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Nowhere To Run
Bob Olhsson, magic and the
Motown sound

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(Editor’s note: Our thanks to Philip and Tape Op for this superb feature. Audience, all we can say is this: Read, learn, and most of all, enjoy!)

It was the best of times, it was the best of times: The mid-60s and tubes are glowing hot in studios from 30th Street to Abbey Road. Wheels are in motion and the legacy of Leonard Chess and Sam Phillips is welling up in the ears of America.

In Detroit, Berry Gordy is alchemizing the collective genius of Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, James Jamerson, Benny Benjamin and host of others with his own to forge a juggernaught of sonic power and consistency equal to anything before or since.

It swings like a motherfucker and it sounds like gold. The staff and musicians work hard, doing takes over until they get them right. They try multiple mixes and follow them all the way to acetate before deciding on a winner.


Bob Ohlsson (Photo supplied by recordist.com.)

In the mastering room, Bob Olhsson is cutting vinyl on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”, another fluid combination of muscle and sweetness that jumps off the needle. It will hit number 1 on the R & B charts. This is Motown and it is beautiful.

Fast forward, 2001: Bob has just moved the Nashville and he’s excited. Astoundingly, after working with some of the most talented people of his generation, Bob is still optimistic and hopeful about the future of aesthetics in the labyrinthine, difficult world that is popular music. He’s still working and poetically enough, he’s even starting to cut vinyl again.

He is disarming, friendly, and generous with his time. There’s no hint of professional jealousy or egoism.

Most mysteries can never be looked into; they fade into hearsay and rhetorical inventions. Talking with Bob, I felt lucky that he’s not about those vain distortions. He reflects on things too clearly. He’s our window.

I have lots of pedantic questions for you. Can we start with how you got to Motown and what you knew before you got there?

Okay, well how I got there is sort of a typical story, believe it or not. Basically I decided in sixth grade that I wanted to be a radio or recording engineer because I was on a little radio drama we did in our grade school. They had a radio drama program they did in the school system in junior high and high school, so I took that.


In high school, as soon as I could drive, I started hanging out Saturdays at United Sound, which was the biggest independent studio in Detroit. It was open on Saturday, and it was the only one that was open on Saturday. I started hanging there and saw my first rhythm session, which actually included Bob Babbitt playing bass, who I’m spending time with now!

That one was a Parliament record, “I Just Want to Testify” - I think that was the name of it. It was a reasonably big R&B hit.

The early days of Parliament.

Then I decided I wanted to try and get a summer job in a studio and I’d been hanging out at United for a couple years, going out and helping one of the engineers there, who does his own personal remotes. This was a guy named Danny Dallas, who had actually been the engineer for the Lone Ranger!

I’d been going around helping on remotes with him and had gotten my first taste of Gospel music, which completely blew me away. So I decided I’d like a summer job and literally as a joke Danny said, “Well why don’t you go down to Motown.” I’d practically not even heard of Motown. I was a big classical music fan and I liked big band stuff and orchestral-acoustic kinds of things.

This is 64?

Yeah. So, I walked in the door and was taken to Smokey Robinson’s office-he was out performing somewhere. He had an interesting career. He was VP of the company and was actually very, very involved in the business as well as being a performer. Anyhow, they sat me down at his desk handed me an employment application and an IQ test! I filled in these things and then they sent me down in the basement to go talk to the chief engineer who was Mike McLean.

Mike gave me a tour of the place, which included seeing the first actually working sel-sync 8-track, which of course, completely put my jaw on the floor. And I saw their Neumann half-speed cutting system, which was just incredible. Mike was also a big classical music fan and a hi-fi nut and I wound up not getting a job at that time but becoming friends with him and wound up going over to his Friday night parties. I got to know a bunch of people and continued interning around town with other people until eventually they hired me in‘65 as a mastering trainee.

They didn’t want mastering as we tend to think of it now: Changing the whole mix with the EQ slope, compression, etc.

Berry Gordy had the experience of getting burned by trying to do that. He had learned early on the hard way that if you didn’t get it right you really couldn’t do anything about it. And of course with vinyl that was a lot more the case than with compact discs.

They were very, very concerned that things not be particularly modified in the transfer. They’d rather do a new mix than try and fix anything in mastering. So I started out pretty much doing really hot flat transfers, although if we heard something that seemed obvious to change, we could throw on some EQ and send an alternative version labeled with what we did.

You mastered a lot of stuff, including many hits

I did along with others, yup.

When you hear “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” on the radio, do you think “I should have done something different?” or “That’s perfect?” Do you get those sorts of impressions listening to the things you did there?

Well, the way it worked, I actually mastered probably 10 or 15 different mixes, and they picked the one that came out the best. They were very into internal quality control. The basic idea was that it was better for something to be a flop inside the company than to get out in the world and have it be a flop there.

So by ‘65 they had a sel-sync 8 track

Yeah.

And that’s what they were cutting all their stuff on?

Yeah, from what I understand, the first tune ever done on it was “Where Did Our Love Go.”

When you were working in the studio what kind of gear were you using? You described it once as a “project studio.”

