Like many guitarists in the late sixties and early seventies David’s secret weapon in creating his magical tone was blending his Hiwatt amps with rotating speakers. The effect can be heard on many Floyd recordings and was an essential part of David’s live tone between 1971-83 and again in 1994. In this article we’ll look at the Yamaha RA-200 cabinet David used between 1976-83.
Donald Leslie designed the Leslie rotating speaker cabinet in the mid 1940s. The amp was originally intended for Hammond organs simulating the Doppler effect – the tone is pitched up and down by the rotating horn, like the effect of an ambulance driving by. The cabinet consists of a top treble rotating horn and a bass sub with a rotating sound baffle. The Leslie soon became a popular effect for both guitars and vocals, in addition to being the main amp for most organs. David used a Leslie on his compositions on Ummagumma and on a couple of songs on Atom Heart Mother but it was around Meddle that he integrated the speaker in both his studio and stage sound. Between 1971-1975 he is seen using different Leslie cabinets on stage and most of Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here were recorded with Hiwatt and Fender amps and a Leslie cab. See the David Gilmour Gear Guide for each album for more details.
Pictures used with permission from Josh Szczepanowski.
The Yamaha RA-200 was introduced in the mid 70s and unlike most of the Leslie cabinets, the Yamaha is a 200w solid-state amp – no tubes. It has three rotating speakers in the top compartment, rotating in the same speed on an axis rather than the usual horizontal spin. In addition, the main compartment has four Yamaha JA3052a 12” 60W stationary speakers. Three amp circuits power the cab – one for the rotating speakers and two for the main speaker cab. A back panel has the usual amp control knobs – volume, bass, treble, reverb (that can be used with both the rotating speakers and the lower compartment) and tremolo speed (controlling the slow speed – the max speed is fixed). There’s also a small foot pedal with two on/off switches – one for switching between the horns and speakers (you can’t use both simultaneously) and one for switching between slow and fast on the horns. The whole thing is 45.5 inches tall and weighs 205 pounds!
David started using the Yamahas during the recording of Animals in early 1976. It’s featured as a main effect on Dogs, notably on the two fast solos between the verses. David explains to Guitar World (02.93) – “I was coming through some Hiwatt amps and a couple of Yamaha rotating speaker cabinets. Leslie-style cabinets that they used to make. I used to use two of those on stage along with regular amps. That slight Leslie effect made a big difference in the sound.” The main signal would travel out of the Pete Cornish board via three outputs – two into the amps, Hiwatts and Marshall with the usual 4 WEM cabs setup, and the other into an Alembic F-2B tube preamp. There’s no records on how the Alembic was used at this stage but it could have been the case of bypassing preamp section in the Yamaha, since the Yamaha was solidstate, or simply as an interface for a generally smoother tone. In the 80’s and 90’s the Alembic would be used as a main preamp in David’s rig with all of the preamp stages in the Hiwatts removed/disconnected. The Yamahas were mixed slightly lower than the Hiwatts adding a fuller dimension to his sound rather than being a dominating effect. The Cornish board had on/off controls for each output allowing David to use both outputs or choose between the two. From what I can gather from listening to the live shows, he would use both throughout the shows; never just the Yamahas.
Perhaps the best example of the Yamahas is on David’s self titled solo album from 1978. The Yamaha features as a main effect on songs like Raise My Rent and It’s Definitely. Unlike on stage or The Wall, where the Yamahas were mixed much lower than the Hiwatts, on these songs the cabs are mic’ed and recorded for a much more dominating modulation. You can also compare songs like Mihalis, which is mostly the Electric Mistress with Raise My Rent and hear that slightly hollow, throaty rotating tone on both the cleans and distortions.
The Yamaha was again used on the recording sessions for The Wall, notably on David’s legendary solo on Comfortably Numb. As on earlier sessions, the signal was split between the Hiwatts/WEMs and the rotating speaker cabinet. Unlike on Dogs and Raise My Rent, the Yamaha was mixed much lower than the Hiwatts like the stage setup. You can’t really hear the effect but it adds a bigger dimension to the sound. Sort of rounds off the corners of the sometimes harsh distortion tones. For The Wall tour David would again use a setup including two Hiwatts with four WEM cabs and the two Yamaha RA-200 cabs. Phil Taylor also designed a method where a cable-based phase reverse system was used to keep the two cabs in synch with each other.
The Yamahas were also used on The Final Cut recording sessions and was last seen on the “Barn Jam” sessions in early 2007 featured on the Live in Gdansk DVD.
