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[ARSCLIST] Les Paul (was: New online publication: Manual of analogue audio restoration techniques, by Peter Copeland)
Yesterday I had a chance to look thru the bio of Les Paul by Mary Alice
Shaughnessy. Starting on page 138 she discusses how in the mid-40s he
put a playback head on his disc cutter to achieve a 1/10 second delay
echo. This evolved into using the disc cutter and this playback head to
do at first single-disc overdubs, and by 1947 (perhaps using bouncing
tracks between two discs) "Lover" and "Brazil" were achieved on disc.
After the auto accident, Bing Crosby had given Les a gift of a single
Ampex (pg. 167), but the narrative seems to indicate he continued to do
his overdubbed records on disc. Page 180 and 181 describes how he knew
he could use two Ampexes the way he did his disc overdubs by bouncing
from one machine to another, but that he could not afford to buy a
second Ampex. "Although he had succeeded in producing remarkably clean
overdubs with his custom made disc cutter, he knew he could overdub on
tape with even greater fidelity,. All he had to do was strum along with
a guitar solo he cut on one Ampex and simultaneously record both parts
on a second Ampex. Unfortunately, there was no way he could afford
another tape machine."
The narrative continues with him discussing the problem with Jack Mullin
after taping a Crosby show, and the two of them coming up with adding a
preview play head, the PERP machine referred to by Peter Hammer.
However, exactly as I had indicated a couple of days ago, this single
machine system created a problem. The book states "But the modified
Ampex had one distinct drawback. If Les made a mistake in, say, the
twelfth overdub, he'd have to record the first eleven all over again.
In other words, one small mistake could cost a day's work. With the
disk-to-disk recording method, he could simply go back to the last good
disk and redo the part. But he felt the advantages of overdubbing on
his customized tape recorder outweighed the disadvantages, even if it
put him and Mary under far greater pressure. 'It made us real pros,' he
The book doesn't say which records were recorded this way or how long he
use it, but it is obvious that it did not take too long before he would
be easily able to afford a second Ampex, and perhaps more! He started
dragging this machine around with him on tours, making it seem likely he
had more machines installed safely at home. This is summarized on page
229. "During the 1940s he had built his own disk cutting lathe to
create miraculously crisp overdubbed instrumentals. By 1950 he had
figured out how to cut even cleaner multigenerational recordings on tape
with a single modified Ampex. Later he used two off-the-shelf Ampexes
to achieve the same effect, bounding sound from machine to machine" The
narrative then states that he came up with the idea of a multi-track
recorder in 1954 and that after Westrex rejected his request, Ampex
built his 300-8 in the summer of 1957. I had no idea that this came
about this late since Ampex and other companies had been making two and
three track machines for years. Sel-Sync seems to be the hold-up, but I
would need to take some time to pull out the catalogs to see how early
this shows up.
The Les Paulveriser is discussed on page 231 as coming in 1956 but no
details are given other than saying it was "a remote control gadget for
his guitar that would allow him to manipulate the taped accompaniment he
used during performances." I've seen him use it to close the act by
creating overdubs on stage. The film "The Wizard of Wakeshw" shows him
doing it. He plays one part, and then when it comes around again he
plays a second part. Then when the overdubbed pair comes around again
he plays a third part and so forth. This is only about four bars long,
less than ten seconds. After laying down maybe 5 or six parts he does
not stop it after the next play and uses it as a backing track to play
an entire song for a minute or two. At this point I don't think he is
recording anymore, just playing the loop. It is said that this is a
"black box" that nobody knows how it works, but a tape loop on the PERP
would work as would the PER cart machine I used to use for talk show
delays. Now a simple device controlling some bucket-brigade recording
chips would work.
Noting that Capitol had done some fake Duophonics of his early stuff, I
once asked him if he would consider doing real stereo remixes of his old
mono overdubs going back to the disc days using the separated
sub-masters. "Why should I?" he said. "I can record them all over
again if I want to." (I didn't bring up that Mary was no longer with
us.) I wonder if he has given anybody permission to go thru his master
archive and document the techniques used for each specific master:
Disc-to-Disc, PERP, tape-to-tape, or 8-track.
As for stereo, part of the appeal of "The New Sound" was having all
these guitars and voices coming from a single point. I have likened it
to whether you wanted a four-handed guitarist or two two-handed
guitarists. You do a stereo spread for the latter and keep the two
tracks together if the former. One of my techniques when setting up a
mix of a lead and a harmony is to pan them out until they separate into
two voices and then pan them slightly together till they rejoin but are
not exactly on top of each other. That maintains the ringing blend of
the harmony but widens and fattens it just a bit so you can sense the
dual sources which can clarify it as well. Two guitars together in mono
can sometimes have one note blurring with the note from the other
guitar. If they are just slightly separated you hear two notes rather
than one in this case, but they are still very close together. On the
other hand, if you want to have dueling guitars, they have to be
completely separated. In the case of stereo mixing a Les Paul overdub,
if you have some of his parts answering each other from a distance but
have other parts close to each other to be ringing together in harmony,
this could make a stereo version more interesting than hearing
everything on top of each other. The occasional duel will be a good
contrast. I haven't listened to his Columbia and London stereo work in
decades to see if this is how those were mixed.
Mike Biel mbiel@xxxxxxxxx
Richard L. Hess wrote:
At 05:49 AM 2008-09-15, Michael Biel wrote:
I agree that it is a good thing to have this published, but it is
even more unfortunate that Peter is no longer with us because there
are many, many factual and historical errors and omissions.
He has completely misunderstood how Les Paul created his overdubbing
on page 287 when he talks about a mono tape recorder with the heads
in the PER arrangement instead of the usual ERP. That machine was
used for a time delay that was of the length of the tape loop.
There seems to be a real bit of confusion on this one, as I have heard
the same story that is in Copeland's Manual.
I asked my friend Don Ososke (ex Ampex) to look into this as I did not
have time. Don agreed to and discussed it with our mutual friend Peter
Hammar, the founder/curator of the Ampex Museum (portions of which
are now at Stanford). Pete was actually the one who introduced me to
Don. Anyway, Don reports:
Peter Hammar interviewed Les Paul at Les's house many long years ago.
Paul showed Hammar the full-track Ampex 300 with an additional
"preview head" mounted about 1.5 inches to the left of the head
assembly that Paul used for "sound over sound" recordings. Paul said
that he first recorded a "click track" so that he and Mary Ford could
stay in precise synchronization. He then recorded the various parts,
saving the most important parts for last due to the quality losses
caused by re-recording the old parts each time he added a new part.
Sometimes, for very complex and fast moving guitar parts, he would
record at half speed while playing the guitar parts one octave lower.
Paul said that by the time he recorded the last part, the click track
had faded away due to the re-recording losses. THEREFORE, the head
configuration was...PERP (although the "normal" play head was not
needed while recording multiple parts).
Hammar did not mention Paul discussing the time delay "echo effect"
that was the length of the tape loop, although some of the Les Paul /
Mary Ford recordings exhibit this effect. Could Paul have made a
final re-recording to add the time delay?
Hammar confirmed that the erase head was used.
Richard L. Hess email: richard@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Aurora, Ontario, Canada (905) 713 6733 1-877-TAPE-FIX
Detailed contact information: http://www.richardhess.com/tape/contact.htm
Quality tape transfers -- even from hard-to-play tapes.