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Miking the Legendary Leslie Tone Cabinet

Larry Byrne
Frank Gilbert (& Wilco’s Stan Doty)
Eric Michaels
Zach Mishur
Zito

“I was walking down 79th Street in Chicago and heard a song that turned out to be Misty by Groove Holmes played on a Hammond B3. I’d never heard an organ sound like that before.  I only knew one blues riff that I could play on the piano, but when I played it on a B3 (and Leslie) at Lyon & Healy a few weeks later that was it.  I was in love.”  – Eric Michaels

In pop, rock, R&B and blues music, there are legendary axes. They are almost always guitars – a Gibson Les Paul, maybe a Fender Telecaster and they’re almost always associated with their owners: Albert King’s Custom Flying V, Willie Nelson’s Martin N20 or Tom Petty’s 12-string Rickenbacker.  Rarely, however, has any pairing captured and kept the adulation of both musicians and audiences like the Hammond B3 organ and the Leslie 122 speaker. 

Hammond B3 and Leslie Tone Cabinet. You’ll never see them look this pristine onstage.

Hammond B3 and Leslie Tone Cabinet. You’ll never see them look this pristine onstage.

Whether it was Brother Jack MacDuff, Dave “Baby” Cortez, Groove Holmes or Procol Harum, most of us can recall the first time we picked out the sound of organ in contemporary music.

The Back Story

The Hammond tone-wheel organ (ancestor of 1954’s B3) was introduced by Laurens Hammond in 1935. The Leslie tone cabinet was built by Don Leslie in 1940. (For those of you unfamiliar with these wooden behemoths, “Leslies” are speaker cabinets made of solid wood with louvers to let the sound out of the top and bottom, and with rotors that spin and throw the sound out into the room.  They are sound modification devices, more like musical instruments than speakers, designed to change the sound of an instrument.)

The story goes that theater-organ loving Don offered his design to Laurens, but classical music-loving (and tone-deaf) Laurens Hammond didn’t like the sound of a Hammond through a Leslie. In fact, Hammond dealers were prohibited from selling them until years later. Even without advertising, the Leslie found a fan base among professional musicians, word traveled fast and by the mid-50s what most people considered to be the Hammond organ sound was actually the sound of a Hammond organ through a Leslie tone cabinet. With its spinning sound, the Leslie managed to turn smoky bars and small chapels into concert halls and cathedrals. The moving sound had something majestic about it. And it still does.

The Hammond and Leslie brands continue on today and are owned by Hammond Suzuki USA.  To the purist, the originals are still the greatest and there is a thriving market for vintage Hammond organs – particularly the B3 – and Leslie “speakers” sixty years after their adoption by pop, jazz and blues artists.

Five Ways to Mic a Leslie

In this article, we once again proved that for every application, there are dozens of solutions and all of them are right for the artist and the performance.  From the what’s available in the club one-mic solution for the gigging musician playing blues clubs to the stereo miking techniques of a touring band with a road crew, there was an unyielding reverence for the Hammond/Leslie sound and how to achieve it.

Larry Byrne

Working Musician and Sideman

Current Gig: Keyboard Player for Bryan Lee’s Blues Power Band

“Jimmy Smith and Brother Jack McDuff were favorites of mine, along with the studio musicians who played on Atlantic and Stax recordings, even though I didn’t know who the players were back then.  Gospel organ players also preferred the Hammond sound, so there was a lot of cross-pollination.  When I tried to put a sound together for the first band I played keyboards in, I didn’t have a Hammond organ, but I was able to get a Leslie.

When I mic my Leslie, it’s always a case of less is more.  Any time you get too top-heavy on an instrument, it’s not good – especially with keys.   But because the organ is so piercing, you have to be really careful with the miking of a Leslie.  If it’s too hot, it can be a killer both out front and through the monitors.

Depending on what’s available, a reasonable single-mic technique is placing an SM57 on one side of the Leslie, aimed at the center, just under the top louvers and about 12” away from the cabinet.” (Figure 1)

Larry Byrne at The New Orleans’ Jazz & Heritage Festival, 2013

Larry Byrne at The New Orleans’ Jazz & Heritage Festival, 2013

Figure 1 - Single-miking technique, SM57

Figure 1 – Single-miking technique, SM57


Frank Gilbert

FOH and Monitor Engineer

Current Gig: Works for Jam Productions at Mayne Stage, The Vic and Park West,
also Metro Mobile Recording

“With a Leslie, mic choice can be very dependent on the type of music being played, as well as the venue. If stage volume is not a huge issue, a Beta 52A aimed at the rotating baffle and a pair of SM81s pointed at the vents by the horns can yield excellent results. This configuration works even better if the Leslie speaker can be isolated by placing it offstage and away from drums and guitar amps.

