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Thread: Les Paul Reminisces About James B. Lansing

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    Les Paul Reminisces About James B. Lansing

    HARMAN PRO
    Issue #2, 2005
    Professional Sound And Infotainment Technology
    LES PAUL REMEMBERS...
    Les Paul Reminisces about James B. Lansing

    Loudspeaker pioneer James B. Lansing revolutionized the way people listened to movies and music, with sound system principles so groundbreaking, they are still in use today. Here, we take a quick look at the life of this audio trailblazer, and hear from the musical and recording technology legend Les Paul on how his interaction with Lansing changed his life...
    Born on January 14, 1902, in Greenridge, Il. James Martini, the ninth of 13 children of coal mining engineer Henry Martini and Grace Erbs, exhibited a facility for electronics early on in life. At age 12 he built a small radio transmitter, which, despite its size, sent out a powerful enough signal to reach the Great Lakes Naval Station, prompting a visit from government officials to the Martini home in order to dismantle the enterprising youngster's contraption.
    He attended a small business college in Springfield, Il, became an auto mechanic specializing in precision repair work (to the point where he gained skills necessary to make his own parts in the machine shop) and, via the largesse of his employer, attended an automotive school in Detroit.
    After his mother's death in 1924, Martini relocated to Salt Lake City and soon formed a business partnership with a fellow eletronics buff named Ken Decker.
    Relocating to Los Angeles, Martini and Decker founded the Lansing Manufacturing Company which built six- and eight-inch cone loudspeakers for radio sets and consoles. Shortly before the business opened, for reasons unknown, Martini legally changed his name to James Bullough Lansing.
    The company's big break came in 1933, when it was selected to design the loudpeaker components for the Shearer-MGM system, a large two-way system consisting of a high frequency multicelluar horn (manufactured by the MGM set department) and a W-type low frequency enclosure.
    The Shearer-MGM system set new standards for sound reproduction in the motion picture theatre, and the basic design was widely copied by other manufacturers around the world.
    Another key product Lansing developed in the late 30's was Iconic system,which featured the model 801 high frequency compression driver. The Iconic was embraced by the motion picture industry as a monitor, and its basic configuration remains in use to the present day.
    In 1939, Decker, a reserve officer in the Army Air Corps, was killed in an airplane crash. Lansing struggled along, trying to keep the business afloat without his partner's business and management skills.
    During these years Lansing perfected many of the processes that have become standard in loudspeaker manufacturing, including high-speed winding of ribbon wire voice coils on metal mandrels and hydraulic forming of high frequency aluminum diaphragms.
    In 1946, Lansing established James B. Lansing Incorporated which would later, of course, be shortened to the now-internationally recognized JBL.

    LES PAUL DISCUSSES JAMES B. LANSING:
    There are precious few of Lansing's own words with which to chart his acheivements. But his path famously crossed that of another electronic visionary - and gifted musician to boot - Les Paul, who in addition to being one of the most influential (and popular, given the string of hits he recorded with his wife Mary Ford from 1948 to 1961) guitarist in contemporary music history, was an inveterate tinkerer and inventor. Paul's technological innovations of multitrack recording on disc, the solid-body guitar, 8-track tape recording, and prototypical synthesizers and signal processors revolutionized the manner in which records were made to such a degree that to talk of studio technology at all it is necessary to distinguish between the pre-Paul and the post-Paul eras.
    Widely sought out by the press for his views on technology trends and music in general, Paul has rarely discussed his friendship with Jim Lansing.
    In the following interview, however, he offers some insight into the man he knew and the legacy he left...

