Australian Amplifers and Sound Systems: An Introduction

In the 1960s most concerts were held indoors, in relatively small venues, and large outdoor concerts were comparitvely rare, for one simple reason -- sound systems capable of handling the demands of large outdoors concerts had not been invented. Indeed, the amplifiers and vocal "PA" systems used by bands in the '60s were a very recent development, and were only about as powerful as the average car stereo amplifers of today.

The Beatles started the trend towards 'stadium' concerts with their famous US tours from 1965-66, including the historic Shea Stadium concert in August 1965, which drew the largest concert crowd ever seen up to that time -- sixty thousand people. The reason for choosing stadiums was simple -- their huge popularity made very large venues the only practical option, and fortunately the USA was well-equipped in this regard, having large sports arena in almost every major city.

But while venues were available to meet the demand, concert amplification for rock music was still in its infancy and the puny guitar amplifiers and PA systems available to The Beatles were hopelessly inadequate when ranged against combined lungpower of 60,000 screaming teenagers.

As late as 1966, when The Beatles were making their last tours, they were equipped with the most powerful guitar amplifiers then available to them, the Vox 7120, Vox 4120 and Vox Super Beatle, each of which which was rated at only 120 watts. They were obliged to sing through the house PA systems in these large arenas, since portable vocal PA systems had not yet been developed. The in-house equipment was of relatively low power, probably only a few hundred watts at best, and they offered poor sound fidelity, since they were intended only for commentary and announcements. It's no wonder that they were constantly drowned out by the thunderous screams of their teenage fans, and that they rapidly tired of being unable to be heard and gave up touring.

Ironically, things began to change in that very same year, 1966. One of the support acts to The Beatles on their last tour was Boston band The Remains.

Meanwhile, back in England, with the invention of the "Slave" PA amplifier by the great English audio engineer Charlie Watkins, founder of Watkins Electric Music (WEM), inventor of the legendary Copicat portable echo machine and maker of the equally famous WEM amplifiers, PA and concert sound systems. The Slave amps -- the basis system still used ot this day -- were designed to be connected in a string, and on one occasion Watkins had 50 Slave amps running at once, providing what was then considered a massively powerful system -- 5000 watts -- although these days amplifiers are 50 times more powerful.

WEM's first major outing in large-scale concert PA systems was at the Windsor Festival in August 1967 (where Fleetwood Mac made their debut) with a of 1000 watt system, a power "unheard of since Hitler's Nuremberg rally", according to Watkins. It was a major breakthrough in concert sound -- although for his trouble Watkins was arrested for disturbing the peace!

WEM PA systems made possible all of the great early UK festivals and outdoor concerts of the Sixties and early Seventies -- Cream's farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall, the Lincoln and Shepton Mallett festivals, the Isle of Wight Festival with Dylan in 1970 and the Isle of Wight Festival in 1971, Jimi Hendrix's last festival appearance. Perhaps the most famous gig for WEM in that era was the "Stones in the Park" concert in Hyde Park, London, attended by a quarter of a million people. Incredibly, WEM's system for that show was a mere 1500 watts!

As Charlie says:

"And the curtain lifted on a new world of music. Multi-thousand audiences were now practical, possible, desirable and certainly available and could, at last, HEAR. Now all those brilliant young musicians could emerge and do their thing. Back line gear could be miked up to help it all along. The all important singer could be heard for miles. The rest is everybody else's history."

In America the major breakthrough came in the same year as the Stones' Hyde Park gig, 1969, with the huge sound system cobbled together by audio engineer Alan Markoff for the Woodstock Festival. It was the largest and most powerful PA system ever created up to that time -- so powerful, Markoff recalls, that at the amplifiers' lowest setting the Woodstock speakers would cause pain for anyone standing within 10 feet! Prior to Woodstock, providing quality concert amplification for a crowd of even 50,000 people was unheard of, and creating a system for the anticipated 100,000 patrons was at the very outer limit of what was technically possible in 1969. In the event, the crowd exceeded 500,000. Inveitably, the system performed rather poorly and it failed completely on several occasions, but Woodstock's PA worked well enough to prove that it would soon be possible to make sound systems bigger and more powerful than anyone had previously thought possible. Even more importantly, Woodstock proved that rock music could attract vast audiences numbering even into the hundreds of thousands, and in so doing it ushered in the so-called "Stadium Era".

Within a couple of years concert amplification had made huge strides in development and by the early '70s groups finally had access to large, very powerfu, portable multi-channel mixing desks and PA systems, as well as lighting rigs of ever-increasing size and compexity -- systems that could easily project sound to an audience of tens or even hundreds of thousands.

Because of Australia's relatively small population,

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