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The Real James Jamerson Amp

Discussion in 'Amps and Cabs [BG]' started by -=DanAtkinson=-, Feb 13, 2012.

  1. So this morning I decided to get to the bottom of what Jamerson used at Studio A to get that distinctive, fat, dirty tone. I've heard 2 different stories over the years: that he used his Ampeg B-15 in studio, or that he plugged directly into the mixing board. This is the most common story. But of course this got me thinking - exactly what brand board did he plug into?

    Well I just came across this gem of a thread that explains it all in detail: Soulful Detroit Forum

    There are posts by Bob Babbitt and engineers that actually worked at Studio A, including Mike McLean who built the funky 5-channel tube amplifier/DI that the guitars and bass were plugged into. The speaker in the amp was not mic'd. It was only there to allow the musicians to hear what they played. Everything on tape was the direct signal from that device.


    "We decided that five such preamp channels (five guitars) would be sufficient to meet all practical needs.

    In addition, a monitor mixer was required to mix together the five preamp outputs so that the resulting modulation could be fed to a power amplifier and speaker so that the musicians could hear themselves.

    The original monitor system that was in use at Motown when I arrived in 1961 consisted of two Altec Lansing type 605-A "Duplex" coaxial speakers which were a fifteen inch low frequency unit with a separate compression driver with a 4 by 2 multicell horn mounted in the center. These speakers were capable of very high sound levels without being damaged.

    We had replaced these speakers with other units that were supposed to be an improvement, and we had the two of them sitting in the store room. The musician's guitar monitor seemed like an ideal application for one of these speakers. Further we had a lovely McIntosh type MC-30 mono 30 Watt power amplifier sitting in the store room.

    The combination of this amplifier and speaker promised to provide very reliable and appropriate monitoring for the musician. This proved to be true in practice. We built an infinite baffle (sealed box) cabinet for the 605-A, which would take the place of all the old clunker, humming, Fender amplifiers that the musicians used to drag in. Space was at a premium in the old Hitsville studio, and elimination of all those Fender amps and the microphones, with stands, to pick up the sound, was a big advantage.

    At first, the tendency was to think in terms of installing the five preamps in the control room, and possibly having them equipped with variable gain controls to that the recording engineer could adjust for correct line output level. I didn't like this because gain pots tend to get noisy, and most important of all, it is difficult to maintain the maximum dynamic range in a preamp which must accommodate a wide range of gain. I liked the idea of a fixed gain preamp that was designed for maximum performance at that gain.

    The thought occurred to me that it would be hip to make the setting of the preamp output level the responsibility of the musician. If the preamp gain was sufficient to allow a moderate setting loss on the volume control on the musical instrument, then it would be ideal to simply have the musician set this instrument volume control to provide the correct line level at the preamp output. All that was needed was a VU meter in the studio so that the musician would know when the level was correct. The preamp was designed with fixed gain.

    The second step was for the musician to adjust the mixer pot on the little five-channel monitor mixer so that his volume level was comfortable over the Altec 605-A speaker.

    We mounted five beautiful 3.5 inch rectangular Triplett VU meters, five rotary monitor mixer pots, and five quarter inch input jacks for the guitar cables, on a seven inch high rack panel, and built the five vacuum-tube preamps on a Bud aluminum chassis mounted directly behind the panel.

    The preamps were designed to provide first class professional performance specifications, in accordance with the discussion above. In practice, the recording engineer could forget all about the guitars (except, of course, for mixing them.) He automatically had a perfect line level to patch into his console, because the musician had adjusted the level right at his guitar, using his VU meter. The musicians loved the sound of that McIntosh/Altec combination, and could set the speaker volume to suit their requirements very easily. The entire system was as reliable as the tide, and worked beautifully. Everybody loved it.

    I feel that it worked out very well to assign the responsibility for the level control to the musician. As far as I know, we never had any problems with improper levels. I got the feeling that it made the musician feel good to be responsible for this function.

    Considering the horrors that could happen when a musician turned down his instrument volume control, while at the same time the recording engineer was fooling around jacking up the gain on a variable gain preamp: It seems to me that this design approach was a minor "stroke of genius." (If you don't mind me saying so.)

    If only everything I did at Motown had made as much sense as this did!"

    - Mike McLean
    sk8, Oddly, davidprice and 11 others like this.
  2. So much for the Ampeg "tone" Jamerson had lol.
    StayLow and Jeff O'Connor like this.
  3. christw

    christw Get low!

    May 11, 2008
    Dayton OH
    I want to be Tesla (tinkerer at Dayton Amp Co)
    I've seen that before... I think I've seen mentioned and quoted in one or two Jamerson threads somewhere on TB. Either way, suuuper cool!
  4. jnewmark

    jnewmark Just wanna play the groove. Supporting Member

    Aug 31, 2006
    Stax 1966
    Play guitar.
    I think it's because the B15N sounds so much like the Motown-Jamerson sound , and that he did ( supposedly ) use one live, Ampeg was always connected to him. I did get to see him play once in a Motown review in the '60's, and he was using a Kustom 215 tuck'n roll. The stuff about him going into the board is old news.
  5. Gee, thanks. :eyebrow:

    Actually, that's exactly the problem. The notion that he went directly into the board is a myth. He used the "Mike McLean 5-channel tube amp/DI" gadget. That's what gave him the nice dirty breakup on the initial attack of his notes.

