The 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair is the most influential, transcendent, historic, and iconic concert in modern history. Countless artists were influenced by the artists that not only played Woodstock but the artists' Woodstock performances. How many times have we seen an electric guitar version of the USA National anthem? Sure Jimi Hendrix probably wasn't the absolute first one to do it and the song would no doubt be performed on electric guitar by others in the years since 1969 whether Hendrix did it nor not. However, let's not kid ourselves. The Hendrix version is the definitive version and has been imitated by and had an influence on so many artists.
McIntosh may be the most influential, coveted, and iconic HiFi brand ever created. Sure there are much bigger brands and more exclusive brands, but none of them can match McIntosh with respect to its storied history, revered products, and ability to transcend the niche of high fidelity audio.
It was only fitting that in August of 1969 McIntosh components were used to amplify the music that defined a generation and continues to be a major cultural influence to this day.
It's common HiFi knowledge that McIntosh gear was at the heart of the Grateful Dead's wall of sound. However, I was out of the loop and had no idea about the roll McIntosh played at Woodstock 50 years ago this week. Literally no idea, until a couple weeks ago, that McIntosh amplifiers were used at Woodstock and selected for the same reasons audiophiles to this day use McIntosh, sound quality and reliability.
Let's start with the sound system at Woodstock. Bill Hanley, the main sound engineer who designed the system and made sure there wasn't a single sonic issue throughout the weekend, used seventeen MC 3500 McIntosh amplifiers. The system was about 10,000 watts RMS into 8 ohms. According to Hanley, "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 [21 m] towers. We set it up for 150,000 to 200,000 people. Of course, 500,000 showed up." ALTEC designed marine plywood cabinets that weighed half a ton apiece and stood 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, almost 4 feet (1.2 m) deep, and 3 feet (0.91 m) wide. Each of these enclosures carried four 15-inch (380 mm) JBL D140 loudspeakers. The tweeters consisted of 4×2-Cell & 2×10-Cell Altec Horns. Behind the stage were three transformers providing 2,000 amperes of current to power the amplification setup.
The McIntosh MC 3500 is an iconic amplifier and one that put the company on the map. Many audiophiles consider it one of the best tube amps every made. In fact, while researching this article I found a pair for sale for $59,999. The going rate is usually much lower than that, but this pair included the first one ever made (serial number 10N01). I can't imagine any HiFi amp produced today, selling for 60x MSRP in the year 2069. Anyway, the MC 3500 is a mono amp that requires 14 tubes! At Woodstock the 17 amps needed 238 tubes total to power the performance. Plus, Hanley Sound no doubt had many spare tubes on hand in the event of a failure. The tube compliment for the MC 3500 is (8)6LQ6/6JE6B output tubes, (2)12AX7/ECC83, (2)6DJ8/ECC88, (1)6CG7/6FQ7, and (1)6BL7GTA.
Reading some of Bill Hanley's quotes about working with McIntosh back then, I couldn't help but think of many of today's HiFi manufacturers and people in the industry. According to Bill, it was really hard to get the McIntosh franchise from Gordon Gow. Today, it's the same. Dealers want McIntosh in their stores, but the company won't let just anyone represent its products. There's an application and vetting process that many dealers fail.
I had a little chuckle to myself when I read that Gordon Gow, "was not very rock’n’roll! Not at all!" And, "He had this image thing with classical music." Based on my experience in HiFi, I'd say the ghost of Gordon Gow lives on in many people in the industry. I mean that in the best way possible. There are many manufacturers in the industry who don't get rock and roll, won't play rock and roll at audio shows, and believe unamplified acoustic music is the end-all be-all of audio reproduction. Again, there isn't anything wrong with that but I find the audio "values" shared between Gow and many others, 50 years later, very interesting.
Hanley Sound selected McIntosh amplifiers for their sound quality and stability. Many professionals back in the 1960s used Bogen amps that didn't even reproduce sound below 50 Hz. The McIntosh amps measured flat from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, meeting the needs to Bill Hanley better than all others on the market. Harman-Kardon also produced its Galaxy series amps for concert sound reproduction back in the 1960s. These were all tube just like the MC 3500, but wen't as stable or as powerful as the McIntosh amplifiers.
In addition to the 238 glass vacuum tubes required to power Woodstock, the MC 3500 had delicate tube sockets like all tube amps. These amps were't made to be packed, unpacked, jostled, and driven over bumpy roads so frequently. The tube sockets were great for traditional use, but concert reproduction requires travel. Thus, it wasn't unusual for a tube to get a bit loose and start glowing bright red until someone could nudge it back into the socket. In addition, the McIntosh amps used RCA connectors for the interconnects, not balanced XLRs. An audiophile may remove interconnect cables once per year, but these guys did it every weekend. The fact that the McIntosh amps held up for the entirety of the Woodstock festival is a testament to their build quality.
