Nowhere To Run
Bob Olhsson, magic and the Motown sound

By Philip Stevenson

(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.

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—

Were they designed as acoustic chambers?

Well they actually had been sheet-rocked over and shellacked so they weren’t square and they were very reflective.

And did you use a spring as well?

We had a Fender spring, we had a Binson Echolette, we had a...

Wow, the Echolette, those sound great.

We had a—what’s the most common one?

Echoplex?

Yes, and they were all rack mounted and came up in the patch bay.

What were some of the other things in the studio?

We had LA 2’s and we had Fairchild 670s.

Twenty grand to buy one now

Yeah and we were so glad to get rid of them! (laughs)

You have no idea how good the LA2a looked when the only thing you had was a Fairchild! Because yeah, in some things a Fairchild is fine but, when its the only limiter you’ve got...

And you had Electrodyne modules?

We had Electrodyne limiters. They made a little two or three rack mount. We bought some Electrodyne mixing consoles. And we had two of these consoles in Detroit, and one on the west coast. It was a very interesting console because it used a sub grouping system, and it used, I think it was called Hall effect devices for attenuators - I forget, I think that’s what it was.

They were from an old homemade console automation system that we designed in the ‘60s. That’s very possibly the first automated console though I understand there was a secret one at EMI. It’s hard to say who went first, but we tried it, and they had a shoot out of the automated console versus basically mixing by hand and splicing up mixes from pieces, and the spliced up mixes beat the automated mixes so bad it wasn’t even funny.

Were you aware at the time, because it’s harder when you’re in something, were you aware how good this stuff was?

No! (laughs)

No?

Not at all. I didn’t have any idea how far ahead we were of the rest of the industry, until I left in 1972 and came to California and it completely blew my mind that everybody wasn’t doing what we had been doing.

You knew that these were talented people though

Oh yeah. Well, this was kind of the amazing thing about the whole thing. The average level of intelligence in that company was absolutely spectacular. I mean those are the brightest people.

Hence the I.Q. test

(laughs.) I mean, I didn’t particularly fit in there, but I’ve always really liked being around people that seem obviously brighter than I am, and this was heaven. Almost everybody there was just brilliant, which was very inspiring. Also one thing that was kind of neat is that Berry Gordy really did not tolerate ego trips; I mean, you were not allowed to have ‘em.

How did you like cutting vinyl?

Oh I miss it. It’s wonderful. I wish. Who knows, maybe I will again. I never thought I’d work with those musicians again and here I’m working—moving to Nashville and getting—apparently getting right back into it, so....

You worked with James Jamerson a lot.

Yeah, you had to deal with him, he was a real character. (laughs)

He seemed like a big part of the sound

He is and he isn’t. You know, the funny thing is that when I ‘d remix old pieces, actually the key element always turned out to be the original drummer, Benny Benjamin. Without him, it was okay, you put him in and there was the magic. Very, very interesting. I think he was in many ways more of what gave it the character than Jamerson did, ironically.

I mean, for sure, Jamerson’s contributions were incredible. Although Bob Babbit is not credited—there’s a lot of stuff that Babbitt did that people assume Jamerson did! He’s just very modest and has never made a big deal about it.

You worked a lot in different capacities, on some of those later Marvin Gaye records, especially “What’s Going On.”

Yeah, well I did vocals and I was in on the strings, and sax solo.

That’s a great record, and it has a very different feel. Was it more of his record than Berry Gordy’s at that point?

Yeah. A lot more so. when Holland-Dozier-Holland left, our job immediately became reinventing Motown. First off there was that, second, looking at it in retrospect, I think I now really understand what was happening a lot more. I don’t think they were really making that much money on the singles.

I mean we were hitting ‘em into the top 10, but I think it was costing us more money to hit em into the top ten than we could make. And so there was a big push to get albums happening and a pretty big push to more or less reinvent the company.

And the sound had changed by this point

We were trying to get experimental and trying to come up with something different because we saw ourselves as competing with the rest of the world at that point rather than trying to be our own little unique thing. We wanted to have a unique take on the same kind of sound that other people did.

