An Evening With Phil Ramone - EMusician

An Evening With Phil Ramone

Setting out to put in perspective veteran producer-engineer Phil Ramone’s achievements in the music industry is, frankly, an impossible task. There’s an almost ludicrous number of technical innovations that he’s brought to the industry — including his pioneering work in fostering the solid-state console renaissance, optimizing audio for the very first CD releases for CD (Billy Joel’s 52nd Street) . . . not to mention his advances in making recording from multiple locations via fiber optical cable, which is now a standard practice. It’s just the plain truth: Without Phil Ramone we all would be a bit further back in the recording game, if not downright Paleozoic.Starting as a violin prodigy in his native South Africa, Ramone went on to forge a five-decade career that saw him earn 13 Grammys (and an Emmy) for his work with the varied likes of Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Bono
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There’s an almost ludicrous number of technical innovations that he’s brought to the industry — including his pioneering work in fostering the solid-state console renaissance, optimizing audio for the very first CD releases for CD (Billy Joel’s 52nd Street) . . . not to mention his advances in making recording from multiple locations via fiber optical cable, which is now a standard practice. It’s just the plain truth: Without Phil Ramone we all would be a bit further back in the recording game, if not downright Paleozoic.

Starting as a violin prodigy in his native South Africa, Ramone went on to forge a five-decade career that saw him earn 13 Grammys (and an Emmy) for his work with the varied likes of Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Bono, Ray Charles, Luciano Pavarotti, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel, Elton John, Quincy Jones, Madonna, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Sting, and Barbra Streisand. With such a prolific career, it’s no wonder that a staggering amount of stories, anecdotes, and rumors abound at the mere mention of his name. Did the Ramones really name themselves in honor of him? Is it true that 456 tape is his sole means of sustenance? Does he really only sleep 45 minutes a week, and does he set levels with a divining rod?

Well thankfully for you, Mr. Ramone took the time to sit down with EQ for a candid interview wherein he dispels the myths, explains the magic surrounding some of the greatest recordings in history, and tells how he treats the stage as the studio, and the studio as the stage. And you won’t even have to take notes, as we’ve all written it down for you in...

EQ: Can you remember a particular recording you heard early on that intrigued you?

Phil Ramone: Well, in the ’50s there was a record by Elsa Popping and Her Pixieland Band — an obviously humorous record made in Paris using several mono tape machines. As a child I used to sit and conduct these records in my room — Michel Legrand, Billy May, Sinatra — and somebody had bought the Elsa Popping record for me. I played it for one of my kids in the car the other day, and it’s beautiful, it’s humorous, it’s got all kinds of sounds, most of it all mono. Anyhow, once I heard that I realized that there was so much to be done [with recording].

EQ: How was A&R Recording in New York established?

PR: I was working as an assistant, learning my way at a demo studio called JAC Recording on West 58th Street — and I knew the guy who was one of the owners, and he saw me perform. I needed to make some demos — I was fascinated with playing jazz fiddle — and I said, “I don’t want to play this thing without looking at a sort of an amplified approach,” because the guy who really influenced me a lot at the time was Les Paul.

As I grew up, and I really get into this, I started to chase down all the things that Stééphane Grappelli, and other jazz fiddlers, had done. And I thought that if you overdubbed it . . . I started to get interested in ways in which this would work. There was a guy named Harry Lukovsky who was a fiddler in New York, a concertmaster, who also had a fascination with taking down great jazz solos, and performing them in multiple-track with violin and viola. That just took me away down the road, and I said, “I gotta do this.”

So my deal with working for a studio was to learn engineering, learn to cut discs, learn to play and record background strings in five minutes. The average was 15 minutes; the professionals would do the multiple guitars or piano, bass, drums, and a vocal in that time. This showed me how fast, how good you had to play to make a record then, because people were presenting these recording opportunities to other, more famous artists. This made me impatient; in two years I said, “I have to have a bigger room.” I had been invited to start to join this elite group of violinists, and that was an amazing move up for me. Though engineers that were tracking us would say, “Isn’t he working in the studio, too?” And I said, “Yeah, but I’m just learning.” “Well, don’t steal our tricks,” they would say [laughs].

