A Look Back at Woodstock and the Audio Gear That Made the Festival Happen

A look back at the Woodstock and the audio gear that made the festival happen

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2019 issue of WiFi HiFi Magazine.

The Woodstock “Aquarian Exposition” in 1969 was a landmark event in many ways. It proved that ‘rock’ music could bring together hundreds of thousands of music fans for a weekend of “peace & music” and uninterrupted good vibes. And it set a gold standard for open-air music festivals that’s still unsurpassed today. 

But Woodstock was much more than just a really big concert. It was a major turning point for ‘the biggest generation.’ In fact, it was a unique event in human history: perhaps the largest-ever gathering of people united not by politics or religion or economic pressures, but only by their love of an art form… and uncritical acceptance of each other. 

Appropriately, this phenomenon came into being largely by accident. After a last-minute change of venue (from the originally-planned Wallkill, NY to Max Yasgur’s farm at Bethel), Woodstock organizers were forced to fly by the seats of their pants. 

Chain-link fences around the field weren’t completed, which eventually led to the concert being declared ‘free.’ Plans for food, sanitation, and transportation were rushed and inadequate, which created shared hardships that unified the audience. Hastily organized, security was delegated to the Hog Farm commune, who simply encouraged people to be nice to each other. 

As the show opened, traffic jams prevented the planned opening acts from reaching the venue. Organizers improvised by putting Ritchie Havens on, out of sequence. Which in turn forced him to improvise the memorable song “Freedom,” when he ran out of material. 

All that spur-of-the-moment improvisation succeeded brilliantly… but only because it rested on a solid foundation. The technology that made the music possible was cleverly planned and impeccably executed by a couple of wisely- chosen experts. 

In commemoration of Woodstock, let’s pause to admire this remarkable achievement. Why did it all work so well, over three days and nights of near-continuous use, through thunderstorms and general craziness? What kind of equipment was used back then – and how does it compare to what we use today? 

HIRING 

Over the course of the 1950s and early 1960s, performance technology had undergone a slow but steady evolution. But by 1969, it still wasn’t ready to deliver anything like high-fidelity sound to a crowd of 400,000. 

Woodstock producer Michael Lang realized he needed an audio expert who really knew his stuff. He apparently considered the Grateful Dead’s engineer (and chief LSD manufacturer) Owsley Stanley, before ultimately giving the nod to Bill Hanley. This proved to be an inspired decision. 

Joe Cocker takes the stage performing in front of Hugh lightening and sound towers. (Photo: Woodstock Whisperer, Wikimedia Commons)

Hanley started his career doing sound for a roller-skating rink, then rapidly moved up to working with The Beatles and The Beach Boys. By 1969, he’d already done sound for several major music festivals. “Hanley was the best live soundman in the business and that’s what I needed,” says Lang in his 2009 book The Road to Woodstock. “A system that could provide sound for the size crowd we expected did not exist.” 

It’s not clear how many people helped put together the sound system. In interviews, Hanley has said that he had about 30 days to plan it, which roughly jibes with the start of work at Yasgur’s farm, about a month ahead of the August 15th show. During the concert, Hanley apparently had eight-to-10 people helping him operate the audio. 

Hanley seems to have had no idea that he was making history. Like any sensible engineer, he avoided re-inventing any wheels. He combined well-proven gear that he probably had in his company inventory. But he did so with an aim of providing the best sound possible. At the time, that was still a relatively rare mindset. 

“Bill Hanley had seen the failure of The Beatles at Shea stadium, and understood that wasn’t going to work at Woodstock,” says Michael Pettersen, Director of Corporate History and 43-year veteran at Shure. While the Woodstock system seems primitive by today’s standards, it was remarkably advanced for 1969. 

MICS 

One thing we know with a fair degree of certainty is that all of the mics used at Woodstock were made by Shure. 

“All the mics you can see in photos, or in the movie, are the Shure Unisphere I Model 565,” Pettersen points out. These mics were used for vocals, drums, everything. The 565 had proven itself since its introduction in 1966. Having only a single model would have helped keep things simple at Woodstock, a necessity considering the number of volunteers working on the system. 

