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Loud and Clear (Part 1)

Our Motown Heritage
Loud and Clear (Part 1)

By Robert Dennis

Loud and Clear

For 4 years (1964-1967) I had the responsibility of making a proof copy and sometimes the initial master copies of the disc that was released by the largest independent record company in the world (at the time), Motown. I formed, together with the ears of the Motown Quality Control Department, and those of the chief engineer, Lawrence Horn, a "Loud And Clear" team that established the loudness and clarity aspects of the Motown Sound.

From day one on the job, I found out that the hit records out of Motown would have 20 mixes done on the master recording. My job would be to analyze the mixes and make a reference disc on each. The Quality Control department compared the different reference discs and chose the mix that would be used for release, requesting more mixes if needed.

With the mastering of Where Did Our Love Go? by the Supremes we adopted a "loudness" standard for Motown's product. Loudness is how loud it sounds to the ear and we called it "apparent level" at the time.

When I received the tape master on Where Did Out Love Go?, I cut a disc master that was at the "clearness" standard for Motown, but was about a dB lower in "apparent level" than many of the records which we were releasing. In the tune, Diana's sharp voice, as well as a very present sax solo meant that the cut was susceptible to disc distortion. Cutting it as loud as usual was too distorted, so I cut it a bit lower. After it was released (and a smash hit) I had to defend my choice of level to Quality Control. They were upset it wasn't a bit louder and because of this my department adopted a loudness standard for Motown. The big trick was to do it while maintaining the clarity.

Maintaining Loud & Clear

Many good mixes were done on each Motown tune, and I adopted a practice to providing the discs to the QC department, all at the same apparent volume, unless uncontrolled peaks or other factors meant I had to lower the level. If the best mix on a tune wasn't up to the Motown Loudness standard I would often provide an alternate master using signal processing of compression and/or equalization. Thus we were able, for several years, to maintain a very consistent product that cut through the air waves and sounded "Loud and Clear" - and of course, sold like mad.

In 1968 there began to be an inconsistency in mixing due to the Chief Engineer leaving Motown with the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. As a result the standards of "loud and clear" became harder to maintain. I was called into duty as a quality control specialist that could request new mixes if the "apparent volume" of the mix was not up to snuff. On some of the largest hits, like that of Love Child by Diana Ross, I was actually present on mixing sessions to make sure we got the loudest and clearest mix released.

There were many technical things that we did to maintain the Motown Sound standards, including using custom-designed filters and adopting a "half speed" mastering technique. With today's plug-in and mastering programs the job is a lot easier, yet many releases still are loud and very distorted or weak but clear. Too many releases are without the loudness AND clarity that would be possible.

I guess that's why there is a Superdisc mastering.

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