Essentially the whole place was Berry Gordy’s home studio. I mean, obviously after they became successful they were able to buy some very fancy gear and they had a lot of home made gear, but it must be borne in mind that this really was the guy’s home!

On the other hand I think Abbey Road was built in somebody’s mansion, so it’s not an unprecedented thing. I think too big a deal is made of this home studio versus the non-home studio. A studio’s just a studio, and there’s good ones and bad ones and some of them are in homes and some of them are built from the ground up.

I think everybody would be interested what the typical set-up there was, for instance: was everybody in the same room, or was there a vocal booth?

Well, we were seriously into overdubbing, so live vocals were very rarely done. The setup—you mean for rhythm session?

Yeah, what kind of situation was it with mikes, etc?

Okay, uh, well there are two distinct flavors: the first original set-up they used pretty ordinary miking, that’s where I first saw the Shure 545, which went on to become the SM57. They had a bunch of those. They had two or three U67s, a U47, an RCA77 that I was told was used on the bass drum, which kind of surprised me-

You’d think you’d blow it up a lot-

-And EV 666’s and that kind of thing, but then they did something pretty wild around 1968. First off, they acquired another studio which had been Golden World Records, and they decided to do a complete rebuild of everything and so they went out and bought new Scully 8 tracks, because they were just a lot better than our homemade ones. We needed a bunch—we actually had the first Scully 8 track, which was our remote machine in most cases.

The other thing is we always had two. Only for a very short period did they have one 8-track machine. I mean, they had gone from mono to mono, to two track to two track, to three track to three track, to 8 track to 8 track. Nobody really thought in terms of doing it all on one machine-and you couldn’t. On the old machines you couldn’t ping-pong because the sync response had no high end at all! (laughs)

Some of your boards were homemade too?

Oh yeah. It was entirely—the old tube studio—the other thing that was interesting was there was a tube studio and a transistor studio.

At the same time-

So you were going back and forth between the two all the time—

A completely different sound, probably?

It was a very different experience and it did not do good things for the reputation of transistors with us! (laughs) Because in the tube studio you basically walked in, you plugged in the mikes, if something was really raunchy sounding you might stick a Pultec in, and you went to tape, and it sounded good! Transistor studio, you plugged in the mike, you turned it on, it sounded awful, you started fiddling with the equalizers, you know-the routine that we do now. (laughs)

How bad was the transistor stuff; Altec panel mixers?

It was uh—well, it was a board that had been built by Cleveland Recording for Golden World, and it was a bunch of Neumann equalizer modules and Altec solid state stuff. It was Class A mike pre amps. Actually in retrospect they were pretty good. They weren’t the absolutely horrible early Fairchild transistor modules.

Oh god yeah those are awful. But the Golden World board didn’t sound as good as the tube studio...

Just was not as effortless to work with as the tube studio.


What was in the tube studio? What were you going into there?

The tube studio was a combination of a bunch of mixers. You had a monitor mixer and you had a - I believe it was a stereo mixer—stereo in that it was left right and center. I think it was six inputs, it was from the three-track days.

I’m happy in a left-right center world.

Yeah. Oh yeah. (chuckles) Nothing wrong with that. And there was an eight-channel mono mixer. These were on the desk in front of you, and then in the rack there was an Ampex stereo mixer and a couple of the Altec tube mixers. That Ampex stereo mixer was the quietest thing in the place. It was beautiful.

So what were you using for vocal overdubs, a 77?

By the time I got into the recording studio, they’d gone to something radical.

They rebuilt the studios, they bought those new Scullys I mentioned, and they bought around 40 Neumann KM86 mikes and donated all of the old mikes to the University of Michigan!

Wow

So we had nothing but KM86s, and they built up custom graphic equalizers, which now I’m hearing people talk about as collector’s items, although we never thought they were that great at the time.

That’s the way it is with most collector’s items, isn’t it?

Yeah. (laughs) So basically we had these racks of graphic equalizers and the Neumann km86s. And that’s what you had to use when I started doing vocal overdubs, it was with a KM86, and—

-you better like that sound-

Yeah, and to be honest, it did a remarkably good job. It was a remarkably good mike. We still had the Pultecs too.

Does it matter what mic Stevie Wonder sings into?

To a certain extent. What was interesting to me was that after he started working in outside studios, there was a write up that somebody did and they said, “Oh yes, and we used a KM 86 for his vocal.” I kind of rolled my eyes when I read that. (laughs). What else is new?

You said the acoustic chamber was the attic?

Yeah, there were two—I think at one point there were actually three attic echo chambers, there were at least two, which was basically the attic and one of em had a had a JBL foghorn driver on a multi-cellular horn so you couldn’t blow it up! (laughs) And a couple of sm57s - really 545s - they were chrome and black, the same mike. Then, later I think they put a Bose 901 speaker up there because it was more Omni directional, and a KM86 I’m pretty sure and an there was a second one that I’m not sure what was in it, it didn’t sound very good and we didn’t use it very much. And then we had a mono EMT plate—



 

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