Bob Olhsson has been around for several key moments in the history of modern recording. He spent some time at Motown Studios in the early days working with the greats; he spent time working with some of the best UK producers of British rock in the 1960s. But it didn’t stop there: Olhsson has continued to work in the industry for over 50 years. Best of all he loves to share his knowledge with others.
One commentator said “Bob is a great example of ‘to know the past, is to know the future.” Spend any time in many of the popular audio forums and you can see this truth played out. Olhsson will be there answering questions on audio in his calm, respectful and gentle manner, like some kind of modern day sage. One can’t help feel that if Lord of the Rings had been a story about an audio quest then Olhsson would have been Gandalf, dispensing his wisdom and helping to resolve arguments for those who are less experienced or as wise!
From Railroad To Radio
“It all began around 1957 I was in the 6th grade and my class was chosen to do a Brotherhood Week broadcast. They took us to a local radio station and we performed our thing and I took one look at that control room and becoming a railroad engineer went right out the window. I completely fell in love, I hit the library and took out every book remotely related to radio and broadcasting. When I got to the 8th grade I joined the Radio Drama programme and I was in that until High School graduation. The thing that was cool about it was that both of the teachers had been producers at the NBC radio network” He continues, “I learned microphone technique (assuming you were using RCA ribbon microphones), how to run a console, how to edit tape, so I came out of high school with an understanding of that.”
“I hit it off with one of the engineers and so I would go there every Saturday and hang out, again I learned a lot of basics there. Basically I wanted to be a back room nerd.”
Recording studios were just emerging but however few there were, Olhsson wanted to visit them. “When I could drive I got in my car and went around to see all the recording studios… all three of them! I hit it off with one of the engineers and so I would go there every Saturday and hang out. Again I learned a lot of basics there. Basically I wanted to be a back room nerd.”
All that said Olhsson is self-effacing when pressed about his knowledge, we talk about a recent video lecture by James Johnston, Olhsson leaps in “JJ is the only reason any of us know jack about digital audio.”
The Motown Years
The conversation turns to Olhsson’s time at Motown Studios and how he arrived there. “I was first sent there by a friend as a joke because I think he thought that the mostly black company would freak me out, but when I walked in the Motown team were thrilled that a white guy wanted to work there.” He laughs. “I went in there and hit it off with the Chief Engineer. Berry Gordy knew all the top musicians in town, I got to know some of the people at Motown and after about a year they needed someone to be a mastering trainee, so I joined them.”
Motown Studios Control Room
“The Motown Sound was several things. It was a technique, to the best of my knowledge we were the first people to do punch in on recordings. One thing we did was record the musicians first and then take that back to the studio, and play it through the speakers. Then the singers would overdub. They could do multiple vocal takes and then splice them together. Mike our engineer was a film freak and he discovered that they had recently developed a machine in Hollywood that you could punch in on. He had this idea of applying the same idea to our three track machine – there may be others that did it, but I think we were the first.”
Through a series of events at Motown that found several staff leaving in 1969 Olhsson was pulled out of the mastering room and into the studio, which was now running a 16-track recorder. "Motown went 8 track in 1964 and 16 track in 1969. Tom Dowd told me that Motown had the second working 8 track studio in the world after Atlantic. I only worked with 8 track for a few months other than mixing a few TV backing tracks. We were also first with a dedicated headphone system and mix. We invented a great deal of what I rail against!"
It was here that he started to work with some of the other modern recording techniques like reverb.
B.R. - Before Reverb
“No one called it reverb before Lexicon. It was called echo and we had three separate echo sends on the desk on each input at Motown. They had an attic that had been turned into an echo chamber, they had an EMT plate, the old tube one, and they also had an Echolette in the rack and an Echoplex and also a Fender Spring reverb. You could patch it how you liked. One of the nice things was they had it so you could listen to just the reverb. Of course back then you did not use reverb without eq, they were usually either too boomy or too thin, so you had to work your way around it.”
The studio at Motown
It is at this point that Olhsson helps to contextualize “historically reverb goes back to the 1930s for film work and drama, later on Bill Putnam used it on commercial recordings, his first record was the loudest thing anyone had heard on radio, so everyone went nuts for reverb.”