One thing a lot of people don’t realize is that Berry Gordy didn’t want to be Atlantic records. He wanted to be RCA or Columbia. Before, there had been a kind of factory approach where you were you had somebody supervising everything you did and there was a standard way you were supposed do everything and so forth.

When Holland-Dozier-Holland left and took Lawrence Horn, the chief recording engineer with them, we wound up working under Cal Harris, who’d been hired from California, and it turns out that Cal Harris started out on the Beach Boys (laughs) and that’s a little bit of a different sound!

Yeah!

(laughs) And Cal basically threw out all of the production line stuff and really allowed us to become conventional recording engineers. I doubt that I would have been able to work in the industry had Motown stayed how it was when I started out there. Certainly a number of people did come out of engineering there and managed to have real good careers, it’s not impossible but, but for me, Cal Harris really made it happen.

When you did something like cut strings for “What’s Going On,” how would you do it: Would you have an orchestra, or a small string section?

It was nine violins, four violas, three cellos and one or two basses, often, depending on what the arranger wrote. Typically it was that instrumentation, and we’d double it. Stereo miking ever?

No, (laughs). Actually when we first got the 16-track I did a stereo miking of it, and put it on two tracks and I almost got fired for it. cause the head of the A&R dept didn’t realize that I’d also done the usual mono tracks. (laughs.) You couldn’t control how loud the cellos were on the stereo tracks, so I think they eventually wound up going over my stereo tracks, but I wanted to do stereo, I mean, all the talk was about quad, and I figured, “Well, gee, we haven’t really ever done stereo!”

First things first!

(laughs.) In fact that’s kind of the great irony to me of this whole surround sound thing now is that I’ve never met a really top producer who didn’t prefer mono.

I mean, if you tell them “this is mono, this is stereo,” they’ll probably tell you they prefer the stereo, but if you don’t tell them what it is, nine times out of 10 they prefer the mono!

Well there’s something about it—it’s not phasey and it’s really punchy.

Yeah exactly, and it’s sort of the strange irony of the consumer electronics manufacturers versus the production thing. In fact the funny part is that among audiophiles- which I am actually, that was part of my original interest and I’m still real into that community, there’s a strong preference for records before about 1965, very early stereo, which is fascinating, because those are the ones that they were real stereo because they did separate mono and stereo recording at that time.

And the stereo was usually done in the back room by engineers while the producer and artists hovered over the people doing the mono. So it was real stereo at first and then the retail stores started demanding single inventory, and so in many ways, stereo lost out to mono and we started to doing what we do now, which is everything important in the middle.

Except for the early ones where hard panning runs amok. We all know when you listen to a Beatles stereo mixes, if one side of your stereo goes out you don’t getany lead vocal!

Yeah, well that was never the intention. I visited EMI at Abbey Road about 1969 and they were absolutely livid that Capitol had taken the 4 tracks and just spread them and put ‘em out as a stereo record.

Well, it is an odd thing.

It was done by Capitol and nobody in the production team had anything to do with it at all and they had never intended any of it to be stereo. I believe Sgt. Pepper’s was the first actual stereo mix that was done and even then, everybody told me, “Get the mono, that’s the one.”

I think it is the one. So, why hasn’t recording Improved?

(laughs) Uh, why hasn’t it improved? Well, I think basically it’s been a steady progression of getting cheaper. I think economics tend to drive it. In the early days, when people did full dates, the cheapest way to record was to use the best musicians you could get your hands on and get it done in a hurry. That was just the cheapest way to do the job.

When you were shelling out that kind of money in salaries, what was important for a studio was that the engineers be fast, and that the equipment be reliable and sound quality was really small change in the equation of things: it didn’t cost that much more to make something sound good as well as be reliable. Then it became a glamorous industry. One thing to understand is that I went from the AV crew to being a recording engineer, I mean there were not people beating down the doors to become recording engineers in 1964.

And there is some cache to it now.

