Mary and Les in his Hollywood garage studio
Dad goes on to say.....
"We were located right across from a firehouse," Les explains, "and our first attempt was ruined when the siren went off. Then some planes came overhead on their way to La Guardia Airport and ruined the second one. At that point Mary began crying and saying, 'I don't know if I can do it again,' and just when she decided she could, the guy who lived above us went to the bathroom. He must have weighed about 400 pounds, so we had to wait and wait while he took a leak and went to bed before we could go for it. You see, we'd record at night, and that kept the people upstairs awake. Mary would put a blanket over herself to isolate the sound — the guitar wasn't a problem since it went straight into the earphones — but in this case, those folks complained because they could hear her singing the fourth part, which had a lot of high and strange stuff. Although the blanket concept added the necessary isolation, it left Mary's voice lacking the natural room sound. To fix that I put a mike down the hall with a speaker at the other end which created an echo effect. Adding the echo with Mary's vocal while recording worked perfectly. Still, in the end, we got it done. The first thing that was recorded was me just rapping on the guitar. I turned the volume up and hit the strings, no chords — that was the rhythm and it set the tempo. Then the second thing that went down was just chords. This went on and on and on as I built it up, part after part, take after take. The lead vocal and my guitar went on second to last, and the last thing that went on was the bass, played on the last string on my guitar. Everything was done on that guitar — I never left it from the beginning to the end except to lay down under the tape machine and change motors or change capstans. It felt like I was under that machine much more than I was on top. In all, there were 12 guitar parts and 12 voices, and a total of about 24 takes before the result was sent to NBC and then on to Capitol. Everything was laid out like we were doing a stage show, and by the time Mary and I were ready to go we pretty well knew what we were going to do; not lick for lick, not note for note, but just in terms of the sections. Within each section we knew we could do anything we wished — four parts, eight parts, 12 parts, whatever — and while Mary was singing her part I'd lay my part down at the same time.
How did the delay come about?
"In terms of effects, for delay I had a phonograph pickup behind the record head. It took me about three years to figure that out — every Friday night this guy Lloyd and I would sit in a saloon and watch the fights on TV, and one time he asked me to explain what I was after in terms of echo, and when I said like a guy shouting 'Hello' in the Alps and hearing it come back to him multiple times, he said, 'You mean, like if you put a playback head behind the record head?' Oh my God, we were out of that saloon so fast. We left the girls there with 10 dollars to pay for the beer, we forgot all about the fights and we were on our way home. It took us 10 minutes to get there, and we had that thing up and running in no time at all. We quickly realized that by moving the playback head forwards or backwards we could also change the delay — the whole neighborhood could hear 'Hello... hello... hello...'"
And how long did it take to achieve all this?
"I would say less than an hour. You see, I was so into it and so free, having played so much, that I'd just press the button and go. And Mary was absolutely super. I'd tell her what I wanted and that's what she'd put down. If I wanted her to sing a three-part harmony or whatever, that's the way it was done. What's more, it would take a stick of dynamite to change her, because once she'd got it, that was it, and she didn't have to rehearse or anything. It was the same with me. I knew what I was doing, and so as fast as I could rewind that tape, we were ready to lay the next parts down."
I asked dad how he ever thought of approaching making a record this way. His response: "First you have to be stupid. You can't do this if you're brilliant because you wouldn't do it. You would say, "I'm not ready," but I was ready for anything because I just didn't fear it. I wasn't bright enough to do all that."
Growing up with dad I now realize how much he enjoyed the challenge and excitement of working with the Sound On Sound format. For him, it was like working without a net.
Dad would say, "Maybe if it's to happen, it will happen."
While working at Atlantic Recording Studios in New York, I realized how the rest of the world made records. Up until then I only knew how my dad did it. The difference in methods made me go back to dad and ask how he made all those great sounds in the garage studio and hit recordings again. Dad would have a smile on his face every time the subject came up.
There would always be a little of the professor in him that would come out when he explained the recording process. When he first started the multi-layered instrumentals in his garage in Hollywood, it was with disc to disc recording using two cutting lathes. He quickly realized there would be many rules he needed to follow. The first rule was in what order do you record the parts. He found the balance would change the low frequencies after adding many parts, and knew the mix position of the bass was crucial and therefore had to be one of the last parts to be added. Also, when adding the bass part he would watch, and if a note were soft in level, would play that note louder. He never would use a limiter or compressor. Also, his guitar was low impedance allowing him to go directly into the mixer. Finally, you had to have a clean chain: microphone, preamp, volume pot, recorder with no distortion, hums or hiss. Dad would always say you have to know your equipment first.
He would start by recording the first guitar part to disc recorder one, then play that back while adding the second part to disc recorder two. At the same time balancing each new part in the mix live, recording as many as 30 parts for one song.
The next question for dad was how he approached the arrangement.
Again with a smile, he said I had to know the arrangement in my head before I would start. He would begin with the most unimportant parts first. Sometimes he would play the fourth part first or the ninth part first. And the last parts to go on the tune would be the lead and bass.
When Mary would record her vocals, she would record the fourth or third part first and work her way up to the lead being the last like dad's guitar parts to finish the mixing balance and as dad said, "THAT was HARD to do."
When the Ampex tape recorder came into his life through Bing Crosby, dad seized the moment by adding a fourth head to make it possible to record Sound On Sound for the first time on tape.
It also allowed him to record anywhere at any time he wanted. Sound On Sound is recording on tape the first part, playing it back and adding the second part.
Sounds simple, but like Disc to Disc recording Sound On Sound came with rules. The first rule was you lost the previous recording, and if you made a mistake, you have to start over from the beginning unlike Disc to Disc where you could always go back to the previous disc and try the new part again. Although still a crude method the sound of the tape recorder was certainly a sonic step-up from the disc to disc method but you still had to mix live and layer each part the same as disc to disc.
Dad went on to explain how he and Mary recorded "How High the Moon," which took 24 generations to produce and became one of their most iconic hit songs. "How High the Moon" was recorded in dad's home studio in Jackson Heights, using just the Ampex 200 recorder, a power supply unit, a small home-made mixer, a Bell & Howe amplifier, a Lansing Manufacturing Iconic speaker, and a single RCA 44BX ribbon mic. There were two failed attempts to get the right results on tape.
Dad is cutting the next part on the disc Mary's vocal, and watching the grooves on the disc for the best sound.
Mary recording using the RCA 44 BX microphone.
The recording equipment he used for Sound On Sound and the Ampex tape machine with the fourth head.
The Evolution of a Hit Record!
Les in his Hollywood garage studio in the late 1940s
Les and Mary could record anywhere...