Bob Heil Interview
The word Pioneer best describes Bob Heil.
He is the guy credited with making huge advancements in the development of sound systems for Rock acts like The Grateful Dead and The Who.
And, if that isn’t enough he also invented the Heil Talk Box which was made famous by Joe Walsh and Peter Frampton.
These days, Bob is part of TWIT (This Week In Technology), a weekly HD video webcast about Ham Radio. Hosted by Leo Laponte, it’s recorded ‘Live’ every Wendesday night at 8p.m. CDT (Central Daylight Time) at live.twit.tv. And, Bob has now entered the microphone business with his PROLINE microphones.
Q – Bob, if The Beatles hadn’t become as popular as they did in the mid 1960’s would there have been as much of a need for the sound systems you created?
A – Oh, absolutely. Oh, yeah.
Q – Up until 1965, no rock group had played stadiums like The Beatles did. But, you’re saying Beatles or no Beatles the need would have been there?
A – Oh, yeah. Things get better and better, peoples’ sound systems in their cars, in their homes, on their televisions. They all got better. That’s what really drove a lot of the sound re-enforcement world, the fact that if the artist didn’t have a good sound system, a lot of people had better sound systems in their homes or cars. So, it was an evolutionary thing. It had nothing to do with a certain group. Or course The Beatles never had a good P.A. I often wonder where they would be if they had a decent P.A. that somebody could’ve heard them.
Q – That’s why I say after The Beatles Shea Stadium appearances, other rock groups said we got to have some improvements here.
A – Yup.
Q – Did you like rock ‘n’ roll music as a kid?
A - I’m not the guy to ask that to because I started my life as an accordion player when I was 10. When I was 12 years old, my loving parents bought a Hammond organ. It was a C-2. It was the model before the B3. The B3 hadn’t been born yet. They spent a lot of money. I started playing and teaching myself. Two years later at the age of 14, I started playing professionally in restaurants here in St. Louis, on the eastside. Then when I was 15 I got to become the substitute organist at the Fox Theatre and I still play. I learned by voicing and tuning those Wurlitzer pipe organs in the early days of the Fox. It was really a great thing. It had become most of my college education on how to listen as you voice and tune a pipe organ. We’re not talking church organ. We’re talking big Wurlitzers in these theatres. So, my whole life early on was listening to George Wright, Jesse Crawford, all of the great theatre organists. I really paid very little attention to rock ‘n’ roll. Not that I didn’t like it, it was just that my interests were dead in the center of the world o was living and creating – the Wurlitzer theatre organ. I started playing professionally at the age of 14 and I did that for many years, 4 hours a night, six days a week. I had a pipe organ in one restaurant I was in for 6 years. I built a pipe organ and put it in there. When it came to listen to any contemporary music – nope. Only when I got tired of playing all those many years, a decade and a half, I thought I’d come back to my hometown of Marissa, a little town of 2,000 people in the coalfields of southern Illinois. I opened up a music shop. I was going to teach music. Teach piano, teach organ. Except, kids started bringing in their amplifiers and I’m going what is this? Well, it was broke. (Laughs). I guess it was broken. They probably wanted to make it go to 12 and it only went to 10. Well, inside of a Fender amplifier it looks like the modulator of in my Harvey Walls Ham radio transmitter. Also, concurrently with this organ career I had become a Ham radio operator and boy oh boy that really was a Big Deal, because again it was part of my education, learning how to build and design things as well. Later on in life when kids started bringing their amplifiers to me I could fix ‘em and it became quite the store, one of the few and the only professional music shops in 1966. Guys would come from all over the country and we’re talking about the group ‘Kansas’, ‘REO Speedwagon’. Michael McDonald. All these guys around the mid-west would come to Ye Olde Music Shop. It was a very famous store. The Grateful Dead would come. Frampton would come. We had instruments that no one else would have. I had tons of very, very good stuff, McIntosh Amps, 10 or 12 Les Pauls at any one time. Music shops in 1966 didn’t know that . They didn’t have that kind of stuff. But, I quickly learned that these groups needed this kind of stuff. We became a Hammond Organ dealer selling lots of B3’s, renting a lot of stuff. Then I got into building PA Systems ‘cause the PA sucked so we started another venture along with the retail music in the construction and building of amplifiers for dealers around the country and that’s how Heil Sound got started as a manufacturer. So, it all stemmed from the fact that my Ham Radio electronics and my gift of being able to listen. No matter what it was, the Wurlitzer theatre organ or if it was Jerry Garcia’s solo guitars or if it was Joe Walsh’s Prof Max that I built for him. You had to listen to that and harmonics and things that they created. A lot of people didn’t pay attention to all that. Well, I did. That’s what really started it, being able to listen to these guys. You didn’t have one favorite over another. It was all to me music and that’s what led me into the career and ended up where we are.
