Ellen Fitton on Mastering the Motown Catalog

Around the same time that Vlado Meller and Mark Santangelo came on board the Masterdisk roster in September 2011, another mastering engineer — perhaps more low-key but no less impressive — joined the team: Ellen Fitton.

Ellen has worked for some of the top studios in the New York area: Right Track, Atlantic, The Hit Factory, Sony Music Studios and most recently, Universal Mastering Studios-East. She learned so much about engineering in her early days at Atlantic Studios, working with legendary producer Arif Mardin, and his long time engineer Michael O’Reilly. Years later she would continue to refine her skills recording classical music, working with the late Bud Graham, and producers Steve Epstein and David Frost.

Complete Motown Singles Vol 6In her last position at Universal, Ellen’s main focus was the restoration of the famed Motown catalog. Her work on The Complete Motown Singles box set series gave her the rare opportunity to remaster every (yes every) A and B side ever released on the Motown label, from its beginnings in 1959, through its heyday, and ending with the hits of 1972. This work, which was released on the Hip-O Select label, won her a MOJO award in 2007. Ellen was also nominated for a Grammy for her work on Sony’s 100 Years Soundtrack for a Century box set.

I sat down with Ellen and asked her about her experience with Motown.

JB: Thanks for taking a moment to discuss your work on the Motown catalog. If you don’t mind, I’ll get right down to it: the sources! What did you use for these archival releases?

Photo of Ellen Fitton
Ellen Fitton
EF: The goal was always to get as close to the original master as possible: the original 2 track or mono masters. If they weren’t available — or if the master was damaged or missing, we’d use whatever the next best source was. But I had the original masters for most songs.

JB: And what was the condition of the tapes?

EF: They used Scotch tape, so overall they held up well. Though there were some years that fared better than others — primarily due to how much action the tapes saw. The main challenge was finding the correct master versions. Luckily I had a great team of Motown historians to work with, who understood the cataloging system of that era. Motown had an usual way of storing their masters. There wasn’t a dedicated artist on each reel like we have today — there would be many artists masters co-mingling on the same reel. Often multiple versions of a given song as well.

JB: That’s unusual!

EF: Definitely. They were very cost conscious, I think. Tape was expensive so they wanted to use every inch. When the master was done, one copy went to the plant, and another was kept in-house. These in-house masters (called DM’s for Duplicate Master) were very unusual configurations. Initially, they used a half-inch 3 track tape running at 7.5 ips. They would print on track 1 from top to bottom (different artists and songs), and then they would go back and do the same thing on tracks 2 and 3 until the reel was full. Imagine what the label on each reel looked like! I had never seen anything like this before.

The Complete Motown Singles Vol 1In later years, when they had stereo masters, I might find a mono master on track 1, and the stereo master on 2 and 3. Often the mono track would be at 7.5 ips but the stereo tracks would be at 15 ips. All on the same reel, it was pretty crazy.

JB: Did you do a lot of processing for the CD releases?

EF: No, very little. A primarily analog chain — with Sontec EQs, minimal compression — and then we’d do a 96 kHz conversion. Sometimes I would do a little digital work, but not always. And then we’d re-capture at 44.1khz.My goal was always to stay true to “the sound” of the period, using the technology to restore it so that it could be heard through today’s equipment the way it was meant to be back then.

JB: What was it like listening to every Motown single? Are you an expert now?

EF: It was like listening to history being made, it was amazing to see the progression. And, in terms of how to handle that catalog, I guess I’m probably one of the foremost experts at this point! (laughs)


Contact Ellen at ellen@masterdisk.com or, to book a session, contact booking manager Peter Cho at peter@masterdisk.com.
Read more about Ellen on her page at the Masterdisk site.
Check out the Motown box sets at Hip-O Select.
Reviews of the Complete Motown Singles sets at Pitchfork.