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Striking Nostalgic Chords on the Corridors of Audio Exploration

By Ram Bhavanashi
Editor India and Middle East

Integrated Systems Europe – while the event is known to bring the world of AV together, in the most holistic fashion – it did bring to place this year something that added a rare but very pleasant attraction, perhaps to make it truly holistic. A corridor of vintage audio systems that pulsated the generations decades ago, and a museum of vintage audio systems to augment the understanding of it all. SI Asia delved to some depths of it to find the man behind the mission, and a great story unravelled.

The punchline of ISE 2024 – Your Destination for Innovation – perhaps, had one its finest expressions on the walkway to Hall No. 8. For, the walkway took the visitors, even if one were to call them ‘by-passers’, through a vintage audio journey; a journey that recalled fond memories of  classic rock and pop music times pulsated by Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Led Zepplin, and Pink Floyd, plus the playback of his famous Live in Pompeii concert.

Even as ISE celebrated its 20 years of AV industry showcasing excellence, it sought to relive the 50-year-old musical sensations by showcasing some of those precious vintage audio systems used by the legends of the time. The walkway to Hall No. 8, therefore had on either side a long display of rare collection of vintage audio systems that comprised:

  •  Pink Floyd’s PA system from the Dark Side of The Moon tour of 1973-74
  • Four monitors and an amplifier used to mix The Beatles in Abbey Road Studio 2
  • David Bowie’s PA system from the Ziggy Stardust tour of 1973
  • The Midas monitor desk for Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells
  • Led Zeppelin’s WEM PA system
  • The Who’s bass set-up and flight cases
  • Amplifier cabinets and effects pedals used by Jimi Hendrix
  • A playback of Pink Floyd’s classic 1971 concert in Pompeii through the original PA system

And, that’s not all…

Downwards, in the cellar of the hall, I was practically wowed to see a museum of a vintage sort – practically called the Vintage Audio Museum by ISE itself. In fact, it teamed up for the purpose with the man who personified a whole big vintage audio mission, and I met the person behind this mission, passion, and vision- Chris Hewitt, the Executive Director of CH Vintage Audio Systems, only to realise he is much, much more than what his title reads!

A ‘Musical Archaeologist’ – as a BBC 6 Music programme called him – the nearly-septuagenarian archivist of antique audio systems not just prides collection of audio systems of yore but also a lore galore. For, the incredibly massive collection boasts as many as 500-plus vintage brands, and almost every piece of audio there is a piece of story to tell.

The earliest of them all began with a Western Electric carbon microphone of 1920s, and, probably, the pride and joy come from the Abbey Road Studio 2 1960s Beatles Altec monitors. “I started working in the music/Pro Audio industry at age 16 years in 1971,” Chris began to retell the story that he, perhaps, told many curious media mics earlier. “I was involved in promoting concerts by local bands in Rochdale North of Manchester, and hiring in PA systems for the bands to perform,” he recalled those early (st)ages. “I also worked on the Bickershaw Festival near Manchester in May 1972 which was a large outdoor festival for 40,000 people and featured The Grateful Dead, Captain Beefheart, Country Joe, and Flamin Groovies flown in from the USA- plus The Kinks, Donovan, Family, Incredible String Band and others from the UK.

“The PA system was a combination of the Grateful Dead‘s USA 110 volt wall of sound JBL system powered by McIntosh amplifiers and the UK-made WEM PA system which powered most late 60s and early 70s festivals.”

One could sense an unmissable precision in his detailing down memory lane.

In pursuit of career in the line, he moved in 1974 to London, and worked for a hire company that provided sound for upcoming bands on the London pub rock circuit; he worked for about a year doing sound for Ian Dury at London rock pubs and colleges in the London area. Having realized that there were no hire companies in the Manchester area hiring out pa systems like the ones exploding into use all over London, Chris set up a Pro Audio shop – in 1976 – and hire company back-up in Rochdale.

“I immediately got work from touring Punk bands and Motorhead when they came North from London to do gigs around the North West,” he reminisced of the times.

It was a routine sort of journey though at that point of time, selling/renting out recording equipment to stages, large festivals, night clubs, theatres, schools, and factories. It also included building recording studios and installed sound. It went from strength to strength, for almost 50 years which was like passing a dozen generations in line.

That gave him quite a depth of knowledge and acumen on what equipment has become iconic in the world of microphones, amplifiers, loudspeakers and signal processors/effects units.

“There were pioneers in the audio industry and I wanted to collect them as a museum collection,” comes out the first revelation of the seeding for (a vintage) story. “The iconic pieces of equipment that helped develop the industry; and those iconic pieces of equipment that belonged to famous artists too,” Chris gave in the first account.

Having a passion is one, and putting that piecing it together is the other- bigger than the first. How did he put his passion into action?

“I sold a classic car, a Porsche 911 and put the money into the first pieces of audio equipment,” Chris said in one of his earlier media interviews. “The thinking was that if I ever needed any money it would be far easier selling the odd piece rather than trying to quickly shift a 911!”

And so began audio artefact collection. Almost uninterrupted- till date.

“So far, around the last eight years, I have been amassing an archive of vintage equipment known as CH vintage Audio,” Chris unfolded it all- showing up those iconic models of music – in the vintage audio museum – that stood the test of time, and still springs the same tone and tune.
Chris invested his sweat and blood into building his prideful collection, and sometimes in the hardest fashion. For, his collection doesn’t include mere collection and archiving; it often meant recreation of the original settings of the items collected, as well as some of the popular tracks that pulsated the pop and rock world.

