MEMPHIS: Review of Level 5 Leslie Amplifier

Posted on 8/03/2009 by Monica Yasher

Today's article is aimed at organ players, an oft-neglected group of musicians.

Leslie Basics:

In 1940, Don Leslie invented the Leslie speaker cabinet which was sold with Hammond organs. The Leslie is a rotating speaker cabinet which contains a horn driver for reproducing tones over 800 MHz and a 15 inch bass speaker mounted downward which blows into a rotating drum. The overall effect is a spectacular room-filling sound that utilizes the Doppler effect to slightly shift the pitch of the tone, just as a siren or horn moving toward you and then away will drop it's pitch naturally.

There are 2 types of Leslie amps primarily in use today, the 122 and the 147. They are identical with one exception. The 147 uses AC switching to change the Leslie's motor speeds and thus change the speed of the rotating components to provide a steady slow spin or a fast tremolo. The 122 is DC switched and uses two 12AU7 tubes rather than the one found in the 147.

The old style Leslies made of all wood components(such as ones made in the 1960's) are generally more prized for their superior sound quality and because their replacement, the 122A features a Styrofoam bass rotor which after time, tends to cause an obstreperous rattle.

Old style, wooden replacement bass rotor(available from BT Productions)

I own 3 Leslie amplifiers and they are all becoming so aged that they have lost headroom, volume and clarity despite regular tube replacement and maintenance. Rather than having them rebuilt by a reputable firm such as Goff Organ, I decided to take another approach at playing my instrument, the Level 5 amplifier.

Leslie with the front panel removed

Level 5: Overview

The Level 5 is a hybrid custom designed amplifier made with the finest electronic components available. It uses a 6SN7 preamplifier tube on it's front end and a solid state 350 watt main amplifier. Unlike the old 122, the new Level 5 features tremendous variability of tone controls, allowing the player to adjust to his style( from squeaky clean to downright dirty tones) and to adjust bass, mid, and treble as well as the horn driver output.

The Level 5 Leslie amplifier

The Level 5 uses a standard quarter inch phono cable(guitar cord) and thus eliminates the costly and hard to find fat Leslie cables that cost about $100 each and are plagued with problems for the traveling road musician. These cables carry many conducting wires and have between 5 and 9 connection pins, and they also carry AC current to the amplifier. The Level 5 uses a standard AC cable as is used on you computer, again easy to replace.

The Level 5 eliminates the crossover network found in the old Leslie arrangement, having it's crossover built into the unit itself. Thus, the amp sends its power directly to the speakers.

The Level 5 has a two-position equalization switch which allows you to go from a higher to a lower voicing for the entire amp output, another nice touch.

The amp can be connected via quarter inch cable to a clone wheel organ such as a Nord Electro or Hammond XK-3c(my favorite!) or it can be connected using old style cables to a B-3 or other Hammond directly from the organ output(this may require special cable ends depending on the organ).

Hammond-Suzuki XK-3c breaks into two portable components and when
assembled(bottom photo) has the same form factor as the venerable B-3

The optional speed control pedal is a solid 5 pound block of billeted aluminum fitted with Switchcraft switches and fitted with a clear Lexan panel on the bottom to allow for easy inspection or troubleshooting. It's cord is connected using fine cable and a compression fitting- it's downright industrial in durability and the workmanship is outstanding.

From the BT Productions site:


  • Passive tone control set (bass, mid-range, treble)
  • Active tone control set (boost/cut for separate sub-bass and brilliance)
  • Separate Gain and Volume controls
  • Horn level control
  • Voicing switch to select preamp voice
  • 6 pin cable input connector, plus 1/4" line in with level control
  • Effects send/return loop with level control
  • 1/4" input for speed control footswitch
  • Custom wound power transformer
  • Ultra warm preamp tone with large scale 6SN7 tube
  • Volume to burn with 350 Watt custom power amp
  • Made in U.S.A.
Amplifier designer and sole distributor for the Level 5 is Tony LaBrasca from Chicago. Tony does a great job of insuring that the customer is versed on the set-up and operation of the unit and is a very knowledgeable guy, very experienced in working with Hammond organs and musical instruments in general. After he patiently helped me install the amp over the telephone he called me a couple of days later, asking "Are you getting everything out of it that you wanted?" because Tony wants his customers to be satisfied.

The original Leslie amp puts out about 40 watts of power at best. The Level 5 puts out a stunning 350 watts so the old Leslie speaker and horn driver components must be replaced to handle the additional wattage. I replaced my Jensen P15LL with a beautiful 600 watt Gauss speaker which was built for me by my good friend Dave at Glen Camack's Speaker Services in Memphis. I highly recommend Speaker Services to any musician for any speaker needs. They have been in business 25 years and do superb work.

