Blow your head
Inventing the multi-track recorder
Les Paul may be synonymous with the electric guitar, but he was also a pioneer of multitrack recording and echo delay. He talked exclusively to Mark Cunningham about his remarkable achievements.
In these days of sophisticated direct-to-disk recording, computer sequencing, MIDI and digital mastering, it's hard to believe that some of the greatest recordings of the 60s were made on a simple four-track setup. Even harder to conceive is the notion that only 15 years previously, the overdub was a mere flight of fantasy in the mind of American guitarist Lester Polfus, better known as the man who gave his name to the most famous Gibson guitar, Les Paul.
It was while working with Bing Crosby in 1949 that Les, 80 years young next year, invented the concept of multitrack tape recording, and like most great inventions it happened by accident, as the elder statesman recalls.
"Bing came over to my house and said, 'Les, I've got something for you in the car'. I figured it was going to be a truckload of cheese, because we were doing a radio programme for Kraft! I never dreamed that Bing would have in his car something far more precious than that. What he had was one of the very first '300' tape machines made by Ampex, and we carried it through the backyard to my garage.
"Up until then, I had been busy making bits of multitrack recording on acetate disc. I got into playing many different parts, using only one guitar to play basslines and drum parts, by tapping or beating the strings. I even got it to sound like a xylophone or a marimba, and all these different sounds were generated by one guitar. I had two disc machines, and I'd send each track back and forth. I'd lay down the first part on one machine, the next part on the other, and I'd keep multiplying them. In other words, I would record a rhythm track on the first disc, then I would play along with the rhythm track and lay the needle down on the second disc, which would simultaneously record me playing along to my rhythm track. The second disc would now contain two guitar parts.
"Going back to the first machine, I would put the needle down onto the disc and record, say, a bassline along with the music from the second disc. Then for other instrumentation, I would just repeat the process, ad infinitum. It was very interesting, because it was in my garage in Los Angeles that I stumbled across and invented all those things that you hear on the recordings like disc delay, echo, phasing, multitracking and recording at different speeds, on songs like 'Chicken Reel' and 'Lover'. So I was very excited, because it was something new and different."
Crosby wasn't the only guinea pig for Les' early experiments:
"I looked at that Ampex machine for maybe three or four hours, and finally I ran into the house and said to Mary (Ford), 'Hey, have we got something here!'. We weren't nailed down to recording in a garage anymore. We could go anywhere! With this tape machine, if I added a fourth head, I could do sound-on-sound recording. It was a mono machine and I had to put the last parts down first. The least important parts went down first, and the important parts last. In the beginning, the recordings were just of me playing on my own, but I added Mary later on. Mary joined me from around the 10th or 11th record that was released by Capitol, which was 'How High The Moon'. Recording these songs backwards, if you like, was really interesting, because you would play the third part first, the second part next and the first part last. I would go down as many as 37 generations before I finished a recording, but the quality would start to deteriorate.
"So the first thing I had to do was work hard on the electronics to make sure that the head hump was minimum and the linearity of the tape machine and mixer was as flat in frequency response as you could get it, knowing very well that nothing is truly flat. The acoustics in the room are not flat, the vibrations of the strings on a guitar are not linear, your ears are not linear, neither are your speakers or earphones. So there is almost nothing flat in frequency response, other than electronically. But that's not going to be the final result anyway, so I had to be very careful to design equalisers and amplifiers, to provide the headroom and the ability to get the correct results.
"I also had to change the curve of the tape machine. Today there are frequency tone recordings that you use to align your machines, but we had to invent our own. In doing all of this we were able to go down many generations of recording and still keep the sound relatively clean. So I would plug the guitar directly into the tape machine via the mixer."
In Les's one-man mission to pioneer multitrack taping, a 'fourth head' for the Ampex was the holy grail: "When Mary and I hit the road with this 300 tape deck, I thought, 'How am I going to get a fourth head?' I ended up calling Ampex and told them that I blew a head, and they agreed to send me a new one! I really didn't know at that point if it would work but on paper, on the back of an envelope in fact, it seemed to me that it would. I was sure of it, at least for the first thousand miles of our East-West trip to New York. By the time we got to Chicago I wasn't so sure anymore, 'cause all the way across the desert Mary was asking me, 'How do you know if it's gonna work or not?'. We'd made radio programmes for NBC and records for Capitol with it, but that was using acetates, in the garage. Mary was right to be concerned.
