PINK FLOYD'S THE WALL (PART 2)
The second part of Mark Cunningham's revisitation of a classic production
The Floyd's original concert production of The Wall was a milestone in rock history. Featuring many previously unpublished photographs by mark fisher, Mark Cunningham re-discovers its creation, brick by brick.
AT FRONT OF HOUSE
In deciding upon the most suitable FOH sound engineer, the bass player had only one person in mind, and the album’s co-producer and engineer, James Guthrie, was approached by Waters several times on the subject. Guthrie, who began his studio career at Mayfair Studios in 1973, says: “I was quite opposed to the idea initially and told him, ‘Look Roger, this is a whole different area of expertise. You should get someone more suited to the job, because I have only ever worked in studios.’
“As time went on, the project became more and more complex. Gerald Scarfe had already begun working on the animation which was used for both the film and live shows, as well as graphics. While we were recording in France, Roger cornered me yet again and quite abruptly said, ‘You are the only person qualified to mix the live show, so you have to do it.’ He was also enticing me by saying that we could get any piece of equipment we wanted, and being as I’d always liked a challenge, the prospect became more exciting by the day. I finally agreed, and in the end, we had more equipment at front of house than most of today's studios.”
Along with the excitement of making this challenge work, Guthrie was quite naturally anxious at the prospect of working in the radically different acoustic environment of the concert arena, although the pressure was lifted by the luxury of spending up to three weeks in production rehearsals at L.A. Sports Arena. This followed preliminary runthroughs of the music with the band at Leeds Rehearsal Studios on Sunset Boulevard (next door to where Jackson Browne was rehearsing), while the set was assembled and tested on a movie sound stage at Paramount Studios in Culver City.
“Once the show started to take shape, the production rehearsals had to take place in the arena simply because the show was so enormous,” says Guthrie. “I quickly became acquainted with the acoustics of a large room, albeit an empty one which is another issue altogether. You can EQ and voice the PA thoroughly but, of course, when the doors open and the audience pours in, the acoustics change dramatically.
“This was particularly evident at Nassau Coliseum, where we played in the depths of winter and many of the fans were wearing thick sheepskin coats, which dampened the sound even further. For me though, as a studio-based engineer, the first show would be the first time I’d have to deal with this phenomenon.”
HOLD IT! HOLD IT!
Even though the band and crew had worked solidly on perfecting the show over the previous weeks, not one complete run-through of the production had been attempted without being punctuated by some form of technical or directional problem. Rehearsals continued in this vein right up until the first night, mostly due to Waters’ relentless perfectionism. It should be noted that the credits for the show read: “The Wall written and directed by Roger Waters. Performed by Pink Floyd.” While Gilmour's role was to rehearse the band and ensure that individual parts were reproduced faithfully from the album, Waters’ unique position in this whole production arguably made him the only person who knew exactly how the show should be run. Given the additional responsibility as a singer and bassist, his frustration when rehearsed sections did not quite go to plan was hardly surprising.
Guthrie recalls: “There were so many things to co-ordinate that we would get part of the way through, only to be stopped by Roger's loud voice through the PA saying, ‘Hold it, hold it!’. He'd then have a go at somebody for not bringing a puppet out at a vital moment, or saying that the wall should have been built up more by now, and there were also numerous occasions when he'd alert us to badly timed sound effects or lighting cues. It went on and on like this every day with continuous interruptions from Roger, and we were becoming increasingly frustrated ourselves because we were very anxious to do a complete run-through in order to get a feel for the dynamic and flow of the show.”
Despite such wishes, the crew had to contend with rehearsing in sections which, Waters has said, was the only way he could accurately plot the progress of his production. When the big opening night arrived, Guthrie and his front-of-house team joked before the show that whatever occurred, at least Waters could not interrupt the proceedings. After all, this was now playing to a real audience of 11,000 people.
However, as Guthrie explains: “During ‘The Thin Ice’, I could hear an intermittent electronic crackle. I thought it was coming from one of the drum mics, and my assistant engineers Rick Hart and Greg Walsh were going frantic, listening through headphones and soloing everything in an attempt to find the source of this noise. We couldn't work out what it was. “Then all of a sudden, Roger shouted through the PA, ‘Hold it, hold it!’, and I nearly died! I turned to Rick and could see the colour draining from his face. I thought I was dreaming. I looked at Greg, and he had already turned white and was staring in disbelief — I think we were all in shock! The pyrotechnic guys had guaranteed that when the Stuka crashed at the end of ‘In The Flesh?’, all the flames that accompanied the crash would be out upon landing at the side of the stage. But when they raised the drape between the two stages, some of the embers from the spraying pyros had lodged in the material and caught fire.
