By John Hanti with Steven Acker
AS A TEENAGER, I managed to escape the gravity of small-town Pennsylvania to build a career in the music business. I was a little boy with big dreams. Never did I imagine, though, that I would one day know and work with the finest musical artists in the world.
Few experiences loom larger in my memory than the evening I once spent at the New Jersey home of one of the world’s most celebrated inventors.
No, I am not talking about Thomas Edison and Menlo Park. I am talking about Jersey’s other inventive genius--the late, great Les Paul. This is the story of that magical mystery tour. I could not have been more thrilled had Paul McCartney himself invited me to join the Beatles on that bus. For within the converted garage where Les Paul labored on his inventions so long ago were the priceless prototypes of technologies that would change the world. And it was the man himself who gave me the guided tour.
My road to Les Paul’s House of Sound in Mahwah, New Jersey originated at the legendary Record Plant in Manhattan. Owned and operated by my close friend and mentor, Roy Cicala, the Record Plant was managed for years by a colorful gentleman by the name of Paul Sloman.
Paul was a typical New York mover and shaker. Strikingly handsome and highly talented, Paul could charm the skin off a snake. In the heyday of New York recording studios, luring clients to the studio and keeping them happy was a critical task. His job was not unlike that of “player development officers” in today’s big casinos—to make the players so happy that they would never leave.
The Record Plant closed its doors in 1987. Paul took a job in Los Angeles managing A&M studios under the direction of Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss. There, he continued to pamper and please some of the greatest recording artists in the world. A&M, like so many independent studios of the day, eventually came under corporate ownership—a move that did not particularly suit Paul Sloman’s independent ways. When Sony Studios in New York offered him a job, he jumped ship once again and headed back home.
Sony was the largest and most powerful studio in America, yet it gave Paul full reign to do his thing as only he could do it. Resuming his friendship with Roy Cicala, the two began to socialize. It was one of their frequent nights on the town that launched me on the road to Mahwah.
It was Autumn in the City. The air, crisp and clean, the streets teeming with New Yorkers enjoying the waning days of pleasant weather. Kids were back in school; stores were gearing up for the holidays. The energy of the streets permeated the air. There is no better libation in the world than New York City’s Fall cocktail.
This was the setting for the night I met Les Paul. Paul Sloman invited me to attend Les’ weekly Monday night performance at Broadway’s Iridium Jazz Club. Les, then 90 years old, had for years continued to play to adoring audiences every Monday at the Iridium. Witnessing his show had become a rite of passage for virtually every guitar hero in the world. “Young whippersnappers” Les called them. They came to sit at the feet of the original Guitar Hero--a geriatric genius still playing with fire and skill that they could barely manage themselves.
They came to hear his jokes, his wizened comments on the state of society, and still-prophetic visions of tomorrow. There I sat that fateful night, sipping my vodka and tonic when Paul Sloman leaned in to me and whispered, “Keith just arrived.”
Looking back toward the staircase, I spotted none other than Rolling Stone Keith Richards behind me. Keith, who lived in nearby Weston, Connecticut, was an Iridium regular, Paul informed me. For countless top guitarists around the world, Les Paul’s weekly performances had become a sacred pilgrimage. They came to pay homage to the man whose innovative imagination was the very basis of their careers.
Les Paul, you see, invented the electric guitars they played. Les Paul invented the multi-track recording machines on which they made their records. Les Paul invented “Sound on Sound,” a process that allowed them to create their records. Les Paul even invented, as a teenager, the iconic coat hanger harmonica holder Bob Dylan made so famous in the early 60s. This was why they came. Because Les Paul virtually invented them!
In the years that followed, I made that pilgrimage to the Iridium many times myself. It was not uncommon to spot celebrated guitarists like Keef, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Steve Miller, and Billy Gibbons. One night in 2009, I personally escorted the guys from Metallica to the club when they were in town for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. I had, that day, been producing Les Paul’s musical partner, Lou Pallo, at my studio in Weehawken with Metallica’s Jason Newsted on bass.
Lou Pallo was (and is) a legendary guitarist in his own right. Known as “The Man of a Million Chords,” he had been handling rhythm guitar duties at the Iridium with Les Paul for 22 years. He was the true backbone and backbeat of The Les Paul Trio. Lou’s rhythmic timing was so perfect that Les Paul needed no drummer.
That record I was producing for Lou was Paul Sloman’s idea. I was unaware that first night with Paul of his real agenda when he invited me to the Iridium--that he wanted to make a record with Lou, and he wanted me to produce it.
