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From Electric To Electronica: Les Paul, the Minimoog, and The Studio as Compositional Tool

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Three recent releases, one in book form, the other software, and the third an MP3 nicely sum up the past, present, and future of pop music. Let's review them by the chronology of their subject matter.

The Early Years Of Les Paul's Legacy

One of the benefits of AMC's Mad Men series is that it reminds viewers that however badly people may have behaved in the late 1950s, stylistically it was a surprisingly happening decade. A '57 Nomad in the garage, a sharkskin suit in the closet, and a chrome Martini shaker in the kitchen? Aesthetically, what's not to like?

The '50s was also a watershed decade for musical instruments. It would take another decade, and Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page to get the most out of them respectively, but the engineers at Fender and Gibson sure knew what they were doing in the mid-1950s when they drew up the Stratocaster and the Les Paul electric guitars.

The latter guitar, manufactured from 1952 to 1963, with a hiatus for various reasons until 1968, is the subject of Robb Lawrence's The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy: 1915-1963. As its title implies, the book focuses on the golden era of Les Paul's guitar; a second planned volume will bring the instrument's history up to the present.

As I've written before, the Les Paul was born out of the Fender Telecaster, which arrived on the scene first, became a hit, particularly with country music players, but whose aesthetics and details seemed more than a little… crude to Ted McCarty, Gibson's CEO. In 1951, McCarty ordered his engineers and craftsmen to design an instrument with the basic characteristics of the Telecaster — a solid body to substantially reduce feedback, with a single cutaway for access to the instrument's higher frets housing two pickups to amplify the strings. But in order to emphasize their decades of skill acquired building more traditional guitars, McCarty added a carved violin-like "belly" on the top of the instrument's body, along with a glued-in neck for better sustain and overall appearance.

Initially, McCarty left the instrument's color scheme to Les Paul, who suggested gold for the Standard instrument and black for the higher-end Custom model.

For reasons still debated to this day, by 1958, sales of the Les Paul guitar were lagging behind the Strat and other electric guitars, and Gibson returned their traditional sunburst finish, along with a new pickup design — a "humbucking" dual-coil design by Gibson engineer Seth Lover. While sales in the 1950s were slow, the British blues guitarists of the 1960s, including Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck discovered what a brilliant combination of sound, playability, and looks Gibson had created.

Because of its excellent craftsmanship, and the superstar guitars associated with the instrument, the 1800 or so Les Pauls built from 1960 are literally the most desired electric guitars on the planet, with collectors asking, and getting, figures in the six figures — and higher — for these beautiful instruments.

While most of us will never pull that particular sword from the stone, Robb Lawrence's The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy: 1915-1963 is the next best thing, a hardcover book chockablock full with beautiful color photos of the instrument, and the surprising number of variations in its design, including its transition from the classic single cutaway design of the 1950s to its twin cutaway SG successor in 1961, until, for legal reasons apparently involving his divorce from Mary Ford, Les Paul asked Gibson to remove his name from the instruments in 1963.

Fortunately, Gibson and Les Paul reached an agreement to reissue Les's classic singlebody design in 1968 and its been a bestseller since; that will be the subject of the eagerly anticipated second volume of Lawrence's book.

A Tribute To The Minimoog

If the Les Paul was the signature instrument of the 1950s, then the Moog was the breakthrough instrument of the 1970s. While the solidbody electric guitar of the 1950s was a breakthrough in both portability and flexibility, synthesizers at the time filled whole rooms and could do little but electronic beeps and blurps (see: Planet, Forbidden). During the 1960s, their size continually shrunk until the arrival of Robert Moog's Minimoog synthesizer in 1970.

Of course, these days, size isn't that critical an issue, as synthesizers are increasingly software propositions, such as Cakewalk's popular Dimension Pro and Rapture software synths. But four decades of exposure to the vintage sounds from those early instruments keeps the desire for warm analog sounds alive.

Hence, Craig Anderton's MiniMoog Tribute Expansion Pack for Cakewalk's Rapture software synthesizer.

Listed alphabetically, the first of the 100 patches is called Bass_BigSawtooth, which instantly recalls the first half-dozen notes of "Chameleon", the first track on Herbie Hancock's iconic Headhunters album from 1973. Other patches such as Brass_Analog display a remarkable sensitivity to the player's touch; played lightly, the instrument sounds like a muted horn; hit with full velocity and it can really screech.

Anderton's MiniMoog Expansion Pack for Rapture also has a wide variety of sequencer sounds; while I'm no expert on Minimoog programming, it seems safe to say that to generate these sounds in the 1970s, you'd need to run a Minimoog through a battery of outboard gear; here they're a press of a button.

Which is what software synthesizers are all about: finding the patches that work for you, and then playing them, making music with them, as opposed to spending hours programming and experimenting. And there are lots of fun patches here to work with, some that recreate the sounds with remarkable accuracy of an iconic electronic instrument from the 1970s and others that take those sounds into the 21st century.

The Studio As Compositional Tool

While the musicians of the past played individual instruments, it was only the composer and arranger who got to work with the whole palette. Technology has changed that though, a direction that Brian Eno pointed to 30 years ago, when he spoke of "The Studio As Compositional Tool." And thanks to loop-based technology, anyone can be the musical equivalent of William Burroughs, working through audio versions of his textual cutups. 

Of course, some audio experiments will be more interesting than others. Which brings us to Steve Thomas' new Audnoyz project, an elaborate electronic dreamscape built around both newly recorded instruments and plenty of loops and "found" sounds". Melodies seem to float in and out, instruments ranging from Japanese kotos to processed electric guitars to a battery of synthesizers and drum loops fade in, interact, and then fade out.

While this isn't music for everyone, it demonstrates how far pop music technology has come from the days of Les Paul, his pioneering solidbody guitar and multitrack recording studio, and Robert Moog's early keyboards.

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