If the stage is loud and cramped, condensers may not be the best choice for the upper mics. Even though organists often love to crank up the Leslie, your SM81 can sometimes turn into a vocal mic if it’s right next to a 30-member gospel choir. In this situation a pair of Beta 57s work very well; they provide nice reproduction of the midrange and high frequencies as well as excellent off-axis rejection.

Frank Gilbert at The Vic Theater

Frank Gilbert at The Vic Theater

Figure 2 - SM81s on top, Beta52A on bottom

Figure 2 – SM81s on top, Beta52A on bottom

SM81 mics positioned within an inch of the horns – note use of windscreens. Photo: Frank Gilbert

SM81 mics positioned within an inch of the horns – note use of windscreens. Photo: Frank Gilbert

For even more rejection, some engineers will place the capsule all the way in the open back of the cabinet, as close to the rotating horns as possible without being hit. This approach can sometimes pick up the wind being thrown off of the rotating horns if the motor is running and the organ is not being played, which in turn can increase the noise floor of your mix if these channels are not muted. This could be a problem when the band has stopped playing and someone is speaking to the crowd. Unflattering accompaniment for the pastor’s sermon, to say the least.

My rules of thumb for miking Leslies are:

  • Louder/smaller stage (gospel/rock): Pair of dynamic unidirectional mics, cardioid or supercardioid (SM57, Beta 57, Beta 56) close in on the cabinet vents/louvers.
  • Wide open, quieter stage with fewer musicians (jazz): Pair of SM81s or other cardioid condenser (KSM137 or KSM141) on the vents or open back, but not too close. (Figure 2)
  • For Leslie low, I always use a kick drum mic (Beta 52) pointed at the rotating baffle a touch off axis.”

How Wilco Does It

(Editor’s note: Frank’s gig running sound for three of Chicago’s most popular music venues puts him in touch with touring sound engineers. In addition to sharing his own techniques with us, he took it one step further.)

“I recently spoke to Stan Doty, FOH engineer for Wilco.  He likes to use Beta 98s for the Leslie high mics. They’re easy to clamp right on the cabinet with the Shure A98 gooseneck. Stan places the mics in a 90-degree pattern relative to the axis of the spinning horn, one capsule outside and one far inside the cabinet.

I asked Stan why one mic was so far in.  Here’s what he said: ‘The older model Leslie horns were set at a 90-degree angle to each other. I can get the phase characteristics of the old design by putting one of the mics inside at the same angle.’
To baffle the flutter coming off the spinning horns, Stan uses the 98 windscreen.”


Eric Michaels

Vocalist, Multi-instrumentalist (Hammond Organ, Piano, Left-Handed Bass Guitar)

Current Gig: Eric Michaels Organ Trio, Sir Eric in Beatles tribute band American English

“My first Leslie was a 21H. At the time, I didn’t know that it was only 20 watts or that it had a switch to turn the rotators on and off.  Now I have a Leslie 3300 with 300 watts of RMS output power that can go toe-to-toe with any guitar player.

When I was using a standard 40-watt Leslie 10 or 15 years ago, I would put something like a ‘57 or ‘58 mic on the left side and the right side close to the rotating horn about an inch or two away, as close as possible without picking up the noise of the Leslie. For the bottom (Figure 3), I don’t remove the wood to expose the rotor like a lot of musicians do, but I mic it from the back (turn the cabinet around, ugly side out) because there are openings there.  The enclosure helps to produce a bassier signal that doesn’t dry up on you. I’d generally use any microphone the sound company had on hand – either a bass drum mic or what they’d use to mic a bass amp – and position it about 3 inches away.   These days, I use a KSM44. That produces a real nice rich bass sound.

Eric Michaels Organ Trio – that’s Eric in the middle

Eric Michaels Organ Trio – that’s Eric in the middle

Figure 3 - SM58 (2) on top, KSM44 on the bottom

Figure 3 – SM58 (2) on top, KSM44 on the bottom

I tell whoever’s mixing it that I want the audience to hear it the way I’m hearing it. It doesn’t matter if it’s stereo to me. In order to give it a little more distinction, it might need a little more compression to give it that oomph sound (sings it) that I like.”