It has been said that these mics were “modified.” Pettersen offers the probable origin of this idea. The Shure 565 had an Amphenol 4-pin connector, which required a locking ring to be unscrewed in order to pull off the cables. Photos show that at least some of the mics at Woodstock had an adapter to convert them to XLR connectors, which could be disconnected by a simple latch. 

A worker for the event is on rack duty, managing and monitoring the network of McIntosh amps that were not, as folklore suggests, cooled by blocks of ice. 

Not a bad idea. In fact, Shure itself offered the 565 with an XLR connector two years later. But except for that kind of minor refinement, mics are the one piece of equipment that has remained essentially unchanged over the five decades since Woodstock. 

Pettersen explains that the basic ‘dynamic’ design of the Shure 565 – essentially a loudspeaker in reverse – dates as far back as 1939, to products like the Shure Unidyne 1. Moving forward, he points out that you can see essentially the same Shure 565 being used by Freddie Mercury in the recent film Bohemian Rhapsody

Even today, Shure still makes a version of the same basic design. The Model 565 SD is built using modern materials and manufacturing techniques. For example, the original acoustic material was wool, which tended to absorb moisture. Also, the new model has dual impedance support. “But it’s the same basic concept,” says Pettersen. 

Pettersen explains this longevity: “Mics have always been relatively low-distortion. Speakers need to move a lot more air. A mic diaphragm moves a millionth of an inch. So they’ve never been the weak point.”

The biggest change in mics has probably been the advent of wireless models. But even that technology dates as far back as the Shure Vagabond in 1953. That model contained five miniature vacuum tubes. “It would keep your hand warm,” laughs Pettersen. It also cost about $7,000 in 2019 dollars and was used largely by TV game shows. Wireless has evolved considerably since then. In addition to wireless mics, it has enabled the widespread use of in-ear monitors. 

Another change has been the proliferation of mics on stage. Pettersen mentions, for example, that at a recent Montreux festival, there were over 1,500 mics in use. At Woodstock, there would have been one mic suspended over the drum kit. Today, it wouldn’t be unusual to see 10 – one for each drum. 

A third shift has been the increasing use of condenser mics. “Dynamic mics still are preferred for vocals,” says Pettersen. “They’re nearly impossible to overload.” But condenser mics are now rugged enough for concert use. In some applications, for example with acoustic instruments, they can even be superior to dynamic mics. 

It appears that every mic used at Woodstock was made by Shure, including the Unisphere I Model 565 of which a version is still made today. Using modern materials and manufacturing techniques, it’s called the 565 SD.

MIXING 

Mixing at Woodstock was very basic. Hanley’s setup isn’t entirely clear, but it seems that he used several Shure M67 mixers – simple units designed for applications such as radio or TV ‘remotes.’ For example, at a baseball game, their four channels might be used for Announcer, Color Commentary, Crowd Noise, and Taped Replays. Output might be to a phone line. 

The exact location of the mixing equipment at Woodstock is uncertain. There’s a famous photo of Hanley sitting on a platform, with some gear in front of him that might be a mixing setup. But it’s not obvious where this platform was located. 

Since Woodstock, the evolution of mixing equipment has been dramatic. Proper mixing consoles started to appear in the mid-to-late-1970s, says Bob Snelgrove, Founder and President of GerrAudio Distribution Inc., one of Canada’s biggest distributors of professional audio equipment. Slant-style on-stage monitors became popular at about the same time, and generally had their own mixing console, often off-stage, in the wings. 

At the Long & McQuade store in Toronto, I was shown an older-style mixing console the size of a competition pool table. Next to it was a new ‘top-of-the-line’ M32 console, by Midas. It sells for a fraction of the price (about $5,000), is easily portable, and can store an endless number of setups on USB memory keys. 

The M32 is listed by Midas as being “for live and studio” use. My contact at Long & McQuade pointed out that the unit is cheap enough that smaller venues may own one themselves, into which musicians can simply load their saved setups. 