"I picked up the head from Ampex when we reached Chicago and immediately mounted it. The first thing I did was record me saying 'Hello, hello, hello, hello...', and then I rewound the tape and explained that I was going to use the fourth head to record me saying 'One, two, three, four, testing'. What we hoped to hear was "Hello, hello, hello, hello, one, two, three, four, testing' played together. If it did that, then we could go on until the neighbours complained! And lo and behold, it worked!"
"On one of the radio shows I said that I invented the gas guitar... I was into spoofs."
By spacing the heads on the Ampex, Les was able to achieve tape delay - a technique that was still essential to the recording process until the development of purpose-designed units in the Seventies.
"I was having a drink in a tavern with my buddy and telling him that I was still trying to figure out how to achieve tape echo. I told him to picture himself in the Alps, shouting 'Hello' and then hearing the echo return... 'Hello, hello, hello...'. That's what I wanted, but I didn't want an echo chamber. If that was the case, I'd record in the bathroom. I didn't want reverb. It was just a clean, repeat echo I was looking for. He said, 'What do you mean, like if you put a playback head behind the record head?'. My God, that was it! We both jumped out of our chairs and went to the other side of town to my house, and within 20 minutes we had 'Hello, hello, hello...' all over the neighbourhood! Suddenly, that opened up a whole new world.
"The repeating of the delay was a matter of choice, as to how much delay you want and how much repeat you want," says Les. "It was very easy for me to space the heads on a disc, but on a tape machine I didn't have that privilege because you can't just take a head and move it further away or closer to the preceding head. So what I did was change the speed of the tape machine. If I wanted the echo delay of my voice saying 'Hello' to be faster, I'd just change the speed and consequently tape delay was born."
For many years, Les used only one microphone, an RCA 44BX ribbon mic, changing over to a Neumann around 1952. "The earphones we used were US Air Force earphones, and the frequency response was something like 250Hz on the bottom. If we were lucky we got got a pair that went to 5Khz on the top."
In those early days, it was very easy for a work of recorded art to be spoiled by accidental sounds leaking on to a multitrack master in the making. Especially when Les was on his 12th generation overdub and a loud truck passed his garage. "Someone would knock on the door, the phone would ring, the fire department or police would drive past with their sirens wailing. The fella who lived upstairs above us in New York had a weak bladder, and Mary and I would time our recordings around his regular trips to the bathroom. I knew that he always went at around 2 o'clock, for example. He always made a noise when he got up and walked across the floor, so we knew better than to record! We knew the schedule of the aircraft in the area so we recorded in between that. But what we couldn't do was predict when there was going to be a fire. We lived across the street from a firehouse, so we did have some opposition. But I guess we made it!
"The man upstairs and his wife must have wondered what in God's name we were all about. We rented the basement and that's where we lived and recorded, underneath their home. They would hear Mary screaming, 'Look what you're doing to me'. It was a lyric from a song, but maybe the fifth part of the recording, and they don't hear any of the music because we were wearing earphones. So they never heard any more than one part at a time and people living around us must have thought we were pretty strange! They didn't have a clue about what we were doing until we were more than 30 dubs down and they heard the song. I remember playing in Las Vegas one time, and a lady knocked on the door and said, 'I'll sure be glad when you've finished Whispering'. I was working on 'Whispering' out there and I was adding parts, but the motor would break down and I'd have to get a new one. Then something else went wrong and I had a real tough time with that particular song. I went back and re-recorded parts, but tape would spill out all over the floor. A million weird things were going on."
In the late Forties and early Fifties, Les and partner Mary Ford would often record up to four songs a day, as well as making 15-minute radio broadcasts which showcased Les's songwriting and scriptwriting talents.
"We knew the limitations of what we had, and we didn't have that many things to mess our heads up. Now you can go down to the store and buy millions of toys, boxes and footpedals, whatever. But we were very limited in what we had, so we had to make it work. On one of the radio shows I said that I invented the gas guitar just in case there's a problem with electricity, and I didn't want the electric company getting a monopoly. I was into spoofs."
It was one of these spoofs that led to yet another Les Paul invention, the Les Paulverizer - the recording device attached to his guitar that enabled him to record and playback numerous guitar parts live on stage to the astonishment of his audience.
"I would go down as many as 37 generations before I finished a recording, but the quality would start to deteriorate."
