K IS FOR KRAMER - EMusician

K IS FOR KRAMER

Yes, Eddie Kramer is a part of history — but what he’s doing today will be tomorrow’s history.
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Which is probably what helps account for the other 20% you really need to know: He’s been behind the boards for some of the most significant musicians of our time, including Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Buddy Guy, Kiss, Peter Frampton, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Carly Simon, Traffic, Joe Cocker, David Bowie, Johnny Winter, Bad Company, Sammy Davis Jr., the Kinks, Petula Clark, the Small Faces, Vanilla Fudge, NRBQ, the Woodstock festival, John Mayall, Derek & the Dominoes, Santana, Curtis Mayfield, Buddy Guy, Anthrax, Twisted Sister, Ace Frehley, Alcatraz, Triumph, Robin Trower, and Whitesnake. And let’s talk versatility: country act the Kentucky Headhunters, and classical guitarist John Williams. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as he’s documented much of what he’s done with an incredible body of work as a photographer (for a treat, go to kramerarchives.com).

Given his history, if you think he lives in the past, you’d be one-third right. Another third lives in the present, and the remaining third in the future. During the course of an interview, you can find yourself in 1968 one minute, and 2016 the next.

Eddie has enough savvy to know when it’s important to just go with the flow. Like that famous moment in “Whole Lotta Love” where you hear Robert Plant’s voice way in the background during the break. Print-through? An effect they slaved over for days?

“The time of that particular mix was 1969, and this all took place over a weekend at A&R studios in New York. Imagine [mixing] the entire Led Zeppelin II on eight tracks in two days! As we got into “Whole Lotta Love,” I actually only ended up using seven tracks because tracks 7 and 8 were two vocal tracks. I think I used the vocal from track 7. We’d gotten the mix going, I believe it was a 12-channel console with two panpots!

“During the mixdown, I couldn’t get rid of the extra vocal in the break that was bleeding through. Either the fader was bad, or the level was fairly high — as we were wont to do in those days, we hit the tape with pretty high levels. Jimmy [Page] and I looked at each other and said ‘reverb,’ and we cranked up the reverb and left it in. That was a great example of how accidents could become part of the fabric of your mix, or in this case, a part of history. And I always encourage people today not to be so bloody picky.

Eddie has this wacky idea that the music is actually the important part of the recording process, not editing the living daylights out of it. To wit: “We’re living in the age of [computer-based programs like] Pro Tools, where we can spend hours, days, even weeks on end fixing all the little ‘mistakes.’ And by that time, you’ve taken all of the life out of the music. I don’t want to come off as trashing [Digidesign], but I feel that Pro Tools — which is a wonderful device — has its limitations in certain aspects.”

And what might that main limitation be?

“The people using it! And it becomes a sort of psychological battle . . . yes I can stretch that drum fill or performance [with bad timing], or I can effectively make a bad vocal sound reasonably decent, but what the hell is the point? Why didn’t the drummer play it right in the first place? Why didn’t the singer sing it right in the first place?

“And that begs the question, do we have too many choices . . . so we sit there thinking ‘we can make it better.’ But for God’s sake, make it better in the performance! I want musicians who will look each other in the face, eyeball to bloodshot eyeball — I want interaction! I want these guys to be able to play their instruments properly, and I want them to be able to make corrections on the fly. If I say ‘In the second chorus, could you double up that part?’ I don’t want the guitarist giving me a blank look.

“Learn your bloody craft, mates! The way we’re recording today does in fact give a tremendous amount of freedom to create in an atmosphere of relaxed inspiration. The individual can record in very primitive circumstances — bathrooms, garages, hall closets. Unfortunately for a lot of people, this means doing it one track at a time, which I think makes the final product sound very computerized and not organic. The other side of the coin is that many bands can think organically in terms of ‘let’s find a fairly decent acoustic space, set up mics, look each other in the eyes, and hit record.’”

MIXED OUT, MIXED DOWN . . . OR MIXED UP?

Ah, the lost art of mixing. If all you do is tweak envelopes with a mouse, that’s not mixing — that’s editing. If you think Eddie Kramer is a fix-it-in-the-mix kinda guy, you haven’t been paying attention. But there’s more.

“One of the most exciting things as an engineer is to create that sound as it’s happening; having a great-sounding board, set of mics, and acoustic environment can lead one to a higher plane . . . when you hear the sound of the mixed instruments — not each individual mic — and get the sound now, while it’s happening. I don’t want to have to bugger around with the sound after the fact, other than mixing. There’s a thrill in getting a sound that’s unique to that particular situation.

“The idea of mixing ‘in the box’ is anathema. It defeats the purpose of using one’s hand and fingers in an instinctive mode of communication. I am primarily a musician at heart; the technology is an ancillary part of what I do, a means to an end. I want to feel like I’m creating something with my hands, my ears, my eyes, my whole being. I can’t do that solely within the box. It’s counter-intuitive and alien. However, I do use some of the items within the box as addenda to the creative process. It lets me mix with some sounds I would normally not be able to get.”