“The sound that we’d been hearing had come from the riggers in the catwalks above the stage trying to put out this fire with extinguishers, so it wasn’t anything electronic at all!”
Waters remained calm and informed the audience that the show would resume as soon as the minor blaze was under control and the drapes were flown back into the ceiling. Adds Guthrie: “Half the fans panicked and ran to the exits, and the other half were so stoned that they thought it was all a pretty far out part of the act! By the time they restarted the show, I could just about see the stage as the beams of light shone through the heavy, thick smoke left behind.” Vision later improved as the audience was treated to the heroic sight of Gilmour, hydraulically lifted above the wall to perform ‘Comfortably Numb’. According to Phil Taylor, this scene — still my most memorable concert experience — was included in the show at the Waters’ express request. “When we were rehearsing, Roger decided it would be a fantastic idea if David appeared over the top of the wall for his vocal sections and guitar solos,” Taylor recalls. He said. ‘You should go up on a lift and it'll look great.’ I must have been laughing a little too loud, because Roger quickly turned to me and added, ‘And you can go up with him!’”
WALL OF SOUND
Problems with the opening shows in Los Angeles were not confined to the legendary fire incident. Guthrie’s spine tingles at the memory of receiving a whole consignment of defective Altec 15" woofers, which necessitated brisk replacement with Gauss 15" drivers. However, such recollections pale into insignificance when re-appraising what was arguably the most potent PA system of its time. Purchased by Britannia Row especially for The Wall, in addition to a new Martin Quad system, was the new Altec ‘Stanley Screamer’ — a grid-flown system designed by Stan Miller, which was dubbed ‘The Flying Forest’ because of its array of different sized constant directivity horns.
Those fortunate to have witnessed any of these magical shows will remember the awesome ‘sensurround’ experience of having low register vibrations firing up their spine. The influx of sensurround movies in the ’70s, such as Earthquake, had inspired Guthrie to suggest augmenting the PA with a system which would enhance the show's sound effects.
As well as being placed either side of the stage underneath the PA, a mixture of 16 auss-loaded Altec 2 x 18" subs and (in Europe) an unspecified quantity of 2 x 15" Court DLB-1200 cabinets were positioned under seating blocks all the way around the perimeter of the arena. The cabinets were used in conjunction with a sub-sonic synthesizer for ultra low sub-bass at several key points during the show, such as the helicopter buzz on ‘The Happiest Days Of Our Lives’ and the explosive climax when the wall came tumbling Pyromania accompanies ‘In The Flesh?’ at the start of the show.
Guthrie says: “That was when I pushed the fader up as far as it would go, and the whole arena literally started shaking. Anybody lucky enough to have been sitting over those sub-woofers must have been bouncing!”
LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS
No fewer than a massive, and previously unheard of, 106 input channels (not including echo returns) were put under Guthrie's jurisdiction at front of house — remember, these were the days of pure, unautomated analogue mixing. Fortunately, his life was made easier by enlisting the help of assistant engineers Rick Hart, from the album’s mixing sessions at Producers’ Workshop in L.A., and Greg Walsh.
“There were actually four drum kits, because Nick Mason and Willie Wilson each had a kit on both stages, and we used a colossal amount of microphones. And because Roger and Andy Bown both played bass, there had to be two bass rigs on each stage [two Altec rigs for the front stage and two Phase Linear-amplified Martin rigs at the rear]. So just concentrating on the balance of the music was enough for me to think about,” recalls Guthrie.
At the heart of the mixing process was a very precocious-looking, UV-lit Midas custom console that had debuted in its original form on the previous Animals tour. Designed by Midas’ key players at the time — Chas Brooke (later of BSS fame), Geoff Beyers and Dave Kilminster — the console consisted of separate mirror-imaged desks, either side of a Midas quad board with joystick panners for each of the quad sub-groups.
Robbie Williams poetically describes this desk package as being “the dog’s bits”. He adds: “It wasn't the traditional Midas grey either; it was finished in a lovely aubergine colour and really was a splendid piece of kit. By the time we ordered it, we were already operating Brit Row as a rental company, so we had our eyes on the future.”