It finally ended with me getting a room with one of the partners from JAC, and an old friend/customer of mine. Eventually, Jack Arnold, who was the A of A&R, had some real health problems so Jack’s son took over and we got some loans from a small bank in Long Island. We plowed with some very fine engineers who really did it all, from soldering to miking, and who knew how to really work with fine musicians. These were Bill Schwartzs and Tom Dowds — great engineers who really serviced, really took care of the musicians they recorded.

“There is a chemistry when three or four players play together five days a week, on a regular basis — and they are the ones that made heroes out of engineers like me.”

EQ: Were there any union hassles with your being both an engineer and musician?

PR: Not really. As an engineer, I couldn’t touch a dial in most of the RCAs or Columbias of the world; but in the independents there weren’t really any rules. As far as being a musician, I had to be in the union, and I had to audition when I was about 10. It’s not as hard to get in now, but in those days you really had to play.

EQ: Even then you were being spoken of as an innovator in recording technology. What were some of the technical limitations of the day you thought needed particular attention?

PR: I think the first was noticed in the early ’60s, being asked to redesign a performance area in an armory for Jack Kennedy’s inauguration. I was young and I worked in aggressive ways, which I think other people were worried about. But, spending the money carefully, we turned this place into a huge theater, having JBL, Altec, and some other companies donate the equipment so we could really work on sound rather than using this big, cavernous hole with an announcing mic that sounded like it came from a fight arena.

I based everything on the idea that people deserved to hear things in high quality. I was asked to do the Getz-Gilberto album, and I revised the recording machine at our Studio 2 so it would be quieter, by the biasing, working at much lower levels, and being careful of any peaks. I ran it at 30 ips, which was not commonplace at that time, and then mastered right from the 3-track. At first there was no mix. This was such gentle music anyway, but I was absolutely looking for a better solution to analog noise, even though the studio was fairly quiet . . . we didn’t have enough money to turn the air conditioning on, anyhow [laughs].

EQ: Those low-key, tranquil sambas must have required you to pay even more attention to the noise levels.

PR: Most definitely. I was learning from great engineers, like Bill Putnam, about this. When I was a beginner, I was listening to what they did to the floors, what they did to the sidewalls, how they mixed. Here were some great mixes, with a much more limited amount of inputs, and I learned that it was all in how you placed the mic, and how the leakage worked for you. When you understand that in comparison to what we do today, where there’s almost a mic for every string. . . .

“Separating to the point where one can’t hear the other just fails to work.”

You know, I am a multiple-mic guy, but I also do certain things based on what I hear in the room. If you have leakage, you gotta make that work for you rather than just putting up another mic.

EQ: I hear engineers talking more often these days about getting back to the old ways of recording, to achieve, for example, the particular feel you’d get when recording the bass bleeding into the drums. That sound is hard to reproduce if you’re recording everything separately.

PR: You know, obviously, music was meant to be played together, and I don’t want to sound like an old ensemble guy, but there is a chemistry when three or four players play together five days a week, on a regular basis — and they are the ones that made heroes out of engineers like me at the time. Because I understood it; I believed in placing the instruments so they actually could hear each other better, because the earphones were a disaster back then.

Separating to the point where one can’t hear the other just fails to work, in my eyes. I once worked on a session years ago with Quincy Jones, and he had hired a new studio engineer. I watched this drummer hold his right hand so that he wouldn’t play anything but the hi-hat. Then he did nothing but a tom-tom. Each tom-tom was an overdub, with, you know, the overhead mics, and then bfffppttt! The poor guy . . . he looked like there were rubber straps holding down the other hand. And when he was finished, I said, “You probably just invented the sample drum.”