So do you use control surfaces when you’re working with computers, or go the console route?

“Only consoles. I love to record with a vintage Neve desk, 24-track Dolby SR [noise reduction] at 15 IPS, then I dump it into Pro Tools or whatever system is available, and continue from that point. If the budget permits, I’ll lock the multitrack with the computer. I’d rather mix on an SSL; they’re flexible and easy to work. I like the combination of the vintage Neve sound with the SSL’s crispness. And then I mix down to an ATR reel-to-reel, running at 15 IPS with Dolby SR.

“With the SSL, I’m always updating, always in contact with the faders. I always hear little things that I can tweak. To me, mixing is a living process. If you’re mixing in the moment, you get inspired. I just wish I could do more mixes in 4–5 hours instead of 12, but some bands want to throw you 100 tracks. Sometimes I wish we could put a moratorium on the recording industry — you have three hours and only eight tracks! [Laughs.] I’m joking of course, but. . . .

“On Electric Ladyland, ‘1983’ was a ‘performance’ mix: four hands, Jimi, and myself. We did that in maybe one take. And the reason why was because we rehearsed the mix, as if it was a performance. We didn’t actually record the mix until we had our [act] together. We were laughing when we got through the 14 minutes or so. Of course, sometimes I would chop up two-track mixes and put pieces together. But those pieces had to be good.”

So do you mix with your eyes closed or open?

“The only time I close my eyes when mixing is when I’m panning something. I know which way the note has to flip from one side to the other; panning is an art, and you have to be able to sense where the music is going to do the panning properly.”

RIGHT + WRONG

Okay. We know Eddie knows recording. But his definition of the recording process starts long before he pushes the record button. “I feel strongly that records are made in pre-production, providing the band knows their craft, the songs are great, and I’ve done my job correctly by rehearsing the band or artist to the point where everybody knows what’s happening. And if you get into the studio and the rehearsed song doesn’t quite work, you have to have rehearsed a backup plan. Maybe the tempo or key is wrong; maybe it shouldn’t be electric — just acoustic. At least we will have rehearsed alternatives.

“But you also can have the situation where cool things happen by chance because some great musicians know their instruments. You have to be sensitive to those circumstances as well.”

And since this is the “Wrong” issue, I of course had to ask about how digital sometimes locks out the chance to do something “wrong” that turns out to be “right,” because digital is normalized to a particular workflow.

“The ‘vintage way’ of recording allows one the flexibility of doing things by accident, of saying ‘Wow, check out that sound, I’ve never heard that before.’ When we first started using a digital reverb on Led Zeppelin, I had it set up wrong and it was feeding back on itself . . . it sounded like it was inverted inside of a long tube, and I could never have gotten that sound in the digital world.

“Analog is very forgiving. You can do bizarre, wacky things, which goes hand-in-hand with rock and roll. It’s not meant to be perfect.”

LET’S GET REAL WRONG

Having covered when wrong is right, it seemed right to give equal time to when wrong is just plain wrong. And Eddie has some strong opinions.

“I must say this: If you look at the top 20 records and you A-B them, it’s all the bloody same. The level is just ridiculous. The record companies have instructed everyone to cut things as hot as possible. There’s no dynamic range; it’s at the point where it sounds horrible. I rue the day when some twit said ‘Yeah, let’s get it all the way up to the maximum.’ That has produced an insatiable demand for more and more level. Every mastering engineer — including [Bob] Ludwig, [Bernie] Grundman, [George] Marino — they’re all quite upset about this. On the Hendrix stuff I’ve been working on, I turned things back a bit on the level because I want it to have the same kind of dynamic range it had in the studio.

“We work our balls off to get the sounds to be cool, to make it sound great, to inspire people. And it comes out sometimes like crap, and that’s terrifying.

“And the other thing that’s really terrifying is the sound of MP3s. We are raising a generation of kids who listen to MP3s and have no concept of what a great record should sound like. It’s compressed, it’s rolled off at 8kHz. I don’t know what the answer is; we’re soldiering on regardless. We’ll do the very best we can to serve the music, serve the artist. We are a service industry after all [laughs].

“Look at some of the top engineers. Eliot Scheiner, Bruce Swedien, Joe Chiccarelli, Jimmy Douglass, Chuck Ainley — all of these guys are struggling with the same thing. We’ve been in the business for many years, we’ve seen all the changes, we love to see the public embrace new technology but not at the expense of the music.

“Unfortunately the whole music industry from top to bottom is all about the bottom line. It puts us in a very bad position. We’re supposed to be in charge of helping the artist be creative, make them feel great about their music. But when it comes out as an MP3, all that work is for naught.”

