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Multitracking: It Wasn’t Always This Easy…


The following essay was written by Les Paul in 1993 for George Petersen’s Modular Digital Multitracks: The Power User’s Guide, a book on Alesis ADAT, Akai ADAM, Tascam DA-88 and Yamaha-format studio multichannel recorders.


Les in his studio in the early days of tape.

My first attempt at multitrack recording was back in the late 1920s. My mother had a player piano, and much to her surprise, I would take her piano rolls and punch extra holes in the paper to create new intros and harmonies.

My next crack at multitrack was in 1933, when I built my first recording lathe. I was a tinkerer, fooling around with the idea of recording my trio. After one of our rehearsals, the other guys in the band had left, and I realized that I wanted them to put down the rhythm for “Lime House Blues.” I thought about it for a minute and decided to record the rhythm guitar part myself, so I could play along with it and practice.

But there was no way to hear a playback of me playing to the acetate. I came up with the idea of spreading the grooves farther apart and putting down two tracks on one acetate. I’d cut one recording and then start the second recording between the grooves of the first. I tried to lock these two up so they’d be in sync—I’d have bass and rhythm guitar on one acetate with two playback heads on it, to make a multiple recording.

It didn’t work very well, although I once put demos of two songs on one side of a disc—one between the other—for a release I proposed to the president of Capitol Records. The record drove him crazy, because when he went to listen to “How High the Moon,” on came “The World’s Waiting for a Sunrise”; the next time he played it, he heard “How High the Moon.” They were going nuts, but later Capitol even considered putting a record like that out; I wanted to do one for promotional purposes to screw up disc jockeys.

Eventually I built two machines and bounced from one machine to the other. That way, I could record one part, play it back and then make a second disc and alternate back and forth. That’s how I made my multitracks until the tape machine came along.

When the tape machine landed in my backyard in 1949, I sat down and wondered how I could do a multiple recording on this new machine instead of carrying my lathes around with me. The tape machine was far better than the discs, but I still needed two machines. So I looked at it and wondered if I could put a head prior to the erase head, the record head and the playback head. I followed the path on a piece of paper with my pencil and realized that I could do sound-on-sound with this simple setup.

My friend Wally Jones and I built this little four-input mixer that was powered from the guitar amplifier. I also had two pairs of Air Force earphones, one RCA 44DX microphone and a mic stand. That’s what I used to make every record I did for Capitol.

Before Mary Ford and I drove to Chicago to play our first job together with a trio at the Blue Note, I called Ampex and asked them to send me another tape head. We finally arrived at the New Lawrence Hotel, and in comes this little package from Ampex. We called some guy out of the Yellow Pages to drill a hole in the recorder’s top plate and put the head in there. When he introduced himself as Mr. Goodspeed, I knew we were going to be lucky. I said “Testing 1-2-3-4,” and “Hello there, hello there,” and they both came back! Mary and I were elated, and the multitrack was born.

When we went out on the road, we went as many as 37 dubs down, so we saved the parts that were most important until last. We had to know what we were doing. That’s why we could go 24 dubs down on “How High the Moon.” We were wise enough to put the most important parts on last, which were the lead voice in Mary’s “glee club” and my guitar. The last dub was me balancing the thing out. I had many different types of tape spliced together and the level might drop by 3 dB at some point, so I had to run it by once more just to make the levels equal. I’d have to know that at the third bar of the second chorus I had to bring the level up 3 dB at some particular note, then bring it back down.

The 8-track came along in 1953. We were filming, and I was taking a rest and looking up at the sky when my manager asked what I was dreaming about. I said that recording using sound-on-sound was crazy. There’s a better way: Stack the heads one on top of the other, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, and align them so we could do self-sync, with all the heads in line. My manager said the concept was beyond him but wondered if it was a good idea. When I told him, “I think it will change the world,” he told me I should do something about it.

I went to California to see Westrex, but they didn’t think it was a good idea and said it wasn’t feasible. So I went up to Ampex. They leapt at the idea. And that’s how the 8-track was born.

So what do I think of the multitrack today? I’m terribly excited to see what they are doing with the new multitracks. It’s more than a step in the right direction-it gives the people out there a chance to see their dreams coming true, because they can do things that a few years ago we could only look out the window and wish for. Today, here it is.

(c) 1994 by George Petersen and MixBooks and used by permission