In fact, the McIntosh service manager in 1969, Al Hyle, was asked to be at Woodstock to help with any technical issues, should they arise. In true dedicated McIntosh fashion, he declined to go because the McIntosh factory had someone out sick at the time and he needed to be at work. After the concert, Al was sorry he missed the concert, not because of the cultural event that it was, but because he wasn't able to backup the good guys at Hanley Sound.
My first experience with anything Woodstock related was watching the movie on PBS in the 1980s. During the editing process for the movie, Hanley Sound had enough influence to demand that its sound engineer take part in the process to ensure the best sound quality possible. The engineer, Lee Osborne, mixed the audio tapes for the movie using Altec monitors and of course, a McIntosh MC 275 amplifier. The movie went on to be nominated for an Academy Award in 1971 (Sound category (Dan Wallin, Larry Johnson)).
In the years after I first watched the Woodstock movie I became fascinated by all things Woodstock. Above all, it was the music and the artists that consumed much of my teen years. I graduated high school in June of 1994 and didn't start college until September of the same year. Needless to say I had a blast that summer with neither a serious job nor serious responsibilities. That summer my friends and I heard an advertisement for Woodstock 94 on FM radio. This was pre-internet for most of us, so there were no email blasts or Twitter feeds announcing the concert. We immediately called the phone number of the ticket office and ordered tickets. A couple weeks later they arrived and we made plans to rent a car and drive to Saugerties, New York. None of us had a car that could make the 2,600 mile round trip from Minneapolis, MN. Heck, we barely made it to the store without a few rattles and strange smells emanating from our vehicles.
My friends and I piled into an early 1990s dark red (officially Medium Garnet Red Metallic) Pontiac Bonneville on August 10, 1994 and headed to upstate New York. There were four of us in the car when we left, and five of us in the car when we arrived at Woodstock. One of our friends was an intern at Northwest Airlines and managed to get a free flight to Westchester, NY from Minneapolis. I remember telling him that he was going to miss out on the whole experience of driving out there and being with the guys for a couple days each way. As anyone should guess by now, the joke was on me. We drove through incredibly heavy rain storms night and day. The kind where you have to follow the person in front of you because the only thing you can see is taillights. The road wasn't visible. At 18 year's old, taillights were all I needed to see because we were headed to Woodstock!
When we arrived at the Westchester airport, my friend was the only person there and he was sleeping across several seats in the terminal. He squeezed in-between the other two guys in the back seat of the rented Bonneville for the whole 100 mile trip from Westchester to Saugerties. He didn't totally understand why we were so uncomfortable with three people in the back seat and why our general attitude after a couple days in the car was that of very annoyed at the guy who flew 99% of the way.
We arrived at one of the parking areas outside the festival the morning of August 12, 1994. After getting most of our substances confiscated at a the entrance, we boarded a bus for the main Woodstock 94 gate. We showed our naiveté from the moment we entered the event. I remember selecting a spot to pitch our tent, thinking we were a far away from the crowd. Sure, at that moment there wasn't many people around our tent. Plus, at 18 years old one does't really think about the big picture. We pitched our tent and set out to walk around before the better bands started playing. By the time we got back to our tent, it was but a tiny dot among a sea of people and other tents. Wikipedia says there were 550,000 people there and to the best of my recollection it felt like it.
The first day was full of sunshine and great music. I loved the band Live's album named Throwing Copper, released April 26, 1994. Listening to several songs from that album, in the sun, with a few hundred thousand people all getting along was something I'll never forget. The second day started out very similar. Watching Joe Cocker, Rollins Band, Crosby, Stills, & Nash was a blast. Soon the fun was over. During Metallica's set the sound cut out frequently. It was so bad that my friends and I just started walking around, listening to whatever we could hear as background music. It was disappointing, but not as disappointing as the next 24 hours.
Woodstock 94 quickly became Mudstock 94 when the rain started pouring down. Cold, went, muddy, and miserable describes the rest of the festival for many of us who attended. As an 18 year old I planned on sunshine for the entire trip, but not enough sunshine to require sunscreen of course. I had shorts, t-shirts, a pair of shoes, and ignorance of anything not going perfect. I planned on, and expected, perfect conditions. Life was certainly fun back in the days of no responsibilities or cares in the world. But, getting caught unprepared seemed to happen a bit more. A simple umbrella and rain gear would've went a long way that weekend.
Given the poor weather conditions at both the original and 25th anniversary festival, but terrible and unreliable sound at the latter, I wonder if we'd have been better off with a few stacks of McIntosh amplifiers at Woodstock 94. We'll never know but it would've been pretty sweet sonically.
My only surviving photograph from Woodstock 94