The Leslie speaker is a combined amplifier and loudspeaker that modifies the sound of an instrument as well as amplifying it, by rotating sound waves. It is most commonly associated with the Hammond organ, though it was later used for the guitar and other instruments. A typical Leslie speaker contains an amplifier, treble and bass speaker, though specific components depend on the model. Control is achieved either by an external half-moon switch, or by a foot pedal, that alternates between two settings known as "chorale" and "tremolo".
The speaker is named after its inventor, Donald Leslie. Leslie began working in the late 1930s to get a speaker for a Hammond organ that had a closer emulation of a pipe or theatre organ, and discovered that rotating sound gave the best effect. Hammond was not interested in marketing or selling the speakers, so Leslie sold them himself as an add-on, targeting other organs as well as Hammond. The first speaker was made in 1941. The sound of the organ being played through his speakers received national radio exposure across the US, and it became a commercial and critical success as an essential part of any jazz organist. He eventually sold his business to CBS in 1965, who in turn sold it to Hammond in 1980. Today, the Hammond and Leslie brands are owned by Suzuki Musical Instrument Corporation.
Because the Leslie is a sound modification device in its own right, various attempts have been made to emulate the effect using electronics. The Univox Uni-Vibe was used by a number of notable musicians, while the Neo Ventilator has received critical praise, and Hammond-Suzuki now manufacture their own simulator in a box.
Leslie worked as a radio service engineer at Barker Brothers Department Store in Los Angeles, which sold and repaired Hammond organs. He originally bought one in 1937, in the hope it would be a suitable substitute for a pipe organ, but was disappointed with the sound in his home compared to the large showroom where he had originally heard it. Consequently, he attempted to design a speaker to overcome this. He initially tried making a cabinet similar to Hammond's own, but then surmised the variation in sound a pipe organ produced because of the different location of each pipe meant he should try making a moving speaker. He tried various combinations of speakers and speeds and discovered a single one running at what's now known as the "tremolo" speed worked best. After further experimentation, he decided that splitting the signal into a rotating drum and horn helped accentuate bass and treble frequencies.
By 1940, Leslie decided his prototype was ready to market, and went to the Hammond Organ Company to demonstrate it. Laurens Hammond, however, was not impressed with Leslie's attempt to better his own organ design, and declined to market it. The company went as far as changing the speaker interface on their organs to be "Leslie-proof", though Leslie would quickly manage to work around this. The speaker was first manufactured in 1941 and initially went by a variety of names, including "Vibratone", "Brittain Speakers", "Hollywood Speakers" and "Crawford Speakers", before returning to the name "Leslie Vibratone" in 1947. To counteract Hammond's slogan "Music's Most Glorious Voice", Leslie added a similar slogan, "Pipe Voice of the Electric Organ" to the plates. He eventually owned nearly 50 patents on the speaker.
Leslie manufactured the speaker to work with a variety of different organs aside from Hammond, including Wurlitzer, Conn, Thomas and Baldwin. He had never particularly liked Hammond organs, once remarking "I hate those damn things".
In 1965, Leslie sold the company to CBS, which had also acquired Fender. In 1980, the Hammond Corporation finally bought Electro Music and the Leslie name from CBS. After Hammond went out of business in 1986, a former engineer re-established Electro Music, licensing the name from Noel Crabbe, who had acquired the rights to Hammond. It was subsequently sold to Suzuki in 1992, who continue to manufacture the speaker.
A Leslie speaker consists of a number of individual components. The audio signal enters the amplifier from the instrument. Once amplified, the signal travels to an audio crossover, where it is split into separate frequency bands that can be individually routed to each loudspeaker. Different models have different combinations of speakers, but the most common model, the 122, consists of a single woofer for bass and tweeter for treble. The audio emitted by the speakers is isolated inside an enclosure, aside from a number of outlets which lead towards either a rotating horn or drum. Both the horn and the drum are rotated at a constant speed by an electric motor.
The only control common to all Leslie speakers is a dial controlling the master volume. This is normally set up once and then left, since the volume is designed to be controlled by the organ's expression pedal. Leslie recommended playing the organ at full volume with all stops or drawbars pulled out and adjusting the volume just before distortion occurs. However, the distorted sound of an overdriven vacuum tube amplifier can be a desirable sound, to the extent that modern Leslie simulators have an explicit "overdrive" setting.
Control of a Leslie speaker is normally catered for by an external two way switch, between two settings marked "chorale" and "tremolo". The switch is mounted onto the controlling instrument, so the player can easily switch settings. Some earlier models were limited to "off" and "tremolo", and some later models had all three settings. The switch can be used while notes are being played, and the sound of changing between the two settings is part of the characteristic sound.
Unlike most popular music amplifiers, that use jack plugs to connect to instruments, Leslie speakers use an amphenol connector to interface directly to an organ via a console connector. The type and design of the connector depends on the organ and model of Leslie speaker.