“It looked absolutely stunning,” says Chas Brooke. “No one had done that before because it cost a fortune. It included a state-of-the-art op-amp, the Philips TDA 104, which was a very expensive, ground-breaking, military specification linear op-amp in a metal case, and we decided that Pink Floyd deserved it for this console. Manufacturing such an elaborate console meant, of course, that it was impossible to make any money out of the exercise, but it was definitely worth the effort.” Williams adds: “When it came to doing The Wall, however, the demands for channels was such that even with the additional of a 24-channel stretch, we kept patching in extra 10-channel units until we could cope!”
To simplify the complex mix, Guthrie devised a plan whereby Hart would look after the left side of the desk and Walsh, the right, while he mostly concerned himself with sub-groups in the middle. This triumvirate engineering formula was to become a Floyd standard, on later tours such as The Division Bell.
“They would feed me whatever was playing at the time. If David was playing acoustic guitar, they would make sure that all of his electric guitar mics were muted, so the only thing being fed was the acoustic. I had a couple of faders that were simply for David's guitars and I could balance them accordingly. If I wanted to change the balance between mics, I could just reach over and do that, then return to my normal balancing act. The same regime was followed for the keyboards. Rick Hart was also flying the quad, so when different effects needed to fly around the room, he was operating the joysticks. Greg, meanwhile, was running the echo spins.”
A number of outboard units were removed from Britannia Row Studios at Guthrie's specific request. “I just added all the stuff I liked to use in the studio,” he says. “We had Urei 1176 and dbx limiters, Eventide harmonizers, Publison DDLs, and for outboard EQ, I used K&H parametrics. In fact, we pretty much emptied Brit Row and stuck everything in touring racks.”
This also followed through for the microphone inventory. For drums, Guthrie's choice included an AKG D12 on the kicks, and 202s and 421s on toms, while vocal mics were both Shure M57s and 58s. One of the first quality radio mics, a Nady, was also used by Waters as he wandered the stage for a large proportion of the set. Guthrie borrowed much from his portfolio of studio techniques for the live shows and began to work on the FOH mix only when he and the band were satisfied with the sound on stage.
“It's my standard practice in the studio to get the sound right in the playing area first and then see what I can do to improve on it on the desk, and I was pleased to discover that it also worked well live.” He even voiced the PA in the same way that he voiced studio monitors, and for this purpose, he carried with him to each venue a Revox and a quarterinch tape of ‘Comfortably Numb’ to play through the rig at high levels, while he listened around the arena and ran back to the mixing area to make adjustments on the graphics.
The subtractive EQ techniques for which he had gained a reputation in his studio career were also adopted for the shows. He says: “When you're dealing with PA systems which tend to squawk at you and be a little nasty, it's always a good move to start by cranking up the volume and subtracting what you don't want to hear in terms of frequencies. It always sounds more natural and I can get a much bigger sound that way.
You start flat and listen to what is going on, working out if there is a problem with what you have and how you are going to rectify it. One should never EQ for the sake of it, although many people do.”
Guthrie's studio experience was further called upon to achieve maximum separation between the backline amplification in a bid to improve control. He and Phil Taylor placed large foam baffles either side of the guitar and bass amplifiers and keyboard Leslies,
almost as if they were establishing a studio environment on stage. Says Guthrie: “We found that underneath the stage was a huge area of low frequency rumbling,
which was reducing the definition of the low end, so we hung more of these foam traps down there at varying intervals and it made an enormous difference. The other thing we did was to turn everyone down on stage so the band were playing at an unusually low level.
“I thought they would tell me to piss off, quite frankly, but Roger was actually very supportive, because he wanted to achieve the highest resolution sound possible. It was a bit of a problem with David though because, like most guitarists, he needed to play at a
certain volume to get the sustain and feedback, so his level would tend to creep up during the show.” Even more control was provided by the ingenious, dual purpose ‘hammer’ flags which hung above the auditorium at Earls Court, a venue famous for its aircraft hangar-like acoustics. A similar idea had been introduced at the Festhalle in Frankfurt during the Animals tour, where, under Nigel Taylor's direction, the installation of drapes was extremely effective, absorbing the spurious energy which reflected off the venue's walls and domed ceiling. This time, however, these drapes had been transformed into highly memorable visual props.