Lou was a member of "The Guitar Mafia," a group of seasoned guitar gunslingers that could shoot down any competition in a challenge…all challengers welcome. He was also an occasional member Keith Richards’ informal jazz band in Connecticut and would drop in there to woodshed with them. It was a mutually respectful friendship. Says Lou of Keith today, “We shared our experiences. We each learned from each other.”
With Paul Sloman’s backing, I soon found myself producing Lou Pallo at SST Studios and Rentals. With contributions from the likes of Danny Hutton from Three Dog Night, Bucky Pizzarelli, and Les Paul himself, Lou Pallo’s Candy Box became the catalyst for my ensuing friendship with Les.
I asked him to write the liner notes, but Les demurred, telling me that he was not good at that sort of thing. Would I mind writing it for him. he asked, and pass the completed notes by him for his approval?
“Of course,” I replied. A couple of days after submitting my piece to Les, Lou called. He told me “Les is pleased that you articulated his own thoughts so closely. He told me that he would like to spend some time with you, John. He wants you to come to his house for an evening.”
“Are you kidding?” I exclaimed, “Let's go now!”
Lou Pallo’s Candy Box is now a collector’s item. CDs routinely command 120.00 on auction sites, when you can find one. The memory of the evening I was about to spend with The immortal Les Paul at his House of Sound is, to me, priceless.
AT THE HOUSE OF SOUND
A mysterious feeling comes over you when you enter a band house. I've felt it many times over the years.
I felt it when I walked into the Alice Cooper mansion in Connecticut in 1972. Once the home of Bette Davis, its centerpiece was a huge ballroom where the band rehearsed. The space had an ominous air to it that warned the unsuspecting, “Anything could happen here at any moment.” It made your hair stand on end. It made your skin tingle. Gear was piled everywhere—tools of creation idly waiting for the Maestro to come and cast his spell, to conjure up musical magic out of thin air. Part genius, part showman, part shaman…Alice Cooper!
Every band house I've ever entered shared those qualities. So, too, did the House of Sound. Les lived alone, but you would swear it was a band house, for Les was a band unto himself, He was the first electric one-man band in history
His House of Sound was a showcase of the finest, vintage analog sound equipment in the world. Most of it he created. Les was a musician, inventor, songwriter, philosopher, comedian, sound engineer, producer, and a family man. as well. His son Rusty managed the house for him and handled the day-to-day business of his father’s still-vibrant career. It was a veritable museum of audio history. I don't think that Les ever threw anything away when it came to his audio collection. Band houses always felt cluttered and so did the House of Sound. It was very clean, but the only person who knew what was what was Les. Anyone else could get lost for days.
From the kitchen’s antique bottle opener to the precise locations of the electrical outlets to the 30-plus guitar amps stacked in the dining room, only Les possessed the mental map to find them when he needed them.
It was creative genius at its finest--order amid chaos.
Hundreds of guitars (many bearing his name) and amplifiers from the 1930's all the way up to the latest factory models littered the rooms. Manufacturers were always sending their latest products to Les for evaluation and comment in the hope that he just might like it well enough to use it. That happened rarely, though, because Les Paul already had his signature sound and it didn’t really matter what instrument he played. He always sounded like Les Paul.
Playing a guitar is so much more than picking notes and strumming chords; it's about touch and feel and phrasing. It’s about a certain glancing stroke of a plastic pick on a silver string, a certain pressure of the fingers against the fretboard, the duration of the reverb, the subtle echo of the delay. Playing well is like casting a voodoo spell.
The unique sounds that players like Les Paul produce come not so much from the amp or the guitar as they do the way the artist connects his heart and brain to his soul. That’s where the sound comes from
Les Paul was a jack of all trades, and a master of them all. And from his cauldron in New Jersey came devices that changed the world.
I didn't know what to expect when I arrived at Les Paul’s House of Sound. It was a modern mid-century design, neither opulent nor ostentatious, yet designed with the elegance you would expect of a man with money to spend on himself and his wife and partner, Mary Ford.
From his humble beginnings in Waukesha, Wisconsin through his early years as a traveling musician, money was hard to come by for Les. Born Lester William Polsfuss in 1915, he quickly learned the value of a dollar. Lou once told me that Les was so cost-conscious he would have Lou drive two miles out of the way to save a nickel’s worth of gas. To me, that is an endearing quality. I honor people who, no matter how much wealth they’ve earned, do not lose sight of where they came from, who never forgot the struggle to build their fortunes. Les was all that. He epitomized one of my favorite "Hanti-isms" -- money is merely a byproduct of accomplishing something special and unique. If anyone on the planet lived by that philosophy, it was Les Paul.