You probably could blame that on Glynn Johns, maybe. The Rolling Stones started making a big deal about some of the recording engineers, including him, and of course the Beatles became a big deal and George Martin had used all these radio drama techniques on their records which was a very radical thing, to most people.

With my background in radio drama it was sort of a shrug of the shoulders, because we’d already done it all! (laughs.) I mean it was very standard procedure and Parlaphone was the spoken word label of EMI, so, of course, George Martin had been doing comedy records and using radio techniques, and he applied them to the Beatles. To the Beatles credit they really got off on it and picked up the opportunity and really did a lot of very creative amazing things. I think they expanded the palette of what you could do in pop music like nobody has.

Certainly.

Hopefully somebody will do that again. Now it seems like everything’s a rehash. Well, the question is what was the last time things weren’t a rehash.

I guess probably the late 1940s, early 1950s, when Wall Street said that radio was obsolete and about to be replaced by television. And then the music industry rushed right in and that “obsolete” technology became rock n’ roll. (chuckles.) You have worked with some very interesting people who you wouldn’t normally be associated with. Of course I’d like to mention Willie Tyler and Lester here, because I really want to know how you mike up a ventriloquist dummy!

(laughs) Oh my! Well, I met them. I didn’t actually record them - I think I did the mastering on the LP. (laughs) But I’m sure it was pretty easy. you know, one mic! He was really funny but I don’t think anything ever came of it. I think he might have done a few television shots.

But he couldn’t work blue on TV

Yeah.

What about the Martin Luther King record?

That was something very special. In fact, Motown has donated the copyright to the masters to the family, and a lot of documentary people are really angry, because his family is insisting that they get paid for using it unless they think somebody deserves permission.

This was something that you mastered?

Yeah. And I think Larry Miles did the transfers and editing. He went through and listened to the whole thing and made a transcript. I think they had to cut a few things out for time, get rid of some coughs and that kind of stuff.

That was ‘68, an important year.

Well, what’s been going down is kinda frustrating. We worked very, very hard and we’ve all made a big difference, but we didn’t make anywhere near as much of a difference as we wanted to. There’s still a lot of work to be done. “Dancing in the Streets” was supposed to be about us all dancing in the streets TOGETHER!

I guess you probably want to avoid the discussion of Quicksilver Messenger Service?

(laughs) uh. I don’t know...

It says here in your resume, “The album was soundly panned.”

Oh wow, what to say on the record! ( laughs.) I don’t like to get into grisly details when people are still alive. Unfortunately there are a bunch of rock critics who thought that Quicksilver should be one thing, and Gary Duncan, who is the lifeblood of the group, had some very different ideas and was into a very contemporary approach and never doing the same thing twice. A number of the critics didn’t like that to begin with and then they completely missed some of his humor and took it seriously. It had promotion problems too. The president of the label completely disappeared a week after the record came out!

When looking at your discography, there’s a radical change in there. You start doing an entirely different kind of music. Is this just where the work led you, or is this something that you wanted to do?

It’s really where the work led me coming out of Motown is, there’s no such thing as a home studio. I got bit by “Wow, we can actually afford to buy a 4-track!”when the Sony 854 came out and the 3340 TEAC the early home studio stuff. I wondered what would it be like to not be under time pressure and do recording because, of course at Motown, the clock was ticking and there was either tremendous pressure to get a release out or tremendous pressure in terms of - you know - $15,000 in salaries on a string session.

So it was a real dream, “Well, gee, what if you could do it at home and not have all that pressure, what could you come up with.” One of the early people that saw that possibility was a person who I met shortly after coming to the Bay area, Stephen Hill. He was an engineer at KQED, and he built a studio to record unusual acoustic and electronic music, because he was into it and I was into it, in that we’d had the second Moog modular synthesizer at Motown.

How did you guys get that?

Somebody sent Brian Holland an acetate of “A Day in the Life” long before it came out, and it pretty much blew everybody’s mind. It was radical enough when it came out, but if you can imagine hearing that almost, between six months and a year before it came out, it was really something.

