The Infrastructure of Jonestown’s Recording and Speaker Systems: A Photographic Overview

by Joel X. Thomas

(Editor’s notes: The clarity of all the pictures in the essay below improves greatly by clicking on the individual images.

(Joel X. Thomas has been a life long musician, performer, and recording artist. He is both a composer, sound technician, and audio engineer, as well as a certified scuba instructor. His knowledge of the equipment used in both studio and live performances has found a particular niche in understanding some of the nuances that are inherent in the tapes of Jonestown. His collected writings for this site may be found here. He may be reached at joelxthomas@hotmail.com.)

The Q042 Death Tape, recorded during the final hours of Peoples Temple’s life on November 18, 1978, is one of the most analyzed and controversial artifacts of Jonestown. Before we can understand how it was made, we need to examine what the community had in the way of recording equipment – including its microphones and mixers – as well as the broadcast speakers present in Jonestown. This companion article specifically addresses how these systems were used in the creation of the Death Tape.

First we need to discuss the three separate sound systems at Jonestown: The Camp PA, The Pavilion PA, and The Band PA.

The Camp PA (Figure 1) was the system of poles and green “bullhorn” speakers scattered throughout the entire camp. This system is what Jones used to broadcast news and announcements, and to call people to the pavilion. It has no connection to the Q042 recording.
The Pavilion PA (Figure 2) was a system of four speakers mounted on poles inside the pavilion. This system broadcast Jones’ voice via microphone during community meetings known as People’s Rallies.
An additional speaker was mounted high on a pole outside the pavilion facing towards the kitchen and main road area for residents to hear what was being said during meetings. (Figures 3 & 4)
This is the system that the Q042 tape was made on. Jones’ mic was plugged into a Shure M67 4-channel Mic mixer (Figure 5). Also plugged into the mixer was the mic which was passed around in the crowd for people to speak with Jones. A direct output audio signal was sent from this PA system to an external recorder which recorded the Q042 tape.
The M67 was amplified by a Bogen Challenger CHB-50 that it sat upon. (Figure 6)
Both can be seen in the archive pics sitting on the table to the left of the stage. (Figure 7)
The reel-to-reel recorder, the amp and the mixer can also been seen in these two photos from the devastation of the aftermath (Figures 8 & 9). The three microphone cables can be seen still plugged into the M67. Two are microphone inputs, and the third is the M67 mixer output to the Bogen PA amplifier.
Figures 10 and 11
Figure 12

The Band PA was yet a third system used during musical performances of the “Jonestown Express.” It consisted of a Shure Vocal Master model VA 302-C Console PA (Figures 10 and 11) with two speaker columns (Figure 12). This unmistakably recognizable PA system is considered a classic of the 1970’s. It appears in numerous movies from the period, such as the “battle of the bands contest” scene in the 1978 movie Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke, and in the 1987 film The Running Man, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It also made up part of the audio arsenal employed by the Beatles   when they played before 55,000 screaming fans at Shea Stadium in New York City on August 15, 1965.

The Vocal Master PA can be seen on the left side of the stage during the band’s performance during Congressman Leo Ryan’s visit the night of November 17 (Figure 13).
The Vocal Master’s two speaker columns sat in the back of the pavilion stage behind the brass section on the left and the keyboards on the right (Figures 14 & 15).

This Band PA was necessary so that the speakers could be placed behind the band to monitor the singer’s vocals during performance. Using the Pavilion PA system for musical stage shows would have made it impossible for anyone onstage to hear the vocals. Many other Jonestown recordings of musical performances were made using this setup via a direct audio line from the Vocal Master to a recorder, which resulted in only the vocals being recorded to tape.

This was noted – if not always understood – in several Temple memos, including a report made by Sharon Amos about her visit to the Russian Embassy in mid-October, 1978 (Figure 16).
Figure 17

Deanna Wilkinson’s voice – as well as Congressman Ryan’s – were projected through these speakers, as opposed to the normal pavilion PA system. During the November 17 performance, only Deanna’s vocals were plugged into the PA to be amplified. This can be heard in the archive footage: Deanna’s voice gets louder or softer as a function of the location of the camera relative to the proximity of the speakers.

Deanna was singing into a Shure 548S Unidyne IV microphone (Figure 17).

Figures 18 & 19

This was the same microphone Congressman Ryan used in his speech to the community with (Figure 18). The microphone was a “unidirectional mic,” which is to say that it only receives audio from a specific direction. It is equipped with a thumb-operated “On/Off” switch on its barrel (Figure 19).

Figure 20

After the November 17 performance, this PA sound system was disassembled and moved to the right side of the stage, where it can be seen on November 18 (Figure 20). The microphones were then reconnected to the pavilion PA through the M67 mixer for Jones’ final address to his followers.

Originally posted on January 22nd, 2022.

Last modified on February 2nd, 2022.
Skip to main content