EQ: You were the first to use a solid state console for recording and mastering. Tell us a bit about that.

PR: Years before solid state, manufacturers were making consoles that were all tube, from the preamps to the line ins. Then when Langevin and a few others started to move towards solid state technology, I was looking to see if we could do a complete solid state console, top to bottom, while including the Scully tape machine. Others were sitting with ideas, but they hadn’t really finished anything, when a client came along and said, “What would make this record different?”

Now that doesn’t mean, in the beginning, we jumped out in the fray, didn’t use tube amplifiers; but then I had to switch to solid state, too, and it was the same discussion heard 10 years later, when cold digital supposedly became superior to analog. It’s the same argument. And you’ll still have the person today who says, “I like my tube guitar amps.” But we were out to prove that the arrival of the technology was here, and fortunately we had a platform: Solid State Records and its founder decided to try this route, and United Artists, the distributor, believed that what we had was something different and unusual.

“Every new invention just adds another dimension to the same thing that you never wanted to have to deal with again.”

EQ: Right off the bat, though, was solid state far quieter?

PR: It was reputed to be. And there were times like when you had 20 supposedly quiet pres and amps, it was thought to be quieter. But they could hiss and do things that . . . you know, every new invention just adds another dimension to the same thing that you never wanted to have to deal with again [laughs].

EQ: As someone who’s been on the front lines for the ushering in of so much of our modern recording technologies, and who has witnessed the return to favor of many of the older analog-based means of recording, do you have anything to say about the relative quality of analog vs. digital?

PR: In the beginning, we all were looking for a quieter, better recording, with a larger canvas to paint on. And it’s not been that long that we’ve had digital options. How many years? Twenty-five years? It’s like giving me a painting: Do you prefer to use a paintbrush or do you want to use some kind of canvas with acrylics? If you have a chance to paint in the audio world, variables that you’ve always wanted to use, and it sounds great, then who cares how you do it? Do it.

EQ: With the various artists you’ve worked with, do you have any kind of template from which you’ll begin a project?

PR: I start by examining how a person works, and I always assume the level of impatience is rather high. It’s easy for me to put up a lot of mics, because I know all those techniques so well and I’m comfortable with it, but I trust the engineers I work with to handle all that initially. But, then again, I work on a much more immediate basis, and I’m not going to sit there and try three mics and waste an hour and a half when the first choice might well be the best when you are in danger of missing the performance.

But I’ll always have something that feels like it would be a pretty good choice for a microphone — just because it’s made by Neumann or Telefunken in 1950-something and it’s called a U47 or U67 [laughs]. Grab whatever may be a favorite — put it up, and then try other things if need be. Saying that, I’ll always try new techniques if what I hear is not what I hear when I’m standing right next to you.

I do sit and talk with artists for quite a while before we make a record, and that’s a pretty good clue; you can suss out what doesn’t work for them, that hasn’t worked in other places, good and bad experiences with other people they’ve worked with. So when you start your first day, at least you know what doesn’t work for them.

“The first choice might well be the best when you are in
danger of missing the performance.”

EQ: You said you have mics that are old favorites, so are you like Bruce Swedien, who travels the world with a suitcase full of trusted mics?

PR: I don’t travel with them now as much as I used to. I found that the rarity nowadays is not to have good mics where you’re working. But it’s certainly better to have your own than to rent. Rentals can be a good thing, but they can also be a very dangerous thing. Who had it last, y’know?

EQ: So when you’re talking with the artists during pre-production meetings, are you actually studying the register and grain of their voice so that you’ll have a better idea as to what mic will potentially suit the artist’s particular voice?