Mike McLean had been familiar with Moog because he’d been writing up what he was doing in the AES journal. So they went out and bought a Moog modular synthesizer. Now, unfortunately the Moog modular synthesizer wasn’t stable enough to do the same thing twice in a row, and so it was pretty useless! (laughs)

I mean we kind of whacked away at it, trying to get something out of it. used it for some signal processing, a little bit. There was a lot of promise there but it is still absolutely amazing that Wendy Carlos was able to actually produce an album on that thing.

That’s true, yeah

It would never do the same thing twice, so you basically had to set it up, and record it, and keep recording until you lucked out and got what you wanted. At any rate, I’d had an interest in that, and everybody that’d been around Motown had an interest in that, and I’m sure that’s where Stevie got his interest in synthesizers also.

He does a unique thing with them. For one thing, it’s so involved in the bass lines without crowding anything.

Yes, he does. It’s been kind of frustrating to me to have people watch him and jump to conclusions about why he was doing what he was doing and try and duplicate it. Because Stevie is a musicologist. he knows everything that’s been done in American music since 1900 and the main reason he was playing all of his own parts was because he basically was putting together combinations of dead musicians.

You know, what would happen if so and so played this part and so forth. He has both the knowledge and the ability to emulate different people. I mean, it’s just an amazing, amazing ability, so everybody was real into encouraging him to play all his own parts and do all his own thing because if you were him, that was absolutely the best way to do it. But I have serious reservations about that being the best way for everybody else to do it.

Oh sure. And of course, he is unintentionally responsible for a lot of what’s wrong with modern soul music, because they emulate just the thinnest skin of it.

Yeah, and unfortunately, a lot of it is just plain economics. They can get paid the same amount if they use session players or if they do it all themselves, and its turned into being all hype. And I think it’s finally reached the point where it has become necessary to use so much hype that it isn’t a profitable industry anymore.

That’s one of the stultifying things about watching MTV, it’s so hyperbolic that you couldn’t possibly exaggerate it. It’s so meretricious, you couldn’t really explain it to someone who had never seen it.

Yeah, well it’s to the point where they’re really selling TV stars not music. Records are being made like movies and movies are being made like records!

Well here’s a classic tape op interview question for you: how do you feel about digital?

Frustrated. (laughs) There’s so many great things about it and yet - there was a thing at the AES called ‘When Vinyl Ruled” - this was incredible. I hope to heaven that they let them do it again but I can see how a lot of manufacturers would not let them do it again. T

They set up a state of the art 1962 control room and played back a bunch of old three-track safety masters from that era. The sound destroyed everything at the show. I mean, it was a no-brainer better than anything we’re doing now, it’s sickening. And at one point, Doug Botnik, who used to be at Sunset Sound turned to me and said, “Man I remember the first time I tried to do a session on a transistor board I wanted to slit my wrists.” (laughs)

Yet the coveted stuff in audio is really the discrete stuff. Most people want tube compressors but they don’t want tube boards, they want Neve and API.

Well they want big. I mean that’s the thing. They want a million inputs, and the old boards didn’t have million inputs. People want to do things in real complicated ways, and the old ways were really very simple. You know the magic happened out in front of the mic, and if the magic didn’t happen in front of the mike, it sounded awful, and you did it again.

If you play some damn music, you’ll get some damn sound

Yeah. And to a large degree that’s true. Part of it was in the ‘50s, the songwriters had an absolute stranglehold on the record business. Basically, the songwriters would come up with a hit song, shop it around the labels and it would go to the highest bidder. Labels did not like that, and that’s a lot of what allowed the self contained group thing to come in, because the labels said, okay we’re only going to sign people that write their own material.

You come partly from audiophile side of things and a lot of those people still reject digital. one of the first things that struck me and I think it struck a lot of people, was that 44.1 was kind of a random and not very satisfactory sampling rate. You know, it was low.

Yeah, it was primarily because you could use a video machine as an editor. You could encode it on videotape, edit the videotape. You had to edit digital audio; that was the whole thing.

Do you think that the day will come when high definition digital or something fixes all these problems with digital?

