Pushing The Boundaries of Possibility: Les Paul’s Greatest Recording Innovations

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  • June 9, 2017
Les Paul

Born Lester William Polsfuss in 1915, the artist more widely known as Les Paul is venerated as the godfather of the solid-body electric guitar and figurehead of rock ‘n’ roll. Yet in truth the Wisconsin-born tinkerer’s achievements with the instrument pale in comparison to his efforts in the field of recording.

From an early age, Les Paul was possessed by a fascination with sound and technology. Herein lay his truest gift; from it sprung an ability to look past the strictures of conventional music and push outwards. Chasing his own sonic ideal, he forever changed the trajectory of recorded music. Many of his recording innovations are not only still in use today, they’re ubiquitous.

Les Paul

Looking back at the legacy of Les Paul, one of the greatest early sonic pioneers, who’s achievements with the electric guitar pale in comparison to his work in the field of recording.

Domesticating Recording

Following the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945, Paul established his own home studio in a garage outside of his Hollywood home. A key motivator for this was a desire to remove himself from the rigid recording philosophy which dominated the minds of those working within professional studios. He also acted to maintain the technological mystique of his recordings and to simply enjoy the comfort of working from home.

After unwittingly domesticating sound recording, he partnered with then-wife Mary Ford at the onset of the ‘50s to create a string of pop successes. Singles How High is The Moon and Vaya Con Dios would even secure the coveted positions of number one hits in the US and many of these home-cut recordings would sell millions. These commercially popular singles of the 1950s often showcased and promoted his recording techniques and technological innovations to the world.

But success is a fickle thing. The advent of rock and roll proved lethal to their tenure as pop sensations. Their hits had dramatically fallen off by 1961 and the pair divorced two years later.

Setting New Standards for Close-Miking

It’s hard to imagine today, but prior Paul’s pioneering close miking practices playing or singing any closer than several feet away from a microphone was considered a violation of the sacred tenants of recording.

Paul avoided this orthodoxy, often placing microphones as close to the source of sound as possible. Initially this was simply to cut out the street noise leaking through the thin walls of his home studio, but over time Paul devised a number of innovative techniques for both guitar and vocals.

The results were unnatural but incredibly detailed sounds. By the time Paul had teamed up with Mary Ford he had had refined these practices to perfection. Ford would sound quiet and intimate. Her crystalline vocals captured the imaginations of generation artists, fans and recordists with their bold and strikingly unusual quality.

Distortion

For the longest period distortion was dismissed as unwanted sonic detritus. Yet prefiguring the signal processing technique that would later be known as overdrive, many early guitarists cultivated the effect by bumping up the gain on their amplifier tubes well past the point of distortion. While other contemporary guitarists may have beaten him to the punch, Les Paul was also refining his own take on the practice at an early stage.

One of the widest reaching examples of early overdrive experimentation was his guitar contributions to Bugle Rag Call a live bebop recording captured while Paul accompanied the Nat King Cole Trio at the Las Angeles Philharmonic in 1944.

Collected on compilation Jazz at The Philharmonic, this subtly overdriven twang may not rival Hendrix’s Purple Haze in terms of sonic impact, it doesn’t even feature prominently until around the one minute thirty mark, but as an early example of overdrive it’s every bit as influential.

Pioneering Delay, Phasing and Flanging Effects

During this post war period Paul had also realised that altering the speed of his recording device could open up new sonic possibilities. Paul quickly cottoned on the fact he could record at a lower octave, pitch and speed then speed up the final recording to create unnaturally virtuosic instrumentals. An example can be founding on the breakneck noodling on 1948 single, Lover:

While Paul’s may not be the originator of phasing or flanging, he can still make a solid claim to have been one the first to expose the sonic possibilities of the effects to the public. Paul would begin toying with phase shifting sometime in the 1940s and was perhaps the first to employ the effect in commercial recordings. Examples of the effect can be found on 1953’s instrumental single Mammy’s Boogie and most prominently on 1955 follow-up Nuevo Laredo.

Overdubbing and Multi-tracking

Sound on sound recording is without question Les Paul’s greatest contribution to the musical world. It’s difficult to conjure the vision, but in Paul’s time the idea of recording the initial performance of a single instrument and then adding additional parts was nothing short of revolutionary. Beforehand artists would record a song with all members playing simultaneously, similarly to how they would perform live.

While he would later move to tape, his first multi-tracked recordings were laid down on wax acetate disks. Les Paul would record an initial instrumental part and then created a secondary recording of him playing along with the first. He would then repeat the process adding as many instrumental layers as he deemed audible. Les Paul had been playing around with this painstaking process since the 1930s and the practice could require the use of up to 500 home-pressed acetate discs.

Les Paul first showed off his flashy new overdubbing and multi tracking techniques on Lover. Employing the full ambit of his innovations in addition to his formable skills as guitarist he applied he synthesised a signature sound. The result sounded utterly alien, his playing superhuman.

The chart topping success of How High is the Moon in 1951 further advertised the multi tracking process to the world. It was a true turning point in popular music. While rock and roll may have put a stop to Paul’s own chart success, by the middle of ‘60s The Beatles, The Beach Boys and a number of Phil Spector’s artists were realising their own creative visions with innovatively multi-tracked albums.

Commissioning the First 8-Track

While the tech Crosby had donated was only a single track or ‘mono’ machine, the first 8-track tape recorder was developed in 1953 after Paul and associate Ross Snyder pitched the idea to Ampex. Tape afforded an unprecedented ability to construct even more elaborate arrangements, including greater leeway for overdubbing and the potential for adding a staggering number of musical voices on a single track.

Uncovering Tape Echo

In 1943 Les Paul was drafted to work for the Armed Forces Radio. During his year of service he would link up with a number of influential artists including Rudy Vallee, Johnny Mercer and most importantly Bing Crosby.

After Les had established his L.A. studio following the war, Crosby would gift him a reel-to-reel audio tape recording deck in 1948. This was no small deal; magnetic tape was a new technology. In fact Crosby himself had only acquired a pair of Ampex Model 200A recording devices after they had been liberated from the Nazi war machine. For Les Paul, tape created new worlds of possibility and sonic exploration. It expanded the fundamental parameters of music itself.

Looking to emulate an echoed shout as it bounced off the sides of mountains, Les struggled to develop an equivalent studio effect. The breakthrough came when a he and a friend installed a second phonograph pickup behind the playback head on the same mono Ampex tape machine he had received from Bing Crosby. The result was a feedback loop which repeats the original recording signal.

This allowed Les Paul to play along with what had been recorded seconds before. This newfound setup allowed him to achieve the effect with ease. His application of an echo effect to the guitar parts of How High The Moon were the precursor to the slap-back sound synonymous with rockabilly guitar parts and a forerunner for the EchoPlex tape delay unit.

Les Paul’s Legacy

The mythology of rock and commercial music in general tends to hone in on the 1960s when remembering brilliant minds which married recording innovation to popular music. Yet if anything the work of Les Paul and his collaborators exemplify that there were equally if not more innovative creative forces at work well before.

While Les Paul passed away in 2009 aged 94, he remains a key musical figure in sound recording’s history. In a world before stomp boxes, DIY studios and even multiple tracking Les Paul intuitively pushed the possibilities of what equipment and popular music could achieve.

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