Video: What Makes Motown Sound Like Motown?

Very few record labels can be said to have as iconic a signature sound as Motown. During its heyday in the 1960s, the Detroit company—founded by Berry Gordy in 1959 as Tamla Records—cranked out hit after hit, all with the cohesive, instantly identifiable Motown Sound.

The inspiration for Motown's "hit factory" ethos came from Gordy's time working at the Detroit Lincoln-Mercury plant. "Every day I watched how a bare metal frame, rolling down the line, would come off the other end a spanking brand new car. What a great idea," Gordy said. "Maybe, I could do the same thing with my music."

Although Motown would eventually grow into a coast-to-coast empire, it all started in a single house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. After moving his family into the second-floor apartment, Gordy converted the rest of the place into Motown's headquarters and recording studio, which he christened "Hitsville U.S.A." Every part of making a record was handled in-house, literally—songwriting, arranging, recording, mastering, publishing, and artist relations were all done under one roof.

Gordy's unique approach to making records is what made Motown a commercial success, but what exactly makes the music so infectious—and what makes these classic records instantly recognizable as Motown?

We studied the gear, the players, and the recording techniques, then put a team of artists together to see if we could recreate the signature sound. Watch our video above to see how close we could get. Below, you can hear our covers of "My Girl" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" in both mono and stereo. Keep reading to learn more about the recording processes at Motown.

All-Star Talent


Motown is known for launching the careers of legendary artists like Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, and Michael Jackson, many of whom were discovered by Gordy or his producers and molded into stars. Smokey Robinson, Gordy's right-hand man, would become a star with The Miracles and in his own right, in addition to producing and writing records for many Motown artists—including "My Girl" for The Temptations.

There was plenty of talent behind the scenes at Motown as well. The company employed expert songwriters and arrangers, such as the famed songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, who penned hits like "Stop! In the Name of Love" by The Supremes, "Nowhere to Run" by Martha & The Vandellas, and "It's the Same Old Song" by The Four Tops, among many others.

But most importantly, behind every hook, ballad, and anthem that came out of Motown was a world-class backing band called The Funk Brothers. Although they're often compared to Booker T. and the MGs, the house band at Stax Records in Memphis, the Funk Brothers weren't actually a performing group—more like a loose collective of session players and touring musicians who cut their teeth in Detroit's club scene. Although only 13 members are officially recognized by The Recording Academy, any session musician who played on a Motown record was considered a Funk Brother.

Each musician contributed their own signature sound to every session; a unique product of their tastes, playing styles, and instruments. Often left to fill in the blanks of song arrangements themselves, their individual styles all contributed collectively to the Motown Sound.

Drums and Percussion

Motown had many drummers on call, all of them ace players who lent their own subtle inflections to any given session. For instance, Benny Benjamin tended to kick off songs or fills with a quick pick-up hit before the beat, as heard on songs like The Temptations' "Get Ready." Other Motown drummers eventually began to adopt this move, cementing it as part of the Motown Sound.

Many Motown tunes emphasize beats two and four heavily. The backbeat was usually reinforced by a rhythm guitar and more percussion, such as Jack Ashford's tambourine (a 12" Ludwig single-row). Between hits on the two and four, Ashford would add in intricate patterns to spice up the rhythm.

Another key piece of the Motown rhythm section's sonic signature was the house kit at Hitsville, a piecemeal set of Rogers, Ludwig, and other classic brands that got used on almost every session after 1963. "They were good drums, but they were second-hand," Uriel Jones told Modern Drummer in 1999. "They also had another set of drums down there that they bought a few years later, but those drums were only used when we had a double drummer session. That second set was also just thrown-together stuff."

The bass drum was often recorded with the front head removed and blankets stuffed inside the shell to reduce resonance. For a crisp snare sound, strips of electrical tape were placed on each side of the strainer to keep the snares as close to the head as possible, and the drum was mic'd either right up close on the top head or near the vent on the side.

For mics, Motown's engineers used a minimal setup, including a single Neumann U 67 as an overhead and a RCA 77 placed a few feet back from the front of the bass drum. In our video above, we're using a AKG C12VR for the overhead, a Neumann KM84 on the snare, and a RCA 77-DX for the kick.


