In the past, whenever I’ve been asked to explain the origins of the flanging effect, I’d respond that it came from the fact that you’d slow down one of the three tape machines needed for the original effect by putting your finger on the tape flange. . .but it was John Lennon who actually named it. It turns out that there’s a grain of truth in both of those explanations, but the truth is more complicated.
In an excellent article on the subject in Music Radar, Andy Jones mentioned that during the recording of The Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Abbey Road chief maintenance engineer Ken Townsend “inadvertently introduced a flanging effect on Lennon’s vocal. He recorded two identical vocals together, with one slightly delayed through a second tape machine.”
When Lennon asked how the effect was achieved, producer George Martin, who didn’t want to get too technical, responded with “We take the original image and split it through a double vibrocated sploshing flange with double negative feedback.” From that point on, whenever John wanted that effect he’d ask for “Ken’s flanger.”
The Real Origin
That takes care of the name, but you might be shocked to learn that the first recorded version of the effect came on a track called “The Big Hurt” by Miss Toni Fisher at Hollywood’s Gold Star Studios in 1959 with producer Wayne Shanklin and engineers Larry Levine and Stan Ross.
According to Jones, “While trying to make the doubled-up recording, the tape machines ran out of sync as their speeds varied. This resulted in the flanging effect which Wayne loved, so it was kept on the final recording.” You can hear it prominently at the beginning of the song below.
It also turns out the Les Paul himself had tried something similar way back in 1952 when trying to get a doubling effect, but he did it so well that you can’t hear any flanging. Listen below.
Remember that this was a totally analog process back then with a tedious setup requiring at least 3 two-track tape machines and a lot of patience. Regardless of who originated it (I believe it’s Shanklin, Levine and Ross), it’s so much easier today with a simple plugin.