Gilmourish.Com contributor Josh Szczepanowski has been kind enough to share some of his experiences with the Yamaha RA-200 as a guitarist in Canadian Pink Floyd tribute Pigs. The cabinet dates back to 1975 and was until recently being used at a local hockey arena amplifying the Hammond organ used during intermissions. Josh describes the Yamaha as being loud, insanely heavy and dwarfing his Hiwatt/WEM setup in size! But as he describes it: “Once I got things under control I was rewarded with a big surprise – The Yamaha RA-200 honestly sounds fantastic, and nails late 70s Gilmour tones.” Josh further explains how he’s using the cab: “In my case, I run the Yamaha and the Hiwatt together. Originally I assumed that I would switch between one and the other, but it turns out that running a stereo rig sounds excellent. (…) I could never quite nail Run Like Hell until the Yamaha showed up. It gives that watery tone that I found impossible to duplicate previously. (…) On its own, the Leslie speaker side of the RA-200 doesn’t sound great with high-gain pedals – but mixed underneath the Hiwatt it gives just enough shimmer to sound good.”
Here’s a handful of reference clips provided By Josh Szczepanowski with the Yamaha in solo. Keep in mind that the effect is much more subtle in David’s setup with the Hiwatts but this gives you an idea of how it all sounds.
Dogs (fast speed)
– Although David used the Electric Mistress as a main effect on ’77 performances you can hear how the Yamaha adds that swirly almost 3D sound to the main riff.
Shine On You Crazy Diamond (slow speed)
– This is a clip of Syd’s Theme. You can hear how the rotating speakers adds a shimmery rotating effect. If you listen carefully to Shine On and the intro on Sorrow from PULSE you can hear the same tone.
Run Like Hell (slow speed)
– On the The Wall tour David performed Run Like Hell in front of the Wall using his mini Cornish board with just an Electric Mistress and the MXR digital delay unit. The Yamaha adds a liquidy smooth attack to the tone.
Replicating the rotating speaker sound
Dragging a huge rotating speaker cab on tour is obviously a real pain in the ass unless you’re blessed with roadies. It’s also a bit overkill on smaller stages as these amps are extremely loud and would be impossible mix properly. For most of us it’s also a question of finances. It’s not easy to replicate the tone though because the Doppler effect isn’t an effect like a fuzz or phaser, which easily can be achieved with some transistors and a handful of wire. The Doppler effect is an acoustic effect which depends on the surrounding environment. David also uses his cabs in addition to his main amps and not as an effect in itself. It’s therefore not entirely correct to place a simulator in your normal pedal chain because it will be too dominating. To get the right effect, you’d have to split the signal from your main board into your main amps and a second amp with the rotating speaker sim on this separate line, creating a stereo effect.
However, rotating speaker sims are cool effects on their own and they’re definitely worth checking out for that typical Any Colour You Like tone or other musical styles for that matter. I’ve been using the Boss RT-20 for a while, which produce convincing Leslie tones and the pedal is a favourite for both Steven Wilson and John Wesley from Porcupine Tree. I also recommend the H&K Rotosphere and the DLS Rotosim – the latter being one of the more popular on the market. One of the best sounding units is the old Korg G4, which is sadly deleted but if you stumble across one of these you it’s worth the little extra. The Line 6 Roto Machine is a decent budget unit, that actually sound quite good. These sims should be placed last in your line of modulations, in front of the volume pedal and delays – if you’re placing them in the normal chain.
Other modulation effects like chorus, phaser, flanger and UniVibe are all designed to capture that rotating speaker sound but you shouldn’t mistake these for the being the real deal, as they sound quite different. Again, keep in mind that David doesn’t use his rotating speakers as a main effect, so using any of these modulations to replicate his tone won’t give you the same result. Still, as with rotary sims, all of these are cool effects on their own and they’re essential for many of David’s tones.
Most modulation effects produce fairly convincing rotary sounds. The UniVibe and a 4 stage classic phaser will give you that fast, tremolo effect on high speed settings and the Electric Mistress has a huge liquidy tone, ideal for both slow and fast modulation. This is one of the few flangers that don’t get detuned when you turn up the rate. You can also use an analog chorus like the Boss CE-2 or EH Small Clone to add dimension to your tone but I think the best option would be a more modern sounding unit like the Boss CE-5, which produce a much wider sound. Check out more recommendations in the Buyer’s Gear Guide : Effects.
Read more about David’s rotating speakers and amp setups in the “Leslies, Doppolas and Rovers” and “Hiwatt Amps & WEM Cabinets” articles.
A big thanks to Josh Szczepanowski for contributing soundclips, pictures and technical information about the Yamaha RA-200.