|Tom O’Hanlan, founder of BookerLAB, shown with the Vintage Motor Controller for Leslie speakers.|
M.I. newcomer brings modern technology
and new life to vintage organ sounds
Boston. Kansas. Jimmy Smith. The Allman Brothers. Joey DeFrancesco. ELP. Pink Floyd, Tower of Power. Booker T. & the M.G.s. Great bands and artists, all connected by the classic, unmistakable sound of a Hammond B-3 or M-3 played through a Leslie speaker. A sound shaped not by silicon chips and compression algorithms, but by electromechanical magic: the Hammond’s tone wheel and the Leslie’s motor-driven rotating horn and drum. One new company, South Carolina-based BookerLAB, is focused on preserving and promoting the Leslie’s signature sound and optimizing the products that produce it.
BookerLAB is the brainchild of Thomas Booker O’Hanlan. As a brainiac electrical engineer, back in 1984 O’Hanlan designed the first RS-422/485 communication adapter for the IBM PC and was later honored with an Outstanding Lifetime Service Award in manufacturing. But for years, in his spare time, music lover and musician (he’s a bassist) O’Hanlan paired his engineering and musical passions, testing different technologies and exploring different approaches to making Leslie speaker system motors more versatile and maintenance-free. Eventually, he partnered with Sealevel Systems, Inc., the business he founded in 1986 with his wife, Susan. Sealevel Systems has grown into a family-owned, 65-person industrial and military electronics design and manufacturing company committed to providing reliable, well-designed computers, adapters, and serial interfaces for critical communications devices. With the Sealevel team behind him, Tom founded BookerLAB in 2017.
BookerLAB’s flagship product, introduced in a beta version at the 2018 Winter NAMM Show, is Revolution: The Advanced Motor Controller. Designed to duplicate the performance and function of stock Leslie motors, Revolution provides a complete motor replacement to extend the life of the Leslie, and it embodies the BookerLAB team’s commitment to providing relevant upgrades that maintain the quality of vintage musical instruments and supporting gear. With the team now integrating newly developed motor technology, Revolution will be available for purchase in the spring of 2019. Also in the company’s catalog, the LBB Breakout Box is a multi-interface that allows the player to convert or mix and match Leslie 122 and 147 models. It was just released in November 2018. And the Vintage Motor Controller provides complete Leslie motor control via a half-moon switch, foot switch, OB-1 MIDI Controller, or DMM AC Motor Monitor. BookerLAB products are available for shipment worldwide.
Focused on creating innovative solutions for vintage musical gear, BookerLAB has charted its goals for product development in collaboration with numerous music industry partners. “We listen,” says O’Hanlan. “It sounds simple, but many folks are quick to take a product to market without considering the specific needs of their audience.” In many cases, insights gained from these collaborations have been incorporated into product revisions throughout the R&D process. To the same end, he says, social media “is a great gift as we solicit and genuinely appreciate feedback as we shape future products.”
O’Hanlan characterizes BookerLAB’s entering “a very niche market” as a blessing and a curse, citing its limited competition on the positive side, but also the absence of an established roadmap. “Through our partnership with Sealevel,” he says, “we’re able to rely on over 30 years of experience—and success. While there are other products that provide similar results in our market, we’ve dedicated our team to providing the highest quality solutions and support.”
O’Hanlan acknowledges competition for his products from a new generation of digital rotating speaker simulators. However, he points to a significant audience of passionate purists. “There’s a subset of folks who have grown up around what is now considered vintage equipment,” he explains, “as well as a new, younger group that is drawn to the vintage market.”
All BookerLAB products are proudly designed and manufactured in the USA. Its partnership with Sealevel Systems provides easy access and face-to-face interaction with other innovators and contributors. “High customer expectations mean our products are subjected to strenuous testing and refinement,” says O’Hanlan. “Fortunately, that’s been part of our product development process for more than 30 years.”
BookerLAB is dedicated to furthering the appreciation and usefulness of the vintage Leslie speaker and music associated with it. Through its website, BookerLAB.com, a secondary goal is to provide a portal of related news and app notes as well as a technical resource with tips on restoration and DIY projects and parts.
Throughout his career at Sealevel Systems, Tom O’Hanlan has remained committed to delivering the highest quality products and customer service standards. Now, through BookerLAB, he is applying those values to his love of music, and it’s having a profound effect on his life. “Restoring classic instruments and amplifiers, my love for playing bass, making new friends through music, and even resurrecting my high school rock band, Soul Sensations—and working with these wonderful Leslies—it all came together with BookerLAB.”