed sounds.
“Rudolph Wurlitzer even marketed his commercial theater organ as a unit orchestra,” Bob explains. “And, the Fox Theater in St. Louis has one of the few 4 manual Wurlitzers still in it’s original installation from the 20’s.”
Bob still plays plays the Wurlitzer organ at the Fox regularly and has even completed a recorded project of many of the songs he performs. He reports that Joe Walsh has even personally introduced him in some of his performances.
Throughout his various careers, Bob Heil has demonstrated a remarkable ability to apply his command of scientific knowledge to problem solving and improvement of live sound reinforcement. In one of his first “big league” audio appearances in that historic show with the Grateful Dead at the Fox, Bob came up with an ingenious technique to combat feedback from vocal microphones. He used a second microphone taped behind the primary vocal microphone that was run out of phase with the monitors. Therefore, leakage from the monitors did not feedback into the system because of phase cancellation. Bob reports that the Dead loved this because they could get the system incredibly loud with minimal feedback.
We use several Heil Sound microphones during our shows on amps, drums and vocals. The microphone that I use for vocals every night employs some of this same innovative design. The Heil PR31 BW features -41dB of off axis rejection. Let me translate this in a way that helps you understand how this amazing this microphone really is. I sing in falsetto most of the night. While it’s a beefy tone that often pegs a couple of inline compressors, it still can’t compete with the physical volume of multiple guitar amps and crash cymbals all around me. With a normal mic, not only would I have to deal with all of that extraneous sound in my in ear monitor mix, the front of house engineer has to treat my vocal mic like the 3rd guitar amp mic.
The PR31 cancels the bulk of that noise that is happening off axis on either side of my vocal microphone. Result – more usability of my vocals in the mix and much more ease in dialing in a great in ear monitor mix. The PR31 is still employing some of the same concepts as Bob’s Grateful Dead phase fix but with the benefit of decades of refinement and continued innovation. Let me reiterate that I greatly appreciate Bob’s ingenuity every night.
That’s enough Heil history for now. In the second installment, we’ll dust off some of Bob’s rich collection of road stories and pick his brain for thoughts about the future of sound reinforcement. Until next time, reinforce wisely my friends!
To go to Part 2 of this interview - Click Here
Chris Marion is an American musician best known as a member of Little River Band and for his contribution to the gospel and country music industries. Although graduating college with a B.A. in Psychology, he is a classically trained pianist and has worked in the music industry professionally for over 35 years. As a resident of Nashville, he is involved in the recording industry working in the genres of Gospel, Country and Rock. Since 2004, he has toured globally with the classic rock act Little River Band as a keyboardist and vocalist. For more useless trivia and minutiae concerning Chris or to contact him directly, feel free to visit his personal website www.chrismarionmusic.com.