Q – When Jerry Garcia walked into your store, were you familiar with The Grateful Dead’s music?
A - Well, I walked into him. They came to St. Louis and they were in New Orleans the night before. At the end of that show the band picked their gear up and took off and their soundman Owsley had been loading the truck and when he got it all loaded, the F.B.I. and the drug agents took him by the arm and took him back to California along with the gear because he was a probation. He wasn’t supposed to be out of the state of California. They had followed him to this gig. Well, the group came on to St. Louis not knowing. We didn’t have cell phones. We hardly had telephones, right? They got to St. Louis. They roll into the Fox at 4 o’clock and there’s no PA. What do you do now? The stagehand at the Fox, a couple of years prior to that; this is the same stagehand that more than a decade and a half ago that pushed the button to bring the organ up and down while I played there as a child. He was still there. A couple of years before that he had given me a couple of large speakers, A4 Alters, big stuff, 8 foot by 6 foot. Monsters. They had taken them out and were going to replace them. I had just happened to be going by the theatre that day. They were throwing them out. I said, ‘Can I have them’? and that was the nucleus of this PA I started building. Monster stuff. Nobody was doing that. He called me and said, ‘Do you still have those big speakers’? I said, ‘I do George’. He said, ‘Talk to this guy. He came in here without a PA’, and he handed the phone to Garcia. He said, ‘Man, what do you got’? I told him MacIntosh Amplifiers, 8, 4 Altees, cell horns, radio horns, JBL Drivers. ‘Man, get that up here’. So, we did. And, blew them out onto Washington Avenue. He picked us right up out of there that night and put us on the road with him. It really started a big movement in rock ‘n’ roll sound. Nobody was doing that yet. They weren’t doing it at that level, and I didn’t know it. I’m just a Ham Radio Operator building a 30,000 watt PA. What did I know? (Laguhs)
Q – So Garcia took not only your PA System but you as well out on the road with him?
A – Yeah. My crew.
Q – What then happened to your music store?
A – I didn’t leave at the end of the night. I had guys that were doing that. One of the really good things about that is that two of the guys worked for me were from Farmingdale, Illinois, SIU, the Party School of the World in those days. They were Grateful Dead fans and they knew every piece of music and that really helped ‘cause they could mix so well. So, John and Kimball took off with The Dead and my truckload of gear. They went to New Jersey up on the east coast doing the rest of that little tour. We get the front page of Billboard Magazine that Ye Olde Music got the contract for the Grateful Dead. Of course a lot of people would have killed to get that. I didn’t kill; I was just in the right place at the right time I guess. Everybody was calling us then. Everybody from Z.Z. Top to The Who, Jeff Beck and just on and on because it became very well known that Heil Sound had ‘the’ masterful PA in those days. And, we did!
Q – Could you crack out these PA systems fast enough to keep up with the demand?
A – We had 35 people working in that plant. Sure.
Q – Did you personally go out on the road with say The Who?
A – Sure. I was with most of The Who because I want to be out there. I went to sit behind the drummer. I want to know what’s working, what’s not working. I want to be onstage with them, seeing what their problems are, what their happy’s are and I still do that. Even today I want to be there. I want to work with the engineers. I gotta know what their problems are because I can do fix it. Any other co. – No. They take the other attitude – you just use our stuff, la de da, aren’t we hot? Well, good for you. The situation is, musicians have needs. I as a musician know that with this ear that I have for all this voicing and tuning and listening I learned as a child tuning those Wurlitzers. I know what these guys and gals have to go through sometimes and they get very agitated. Well, they shouldn’t. Why did they? Why do they? They do it because nobody cares about them. Here’s my great PA. Ain’t I cool? Well, maybe you are, but are you really helping this artist? Are you doing something to improve there artistry? Most of the cos. don’t know what that’s about. I do ‘cause I was there on both sides of the stage.
