Nowhere To Run
Bob Olhsson, magic and the
(Editors 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
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 hes 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. Hes
still working and poetically enough, hes even starting to cut vinyl again.
He is disarming, friendly, and generous with his
time. Theres no hint of professional jealousy or egoism.
can never be looked into; they fade into hearsay and rhetorical inventions. Talking
with Bob, I felt lucky that hes not about those vain distortions. He reflects
on things too clearly. Hes 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 Im spending time with now!
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
Then I decided I wanted to try and get a summer job
in a studio and Id 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
Id 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 Id like a summer job and literally as a joke Danny said, Well
why dont you go down to Motown. Id 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 Robinsons 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 in65 as a mastering trainee.
They didnt 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 didnt get it right you really couldnt do anything
about it. And of course with vinyl that was a lot more the case than with compact
They were very, very concerned that things not be particularly
modified in the transfer. Theyd 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.
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 Thats
perfect? Do you get those sorts of impressions listening to the things you
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
And thats what they were cutting all their stuff
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
Essentially the whole place was Berry Gordys
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 guys home!
other hand I think Abbey Road was built in somebodys mansion, so its
not an unprecedented thing. I think too big a deal is made of this home studio
versus the non-home studio. A studios just a studio, and theres 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
Well, we were seriously into overdubbing, so live vocals
were very rarely done. The setupyou mean for rhythm session?
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, thats 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-
Youd think youd blow it up a lot-
-And EV 666s
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 bunchwe 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 couldnt. On the old machines you couldnt ping-pong because the
sync response had no high end at all! (laughs)
Some of your boards
were homemade too?
Oh yeah. It was entirelythe old tube studiothe
other thing that was interesting was there was a tube studio and a transistor
At the same time-
So you were going back and
forth between the two all the time
A completely different sound,
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 uhwell, 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
werent the absolutely horrible early Fairchild transistor modules.
god yeah those are awful. But the Golden World board didnt 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 mixerstereo in that it was left
right and center. I think it was six inputs, it was from the three-track days.
Im 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.
what were you using for vocal overdubs, a 77?
By the time I got into
the recording studio, theyd gone to something radical.
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!
So we had nothing but KM86s, and they built up custom graphic
equalizers, which now Im hearing people talk about as collectors items,
although we never thought they were that great at the time.
the way it is with most collectors items, isnt it?
(laughs) So basically we had these racks of graphic equalizers and the Neumann
km86s. And thats 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?
said the acoustic chamber was the attic?
Yeah, there were twoI
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 couldnt 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 Im
pretty sure and an there was a second one that Im not sure what was in it,
it didnt sound very good and we didnt use it very much. And then we
had a mono EMT plate