Coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock this month, which took place between August 15 and 18, 1969, at Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York, there’s been an unsurprising resurgence in interest for this most historic event, along with a good deal of re-examination and reflection, prompted in large part by the new PBS documentary, Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation.
What’s not being discussed all that much these days, though, is the role played by McIntosh Laboratory in making the event possible to begin with, and keeping the entertainment flowing in the face of one calamity after another, brought on by poor planning, overcrowding, and unexpected weather.
To dig a bit more into that history, I recently sat down with current McIntosh president Charlie Randall, who grew up near the company’s Binghamton, NY, home, and joined the McIntosh in 1985 as an apprentice in the engineering department. He has served as president of McIntosh Laboratory, Inc. since 2001.
Dennis Burger: Let’s start by discussing the obvious: the connection between McIntosh and Woodstock and how that came about.
Charlie Randall: I wasn’t old enough to be at Woodstock, but I have enough knowledge of the company history to understand what transpired. As you probably know, Hanley Sound were the team that put the system together, and they were pretty much pioneers as far as taking what you would consider normal audio equipment and starting to produce what we know today as concert sound. I believe their first exposure to McIntosh in terms of doing a large event was Lyndon B. Johnson’s inaugural address in 1965.
DB: Wait, let’s pause a second. I think the McIntosh/Woodstock connection is the stuff of legend in the audio world at this point, but the LBJ thing is new to me. How did that come about?
CR: At the time, venues were getting much larger, and Hanley Sound was kind of at the forefront of that. Hanley was the one who was contracted to put it together, and very shortly after they started Hanley Sound, they wanted McIntosh product and that’s what they used.
Hanley knew of McIntosh--they knew more about the home audio pieces, which at that time would have been like the MC30-, MC40-type pieces, which were really intended for stereo sound in the home. But Frank McIntosh, after being in the military and being around the GI clubs, recognized the fact that there was a need for bigger and better amplifiers, especially in the war days when they would send artists to different countries to entertain the troops.
And then, if you fast-forward a bit, we know what it was like when the Beatles came to America [in 1965]: all you could hear was the crowd screaming, because it was just played back over the PA system.
So that’s really what drove McIntosh’s desire to deliver a better amplifier, and Hanley wanting to deliver better sound. And they wanted to be basically a franchise seller of McIntosh product; however, during that time the company wouldn’t give them the franchise, because it was going to be used for rock and roll, and that’s really not the direction the company wanted to position itself in.
[By 1968], we had MI350 and MC3500 amplifiers--which were kind of one and the same--but the MI350 was known more for industrial, commercial type stuff, and the MC3500 was considered a little lesser, even though the topology of the amplifier was really the same.
At that time, the other competitors were doing 60-, 75-watt power amplifiers. Nobody was pushing much beyond that. So, to see a 350-watt vacuum tube monoblock at that time was not possible for a lot of manufacturers and McIntosh has long been known for building a better, more powerful amplifier with lower distortion and better signal-to-noise. And perhaps most importantly: better reliability. And that’s what drove Hanley to use McIntosh. What drove it was the technology behind what we had versus what anybody else could make during that timeframe.
But Gordon [Gow], the guy who was in charge of sales and marketing at the time, wouldn’t allow them to have the MI350, so they had to settle for the MC3500. And that’s what ultimately was used at Woodstock in 1969.
And in 1974 when the Grateful Dead showed up at the Cow Palace with--I believe it was MC2300, stereo amps, but again, built on the same architecture as the MC3500, which was mono.
DB: So, the amplifiers at Woodstock were designed for the home market, even though there was a commercial version available.
CR: Yeah, in total it was twenty of the MC3500s, located--believe it or not--underneath the stage, and we all know that Woodstock over the weekend turned into a mud show, so there was a lot that had to be done behind the scenes, first to keep the amplifiers cool, because of the lack of airflow, and second to keep them dry.
The interesting thing is that the system was set up to be, in a sense, two PA systems, because it was such a large crowd. They had what you would call the front stage, and then they had a system to send sound to the back of the crowd. The speakers at the front were down low, where the speakers for the back were up high. And the amplifiers were split accordingly. But the unique thing for that time--keep in mind, it was in 1969--instead of running mono sound, they were mixing the sound in stereo. So, the system wasn’t set up to drive one big mono stack of speakers.
DB: So, in addition to having to keep the amps cool and dry, they also had a pretty sophisticated--for the time--sound system to keep up and running…
CR: The running joke when you speak with anyone who was involved with Hanley Sound is that everything about that festival was a disaster, but the sound just kept working. They didn’t have enough restrooms and the weather was a mess, but it was easy to keep the crowd calm because they were able to keep the sound flowing. And also make public announcements over the sound system.
