Interview with Bob Heil in May 2006 EQ Magazine
By Matt Harper
“I love this industry. It’s my passion. It’s my life. But it pisses me off when I see people not staying up with the times,” exclaims one Bob Heil, a man who’s inarguably one of the most, if not the most, prolific and inventive personalities our field has produced in the past 50 years.
You see, since the mid-’60s, Heil’s been tinkering with every little (and not so little) sound-emitting gadget he could get his hands on, and the results have often been defining moments in not just the pro audio world, but for the world of music and communications in general.
What you talkin’ ‘bout Willis?
We’re talking about Bob Heil being the man who helped make The Who the loudest live band of their time. We’re talking about Bob Heil being the man who developed the talkbox that helped set Joe Walsh and Peter Frampton apart from their arena rocking peers. We’re talking about Bob Heil being the man who practically saved the Grateful Dead after the infamous NOLA gig where federal agents confiscated their equipment.
Flash forward to now: Bob Heil is the man behind the world-renowned Heil Sound whose products were in the hands of the rescue teams scouring a devastated South post-Katrina (and in the hands of just about every radio operator currently hitting the airwaves). Super-producer extraordinaire Joe Barresi considers his “enthusiasm to improve technology an inspiration.” Even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s curator Howard Kramer has recognized Bob’s efforts, calling him “an incredibly important innovator.” It’s true, Bob Heil is the man.
“I learned to listen by playing the organ”, Bob tells EQ one afternoon. “I had to voice and tune all these crazy Wurlitzer theater organs that I was playing, and I learned to really concentrate and listen from doing that. I found that learning to listen was an art — and it’s that which has guided my whole life.”
Starting as a musician at the ripe age of 12, plugging away on a Hammond organ, it wasn’t long until Bob branched out from budding musician to technophile. “I kinda taught myself to play,” Bob says, “and by the time I was 14 I was doing it professionally. Because of the times and the timing, I soon got into amateur ham radio, and it was the ham radio that got me into building. That was the main thrust — being able to take something and make something else from it.”
There was little in the way of peer guidance for a young Heil, mentors from the Fox Theatre at which he performed notwithstanding, leaving Bob with little choice but to follow his own instincts. “I basically just started playing around with stuff. Hell, we didn’t even have any schematics or anything like that to use back in those days, because it was we who were designing and building our own transmitters, receivers, and all of that,” Bob adds.
And by 1966, Bob had decided to hang up his career as a professional musician in order to concentrate on instruction and to further pursue his audio development endeavors. “I came back to my small town of Marissa, a little town of 2,500 people in Southern Illinois, and started teaching organ and piano — not really knowing what I was going to do. Before long, these kids started coming into my shop with their guitar amps. I had never even seen one before. A Fender? Hell, a fender is something you put on your car, man. I didn’t know what a Fender amp was, I was a dyed-in-the-wool Jesse Crawford/George Wright theater organist; and that’s all I had previously listened to.” But, according to Heil, “the ham radio was in me. The challenge of fixing their amplifiers was really interesting to me. I noticed that when I turned over one of these Fender amps it was just like the transmitters I used to build — 6L6s, 5E4s — all the tubes that were in them. I could open them up and fix them in a heartbeat.” News of Heil’s talents spread quickly and it didn’t take long for the entire St. Louis area to find out that there was this little crazy man in Marissa that could fix your stuff; so they started dragging all their amplifiers in.
But it was the now-leveled Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis, Missouri, that was to become the staging zone of Bob’s changing the face of live sound forever. Commissioned by promoters, Heil soon became the go-to guy for equipment rentals and last-minute priority repairs. Clients ranged from Chuck Berry to an as-of-yet-unnamed REO Speedwagon. “That’s what really drew me in; working next to all these rock and roll musicians. I was the only one on hand with a soldering iron, and that’s what made all hell break loose,” Heil says. “The Fox Theatre had these huge Altecs that I got my hands on — 8 foot tall speakers; really big stuff. I was experimenting, at the time, with amps, and so on. It started off as just me having fun, but I soon saw these guys coming in with these little columns under the impression that they were going to fill a 20,000 seat hall with sound. There was nobody else in 1968 doing what I was doing, so I felt that I had to build some kind of monster sound system for them.”
A group known as The Guild served as Bob’s first real guinea pig(s) in terms of overt and obscene amplification. Playing in a small bowling alley, like clockwork, on Thursday nights, Heil took their rigid schedule as an opportunity to experiment. “I would take in these sound systems that I had been messing around with and I would experiment on them to see what would work and what wouldn’t work,” Bob says chuckling. “I got these PA systems perfected; they were both loud AND clean, two things you really didn’t hear in those days.”
Word traveled, as it had done in the past, and not long after the phone rang with an inquiry from the theater where these now-famed speakers had originated. “The Fox called me one day in 1970 and asked ‘Do you still have those speakers we gave you a few years ago?’ So I said, ‘Yeah, I sure do.’ They told me, ‘There is this group that just came in that doesn’t have any equipment; their truck was confiscated last night.’ And that was when the phone got handed over to Jerry Garcia. The night before, in New Orleans, the Feds had taken the truck they were touring out of because their sound guy wasn’t supposed to be out of the state of California. I told them what I had and Jerry was amazed. ‘Wow, you got this stuff? Amps? Get them up here,’ he told me — and, that night, I blew those guys right out to Washington Ave.”
Heil’s babies — big, loud, and clear — were the likes of which the Grateful Dead had not yet been acquainted with. Directly after the show, Bob accepted a contract and went on tour; soon hitting the front page of Billboard and becoming the envy of dozens of sound companies that had all been vying for the Dead’s contract. “The next thing you know everybody was calling us, and that’s really how it all started. They needed to fill these auditoriums with sound, and we were the only ones who really knew how to do it. From there The Who contacted us. They were out playing through these dinky little columns and they were sounding terrible; so they contacted us and we got in behind Who’s Next. This started the whole revolution, not just Heil sound, but the ENTIRE sound revolution.”
