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Bob Heil Sound Equipment to enter Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

May 15, 2006

Local boy Bob Heil revolutionized rock music by giving it the sound equipment it needed.  He made Quadraphenia and the Mississippi River Festival possible. He desiged and built the first electronic crossover, the parametric equalizer, the modular console, the modular power amps and was the first to use fiberglass.  But his first job was to cobble together a monster sound system out of cast-off movie theater sound projection units for the Grateful Dead which became an immediate sensation with groups such as The Who, the James Gang, ZZ Top, Humble Pie, etc. etc.  Photo of Quadrophenia system below is from the  St. Louis Post Dispatch article on Heil .

Bob Heil
Bob Heil holds a microphone used by Rodger Daltrey of The Who that is part of the Heil Sound exhibit opening at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in June.

Some of the sound equipment he invented and made will be installed at the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame in Cleveland next month as the Heil Sound Exhibit, including the "talking mic" he made with Joe Walsh that is featured in Peter Frampton Live. Here’s how Bob Heil of Marissa, IL and now of Fairview Heights, IL both near my town Belleville across the river from St Louis, describes his part in rock history in an interview for the Musicians’ Friend website 

Bob Heil: A Living Live-Sound Legend

Anyone who’s been to a rock concert in the past 40 years owes a huge debt of gratitude to Bob Heil. With the explosion of rock music in the 1960s came bigger concerts and bigger crowds that PA systems of the time simply couldn’t handle. Seeing the need for better live sound systems, Heil began experimenting and eventually created the first large-scale PA system. A chance meeting with The Grateful Dead put his system on the rock-and-roll map, where he continued to innovate live sound techniques throughout the ’70s with numerous acts like The Who, Humble Pie, and Peter Frampton. After leading the amateur radio market for the last 20 years with his broadcast mics, Bob partnered with his old friend Joe Walsh to create a new line of dynamic microphones suitable for the stage and studio. We caught up with Bob recently to discuss his legendary past, his contributions to the industry, his new PR Series microphones, and the Heil Sound Exhibit opening at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in June 2006.

[W]hen I was 15 I became a ham radio operator. I was building gear, designing stuff—things that hams do. But I also was pipe organist—a theater organist, not a church organist. I played at the Fox Theater here in St. Louis, and I learned to listen. … Voicing and tuning Wurlitzer pipe organs is an art, and I was very fortunate to learn how to voice those things. Those two skills made it possible for me to do what I have done.

I played for about 12-14 years at the Fox… [I]n 1966 I came back to my little hometown of Marissa—2,500 people in the middle of southern Illinois—and I opened up a little music shop and sold Hammond organs…. I started renting Hammond organs to the rock groups who came through St. Louis. Nobody was doing that; Hammond organ dealers thought, "We’re not gonna rent these freakos an organ." Then I’d get on these stages, and they’d have all kinds of problems. So I started fixing things for them.

Then I noticed their PA systems sucked. They had these little bitty columns! So I built this monster sound system. The Fox Theater was throwing out a couple of A4s. These are speakers that fill up the back of a truck—huge speakers! I took those and built this monstrous PA with a bunch of McIntosh amps. And that’s what started the whole sound revolution.

The Grateful Dead came through town around 1971, and they didn’t have a PA. Theirs was confiscated the night before by the feds because they weren’t supposed to go out of California. . . . . The Fox calls me and hands the phone to Jerry Garcia. He says, "You got a PA, man?" I said, "Yeah, I’ve got A4s, a whole bunch of McIntoshes."

So I took it up there and we changed the world that one night. They freaked out. They took me right out on tour—right out of the theater that night off to New Jersey. Then it hit the front page of Billboard magazine that we had got the Grateful Dead contract, and the next thing you know, The Who is calling me, ZZ Top, Humble Pie, on and on.

Shortly after that I met Joe Walsh. We were doing sound for the James Gang with this monster sound system. Well, Joe’s a ham (radio operator)! So he and I went nuts. We started wiring things and doing stuff and making the James Gang louder and bigger and better. But we weren’t paying attention to the fact that we were changing the world. We were doing this because Joe needed it done.

It just went nuts from there. We had 35 people working in our little plant there in Marissa building all kinds of gear. Some of it’s still being used…. It all started from that love of ham radio and learning to listen when voicing those pipe organs.

MF: So basically rock-and-roll took the PA systems of the time by surprise. They just weren’t designed to handle that kind of sound and volume.