As far as keeping the amps cool, they had fans that blew under the stage, and the amplifiers themselves were fan-cooled. But the thing that made it viable for the techs--and there were a couple of guys from Hanley Sound under that stage the entire time--was that the front of the MC3500 had output meters, so they could really see what the amps were doing, and make sure they weren’t overdriven, so just that visibility allowed them to keep tabs on the system that way.
DB: You mentioned earlier the McIntosh company line of not embracing rock music. How and why did that change in the leadup to Woodstock?
CR: I think at first the company was more oriented around orchestra music. And the--how should we say this?--the maturity of Frank McIntosh was certainly a factor. When he retired in the late ’70s, he was in his 70s, so you can do the math and guess what his perception of rock and roll would have been. As far as the music industry, the rock side, 1965 was the Beatles, Shea Stadium, and younger Americans were onboard completely, but for older adults, they thought it was going to ruin the world. So, it was a demographic split, for sure.
But as the more modern music became more popular, then it was just inevitable that a company like McIntosh would have to endorse it, just from the standpoint of who the customers were who were actually buying product.
DB: So, how did that shifting demographic--and perhaps more importantly the use of McIntosh products in events like Woodstock and the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound--change the company, in terms of perception or product development?
CR: In terms of product design, if you look at the typical home audio product at the time… I mean, 75 watts per channel in a stereo system was a lot of power. During this timeframe, everyone was doing pretty much nothing but vacuum tubes. So, to come out with a 350-watt amplifier, during those days it was obviously intended for these types of applications, and I’m sure what happened with the Beatles at Shea Stadium is what sparked the interest for the 3500, because the company in ’65, the most powerful amplifier we had at the time would have been the MC275, which was 75 watts on a side.
So, the company intended and knew, back to what I said earlier, they knew there was a need for a better amplifier, not only for the home but also for officers’ clubs and what eventually grew into these large concert venues. And of course, it just grew from there. So, after the 3500… well, the 3500 morphed into the 2300, which morphed into the 2500, which morphed into the 2600. The 2600 was 600 watts stereo.
DB: So, it was sort of an arms race in terms of power…
CR: Yeah, and even above and beyond concert venue sound, those products actually made their way into military applications, like driving sonar transducers to make submarines look like a school of fish.
And they were also used to drive the on-hold music systems in cities like Chicago. With Bell Labs, you had the option you could pay for where the phone operator, instead of just sticking you on hold, would plug you into the music jack, and McIntosh amplifiers were feeding music across the entire city. That’s a really neat aspect of the company’s history, with regard to why the amplifiers got so big at that time. But it was above and beyond just sound reproduction. Like I said, they actually made their way into testing laboratories, whether it be Bell & Howell, even a lot of the aerospace companies had them for different reasons, for radar and sonar--things like that.
DB: And things like that can lead to a sort of feedback loop--the need for more power was driven by large commercial applications, then trickled into the home--but let’s talk a little about how that increase in power output led to other changes in the home audio market.
Even today, if you look at the sorts of speakers we drive--a perfect example is that, in large home theaters, we do a lot of line arrays. And of course, the line array was what was developed for this sort of large venue sound application. The Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound was just a big line array. And Americans, we don’t like little spaces. Our homes are twice the size of anywhere else in the world. And a single point source-type loudspeaker isn’t big enough to drive a 30-by-40-foot home theater room. So, obviously the application for more power and more drivers to fill that space has taken us a long way from the days of a Bozak [speaker] with one tweeter and one woofer.
DB: What’s the legacy of Woodstock, in your opinion, and more specifically: what’s the legacy of McIntosh’s involvement with this historic show?
CR: For the public at large, it’s an iconic moment in American history, especially if you’re involved in music or culture in any way. You can look at Woodstock as being more than just a concert. It was a cultural experience.
And if you think about the time it was done, and the capability of sound systems at the time, to entertain a crowd that large is quite remarkable.
For all Americans, everyone knows what Woodstock is, even if they didn’t experience it themselves. And of course, there’s the venue down in Bethel Woods, which is built on the original property where Woodstock happened, and it’s a cultural experience to still enjoy music there and if you want you can even go through the museum.
And from the point of view of McIntosh as a brand, to be part of this legacy--all of the audio equipment hobbyists know that McIntosh powered the show.
Of course, that’s true of the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound, too. And if you look at photos from [those Dead shows], the amplifiers are front and center. The unfortunate thing is that at Woodstock, the amplifiers were underneath the stage, but rightfully so, because it was an outdoor event and that’s the only way that they could keep them dry.
• Visit the McIntosh Labs website for more information about the brand.
• McIntosh Introduces MTI100 Integrated Turntable at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• McIntosh Announces 70th Anniversary Limited Edition Commemorative System at HomeTheaterReview.com.