Q – Did you grow to like the music of some of these people you worked with?
A – Oh, absolutely. Oh gosh, all of Joe Walsh’s stuff. Joe and I are very good, close friends and we have been since The James Gary because he’s also a Ham operator. We just really meshed and the glue that keeps us together is the Ham Radio. A lot of guys would think its music. Well, that too. (Laughs). Ham Radio is what keeps us together. To really Fast Forward it, I got off the road in 1980. I just got really tired of 15-16 years on the road. Here’s a guy that never tasted beer or smoked a cigarette. When Punk Rock came in and “Moonie” (Keith Moon) killed himself, the music scene in 1980 was a little bit lax. It lost a lot of its sparkle. Punk Rock was coming in and that I didn’t like at all, but, I sold the co. I said ‘That’s it’ and got to building microphones for my beloved Ham radio and we’ve become the largest manufacturer in the world of microphones and headsets for that industry. We’ve held that position since 1980. About 6 or 7 years ago I was at Joe’s house in California. We had a home out there ‘cause I was there for about 10 years on and off. A second home of course. Our plant is in Illinois. But, we’d go out there to be with Joe and help him along. He said, ‘You gotta build me a better microphone’. I hadn’t looked back. When I slammed the door in 1980, I slammed it. I was looking into Ham Radio and that was it. But Joe said, ‘You gotta build me a better mic’. I said, ‘Well, how come’? He pulled out his little SM-58 Shure and said, ‘Your Ham radio mic is better than this’. I said, ‘Oh, c’mon. You’re out of your mind’! He took me down to his little studio and proved to me that I was wrong. Our Ham radio microphone out-performed an SM-58. ‘Well, why is everyone using them Joe’? Habit and ego. They haven’t changed anything in 45 years. So, it was Joe’s ears, his friendship and my soldering iron and we got to designing some new cool technology that hadn’t been done before. That’s what started our PROLINE Microphone business and of course we’re still building lots of HAM Radio stuff. But now, we have really brought some great new microphones to the entertainment industry because of Joe and a lot of other people. Our PR-35 has just become ‘the’ vocal microphone; Stevie Wonder, Carrie Underwood, Charlie Daniels, Z.Z. Top. I mean the list goes on and on and on. They’ve all tossed out their little ball microphones and it’s all this large, diaphragm stuff from Heil with 40 dB of rear. No other microphone on the planet will do that. You talk in the front of it, turn it around backwards, 40 dB’s gone. Well, you have a whole different scenario now because the monitors don’t feed back. You don’t have this hollow sound of a stupid ball microphone. It’s like a big Hi-Fi system out there. It’s all because, a lot of these artists I’ve worked with all those 40 years ago allowed me to sit behind their drummer, see what the problems are and build the microphones for them. That’s what we do. It’s really a blessing and I’m really happy to bring ‘em new technology which is what none of them have brought. They’ve all moved off-shore. They don’t give a damn. For sure they’re not travelling around in a truck like I am and have the ability and the friendship of these groups to sit on a stage with scopes and generators and meters and see what their problems are. That’s what really built Heil Sound from the PRO side of the microphone business.
Q – Is Joe Walsh a partner with you in this business?
A – Oh, No, No, No. He just gives me ideas, as did Joan Baez as did so many groups out there. ‘Hey, build me this! Hey, build me that’! kind of jokingly and I do it. The joke is all on us because the product is great.
Q – Did you work with people like Janis Joplin? Jimi Hendrix? Jim Morrison?
A – I did several shows with Jimi in St. Louis. He came through there at the Kiel Auditorium. Janis Joplin was there. I wasn’t doing their tours. I just did a one up show with them.
Q – You developed this Talk Box that really helped give Peter Frampton his sound, but then you turned around and sold the rights to that to Dunlop Manufacturing.
