sound on sound

Les Paul’s many recording innovations include tape delay, phasing, and overdubbing. His invention of “Sound on Sound”, where he added a second recording head to an Ampex tape recorder was the most revolutionary.

photo gallery

video gallery

Sound on Sound Demo

The First Tape Machine

Sound on Sound and 800 Guitars in the Bedroom

Les Talks 8-Track

Les Paul: In His Own Words

Disc to disc breakthrough

The cutting machine I’d built (in 1935) was really barbaric, but it was good enough to get us on a disc so we could hear ourselves, and improve what we were doing. One particular day, rehearsal was over, and I thought, and “Oh geez. I wanted to do Limehouse blues but Jimmy Atkins, and Ernie Newton are gone. Oh well, I’ll just put the rhythm down and play along with it”. And as I started to do that the idea struck me, “why don’t I just record two of these things out and play Ernie’s part and then play Jim’s part and then play my part?“ so I thought about it and I dug out another playback arm and added it because I’ve got to cut the record twice on the outside groove to get the rhythm track. So on the first pass, I recorded the rhythm guitar, and then, on the next set of cruise I lay down the baseline using the low strings on my rhythm guitar. To do this, I had to have to pick ups to play these things back on and be able to start them at the same time. And, of course, that was the toughest thing in the world to do to take to pick up arms and put them down at the same time and start them off together. But I kept at it and in a few days I had the thing so I could play back a rhythm section in sync and play my part over it so now, if Ernie and Jim don’t happen to be there I don’t have to wait. I can go ahead and do it without them. That was my first attempt at trying to do multi tracking with the guitar. It was very crude, but I proved a point and it lit the light.

My first Tape Machine – A Gift from Bing Crosby

One day in July 1949, about 18 months after the accident, out of the blue Bing Crosby pulled up at our house on Curson Avenue. Bing came in and said “Hey Les, come on outside I’ve got something for you.”

I had no idea what he was up to until he raised the lid (of his Cadillac), and there was one of the first Ampex model 300 tape machines. Bing said, “this is yours for what you’ve done for me”.

I just kept looking at it and thinking. And I very quickly began to realize that I could use the tape recorder to do what I was doing with the two disc cutters if I could figure out how to do sound on sound on tape. And that’s when it hit me. I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote down the idea that was suddenly there in my head, and it was like God had done it. The idea just flashed into my mind that the way to do it was to add a fourth head on the machine, and I immediately drew out a rough design for doing it. Then I went hobbling into the house yelling, “I’ve got it I’ve got it!” Mary came out of the little laundry room next to the kitchen and said “What have you got?” And I said, “I’ve got a new invention, the tape recorder, and I just figured out how to do sound on sound with it.” I was talking about the first sound-on-sound tape, which led to the first true multi-track recordings, and the eight-track machine Ampex later built for me.

Excerpted from Les Paul: In HIs Own Words