PR: Yeah, there’s no reason not to. Sometimes I’ll get an artist who’ll say, “No, no, I must sing into this AKG or this Neumann or I can’t make the record.” You know, you don’t have to pamper them, you can certainly say, “Let’s start from there.” And when they audition a mic, you check it yourself after it’s been tracked and say, “What do you think of this?” “Oh. I’ve never heard me like that.” “Well, I just thought I’d throw it in.” You know, I wear black a lot of the time, and if somebody put on a red sweater I’d go, “Nah.” But if it’s done right, somebody’s saying, “A dash of color doesn’t hurt you, it’s okay,” why not examine the possibilities. So maybe you do go with a colorful preamp because their voice has huge range and other kind of possible natural sources of distortion. . . .

EQ: So you wouldn’t assume that a standard setup would suit Pavarotti, Sinatra, and Dylan.

PR: I wouldn’t. And those are good examples — they’re completely opposite singers, and how would you want to handle that? What kind of diaphragm on the mic would you think would serve them? If you’ve done your homework and experimented in your upbringing, you kind of get to know. But you never stop experimenting. I’m always looking for something more warm and attractive sound-wise than we’ve ever heard. It exists.

“I’m always looking for something more warm and attractive
sound-wise than we’ve ever heard. It exists.”

EQ: What kind of mics did you use on your recent Duets project with Tony Bennett?

PR: In that case I used an Audio-Technica 4047 for the guests, and an Audio-Technica 5400 hand-held mic in case anybody felt more comfortable with that; and we used a customized PA system that travels with Tony’s sound guy, so the environment was like a small nightclub, complete with a bit of the light rig being brought in from what they used on stage.

EQ: What was your thinking when you selected the 4047?

PR: His engineer, who happens to be his son, Dave Bennett, and I had long discussions, and said, “We can’t do this twice; we’re gonna have to pick.” We put up the Neumann tube M-149; we tried a couple of pairs next to each other, and when the day arose, we both agreed that these Audio-Technica 4047s had the purest depth of field, and you could move off and on them and not lose presence. There are a lot of wonderful mics, but if you don’t stay within the exact parameters . . . these people are singing duets to each other, and they’re both anxious to please, and Tony’s not doing a large amount of takes either. He’s extremely prepared.

EQ: Aren’t there some major difficulties that arise when recording with hand-held mics? Handling noise and such? I heard you used them exclusively with Sinatra on his Duets I and II, and he sounded great. . . .

PR: Sure there are, but try to convince Sinatra after two long nights of him being uncomfortable working with a boom mounted mic. I told him we’d find something he could hold that would still sound good. His road manager is a close friend of mine, Hank Catania, and I said, “Well, why don’t we duplicate what he does on the road and maybe we can get him comfortable?” He hadn’t been in the studio in 10 years! And we used a wireless mic, which — most people would say that I’m out of my mind — but I wanted to get him started, get the engine going. And all of his vocals on those two albums, Duets I and II, were actually done with hand-held mics.

EQ: It blows my mind. When that word got out, you must have gotten your share of correspondence from people looking for advice for hand-held vocal miking?

PR: On those Sinatra sessions, I went to Ireland, and Bono was gonna sing a duet. And Bono said, “Well, tell me what Sinatra did,” and I set it up, not quite the same, but we put big speakers up in front of him. He jumped around on the couch, performed, and I told him the big secret was just to keep your thumb out of the way. There are certain habits artists take from the stage into the studio because they are more familiar with the stage, with how a PA reacts. So we brought in the PA, and I had the system on for him, but it was just an enhancement of his voice, just a little something for the room, and the track was pumping!

You know, it’s just the exact opposite of what you may learn in a proper recording school, but I know from all of the years spent messing around that you have to try things. And I’ve done that in a situation once with Mick Jagger and the hand-held/PA deal. The hand-held mic was what was going to work for him, we pulled in a PA, cranked the speakers up, and everybody said, “Whoa! The leakage. The leakage!” And I said, “I don’t know about you, but this is what the Rolling Stones do, this is what they have learned to sound like.” It’s not about worrying about leakage, or how much bass is on the floor. It’s about getting them in their element.