Interview with Bob Ohlsson

Bob Ohlsson is one of those few legends that went through the years as dedicated music lover, producer, mastering engineer, technician and a friend of artist. He is still very productive. Join us in the friendly talk about music and music industry.

MI: You are very very busy and it's hard to get you to talk ;). What is occupying you so much these days?

BO: I just put the finishing touches on a 50 song album that I was co-producing. I still earn my living from mastering and I also teach at the local community college. I’m also working on reviving pre-1960 production techniques only using modern technology.

MI: You were greatly influenced with Indian music. Why?

BO: Indian music pays a lot of attention to the physical and psychological effects of music. It’s the only thing I’ve ever found that explains some of the musical experiences I had at Motown. Trying to understand what was happening at Motown is a passion of mine.

MI: You are on constantly on move. What is happening in Nashville these days?

BO: This is only the third area I’ve lived in after 27 years in Detroit and 29 years in the San Francisco area.

Nashville is in the middle of reinventing its self, something that has happened a number of times. It is the center of the music publishing industry and at this point probably has the largest pool of top flight musicians available in the world. Musicians base themselves here and then tour all over the world. It’s funny, because most high-profile country music is recorded here, people assume it’s all there is when in fact it has always been only a minor part of the local recording scene.

MI: How does digital cut into process. Do you still use analog equipment. If so where and why?

BO: Digital processing has improved a lot but I still use a mix depending on what a project needs.

MI: Why do you think there is decline in cd sales?

BO: Piracy has hurt catalog sales but the dirty little secret is that new title sales have been really bad for ten years or more. I think lot of this is a quality issue both musically and technically.

MI: Is there a future of singles?

BO: Singles have never been profitable other than has a promotional vehicle for artists or record players. It costs just as much to sell a single as it does to sell an album. The math is pretty compelling.

MI: What do you think about new media: mp3, loss-less formats, digital distribution, Itunes?

BO: I think file players will replace both CD/DVD players and personal computers for playing music. High definition files are probably the future.

I also don’t think packaged recordings are going away. The packaging needs to return to what it was in the LP era but it will contain a disk with audio files on it. Computer files have virtually no perceived value.

MI: What do you think about recording artist these days? Are there great new talents or they are hidden in the mass?

BO: I think we’ve let the musical minor leagues slip away where young artists could earn a living while learning how to engage an audience. This has really hurt the average quality of music that most people encounter. Too many talented musicians who would have had a career 40 years ago are going to medical school instead today.

MI: Where does musical magic come from?

Musical magic comes from the combination of extraordinary talent and extraordinary practice. The latter is no longer financially feasible for the working class.
MI: You were there in the good old days when they recorded mostly in one take. Is that the reason for great and coherent sound? Is this method still used?

BO: I think recording piecemeal complicates things a great deal and creates a lot of extra expense. My good old days were at Motown where a lot of piecemeal recording was invented. The guys who taught me had worked what were called “full dates” where everything was done at once. They told me they thought we were doing things the hard way.

MI: Do you have any headache about recording quality of music at present?

BO: I think too much of today’s music is drowning in signal processing. When production techniques get in the way of the music, this is a problem.

MI: With rise of digital there are unlimited possibilities for musician to record music. Do you see this as a good or a bad thing?

REAL limits are what led to the most creative things we’ve done. Unfortunately creating fake limits is just another form of posing.

MI: Is there still need for mastering and quality mixing - producing?

BO: As I said above, the sales of new titles have been way way down for years. This means most mastering, mixing and production aren’t good enough to inspire sales. They may well NEED to be better than they ever have been before in order for music to become competitive again.

MI: There is kind of revival of tube gear. Is this just a trend or something to stay?

BO: I think it is a fad because most of the new stuff is lots more distorted than the original tube gear was.

MI: How do you see transistor vs tube equipment ?

BO: The old stuff had 20dB more headroom than garden variety transistor gear. Top of the line transistor gear sounds great as does the top of the line tube gear they don’t make anymore.
MI: Is SACD here to stay or do you see any new media? Perhaps high quality PCM or DSD downloads?

BO: I think high resolution audio files are the future. I’m not sure about downloads. Packaging can make a recording well worth buying. It just needs to be special.

MI: Many still think that 50's and 60's were golden years of music? Do you feel the same and if so why?

BO: During the ‘50s and ‘60s talented young performers could earn a living from performing. That is no longer the case and lots of talented people are simply doing other things than going out and learning how to become a great performer.

MI: You were very creative at Motown. What was the tricks and inovations?

BO: We were among the first to record backing tracks separately from vocals and we were among the first to employ electronic editing. The question is did this help advance music. With 20-20 hindsight I have to give it mixed reviews.

MI: Do you feel the fear of loosing some of original music recorded on analog tapes? Anybody actually care about this?

BO: Analog tape is holding up far better than anybody expected. What we’ve lost is the ability to manufacture first class analog tape for new recordings.

MI: How do you feel about premium mastered low pressing reissues? There are quite expensive and some of them will never reach digital media?

BO: Ultra high fidelity has always been a niche market.

MI: How much resolution is enough? Do we go to fast, to high to quickly?

BO: We’ve mostly gone from cheap production to cheaper production. I don’t see much point in expecting people to buy recordings that aren’t extraordinary recordings of extraordinary performances. That’s really basic but often seems forgotten.

MI: Any last thoughts ?

BO: I’m still pretty optimistic that the recording industry will and start making recordings that people treasure once again. Music has great power that isn’t being tapped much in this age of selling music as fashion.