Les left behind a multi-million-dollar estate, earned from royalties on his many inventions. To this day they still flow into his estate. I did not see him as a wealthy man, though. I saw him only as an impish, aging friend with the twinkle of a young lad still lingering in his eye.
He was a plain man in suspenders with the air of a mechanic working on a ’38 Ford truck in a Midwest garage. Tuned up and ready to roll, that truck would transport Les to county fairgrounds across his state armed with guitar and amp to entertain the peanut gallery for gas money. Les never lost his love of playing for and meeting his people. Decades later at the Iridium, even when he wasn't feeling well, he would hold court at the end of the evening, pose for pictures, and sign guitars. He loved his fans and they adored him.
LES PAUL'S GUIDED TOUR
I wasn't sure why Les invited me to his house; I would soon learn that he had an agenda.
Lou told Les that I had been mentored by Roy Cicala since 1978. I had worked with Roy on an API 2488 console. As it happened, this was Les Paul’s favorite recording desk. He had one in his house, which he proudly showed me during the tour. He wanted to discuss with me the state of modern recording from my perspective. I was 54 at the time, Les was 94. I was the young whippersnapper who might clue him in about the impending digital takeover of recording studios. Analog was dying. Guys like Les and Roy created analog technology. They were die hard about it. To a great degree, I still am; our desk at IIWII Recording is an analog Focusrite designed by Rupert Neve.
Les commenced his grand tour with the original Ampex Model 200A reel-to-reel audio tape deck that Bing Crosby gave him in 1945. This was the machine that started it all...the beginning of sound on sound recording. Les would pre-think the tonal characteristics of his recorded tracks, he explained to me, to offset the inevitable loss of fidelity from tape-to-tape transfers. This is what pushed Les to develop multi-track recording; he wanted to reduce signal loss as far as possible.
Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention. The electric guitar was itself borne of necessity. As a teenager, Les called himself “Red Hot Red” and performed at area county fairs. He told me how, to make himself heard above the din of the crowd, he amplified his voice by mounting the mouthpiece from his mother’s telephone on a wooden broom handle and wiring it to her radio. That worked well, he said, until someone handed him a note: “Red, your voice and harmonica are fine, but your guitar’s not loud enough.” Thus was the electric guitar conceived.
After showing me the 2-track, he ushered me to the 8-track that he later developed to maintain sound quality. That was the real multi-track idea—finding the correct distance between the repro head and the record head and keeping the sync head aligned. This made overdubs possible. It was a major leap of recording technology. Again, necessity mothered invention
As Les told this story, there I was, gazing at and touching the product of his imagination and his need: the first amplified guitar in the world. Les called it “The Log.” The hair on my arms stand up and I get goose bumps today just writing about it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Les also pointed to an old acoustic guitar that had a lidless paint can embedded into it. It was the first resonator guitar—his first attempt to amplify a guitar’s volume. And so it went that evening. Marveling at invention after invention stacked and stored in the garage of one of the greatest inventors of the 20th century. When Les ushered me into his studio, it was like walking through a science fiction time portal. The colors and the lighting—pure retro 1950s. The vibe—pure early 60’s vintage recording Art Deco. Les even had vintage EV 604E speakers hanging from the acoustic tile ceiling. The tiles had turned grey and dingy brown from the countless cigarettes once smoked beneath them.
Les Paul's first commercial sound-on-sound recording: "LOVER." 1947
"Ghostly," is how I might describe it. An old RCA 44 ribbon microphone, the wood stool where Mary Ford sat when she sang those incredible hits. Breathless from the overwhelming awe of being in the presence of this great man alongside his own world-changing creations, I finally sat down with Les Paul to begin our analog vs. digital conversation in earnest.
Les got right to the point. "Lou tells me that you have this really big studio and still use all analog gear,” he said, “So how's that going for you? Because all I hear about these days is how great all this new software is and that Pro Tools has taken over. “
Pausing for a moment, a childlike twinkle gleaming in his eye, Les then asked, “So does Pro Tools smell like iron oxide on a two-inch tape?”
What an amusing and endearing question! Robert Duvall’s iconic line from Apocalypse Now came to mind: “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.” I got it. How could software, computers, and keyboards duplicate the visceral feel, the electrical static of the air, or the odors and the sounds so integral to the process of analog recording? They are part of the art.
“Well Les,” I responded, “We still slave Pro Tools to our Studer A800 24 track. We still record drums and acoustical instruments and voices to tape. Digital synthesizers and other instruments with transient frequencies we record digitally.”
“I understand that,” Les said. “Synths would sound the same either way. Higher frequencies would sound the same because digital compression doesn’t affect them so much.
