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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Leslie Cab, Hammond B3, Estate Sale

posted by on September 18 at 12:45 PM

leslie.jpg

Dan White from Seattle’s Arbor Audio is with us today talking about the Leslie speaker cabinet and the Hammond B3 organ that came into his possession (for a total of $300). Dan is skilled, schooled, razor sharp, and patient when it comes to recording and playing music. He’s also so nice it kind of makes you sick.

When I say the word gear, what comes to mind?
Dan: That’s not really a fair question. There’s a lot of gear in the world.

When I say the word Leslie 122RV speaker cabinet, what comes to mind?
Ah. That I can do. Leslies are speaker cabinets that were designed by Don Leslie in the 1940s. In contrast to the stationary speakers we all know and love, Don was trying to design a speaker that would scatter the sound throughout a room. What he created instead was a totally unique sound, and coupled with the Hammond organ, one of the most ubiquitous organ sounds in the history of recorded music. The most interesting Leslies have two “rotating” drivers; the speakers don’t actually rotate, but lesliediagram2.jpgthe treble driver fires up into a rotating horn, and the bass driver fires down into a rotating baffle. Some Leslies have single-speed rotation with fast and off settings; some have two-speed rotation with fast (“tremolo”) and slow (“chorale”) settings.

These things are electromechanical, and therefore are difficult to emulate. They give off this localized doppler effect with both amplitude and frequency modulation. The two rotors, having different masses, speed up and slow down at different rates. I don’t think Don planned to build so much character into his speaker cabinet! The Leslie 122 is a coveted two-speed, the -RV designating the mushy spring reverb that most people disable. Leslies are like large pieces of furniture, almost the size of a refrigerator.

Where did you get the Leslie?
My wife found it at an estate sale. She drove down to South Seattle at 7 AM and beat everyone to it. She called me and said, “I’m at that estate sale. They have a Leslie 122RV. Is that a good one?” It was too early for me to comprehend. She said, “The guy says there’s an organ included with it. $300 for both.” She sent me pictures from her phone.” Unmistakably, it was a Hammond B3 organ. A Hammond B3, with the Leslie for $300.

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What happened when you fired it up?
When we got it home the next day, the startup motor couldn’t get the tonewheels spinning. It was anticlimactic, but I still had a “free” B3 sitting in my living room. Like most of my gear, I got it for cheap but later made up for it in sweat equity. A few months ago I saw Joe Doria playing in Fremont and he had his soldering iron out fixing some drawbars before they went on stage. It reminded me of more than one gig where I was replacing pickups in my Rhodes on stage. To be a Hammond owner is to be a Hammond tech.

(pictures: Dan White)

Seems like it would be easier to get a MIDI module.
Easier on the back, easier on strained friendships (i.e. “unpaid organ movers”), yes. The Nord Electro does a pretty good job of emulating the Hammond. I don’t care for the Leslie emulation, though. The Native Instruments B4 plugin is also good. However, there’s nothing quite like the experience of playing the real thing. The process of playing an old electromechanical instrument has this built-in feedback loop. You touch the keys, it responds a certain way, it makes you change some drawbar settings and adjust the swell pedal, it growls a little more, you make more aggressive harmonic choices, play more percussively—it just makes me more creative. With advances in technology, it’s no longer about whether the module sounds like a Hammond or a Rhodes or a Wurlitzer, it’s a new realm of challenges to emulate. You’re starting to see more intuitive tactile feedback interfaces on devices (e.g., racing video games where the steering wheel vibrates when you run off the road). This is one of the things that’s missing from making music today in-the-box. I think there’s an exciting future for instrument designers.

Would you consider yourself an analog purist?
Not at all. I studied electronic music composition. Being lazy, I trained the software I wrote in my Artificial Intelligence classes to write the compositions for my music classes. I work for a software company in Seattle for my day job, record direct to DAW like most small studios, I’m a big fan of Reason. However, I’m not interested in technology for technology’s sake. If the tool inspires me to write music, I’ll use it. If it gets in my way, it’ll sit on a shelf collecting dust. Or, in the case of the B3, it collected dust while I searched for time to nurse it back to health.

Do you ever get weird with the Leslie?
Weird? Hmmm. I’ll run vocals through the Leslie. Usually backing vocals or mixing the Leslified lead vocal back in with the unprocessed vocal part during the chorus or bridge of a song. I tend to shy away from too many effects at mixdown, but sometimes it’s fun to run instruments through the Leslie during tracking; single-coil guitars can sound cool this way to create a bed. One of these days I should re-process my pump organ through the Leslie. These techniques are probably not unconventional, but it’s much more interesting to me to mic up the sound of the Leslie in the room than to use a Leslie plugin at mixdown. I pretty much leave the Leslie mic’d up all the time, an RE-20 on the bass rotor, and on the treble rotor I use these strange Uher mics from Germany that are sonically a cross between an SM57 and an MD-421.

Do you mix in the Box?
Sometimes. I’ll do whatever I can to make a process efficient. I have standard tracking/mixdown templates that have all my signal routing setup. I usually have a few stereo subgroups that I route to my analog console: drums, guitars/keys/mids, vocals, auxiliary high-frequency content. I also bring in the bass on its own channel. So, some of the mixing happens in the box, but I have the flexibility to route whole stereo busses or individual channels to my outboard dynamics processors if I’m looking for a certain color. I like using Cubase’s Magneto plugin on the drum subgroup. Gates usually work well in software. I’m currently rebuilding all my snakes and patchbays, and may branch out and rely more on my console and outboard gear. It’s nice to have constraints, and I have a limited set of outboard tools. I can obsess over the limitless options provided by a DAW and plugins.

While we’re airing vices, is there anything else you’d like to ask? Have I ever wished a friend harm? Do I ever screen my mother’s phone calls?

Do you?
I love my mother.

(Dan and Arbor Audio can be reached at dan—AT—arboraudio—DOT—com)

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