It’s very hard to say. We keep hoping! (laughs). It’s a real catch-22 because a lot of the problem with digital is that fewer and fewer recording engineers are working on things. It’s become a thing of now you just ask anybody who’s hanging around to do the tracking and then you save lousy tracking in the mix, save lousy mixing in the mastering, etc. One of the biggest problems with digital is just that it is not idiot proof.

You need to know that every time you perform some math on that signal, you’re gonna degrade it and it’s not magic. It’s like analog: with analog you just really carefully thought through “How can I go the least number of generations, how can I not damage this.” With digital, it’s been sold as this bulletproof thing, so people often just don’t realize that they’re completely ruining their audio.

I’ve been terrified in mastering, the way that once it gets into the digital domain, people don’t care about a how many copies they make or on what.

Oh yeah, and you add lossy coding to THAT...

And it just seems so capricious, and I’m back at home waving my arms saying “Wait! Wait!”

Well, the cart is ahead of the horse in most of this and ultimately, it’ll bring it down. Already it’s become real obvious that the record business is a lot less profitable than people think it is, and is not very profitable at all other than for artists they just promote the hell out of. if they spend a million dollars promoting a CD, yeah, they can have unprecedented sales of that CD, but even then, it becomes a question of well how much profit are they making. are they actually turning a profit on that, or are they just building a name and maybe someday be able to make some money.

For some reason or another, people like to blame the record company on not being profitable and I’m not even sure the record companies are profitable at this point, because when you start adding up the math, I mean the record store is getting at least half of the price of a compact disc and right now we’re in an interesting situation, in that the record stores are calling all of the shots!

So basically you have to pay for placement in a record store, you have to pay for a listening station, I mean on space music releases, I’ve had deadlines like you would have on an Elvis Presley single in the 60s! (laughs). Because they had scheduled thousand of dollars worth of listening stations in some chain, and you gotta have the CDs there or those listening stations are gonna be empty but they’ve still paid for it.

It’s kind of a bizarre situation right now where I think a lot of the whole industry is gonna have to reinvent itself. But it has a number of times in the past and there’s no reason to believe that it won’t again, so I’m actually feeling kind of upbeat as the whole thing comes crumbling down, cause in some ways it’s a mess that needs to be straightened out, needs to start being run by people inside the music business rather than outside accountants.

I think we’re gonna see some very interesting stuff happening in the next three or four years because everybody that I’ve talked to think that these major label consolidations and acquisitions have made no financial sense at all and, you know, I root for the independent, I mean I will never in my life forget that at one point we at Motown were selling more records than RCA and Columbia! You know, it CAN be done.

Through the history of recording, there’ve been these things which ostensibly are supposed to save time, and make you freer to do what you want, but often they do the opposite. One is console automation and another is Pro Tools.

Automation was implemented not so much to help with mixing but to solve the problem of being able to come up with identical first generation masters. I mean in some ways, digital recording made automation obsolete only people had decided that this was the “professional” way to do it, (laughs) so they keep doing it. But the original reason was because you didn’t want to take the generation hit from copies and so, if you could automate a mix, then you could run three or four mixes and you’d have three or four first generation master tapes. Right, and I can understand that, but it seemed to suck a lot of the boldness out of the way that people mixed

Oh sure, it took it left-brain.

Obviously, with all of these things, the argument is always, yes, the most talented person who understands it can do a good job and use it in the right way, and of course that’s true. But I don’t hear the infinite possibilities of the technology when I turn on the radio, I just hear people moving things over on the grid.

Yeah, it’s sad. You need performance. In getting into the new age stuff and so forth, I learned a lot about Indian music, and the theory of Indian music. An integral part of the theory of Indian music is that the effect music has on a listener is how it affects their breath. The fascinating thing is that I had realized at Motown while I was recording Levi Stubbs, that I could ride the gain right if I sang along with the singer in my mind; if I could breathe with the singer, I could tell where they were gonna breath and I could tell when they were gonna get louder, when they were going to get softer and ride gain on the vocal much more effectively.