    Maybe this gadget has been discussed here on TB extensively, but it was news to me.
  6. Bitterdale

    Bitterdale Natural Born Lurker

    Dec 4, 2010
    Ocala, FL
    Honestly for every poster who claims "old news" there are probably dozens who haven't heard it before.

    Remember, there are new members every day.

    Thanks for the info.
    TB24, greengoblin, Oddly and 15 others like this.
  7. Zoa


    Dec 28, 2009
    The notion that he went into a tube preamp has been common knowledge around here for a while, I believe most of us got it from Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
    I didn't know the specifics, though, thanks for posting. Very interesting.

    I was also under the impression that he used the B15 on recordings prior to 1964, as well as non-Hitsville sessions. Did they address that?
  8. Matthijs


    Jul 3, 2006
    So in this system all the "guitars" were playing with a partially rolled down volume on the instrument?

    That would result in definite coloration. It obviously worked out fine for that Motown sound (insert understatement smiley here), but isn't it a strange choice to make for an engineer? Were studio grade gain pot's that noisy back then for them to prefer the volume control on the instrument?
  9. fraublugher


    Nov 19, 2004
    ottawa, ontario, canada
    music school retailer
    Well that won't fit on my pedalboard!:)

    So I guess a lot of us would wan't to know which pre ('s) could emulate the Mike Mclean
    behemoth for recording or other.
  10. brandau


    Jan 30, 2008
    So, if I understand... the guitars we're recorded direct thru the Mclean Preamp as well. Thats interesting
  11. OldogNewTrick


    Dec 28, 2004
    Germany, EU
    Cool info - Maybe old news to some, 'tis new news to me, so thanks ! :)
    alaskaleftybass likes this.
  12. beans-on-toast

    beans-on-toast Supporting Member

    Aug 7, 2008
    It is also important to note that this preamp was the first stage in the signal chain. The preamp fed into the McIntosh power amp for monitoring in the studio while recording. It wasn't just this signal that got printed to tape for the final master.

    Reports also indicate that a Fairchild limiter and a Pultec EQ were part of Jamerson's sound. Then there was the pre-amp in the mixing board. If you look at pictures of the studio, there were several pieces of outboard gear in the racks.

    The pre-amp is a piece of the story but the total picture is not clear. It is amazing that after all these years, there isn't a definitive description that everyone can agree on, of what was used when and where in the signal chain for such an important piece of history.
    Atshen likes this.
  13. coreyfyfe

    coreyfyfe Supporting Member

    Nov 19, 2007
    boston, ma
    That's just it though, it's still "direct" to the board. People may tend to think direct to board means that the single is a straight line in and unprocessed, but that's hardly the case. Most studios have a ton of rack gear that the signal is run through, compressors, pre-amps, etc, and much of it is tube - especially back then. McLean's tube DI was exactly this, a tube DI/pre-amp to go into the board.
    bobyoung53 likes this.
  14. AltGrendel

    AltGrendel Squire Jag SS fan. Supporting Member

    May 21, 2009
    Mid-Atlantic USA.
    Well, I found it interesting.
    Phillip B, Seth Miller and SBsoundguy like this.
  15. jnewmark

    jnewmark Just wanna play the groove. Supporting Member

    Aug 31, 2006
    Stax 1966
    Play guitar.
    +1 , and what I actually meant by " going into the board" .
  16. Febs

    Febs Supporting Member

    May 7, 2007
    Philadelphia, PA
    Here's a post I made a couple of weeks ago in another thread, with a link to a thread from Bob Babbitt's forum. I haven't had a chance to read your link in detail yet, Dan, so I apologize if this is redundant.

  17. I never knew so much tone came from a space heater.
    greengoblin, kcole4001 and sk8 like this.
  18. TheRealKong


    Mar 17, 2011
    Thanks for this information! Real interesting.

    But I think, the most of James Jamersons sound came from his bass guitar and his finger(s).

    Jamerson soundet alway like Jamerson, no matter what amp or preamp he used.
    alaskaleftybass likes this.
  19. billfitzmaurice

    billfitzmaurice Commercial User

    Sep 15, 2004
    New Hampshire
    Owner, Bill Fitzmaurice Loudspeaker Design
    The boards of the early 1960s bore no resemblance to those of today. True recording boards only existed as custom made items; what most studios used were boards originally intended for radio broadcast. The reason for a rig like the McLean 5 channel DI was that boards didn't have enough channels to go around. Basically it was a sub-mixer, and using it was the equivalent of going direct; ie., no speaker, no mic.
  20. sevdog

    sevdog Supporting Member

    Mar 2, 2008
    Well, I heard the Beatles before they played Ed Sullivan and was listening to Nirvana when Kurt still lived in Aberdeen:smug:

    ...Cool info.