“The 1929 Western Electric Carbon Microphone (popularly known as WEM) arrived with no back plate on it so we had to get our metal worker to fabricate the back plate by taking the dimensions of the front plate and re-creating the circular plate with large holes in,” he reminisced. “Then, I had to find an identical fine mesh for behind the holes, and this was done by buying a large kitchen sieve from Amazon and cutting a sheet of fine mesh out of the kitchen sieve.”

The other notable one reliving the Vintage verve was the Allen & Heath’s 1971 Pink Floyd quad mixing desk re-creation. “It was done entirely from just photographs shared between myself and the original designer Andy Bereza by text message,” explained Chris. “He had one original input channel from which we could then scale up all the channel metalwork and mainframe metalwork for the mixer- from start of drawing up the project to having two input channels that could playback Pink Floyd,” he maps the mettle put into the manoeuvre. “It took only seven weeks.”

The models displayed at the ISE – both on the walkway to Hall-8, and the museum downstairs – do not show the entire lot; but it does play a crème-de-la-crème ensemble of his vast vintage collection.

The re-creation of 1971 Pink Floyd Pompeii Allen & Heath quadraphonic mixing desk was one big attraction though; however, along with it, there was the Pink Floyd Pompeii WEM Sound system which was running and playing audio from Pink Floyd at Pompeii. Also on display were the Pink Floyd Dark Side of The Moon of 1973; Martin Audio and EV/Vitavox system, and the David Bowie of 1973 Hammersmith Ziggy Stardust Turner Amplification Ground Control PA system. Making it all the more nostalgic was the Abbey Road Altec Studio 2 Beatles monitors running along in Hall 8.

The Walkway to Hall-8 contained as many as 50 display cases of iconic items from Rock and Roll history including Jimi Hendrix effects pedals and amplifiers. The bass stack from Jon Entwistle of The Who; a pair of DBX compressors used by John Lennon on Imagine; an Altec mixer used on stage by Neil Young, Crazy Horse, Crosby Stills Nash and Young.

Further, a Vox UL730 amplifier – the fancied unit from the mid-60s – used by George Harrison on the Beatles Revolver and Sergeant Pepper albums was another one not to miss.

Various display cases contained a large collection of microphones of the 1960s and 1970s from Shure and AKG, including AKG D25’s used on the Get Back sessions; Queen Shure drum kit microphones from Live Aid and Sennheiser MD409N microphones used by Pink Floyd at Pompeii.

Watching them today on display is a rare privilege for many, while finding them still in functional mode is a sheer nostalgia for most. “This is just incredible,” said Jeremy Bosselli and Andrew Gaultier, the two music enthusiasts from the French town of Metz. “Finding so many audio systems that were used by legends decades ago is simply exciting,” they added. “We only find an odd piece of analog here and there, but this is sheer pleasure to see them all organized.”

While it is not an easy job to do, it’s the passion, and vision that built it, of course, with its own lows and highs.

“In 1986, I had a £30,000-worth, almost new aluminium box truss stage roof stolen after a festival, and had recently moved a new insurance company who refused to pay out on the claim,” Chris recalled the one big hiccup in what was otherwise turning out to be a passionate rendition. “I spent £10,000 trying to sue the insurance company but realised it was going to cost too much to win the case, so shrugged it off and carried on.”

However, he did have many a high to pride on.

  • • Getting the job to re-create David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust 1973 Hammersmith Odeon PA System at Hammersmith Odeon in 2021 for the Disney Sex Pistols TV Series along with all the other PA systems for the Sex Pistols concerts in the movie
  • Re-creating some tracks from Pink Floyd at Pompeii using the 1971 Pink Floyd Pompeii WEM sound system
  • Re-creating the equipment for Elton John’s first US appearance at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles for the film Rocket Man
  • Providing vintage stage equipment for the Queen film Bohemian Rhapsody

There is another prideful thing for Chris which also worth getting into libraries for posterity, besides being the collector’s possessions: documenting all that nostalgic music industry evolution in the form of books. He so far has released three volumes on the history of large PA systems that were received with rave reviews from musical enthusiasts.

“It’s a great pleasure having the books so well received from people in the industry all over the world.”

A great sense of achievement for the man who built a ‘case’ of a grand musical tradition- to watch, travel and revel!

Having done all that- what’s the ultimate objective now?

Said Chris, with an aged, but untiring tone: “To try and preserve as many important and iconic items from the history of live and recorded sound so that there is a CH Vintage Audio archive that can be exhibited around the world; so future people who come into the industry can see how the industry has developed and will continue to develop.”

A commendable ambition of a grand mission in motion.

So commended Prashant Govindan, an avid music enthusiast, industry expert, and Founder-Director of Generation AV India: “Chris is probably one of the few left who have mixed for legends like Pink Floyd. These professionals used pure analog electronics and experimented with new loudspeaker concepts before the advent of modern line array systems.”
Setting up a venue back in the day meant hauling and rigging multi-ton loudspeaker cabinets, ensuring that they were all connected properly and they provided adequate coverage for the massive stadium sized venues.

“They worked closely with the bands to ensure that the systems were an extension to the music and often an iconic feature in many a concert,” concluded Prahant. “Chris, in his current role, is helping resurrect some old and vintage sound systems so that the current generation of audio enthusiasts and engineers can experience some of the greatest sound systems ever built.”

A pure vintage music journey for those who hear with their hearts.

CH Vintage Audio