Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics.
See articles from Radio-Electronics,
published 1930-1988. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.
Lester William Polsfuss is credited with being a major player in
the pioneering of electric guitars with his solid-body
(no acoustic resonance chamber) model...
but you probably knew that. As if being a popular musician and,
along with wife Mary Ford, selling millions of records wasn't enough,
Les Paul was an experimenter and inventor in the electronic music
realm. Here is what was at the time (1958)
a contemporary look inside his home-workshop-studio. Mr. Polsfuss
designed and built the record cutter that he used in his early days
out of scrounged automobile and aircraft parts. Pretty impressive.
Les Paul: Technician and Musician
A tour through. the popular guitarist's studio home reveals some
of the equipment and techniques he uses to blend the electronic
and musical arts into his exciting "New Sound."
The scene on our cover might well have been photographed in a
large metropolitan broadcast studio - but it wasn't! This ultra-modern
setup is in a conventional-looking country home literally nestled
in one of the mountain-hills of northern New Jersey. It is part
of the workshop-home of Les Paul and Mary Ford, that pair who enthrall
music lovers and enthuse audio technicians by using electronics
to multiply their talents.
The visitor's first impression is that of more mikes than he
has ever seen in a broadcast studio. Then he views to his left a
large control room on the other side of a plate-glass partition,
several broadcast type tape recorders, an ancient piano (obviously
from an early movie theater), a couple of vintage phonographs (Edison
and Gem) and several guitars.
A small portion of the studio. At left are two standard
Ampex tape recorders; center is the Monster; at its right
the Octopus, flanked by its eight amplifiers and - at the
extreme right - the power supplies for the equipment.
But the technician is struck chiefly by the big control console
that dominates the center of the photograph on this page, and even
more by Les' attitude toward it. Referring to it affectionately
as "The Monster," he swings the panel up on its hinges, props it
with an old piece of board kept inside and points out the 19 low-level
amplifiers in its belly.
The console - a complete control for stereo with a third channel
if needed - has a complete set of filters to attenuate any part
of the audio spectrum, and a fantastically flexible switching and
patching system. An audio oscillator (for checking) forms part of
the console, and a vibrato unit (built, incidentally, from the Radio-Electronics
article on page 57 of the March, 1957, issue) is built into one
end of the console.
Les Paul is an artist who has made his way to success by making
practical electronics part of his art. His "New Sound" (sometimes
called "the Les Paul effect" by audio technicians) is, of course,
an application of electronic techniques. What is not so well known
is that Les Paul has been a researcher and experimenter in the electronic
end of the recording field since early in his career - even before
His first venture into electronic music was at the age of 13
in his boyhood home in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Fascinated by the family's
radio-phone combination - a Kolster - and discontented with the
volume level of his first guitar, he decided to combine the two.
The phono cartridge was taped to the body of the guitar, with the
sharp needle embedded in the wood and the output fed into the phonograph
input. The experiment was successful, and Les had a guitar that
would play at any level he liked, to the limit of the set's volume
From this crude contact pickup to home recording was just a step.
A trip to Milwaukee netted another pickup and a Western Electric
double-button mike. An old spring-wound console Victrola became
the recorder. The 13-year-old experimenter placed the new pickup
in its tone arm and connected the new mike and old guitar pickup
to the amplifier input. The record blanks were, of course, the pre-grooved
type available to experimenters before World War II. Les was not
too satisfied with the recordings, but remembers that his mother
used it later to record him over the air from WHAD in Milwaukee,
where he started to play in 1930, at the age of 14.
The first recording assignment for which he was actually paid,
however, did not come till 1931, when he made his first commercial
record (Deep-Elm Blues on one side and Just Because on the other)
for Champion Records.
Close-up of Octopus shows width of tape and the eight-track
Throughout his early recording career, Les always sensed something
not quite right in his recordings. Possibly the horrible quality
of some of his own boyhood efforts had revealed to him that - the
engineers to the contrary - a recording setup need not be automatically
Finally, in 1942, during a recording session with Bing Crosby,
he declared his opinion. The stuff just wasn't right, he said. A
singer shouldn't sound as if he had his head in a rain barrel. The
recording engineer was too much amused at this outbreak from a mere
musician to be insulted, but his recording partner took the matter
seriously and invited Les to do something about it - if he was convinced
that something could be done.
