Our Motown Heritage (Part 6)
The Day The (Motown) Music Died

by Robert Dennis
In early 1964, Motown was cranking out hits at a tremendous pace. All of the recording and mixing was done in one studio/control room complex. To keep the demand met for recording and mixing, the control room operated 22 hours a day in 3 shifts, seven days a week. The other two hours were for electronic maintenance and alignment. Motown had been on this recording schedule for over a year, but at the end of 1963 and beginning of 1964, the scheduling of recording was hyper-critical.

Berry Gordy had an office recording system that he actually was using to overdub things like vocals for "The Way You Do The Things You Do" by the Temptations and for doing initial mixes on productions he was personally involved in.

By the end of 1964, Motown had bought another studio, and installed an additional mixdown room; but at the beginning of 1964, any hour of lost recording time was perceived by the executives of the company as a major loss of income. The Engineering Department was hard-pressed to get any time (other than the allotted 2 hours a day) for additional maintenance, installation or improvements.

Time, however, was taken when the worst fears of the Engineering Department happened, the breakdown that caused immediate down time and death of the music production, until repairs are made.

Speaker Fire - 24 Hours Dead

In a very small control room, six high powered speakers were driven by hopped-up power amplifiers. The recording engineers cranked the system full blast for hours. Many would suffer partial deafness within months, but loud monitoring was a fact of life in the mid-60's. Sessions were usually 3 hours long. One day in a double-length session, one of the woofers caught on fire. The Engineering Department got the damage repaired in 24 hours.

Installation Breakdown - 7 Days Dead

The Motown control room was haphazardly installed over a two year period with things wired in without documentation. Small "boxes" of electronics were on top of racks & machines, and under furniture. There were constant additions to the equipment over these years. The result was a constant barrage of small problems that didn't totally shut down the operation, but slowed it down almost every day. The only solution was to rip out all the equipment and rewire the control room.

Mike MLean, the Engineering Department Head, used the excuse that he would not be able to install 8 track recording until the control room was re-wired. He was given the necessary time for re-wiring.

Over these 7 days, all equipment was put in racks, all wiring was redone, and cables tagged with numbers. The whole back wall of the control room was made a wall of racks. Once the control room was operational, all of the small, constant problems disappeared.

Equipment Rack Fire - 7 Hours Dead

In order to get the control room back up in 7 days, Mike McLean had ordered the technical engineering crew to tag the wires with temporary tags. The tags that were used were stiff paper with thin wire twists. Each tag was about 2 inches by 3 inches. The idea was that these temporary tags could be replaced with permanent markers. This, however, wasn't scheduled to be done until the 8 track recorder was ready for installation.

In the early 1960's, all audio equipment had tubes and threw off a tremendous amount of heat. In addition, the equipment was never turned off.

One day, an audio tone generator developed a short and its power transformer overheated. Since it was an inexpensive item, it had no power fuse. One of the paper tags caught on fire, and all of the tags caught on fire. The fire was quickly put out, and there was little damage to the wiring.

The Engineering Department needed 7 hours to repair the wire damage, and check out the installation. Mike was so embarrassed that he immediately made it strict policy to use permanent markers and make sure all equipment had fuses installed to prevent a reoccurrence.


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