The History of the Sound at Woodstock

Michael Pettersen | August 13, 2019

According to the now-iconic poster, it was supposed to be an Aquarian Exposition offering three days of Peace and Music in White Lake, New York. But what came to be known simply as Woodstock turned out to be one of the most historic music and cultural events of the 20th century. 

Conceived in early 1969 by four entrepreneurs working out of an office in Manhattan, the festival faced roadblocks right from the start. Residents of Woodstock, New York had no interest in an influx of hippies. Town residents of Wallkill, New York felt the same way, and had already withdrawn permission to hold the festival there. 

Finally, and famously, dairy farmer Max Yasgur agreed to lease a large sloping pasture to the promoters. Residents of Bethel, New York (actually miles from the town of Woodstock) were told to expect 50,000 rock and roll fans.   

At the time, music festivals weren’t well-established as part of the rock and roll experience, so the next challenge for the promoters was booking the bands. Once Creedence Clearwater Revival signed up, 34 additional bands and artists were added to the line-up. Richie Havens was the first to perform. Jimi Hendrix, whose performance was pushed into Day Four because of intermittent rain, was the last. 

Tickets for the three-day event went for $18 in advance and $24 at the gate. Based on advance ticket sales, the promoters were expecting a crowd of 200,000. 

According to legend, the many venue changes had the festival running behind schedule. Faced with a choice of building a stage or constructing security fences, the organizers chose the stage. And that’s how a profit-making venture, even before it officially opened, became a free concert for 400,000 attendees.

Photo: Barry Levine
Context: Sound Reinforcement in the 1960s

Before we discuss how the Shure Unisphere® microphone came to dominance on the Woodstock stage, we need to address the state of the live sound industry at the time, then in relative infancy.

Large indoor concerts made use of whatever theater-style public address systems were available at the venue, or bands traveled around with small, underpowered PA systems. 

The stadium live sound industry was born, according to common wisdom, on August 15, 1965 at Shea Stadium when the Beatles tried (without success) to be heard over the screams of 55,600 fans. The stadium’s house PA system, usually used for announcements at New York Mets home games, was nowhere near powerful enough to drown out the crowd noise. 

It was a watershed moment for the live sound reinforcement industry that we know today. Something had to change. 

One of the changes was the emergence of outdoor pop festivals and the transformation of sound rental companies into providers of sound reinforcement services for large-scale events. 

San Francisco-based Harry McCune Sound Service was tapped for 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival. It was at this event, as far as we know, that Shure microphones (in this case, the SM56) began to appear on festival stages.

Promoters Hire Hanley Sound

Back in New York, the Woodstock’s promoters had resorted to searching business directories to find someone capable of handling sound for the event. According to Michael Lang, one of the festival’s four partners, they were “trying to find someone who could do a sound system for Woodstock, and there was no one who had ever done something like that before. Then there was this crazy guy in Boston who might want to take a shot at it.”

Bill Hanley, well established on the east coast for his live sound engineering at the Newport Folk Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, and Bill Graham’s concerts at the Fillmore East, turned out to be a brilliant choice for the task. 

Hanley had the experience and the confidence and he was prepared to assemble the biggest sound system to date at his shop in Medford, Massachusetts. His goal was simple: to give those seated in the last seat in the house the same experience of those seated in the front row.

The Sound System That Hanley Built

Construction of the stage and speaker towers for the sound system commenced just days before the event. Hanley and his crew planned to mix the event on an elevated platform constructed of plywood and scaffolding 75 feet to the left of the stage. 

In a February 2019 Front of House article, Hanley remembered, “We used about 20 Shure Unidyne microphones which were modified. I also used four modified Shure M67’s [microphone mixers] with input pads, two Shure M63 Audio Masters for EQ, an Altec 1567A tube mixer and four Teletronix LA2A tube limiters between the mixers and the power amplifiers. Below the stage, we had over 20 McIntosh MC3500 series 350-watt RMS high-fidelity tube amplifiers.” 

In 2006, Hanley told Front of House” Hanley recalled, “I built special speaker columns on the hills and had 16 loudspeaker arrays in a square platform going up to the hill on 70-foot towers.”

The Unisphere Model 565

Shure research, including the 1970 Woodstock documentary and the voluminous trove of artist photography, indicates that the mics used on vocals, drums, percussion, guitar amps and acoustic guitars were Unisphere® Model 565s. No other microphones were seen in photos or the documentary, but we can’t say with complete certainty that other Shure or competitive mics weren’t used in backline applications. 

Back then, Shure offered the Unisphere Model 565 with a four-socket Amphenol output connector and no on/off switch.” Switchcraft manufactured the L3MN adapter that fastened to the mic using a threaded ring collar and converted the Amphenol connector to a 3-pin XLR male connector.

There is no record of Shure providing custom Model 565 microphones for Woodstock, so it’s likely that Hanley modified the microphones himself by adding the Switchcraft adapter. Shure eventually offered an XLR version of the Model 565, the 565D, in 1972.

Success
Photo: Barry Levine

The system that was designed to deliver sound to 200,000 fans (reportedly the largest up until that point in time) reached the ears of 400,000 or more. 

Recalling Woodstock, Hanley remarked, “The only things that didn’t fail were the sound system, the water supply and the stage security… We’d done lots of outdoor shows; we were prepared. It was a matter of good planning.” 

At the time, Hanley didn’t realize he was making audio history. “I never thought about it in those terms from an intellectual, historical point of view. You’re busy making everything work, making it sound good.” 

Aftermath

The effect Shure’s appearance on the Woodstock stage had on the company’s eventual role in pro audio is difficult to discern. At the time, Shure was all about the phonograph cartridge market. Even today’s ubiquitous SM57 and SM58 microphones, introduced in 1965 and 1966 respectively as TV/radio studio microphones (SM), were failing to penetrate their target markets.

Executives at Shure were likely not aware that the Model 565 was used at Woodstock. No one at Shure today was working then, so we can’t be certain. What we do know is that there is no mention of Woodstock in Shure literature of the era. 

One fact, however, is irrefutable: without the pioneering efforts of Bill Hanley, who has since earned the title “Father of Festival Sound”, Shure’s domination of the stage at Woodstock would never have happened.

Featured image: Elliot Landy

Michael Pettersen

Fascinated by music, sound, and audio technology since building a crystal radio set as a child, Michael Pettersen is the Director of Corporate History. Employed by Shure Incorporated since 1976, he is a contributing author to the 1,550 page reference tome "Handbook for Sound Engineers" as well as the sole author of numerous pro audio technical papers. In his personal life, Michael is a professional musician, published composer of choral arrangements, co-author of a biography about jazz guitarist Freddie Green, and a notorious raconteur.