Motown Drum Samples

This free collection of drum loops and one-shots recreates the famous Motown drum sounds, inspired by drummers Benny Benjamin, Uriel Jones, Richard "Pistol" Allen, and more, as well as Jack Ashford’s energetic tambourine style.

Pianos and Keys

The piano often dictated the harmonic structure of many Motown songs, and the Funk Brothers' bandleader usually led the group from behind the keys. The first bandleader was Joe Hunter, who was succeeded by Earl Van Dyke in 1964. While Hunter played in a bluesy, almost boogie-woogie style, Van Dyke was more aggressive, especially with the bass notes on his left hand. It was also common to have two pianos doubling a part, be it acoustic, electric, or both.

An 1877 Steinway was the go-to piano at Hitsville. In our attempt at recreating this sound, we mic'd a 1970s Baldwin with a Neumann KM 86 just above where the piano's low and high strings meet. As Rax Trax's Noam Wallenberg explains above, we chose the KM86 because it was a favorite microphone at Motown during the studio's later years.

Bass

Perhaps the most well-known Funk Brother, James Jamerson contributed uniquely melodic basslines that stood out from some of the more basic pop fare at the time (and today). When he switched from upright to electric to do pop sessions, Jamerson kept the action extra-high on his '62 Fender 'Funk Machine' Precision Bass and stuck with an aggressive one-finger technique he had developed. He also kept his strings muted at the bridge, giving him a unique, mellow-yet-percussive sound.

Jamerson would often add in quick flourishes, pick-up notes, and other embellishments by raking his finger quickly across the strings. The way he would attack each note and dart in and out of phrases had a profound effect on the rollicking feel of the Motown rhythm. In the mid-'60s, the bass would be recorded direct through the Motown DI (which you can learn more about below).

Guitars

Many Motown sessions had multiple guitarists, often three, playing at once. Eddie "Chank" Willis typically held down the rhythm by "chanking" on the two and four with a trebly Gibson Firebird. Others, such as Robert White and Joe Messina, would follow the piano melody or add their own lead lines. The guitars in the mid-'60s period were often recorded direct.

Dennis Coffey joined the Funk Brothers in the late '60s. In contrast to the guitar tracks of earlier years, Coffey used effects like distortion, wah-wah, and tape delay to bring a heavier, more experimental sound to tracks like "Cloud Nine" and "Ball of Confusion" by the Temptations.

A Well-Equipped Studio


As recording studios go, Hitsville's Studio A was a kind of a paradox. Located in the basement of a humble Midwestern house, it was very much the opposite of the acoustically optimized, purpose-built facilities in Hollywood—yet it was just as well-equipped as its competition and dialed-in to get a particular sound that had no equal.

For starters, Studio A's live room was just a simple rectangle with ceilings only slightly taller than average—not exactly a cavernous space like Abbey Road's famous Studio 2. The Steinway grand piano dominated the space, leaving relatively little room once mics, chairs, and music stands were set up, and numerous cables dangling from the ceiling earned this space the nickname "The Snake Pit." The adjoining control room was even less ideal: The cramped, boxy space was cluttered with gear and lacked the fine-tuned acoustic treatment of a professional studio—which just goes to show how much more the talent mattered than the acoustics.

But despite their relatively modest facility, Motown kept up with the cutting edge of recording technology. Starting off with a primitive two-track setup, Hitsville graduated to a three-track format in 1961 before moving to eight-track in the mid-'60s and 16-track by the end of the decade.

The move to higher track counts did a lot to shape the Motown Sound, and the difference can be heard clearly by comparing an early song like "Heat Wave" by Martha & The Vandellas with a later cut like "Cloud Nine" by the Temptations. Track limitations on the former required the tambourine, snare, and hi-hat all to share a single mic, while the latter features dedicated tracks for auxiliary percussion, multiple guitars, and backup vocals.

However, sometimes even the latest and greatest gear (including legendary vintage brands like Pultec, Langevin, Fairchild, and Urei) wasn't enough. When Motown's engineers saw a way to improve on a design (or needed a tool that simply didn't exist yet), Motown's head of engineering, Mike McLean, would hit the soldering bench to whip up a custom solution.

