Any one of Les Paul's amazing careers would make him remarkable. His wide-ranging excellence (and longevity) make him a legend and a living treasure. He is in the hall of fame for songwriting, invention and rock and roll — and has earned five Grammy awards. Les Paul celebrated his 90th birthday June 2005 at a Carnegie Hall concert, and continues to celebrate with his twice-nightly Monday gigs at the Iridium in NYC. This year he's working on a box set, at least two books, a documentary and new inventions. His new "rock" record, Les Paul & Friends: American Made, World Played, makes him the oldest artist to debut a record on the Billboard Hot 200 charts. Les is widely hailed as the father of the electric guitar, the originator of multitrack recording and pioneer of many recording techniques that we use today. As a sign of commitment to music making, consider that after a near-fatal car crash in 1948, Les had his right arm pinned in position to cradle and play the guitar, where it remains.
At Les' home sits the Octopus and Monster, the first multitrack tape rig, still running. Guitars, amps, loudspeakers and recording gear from the beginning to today surround us — point in any direction, and there is an Ampex tape machine. Across the kitchen counter with a Les Paul guitar and Fender Twin at his knee, our host generously and graciously dispenses enlightenment, anecdotes and popcorn — from 8 pm to 6:30 am for several nights. As Dale Epperson and Elliott Liggett tend to the API console in one of the three home studios, the names of those he has known parade by: Autry, Hendrix, Django, Jeff Beck, Bill Putnam, Sr. These are excerpts from hours of conversation. I wish you could have been there.
So, how are you doing?
I'm doing good, doing what I want to do — keep fooling around electronically. Not that I really want to do it, but I have a lot of archiving to do — that's a headache. I figure we need to get the front end worked out, the workstation.
The first question- would you want to duplicate the recording that you've made with the EQ, and would your judgment be right? Let's say the BBC or RCA made it, or it had an AES curve — you're taking this phonograph record, and what have they done to it at the board?
The EQ is built into the system, not just what the board is doing, but the recording. This creates a whole mess of problems because the alternative to that is, don't do any of it — do your transferring of your message. Do it raw so that whatever is on that recording is what you put over. And then later, say they developed a better speaker system, a better way of EQ'ing with the type of recording that you wish to do at that time — it may change.
Also, those recordings were made with a certain reproduction system in mind that had a sound of its own — the rooms might even sound different, certainly the electronics and speakers were different — so it's almost a question of what "preservation" means. You can't help changing it, but what direction do you take it in, and how far do you let it go? It's a funny thing, because you end up with people who are, say, archiving cylinder recordings. They can go in and take out the surface noise and make the record technically better, clearer than the original master. That isn't really archiving, it's painting over it — it's painting mustaches on the Mona Lisa.
[laughs] That's right — that's where I'm at. A couple of years ago, they played me a  record of Rudy Vallee, and they'd put this through the carwash — they spent a long time developing a system that would eliminate all the noises, fill in the holes by taking from here and from there, as if you were in Photoshop. I listened to Rudy Vallee — [it] sounded like it was recorded yesterday. Now, there you go with putting the mustache on.
It is interesting philosophically, and relates to your work with multitrack, because it's all interrelated. For example, with Rudy Vallee, his style of singing came from the way he interacted with the technology of the day. There were no high quality PAs, and to get any signal, he had to sing a certain way. Even from the beginning, from [Enrico] Caruso or whoever, the technology influenced both the artists and the performance.
It's part of it — here I am, terribly interested, attracted to something that my brother wouldn't be caught dead with — like he threw the switch and the light went on. It never seemed to interest him — there was no curiosity about it at all. If you want the light on, throw the switch and it's on. I wanted to know "What's making this light light? How is the light built?" All the things that continue to expand go on to more complicated things. It's an education — you're striving to be informed of all this stuff that you're curious about. For some reason, at a very early age, I was turned onto all these things that I had no answers to. The first one was when I was in a crib or playpen with the mumps. There's a big bay window in the living room where they had me, and across the street is a railroad. What interested me was that when that train started to chug away, there was a frequency that was sympathetic to the pane in the bay window. I said, "Every time that train reaches that note, this bay window starts to resonate." And then I would damp the window with my hand. And I'd say, "Now this is interesting" — if he got faster or slower, the window didn't respond. Now, this curiosity — immediately I...