Les Paul

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Sound on Sound 1945 - 1967

Multi-Track Recording, the genesis of all modern recording, originated in Les Paul's garage. See how the inventor brought us a new world of sound.
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Sound on Sound

1945 - 1967

Sound on Sound

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Les Paul’s contributions to the music industry are legion – tape delay, phasing effects, multi-track recording, and overdubbing, or Sound on Sound – all techniques that are still in use today, and that have helped to evolve music and recording technology over the past half-century.  Of these, his Sound on Sound was the most revolutionary – never before had recording allowed, or been used for, making multiple recorded tracks that could be played in tandem, creating a whole new sonic world for musicians and engineers to explore.

In 1945, Les built a recording studio and workshop in the garage of his Hollywood home.  Bing Crosby, Les’ friend and a top-charting singer and movie star, gave Les one of the first Ampex Model 200A reel-to-reel audio tape recording deck to experiment.  Les took the cutting edge technology of the day – this mono tape machine – and engineered a multi-track tape recorder. This forerunner of all multi-track tape machines was used until computer technology rose to prominence.  Adding a second recording head to his Ampex tape recorder was pivotal to the “Sound on Sound” recording technique. Later, Les expanded the concept to build more robust devices, including the eight-track tape recorder.

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A second recording head on Les’ tape recording machine

The Next Step

In 1948, Capitol Records released “Lover”, a recording that had begun as an experiment in Les’ garage. It featured Les playing eight different parts on electric guitar, layered one over the other. This was the first time that Les used “multitracking” in a professional recording. Les’ multitrack recordings were made not with the traditional magnetic tape, but with acetate disks or “lacquers” the progenitor of vinyl records. Les would record a track onto an acetate disk, then record himself playing another part along with the first.  Using this acetate-disk method to record parts at different speeds, with delays and half-speed and double-speed sounds, he created what would become his signature sound: multi-track, echoes, with fast trills and riffs.  It was with this recording technique that he was able to record, asynchronously, performances of singing or guitars playing multiple parts in tandem – something that could not be duplicated in live performance (yet).  This was a painstaking, arduous process – one mistake and the recording would have to begin anew. By the time Les was satisfied with the result, he had discarded five hundred recording disks.

The b-side, “Brazil,” was similarly recorded.Both could later be found on his seminal album on Capitol, “The New Sound.”

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Get “Lover” here.

Get “Brazil here.

Next came perhaps his most iconic recording – Les Paul and Mary Ford’s version of “How High the Moon.” It topped the Billboard singles chart for nine weeks in 1951 and marked a tipping point with the prevalence of “Sound on Sound” technology. It was a layered, overdubbed recording that highlighted not only Les’ guitar prowess, but also the true capabilities of multitracking.  It was a watershed moment for the possibilities with this technology.

Get “How High The Moon” here.

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Les recording Sound on Sound of wife Mary Ford singing in their Mahwah recording studio.

In recounting his evolution of Sound on Sound, Les mused, “If it hadn’t been for my friends, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. It’s always your mentor, somebody who appreciates your interest in learning, and who makes such a difference in your life.”

Sound Marches On

Les Paul’s multi-track tape recording concept not only revolutionized the recording of music, but the recording of scientific data as well, and had an impact on virtually every research and development activity – transportation, manufacturing, farming – all owe a nod to Les’ invention.

In music, multitracking quickly became the norm.  In the 1960s, it is featured heavily in the sounds of The Beatles, The Beach Boys and in many of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” recordings.  Today, 24 track recording is the industry standard, but this can be expanded to 48, 72, or even more tracks, with the aid of advances in computing power.

Les’ contribution to recording technology, and music, was so profound that he is one of very few people with a permanent exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He is the only person to be in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame among the many awards he received.  The echoes of his work resound in every “Sound on Sound” we hear today.

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