    HOW DID YOU MEET JIM LANSING?
    Les PAUL: There were three or four people in the speaker business that I'd rub elbows with and none of them- none of them- even approached what I was looking for until I got it with Jim Lansing.
    He asked me "what is your name?" and I said "Les Paul." And he said, "I'm Jim Lansing." I said, "Gee, I've been wanting to meet you. I've heard about you." He said, What brought you over?" I said, "I came over to get a speaker for my studio. I'm building a recording studio in my garage in the backyard." And he said, "I'm working on a speaker. Its going to be a coaxial speaker. It's going to be a duplex speaker. I said "What's that?" He said, "Well, it's so that you're on axis with the center and the line of sight (to the source of the sound,) so it's feeding you from (what sounds like only) one source. What would you like? I imagine for your studio it would be an Iconic."
    Then I said I thought that was a great idea because I can never get the guitar to sound like it really is. He said "What do you mean the guitar? steel guitars never going to go through my speaker!" I laughed and said, "It's going to go through it somehow later anyways."
    He was right about using the Iconic. If you could could back away a certain distance, that was the best sound that I've ever heard to this date. I haven't heard really much improvement in 50 years.

    DID YOU EVER ACTUALLY SEE HIM IN ACTION- WORKING ON A PROJECT?
    LES PAUL: It was only a short time later, maybe two or three days later, that he said, "Hey did you want to go with us out in the desert?" So I said, "what's happening out there?" And he said, "We're going to do some testing." And so we got in the truck, three of us. And we went out to the desert. We'd send this signal to the speakers with a microphone using a Western Electric ball bat mic- that was a condenser mic that was the absolute best at that time. It was the mic that was used by Western Electric at Bell Labs and it was the same one that Jim Lansing was using. I learned more from Jim Lansing at that time. It was pioneering work, very rough like the Wright Brothers. We started from the ass end and worked back, and it struck me as being just about as logical as anything else.

    WHAT'S YOUR MOST VIVID MEMORY OF YOUR TIME WITH HIM?
    LES PAUL: One of the meetings that I had with Jim that was so interesting was when he laid this one me: He's telling me about the human ear and how it's a non-linear device. We began talking about the speaker and how we're going to enclose the speaker, and Jim brought out something I had never realized, and that was that you have to divide the labor because the range of the human ear goes so low you've got the next range and the next range and the next range, and you can't do this on one speaker. When he presented that to me, I was very impressed and it's never left me because it looked like a dead-end street, like it never could be right if you're going to divide that labor. And that the ultimate someday would be a device that's all in one, like your ear is.
    When I went to Jim he wasn't ready to even think of the idea of making musical instrument speakers. A year after he died (September 24, 1949), I was at Carnegie Hall with Count Basie. Count Basie and those guys would come over and say goodness, what have you got? I could blow their whole band away with my 604. Do you realize that until the electric guitar came in the guitarist could't be heard? An acoustic guitar was the most anemic thing. And the stand up bass. You amplify the bass and now it's big. So this is where Jim Lansing was bringing us forward.
    Every kid in a rock band today has to thank Jim Lansing. What he did absolutley made it possible for the musician to get a very close reproduction of what he wished to hear.
    A HARMAN PRO EXCLUSIVE

    ---------------------------------------

    I did an entire forum search for this article and did not find it, and this is why I am posting it... I hope it is OK... KG

    The company I work for Danforth Sound is Altec Lansing's oldest still existing original professional dealer in north America. These Harman Pro magazines are sent to Danforth where I picked up this issue with this article in it. I just wanted to share...
    Last edited by KentGriffith; 08-27-2007 at 07:34 PM. Reason: added spaces for easier reading.

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    Senior Member louped garouv's Avatar
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    nice read!

    thanks!

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    Good read about the history of Altec & JBL.

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    Senior Member Bernard Wolf's Avatar
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    Thanks for the article Kent. I know that I should probably know this, but is that date of James B Lansing's death correct ? Thats the year I was born and on top of that to think my S/3100 is still essentially the same design as the Iconic is really quite amazing.... hats off to JBL !!
    Last edited by Bernard Wolf; 08-30-2007 at 02:04 PM. Reason: spelling

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bernard Wolf View Post
    Thanks for the article Kent. I know that I should probably know this, but is that date of James B Lansing's death correct ? Thats the year I was born and on top of that to think my S/3100 is still essentially the same design as the Iconic is really quite amazing.... hats off to JBL !!

