John Lennon loved to distort his voice. For his recording of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” he asked for his voice to sound like “the Dalai Lama singing from the highest mountain top.” Engineer Geoff Emerick and the studio team put his voice through a Leslie speaker. According to Beatles biographer Bob Spitz, the effect enchanted John Lennon. He asked if hanging himself upside down and spinning while he sang would mimic the same effects.
The Leslie speaker was featured many times on Beatles recordings after that for vocals and instruments, although most famously on “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It remains one of the most well-known Leslie-aided records. However, the Beatles didn’t make the Leslie famous. This studio staple came to be 20 years prior and had been used by musicians since its inception to produce a legendary, exciting sound.
Donald Leslie invented the speaker after he bought an electric Hammond organ in the 1940s that disappointed him. He wanted the vibrating, warbling sound of a pipe organ. To solve his problem, he created a rotating speaker cabinet, eventually known as the Leslie, that emulated those sounds.
It used the Doppler effect and relied on two motored speakers on different levels. One was treble and rotated around a fixed pivot point high in the cabinet. The other was lower and bass, inside a rotating drum with a small sound escape point.
Initially creating it for Hammond organs, Donald Leslie tried to sell his design to Hammond organ company. However, the organ inventor Laurens Hammond rejected the speaker system. Hammond disliked it so much that he even designed his organs to be incompatible via connection.
Rather than give up, Leslie developed the speaker under his own brand and sold his Leslie speakers until he couldn’t keep up with the demand. Eventually, the Leslie line had multiple models, such as the 122 —commonly used with B3s —and the 147. They had different effects to varying degrees, but they all relied on the same mechanics and principles.
Church organists loved the Leslie. Studio rooms, churches, gospel choirs and traveling bands adopted these rotating speakers. Even at 150 pounds and difficult to transport, people wanted them. Big bands and larger groups traveled with them. No one could get enough of The Sound. Audio teams hooked these modification devices up to guitars, tambourines, organs and vocals. It became an essential equipment piece, used in many well-known records, such as Elton John’s “All the Girls Love Alice.”
Engineers and musicians loved not just the sound, but the design of the equipment. It was timeless and difficult to improve. BookerLAB CEO Tom O’Hanlan remembers seeing his firstLeslie 147 with a Combo Preamp, which belonged to the keyboardist in his high school band.
“I was enthralled by its complexity and simplicity. What the Leslie does to sound is amazing and how it does it is amazing. The design, the modularity, the upward compatibility and the ability to band-aid one in the field were legendary,” explains O’Hanlan. He got his own 122 Leslie in 1992, along with a Hammond C3.
Today, forums and groups across the country have a special place in their hearts for these nostalgicgems. People prefer vintage Leslies because they appreciate the speaker’s originality. There’s also a sense of paying homage to the innovators of music.
It’s less common to see Leslie speakers in use today, except in studios, churches or throwback bands.People refurbish them in DIY but finding new or unused parts can be difficult. Even after restoration and installation, maintenance can also be a problem for users and collectors. Nonetheless, musicians and artists want the real deal over digital mimics.
That passion is why we wanted to make the Revolution: The Advanced Motor Controller. A Leslie speaker should be used. Installing updated parts with advanced engineering will ensure the continued legacy of a Leslie. If you want to participate in the long history of Leslie speakers, reach out to us. We’ll help you rock on.