In this, the concluding part of our series on the genius Les Paul, we are going to be looking at his contribution to the world of effects. For a modern guitarist, effects pedals are an integral part of their sound. There are a dizzying array of boxes available to feed the contemporary guitar slinger’s G.A.S. (“Gear Aquisition Syndrome”), but in Les Paul’s day an amplifier was a pretty far out concept, let alone tone-bending stomp boxes! As usual Les broke out his tool kit and did some inventing…
We’re going to see how Les moved from capturing sounds to creating new ones, with Delay Effects, Vari-Speed, Special Vocal Effects – and a distinctive playing style to boot.
Les Paul’s Delay Effects
In the previous part we talked about Les’ involvement in the development of tape recording. Tape recorders have:
- a record head, which copies the sound onto the tape, and
- a play head which plays the sound back again
Les realised that if you position the play head after the record head and feed the signal coming from the play head back into the record head it creates a repeat or echo on the tape.
At first it might be confusing to understand why this works, but it’s much easier to get your head around it if you consider an example:
(For more on tape delay, see Hearing Effects: Echo… (echo… echo…))
The most common type of delay you will hear on Les’ records is a short delay often referred to as a “slapback”. This slapback delay has become synonymous with the rockabilly guitar sound.
Soon guitarists wanted to produce these amazing sounds when playing live, and with devices like the Echoplex (which put a loop of tape and play and record heads in a convenient box) the door was opened for all manner of sonic experimentation.
Guitarists like Brian May of Queen took this to its logical conclusion using delays to allow him to play harmonies with himself, demonstrated here in one of his classic “Brighton Rock” solos (from 2:15 on):
In modern music, The Edge of U2 is considered the master of using delay effects to produce rhythmic soundscapes. Our old pal Lester got there first though! Just listen to the cascading tape delay rhythms in this track:
The Les Paulverizer
When talking about Les Paul and effects, the famous “Les Paulveriser” will eventually be mentioned. Unfortunately this effect never existed!
In the 1950s the idea of multi-track recording was still pretty revolutionary and Les learned that people found it pretty baffling that he appeared to be a one man guitar army.
To avoid having to explain the technology to the audience of his concerts and TV shows, he came up with the idea of a fictional box he had invented called the “Les Paulveriser”, which multiplied sounds. When performing live, the device identified as the Les Paulveriser was in fact the start button for the backstage tape machines which played his backing tracks!
Delay wasn’t the only tape-based innovation pioneered by our old mate Lester: we also have him to thank for Vari-Speed effects.
Those of us old enough to remember cassette tapes (feeling old yet, 30-somethings?) will recall tracks suddenly descending into rumbling Barry While tones as the Walkman ran out of batteries, or the cassette deck chewed up your precious copy of Rio. Back in the early days of tape, getting machines to run consistently at the same speed was a real challenge and often ended up with songs being transferred to disc at the wrong speed. An interesting aside for blues geeks is that on really old recordings like those of man/myth Robert Johnson there was no fixed speed for recording so no one really knows what they should actually sound like – just a guess at the right speed! Slowing down a tape on playback lowers the pitch and the speed of the music, whereas doing the same thing while recording has the opposite effect.
Ever one to turn a quirk of technology to his advantage Les realised that by messing about with the speed of the recording machine he could create all sorts of previously-impossible sounds.
Even back in the 40s every guitarist wanted to be the fastest and Les found that by playing with the tape running at half speed his riffs would end up twice as fast and an octave up in pitch. Les used this technique from his earliest days of multi-tracking and you can hear this characteristic on his first hit single “Lover” and its B-side “Brazil”.
If you listen to the tracks you’ll hear that it isn’t just the speed and pitch that has changed: the timbre (or character) of the notes has also been affected. Doubling the speed of the note has increased the attack speed and doubled the frequency of the harmonics. To my ears this gives it more of the character of a smaller-bodied instrument, like a mandolin. Les was always honest about the double-speed effect, but once it was introduced there were always persistent rumours about any hot new guitarist on the block receiving an unfair speed advantage from the hand of the producer!
Aside from the music of Les Paul you won’t hear the double-speed guitar effect used all that much. Notable exceptions are the intro to KC And The Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” and the outro to Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix.
Vari-speed effects really caught on with record producers working with vocalists. Often during the recording of an album it will be discovered that the vocalist can’t cleanly hit some of the high notes. Before vari-speed this might require starting from scratch and recording the song in a new key. With a vari-speed tape machine you could simply slow the track down to record the vocal at a lower pitch and then speed it back up again. Unfortunately for artists that relied on this technique a little too much to flatter their vocal range, it has the same effect on vocals as it does on guitars and can make the voice sound thin and nasal if relied on too much.
The recent emergence of Autotune technology (particularly abused in shows such as X-Factor and Glee) has rendered vari-speed effects obsolete, but the sped-up sound still finds a place in the accelerated samples of hip-hop artists like Kanye West.
Why tape does speed affect pitch?
It’s quite easy to understand why changing the speed of a tape machine should change the speed of what you have recorded, but what might not be so obvious is why this should also change the pitch. We can demonstrate why this is so with a simple thought experiment.
The pitch of a sound wave is determined by how close together the peaks of the waves are (referred to as the wavelength). The closer together the waves are, the higher the sound’s pitch.
Imagine a long strip of paper with a pen above it, dangling back and forth from a piece of string. If we swing the pen and steadily pull the strip of paper in another direction, the pen will draw a wavy line on the paper. We can think of this wavy line as our sound wave on the tape. If we pull the paper faster the waves will be more stretched out, so the pitch will drop. If we slow it down, the waves will get closer together and the pitch will get higher.You can learn more in our Frequency Fundamentals series.
Vocal Effects: Close Mic’ing and Double-Tracking
It wasn’t just guitar playing where Les pushed forth the frontiers of recording. He also applied his inventor’s brain to vocal sounds.
Since the dawn of time, singers who wanted to wanted to be heard by a large audience have had to learn to project their voice. From opera to jazz, singers pushed it out from the diaphragm to reach the back of the room. When it came to recording, people sang as they always did out of habit – but there was really no need! Les and his then-wife Mary Ford developed the idea of “close mic’ed” vocals, where the singer approaches the microphone more closely and can then sing in a more relaxed, quiet way.
Much of Les and Mary’s recording was done at home or in hotel rooms on tour, and it may have been the need to keep the volume levels down that encouraged them to develop this distinctive singing style. The “close mic” vocal technique provides a wonderful intimate quality to a vocal performance. Listen to this superb Mary Ford vocal, for example: