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Recreating the Reverb of Motown

Recreating the Reverb of Motown

How Universal Audio brought the attic reverb chambers above Detroit’s Hitsville U.S.A. back to life.

Detroit’s Motown Museum gave Universal Audio exclusive access to the attic reverb chambers in the legendary recording studio at Hitsville U.S.A. Here, we discuss the origins of these hallowed spaces and reveal the story of how the chambers, unused for 50 years, came to life as a UAD plug-in with Hitsville Reverb Chambers.

Hitsville U.S.A., located on West Grand Blvd. in Detroit, produced some of the greatest Soul and R&B recordings of the era.

Two converted houses at 2644 and 2648 W. Grand Blvd. in Detroit, Michigan once served as Hitsville U.S.A., the now legendary recording complex where Berry Gordy and Motown’s hit-making team of engineers and artists captured recordings that would shape the landscape of popular music.

Hitsville was both a recording studio and the headquarters of Motown Record Corporation, considered one of the most influential independent labels in America, producing hits for Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, and many more.

While Hitsville’s Studio A eventually closed its doors in 1972 — in favor of more modern facilities in Detroit, eventually fully relocating to Los Angeles — its lasting influence on Soul and R&B music had much to credit to the reverb chambers located in the studio’s attics. The unique character of these spaces has become a touchstone of the Motown Sound.

Today, Hitsville U.S.A. operates as the Motown Museum, preserving all aspects of Motown's early history. Incredibly, the recording studio and its two legendary attic chambers are still intact. Universal Audio’s Hitsville Reverb Chambers plug-in brings the chambers to life once again, capturing four of the most popular configurations and mic setups heard on Motown’s first wave of legendary recordings.

John Windt and UA staff capturing the sound of Hitsville U.S.A.

The Hitsville Reverb Chambers UAD plug-in.

The History of Reverb Chambers

Popularized in the 1940’s by UA founder Bill Putnam Sr., adding natural room reverb involves feeding an audio signal to speakers in a room specially designed to create reverberation. That sound is then re-captured with microphones and sent back to a mixer where it is blended with the original signal.

Hitsville’s earliest use of reverb involved the studio’s bathroom, an obvious inconvenience as Motown's business expanded. Eventually, both Hitsville attics would be converted into dedicated chambers.

The chambers in Hitsville U.S.A. were unused for 50 years.

Deep Dive & Research

To start, we had little information about how the chambers were originally used. The equipment was long gone, and there were no pictures of the setups for reference. On our first visit, we examined the chambers, took reference photographs, and recorded some balloon pops to begin understanding the decay time and the general character of the space.

“If you take that Motown reverb away, you’ve got nothing. It’s nice, but it ain’t Motown.”

— Jeff Beck

After extensive research and interviews with original Hitsville audio engineers Bob Ohlsson, Ken Sands, and Russ Terrana, we were able to get a rough understanding of the mic and speaker configurations.

This research led us to Mike McLean, Hitsville’s chief technical engineer, who generously shared his recollections.

We learned that Mike’s technical engineer, John Windt, was responsible for setting up and maintaining the chambers — his work was essential to their sound and crucial to getting the sound right for the Hitsville Chambers plug‑in.

Assembling the Vintage Gear

Over the years, Motown’s engineers explored different microphone and speaker combinations, as well as different mic placements in the chamber. To capture the most important eras of Motown’s reverb, we landed on four configurations, and sourced the original gear they used to achieve the sounds.

From rare Bozak, Bose, and Altec speakers, to indestructible JBL “foghorn” drivers and Electro-Voice tweeters, not to mention dozens of vintage mics — it took us over a year to find everything. We verified the equipment as historically correct, then tested and serviced it before beginning our work.

Recreating Two Legendary Reverbs

Chamber 1 / 2648

Built by Berry Gordy’s father “Pop” Gordy, 2648 was the first chamber constructed at Hitsville. It was fashioned without technical knowledge, and the construction was guided largely by the limits of the attic space itself.

Deemed an “echo chamber” by Hitsville staff due to its parallel surfaces and flutter, the space is still rich and reverberant, with natural presence and a bright decay.

The unusual setup used in this room, with drivers and mics pointing directly at the corners, offers a sound that is unmistakably “Motown”. The chamber has no exterior isolation other than the attic itself, and so it was not uncommon to hear the 2648 chamber in the surrounding neighborhood.

"The 2648 chamber was one accident after another, and a couple of screw-ups that ended up magical." - John Windt, Hitsville’s original technical engineer.

Chamber 2 / 2644

Designed by Motown engineer Mike McLean, this chamber offers a near textbook-perfect reverb. “We built a much more sophisticated chamber with non-parallel surfaces,” says McLean. “It was thicker, with harder walls, and beautifully polished and varnished plaster.”

Initially, the chamber in 2644 was in a constant state of change, as the engineers tried to replicate the sound of the beloved 2648 chamber. For a time, it was equipped with multiple microphone and speaker options, but eventually the staff settled on a simple setup that emphasized the natural reverb of the chamber.

2644’s “textbook-perfect” reverb is now available as a UAD plug-in with Hitsville Reverb Chambers.

Nights At The Museum

We spent our first few hours setting up a control room and lab benches. We ran speaker cables and snakes to both chambers and staged the equipment carefully, guided by John's expertise. With an incredible memory of the setups, he knew exactly where to place each piece of gear.

Hitsville alumnus John Windt directs the chamber setups.

During our test recordings, we discovered that the 2648 chamber offered little isolation from the outside world. We drywalled and sealed off the front attic windows and stuffed insulation in crevices. By sealing off the street-facing door with spray foam, we finally achieved acceptable isolation for our recordings, with the exception of the occasional car horn, alarm, or loud motorcycle.

The 2644 chamber had superior construction, and thus fewer issues with ambient noise. And we discovered that the bustling energy from the city began to fade around 10 PM, so this is when we made most of our final recordings.

After running gain sweeps, we loaded the multitrack of “Ain't No Mountain High Enough,” and started playback with Marvin and Tammi's solo vocals. The team was moved to tears when we heard the chamber come to life again for the first time in over 50 years, sounding just as it did on the record, with the same engineer who oversaw the original setup.

A moment of joy hearing the first playback from the chamber in 50 years.

Preserving History for the Next Generation

Recreating the magic in the attic chambers above Hitsville U.S.A. was pure joy for the Universal Audio team. We leveraged all of our experience in capturing world-class plug-in emulations, guided by the expertise of the original Motown engineers who designed the spaces.

Along with these chambers, we have recreated even more of the custom gear used on Motown’s legendary recordings. Be sure to explore Hitsville EQ Collection, Fairchild Tube Limiter Collection, Pultec EQ Collection, and EMT 140 Plate Reverb, all of which are available to demo for free at the link below.

Explore UAD Plug-Ins

— Will Shanks

In fond memory of Mike McLean and Ken Sands, who passed during the making of Hitsville Chambers. Our deepest gratitude to Robin Terry and the late Esther Gordy and for their dedication in preserving Hitsville U.S.A. as the Motown Museum. Be sure to support their community!

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