    You are welcome. I would of thought that article would have been transcribed here long ago. I was surprised to find it wasn't. I just did a Wikipedia search on James Lansing and this is what it says there:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Bullough_Lansing


    He was born in Millwood Township, Macoupin County, Illinois to parents Henry Martini of St. Louis, Missouri and Grace Erbs Martini of Central City, Illinois. His father was a coal mining engineer which meant the family moved around quite a bit in James' early years. He was the ninth of fourteen children. He lived for a short time with the Bullough family in Springfield, Illinois and later took their name when he changed his from Mantini to Lansing.
    Lansing graduated eighth grade at Lawrence School in Springfield, Illinois, attended Springfield High School and also took courses at a small business college also in Springfield.
    At a young age he built a Leyden jar to play pranks on his friends. He also built crystal sets which were apparently powerful enough for the signal to reach Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois, which was then dismantled when the Navy tracked the source down.
    Lansing had worked as an automotive mechanic and attended and automotive school in Detroit courtesy of the dealer he worked for.
    His mother died on November 1, 1924 when he was 21 and he then left home. He then met his future wife, Glenna Peterson, in Salt Lake City in 1925. At the time he was working for a radio station as an engineer. He also worked for the Baldwin loudspeaker company and met his future business partner, Ken Decker in the city.

    [edit] Career

    Lansing and Ken Decker moved to Los Angeles where they set up a business manufacturing loudspeakers. It was called the Lansing Manufacturing Company. Just before the company was registered on March 9, 1927 Lansing changed his name from James Martini to James Bullough Lansing for an unknown reason. Most of his brothers had adopted the surname Martin, two of which (Bill and George) came to LA to work with him.
    He later became the founder of JBL and onetime VP of Engineering for Altec Lansing.
    James Lansing was noted as an innovative engineer, but a poor businessman. As a result of deteriorating business conditions and personal issues, he took his own life by hanging himself from an avocado tree in the courtyard of his factory in September, 1949.

    -------------------------------------

    I had heard he died behind the wheel of a car, but above it says differently.

    I had heard he was depressed over JBL going deeper in debt and things were steadily getting worse financially for him and he must of felt responsible for it all seeing how it was his company and all. Must of felt like he was letting a lot of people down and that his company was about to go under.

    Little did James know that in just a few years JBL made a turn around and came back strong for several decades. If he had only lived about 2 more years he would have seen the turnaround and could have overseen a prosperous JBL for years to come. If only...

    KG

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    Senior Member Bernard Wolf's Avatar
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    I can't believe I just read that.. he hung himself.... what a terrible thing for such a gifted person to have done. I had no idea there was such a dark, dark event in the fabulous history of our favoured transducer.... I feel even closer to my 3100's now than ever. Thanks again for bringing this important information to our attention. I wonder how many members here were aware of this ?

    Bernard

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bernard Wolf View Post
    Thanks again for bringing this important information to our attention. I wonder how many members here were aware of this ?

    Bernard
    I've seen several of these Harman Pro publications, including this issue. Sometimes they show up on ebay or other places for not much money. At one time, I had a link that accessed a number of these online.

    Now, what did I do with it? :dont-know

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    Oh yeah. For those who have the The JBL Story by John Eargle, Les Paul provided the Foreword for the book, and much of Lansing's biographical information appeared on this site (thanks to John Eargle) long before being published in the 60th anniversary book.

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    I went to work at JBL a few years after Jim Lansing's death, but it wasn't a topic you discussed at JBL, possibly because George Martin was still working there.

    I honestly don't believe there would have been a JBL if not for Bill Thomas' leadership and planning. He got the company out of debt and on the road to its eventual success.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Harvey Gerst View Post
    I went to work at JBL a few years after Jim Lansing's death, but it wasn't a topic you discussed at JBL, possibly because George Martin was still working there.

    I honestly don't believe there would have been a JBL if not for Bill Thomas' leadership and planning. He got the company out of debt and on the road to its eventual success.
    Harvey, you are so right. The annals of failed businesses are full of stories of brilliant ideas and innovative products that never saw the light of day because no one could run the damn company.

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