Behind The Scene: John and Helen Meyer on Providing Sound for Grateful Dead, ‘Apocalypse Now,’ Global Events

Dean Budnick on April 2, 2020
Behind The Scene: John and Helen Meyer on Providing Sound for Grateful Dead, ‘Apocalypse Now,’ Global Events

“When I look back, it’s hard to imagine that we’ve really done this for over 40 years because, in a way, it feels like we just started,” Helen Meyer says of the company she founded with her husband John back in 1979. The couple’s personal and professional lives are entwined in music—on their first date, John brought Helen to hear The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on a proper set of speakers at the hi-fi store where he worked. The two have built the Berkeley, Calif.-based Meyer Sound into a global company of high renown, supplying technology to touring acts, music venues, cinemas, theme parks, restaurants and museums, including Minnesota’s Walker Art Center, Austria’s Center Vienna, Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival, Florida’s Walt Disney World and China’s Nine Trees Shanghai Future Art Centre. Recent touring clients have included Dead & Co., Marc Anthony, Metallica, Ed Sheeran and The Lumineers.

The Meyers have maintained a longstanding association with the Grateful Dead, which Helen underscores as she considers the scope of the company’s reach: “I look at the amazing relationships that we’ve built over the years which continue to this day, like Mickey Hart, the Dead and their crew. We’ve had ups and downs, but you can point to these really good friends that we’ve made here in the U.S. and around the world. We have amazing distributors that have been with us for years and continue to support us. It feels very gratifying, and we’re just barely beginning. John’s ability to create the team that’s developed these amazing products—that have had such a long life—says something about the different ways that we are handling music. We have so much more that we want to do and will do. It feels like the first 40 years were good, and we’re looking forward to the next 40 as well.”

Was there a particular moment of epiphany that led the two of you to decide to launch Meyer Sound?

JOHN: I was working for a sound company building systems, but none of them wanted to spend the money to take it to the next level. You have to spend research money and then gas got expensive, tours got expensive. There was less money out there to develop. One band couldn’t afford to keep the development going, so it became clear that, if we were really going to create a hi-fi experience for people, we needed to put a group of people together to do this.

HELEN: John came home and surprised me by saying, “Hey, we’re going to start a company.” He didn’t talk to me about it at all—it was just the frustration of trying to do things with the rental company he was working for and not being able to achieve them. He decided that we could do it by starting our own company. It was a little bit scary. At first, there was just one employee, but then it started to grow. What made it successful, though, was that John had connections with the people from the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa and San Francisco Opera worlds. Right away, we created some products that we are still using to this day, in evolved forms.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as rock acts moved into arenas, the venues were often ill-equipped to handle the sound. What are your recollections of that era?

HELEN: One of our seminal experiences was going to a Donovan concert. I used to love Donovan back then and we went and couldn’t hear anything—the sound was so terrible. That was before we had started our company and John said, “I could do better than that.” I went to a Beatles concert in ‘64 at the Cow Palace in San Francisco and it was thrilling to see them, but I could not hear a word of what they were singing. There was so much screaming and the PA was so bad. John found out later that the PA was this ridiculous little speaker.

JOHN: There just wasn’t any equipment to do this, and it became clear we were going to have to build equipment to make this work from scratch. None of the manufacturers thought rock-and-roll was going to last. And so you couldn’t get any help from anybody. The manufacturers were saying, “It’s all going to go away; it’s just a fad.” I grew up on FM radio, where everyone was super excited at pushing the envelope because FM was developed just for classical music. They were doing live broadcasts, so I grew up in this spirit where people really understood that mattered.

But the problem was most of the promoters that got into the business back then just wanted to make money, so they weren’t interested in high-quality sound equipment. But it was important to the Grateful Dead. It also helped that a lot of the fans brought recording equipment into the shows, which meant that they would have a record of what we were doing. It helped me convince everyone that since the fans were going to make recordings and listen at home, it was important to spend the money on sound quality. This was at a time when it was very rare that you could get anybody to spend money on this, but the Grateful Dead were huge in terms of financing this effort to demonstrate that it was possible. So we worked with them for a long time, and still do.

John, you played a role in the creation of the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound. I’ve heard that, on occasion, people approach you about rebuilding it in some capacity. How do you typically respond to that request?

JOHN: I participated a little bit on the Wall of Sound. The original idea that Bear had was that each member of the band would be their own source of sound. So the bass player would have all the bass behind him. And the vocals would be in the center—the vocal clusters were one of the things that I did design. And then each one was a monitor sound system, except that the monitor was the sound system. When we did about 5,000- 6,000 [capacity venues], it worked pretty well.

When we got to bigger arenas, it wasn’t that we couldn’t power it up; it was that they didn’t like being in front of this wall of sound. It was too loud. So I started saying, “I think we need to move some of the sound out. Let’s get some of the speakers out from behind them.” I wanted to use delay lines and some of this other technology.

