On Motown

Motown methodology

1. Each writing/producing team was required to come up with 5 new songs per day.
To accomplish this, there was a large area with a lot of little rooms, each with a piano and tape recorder.

2. Each team submitted their “5 best” at the weekly production meeting.

3. Each team got their approval for recording the best submission of the week (as judged at the meeting).

4. About 1 out of two tunes that was recorded with a basic session was actually finished with all of the overdubs.

5. Each tune that was finished was mixed quite a few times (on the average of about 15 mixes).

6. Each mix that was done was “mastered” (put into final disc format).

7. The Quality Control Department listened to all of these discs and picked out the “A” side that was released and promoted. )

Could you post where that came from?

It’s relatively accurate although the number I remember was doing the best two out of every five.

The gotcha is that this IS a very expensive process.
The idea was to have more flops within the company and fewer on the streets.
Always having another hit was critical because most retail stores ran at a loss and only paid the bills from the labels they needed to get more records from.

Motown was principally a management and publishing company.
Breaking even or even losing money on singles was worth it if you could create careers for artists.
By 1970 we were working very hard to move over to making albums.
Holland-Dozier-Holland leaving in 1968 probably did Motown a huge favor because those of us left behind had to reinvent the company.
Berry Gordy is by far the smartest person I’ve ever even heard of going into the record business!
He is the kind of person who tries to never make the same mistake twice.
He’d also had a brief boxing career and totally understood the relationships between competition, performance and excessive egos.

FWIW James was one of the highest paid bass players in the world. Nobody else was crediting musicians and engineers at the time either. (I actually got the first engineer’s label credit! please don’t ask…)

Our “golden age” ended with the golden age of singles and some of us got to reinvent the company to produce albums which is what produced Stevie and Marvin.

It (parallel compression) was a fairly common technique especially in the classical genre.
We pioneered multitrack tape machine punch-ins and monitor switching but not parallel compression.

If you disregard the arrangements, the average ’50s hit record is scary good. At Motown we never believed anything we were doing was particularly above average because the music of the ’50s was our benchmark.

My theory as to why the songwriting and performing were so much better is that a lot more people were performing. People learned how to write play and sing with the benefit of the feedback from a live audience.

on Motown eq and studios building their own stuff:
I have a really hard time imagining the LA operation taking on building them. For example we had to put each resistor on a grinding wheel and grind it down into the right value as we measured the resistance. They were EXTREMELY labor intensive to make.

Brian Holland got the biggest check BMI had ever written up to that time! The musicians got $25,000 to $50,000 a year for not playing record dates for other labels plus union scale for everything they did in addition to substantial royalties for advertising jingle work outside of Motown. In addition some “moonlighted” for other labels at many times union scale.

Berry Gordy was intolerant of ego trips so the “note” was pretty directly related to the ego involved!

(on CD reissues) I read that they went back to the first generation version of each track.
Unfortunately because an analog tape recorder never runs the same speed twice, they would have needed to stretch and re-tune the tracks to get it to work.

Virtually all of the CDs of the stuff we did at Motown have been murdered.
Our chief engineer sent me a CD of his favorite early Motown stiffs (the opposite of a hit) recorded right from the 45 into his soundblaster card and the sound quality is way way better.

Motown was a management company that had our own label.

Engineering a rhythm session at Motown was all about getting at least one “keeper” backing track an hour without screwing anything up.
The drums were a pretty standard single overhead with snare and kick fill mikes mixed directly to a single track.
We used between three and five guitars playing at once all direct.

Probably the biggest difference in addition to everybody playing at once was that the playing was lots softer with more dynamics than what became common in the 1970s.

I was wondering how often the guys at motown would change heads. it seems alot of people here have been talking about tuning the drums to the pitch of the song, did that ever go down at motown? how often, if ever, would someone switch out drums or cymbals for different ones? or was it more of a “set and forget” situation?

We did both. Benny Benjamin who was our main original drummer died and a lot of the producers wouldn’t allow any changes to be made to the kit he had used including changing the heads. They are on display today at the Motown Museum with Benny’s last set of heads and all. Frustrated by how bad our drum sound had become after a few years with no maintenance, we finally went out and bought a couple new kits that we maintained for producers who wanted a “more contemporary” sound.

I understand the guys at Stax got paid really poorly so I have no problem imagining Al Jackson being very reluctant to pay for changing the heads any more than absolutely necessary.

Just wondering how much you have used exciters like BBE, Aphex,
the SPL Vitalizer, and how they have helped you in the studio?

Robert Dennis wrote a very interesting article on “The Motown Exciting Compressor” about how Lawrence Horn came up with
a creative way to achieve the goals of these products-way before they were made.
They’d split a track in two, and then have one with minimal EQ and with the appropriate reverb.
The other duplicate track would be very compressed with lots of EQ.
Then they’d blend the two tracks together so that whatever vocal or instrument choosen could stand out in the final mix better.