AMPS

Mics and instruments at Woodstock were channeled into a battery of McIntosh amplifiers, reportedly located under the stage. McIntosh confirms that these were model MC3500 units.

Some accounts suggest that these amps were cooled, at times, by blocks of ice. However, Charlie Randall, President of McIntosh Laboratory Inc., dismisses this tale. “The blocks of ice is folklore. Any ice packed around the amps in the middle of August would have quickly melted and the resulting water would have caused massive issues with the electronics.”

Amp technology has evolved since those days, but not so much as to make Woodstock technology totally obsolete. “Our MC3500 is still a sought-after amp for its capabilities of delivering such high power from a tube amplifier,” says Randall. 

“McIntosh tube amps still have a lot of the original technology and designs from when the company was founded in 1949,” he says. However, while the design has remained viable, manufacturing techniques have improved over the years. “Enhancements in technology and materials allows the amplifiers to run more efficiently with lower distortion.” 

While the MC3500 is still extant, newer designs do have their own merits. “If the original Woodstock was held today,” says Randall, “the amplifier of choice would be one of our solid-state amplifiers, either the MC2KW or the MC1.25KW. They’re more powerful and run cooler. They’re more efficient.”

A last minute change of venue led to attendees staying in tents and food, sanitation, and transportation rushed. Here, we see a sea of tents and spectators at the event, with the rear of the stage to the left in the background. (Photo: Derek Redmond / Paul Campbell)

SPEAKERS 

The loudspeakers used at Woodstock were built by Hanley specifically for the event. They used drivers by JBL and other makers, assembled in custom cabinets. Hanley has referred to them as “a type of line array” with eight drivers in a cabinet.

Cabinets were stacked onto platforms within two bright-yellow 70-foot scaffolding towers located on either side of the stage. Two similar sets of speakers were mounted in each tower, each comprised of large mid-range and smaller high-frequency types. The set of speakers at the top of the tower was intended to deliver sound to the more distant parts of the huge natural bowl. The lower set provided sound for those closer in. A bare-bones arrangement by today’s standards, but advanced for its time. 

Being the opposite of microphones, speakers are the component of concert systems that’s probably changed the most since Woodstock. At the time of Woodstock, engineers were still essentially scaling-up the rudimentary PA systems that had been in use for decades. The results were often unsatisfactory, producing low-fidelity sound within the venue and noise complaints from residents miles away. 

Since then, there’s been a lot of evolution in materials science. “The speaker ‘motor’ remains almost the same today,” says Snelgrove. “But all of the adhesives have changed enormously.” 

Cooling has always been a concern with high- power concert loudspeakers. Traditionally, points out Ian Robertson, Manager of Technical Services as GerrAudio, speakers have relied on the motion of the of the driver itself for cooling. But Meyer Sound has improved on this with a ‘ferrous fluid’ around the speaker coil, greatly increasing thermal conductivity. 

But the real trick with large-scale speaker systems is arranging them in a way that controls interference effects. This has led to the rise of the ‘line array.’ The basic idea emerged from the work of RCA engineer Harry F. Olson, especially his 1940 seminal text Elements of Applied Acoustics. But getting arrays exactly right in the real world proved difficult, and the first practical systems emerged only in the early 1990s. 

Today, we commonly see vertical J-shaped stacks of speakers suspended at the sides of a stage. By precisely shaping the sound output, these arrays can produce more consistent volume levels in distant areas of a large venue, while minimizing undesirable phase effects. 

Other improvements have been rolled in. For example, Robertson notes that Meyer Sound Line Array Elements are self-powered, simplifying system design. They also incorporate real-time monitoring of temperature, voltage, and so on, to provide instant warning if anything fails. 

Despite the ascendance of line arrays, ‘point- source’ speakers remain important. “A line array covers long distances over a small vertical angle,” says Robertson. This may not be appropriate in every venue. A point source can produce a better ‘sound stage,’ with all the audio coming back to a single “virtual point in space.” 

