On the first fret of Phil Lesh’s new bass two lightning bolts leap out of a block of lapis lazuli. On the third fret a Cosmic Serpent eats its tail; on the fifth, a crescent moon either waxes or wanes, depending on how you look at it; on the seventh, there is an alchemical salamander, and so on, up through the planet Saturn and the infinity sign (equals high A, apparently), all inlaid in mother-of-pearl. On the back of the neck, the god Osiris, the Judge of the Dead, points his divine flail and impassive eyes toward whoever holds the instrument.
The significance is all pretty obvious. This instrument is only one of the most recent productions of the Grateful Dead family’s coven of hi-fi wizards, known collectively as Alembic. An “alembic” in alchemy, of course, is the “instrument of transformation, purification and refinement,” and such a vessel is represented in the Alembic trademark—surrounded by a Cosmic serpent which in turn is clutched by a hand reaching down from a cloud. And transformation and refinement is the Alembic crew’s official gig: “aiming for that thing electronic music has, its ability to transcend technology.” It’s because of them that the Dead’s succession of sound systems—including the one used at Watkins Glen—have set standards for clarity and power.
It started out as strictly Dead family business. The Alembic symbol, for instance, is the work of the same artist who did the cover for Live Dead, among other things, such as getting busted a few years ago with the Dead’s own LSD millionaire. But Alembic is semi-independent now, with its workshop, recording studio and even a modest retail store located in an inconspicuous San Francisco side street about two blocks from the old Fillmore West.
“We’re doing everything under the heading that might be called hi-fi as applied to rock performance,” said an articulate resident wizard named Rick Turner, as he leaned against a display case in the tiny Alembic shop. “That includes instruments, sound systems and recording. And it means whatever the musician wants. Like when Neil Young played Winterland we did his sound system for the show. He likes a distorted sound—he uses Fender Bandmaster amps turned way up. But he needed more volume than his amps could put out in order to fill the hall, so we put a dummy load on the speaker output—a speaker turned down to the floor is what we actually used—and bridged into a McIntosh 2300. So we were able to give him perfectly clean, clear, high-fidelity reproduction of a raunchy, distorted sound.”
Alembic was started five years ago when the Dead were living in the Marin County hamlet of Novato, about 30 miles north of San Francisco. “Owsley started it,” Rick recalled. “He coaxed Ron Wickersham away from the Ampex labs, where he was being a videotape genius. Ron had all sorts of radio experience, too—he’d worked at stations in the Midwest where he was engineer, announcer, everything. Owsley and Bob Matthews [who is currently part of Alembic’s live-recording team] had gotten a 16-track tape machine for the Dead’s studio in Novato, and they got Wickersham working on Phil’s and Jack Casady’s basses. At the time, ‘Alembic’ was just the name for the hangout of the whole Dead trip—their practice hall, everything.
“I had been a musician back East myself, and I’d been doing repair work on guitars on and off for ten years. When I got out here I decided I wanted to build the perfect electric instrument, to put as much craft into it as goes into classical symphonic instruments. So I started winding coils for my own pickups, because I couldn’t afford commercial pickups and anyway I wanted to do it from the ground up. It turned out my pickups had a serendipitous design. They had lower impedance and greater frequency response, and stronger magnetic fields. When I got into Alembic we started collaborating our products, designing electronics to go with the pickups. Lesh introduced me to Alembic. At the time I was working as a jeweler’s assistant, with the aim of learning how to work with metal.”
Phil Lesh not only introduced Rick to Alembic, he is the principal liaison with the Dead. He has frequent collaborative discussions with the instrument makers and continually tries out new basses. Rick picked up Phil’s latest, the one with Osiris on the back of the neck.
“This is the basic body design characteristic of all our guitars,” he said, pointing to a line of light-colored wood that ran the length of the instrument, from the tailpiece clear up the neck. “The neck is continued all through the body of the instrument. Technically speaking, this is something like the Asiatic spike-fiddle design. It gives solidarity. The bodies, by the way, are made at a second shop in Cotati.”
He popped open a cavity on the front of the bass and plucked out a plate dangling with wires and knobs. “This is our standard electronics package. The volume controls are conventional, but we’ve designed our own tone controls with variable lowpass filters, so instead of rolling the highs off at some arbitrary point, you can choose the roll-off point. Here on the back”—he pointed to an odd rectangular pattern of silvery metal streaks—”we’ve used five op-amps, operational amplifiers. Space age technology. They’re equivalent to a bunch of transistors.
“On the body of the instrument we have two pickups for signal and a concealed pickup under the tailpiece for hum control. On another of Phil’s basses, a modified Guild, we’ve installed four pickups, one for each string. The first quadraphonic bass. He can play a chord on that bass that’ll sound like a pipe organ, only with 2400 watts of power going through 40 15-inch speakers.
“All our experimentation is aimed at giving the musician as much control as possible, and at the same time we make it as far out as we can, keeping the instruments compatible with plain equipment, so he can take his instrument someplace and just jam, without having to have, say, the whole Dead sound system.
“Like Weir’s guitar. On his system he’s got true frequency-altering vibrato, and with certain kinds of patching he can get the phasing effect [the hissing jet-roar effect first heard on such records as “Itchycoo Park”]. He has a state-of-the-art parametric equalizer with a continuous-sweep range of boosts, so any part of his range can be automatically boosted.
“For Phil’s next bass we’re making a synthesizer with a ring modulator for purely electronic alteration of the note sound, and tracking filters to add a note automatically at any chosen interval, which in effect will give easy feedback on any individual note, so the musician can have that control as well as the random feedback that has always been part of the Dead’s thing. We’re not aiming at a whole synthesizer approach, but ornamenting the string sound. We want to preserve a warm, tactile sound.”
