Last time we talked about Les Paul’s role as the father of the electric guitar. Nobody can question the significance of his innovations there, but that was far from the limit of his contribution to modern music. Next up we’ll be learning about the part he played in the development of modern audio recording.
The State of the Art (in the 1930’s)
Les was just as fascinated with recorded sound as he was with the electric guitar and he was equally important in its development. To put the revolution Les spearheaded in context we need to go back in time to the 1930’s. Sound recording and reproduction technology had already been around for some time, but it was a purely mechanical process with no electronics involved.
Early recording systems were nothing more than a stylus attached to a diaphragm, etching a groove directly into a spinning wax disc. The sound waves produced by the musician vibrated the diaphragm causing the stylus to carve grooves into the moving disc. (This is where the phrase “cut a record” comes from!)
What may surprise modern readers is that the “wax masters” produced could only be used to create a handful of gramophone records before they became damaged! Popular performers had to play a song many times over with multiple recording devices in front of them in order to produce a decent batch of copies to sell.
By the time Les was performing, disc reproduction had improved to the degree that many records could be made from a single performance, but recording still carved directly into a disc – meaning one bum note and the disc was ruined… Unlike us pampered musicians of the Pro Tools era, in the 30’s you had to get it right first time.
Sound on Sound
Today anyone with a laptop and some inexpensive (or even free) software can have a home studio that puts the recording technology available to classic acts like the Beatles to shame, but back in Les Paul’s day the idea of having a your own recording studio was completely unheard of. Even if you had the money there simply weren’t shops where you could buy the equipment. So in typical style, Les built his own.
Using a flywheel (liberated from a relative’s auto repair business) he built a turntable he could use to record wax discs. With this kind of ingenuity, Les was able to put together a basic home studio, but if he wanted to record anything other than solo guitar he would need to hire some musicians for the session. To make hit records at home without bankrupting himself with session fees he would need to work out a way to play more than one part himself.
To achieve this, Les pioneered a technique called “sound on sound” (after which the famous sound engineering magazine is named).
In ‘sound on sound’ recording you perform and record the first part of your piece as normal. Then you take the recording you just made and play it back into another recorder while you perform the second musical part. The result is a new recording with the first and second parts mixed together.
Sound on sound recording with discs is an expensive business, every step of the process consuming another disc. Ever the perfectionist, Les managed to consume 500 discs producing his first sound on sound hit, “Lover”!
Les’ experiments were allowing him to explore new sonic territories, but the process of sound on sound recording on disc was slow and laborious. Even worse, each successive layer of sound recorded would degrade the sound of the previous recordings, until they became a crackly mess. Fortunately another recording technology was on its way…
A new world of recording opened up to Les when an engineer named John Mullin returned fresh from fighting in the second world war with a revolutionary device commandeered from the German military.
By the early 40’s the idea of recording sound using the properties of magnetism had been around for some time, but the technique was perfected by the German military during the war. Early attempts used drums of steel wire running through the recording device, but the results were poor – and steel wire is heavy and in short supply during war time. The German ‘magnetophon’ had two significant advances: Firstly it used magnetic tape instead of steel wire (you can think of early recording tape as similar to sellotape dipped in iron filings!) and secondly it added a technique called ‘biasing’ which dramatically improved the sound quality of recordings.
Mullin realised that if he could develop his own design for an improved tape recorder he might be able to sell it to film studios and musicians.
Bing Crosby was a huge recording star of the era but he hated having to wait around at radio studios to perform live broadcasts. He had tried unsuccessfully to record shows to disc but the sound quality was so poor the radio stations refused to use them.