The crowds enjoy the sounds and vibe during the first day of Woodstock in 1969.  (Photo: Derek Redmond / Paul Campbell)

Another drawback of line arrays is that positioning of the individual speakers is absolutely critical. Fortunately, sound measurement – represented at Woodstock only by human ears – has made a great leap forward. 

Snelgrove explains that ‘predictive’ software, such as Meyer Sound’s MAPP, allows an engineer to design sound coverage within a venue ahead of time. Sound levels can then be verified using measurement tools like Meyer Sound’s SIM (Source-Independent Measurement). Meyer Sound’s newer SMAART system brings the cost down significantly. Running on a laptop, it gives “about 80 per cent of the benefit of SIM,” according to Snelgrove.

Precise measurement coupled with extensive digital sound processing capabilities (DSP), measurements allow sound at every point within a venue to be optimized. Robertson sees this as the biggest shift of all. At Woodstock, he says, it was just “units in a rack,” with no ability to fine-tune anything. 

RECORDING 

While Hanley handled the live sound at Woodstock, Eddie Kramer did the recording. Born in South Africa, Kramer had worked in the UK with The BeatlesRolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix. The connection with Hendrix probably got him the job at Woodstock. That and his experience recording “from underneath the stage” at the famed Fillmore East. 

“Eddie Kramer, whom I’d met with Hendrix at Miami Pop, would record the concert, along with Lee Osborne, from a sound trailer behind the stage,” said Lang in his book, noting that Atlantic records had bought the album rights. 

Kramer confirms that his recording console was located in the back of a tractor-trailer, parked behind the stage. The setup allowed 12 inputs and eight outputs and included several Shure mixers. An 8-track Scully recorder was supplied by Hanley’s company, but Kramer also mentions having a second machine on hand. Tapes would fill up about every 25 minutes and having two machines would be essential for seamless reel swaps. 

Kramer’s used one track each for vocals, guitar, drums, percussion, and bass. Another track was used for the audience, and one for code to sync up with the movie footage. 

It’s quite likely that without Kramer’s recordings – and the Oscar-winning documentary film by Michael Wadleigh – Woodstock would have remained an obscure, semi-mythical event. News coverage at the time focused on the logistical nightmares. The movie and record album ensured that Woodstock would be remembered for the music and the overwhelmingly peaceful spirit it created. 

Today, Kramer’s Woodstock recordings continue to testify to his skill, and the quality of the simple electronics he used. Virtually every minute of the three-day show is available to dedicated listeners, including Chip Monck’s numerous spoken announcements between sets. 

A simplistic advertisement poster for the Woodstock Festival suggests that attendees could never have imagined how culturally significant the event would have become.

Most of it sounds great, if a bit raw and stripped- down compared to modern live recordings. The acoustic material fares best – Ritchie Havens, Crosby Stills, & Nash, Joan Baez. Dense instrumentals like those of The Who or Santana lack the openness and clarity of modern multi-track live recordings, but remain electrifying nonetheless. 

What has been done recently to restore the Woodstock recordings is a good indicator of how the technology has changed. Kramer has mentioned having artists like Carlos Santana do new overdubs for the 40th Anniversary Blu-ray release, to fix up the worst bits of their original sets. 

Kramer clearly had no qualms about using everything in the modern digital toolbox to produce a seamless 5.1 mix. But this is obviously where our technology starts to cut both ways. 

STAGING 

Staging at Woodstock was primitive, as you’d expect. The one ambitious element was a circular platform on the stage, intended to allow one group to set up while another was playing. Rotating the platform would instantly change the setup. 

You can actually see the platform being constructed in the Woodstock movie. But the contraption apparently broke down the first time it was tried, and scene changes were done the old-fashioned way. 

Lighting was particularly crude. As far as one can see from film and photos, there was no lighting at all on the stage itself. Harsh illumination was provided by a number of big spotlights, mounted atop yellow scaffolding towers similar to those used for Hanley’s speakers. 

Night-time performances in the movie, including those by Crosby, Stills & Nash and Janis Joplin, show both the benefits and drawbacks of this approach. The Who had a particularly memorable moment when the lighting unexpectedly softened – as a result of the sun coming up. They apparently liked the effect enough to replicate it in their later shows. 