Asked about Jerry Garcia’s guitar, Rick threw up a hand in resignation. “Lesh is the big experimenter. Garcia tries new guitars all the time, but always goes back to his Stratocaster.”
“Yeah, that Stratocaster. You can always tell that old Stratocaster sound,” murmured Jack Casady, who had just wandered into the shop and was peering around at things through smoky glasses.
“I’m tryin’ to put a knob on a guitar that’ll give Garcia a Stratocaster sound when he wants it,” Rick said. “Actually, when he gets back in town I’ve got a new guitar I’m gonna bounce off him. We’ll see.”
In addition to designing instruments for the Dead, Alembic has built an amazing bass to Casady’s specifications. The massive, heavily carved body bristles with some 16 knobs, switches and toggles; the pickups can be slid along brass trammels, to pick up the sound of the strings at different points along their length. The electronics packages can be snatched out and replaced instantly with differently wound modules for different sounds. Among the other gadgetry there is a unique arrangement of fret dots: Instead of the usual mother-of-pearl dot on the side of the neck at every other fret, there are two pearl dots, between which there is a tiny red electric light. The sensitivity of the light, natch, can be controlled by a knob on the body.
Other musicians Alembic has built for include Banana and Jesse Colin Young of the old Youngbloods and David Crosby. Besides making custom instruments, they do have a “standard” line of Alembic guitars and basses.
The Dead’s sound system is Alembic’s ongoing responsibility. “The Dead’s PA varies from month to month,” said Rick. “For instance, right at this moment they’re playing at Watkins Glen. The system there—it’s not the Dead’s personal system, but it was done by our PA Consulting Committee: Wickersham, Bear, Dan Healey, Sparky, me and John Curl, an independent who works with us—is the same system the Band and the Allman Brothers, everybody, is using.
“At Watkins Glen the sound from the stage speakers is doubled 200 feet from the stage by four delay towers, towers with speakers wired to the stage amps but with a 0.175 second delay built in, so that by the time the sound from the stage speakers reaches the tower area through the air, the signal broadcast from the towers will be synchronized with it. There are six more delay towers arranged radially 200 feet further from those towers—400 feet from the stage—and six more towers 200 feet further out. Sixteen delay towers in all, plus the main PA. I’d put that at 24,000 watts of quadramped stereo power.
“These days, the Dead’s speakers are usually arranged onstage like this: First of all, there are the monitor speakers for the musicians to hear themselves. That’s four stacks of speakers—12-inchers, five-inchers and a bunch of tweeters—with a total of 4000 watts power for the monitors alone.
“Then there are the bass guitar extension speakers on either side of the stage, a vertical stack of a dozen 15-inch woofers on each side. The two guitars and the piano have six or eight 12-inch speakers apiece. Then there’s the quadramped PA system for the singers and the drums; 16 15-inch woofers, 20 12-inch lower-mid-range speakers, 64 four-inch upper-mid-range speakers, and upwards of 40 tweeters.
“That’s a lot of power. But you know, if you were to listen to it side by side with another system with the same wattage, but the kind of system a lot of promoters put up, the other system would probably sound louder. It’s because it would be putting a lot of power through low-budget equipment and getting a lot of distortion. Distortion makes sound louder even though the power is the same.
“But we want a clean sound. It makes you feel better. Loud, distorted sound is fatiguing after a while. You start to get inexplicably tired. It’s because subconsciously you’re trying to disentangle the distortion from the music. And you’re straining to make out the words. This is why, for instance, we have two mikes for each singer, one three inches above the other. This system phases out any signal received by both the speakers, which cuts down on background noise and feedback.”
Alembic has its own recording studio, occupying the premises of the defunct Pacific High Recorders, where the search for the Grail of clean, outdoorsy sound is pursued along different lines. “The studio is Wickersham’s work, mostly,” said Rick. “We have our own way of doing things here too. What’s lost us as much business as it’s gained us is the fact that we don’t use a record board. We mike the session directly into the 16-track. This cuts down several stages of electronics, such as mike preamps, equalizers and line drivers, which effectively just amplify the signal, attenuate it and build up distortion.
“We control the level on the machine rather than on a board. Of course, this isn’t as convenient as sitting at a console and pushing a bunch of sliders. But Europe ’72 is what I’d call an example of how clean a live recording can be. That was overdubbed and mixed here, and Mickey Hart did the same on his Rolling Thunder.“
Finally, there’s the Alembic store, which shows recent signs of having had its act cleaned up: glass display counters, guitar racks and the like. A few months ago it was just a room where the latest guitar designs were stacked loosely around. Now it sells a studiously limited line of musicians’ equipment including Alembic’s own products. The latter include guitars and basses, of course; sound system components such as power supply switching and preamp units; speaker cabinets (“The dimensions are worked out to correspond to third octave wavelengths, which smooths out the resonances and makes the cabinet neutral”) made of 15-ply Finnish birch plywood, intended to survive being dropped out of airplanes by stoned roadies; low-capacitance cables; and, of course, hand-wound pickups.
The next area of design Rick could get interested in is strings. “Strings are currently the weak link in the sound system. I have a line, in fact, on a string-making machine maker, but it would involve at least $20,000 and a lot of research—say, among 400 or 500 alloys. It would be as big a trip as the pickup winding, and that’s been going on for five years. I’ve designed 50 or 60 pickups in that time, and it’s nowhere near over.”
Alembic plainly doesn’t see itself taking over the instrument or sound system markets. The philosophy is more that of its “founding godfather” Owsley: “To raise the level of bossness.” A good professional-quality electric guitar, for instance, can be bought for a quarter the price of an Alembic model. “For some musicians,” as Rick points out, “price is never going to be an object.” And for some wizards, the effect of transformation, purification and refinement on the bossness level is its own reward.