"It started off as a sketch about this mythical device. All I told them was that I got my invention, the Les Paulverizer, and with it I could take Mary's voice and make it sound like The Andrews Sisters or even Bing, or turn my guitar into an orchestra. Then about six years later, it became a reality that I actually built a Les Paulverizer box and used it on stage. The first people to see and hear that, were Vice-President Nixon and President Eisenhower. A few days beforehand I got a call from Vice-President Nixon and some others, saying that they'd like to have me play for the President of The United States. I told Mary it would be a great opportunity to try out my Les Paulverizer. She said, 'Are you crazy? Surely you're not going to experiment and try this out on the President?'. But the darn thing worked! It was the funniest thing that ever happened and, yes, we had a lot of problems with it, but in the end it worked out very well. I've got a lot of good memories about that whole period. We could do on the stage what we achieved in our basement."
Surprisingly, it was several years before the rest of the recording industry caught on to the power of multitracking.
"The real fun of the early multitrack recording period for me lasted only about five years. I was out there all by myself with no one trying to copy my ideas or follow me. It took about five years for people in the industry to figure out that it could be used for purposes other than just Les Paul and Mary Ford.
"At one time, around 1951, I played for the BBC at the London Palladium and they asked me if I would demonstrate on television how we made a multitrack recording, step-by-step. This was where we recorded on disc, then they had me go down the hallway with the disc, down some stairs with the cameras following me, to another disc machine where I recorded another part. The two machines weren't even in the same room or on the same floor. It was a really interesting show that the BBC conceived and had me do. It must have taken hours and hours of planning to do, and they did an excellent job of showing the British viewers how multitrack was born. Somewhere in their library, the BBC has that programme but I have never seen it. You know, for many years they would not accept tape as a broadcast medium. So our shows were not allowed to be played from tape. They had to be transferred from tape to disc. Even the Ed Sullivan shows were not done on tape. I don't think many people know that."
Even the advent of the 8-track recorder had most studios perplexed as to what to do with this new technology.
"It must have been around the mid-Fifties that I remember walking down a hallway with an engineer, and we saw a plastic bag over the top of an 8-track tape machine. He said, 'Look what you started, Les'. And I looked and saw this 8-track machine and said, 'What's it doing in the hallway?'. He said, 'What're you gonna do with it?'. He didn't think there was anyone else out there that could use it apart from me and Mary. People just did not have the foresight that multitracking, this tool, could be used in so many different ways. And it was so terribly important for other things than just to do a multitrack recording of a guitar and a voice. So it took about five years before they began making background recordings and putting a singer on later. They did that with Ray Charles, Patti Page and a lot of people, but it wasn't really done seriously for quite a few years."
As a child, the most important things in Les' life were his gramophone, piano, radio, telephone, harmonica and, of course, guitar - "all the weapons I needed to go out and rattle a lot of cages". Somewhat of a boy genius, it wasn't long before his teachers ran out of things to teach him.
"I asked my teacher at grade school how when I pressed my finger on a record and slowed it down, the pitch changed. So they marched me to the library and I met the professors, yet I'm just a kid at grade school. They began to tell me the difference between digital and analogue, and in no time I was building my own recording machines and broadcast stations."
Les is "mighty pleased" at the way recording technology has developed over recent years, as he sees "all my dreams coming true". As early as 1952 he envisaged a time when digital recording would become a reality.
"I gave a speech at the AES show in front of Sherman Fairchild, Major Armstrong and some of the smartest people in the business. It was not a speech I was prepared for, but I said, 'There have been some things I've been bitching about and you're the guys I'd like to talk to. I am so fed up with gouging out acetate with a needle. It reminds me of a farmer with an ox, ploughing up his field. This is the crudest way of making a record that I can think of. Why don't we stop it now? Don't lay tape on me because tape won't be here tomorrow'. I asked the 800 people there with their bald heads to get their act together and make better speakers, better amplifiers and a different way than analogue to make a tape machine."
As he nears octogenarian status, the recording process is still a source of enjoyment for Les. "I still get a lot of fun out of it. We moved to New Jersey from California many years ago and built a studio complex here which now has 34 rooms. It's called the Les Paul House Of Sound. It's a big, big estate with some beautiful film, video and music recording studios, and we can do just about anything we want. But we only use it for our own stuff. It's been an interesting life and even though I've been in this game for almost 70 years it doesn't make any difference, we just keep going."
Interview by Mark Cunningham
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