Ellen Fitton on Working with Arif Mardin and Becoming a Mastering Engineer

One of the benefits of having a music career in New York City is that you get to meet and work with some incredible people. Take mastering engineer Ellen Fitton.

Photo of Arif Mardin by Alan Light
Arif Mardin
When Ellen started out after college, her first stop was Atlantic Records, working as the assistant of the famous producer Arif Mardin. Mardin started out at Atlantic as Neshui Ertegun’s assistant (how’s that for lineage for you?) in 1963. Over the years he produced records for Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Willie Nelson, The Modern Jazz Quartet, and Queen among many, many others.

Ellen told me a little about her early experiences in the music business with Mardin and how she became a mastering engineer.

James: Hi Ellen, thanks for taking some time out for the blog. So when were you Arif Mardin’s assistant?

Ellen: 1985, at Atlantic Records, which was basically my first big gig. I was there for a couple of years, working for Arif and his engineer Michael O’Reilly. He was responsible for the Rascals and the Bee Gees and then Chaka Kahn. Many great artists from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

James: What was he like at the point you were working for him?

Ellen: He was the consummate old world gentleman. He must have been in his 50s. He was a balding guy with reading glasses, still with the button down shirt and a tie a lot of the time; but he’s totally hip. And he knows about every artist who’s coming and going and everything that’s happening at the time. You think when people get to a certain age they sort of “age out’ of popular music. But Arif was not only current — he was cutting edge. People like the Stones were coming to him and saying “Would you do this track with us?” because he was able to know what the next thing was going to be. It was great watching him work, and watching him put together a record. I especially enjoyed learning to edit from him.

James: By observing or was it more hands-on?

Photo of Ellen Fitton
Ellen Fitton
Ellen: At that point, by observing. Because we were still cutting tape. Towards the end, yeah, I would cut. But watching him at the reels I learned things like you don’t necessarily want to cut on the kick or downbeat. Cut on the snare — you know, knowing where to cut. It’s not where people would expect. You do it where it will be less noticed. It was really interesting the way he would edit together something… make a song…

James: That’s interesting — intuitively you would think that you would edit on the “1”

Ellen: Yes on the downbeat. That’s where everybody wants to hear the edit. But almost always the editing is somewhere else.

James: What was your role at that time?

Ellen: Second engineer. So I was a tape-op, setting up the mics, recalling mixes — because there was no total recall at that point in time. All the note taking. I remember vividly when I screwed up a punch in on a Chaka Kahn session. And it was weeks before he let me sit behind the remote control of the machine after that. It was one of those things where I was really really tired — like 14, 16 hour days. And then here’s this guy — at that age — who’s tireless. I’m ready to drop and I’m a kid but he had just boundless energy. When you work for someone as long as I had worked with Arif, all I would need to punch in would be a nod of his head. He didn’t want the artist to know necessarily when we were punching in and out — he just wanted them to sing and he would take the bits that he needed. This one day I was really tired and I thought he was going to nod, and cue me in, but he didn’t, and I punched in. And of course… “she’ll never sing that note again!” (Laughs) As it turned out, we ended up getting something better. But he didn’t let me forget that for a while. Which is a lesson learned. It’s part of the process.

James: When and why did you make the transition from recording to mastering engineer?

Ellen: It was not a conscious decision. In the late 80’s as I was transition from an assistant to engineer, the studio business was changing. Studios where closing left and right. After Atlantic was closed down, I was working as an independent engineer on pop projects at various studios. One day a friend mentioned to me that Sony Classical was looking for someone with recording chops who could also read an orchestral score. I had never considered my career going in that direction, but thought I would check it out. I was chosen for the gig and really enjoyed the work. In between recording dates and post production for each release, I would do reissue work for the classical label as well. When the classical recording work began to slow down, I began doing more reissues, classical at first, but then when Sony realized I had pop experience I began doing pop reissues as well. The frontline work just naturally followed, and one day I realized… I was a mastering engineer.

Read more about Ellen Fitton at the Masterdisk site.
To book Ellen for your next project contact Peter Cho at peter@masterdisk.com.

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.