Since Woodstock, lighting and staging have advanced almost unimaginably. For one thing, PAR (Parabolic Aluminum Reflector) lamps are now ubiquitous. They feature a deep ‘snout’ that allows coloured ‘gels’ to be used without melting. 

Scott Orlesky, an award-winning Production Manager and Technical Director, recalls that in the early 1980s, Vari-Lite started making PAR fixtures that could not only move but also change colour (based on a trick with dichroic filters). The band Genesis liked this system so much they invested massively in the company. 

Within a few years, it wasn’t unusual to see bands using arrays of 300 or 500 PAR lights above the stage, swiveling in eerie synchronization. A more recent change has been the incorporation of HD video in theatrical productions, via flexible LED screens. This can be great if used to accentuate a performance, notes Orlesky, or it can be a serious distraction. But he admits that it’s getting increasingly difficult to have an impact on audiences inundated by digital technology. 

Stage automation has been another big trend. Orlesky himself has been involved in creating a touring Jurassic World exhibit. Running about 100 times a day, the four-minute experience includes some original props from the movie, as well as five animatronic dinosaurs. 

The recent show King Kong on Broadway takes animatronics to an extreme. It’s a far cry from Greek tragedy, or from Ritchie Havens strumming an acoustic guitar and stamping a sandaled foot. 

Some technical changes are less than welcome. Pop concerts today may mix live vocals with pre-recorded material, shifting to the latter when the star goes into a strenuous dance routine. But on the other hand, jambands like Phish can improvise freely, and expect the computer-controlled lighting and mixing to keep up. 

Orlesky’s job is something of an evolution in itself. Working on everything from musical acts to stage productions, he manages “everything but the cast,” which includes costumes, lighting design, staffing, logistics, and more. 

In a way, Orlesky is the 21st Century Bill Hanley. Today’s technology gives him a wider scope, a richer canvas. But the goal is the same: to accentuate the performances and give the audience new and memorable experiences. 

CONCLUSION 

In hindsight, the gear at Woodstock looks like something that might be used by the world’s biggest garage-band. But at the time, it was a milestone, marking a transition from acceptance of crude ‘PA’ sound to the scientific pursuit of perfect acoustical transmission from performer to audience. 

After Woodstock, the forward leaps became even more daring. Early 1970s experiments such as the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound were rooted in that same faith that technology really could deliver great concert sound. 

Woodstock opened the gates to future festivals. The all-but-forgotten U.S. Festivals, organized by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in the early 1980s, actually drew a bigger crowd – an estimated 670,000 people at the second event, in 1983. 

But no festival will rival the accomplishment of Woodstock: a literal handful of people putting on a show for one of the biggest audiences of all time. 

Today, 50 years later, all the technologies have come together. “I think the affordability of concerts back then helped make them special,” says Randall. “As for today, most concerts have as much power – or more in many cases – as Woodstock had, but the venues are much smaller, giving the engineers better control over the sound system.” 

Those engineers will always be there, following in the footsteps of pioneers like Bill Hanley and Eddie Kramer. And they’ll always rely on dedicated companies, like McIntosh and Shure, that know how to advance the technology while staying true to the original goal of enabling great performances. 

Music technology has advanced by light years since Woodstock, but it still has the same purpose: to refine and strengthen the mystical connection between performer and audience. Today, in the 21st Century, we need that connection perhaps even more than we did in 1969. 

This story originally appeared in the September 2019 print issue of Wifi Hifi 

A graduate Mechanical Engineer, Frank Lenk has been writing about computers and technology since the beginning of the digital revolution. He's contributed to numerous publications, including Chatelaine and Applied Arts in Canada, and Maximum PC (formerly Boot) in the US. He's been a regular columnist for the Globe & Mail technology section, and has authored three books on computing topics: Inside Autosketch and Inside Designer (New Riders Publishing), and Music Online (Macmillan Canada). He's appeared numerous times on both CTV and CBC news, speaking on topics ranging from copyrights to computer games.