Les Pauls New Sound

December 1, 2009

Les Paul Was A Maste Storyteller, And more than a few eyebrows have soared skyward in response to his taller tales. But there is no question that after secretively toiling away in his Los Angeles garage studio for many months, Paul emerged in late 1947 with the first two songs from a batch of extraordinary recordings embodying what became known as his “New Sound.”

Paul used a pair of modified cutting lathes and a pile of acetate discs to produce what he called “multiples”—crude multitracked recordings on which he played all the parts, complete with stunning and previously unheard effects. His arrangements of “Lover” and “Brazil”—which featured drums and percussion, some sort of bass, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, and additional guitars sped-up to play twice as fast and an octave higher— blew millions of minds when they were released in early 1948.

Of course, Paul didn’t dream all this up overnight, or even during the ’40s. His first multitrack musings took place around 1927, when he purportedly punched additional holes in the paper rolls used in his mother’s player piano, creating new harmonies and melodies. Paul also spoke of fashioning a mechanical disc recorder using the lathe in his father’s garage when he was 12, and of making two-track recordings on another homemade lathe in 1933 by cutting one track into an acetate disc as usual, and then cutting a second groove by putting the cutter head in between the grooves of the first one. (How he was able to play both tracks back in sync was never satisfactorily explained, though he did say the process “didn’t work very well.”)

By the time Paul began developing his New Sound, he was bouncing back and forth between a pair of disc-cutting lathes. He would record one part using the first machine, and then play that recording back through a mixer while simultaneously monitoring the sound through headphones and playing a second part. The output of the mixer was routed to the second disc recorder, resulting in two “tracks” on a single disc. To get additional tracks, he’d just continue bouncing back and forth. Obviously, the more times he dubbed back and forth, the less distinct the original tracks would become, and the more noise and distortion would be added overall. To deal with those challenges,Paul employed several ingenious devices and techniques.

First, the 4-channel mixer—one of at least two built by Wally Jones—was designed to perfectly match the input and output levels of the various pieces of gear, resulting in the quietest possible performance. The mixer’s guitar input fed a custom tube preamp with a 5kHz boost that added brightness and bite, but there was still a problem with high-frequency loss due to the acetate discs themselves.

“As you got closer to the inside of the record, you would lose highs,” Paul told GP. “I got around that by recording at 78rpm on the outside of a 17" disc [almost certainly a 16" disc]. That gave me a lot of room, and I was burning up those discs. That’s why the quality was so great. I was going at 78rpm with the EQ set for 33i rpm.”

Paul would also boost high frequencies when recording the initial tracks so they would still sound bright after multiple overdubs, and he employed what amounted to manual limiting. He’d watch the meters (a decibel meter rather than a VU meter on the Wally Jones mixer) as he played, keeping the signal as hot as possible before distortion for maximum presence and clarity.

To get the guitars to play at double speed, Paul ran both disc cutters at half speed while recording, meaning that he was playing along with backing tracks running at half speed and an octave lower. (Try this some time if you doubt its difficulty, and then listen to “What Is This Thing Called Love” and “Caravan,” and imagine conceptualizing and playing all of those complex sped-up runs and harmonies.) Then, once the recording was brought back up to normal speed, the new guitar parts would be playing twice as fast and an octave higher. To easily preserve the half-speed/octave relationship when the tracks were run at 78rpm, Paul’s machines were modified to run at 39rpm. To get delay effects, Paul tapped the playback needle after the cutter head, so that what was being recorded would play back a moment later, though “Caravan” is the only disc recording to feature the effect. He also claimed to have employed phasing and flanging (“I would start the two cutters out together, and then just slow one down and speed it up ever so little”), though that would necessitate having a third disc cutter, and neither effect is readily detectable on the early acetate-disc recordings.

Phase two of Les Paul’s New Sound got underway in 1949, when Bing Crosby gave him an Ampex Model 300 reel-to-reel tape recorder (the Model 200, introduced on October 1, 1947, was the first tape recorder commercially produced in the U.S.). Almost immediately, Paul figured out that by adding another playback head before the existing erase, record, and playback heads (so that the part recorded initially was played back by the first head, and simultaneously dubbed to the record head as it fed headphones), he could make “sound-on-sound” recordings with a single machine. By this time, he had partnered with Mary Ford, and her layered vocal parts graced nearly all of his recordings.

But with the increased audio quality of tape came increased technical challenges. If Paul made a mistake when bouncing from one disc-cutter to the other, he still had everything he had recorded previously on the playback disc, and could just try another pass. Not so when making sound-on-sound recordings on a single tape machine.

“The only drawback to this—which wasn’t a drawback as I look back—was that if you were recording 12 parts, and you blew the 11th part, you had to start all over,” explained Paul. “That makes you a pro. When Mary Ford and I made ‘How High the Moon,’ we had 11 parts down, and Mary is singing her last part, and I’m playing my last guitar part, and a plane goes over—back to number one.”According to Ross H. Snyder—who managed Ampex’s Special Projects Section in the mid ’50s—at some point, Paul circumvented this limitation by bouncing between two Ampex Model 300 recorders, as he had previously done with the two disc cutters. Paul may also have used an Ampex 400 to create safety copies.

Whether recording to one or two machines, however, the quality of the earliest- recorded tracks would still decrease dramatically as new tracks were added, making it necessary to record the least-important parts first, and add the most prominent parts—typically the main guitar and lead vocal—at the end. This meant that Paul typically had to establish a good musical feel while playing, say, the fourth guitar part rather than a primary part. Paul didn’t write out charts, so an even bigger challenge was working out his highly complex arrangements in his head, so that all the parts would work musically and dynamically (in terms of where they would sit in the overall mix once many layers had been recorded, and the earliest layers had faded and become less distinct). Getting a good bass sound was also challenging, as recording at high speed (30ips) and overdubbing both reduced low frequencies. Paul’s solution was to record the “bass” part—actually played on a guitar— last. Then, there was the issue of keeping time, so that all the overdubs remained in sync.

“I didn’t use a metronome,” said Paul. “I would just beat out the time by beating on the neck and strings of the guitar, and lay down a rhythm track, knowing that I’m going to bury that son of a bitch. But in burying it, it was adding that drive and momentum. You don’t realize that it is beating on the guitar, but it is there, and it plays an important role. I might lay three of those tracks down. I would use them way back at the beginning of 30 tracks.”

While “30 tracks” sounds outrageous, consider that the number of tracks Paul claimed he recorded on a given song tended to expand over the years. For example, in various interviews, Paul said that there were as few as eight, and as many as 37 tracks on “Lover.” Similar discrepancies may be cited for many other songs. Other technical discrepancies include what microphone he used to record Ford’s voice (almost certainly an RCA 44DX ribbon, although in at least one interview he insists it was a Stevens FM wireless condenser), and which guitars were played on various songs (the earliest recordings were nearly all made using one of his Epiphone “clunkers” or “Logs,” though he also mentions using his homemade, headless aluminum guitar to record some solos and other parts).

In 1952, Paul came up with the concept of a true multitrack recorder with eight discrete and synchronized channels, and he presented it to Ampex, or Ampex’s Snyder (who convincingly lays out his case in the fall 2003 ARSC Journal) presented the idea to Paul. Either way, Paul commissioned Ampex to build the world’s first 8-track, reelto- reel tape recorder for the tidy sum of $10,000. He took delivery in 1955. Despite its historical significance, however, none of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s hit records were recorded using the Ampex 8-track.

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