“I used to put a little bit on backgrounds and I used to put some on strings – which sound pretty dreadful unless you are in a big hall. We also used a room microphone from the group and use this as a send to the reverb. I always got better results using one microphone of the group and send that to the reverb.”
We fast forward to Olhsson’s first experience of digital reverb, “An opportunity came up to take me the West Coast with work at Wally Heider studios in San Francisco but then I soon moved to work with a guy who was doing electronic music on a ¼” 4 track, there we used springs for reverb. Then Lexicon brought out their 224, which was dramatically cheaper than an EMT plate. It didn’t take up the space and it didn't have to be isolated." He continues "Anyway the Lexicon came along, it was less expensive and less of a hassle and a lot of smaller studios that couldn’t afford conventional reverb bought them, that was when I had my first experience with them.”
One expects Olhsson to wax lyrically about the early digital reverbs, not so. “I quickly figured out that the early reflections were useless, so I turned that off, after about a year I figured out that the pre-delay was shifting everything flat, so I couldn’t use that in the headphones when tracking vocals.” Instead of joining the digital reverb revolution he then went on to build a studio and went for a used EMT plate rather than a digital reverb.
“Anyway the Lexicon came along, it was less expensive and less of a hassle and a lot of smaller studios that couldn’t afford conventional reverb bought them, that was when I had my first experience of them.””
“I was not a fan of the Lexicon and the interesting thing about the PhoenixVerb is that Michael has come up with something that doesn’t have what I hated about the Lexicon. It doesn’t have the pitch shifting; it has the quality of the tail without all the shifting around and opaqueness, now that can be good for those who want that sound, but I don’t. My kneejerk response in the past was to kill the early reflections but the PhoenixVerb is the first one where I was able to start working with the early reflections and get a positive result from it… which is incredible. The other thing is you can easily use it on multiple tracks and customize the placement in the room for each of them without running out of power; you couldn’t do that with a convolution. What I had used before in the box were convolutions of either chambers or plates, but I was never really impressed with most of the hall effects." He laughs "My biggest problem with the PhoenixVerb is I tend to use it too much – to me it is an incredible technical accomplishment. The hardware units kind of get there, but they are costly and my approach to production is spend all the money on the musicians.”
“It’s like we got so lost in creating crutches that we lost what the music had been originally. I’ve been preaching that gospel for 20 years and offending a lot of people.”
It is during this discussion about reverb that Olhsson returns to his fundamental recording philosophy. “Go into a proper studio, record them all live, even try and get the singer live, although you can’t do that too often. Record as much as possible live in the room with plenty of bleed between the instruments, it’s really going back to the old school but I really encourage people to at least try doing that because there’s some real magic in that. To me overdubs always really harm a performance as compared to when all the musicians are all hearing and responding to each other live – when you get it then it sounds great. Some of the old musicians say to me that it all went to hell when we all started wearing headphones.”
Olhsson stops for a moment and reflect on this… “It’s like we got so lost in creating crutches that we lost what the music had been originally. I’ve been preaching that gospel for 20 years and offending a lot of people.”
From Motown To Masters
Much of Olhsson’s work now is mastering, which seems to make perfect sense with his desire to hear music as a whole and not in its component parts. How is Olhsson using reverb in mastering?
“One of my long term clients is an orchestra in Northern California and they moved into a hall and because of noise problems they had to put the microphone forward which meant it didn’t create a decent reverb. So what I’ve been doing is editing the audience noise out, like coughs, then I would add reverb to it using convolution reverb. Then I downloaded the PhoenixVerb demo and tried it and thought holy cow, it sounded as good, if not better and used a lot less CPU. A couple of weeks later I got another job and used the PhoenixVerb and tried it and it was way better, so I bought it.”
Spending time with Olhsson it is hard to imagine how anyone could be offended by what he says, he speaks a lot of sense with grace and humility. Although he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the gear and the industry, this all seems like a means to an end, not an end in itself.
For Olhsson it’s always been about the music – one can’t really argue with that!
Thanks to Asterope for the kind use of the images.