Bill Hanley & Hanley Sound

One of the most important components to any live event is the sound. In the case of music, and aside from the talent required to deliver it, the quality of the live sound the artist is attempting to create is paramount. That being said, it might be the most overlooked aspect of the experience to the listening audience. Fortunately for us, the listener, not everyone has overlooked this aspect of a live concert experience and Bill Hanley of Hanley Sound of Medford is a testament to this claim. Known among his peers as a first generation sound engineer pioneer, Hanley’s contributions were game changing in the burgeoning field of sound reinforcement.

Bill Hanley founded Hanley Sound over 50 years ago in Haines Square, Medford MA. To this day his modus operandi was to change the way we hear large-scale arena events. The need was certainly there with music festivals rapidly emerging in the 1960’s and 70’s that included larger and larger audiences. Bill Hanley along with younger brother Terry realized that if events of this magnitude continued to be heard through antiquated public address systems much would be sacrificed and lost in the process. Especially in an era where musical performances were taking center stage and outdoor venues were being commissioned to accommodate greater and more discriminating listening audiences. Bill Hanley explains it best, “When rock and roll came, with the Beatles and the noise level of what was happening on the stage, the necessity for having big and good equipment and understanding what was happening got very important to them.”  Bill Hanley’s focus was simple: to give those seated in the last seat in the house the same experience of those seated in the front row.

As it is with most problems, the issue is more easily identified than the solution implemented-so how did the Hanley do it? Probably the most appropriate word to describe his approach to the issue was innovation. For starters, Bill Hanley decided that the soundboard should be located centered in front of the stage instead of back or side stage where most venues at the time had it to preserve seating. Now most commonly referred to as––Front of House (FOH). During the 1950s-60s most acts were using only one microphone for the singer. This was the extent of the attention paid to the sonic experience. As Bill Hanley put it, “In the old days, when the big bands would come up to Hampton Beach Casino or come into Boston Garden, they would end up with one microphone for the singer, and the guy that’s going to announce for them, and that’s about it.”

Hanley should be noted as not inventing any one of the aforementioned technologies. However he did combine existing technologies e.g. recording microphones, hi-fidelity amplification, cinema sound and integrated it into a “system of sound” creating a disruption and shift in the world of public address. For the better part of the 1960s Bill, Terry and the dedicated crews at Hanley Sound spent time much time touring the country. Wherever there was a large-scale event happening, Hanley Sound was commonly present deploying speakers and other equipment in an effort to improve the sound quality. Bill Hanley and those at Hanley Sound provided sound for countless venues and events through the years. Happenings such as the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration, and the iconic Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969 where Hanley projected sound for over 400,000. Here Hanley his exhausted crews built one of the most expensive, elaborate and powerful sound systems at that time. Hanley Sound should also be noted for recording the festival’s award winning soundtrack.

As the music industry grew and became more profitable arena concerts became a way of life for touring musicians and promoters. Post Woodstock Bill Hanley became known as the “Father of Festival Sound,” for his work on over ¾ of the rock and pop festivals of this era. Post Woodstock, an onset of fear came over communities who were worried that their small towns would be overwhelmed by the gathering counterculture. Up until then, Hanley Sound thrived, however one court injunction after the other shut large-scale events down. As a result, Hanley lost thousands.

Hanley’s impact was impressed upon an elite list of performers during this time. Groups such as The Cowsills, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Youngbloods, and The Chambers Brothers are just a few of the artists that benefited from the technology brought to light by Hanley Sound and the efforts of its leader Bill Hanley.

It is easy to overlook sound, since it is not center stage or the primary focus of an event. However we can thank Bill Hanley for this change of focus. Its hard to imagine what live outdoor sound would be like if it were not for his innovative contributions. These days Bill Hanley is semi-retired while his brother Terry currently operates Hanley Audio Systems, Inc. in Woburn.

For more Information:

John Kane, author, scholar, and educator made the history of Hanley Sound the focus of his 2014 doctoral thesis. John has created a web page about his research as well as a documentary about Bill Hanley’s contributions to live sound: http://www.thelastseatinthehouse.com

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