It's 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 a host of others with his own, to forge a juggernaut 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 and 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 #1 on the R&B charts. This is Motown and it is beautiful.
Recently Bob moved to 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.
Can we start with how you got to Motown and what you knew before you got there?
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 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. Then I decided I wanted to try and get a summer job in a studio — I'd been hanging out at United for a couple years, going out and helping one of the engineers there do 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 and 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, 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, 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. 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 mics, etc?
Well, there are two distinct flavors: The first original set-up they used pretty ordinary mic'ing. 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 RCA 77 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 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 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 only one 8-track machine. I mean, they had gone from mono to mono, to 2-track to 2-track, to 3-track to 3-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 mics, if something was really raunchy sounding you might stick a Pultec [EQ] in, and you went to tape, and it sounded good! Transistor studio, you plugged in the mic, 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 mic pre amps. Actually, in retrospect they were pretty good. They weren't the absolutely horrible early Fairchild transistor modules.
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 3-track days. And there was an 8 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 forty Neumann KM86 mics and donated all of the old mics to the University of Michigan! 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'd better like that sound...
Yeah, and to be honest, it did a remarkably good job. It was a remarkably good mic. 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 KM86 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 JBL foghorn driver on a multi-cellular horn so you couldn't blow it up! [laughs] And a couple of 545s. 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. 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 shellaced 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 an Echoplex. 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 2As 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 LA 2A looked when the only thing you had was a Fairchild! Yeah, in some things a Fairchild is fine but, when it's the only limiter you've got...
And you had Electrodyne modules?
We had Electrodyne limiters. 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] 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.
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 Babbitt 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 solos.
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. 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 ten, 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!
[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 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 9 violins, 4 violas, 3 cellos and one or two basses, often, depending on what the arranger wrote. Typically it was that instrumentation, and we'd double it.
No! [laughs] Actually, when we first got the 16-track I did a stereo mic'ing of it, and put it on two tracks and I almost got fired for it. 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, 9 times out of 10 they prefer the mono!
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 A/V crew to being a recording engineer — I mean there were not people beating down the doors to become recording engineers in 1964!