Live sound and Talk Box pioneer Bob Heil has died, aged 83: “I can never thank him enough,” says Peter Frampton

Bob Heil
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Audio pioneer Bob Heil, who released his classic Talk Box in 1973 and set the blueprint for live sound systems in rock music, has died at the age of 83.

Born in St Louis, Heil honed his musical talents as a theatre organist, becoming something of an expert in pipe organ technology. Simultaneously, he was exploring his interest in amateur radio.

Heil founded Heil Sound in 1966, and began to experiment with creating larger, better live sound systems than were available at the time. His big break came when Jerry Garcia called to ask if he could provide a PA for the Grateful Dead’s show at the Fox Theater in St Louis in 1970, the band’s regular sound operator being unavailable. Heil took the gig, having been experimenting with a setup that featured more powerful speakers, radial horns, a modified console and a technique for avoiding feedback problems.

The show was such a success that Heil was invited to tour with the Grateful Dead, later going on to provide live sound for The Who, Joe Walsh, Peter Frampton and Jeff Beck. This led to Heil befriending Pete Townshend, who enlisted him to create the quadraphonic sound system that he had in mind and wanted to use while touring The Who’s Quadrophenia album.

“We set up two 15-channel Mavis consoles together, put speakers in four corners and we were able to fly Roger’s [Daltrey] voice around the room,” Heil told Performing Musician in 2008. “When we did Madison Square Garden with Quadrophenia, the PA was enormous. I think we had on each side six to eight 15-inch speaker bins, six to eight radial horns, and about a dozen tweeters. We could get about 110dB to 115dB on that stage before feedback. And the Who loved it, man, because it was loud, and they loved loud.”

Discussing his live sound business with Tape Op in 2008, Heil said: “We were the first company back then to build a package PA. You could come to Heil Sound in 1972 and leave the facility with a complete system: snakes, road cases, everything - even a modular mixer.”

The Heil Talk Box, meanwhile, was originally created for Joe Walsh in 1973, and would end up being used by Peter Frampton, Richie Sambora and many others. Heil sold the manufacturing rights to Dunlop in 1988, and the device is still in use today.

Peter Frampton was among those paying tribute on social media: “I am so sorry to hear of the loss of my friend for so many years, Bob Heil. A musician, inventor, ham radio expert, Heil Sound and microphones. He gave me a very important present mid seventies. The Heil Talkbox!! Can never thank Bob enough. Rest in power my friend.”

Ben Rogerson

I’m the Deputy Editor of MusicRadar, having worked on the site since its launch in 2007. I previously spent eight years working on our sister magazine, Computer Music. I’ve been playing the piano, gigging in bands and failing to finish tracks at home for more than 30 years, 24 of which I’ve also spent writing about music and the ever-changing technology used to make it. 

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