A – Yes.
Q –Why did you do that? Was that something you didn’t see gaining in popularity?
A – I did it for Joe in 1971 when we did ‘Rocky Mountain Way’. It was a continuation of a thing that one of our HAM Radio buddies did in 1938, Alvino Rey. He was the guitarist with the King Family. Alvino took a throat microphone, like they used in World War II for the aircraft ‘cause the microphone wouldn’t work it was so noisy in those airplanes. You’d have this throat microphone you’d strap around your throat and they had little modules on it that would pick up the vibrations of your voice box. Well, he took that, put it on his wife and instead of using it as a microphone input, he plugged his guitar amp out of it and it modulated her voice. So when she would sing, he would play guitar and her voice would modulate like the guitar. Well, that was 1938 and it remained dormant for many years. In 1950, Pete Drake who was a popular steel guitar player in Nashville took that a little step further and built a little diaphragm with surgical convenient hold backs. Then he did a song called ‘Forever Yours’. But, he just built that one. When Joe went to a studio he was the guitar player for it and he brought along as he called it The Talking Actuary. It’s 1950 when he did that. And Joe did some things in the mid 60’s as did Frampton. Frampton played on some things with George Harrison and Pete Drake was the steel guitar player behind it. He had his little box there and those guys never forgot that but there wasn’t anything going on. So, Joe recorded ‘Rocky Mountain High’ with that in the studio and Joe and I were putting ‘Barnstorm’ together and Joe said, ‘What are we going to do for that voice thing’? So, two HAMS, Joe and I, we got together with our soldering irons one afternoon in the plant in Marissa and came up with a 250 watt JBL Driver and surgical tubing and built our self a high pass filter and the next thing you know, Talk Box. Well, I built it for Joe. Just Joe. Like I did that first microphone. I wasn’t looking beyond it yet. But then, ‘Rocky Mountain’ started becoming very popular. And I thought wait a minute, so I put it into a version we could produce as a retail item. We built tens of thousands of those and of course Frampton, his little girlfriend Penny, he wrote a song ‘Penny For Your Thoughts’. She had called one day and said, ‘Hey, I’m with Peter and I need a Christmas present for him’. She had gotten married in my home about a year earlier, in Marissa. I said, ‘Well, I’ll send you a Talk Box’. She took that Talk Box and gave it to him for Christmas and you know the rest of Peter Frampton’s Story.
Q – I do.
A – If you go look up Talk Box in Wikipedia it tells you that story. There’s also a great video he and I did last year sitting down in a rehearsal hall in Nashville. It was very compelling. It was very good about what happened in some early days.
Q – Was Joe Walsh upset with you after you made the Talk Box for him and then Peter Frampton uses it and gets a big “hit” out of it?
A – No. It didn’t bother him. But then I got out of that whole scene in 1980 and the Talk Box is still around. Bon Jovi came up in around ’85. His uncle Tony Bongiovi who was a HAM and owned the Power Station in New York City; Tony and I used to talk on 40 meters on the HAM Radio band. Tony said, ‘I want to get one of those boxes. My nephew is putting a band together here. We need a hook’. And the hook was the Heil Talk Box and ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’. I was out of the music business. My focus was HAM Radio and then things started happening there and I though wow!! that thing needs to be on the market. But, I really didn’t care to get back into the music business with music dealers. I know Jim Dunlop so Jim brought the rights to that and he builds it just like we did. In fact, he builds it a little better because the technology of the drivers are a little better today than we had back in 1970. So, that’s what happened to it and I’m really happy about it because we were a part of it. We get our little royalty but I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the product that’s out there for someone.
Q – The technology for musicians today is so great. Too bad the musicians aren’t writing the caliber of music that used to be written.
A – Yes, absolutely.
Q – And stadium gigs seem to be a thing of the past.
A – Pretty much.
Q – You’re fortunate to have been able to achieve as much as you have in your lifetime.