McLean's creations include the almost-mythical Motown EQ (essentially a souped-up Langevin), as well as the legendary Motown DI direct box, an innovation which allowed them to plug electric guitars and basses directly into the console to capture the live band without bleed between instruments. A recreated version of the Motown DI is now publicly available as the Acme Audio Motown DI WB-3.

But for all their cutting-edge gadgets, one of the most iconic elements of the Motown Sound comes from a decidedly low-tech effect: the echo chamber. A speaker and a microphone sat permanently wired up in the attic of Hitsville, which had been drywalled and coated with shellac but otherwise untreated. During mixing, engineers would pipe certain tracks through the speaker, record the reverberation with the microphone, and blend it into the mix to add a sense of space. This effect is clearly audible on the foot-stomps at the beginning of The Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go."

In addition to the echo chamber, Motown also had an EMT 140 plate reverb and an Echoplex tape delay unit they'd use from time to time. In our attempt at recreating the Motown Sound, we used the Audio Ease Altiverb reverb plugin, Universal Audio's digital emulation of the EMT 140, and a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo.

Although much of Motown's top-of-the-line equipment was engineered to sound as transparent as possible, all the circuitry, tubes, and tape in the signal chain inevitably introduced countless subtle distortions. In fact, part of Motown's highly coveted vintage sound is the result of the engineers knowing their equipment intimately and getting the best sound possible out of it, using its tonal coloration to their advantage wherever possible.

Expert Engineering


Having some of the finest gear in the world certainly gave Motown an edge, but having a wizard at the controls is what really gave them a sound. Although plenty of skilled people (including Berry Gordy himself) sat behind the board at Motown over the years, the longest-tenured wizard was a man named Russ Terrana. The 23-year-old was hired on the spot after his interview in 1966, quickly sharpening his engineering chops and gaining Gordy's trust. Terrana stayed on for 18 years, eventually becoming chief engineer and heading up the company's LA studio.

"Every song, to me, was like a person," Terrana said in a 2015 interview with Tape Op. "It had its own personality, and there were no two songs alike. I never approached the song with the same thing I did to another song. I would look at the song as an individual. 'Now what am I going to do with this guy? What are the guitars doing in the verse, compared to what they're doing in the chorus? Do I want to use more piano in the chorus, because the keyboard player is doing something stronger in the chorus?' And I'd feature the keyboard player more during the chorus."

Although experimentation was encouraged, one thing was fairly consistent in the studio at Motown: Tracks were typically recorded dry, with additional processing added only in the mixing stage.

"We never recorded with any special reverb, delays, or anything," said Terrana. "We never processed anything to the point of, 'That's the way it's going to be.'" One notable exception to this rule are Coffey's guitar pedals, including the Echoplex tape delay and Vox Tonebender fuzz, which he put to great use in Motown's late-'60s era of psychedelic soul.

The expert engineering at Motown extended all the way to the cutting of the master discs. Starting in 1965, Motown employed the legendary Bob Olhsson as their in-house mastering engineer. Working out of a separate mixing and mastering room, Olhsson cut acetates of countless mixes using state-of-the-art Neumann lathes. But mastering wasn't what it is today. Instead of piling on processing to make the mixes sound warmer or richer, all Olhsson had to do was sequence the songs on tape and get a clean transfer with a touch of EQ or limiting where necessary (an art in itself).

"They were very, very concerned that things not be particularly modified in the transfer," Olhsson told Tape Op in 2002. "They'd rather do a new mix than try and fix anything in mastering. So I started out pretty much doing really hot flat transfers, although if we heard something that seemed obvious to change, we could throw on some EQ and send an alternative version labeled with what we did."

The End of an Era


Motown officially picked up and moved their entire operation to Los Angeles in 1972, signaling the end of the classic era of Motown. Although the magic of Hitsville was no longer part of the equation, Motown continued to pump out hits (and still do to this day). In fact, 98 Degrees, Erykah Badu, and even Bruce Willis have all recorded for Motown—but obviously, none of their records quite captured the Motown Sound.

If you're looking to bring a little taste of Motown to your next project, check out our Studio Sampled Drums: Hitsville, U.S.A. sample pack for some classic beats and one-shots recorded in the style of Motown.

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