The band didn’t want to be blasted by the wall behind them every night. People keep talking about rebuilding it, but they didn’t live through this. It looks really neat in the photographs but it’s not a practical solution to have all that sound behind you. So when people have mentioned this, I’ve responded: “We can preserve what you are trying to do, but we can use a lot of modern digital things that can move sound out. We can keep it coming, more or less, from where Phil is playing the bass but we can do it with delays and other [advancements] so his rig becomes much smaller.” But, every once in a while, someone will tell me they want to build a Wall of Sound, and I say, “Good luck.”

One of Meyer Sound’s earliest projects was installing special subwoofers and providing sound for the 70 millimeter screenings of Apocalypse Now. You also worked on the special 40th anniversary screening of a restored version of the film at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. What did you take away from the experience?

JOHN: When the original 70 millimeter came out, we spent months and months in the theater working on the subwoofers for the first release. So, then with this version that they did, they recaptured it and put it back together because most of the stuff had been thrown away. When it went digital, everyone threw away all the analog stuff but, fortunately, some of the people kept some of the analog tapes. They found them in the bin outside Universal in a waste basket and they grabbed them. So this release let people know that, even in the ‘70s, sound was pretty good. And the digital age just destroyed it, of course, with the idea that you could put thousands of songs on your cell phone.

So we are getting a whole generation of kids who are getting used to low quality sound. While that’s a worry, at the same time we see people going back to records, and Apocalypse Now was very well received in New York, so we are seeing a rebirth. We’re also seeing it with cinema, where three million feet of film was shot last year. People are going back to film over digital for movies. Some critics say it’s nostalgia. But it’s more than that. It’s like we’ve missed something in this digital revolution that is hard on music. Digital is really good for storage but, when you record music, it is very difficult to capture all those nuances and things like that.

The problem is that everyone’s gotten so used to sound being mediocre that no one wants to spend the money it would take. We struggle with this all the time. Apocalypse received good reviews when it was just released but, trying to get the theater to update their system to be able to play it back has been very difficult. We do some high-end theaters in Japan, we do high-end ones in Italy, and we do high-end ones here in California and in Oregon. They want to create a nice, big theater experience. But most owners—they call them the “popcorn people” in our trade—are not the kind of people who spend a lot of money on sound. Instead they say, “Oh, should I buy pizza ovens?”

This is part of a larger issue as well. Overall awareness of sound is poor, which impacts the people making decisions. When you go through certain hospitals, they have ear muffs on the babies because the incubators are so loud. These are solvable problems, but sound is just not very well understood, generally, by people. It’s like trying to convince us all that we shouldn’t eat saturated fats; people spent a lot of money doing that. However, they don’t seem to be reversing it, now that we found out saturated fats are OK. I don’t see any money going into telling people that they were wrong.

You’ve done installations across the globe. Is there a particular country or culture outside of the United States that you think has a deeper appreciation of sound than others?

JOHN: I think with the festivals in Denmark, they care about the audience experience. We were doing Roskilde, which is a big festival with several stages. A hundred thousand people come per day, and the director told me she was happy because the kids who were sitting far away said that it sounded just as good as close up. She likes that because it means they don’t rush the stage. When you have a hundred thousand people, you have to worry about the kids staying where they are supposed to be, rather than trying to get closer.

We’ve done a hundred concert halls with Constellation [the company’s acoustic system] and they’re not all in Denmark. We do stuff in Italy, in South America, but, overall, I’d point to the culture in Denmark. There’s a focus on making records again and they really seem to care about sound. They write articles about it, and there’s a whole website about how people are destroying CDs with compression. They call it the “loudness wars.”

In Denmark, they are researching these techniques. They are figuring it out and talking about it. They know that music is important and they want to reintroduce it the right way. They realize that the idea of taking all the musical instruments out of the schools is a mistake. We’re lagging behind in the States in these things, and we can learn from some of these things. It’s hard to control the acoustics of a stadium or arena; usually they’re very reverberant. The sound has a tendency to get blurry, so we’re developing speakers that are a much more controlled sound so they don’t hit the room as much; they just hit the audience.

We developed several systems that you can control more like a flashlight than a floodlight. You can hit people and make sure that they get the sound first. We are slowly introducing that into the concert sound. A lot of the work is going into Roskilde, where it’s really big. We have 100,000 people and they all want to hear high-quality sound. They all have internet access to complain and, if there’s any area that isn’t going well, they’ll all go on their phone. They can get to the director through that path. I think the pressure is getting to the point where, with the technology, we’re developing methods of how we can get good sound everywhere in these big spaces using delay towers and different kinds of technology.

HELEN: I’d also point out that there are people all around the world who appreciate good sound. We’ve found that in pretty much every country.