The Leslie speaker is a specially constructed amplifier/loudspeaker used to create special audio effects using the Doppler effect. Named after its inventor, Donald Leslie, it is particularly associated with the Hammond organ. The Hammond/Leslie combination is now a ubiquitous element in many genres of music ranging from 1960s organ trio hard bop to the growling, distorted tones of early 1970s acid rock. Currently both the Leslie Speakers and the Hammond Organ are owned by Suzuki Musical Instrument Corporation.
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Don Leslie, at the outset, was refused hire by the Hammond Organ Company, but did work for the local electric company, in a contract with Hammond, to replace the old fifty cycle rotor tone generators with the new sixty cycle units, in customers' homes. The speaker's first name, in 1941, was the "Vibratone." (The name was used later by Fender Guitar Company for a speaker system and effects unit containing a Leslie rotating speaker. Fender also used the name "Leslie" after Leslie sold his company, in 1965, to CBS, which had also acquired Fender.) From 1941, when the first units were produced, the speaker went by several names including "Brittain Speakers", "Hollywood Speakers" and "Crawford Speakers", before returning to the name "Leslie Vibratone" in 1946. Seventeen years after it had rejected him, Leslie offered to sell the company to Hammond. After thirty days he had heard no word from Hammond. Don Leslie said: "After seventeen years, the thirty day period is up. Too late".
In 1980, the Hammond Corporation finally bought Electro Music and the Leslie name from CBS. To this day it remains part of Hammond under Hammond Suzuki, USA .
Leslie never advertised his speakers. After demonstrating a prototype (a rotating baffle in a hole in a small closet with a big speaker in the closet near Leslie's home organ) with Bob Mitchell, an organist with radio station KFI near Los Angeles, a contract was made to install another prototype in the station's studios, where Mitchell would be the only organist authorized to use it. Mitchell was so impressed that he even tried to patent the speaker, but discovered that he couldn't. Soon afterwards, Mitchell became an organist with the Mutual Broadcasting System, and played a Hammond with the Leslie on its shows. The national exposure was swift and sure. Organists, professional and amateur alike, wanted to have "that sound". Jazz organist Jimmy Smith helped to popularize "that sound" among rock-n-roll musicians in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Leslie of that time was over sixty inches tall (about the size of a modern refrigerator), and was named the 30A. Don Leslie made a whole series based on the 30A, called "Tall Boys" (31 series). In the 1950s, Leslie introduced the 21H for use in homes, concert hall venues and smaller radio sound stages.
Today, Leslie parts are available from a number of sources. There are also websites with plans (and photographic examples) for constructing a Leslie speaker, with much improved electronics and speakers. On the web, one can see a 500 W high performance Leslie.
The classic Leslie is still made and sold to this day, though similar effects can now be obtained via analogue electronic devices and digital emulation. Chorus and phase shifter devices can mimic the sounds produced by a Leslie speaker; in fact, early phase shifters like the Uni-Vibe were specifically marketed as low-cost Leslie substitutes for guitarists, and used a foot-operated fast/slow switch. Although the sound of a Leslie speaker heard in person is quite distinct, some digital emulations of the Leslie Doppler effect have become virtually indistinguishable from the sound of a recorded Leslie speaker.
Although there have been many variations over the years, the classic Leslie speaker consists of two driver units - a treble unit with horns, and a bass unit. The key feature is that the horns of the treble unit (actually only one working horn, but a dummy horn is used to counter-balance it) and a sound baffle for the bass unit are rotated using electric motors to create 'Doppler effect based' vibrato, tremolo and chorus effects. The rotating elements can be switched between two speeds (or stopped completely by means of optional "brakes"), and the transition between the two speeds produces the most characteristic effects.
The resulting sound is instantly identifiable as that of the Hammond organ, frequently heard on psychedelic and rock music of the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike a high fidelity loudspeaker, the Leslie is specifically designed, via reproduction of the Doppler effect, to alter or modify sound; faithful reproduction has never been part of its appeal. Much of the unique tone is owed to the fact that the system is at least partially enclosed, but with linear louvres along the sides and front so that the unit can vent the sound from within the box after the sound has bounced around inside, mellowing it. While many organists prefer the fast "vibrato" setting, the Leslie's slow speed produces a lush "chorus" effect which suggests the sound of a pipe organ in a large hall or church much more effectively than static speakers can. The Leslie might be considered an electro-mechanical sonic effects machine. Many rock and roll organists have turned the box around to expose the horn's rotation for a visual effect, and in the hope of projecting a more powerful sound from both speakers. One can see such a reversed placement in The Band's movie, The Last Waltz, the film Woodstock, and Phish's DVD, It.
While normally used with an organ, Leslie speakers can also be used with other instruments to produce a wide range of dramatic effects. Connecting microphones or outside instruments to a Leslie usually requires the use of a separate preamplifier/power unit.