Of course, nobody rides gain on the vocal anymore, which is insane. Anyhow, I discovered that, and then when I learned about Indian music, it kinda went one step further and I realized that the way that a person breathes when they’re doing a performance, when they’ve gotta get through something that’s hard, and they’ve gotta get all the way through it, is a very exhilarating thing to breathe along with. I think that this is actually a big commercial factor in how much people enjoy listening to a recording is the ability of feeling like the artist when they achieve the performance.

Of course, if the artists are just singing one chorus and splicing it all together, and there’s no heat on the artist to perform, then its all gonna be limp, dead. So I think that’s a lot of what’s wrong today. I don’t know that I can just blame it on Pro Tools. I think that you can blame it on Pro Tools in that it hasn’t got the risk of cutting tape, which intimidated people and made people really think twice about whether they wanted to do it, whereas with digital you just throw it together and do it. it definitely allows for a lot of what I call the “good enough syndrome” where people do things until they’re “good enough” as opposed to doing them until they can’t do them any better.

Certainly at Motown it was about doing it until we couldn’t do it better and there was no such thing as “good enough.” You tried to make it as good as you could and you generally were not very satisfied. I mean I’m still pretty embarrassed about what a lot of the things sounded like, but I know they had to sound that way because of the production that we were doing, it just had to be that way.

It was the best combination of what we had to work it with and was the best we could come up with given the combination of the artist, the arrangement, the song, the whole thing. It was a solution. In fact this is one thing that is really kind of missing from today’s production - nobody commits to anything.

That’s very true.

Back then, you had to make final decisions as you went. You had to be willing to throw out a track. Brian Holland used to point to his bottom desk drawer, it was full of tapes, and say “the only reason I’m successful is that I threw out more basic tracks than anybody else around here.” I think I told somebody “Sgt. Pepper’s is not a recording, Sgt. Pepper’s was the solution to the various problems they came up with in the process of producing the record.”

You put something on and then you have to figure out something to put with it that’ll make it work and you couldn’t go back whereas now, you’ve got this huge palette and you can do anything, but you wind up with it all being so conceptual that it’s lame. There’s no magic, no opportunity for the recording to come out any better than your concepts. It's a problem, all the way around, because I think that people learn by rote so much now, that what they’re gonna do is paste something together in Pro Tools or comp 25 takes of a vocal that they don’t encourage the artist to do it the right way.

Oh yeah, over-engineering is rampant.

So what’s your advice to all your readers?

(laughs) Good luck! No - I guess its “hang in there.” I think we’re at a low point. It’s like we’re at the Frankie Avalon age of rock n’ roll and something new is sure to happen. I think radio is about to explode because Internet and satellite radio is going to put so much pressure on the over the air radio stations that they’re going to be forced to going back to being creative again and we’re going to see a return of the deejay and we’re gonna see a return of interesting music that’s successful, that carries its own weight. I mean there used to be a saying, “you can’t stop a hit record” and certainly the experience of a lot of the ones back then was very much that: You literally felt that you couldn’t have screwed it up if you’d wanted to.

The record has its own soul, so to speak, and it tells you what to do. I think our problem now is that we don’t have records that have enough of that magical quality that causes the record to sell itself and so we’ve become very dependent on very expensive promotion and publicity and video - and all of these ancillary things. I mean think of the absurdity, that people are being asked to buy a record that the video cost more than the CD to make. I mean, what’s wrong with this picture? (laughs). I think that we’ve got to start investing in records again, not doing them the cheapest possible way and it think there’s gotta be a return to records that are so a exceptional that they sell themselves.

Something you can’t stop. So, I guess we should call this article “Nowhere to run?”

There you go!

Bob Olhsson is cutting vinyl on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”...

  • I started in pro audio when I was 16. Facilitated by a brand new driver's license, I showed up on the doorstep of United Sound in Detroit. United Sound was both the largest independent studio in Detroit and, more importantly, was the only one that was open on Saturday. I had learned my basics from five years in a radio drama program in jr. and sr. high-school, and now I could finally learn more.
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