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
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
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
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!!
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.