Taming The Wild Leslie Cabinet

A guitar pushing a Leslie cabinet to its full-tilt-boogie max is an experience to behold. The sound appears to emanate from multiple locations, slathering a searing solo with a delicious mid-high sizzle, and transforming a rhythm track into a psychedelic swirl circa 1967, activating some primal lobe of the brain to squirt groovy juice to your neurons. No wonder the cool studios have them.
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A guitar pushing a Leslie cabinet to its full-tilt-boogie max is an experience to behold. The sound appears to emanate from multiple locations, slathering a searing solo with a delicious mid-high sizzle, and transforming a rhythm track into a psychedelic swirl circa 1967, activating some primal lobe of the brain to squirt groovy juice to your neurons. No wonder the cool studios have them.

Unfortunately, attempting to interface a guitar with a Leslie can be a bum trip. Your guitar has a 1/4" plug, but a 6-, 9-, or 11-pin Hydra is waiting for you from the Leslie. Unless you possess mad electronics technician chops, buy a preamp box—either by tracking down that elusive artifact of rotational sound lore, the Leslie Combo Preamp (which has 1/4" inputs and accepts the Leslie 6-pin connector), or by investing $550 in a Trek II UC-1A Combo Preamp (www.trekii.com). Today, Hammond- Suzuki (www.hammondorganco.com) also makes smaller Leslies designed especially for guitar with the appropriate inputs—the G37 ($1,495) and G27 ($1,325).

Record Me Right Round Baby Right Round

Most engineers record the Leslie from the rear—with the back removed—for a direct and welldefined tone. For a mono recording, you can get great results with the Leslie cranked to the gills, and by positioning a single Shure SM58 up to a foot from the treble horn. If the mic is placed much closer, a gnarly amplitude-modulation effect—combined with the wind noise from the rotor—makes a sound so foul you’ll want to cut out your ears with a plastic spoon. If you want a mellower sound, position the mic at the louvers cut into the sides of the cabinet. If the Leslie is in an open space, add a large-diaphragm condenser set to its an omnidirectional pattern about eight feet away to capture additional ambiance.

However, if you want to capture the true spatial glory of a Leslie, stereo is the way to go. Due to the Leslie not producing much sonic energy beyond 12kHz, a lack of condenser mics is not a handicap. I achieved great sounds using dynamic mics such as Shure SM57s/SM58s and Sennheiser MD421s—all placed about a foot away. Here’s my basic method: Place a pair of SM57s on each side of the top rotor, and the MD421 pointed at the bottom rotor. Create a stereo mix with the top rotor mics panned left and right, and keep the MD421 track panned center. Of course, you should definitely experiment with other panning positions until the desired stereo image is achieved. If you want to really blow the sound up, try positioning a stereo pair of mics at the top and bottom rotors. During mixdown your options for sonic perfection or mutation are exponential, as, for example, you could process one of the top and one of the bottom mics (add distortion, delay, etc.), leave the other two mics unaffected, and blend the four signals to taste. For additional spatiality above and beyond the call of duty, set a large-diaphragm condenser set to its omnidirectional pattern about six to ten feet away from the Leslie cabinet at a height of about five feet.

The Frequency and Dynamics of Spin

Older Leslies roll off the highs around 12kHz, but highly reflective spaces can benefit from an extra dB or two of additional gain reduction in this area. Also, as guitars produce a less harmonically pure sound than organs, low notes can wash out at mid to high volumes. If you dedicate your Leslie to guitar only, you might consider removing the belt and disconnecting the lower rotor motor. If not, experiment with cutting around 700Hz to 800Hz to remove the grunge.

To manage dynamics, a good place to start is to set compression ratio at 4:1. Keep the threshold low, and experiment with more severe ratios, because the sound starts to get real interesting the more you squeeze it. Now that your Leslie is all miked up and humming, don’t just stop at plugging your guitar into it. Get all Beatle-y and run everything through it.