Of course, my description is somewhat simplified so if anyone cares to elaborate (paging Bob Olhsson) feel free to do so.”)

Mike McLean actually got the idea from a classical music technique used by DGG and Lawrence adapted it. At the time the best limiter we had was a Fairchild 670 which sounded pretty funky on vocals. We also were recording lead vocals on track one of our 8-tracks because dealing with the lack of HF response and hum did less harm to vocals than other things. The bass went on track 8 for the same reason. After we went 16 track which had a flat response on all the tracks, we pretty much dropped that technique in favor of just using an LA-2a or an Electrodyne compressor. I continued using parallel compression for tracking vocals without Lawrence’s eq. or the noise gate that Bob Dennis didn’t mention in his article.

Coming from Motown, I can’t take major labels that seriously.

I had an experience like that around 1970. I was in our head of A&R’s office and he told us there was something he wanted us to hear.
He said, “These are all hits that people have sent me over the past couple weeks.”
He played the tapes and every single one sounded like a no-brainier hit single. In fact each went into the top ten during the following months.

After the last song ended my friend asked “Could you have signed any of those?” I’ll never forget the answer “Yes, all of them, but I sent them to a couple friends at other labels. I know that our guys don’t have the connections to do nearly as well for these particular artists as some of the other labels do.”

The importance of being on the right label had never occurred to me before.

The back story was that it was harder for a Motown artist to get a single released than it was to get a record deal elsewhere.
Berry Gordy had been a boxer. His belief was that it was far better for a promising artist’s efforts to fail inside the company than out in public on the street.
The artists who worked the hardest are the ones you’ve heard of. Their success and Motown’s success was no accident.

The truth about Motown sounds like a fairy tale but it’s very real. I’m convinced somebody really could do this again today.

When the Miracles’ “Shop Around” hit it big, Smokey’s contract allowed him to buy Chess out of the master lease.
He and Berry Gordy, his manager, were able to start their own label (Motown) using the proceeds.

Berry Gordy was a major songwriter in the Chicago recording scene. His earliest co-writer, Billy Davis, worked for decades as the head of music for one of the biggest national ad agencies in addition to writing a lot of 1950s do-wop hits. A number of Motown producers and executives came from Chess and Vee-Jay.

Ron Malo, Chess’s chief engineer had started out at Motown. Motown was taken national by exercising a buy-back clause in Berry & Smokey’s master lease contract for “Shop Around” with Chess. Our artist contracts were patterned after those of Chess because Berry Gordy liked the idea of a simple percentage of retail sales with no deductions for any expenses. In many ways we were actually a branch of Chicago. When almost everybody left New York and Chicago for Los Angeles during the late 1960s Motown was forced to follow them.

Berry first encountered an 8 track machine at Atlantic Studios in New York where he produced Marvin Gaye On Broadway. We built our own machines and Tom Dowd loaned us his alignment tape to get them running. (Tom told me that we both had our machines running before Les Paul was ever able to get his working well enough to actually use!) We bought our 1″ tape as part of Atlantic’s order so we could both get a better price from 3M.

Tom Nixon, Steve Smith and Harold Taylor were all Motown engineers who worked at Stax at one time or another. Lots of the post Booker-T Stax recordings such as Hot Buttered Soul were overdubbed and mixed in Detroit by Don Davis who used to work at Motown.

We evaluated every single that went into the top five and wouldn’t release anything that didn’t fit into a sequence of those records. We were very oriented around the pop market rather than the R&B market which was intended for black adults. To their credit Atlantic managed to open the pop market up to more R&B flavored records than ours. On the other hand we helped open up the straight ahead pop market to black performers.

I was moved into the studio because Holland and Dozier had left and took four other engineers with them. They also hired Orson Lewis from Media Sound in New York and a Detroit engineer who worked for an Indy studio.

In hindsight, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and some of us engineers probably owe our careers to them leaving. In my case I learned studio recording in a crash course from Cal Harris who had interned on the Beach Boys at Western Recorders and Joe Atkinson who had worked for Tom Dowd at Atlantic for twenty years. Talk about being in the right place at the right time!

I’ve always been pretty shy and nerdy which was why mastering appealed to me. I also tend to be brutally honest about what I think which makes me not very good at kissing up to producers and selling studio time. Fortunately at least some people appreciate this quality.

We half-filled the kick drums with torn up newspapers.

The final room acoustic treatment was based on a design by RCA’s acoustician. For reasons of economy our surfaces weren’t curved like those in an RCA studio but it was the acoustical equivalent. The pipe was added to keep people from bumping into and damaging the upward-facing absorbers.

Bass and guitars were recorded direct. The amp was so all of the musicians in the room could hear the guitars and bass without phones. I’m told guitars were generally taken direct here in Nashville too up to the late ’60s. Typically a very healthy-sized mike transformer was used in reverse. Commercial direct boxes like the Countryman were horrendous by comparison.