Zach Mishur

FOH Engineer

Current Gig: 135 day-trippers a year with Beatles tribute band American English

“A lot of people jump for a spaced stereo pair when miking a Leslie, but I’ve had mixed results with that technique. Watch your phase with spaced pairs!  I’m not a big fan of that approach. After all, there are only a few inches between your ears, not a few feet!

I prefer an xy pair for the horn (57s or 81s depending). A Beta 52®A right on the rotor panned up the middle rounds it out for me. (Figure 4)

If you have a nice room, you can get a couple of meters away with an xy pair of large diaphragm condensers (KSM44s for example).

I like the xy pair right on the louver (or in the back if you take that plate off, you can get in there nice and tight), which would give you enough isolation for the stage. The nice thing about the xy pair is that properly applied (panned hard left and right), you get a nice solid image that collapses down to mono perfectly (for lobby feeds, wedges etc.). Also the image tends to stay constant over a much wider area than you might think.

If you don’t have the channels, or the PA is in mono, you can just go with one mic on the horn and one on the rotor.”

That’s Zach Mishur at one of American English’s 100+ gigs a year.

That’s Zach Mishur at one of American English’s 100+ gigs a year.

Figure 4 - Beta 181 (2) in xy stereo configuration top, Beta 52A on the rotor

Figure 4 – Beta 181 (2) in xy stereo configuration top, Beta 52A on the rotor


Zito

FOH Engineer/Production Manager

Current Gig:  On tour with OneRepublic

“I used 56s on Babyface. I mic on the outside of the wood because it gives the widest stereo response.  Two 56s on top and I like one KSM27 for the bottom mic. (Figure 5)

Because there’s actually movement to the Leslie, you have to be careful in how you place the mics and the directions that the mics face. Mics are much more sensitive at close distances, so by miking on the side, both mics are far enough away that they tonally sound the same. But because of the physical distance between the two, you’ll need to add a few more db of gain to the mic furthest from the rotating speaker.

On the top, I put one on the right and one on the left facing directly into the louvers. Another problem is that the horn on the top is not centered on the back so the distance when you’re trying to mic right and left is always going to be 6” away from the right mic but 3” from the left mic and you’ll get a big level difference between left to right. If I mic from the sides, I don’t have that issue.”

No first names here.  This is globe-trotting OneRepublic sound engineer Zito.

No first names here. This is globe-trotting OneRepublic sound engineer Zito.

Figure 5 - Beta 56®A (2) on top, KSM27 on rotor

Figure 5 – Beta 56®A (2) on top, KSM27 on rotor

Most of the time they pull the back panel off so you can actually see the exposed rotor that’s spinning, so to mic the bottom, I angle the mic into the corner so that the air movement is away from the direction of the rotation. That way, the airflow doesn’t hit the capsule and cause a lot of unwanted noise. The important thing is to point the mic so that it’s getting the least amount of wind noise from the rotation of the cabinet, as well as using a wind screen whenever possible.

You try to minimize the noise that is inherent the Leslie.”

Enter the Wanna-Bs

For the purists, or the keyboard players with enough roadies to tote a 425-pound vintage Hammond B3 from gig to gig, the iconic pairing of a B3 and a Leslie is still the way to go.  But for the working musician, who may be traveling gig to gig on the back roads of Wisconsin or loading a rig for two nights at a blues bar in Chicago, a synthesizer, with or without a Leslie, may be the way to roll.

Here is Larry Byrne on the trade-offs:

“The thing about anything that falls into the category of Hammond ‘Wanna-Bs’ is that they are digital reproductions of a Hammond organ. (Editor’s note: Even the current Hammond sk-2 “B3 in a Box” is a digital reproduction of a Hammond B3.)  You can never expect it to be everything you’d get out of a B3.  What you’re looking for is the ability to play the instrument in the same way (as a B3)  and not have something jump out at you that’s noticeably wrong.  That used to happen a lot before they got the sampling of the sound right, but the sampling of a Hammond on my Nord Electro 3 keyboard is good enough to fool the ear in a band mix where I’m performing as a sideman.

Let’s put it this way: if it’s OK with me, it seems to be OK with everybody else  – but Wanna-Bs will never replace the sound of a vintage Hammond B3.”

Resources

You don’t have to be a keyboard player to groove on these Hammond/Leslie sites:

Great video on the prickly relationship between Laurence Hammond and Don Leslie

Leslie Speaker Cabinet Miking, Phil O’Keefe, Harmony Central

Leslie Speakers and Hammond Organs: Rumors, Myths, Facts and Lore

Blues Tools – Shifting Blues, Part 2: The Leslie Tone Cabinet

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