Older models that used tube power amplifiers used a variety of 6-pin connectors, while later models used a 9-pin connector. In all cases, for a single organ - Leslie configuration, the mains power, audio and control signals are all carried on the connector, and the design of the pin layouts varies between organs and speakers. Care must be taken when attempting to service them, as an incorrectly or poorly wired cable can cause permanent damage to the organ and / or speaker, or result in electrocution. It is also possible to connect multiple Leslie speakers to a single organ, by using a power relay that provides the necessary AC current.
A chord is played on the organ while the Leslie speaker is switched from "chorale" to "tremolo" and back again
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A separate device known as the combo preamp is necessary to connect a vintage Leslie to another instrument such as a guitar. This combines a separate AC input and line level input onto a single amphenol connector, and provide a footswitch to select between the speeds of the Leslie. Modern products such as the Trek II UC-1A allow any instrument with a phone jack connection to use a variety of Leslie speakers.
Modern Leslie speakers have an 11-pin interface that is safer to service, as the mains power is carried separately using a standard IEC mains connector. The Hammond-Suzuki Leslie 2101 also includes line in and line out jacks, so a combo preamp is no longer required. Its settings can also be controlled via MIDI.
The initial models of Leslie speakers did not have the "chorale" setting. The control switch was simply a choice between "off" and "tremolo". The first model of Leslie produced was the 30A. It emulated Hammond's DXR-20 tone cabinet, which used moving drums but only produced amplitude modulation, not frequency modulation. It contained a 15-inch (380 mm) drum and the power amplifier was housed in the top of the unit, to allow easy repair. This was superseded between 1947 and 1949 by the 31H, also known as the "Tall Boy". It was similar in appearance to the 30A, but contained additional louvres along the top of the cabinet. Also, reflectors were placed on the end of the horn, to allow the treble signal to exit the unit through the sides, rather than on the top.
The next models to be produced were the 21H and the 22H, which had a cabinet in a similar styling to the better known 122, with the same dimensions and louvres. They were powered by a 40 watt tube amplifier.
The 122 is the most popular Leslie. It was specifically designed for the Hammond organ and is the model most commonly identified with it. It is 41 inches (1,000 mm) high, contains separate motors for "chorale" and "tremolo" and a 40 watt tube amplifier. The 122 is the most adaptable to being recorded, as it contains a balanced signal which eliminates mains hum and other noise, allowing for a quiet operation overall. The 122RV was the same model, but with an additional reverb amplifier, which fed through to a separate static speaker. A slightly smaller version, the 33-inch (840 mm) 142 was available. Hammond-Suzuki currently manufacture the 122A, a straight reissue of the 122, and the 122XB, which contains a modern 11-pin adapter, an IECC mains adaptor, line-in, and a jack socket for a footswitch to control the speed. This eliminates the need for a combo preamp.
The 147 is the "universal" version of the 122, designed for any organs, and has a different amplifier input and motor speed control, but is otherwise identical. The signal input is unbalanced, allowing a simpler connection to organs that have a built-in speaker system, such as the Hammond A100, or a Wurlitzer. The motor speed switching uses a separate AC signal, rather than the DC voltage control of the 122. In operation, the noticeable differences between the 122 and the 147 are the 122's lower susceptibility to induced noise, and a delay between operation of the speed control and the actual change in speed. As with the 122 and 142, the 145 is identical to the 147, except that it is housed in a 33-inch (840 mm) cabinet, and thus slightly easier to move. As with the 122, Hammond-Suzuki manufacturer a modern replacement, the 147A.
The model X-77, released in 1968, was designed to accompany Hammond's new tonewheel / transistor organ, the X-66. It contained seven different tab controls and six speakers. It has a completely different interface from other Leslies, using a 12-pin amphenol connector.
By the late 1960s, gigging musicians were finding that older Leslies like the 122 were not loud enough to be heard on stage, which led to the introduction of the "Pro Line" series. These Leslies had louder solid-state power amplifiers, and were mounted on casters for ease of portability. The first models to be manufactured were the 900 and 910, which contained a 100 watt, three-channel power amplifier. Both could be split into two sections. The most popular version of the Pro-Line series was the 760. It was a smaller version of the 900 and 910, and contained a 40 watt treble and 50 watt bass amplifier. A smaller, more portable version of the 760 is the 820. It is a solid-state cabinet like the 760, and it connects to the organ with a 9-pin connector as well. However, it is only 31 inches (790 mm) high and only a single rotor with a full-range 12-inch speaker.
The Pro-Line series proved to be durable and fault-tolerant, with many models lasting for years. However, because they used solid-state amplifiers, they are not as highly regarded as the older tube-based Leslies, because they lack the characteristic sound when the amp is overdriven.
The smallest Leslie is the Model 16, made in 1970. It has a Fender-like speaker body and a rotating foam dispersion block. It was built for guitarists, portable, and had "Leslie" written on the front. It contained just a single 10-inch speaker, and was designed to be powered by an external amplifier, and contained an additional output for an extension speaker. Control of the speaker was via two switches, one of which controlled the speed and one switched the rotors on and off. It was also released later as the Fender Vibratone.