Nodding in agreement, I explained, “The only time I’ve ever recorded to digital when I did not hear the compression was on Lou Pallo’s record in L.A. I used 2" tape and the studio was running a new system call Radar, designed by a Canadian company. I don't know what they did but their converters were so good that halfway through the session I stopped using the 2" tape to use the Radar system exclusively. Radar was soon sold and became Radar IT. It never sounded quite as good to me again. If it ain’t broke, don't fix it, right? They tried to fix it anyway. It didn’t work.”
“What these software guys don't get is that we ourselves are bundles of electrical energy,” Les said. “What happens in a studio is an exchange of energy between musicians and singers. Tape is seamless. It captures the humanity of what's taking place without changing it. Tape is a true historically-accurate record of those moments in time that would never happen the same way again. “
He asked about my mixing process. I explained that I liked to take everything back to the API to mix--48 analog channels. I’d use the first 24 channels for the tape deck returns, and 24 channels on the monitor section of the desk for Pro Tools returns. No internal equalizers and compressors necessary for the digital stuff. Those I could apply in the software and use the returns for level. This gave me the freedom to use the analog stuff on the 24-track returns--an LA 2A, Pultec, EMT 140 plates…the usual suspects. I would then mix it all to ½” tape on an Ampex 102.
Les' eyebrows lifted at that. “That has always been my favorite machine!” he exclaimed. “Sounds like you've figured it out--how to put the best of both worlds together.”
"I do the best I can, Les, but there is one new technology I refuse to use—autotune.” We both laughed out loud at that.
We talked about tape, I told him the best tape, in my opinion, was 3M. “Ampex 456 tape doesn’t hold up as well. It sheds. You’ve got to bake Ampex tapes after a few years before you transfer them to digital. You’d get only one or two passes, otherwise, before the oxide flaked off, along with much of the audio information. That’s one definite advantage of digital—digital is forever."
Les nodded. “That doesn’t surprise me. In the early days, Bing Crosby and the developers of magnetic tape recording worked with the labs of BASF, which is 3M, to develop their tape formula. My tape of choice has always been 3M 996 and BASF 900. It had the best sound and it lasted forever. You could hit the levels hard without distortion or tape saturation.”
The talk then turned to microphones. Les loved ribbon microphones, as do I. There's a warmth and organic sound to ribbon mics that is quite human. We talked about microphone placement and engineering and he felt, as I did, that the engineer’s real job was to accurately capture the original sound in the room, and to be quick about it. “The number one rule for an engineer is this,” he said, “be ready to hit that record button when the artist is ready to record. Be ready to capture that ‘lightning in a bottle.’”
I fully agreed with that. Missing "The Take" is an unpardonable offense.
Les Paul sounded like Les Paul no matter where he sat and played, no matter what amp and guitar or band he played with. He was always Les. All the engineer had to do was capture him on tape as accurately as possible and history would be made. “if it doesn't sound right,” Les advised, “move the microphone or change it. It’s that simple.”
Having shown me the wonders of the House of Sound, Les led me to his living room. We sat quietly for a few moments. Les looked contemplative. I wondered if he was speaking to me or to himself when he leaned back and said, “It's amazing, don’t you think, how far we’ve come with technology since I built the Log, and how quickly it has happened?”
I let that thought linger in the air a few moments before adding to it. “Roy Cicala had a theory about that. At no time in recorded history, he said. has mankind made such astonishing advances in such a brief period-of-time. We’ve gone from vacuum tubes and transistors to smart phones as powerful as the most massive computers in only a few decades. 'We must have had help,’ he said, 'and it must have come from an advanced alien intelligence.'”
Les smiled and again I saw that mischievous twinkle in his eye. "The astronaut Scott Carpenter is a friend of mine. We talked about that. I can tell you this--your friend Roy was on to something,"
“Well, Scott was one of the original seven Mercury astronauts. He was only the second American to orbit the Earth. Once, I wondered out loud if aliens had ever visited Earth—it was a joke, really—and Scott got a very serious look on his face. He leaned in close to me and whispered “’We’ve known about that at NASA for years. We’ve known about the aliens. but we can’t tell the world, because the world isn’t ready for the truth yet.’
“He was not joking.”
With that, Les stood up and walked me to the front door. It was rather late by then; three hours had passed. It had been a big night for me and a big day ahead for Les.
Les Paul and Roy Cicala—two of the most significant geniuses in the history of modern recording—my friends. For a lifelong student and practitioner of the recording arts and sciences, it doesn’t get much better than that. I am grateful for their lessons and I cherish the memories. I hope they have entertained and enlightened you, as well.