As Robbie Williams confirms, acoustic consultant Stephen Court, whose Court Acoustics business was then based in the Britannia Row complex, played a part in designing the echo absorption traps for the London shows. Court says: “Earls Court was a massive lavatory, acoustically-speaking. I had worked with Ken Shearer who had installed the mushrooms in the Royal Albert
Hall and I'd seen how effective they had been. So between myself and the Floyd crew we had the idea to put up some flags, which in real terms acted as blankets to get rid of all the echo, and the band's artwork team created these wonderful ‘hammer’ banners."
Positioned behind the wall, Seth Goldman ran the extensive monitoring regime with a Midas Pro 2 console for the main stage and another Midas console with Pro 2 and Pro 4 modules for when the band performed on the front stage. All the backing vocals were summed through a small Altec rack-mounted mixer. What might have sped up the future development of wireless in-ear monitoring was also featured in the show, as Goldman explains: “Kenny Schaffer of Schaffer-Vega built me an ingenious wireless system with Koss 240 headphones for Roger, and he got on with them really well, which probably accounts for why he was one of the first people to take up the original Garwood in-ear monitors when he did his own version of The Wall in Berlin in 1990.”
Owing to an increase in the amount of monitoring required for this two-stage show, Guthrie states that he was often engaged in an amicable ‘battle’ with Goldman as he tried to persuade the monitor engineer
To reduce on-stage volume. “I was getting quite a bit of monitor spill into the mics, and that's where the potential feedback was coming from. But the stage was very nicely laid out, because the wedges were facing upwards from underneath the stage with a grid on top, so you didn't actually see any wedges from the front of the audience.”
ROLL THE SOUND EFFECTS!
The sound effects used live were typically lifted from The Wall album masters and remixed to a diamondshaped Floyd quad format, with the points at left, right, front, and back. Also on tape were a number of instrumental and vocal ‘enhancements’. “The band played everything live,” says Guthrie, “but I also played in orchestral tracks, which were
remixed into quad for songs like ‘Comfortably Numb’ and ‘The Trial’, and for ‘Another Brick In The Wall (Part II)’ we had all the kids from Islington Green School singing off tape. “Track 8 carried the timecode, while on track 7, there was a click introduced by a count which we would start in the mixing area and would be heard by the band either through the room monitors or their headphones. They would then play in time to the
animation and recorded tracks which served to enlarge the musical production. This was all done a few years before the advent of samplers, of course.” Adjacent to the sound equipment in the mixing area were three 35mm projectors Mag-linked to two effects-loaded eight-track tape recorders. The Floyd's regular nine metre diameter circular screen was used at the back of the stage for 35mm back projections during the first half, but once the wall was built, it acted as a giant screen for all three of the linked 35mm
projectors (manned by Andy Shields) out front for the screening of Gerald Scarfe’s stunning animation. Brit Row's head technician Nigel Taylor routinely battled with the unreliable pre-SMPTE synchronization of the eight-track machines and projectors. “The timecode was on the 35mm mag, and we used Mini Mag synchronizers from a company called Maglink. We had those on the album so we were able to use everything that we'd already recorded,” says Guthrie. Staging the original Wall shows allegedly cost Pink
Floyd around $1 million of their own money which, back in 1980, had been unheard of. Steve O’Rourke was once quoted as saying that despite the critical success of the concerts, they actually lost half of their production investment. Ironically, the only Floyd member to have made money from the live adventure was Rick Wright who, having officially left the band at Waters’ insistence during the album sessions, was performing as a waged session keyboard player. One of the best live productions ever executed, The Wall was repeated in a final run of shows the following year in Dortmund and then at Earls Court on June 13-17 1981, from where the best recordings were mixed with those from the 1980 London shows to form Is There Anybody Out There? — the double CD souvenir eventually released in 2000.
Although Waters’ all-star performance of The Wall at Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz on July 21 1990 was on a much grander scale — and released on video/DVD, unlike the Floyd version — it largely failed to harness the essential musical character of the original shows and, ironically, playing to an audience estimated at around half a million rather flew in the face of one of the main driving influences behind Waters’ concept: a hatred of stadium rock.
The 1981 concerts marked the end of what many people consider to be the definitive Pink Floyd line-up, after which their professional relationship — rather like the Wall itself — was to collapse in a legal battle between Waters and Gilmour. The four members would not share the same stage again until Live 8 beckoned a one-off reconciliation on July 2 2005... the day when pigs really did fly.
Exclusive interviews by Mark Cunningham
Photography by kind courtesy of Mark Fisher
Additional images and memorabilia courtesy of
Polly Samson, James Guthrie,
Matt Johns (www.braindamage.co.uk)
and Mark Cunningham