“We got into the monitor thing out of necessity,” Bob says. “Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey really needed all this to happen, so we built them some massive systems. We started putting fiberglass in the speaker cabinets, because it wouldn’t resonate like plywood or the other materials people were using. We wanted a really dense material to work with, and that’s why we chose fiberglas — it gave us an edge up on the speakers themselves. But we had to do it in a big way. I remember when we did Madison Square Garden with Quadrophenia. We had more stuff on just the stage than most people had in their entire PA. It was enormous. I think we had, on each side, 6–8 15 bins, 6–8 radio horns, and probably about a dozen tweeters; we could get about 110–115dB on that stage before feedback. And The Who loved it, of course, because it was LOUD. And they were LOUD, if not the LOUDEST.”
The feat of amassing a system of monitors had been overcome years before, but there were problems still plaguing the team, and the entire world of sound in general, as Bob remembers. “The monitor was always the big problem. Nobody had really been able to make the monitor work before: They fed back all the time. You would have a mic about three feet from the monitor while these guys were playing louder and louder; and the next thing you knew it was total feedback city, and it seemed like nobody could get it all happening the way it really needed to happen.”
The key, as Bob had learned much earlier on, lay in the realm of phasing. “Back in my ham radio days, around 1960, I had put up a monster antennae; 4 feet by 40 feet and hoisted 50 feet in the air. It was a monster antennae of 128 elements; different elements that all had to be phased. So I learned about phasing monitors through phasing antennae.” Little did Bob know that in 1960, playing with radio frequency, that something would occur that would change his, and our, lives not much later down the road.
“I had brought in these monitors and started thinking ‘wait a minute I can start playing with phasing’ . . . and I DID. We would run the microphones out of phase from the monitors, something that nobody had been doing yet. Since they were out of phase from the mics and the front systems, we could get these things incredibly loud before they would feedback.” The key to the golden lock was phasing, as Bob relays to everyone he instructs. “That’s one of the things that Jerry Garcia was really in love with. Our monitors were really something; and we got those guys into doing all kinds of phasing tricks with the monitors and mics. As you know, a lack of phasing equals no sound; so it’s all very important — the placement of monitors, the types of microphones, and having it in the right phase or the wrong phase.”
Concerning choice of mics in relation to phasing, Bob adds that technological advancements, many of which have been handheld by Heil Sound, are now the key to the world of using phasing to achieve the desired end. “You take this new technology, which comes in the form of better cardioid patterns, and the phase plug of the mic reduces what’s coming from behind. If you take two signals out of phase they will cancel; from 180 degrees out you will get no sound. In the studios, guys will put microphone after microphone up: one 3 feet away, one 2 inches away, one 10 feet away, and so on. Sure, all the mics are picking up sound—but the one closest to the source, of course, gets the sound fastest. They are in different phases, so you experience time delays. The amount of time it takes for the sound to reach the mic changes depending on their placement — and in that case they might have flipped phase three times before it gets there. You have to be real careful where you place all this stuff in the studio, because when you record something you want it to come back through the speakers exactly in the same phase that it was recorded.” Bob concludes, “So many times the signal is going through different chains. Every time you go through a device, if it’s a virgin where nothing has been changed in it, it will change phase. You have to understand what is going on here — you might have to have phase inversion to get it back to the original phase it was recorded in. It’s more than just important — it’s everything.”
Having built literally thousands of different speaker cabinets; as well the first modular mixer, the first modular power amplifier, the first electronic crossover, the 3-band parametric EQ, and the first audio analyzer — all back in the ’60s and early ’70s — Bob is nonetheless somewhat amazed that his products are still out there and actively being employed by those of us today. “Guys will call me talking about how they are still using our power amps and stuff. I suppose we should still be building them?” he says with a touch of sadness in his voice. “We quit all of that in about 1980, I just kinda got tired of it after 15 years, and music seemed to be turning in a different direction. So I just kinda folded up my tent and went away.” But he really didn’t “go away,” as he’s still doing a lot of consulting for other superpowers, such as Jim Dunlop (who he sold the rights to the infamous talkbox to nearly 20 years ago) and Heil Sound is still going strong, developing state-of-the-art mics for the communications and broadcasting fields. In addition, quite a few of his relics are soon to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — including the Heil talkbox and many of the pieces of sound equipment that he developed for The Who during the Quadrophenia tour.
On top of all that, Bob is still designing high-grade, custom home audio setups. “I’ve been doing it since 1957 — when I set up JBL speakers in each room of my house, as well as a pair of studio monitors for main speakers. It was really hot. Since then we have done thousands of homes. I like to design them from scratch where we can run 5,000 feet of wire all over and put speakers in every single room. I’ve been doing Dolby stuff since its inception; when they first brought out the first decoder for the home — and it’s really gone way beyond where I thought it was going to go. But hell, I’ve been doing Hi-Definition since ’85, too.”
Always a step ahead of the game, Bob assures us that everything will be all right provided that we learn from the old and apply it to the new; using the spoils of technology with an eye (and an ear) for how it really all works. And education is of penultimate importance, according to Heil. “I try to teach as much as I can today, really show them the science; because it has never and, fundamentally, will never change. A 440 is always A 440, right? It will never vibrate any differently than that. What’s so sad is that we, as an industry, don’t focus more on education. Even with all the ‘digi-wigi’ stuff, which is great, at our disposal — we still have to understand the science of sound in order to apply it. If you manage to do that, then you’ll really have something cooking. But you cannot neglect the science. You must not forget the science.”