BH: Absolutely. Everyone was playing little Fender Twins and stuff like that, and using a little column with four speakers in it for a PA system. All of a sudden here comes the Vox Beatle, the Marshalls, the big 100- and 200-watt guitar amps that would just blow the PA away. You couldn’t even hear the vocals. That came on much faster because nobody was doing anything in the sound reinforcement business…..

MF: How did you get involved with The Who?

BH: They hadn’t been here in several years; since the late ’60s. During that time, the level of concert sound quality came way up. They came over here with their little columns, like VocalMasters, if you remember what those were. Just little columns with four speakers in them. They had about six of these across the front of the stage. Think about that. Think about that. The Who playing through these little mixers with eight channels on them, and these little columns. The guitar amp was louder than that!

They came over (to the US) to do this huge tour, Who’s Next, and they miserably bombed the first night. It was terrible. So their manager had heard about this sound system….. They told me to rent an airplane if I had to. So we did, we rented a Tiger 707! Tiger was an air freight company back in those days in Chicago…. and we flew all that stuff out to Boston. We set it up for soundcheck and blew them (The Who) out on the street. They’d never heard anything like it, and it changed the whole direction of The Who. Townshend was freaking out because they’d never heard anything that good, that loud, that big.

We did two complete tours, I think 36 dates each, then we went to England and toured over there. We played for about 200,000 kids in a cricket oval! From there we did some European dates, then came back here for more American dates with Who’s Next.

MF: Is it true that Pete asked you to build a quad PA for the Quadrophenia tour?

BH: Well, after we finished Who’s Next, this would have been about ’73, he called me one day and said, "I need to talk to you, so come over here (to England)." So I got on a plane and went to London.

Pete said, "I’m hearing this thing with four guys, one in each corner. Do you think you could build a PA so we could move Roger’s voice around the arena?" I said, "Yeah, we’ll have to put some speakers in the back but we can do that." He said, "You go build it, I’m gonna go write it." He knew that we could make it sound good and that’s what we did. That system will be the centerpiece of the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame display that opens in June.

MF: Tell us more about the exhibit.

BH: I’m very, very honored by this and extremely humbled. They decided that Heil Sound was one of the leading designers and builders of technical things that changed the direction (of rock-and-roll). We actually found that console (from Quadrophenia). . . .

We’re getting it all together, and in June this display will open in Cleveland with that, one of Roger Daltrey’s microphones, one of Townshend’s guitars, some of the fiberglass horns, one of the speakers that was used for the rear channels of Quadrophenia, some of the power amps we built, the parametric EQ we built—all those early things. The Sunn mixer that we hand-built and used for Who’s Next will be there too. . . .

MF: You invented one of the most famous guitar effects ever. Tell us how the Heil Talk Box came to be. [photo from Radio Randy – check out his other photos of famous Heil gadgets]

BH: Joe Walsh had recorded "Rocky Mountain Way" using an 8" speaker and a funnel, a device used in Nashville by the steel guitar players. Well, it wasn’t very loud so you couldn’t use it live. So here we are, two ham radio operators on a Sunday afternoon out in my plant. We grabbed a 250-watt JBL, built a low-pass filter, got all the plumbing together, and voila—the Talk Box. That’s how it started. After that tour, everybody’s going nuts! "What’s this thing he’s got?" So I put together a commercial unit called the Heil Talk Box. Then Peter Frampton’s girlfriend Penny called me wanting a Christmas present for Peter. So I sent a Talk Box. The rest of the story writes itself from there.

The first 50 were done in fiberglass, and Peter still carries his fiberglass one today. When you see him, somewhere in his gig box is that original Heil Talk Box. I have serial number 1 that will go in the Rock Hall with Peter and Joe’s signatures.

What an improbable but cool story.   In the 1980s Bob got out of the rock concert business and concentrated on microphone developments that allow for better articulation.  He still does sound systems, but mostly for local home theater set-ups.   I’ve posted a lot of the article, but check out the whole story here.  

Pajama News Media says this about Heil:

Heil is a pioneering figure in the industry not only because he built the high-powered sound systems that made 1970s concerts the spectacle they were, according to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Curatorial Director Howard Kramer. He also pioneered methods to make that A-bomb-loud sound well articulated, instead of just a wall of unintelligible noise.  "The concert business became what it is today because he made the experience so much better for the customers," Kramer said of Heil. "No one made the leaps in live sound that he did."

I grew up in the Fabian and early Elvis era, but the ’70s and early ’80s had some great music played by real musicians that is still classic.  I had no idea that one local man had so affected what they were doing and how they sounded.


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