Glen Camack's Speaker Services
549 S Cooper St
Memphis, TN 38104
(901) 725-9620

The original Leslie uses a 16 ohm driver and speaker. The Level 5 requires 8 ohm components. I would get the best speaker for this application as it is a bit unusual in that it's down-firing woofer requires a very thick paper gasket to avoid problems with over-excursion. This is important to avoid rubbing a hole around the edge of your speaker.

Gauss with huge Alnico magnet

Review and Conclusions:

I formerly owned a 960 series Leslie which was powered by a solid state amplifier. Although more powerful than some of the tube models, the tone is quite accurate, but much more sterile, lacking in the saturation and overtone harmonics inherent in the 122 and 147 tube amps. Also, when a transistor amp clips, it produces odd numbered harmonics which are repugnant to the listening ear. The tube amps, when saturated to the point of clipping produce a much more pleasing even numbered harmonic distortion that is the hallmark of many a nasty guitar solo.

After my experiences for 35 years with both types of amps I was totally biased toward the tube ones because of their more musical sound. Transistor amps were great for bass and full range piano reproduction, but tubes were always my choice for harmonica, guitar and organ. After playing the Level 5 with the appropriate upgrades in horn driver and speaker, I must admit that this damn thing is the best sound I have ever heard come from a Leslie...period. That includes the time I performed on Booker T. Jones' custom Goff rig when we shared a stage at the Memphis in May Musicfest a few years ago.

Seriously, this thing kicks major butt. I was almost incredulous at the amount of bass coming from the organ and the sheer volume of sound that the Level 5 delivers. Furthermore, the ability to shape the tone between a pure clean jazz sound all the way to the grunge of "Born to be Wild" is available to the player with just a few adjustments. Engineer Robbie Rose at the Rumboogie Club on Beale was equally impressed. The ability to "tune" the output signal to a particular room via the tone controls is extraordinary. The old Leslie tube amps simply have a volume knob.

Level 5 amp: Note the huge transformer, heat sinks, fan and big preamp tube.

The 6SN7 tube which is also used in the preamp of L100 Hammond organs, is a perfect match for the big transistor amp. It will get funky. It will growl, it will grunt and scream like a panther at a high volume and it also maintains a great tone at low volume levels thanks to the drive and level controls and my ability to dial in the tube sound from the console of my XK-3c.

At $1799 (plus $100 for the speed pedal) the amp is not inexpensive but it is made for the long haul and inherently more durable and trouble-free than the old style tube amps that I love. To me it is worth every penny and having Tony LaBrasca available just a phone call away is an added bonus, although I doubt I will ever need to do anything to this unit other than occasionally replace the one preamp tube. I have been replacing costly sets of 6550 power tubes about twice a year and that will be a thing of the past along with Leslie cables and cumbersome combo preamp pedals on the floor.

For professionals and serious enthusiasts of any genre, I heartily recommend the Level 5 Leslie amplifier without reservation, particularly to the road musician who wants the very best tone or the band musician who plays with a loud band and wants to easily cut through the mix.

available exclusively from:

Tony LaBrasca
BT Productions
(630) 205-4807

Here's a link to their site:

article by Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms, American Blues Blog

©2009, Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms

American Blues News Staff

What makes American Blues News unique is our coverage across America. Here is our lineup:

Mon: Memphis Correspondent - Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms
Nighthawk is our resident globetrotter and man behind the scenes, as he tours with the Reba Russell Band.

Tues: New York Correspondent - J. Blake
Blake is the American Blues News review and interview guru. You may catch him out and about in NY playing the blues.

Wed: National Correspondent - Monica Yasher
Monica is our executive director and artist interview specialist. You can catch Monica singing the blues around Pittsburgh or working on some country music songs in Nashville.

Thurs: Washington, DC Correspondent - Virginiabluesman
Geraldo offers inteviews and reviews. You may have seen him at an Ana Popovic concert or conversed with him on her websites, as he offers administrative support with her music.

Fri: Northeast Photographer - Nelson Onofre
Nelson offers a Friday column of blues photography and pictorial support for the interviews covered by the team.

Jim Stick in Colorado
Jim will be focusing on the Blues Festivals in the beautiful state of Colorado, and the artists that live and visit there.

Maureen Elizabeth, our resident art correspondent, will be focusing on blues art as she explores the creation of CD covers, or speaking with artists who also have a love of creating pictorial art in addition to their music! She may also feature some of her good friends in the Pittsburgh area. In her love of art, you may find Maureen's photography accompanying writer's articles on our pages. Maureen is also our marketing director.

Pittsburgh correspondent and photographer, CR Bennett, will share the Pittsburgh scene with all of you. You may also see CR's pictures accompanying other writer's articles.

We head to the big state of Texas! Abby Owen, our Texas correspondent.

Another big area to cover, the West Coast with Casey Reagan, Casey will feature many artists and events on this ocean's shores.

Lastly, we have our roving blues entertainment writer,
Chef Jimi.

And of course, we will surprise you sometimes!

Internet Marketingdata recovery