The front heads came off the bass drums around 1968 a bit before I moved from cutting disks to tracking. My understanding is that most people were doing the newspaper stuffing thing during the early 1960s.

Another bit of trivia. The two vocal mikes, one in front of the other, was how some of the guys recorded Stevie Wonder with Stevie working the front mike close but the one farther back being the one recorded.

After I left Motown the single rudest awakening I had was trying to record other people playing the bass!
The importance of “touch” is mind-boggling.
I tried reamping Jamerson a few times but didn’t think it added anything.
Having the player monitoring themselves with a speaker rather than headphones plays a role too.

Unfortunately Jamerson brought it on himself. As people become famous, a surprising number begin to shoot themselves in the foot. By 1970 Bob Babbitt was doing more than half of the sessions simply because he was more willing to leave his ego at the door. Babbitt’s ability to groove on a pattern was unmatched and quickly became the next step in the evolution of funk bass as we know it.

The bass sound was entirely direct. We had a blanket over the piano and there wasn’t much bleed into the drum mikes.

The original acoustic treatment was just tiles on the wall like a radio station. The RCA design was put in at the same time we added three isolation rooms around the time I started in 1965. It was utterly brilliant. Reflective at head-level for people sitting or standing and absorptive at the level below shoulder level where the instruments were at. The reflected sound in the room has a very flat frequency response so the bleed only enhances the sound instead of mudding it up.

The vocals were always overdubbed in the main room.
The isolation rooms never really worked out and except for the B-3 back in the far room the doors were generally left open.

The whole concept of musicians playing with headphones!

The vocals didn’t particularly get a sound from the room.
It’s just the room was so good that you could record a lead vocal three or four feet back from the mike without losing presence.
This resulted in needing a lot less compression because the inverse square law worked for you.

Part of it is that we totally lucked out on a really low noise level.
An occasional truck or motorcycle coming down the alley was a huge problem but short of that it was a really really quiet room without the low frequency problems created by isolation.

The bleed was full-range, clean and not a problem.

Mike McLean, the guy who hired me at Motown, gave me a home brew CD of his favorite 1961-63 Motown singles that never went anywhere. He made it from the 45 pressings using a Thorens turntable, a Shure cartridge, a Radio Shack battery powered phono preamp and his Sound Blaster card.

The level of balls absolutely destroyed all of the reissues, not even close! I made the mistake of mentioning this to one of the guys who does the reissues at Universal which may have been a mistake politically but I am still pissed that nobody ever gets to hear what our records really sounded like.

below added 17.05.2010

I don’t know about other people but when I’ve mixed I’ve always worked between two or three sets of speakers.

Cal Harris brought that concept to Motown from Western Recorders and Gold Star around 1967. One of the guys I hung out with before I got hired at Motown used to leave the control room and studio doors open and switch back and forth between the 604s in the control room and the A-7-500s out in the studio. Everybody also had a serious hi fi at home we checked our mixes on and lots of studios had a little transmitter so you could listen on a car radio.

NS-10s really need to be considered within this context.

Quincy Jones is considered by many to be the finest horn arranger in history. That was where he first made his mark.

I think MJ was his first record production in many years. Talk about just walking in and hitting one right out of the park!

There really are people like this, we had a few at Motown. It’s very hard for those of us who’ve worked with such extraordinary talent to look someone in the eye and call ourselves a “producer.”

5 Responses to “On Motown”

  • There’s a world of knowledge here. Thank you.

    It was a pleasure to read. Though It’ll probably take a while to put it all in practice…

    the Netherlands

  • Ty:

    Bob, Great wealth of knowledge here, just curious, what years was your tenure at Motown? How many other engineers were you working with at the time? Thanks

  • I worked at Motown in Detroit between the fall of 1965 and spring of 1972.

    We had four other engineers and a couple assistants in 1965 when I started in mastering and ten others along with four assistants by the time I left. The facility had expanded from the one original studio and cutting room in 1965 to two studios, two mixing rooms and one cutting room at the time I left. There was also a studio in Los Angeles beginning around 1966.


    Bob, Motown became a part of our lives in so many ways and has its place in our muscical history. Good to learn about intricate behind-the-scenes mechanisms. Interesting read. Sad part is intricate players, like yourself, at Motown were not given credit. Was that done to prevent headhunters from “stealing” the best of the best? Also, I noticed you mentioned Joe Atkinson–was he at Atlantic Records when you interned there? Were engineers Art Stewart and Larry Miles still there when you were at Motown and did you work with them? Thank you for your professional expertise and contribution. Pat Barnes

  • Paul Hart:

    Thanks so much! This is great stuff. I love to learn this information from someone who experienced it firsthand. This helps me tremendously on a paper I’m working on about audio dynamics processing used on Motown records.

Leave a Reply