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Capturing the Sound of a Motown Classic

Capturing the Sound of a Motown Classic

Learn how to recreate the magical sound of Hitsville U.S.A. with UA Sphere modeling mics, Apollo, and UAD plug‑ins.

From the soulful performance to the legendary Motown sonics, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles' “The Tracks of My Tears” is a banger through and through. Here, Fab Dupont (David Crosby, Gregory Porter, Shakira) tells the story of how he and the incomparable Louis Cato — bandleader of CBS's The Late Show — re-recorded this classic track, with the goal of nailing the soulful Motown vibe at Dupont's Flux Studios in NYC.

Louis Cato performs a Motown classic.

For this track, we wanted to do a live "all-Apollo interface" session with the UA Sphere Modeling Microphones, yet try to keep it as "vintage" as possible. We used two Apollo x8p interfaces and 12 channels total, ten of which were for five Sphere microphones using two channels each, letting me tweak mic type, polar pattern, and other microphone characteristics, even after tracking.

Guitar and bass were each recorded direct like in the Motown days. I used the built-in Apollo Hi-Z inputs for that. The organ was the UA Waterfall B3 Organ plug-in via MIDI controller. Louis sang and played guitar live with the band, while tucked in our vocal booth.

The only overdubs were one pass of tambourine by Louis, and one pass of horns doubling themselves tracked from 4' away.

Legendary producer and former Motown engineer Dave Isaac (Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross) told me that he used that technique with small horn sections back in his Motown days. It really fattens them up and adds oomph. It took five minutes and it was worth it.

Learn more about the Motown sound ›

“We did six takes, the keeper was take four,” recalls Dupont. “Louis called it within one second of the guitar sustain dying down."

Recording with the UA Sphere Microphone Modeling System

We had two UA Sphere DLX modeling mics on the drums — one on the kick and one for the overhead. And then one UA Sphere mic per horn, and one for the lead vocal.

We tracked everything through the Sphere BP-67 model from the Bill Putnam Mic Collection plug-in, which is an emulation of a very nice Neumann U67. That's what the musicians heard in realtime in their headphones from LUNA Recording System.

I didn't commit to the mic sound, and instead used the UA Sphere plug-in to audition different mic types and polar patterns afterward at the mixing stage.

The UA Sphere DLX features 38 models of classic ribbon, condenser, and dynamic mics.

Mixing Using the UA Sphere Microphone Plug‑In

At mixtime I chose different mic models to get as close to the original '60s vibe as possible. First, I chose the RB-77DX — based on the classic RCA ribbon mic — for the kick drum because that was what legendary Motown engineer Bob Ohlson told me they used. It got just the right amount of thud but kept that "close yet far" sound.

For the drum overhead I used the BP-67 model in figure 8. The 67 was also an Ohlson recommendation for historic accuracy.

“The UA Sphere mic modeling system allows me to be up and running fast, without having to settle on mic and pattern choices.”

— Fab Dupont

My mic pattern choice helped keep the horns out of the drums which allowed me to push the drums to the left of the stereo field without ruining the horn sound.

I also used a little bit of the axis and proximity controls on the Sphere plug-in to push back and 'blur' the drums for a more vintage tone.

The Bill Putnam Mic Collection UAD plug-in gives Sphere owners the same classic mic sounds used to record Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, and many more.

On the horns I used the BP-44 model in omni. It's the perfect mic for horns and it kept the drums out almost completely, even in omni. Omni felt better than the mic accurate figure 8, an unexpected benefit of the UA Sphere plug‑in.

The separation is pretty wild, especially since the horns were a couple of feet away from the mics and a couple of feet away from the drums themselves. I also played with proximity and off axis effects to blur everything out.

For Louis' lead vocal, I auditioned many models during the mix, but went back to the BP‑67. I liked that the figure 8 kept much of the undesirable "vocal booth sound" in check.

Adding Vintage Ambience with Hitsville Reverb Chambers

I set up a single Hitsville Reverb Chambers plug‑in on a send for the entire track. Everything goes to it except the bass.

I used the plug‑in's default preset, but I pushed the virtual mics back and darkened it a bit with the built‑in controls. The Hitsville Chamber basically makes the track. It's fun to mute that single reverb return and hear the whole mix fall apart.

Hitsville Reverb Chambers gives you the sound of the attic reverb chambers that shaped the Motown Sound.

Polishing the Final Mix with UAD Plug-Ins

Everything was tracked and mixed using LUNA Recording System. I used almost no post-recording processing, except for the mic modeling plugs on the Sphere LX and DLX mics.

I did use the Ampex® ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder plug-in on every track to get the tape tone. Without it, the tracks did not feel quite right.

I also used a Studer A800 Tape Recorder plug-in on the lead vocal instead of the Ampex ATR — it helped differentiate it from the instrumental track more.

The only tracks with EQ are the lead vocal, where I used the Hitsville EQ Collection plug-in to pull 1db @ 800Hz and the master bus where I pulled 1dB @ 50Hz and 320Hz. That's it.

For compression, I used a UAD Fairchild 660 on the guitar and also on the horn group to further mellow out and tame those two elements.

There is also a Fairchild® 670 compressor on the vocal and on the master for actual leveling purposes and a little bit of period accurate tone.

After listening to some reference tracks from Motown sessions of that era, I realized our version was still a little on the clean side. So I added the UA 610-A Tube Preamp & EQ plug-in to the master bus to dirty things up with some transformer and tube grit.

The only true departure from the vintage spirit is the Precision Limiter plug-in because, you know, it's 2023 and I had to bring the level up a bit!

— Fab Dupont

Build Your Own Mix in LUNA

Are you an Apollo interface owner? You can download and explore this incredible session and more for free! Get signal chains, routing, and plug‑in choices, then tweak and build your own mix to see how it stacks up.

Simply download and open LUNA, then go to the discover tab to download the file and get started.

Download LUNA

Song Credits:

  • Recorded and mixed by Fab Dupont
  • Arrangement by Louis Cato
  • Mastered by Paul Blakemore

The Band:

  • Louis Cato: Vocals & Guitar
  • Joe Saylor: Drums
  • Fima Ephron: Bass
  • James Casey: Tenor Sax
  • Alphonso Horne: Trumpet
  • Corey Bernhard: Organ