A – Well, it’s been a very exciting career and of course the culmination was the fact that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has a room right beside Les Paul’s room dedicated to Heil Sound. That’s extremely humbling and very honorable. I just could never believe it, but we did some very exciting things and some meaningful things that no one was doing. You don’t do something and think I’m going to end up in a famous hall. No, no, no. You do things because you love it and the need is there and you have the gift to be able to do it. And that’s exactly what happened. The one story that’s very cool is I did the entire ‘Who’s Next’ tour all over the world. After the tour was over, Pete called me one day which would have been ’73 and said, ‘Bob, come over. I want to talk to you’. So, I go over to England and sit down in his studio and he said, ‘You know Quad Sound is big right now. Wouldn’t it be great if you could make Roger’s voice go around the arena’? Could you do that in Quad’? I said, ‘Yeah. We can do that’. He said, ‘You go build it and I will go finish writing it’. And he wrote Quadrophenia and finished it. I went back and designed the first Quad PA system. And that mixer which was built in England by one of our sister cos. IES, Bill Haugh, Bill was an incredible engineer. He was a great guy. He and I really got along good and we came up with this mixer and there were 4 of them built and one of them reside in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with one of the speakers, there were about 12 speakers in the back stacks of the rear channels. One of the actual boxes in there. So, we’re very excited about all that.
Q – I would imagine if anyone has an original piece of equipment that you built, it’s worth a lot of money.
A – Well, I see a lot of it on E-Bay. I hear from a lot of guys that are still using it. Our amplifiers were just really great. Our mixers were so meaningful. We were the first guys to build modular mixers. I did that because I built them for a lot of small groups playing in bars and local clubs. Well, they couldn’t afford a lot of stuff. I would build like a 10 channel frame, but, you could buy 4 channels. And, as you increased your wealth you could buy another channel, plug it in. You could buy another one, plug it in. The next thing you know you had a 10 channel board. I had a great 2 band shelving EQ. A 3 band shelving EQ that had electronic crossovers. Nobody had ever heard of electronic crossovers in that market. We built our own speakers out of fiber glass and we could so some very cool things. Paul Klipsch was a dear mentor of mine. My gosh, I learned so much from Paul Klipsch. He came to me wanting to see what we were doing with 30,000 watts of PA. He taught me so much and I was so blessed that I knew Paul and he helped me so much. I learned the most from being out on the road with Peter Frampton, and Peter Townsend and Joe Walsh. The Grateful Dead and listening and seeing and understanding what they wanted. You see most engineers and I would have engineers talk to me about it, who walked around with pocket protectors in those days, true electrical engineers, they’d say, ‘Oh, you guys are crazy. They love that distorted sound and the other one doesn’t want that distorted sound’. I said, ‘Well, you have to understand what type of distortion’. They’d say, ‘What do you mean’? Distortion is distortion’. I said, ‘No, it’s not. It can be used as a part of their sound’. No, no, no. And so, manufacturers never got with the program for some of these guys because they didn’t understand what they needed. Do you agree with it? Maybe not, but, you understood what they were trying to do and that has been my basis all my life. Right now in microphones we’re absolutely blowin’ ‘em all away.
Q – You give that personal touch.
A – Well, listening to them. Joan Baez picked up one of our PR -30’s which is an overhead dynamic. I don’t build condensers. I was put on this earth to get rid of condensers. I hate condensers. They should never be here. They’re a scourge. They’re too sensitive. They pick up the whole damn room. They’re raspy on the top end. You gotta have phantom power. Name me one reason we need condensers. Ego and Habit. Well, get the hell out of here. Why don’t you design something that sounds better than them that’s a dynamic? Nobody has done it except Heil Sound. And it was all because of listening to Joe and Peter and Jerry and all these guys I listened to. What do you need? Well, we did it! We didn’t rely on our lavruls. We didn’t go with ego. We built what they wanted and what they needed. Nobody was doing that. That’s what it takes my friends. You have to listen and you have to perform. Manufacturers don’t do that today. They build something from their stupid little white room design building. ‘Isn’t this great’? Well, it might be great for you, but does anybody else think it’s great? And then they go out and spend $3 -$4 million dollars on an ad campaign to tell you how great it is and that’s how it works. Marketing. We don’t do any ads. My ad is having the artist talk among themselves, the engineers share among themselves. That’s what builds a product and we’ve been very blessed with all of that.
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