Our Motown Heritage (Part 37)
Some Say It's A Sign Of Weakness
PART OF THE MOTOWN SOUND STORY

by Robert Dennis

"Some Say It's A Sss-pft..." is what I heard the cutterhead put in the groove of the disc that I was cutting. It was the second verse for the 4 Tops smash hit, "Baby I Need Your Loving." I said to myself, "Man, Levi Stubbs just blew up my cutterhead..."  

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Too Much Treble

Many people describe the driving bass lines as a key to the excitement of the Motown singles of the mid 1960's, but that was only part of the picture.  On those old tracks there was always a constant high-frequency percussion that was perhaps even more important to the sound.  The treble was also very pronounced on the vocal, allowing the listener to hear every word of the lyrics.

Getting this high-frequency (treble) sound to the listeners in the 1960's was no easy task.  In those days people listened to the hit singles on AM radio and suitcase-style record players.  AM radio doesn't reproduce all of the treble frequencies that are on records.  The portable speakers and the cheap phono cartridges with the short plastic tone arms of the record players also didn't do the treble justice.

In order to preserve the excitement for the end consumer, the hit singles put out by Motown had extra treble energy - much more than the "average" record released at the time.  The result was that the Motown single always sounded exciting and the vocals were clear under normal playback conditions for the consumer.  If someone listened to these single records on an expensive "hi-fi" system of the day, they would have sounded overly bright; but the thinking was, "who would listen on this kind of system anyway."

Disc Mastering Problems

The extra treble on the masters meant extra headaches for me when I made the master or reference-proof disc on the master.  We were using expensive German-made equipment that put the truest sound in the groove, but had limitations on putting the treble into the groove.

The biggest problem was not the constant percussion but the vocal, if the singer over-pronounced any "S" in the lyrics.  The extra burst of treble energy on an over-pronounced S would usually overload the cutting amplifier and sometimes trip the circuit breaker on the cutterhead. 

The problem came up enough that the Engineering department of Motown wanted to come up with a solution.  By the 1970's, effective "dressers" were on the market that would have helped with the problem, but this was the 1960's.  The available equipment of the day to handle these kinds of problems didn't preserve the excitement that we were looking for in the single record.

The Super Cutter - Not

So if the amplifier is distorting, why not get a bigger amplifier?  The chief engineer installed a new amplifier with four times the power, carefully matching it to work with the German cutting system. 

The tune we used for testing was the master on "Baby I need Your Loving" by the Four Tops.  The tune was fine for the intro, verse 1 and the first chorus.  The second verse started off with "Some say it's a sign of weakness...," and those S's on "say" and "sign" were very pronounced, causing me to cut the disc at a lower level.

After the first test cut on the custom super-system, the circuit breaker protecting the cutterhead tripped on the word "sign."  The chief engineer made some modifications to a special cooling system for the head, and he was pretty sure that the coils in the cutterhead would be able to take the short bust of energy so we disconnected the circuit breaker and made a second cut.  Oh man..., Levi Stubbs blew up the cutterhead with his S's!!

Half Speed

In Europe a technique called "half-speed" had been developed where the master tape and the disc recording lathe both moved at half normal speed.  Because the frequency also shifted down at the lower speed, the cutting system didn't run out of power while cutting the disc. 

After the cutting system was repaired, we adopted this technique at Motown and I believe we were the first commercial operation to do this in the USA.  Although the discs took longer to cut, we were, with this technique, able to keep the sizzling hot masters cranking out of Motown.
 

 

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