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Grateful Dead’s ‘Wall of Sound’ PA To Be Auctioned

Sotheby's will auction off gear from the Grateful Dead's legendary 'Wall of Sound' PA system, as well as items that belonged to the Wall's main creator, sound engineer/LSD chemist Owsley "Bear" Stanley.

A McIntosh 2300 amplifier from the Wall of Sound with original road case will be part of the Sotheby's auction.
A McIntosh 2300 amplifier from the Wall of Sound with original road case will be part of the Sotheby’s auction.

New York, NY (August 30, 2021)—The Grateful Dead may have sung “what a long, strange trip it’s been,” but for some parts of its legendary Wall of Sound PA, the final stop on that trip might be, well, your place. This fall, Sotheby’s will present From the Vault: Property from the Grateful Dead and Friends, an online auction running October 7-14 that will include gear from the Wall of Sound as well as items that belonged to its inventor, LSD chemist and sound engineer Owsley “Bear” Stanley.

Sotheby’s notes that the auction will include “a range of surviving equipment from the Wall of Sound experience, including McIntosh amplifiers, hand-built stage cabinets, original tie-dyed speaker covers, and a dozen Wall of Sound stage cabinets, including ones used by guitarists Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia and drummer Mickey Hart (estimates from $2,000).” Further details about the offerings will be released in the weeks leading up to the auction.

Classic Tracks: Grateful Dead, “Touch of Grey”

The short-lived Wall of Sound stands out as a unique chapter in The Grateful Dead’s mythology—it was the end result of a collaboration between an audio team that wanted to create a massive, distortion-free sound system, and a band that was well-heeled and laissez faire enough to fund the 75-ton experiment.

The original Wall of Sound, as envisioned in 1972 by audio engineer Owsley “Bear” Stanley and created with Dan Healy, Mark Rizene, Ron Wickersham, Rick Turner and John Curl, was a true physical wall of speakers, comprised of six separate PAs placed on scaffolding behind the Grateful Dead, acting as a simultaneous monitor and house system. Each instrument and vocal had its own dedicated speakers within the wall, which resulted in low intermodulation distortion and inadvertently provided on-stage localization of sound to a performer.

A total of 11 channels fed the system: vocals, guitar, lead guitar, piano, three drum channels, and four bass channels—one for each string, which were separated by a quadraphonic encoder. The system, which required four semi-trucks for transport and 21 people to load-in, was powered by 92 amplifiers for a total of 26,400 watts.

That sheer number of boxes was ultimately why the Wall came down for good. The band performed through a preliminary version in February, 1973, and every tweeter blew during the first song. Undeterred, the Dead began touring with the Wall of Sound in March, 1974, only to retire it seven months later after Wall-related production costs had started spiraling out of control.

For those who are more attracted to Owsley Stanley’s chemical exploits rather than his audio ones, the auction will also include the engineer/LSD cook’s personal chemistry set, which surely saw good use as Stanley is said to have whipped up millions of doses throughout the late Sixties—an industrious proclivity that put him on the wrong side of the law. According to Sotheby’s, while out on bail and awaiting sentencing in 1970, Stanley passed the chemistry set on to the group’s first roadie, Larry “Ramrod” Shurtliff; it now carries an auction estimate of $10/15,000.