It is truly remarkable to step back and examine the full societal impact that some recording engineers and mixers have had on American culture. During his 18-year tenure as Chief Engineer for Motown Records, Russ Terrana captured and crafted the sounds for many of the Detroit label's most iconic hits. He, in some ways, was just as revolutionary as the music he helped create. As a highly respected member of Berry Gordy's inner circle, Russ was an invaluable contributor to the Motown sound, engineering and mixing timeless tracks from The Jackson 5's "ABC" to Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours."
What originally led to you working in the studio?
Well, very interesting enough, when we were ten years old, my twin brother [Ralph], a friend down the street, and I started a little band, and it kept on progressing from there. That band actually ended up becoming Rare Earth. I got a degree in electronic engineering, and I was like, "What am I gonna do with my degree?" So I went to Motown — I had the musical background and the degree — so they hired me on the spot. I had just turned 23.
What was the state of Detroit studios when you first began working at Motown?
My brother actually had a studio called Tera Shirma, and they had a lot of hits come out of there. At that time everything was considered state of the art: United Sound [Systems], Golden World, and Tera Shirma. As I got into that business there was the evolution from 8-track, to 16-track, to 24-track, to locking up machines for 48-track, to digital. It was a matter of keeping up with the technology changes. New audio gear and digital processors kept coming along. In Detroit you had to use your brain more to get what you wanted, instead of relying on the equipment to get it for you. You had to sometimes come up with clever ways to get the sound you were looking for.
Motown is pretty famous for developing the DI box and sel-sync technology. How influential do you feel that Motown was in pushing forward the development of recording technology?
It wasn't just Motown — it was the whole recording industry of the world. It was the New York studios, the Chicago studios, Muscle Shoals — all those places. You'd get some of these people who'd develop this equipment, like [Motown's Engineering Department Head] Mike McLean for example. He was a super genius of audio — he would buy a piece of gear, take it apart, and re-do it into what he wanted it to be. They even had this thing called the Motown EQ, which was this 8-band EQ with the faders. The guy had a mind on him that was unbelievable; he was so good at his job.
Did you see Mike as a mentor?
Well, he was on the technical side and I was on the creative side. I've always regarded him as a very good friend, and always looked up to him with incredible respect because of his born talents — he was a natural. He had a limited education, but he could out-do every technical engineer he came across. He was one of those guys that just had that ability that only comes along once in a lifetime.
Would you say that Mike's designs were as integral to the Motown sound as the musical side?
Oh yes, definitely. There are certain things that we would have never achieved without the technical expertise that he presented, so it worked hand in hand. Without him, we wouldn't have gotten what we got.
Do you feel that Berry Gordy gave you a long leash, in terms of your creative freedom?
Absolutely. Berry Gordy was a very smart man. When I first started working at Motown I got to know him. He saw that I had certain talents that would benefit him, so he encouraged me to really open up and follow my strengths. For me, that was mixing. I loved to mix. His whole philosophy was to surround himself with strong people. He could recognize good talent, from singers to producers, writers, engineers, salespeople, and promotion people. Once you got his blessing, you could do whatever you wanted; he encouraged that freedom, especially on the creative side. He used to say, "Don't be passive. Go for the throat." We did. When I became chief engineer, after I moved to L.A., I sat with him and he said, "Look, it's your department, and only...