And Les was. Forsaking the profitable side of recording, he set
up in a Hollywood garage a studio to be devoted to research. The
recorder - still used occasionally - was a home-built job, with
a Cadillac flywheel for the turntable and airplane surplus parts
for much of the rotating machinery. The bed of 3/16-inch boiler
plate adds to its "built-like-a-battleship" appearance. Les says
it's completely vibrationless, and the idea seems plausible.
(In spite of its virtues, and even though some of his best records
have been made on it, Les is ordering one of the better commercial
cutters for such records as he may find it expeditious to cut himself.
Most of his records, however, are cut from tapes forwarded from
the New Jersey studio.)
In this garage studio Les worked from 1944 to 1950, always searching
for better sound. At first the research represented a steady expenditure,
but toward the end of the period its reputation grew till it threatened
to become a commercial success and Les had to hire two other people
to take care of the work.
Possibly the most successful result of the research period was
that of multiple sound on a record. After much experimenting with
adding parts - the "Les Paul effect" of decaying echo - and the
expenditure of more than 500 recording blanks, Lover and Brazil
were produced. An auto accident at this time put Les in the hospital
for nearly 2 years and ended the garage period. During the latter
part of his hospitalization he had time to study his problems further,
and one of the results was a switch to tape as the recording medium
for the New Sound.
The Les Paul cutter, plus a playback arm. The two flat
slabs under motor and cutter are iron plate.
Tape was a natural for the job. Les added an extra playback head
just before the erase head. Then he recorded one of the parts of
the projected piece of music on the tape. When the tape was rewound
and played back, the pick-up head picked up the signals from the
tape just before it entered the erase head and re-recorded them
an inch or two down the tape, combined with the second part which
Les, monitoring with headphones, was playing. The tape would now
have two parts on it, and the process could be continued as long
as desired so that the finished tape might have Les playing a dozen
or more guitars. (The maximum number of parts recorded on a single
tape was 24, and 21 parts were recorded on a disc in the pre-tape
With the new tape machine, Les and Mary settled down temporarily
in Jackson Heights, N. Y., and with it recorded some of their greatest
successes. Here for the first time Les ran into a new technical
difficulty - neighbor trouble. Their life in show business had conditioned
them to "getting up early in the evening" and doing most of their
serious work after the show closed. To avoid eviction, they had
to modify those hours somewhat. Even then, some work was done to
the accompaniment of tenants pounding the ceiling. One recording,
Just One More Chance, was actually made with Mary singing with her
head under a blanket, apparently without adding any new effect that
could be noted.
Les Paul & Mary Ford: Alabamy Bound /Darktown Strutters
The only disadvantage of the tape machine was that each recording
was necessarily erased in making the next, so that an accident in,
say, the 11th part would make it necessary to do the first 10 all
over again. This was the reason for "The Octopus" - it cured that
That instrument is another Ampex tape recorder, but with a tape
1 inch wide. Eight parts can be recorded side by side on its eight
tracks. They can be blended as required, or one or more can be rejected
and new parts substituted, without losing recordings that may be
useful. They can be mixed on the control console and a trial tape
made up. If the composite recording is not all that might be desired,
it is a simple matter to erase it and try another arrangement. The
original eight tracks can still be drawn on at will.
The Octopus sits at the right of the control console in the photograph.
To the left of the Monster are two conventional Ampexes, and to
the right of the Octopus are its eight amplifiers. The tall rack
at the edge of the picture contains the power supply for the whole
But this is not the whole story. Once the visitor has recovered
somewhat from the overwhelming effect of all this equipment, Les
takes him out to the "new studio," which was apparently the old
barn. The inside is a complete television studio, two stories high,
with a control room on the mezzanine at one end and garage doors
at one side wide enough to admit a fleet of trucks driving abreast.
One might wonder how - with all this electronic equipment to
keep in order - Les gets any serious work done without the help
of a full-time engineer. But the Les Paul and Mary Ford fan need
not worry - even while this article was being written, word of their
new contract with Columbia Records came out, and we can expect soon
to hear a number of their records under the Columbia label.
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