Some instances of such non-standard use are given here:
Paul McCartney also plays a piano that was miked both clean and through a Leslie on the song "Baby, You're a Rich Man" which was the B-side to "All You Need Is Love", and also later released on the Magical Mystery Tour album. However, the Leslie is only heard on the mono mix of the song.
Cat Stevens used the same technique on his song "Sad Lisa".
Tori Amos also makes much use of a Leslie speaker on Boys For Pele, a highly experimental album with piano, harpsichord, harmonium, and clavichord. On such songs as "Horses", the Leslie effect is made obvious as it is switched on and off for different parts of the song, itself a continuous piano piece, allowing for a strong comparison in the piano's sound.
Brian Eno utilised the rotating speaker effect on piano throughout "Becalmed" (from the album Another Green World).
Eric Clapton's "Let It Grow" features a piano processed through a Leslie in Chorus mode.
As innovated by The Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, John Lennon's voice was processed through a Leslie speaker for the highly experimental song "Tomorrow Never Knows" on The Beatles' 1966 album Revolver. George Harrison's vocals were also ran through a Leslie on the song "Blue Jay Way" on The Beatles' 1967 album Magical Mystery Tour.
Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, & Peter Banks of Yes ran their vocals through a Leslie on "Astral Traveller" from the band's second album, Time and a Word. Steve Howe & Chris Squire processed their background vocals on a section of "And You and I" through a Leslie speaker.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer used a Leslie for their vocals for live tours in the early 1970s. In Virginia Beach they placed the Leslie in the center of the stage with microphones situated around it. Each microphone ran out to a dedicated speaker column located at the perimeter of the audience, facing in. In this way they were able to spin the sound around the entire audience.
Led Zeppelin's track "Heartbreaker" has the bass guitar routed through a Leslie with a maximum volume setting for its unique effect; to add more unique quality, chords are played throughout the song on the bass as well.
Cliff Burton use a Rickenbacker 4001 bass routed through Leslie in the beginning of the Metallica song "Orion".
Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead often used a Leslie in live performances.
The Model 122 is the classic two speed 40 Watt tone cabinet most commonly used with Hammond console organs, such as the B3, C3 and A100 models. Some organists connect two or more of these to their organ for a louder and more widely-spaced "surround" effect. A modern reproduction is the model 122A. This is the Leslie of choice for recording studios or other sonically demanding applications due to the quiet operation of the Model 122's differential signal input design. Leslie Model 142 is identical to Model 122, except that it is housed in a 33" tall cabinet, and thus slightly easier to transport than the 41" tall Model 122.
The Model 147 has the same cabinet, speaker and mechanical components as the Model 122; however, the amplifier input and motor speed control circuits are different. This is primarily because this series was designed to be "universal", which means it could be connected to other organ brands. The signal input is "single-ended", allowing a simpler connection to organs that have a built-in speaker system, as the Hammond A100 or a Wurlitzer. The Model 122 input is a differential, "double-ended" or "balanced line" design that provides for cancellation of any spurious noise that may be present. Also, the motor speed switching uses a separate 120V AC signal, rather than the DC voltage control of the Model 122. In operation, the noticeable differences between the Model 122 and the Model 147 are the Model 122's lower susceptibility to induced noise, and a delay between operation of the speed control and the actual change in speed. Just like with the 122 and 142, the Leslie Model 145 is identical to Model 147, except that it is housed in a 33" tall cabinet, and thus slightly easier to transport than the 41" tall Model 147.
The first model to have two speeds, the model 125 was introduced in 1963. Leslie produced two editions of each model, one for Hammonds (H) and one for Wurlitzer (W). Many organists still use combinations of these editions. The Model 125 has only a single rotor and 12" full-range speaker!
The smallest Leslie is the Leslie Model 16, made in 1970. It has a Fender-like speaker body and a rotating foam dispersion block. It was built for rough club touring, was portable, and had "Leslie" written on the front. It was also released later as Fender/CBS's "Vibratone". Stevie Ray Vaughan used this model on the song "Cold Shot" from the album Couldn't Stand The Weather. It can also be heard on Cream's "Badge" and Jimi Hendrix' "Little Wing".
One of the favourite models for gigging Hammond owners, the Model 760 with 90 watts of power is still a popular choice for organs with 9-pin connectors, despite being a "solid-state" model. It has a black Tolex cabinet and it easy to carry, thanks to integrated handles. These features make it rather road-worthy. Model 770 is techincally the same as 760, only with more sophisticated wooden cabinet. Model 760 was primarily used with spinet Hammonds, such as M100 or L100 -series. Leslie 760 has a rotating treble horn as well as a rotating bass drum.
A smaller, more portable version of the 760 is the 825. It is a solid-state cabinet like the 760, and it connects to the organ with a 9-pin connector as well. However, it only has a 70-watt amplifier and only has a single rotor with a full-range 12" speaker.
An earlier model, essentially a single speed 125. Like its successor, the 125 has one 12" speaker pointed into a single wooden baffle. These leslies are relatively inexpensive, and in recent years have been made popular with guitarists wanting to achieve effects similar to that of Pink Floyd.