Building The Sound

My first job at Motown involved drafting. One of the first tasks I had was to complete a set of drawings for something they were building – an 8 track recorder! By 1963, the largest number of tracks that you could buy from a dealer was 4. An eight-track recorder had been built by Les Paul, but you couldn’t order one from a dealer. You could get one custom-built by the manufacturer, but at a very premium price. Motown very much wanted an eight-track, so they were building one.  The money saved from building the machines helped Motown be able to afford establishing a strong technical engineering crew, that could keep things working well in recording.  It turned out to be fall, 1964 before the machine was installed because it was really an adventurous plan.

The eight-track project was not unusual by any means. Throughout my time at Motown, the company always had more technical engineers than recording engineers. The creative elements of the company (lead by Berry Gordy) and the recording engineers would want a certain effect or a certain function. Engineering head, Mike McLean, would get it designed and built for the company. In many ways, this technical staff helped Motown establish a unique sound and saved them money to boot. But Technical Engineering wasn’t always so efficient.

Motown used to mix every multitrack master several times. There was an average of twenty mixes done for each tune released. In 1964, a cost cutting Vice President, Ralph Seltzer, noticed that each mixing session used a full reel of tape and usually only three minutes or so was cut out off the reel and kept. The Tape Librarian, Fran Heard, used to take the rest of the tape off of the reel and toss it, so that the metal reel could be salvaged.

Mr. Seltzer asked Mike, “Why can’t the tape be re-used?” Mike’s response was “If the splice was made poorly, the level would drop when the engineer tried to record over it.” Pushing the issue, the penny-pinching executive wanted to know if Mike could build a machine that would detect bad splices. Mike, who never backed down from a technical challenge, agreed to do so.

Back at his desk, Mike figured that the splice would be silent if the dropout was less than 1 dB. Mike worked on the design for two weeks straight. He designed a tape transport with record and playback heads. The machine would record a tone on the tape, and then play it back; if there was a drop-out of more than 1 dB, the machine stopped so that the splice could be redone. After completing the design, he got his shop supervisor, John Windt, to get it built. It seemed like they were at that project for 6 months.

The machine worked exactly as planned, but Mike found out the rest of the story. It wound up that none of the recording engineers, no matter how careful they were, could make a splice in tape that didn’t have a drop-out of more that 1 dB. Mike, and Berry, himself, tried with the same result. The machine went under the work bench to gather dust, until I left Motown in 1968.