As well as the 122A and 147A reissues, Hammond-Suzuki now make smaller and transportable Leslies using modern technology. The 2101 is 20 inches (520 mm) high and has a rotating horn as found on the 122 and 147, along with a pair of 2-inch (51 mm) tweeters and two 5-inch (130 mm) woofers. The unit provides two separate inputs so different instruments can be plugged into the rotary and stationary components respectively. The 2121 is a 15-inch (380 mm) stationary speaker that uses digital signal processing to emulate the rotating drum found on older Leslies. The 3300 is the same as the 2121, but with a 300 watt power amplifier.
The Leslie is specifically designed, via reproduction of the Doppler effect, to alter or modify sound. As the sound source is rotated around a specific pivot point, it produces tremolo (the modulation of amplitude) and a variation in pitch. This produces a sequence of frequency modulated sidebands. To stop a Leslie's rotor, a special brake circuit was added to the Leslie motor controls, that incorporated an electronic relay by producing a half-wave of direct current.
Much of the Leslie's unique tone is due to the fact that the system is at least partially enclosed, whereby linear louvres along the sides and front of the unit can vent the sound from within the box after the sound has bounced around inside, mellowing it. The crossover is deliberately set to 800 Hz to give the optimum balance between the horn and the drum, and is considered an integral part of the speaker. The tone is also affected by the wood used. Tone differences, due to cost cutting using particle board for speaker and rotor shelves instead of the previous plywood, are evident in the Leslie's sound. The thinner ply of the top of the cabinet adds a certain resonance as well. Like an acoustic instrument, a Leslie's tone is uniquely defined by its cabinet design and construction, the amplifier, crossover and speakers used, and the motors — not merely by the spinning of rotors.
Because a Leslie speaker modifies as well as amplifies the sound, the output cannot simply be connected to a larger PA system if the volume onstage from the built-in amplifier is too quiet. This is particularly problematic for an older Leslie like the 122 or 147, which only has a 40 watt RMS power amplifier. Instead, microphones are placed around the Leslie, and the output from these is connected to the PA. A typical setup for onstage miking is to use two microphones placed on opposite sides of the horn and a single microphone on the drum.
Miking a Leslie is also important in a recording studio, as the choice and positioning of microphones determines the overall recorded sound. A popular recommendation is two Shure SM57s on the horn and a Sennheiser MD421 on the drum. Recording Magazine's Dave Martin suggests a similar setup, with various microphone models used as stereo pairs on the horn but using an Electro-Voice RE20 on the drum instead. Keith Emerson recorded his Leslie using a single mic each on the horn and the drum, but with the covers removed.
Clones and simulations
While the Leslie speaker is still made and sold, similar effects can now be obtained via analogue electronic devices and digital emulation. Chorus and phase shifter devices can give an approximation of the sounds produced by a Leslie speaker. The Univox Uni-Vibe, a four-stage phase shifter, was specifically marketed as a low-cost Leslie substitute for guitarists, and used a foot-operated fast/slow switch similar to the combo preamp. The pedal was popular, and notable users included Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour and Robin Trower, but vintage units tend not to be in good condition now due to the degradation of capacitors in the unit. Although the sound of a Leslie speaker heard in person is quite distinct, digital clones have become increasingly better at emulating it.
Most modern keyboards that emulate the Hammond organ also include a Leslie simulator, including Hammond's own XK-3c and the Nord Electro. However, there is still a market for standalone simulators. The Neo Ventilator has been particularly praised for its accuracy in emulating the sound of a Leslie. Sound on Sound's Mark Ashfield described it as "quite simply the best Leslie speaker simulator to date", while Keyboard Magazine claimed to be "blown away by how authentic the Ventilator sounds". In 2013, Hammond-Suzuki started manufacturing their own Leslie simulator in a stomp box.
Leslie never advertised his speakers. After demonstrating a prototype with Bob Mitchell, an organist with radio station KFI in 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, thus gaining national exposure. The Leslie was subsequently a standard component of several notable jazz organists, including Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff and Shirley Scott. Graham Bond was the first notable British organist to play a Hammond through a Leslie.
In 1965, Buddy Guy's guitar amplifier stopped working while he was recording Junior Wells' album Hoodoo Man Blues. Recording engineer Stu Black rewired the Leslie speaker in the studio to work with Guy's guitar, which became a significant use of the guitar with the speaker.:294
The Beatles first recorded using a Leslie during the sessions for Revolver in 1966. After John Lennon had asked for his voice to sound "as though I'm the Dalai Lama singing from the highest mountain top", Abbey Road engineer Geoff Emerick rewired the input of the studio's Leslie so a vocal microphone could be attached to it. Emerick used this setup to record Lennon's vocal on the track "Tomorrow Never Knows" and claims the Beatles subsequently wanted to record everything through a Leslie. George Harrison played his guitar through a Leslie on "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "You Never Give Me Your Money". The Beatles subsequently inspired other guitarists to use the speaker. Eric Clapton played through one on Cream's song "Badge", and David Gilmour used a similar setup when recording with Pink Floyd.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Leslie speakers.|
- Official website - US
- Official website - UK
- Inside the Fender Vibratone - the history and workings of the Fender Vibratone cabinet (and similar boxes)
- Unearthing the Mysteries of the Leslie Speaker - A more technical in-depth analysis of the Leslie.