THE HENDRIX EXPERIENCE

Most interviews with Eddie start off with Hendrix. But that’s arguably wrong, because Eddie is about so much more than just Hendrix. Still, it would also be wrong not to talk about Hendrix, who excelled at making wrong right: He wrote right-handed but played his guitar left-handed, and strung it like a right-handed version so when he strummed down, he hit the high E first and the low E last.

Listening back to his studio albums, there’s a flow that seems to imply a very intuitive artist. Well Eddie was there, so. . . .

“Look at Jimi’s timeline: 4-track, 1/2" 15 IPS going four-to-four-to-four, three times. Recording drums in mono, then stereo, then hitting the U.S. in ’68 and going to 12-track. Then we scrapped that 1" Scully machine and transferred over to 16 tracks. Think about the way we used to record: I always had a [variable speed oscillator] sitting next to me, and I’d always be fooling around with speeding up and slowing down the tape.” [Editor’s note: The earliest way to implement variable speed was by using a sine wave oscillator feeding a beefy power amp, and driving the capstan motor with the amp’s output. The motor synced to the line frequency, so if the oscillator was set to 60Hz, the motor behaved normally. But if you sped up or slowed down the oscillator, the motor would follow along. —CA.]

“The first time we demonstrated phasing to Jimi [while recording] Axis: Bold as Love, he flipped out — ‘I’d heard that sound in my dreams.’ Of course that was a calculated sound, not an accident . . . but when you think about tape flanging, it’s never the same. You never knew exactly how it was going to sound. On Electric Ladyland, I actually got a sound appearing behind my head for maybe two seconds — this happened by accident, and I could never re-create it. You can imagine how scary that was!

“It is true that with Hendrix, he could do stuff in one or two takes. He was very well prepared, and always knew what he was doing at all times. Still, there were times when he would be dissatisfied with his performance, end up doing 40 takes, then come back the next day and say ‘I can do it even better.’ You can’t generalize; each circumstance in the studio is totally different.”

When it comes to Hendrix 2006, though, Eddie has fallen in love with the potential of the DVD. “I love DVDs for their flexibility, there is a tremendous amount of freedom I can bring to the mixing process. I just finished redoing the Hendrix Woodstock performances. We’ve restored Jimi’s original performance back to its original two hours and mixed it in 5.1 surround; you really feel like you’re sitting in the mud. The only thing that’s missing is the mud!

“In the process, we found all this footage no one ever saw before. That’s creative and exciting, I love being able to do archaeological digs. This is stuff that’s just been sitting around. Here we are, 35 years later, making the movie sound and look so much better.”

Kramer’s photographic work is impressive, so it seemed natural to ask if he’s crossed over to doing video as well as audio.

“Well, I can’t help but be part of that video process. I mix first in stereo, then in 5.1, then they lock the picture to my mix. In that regard, the digital world is a big help because you used to have to match the sound to the picture. The beauty of 5.1 is I can place the instruments carefully, and get accurate spatial effects. You can actually hear the delays coming off the towers.”

So can we look forward to more Hendrix?

“There’s enough Hendrix material in the library to put out new product every year for the next 12 years. But there’s no more studio stuff, this is all basically live sets.”

THE FUTURE ACCORDING TO KRAMER

Eddie’s a busy guy, and one of his more interesting side projects is DigiTech’s Hendrix pedal. It doesn’t just model a Strat going through a stack of Marshalls; you wouldn’t need Eddie for that. Instead, it models the sound of Jimi’s Strat going through Marshalls recorded to tape, then processed using Eddie’s various engineering/production techniques. DigiTech calls it “Production Modelling” because it models the entire production chain.

Eddie elaborates: “It was a thrill. We used real tape flanging, and the little [rotating speaker] used on Little Wing. We were modelling what I did to the sound, although I’d say 95% of the sound was Hendrix, and 5% me [laughs]. It’s doing very well; I’m thrilled it’s selling. A guitar really can sound like it’s going through Jimi’s setup.” Note to potential buyers: The pedal models Jimi’s sound, not his talent.

And while Eddie loves tape, he’s a realist about the future. “Even though tape is going through a resurgence with the availability of Quantegy, ATR’s upcoming tape, and so on, we can also see the writing on the wall that we will need a substitute. I’ve heard something I feel is extremely close to tape as a storage medium, Genex’s 48 track DSD recorder. I’m very impressed with it. I did a test at NRG studios about six months ago, and was floored by the quality when A-B’ing between the SSL and the Genex box — I could not tell the difference. For me, that was shocking. With some more development, this is potentially the wave of the future. I’m probably going to use it on the next 5.1 Hendrix release.”

Eddie will be doing some more pedals, and there’s talk of putting together a movie based on his photographs, as well as a book. Okay, where do I sign up for the book? I want it. So do you.

He’s also working with a bunch of bands. But as the interview wound down, it was clear there was more to the story than his projects. Here’s a guy who could rest on his laurels, collect some checks, and kick back in a hot tub on Maui. But he’s remained relevant despite being in this business for decades. Why?

“If you don’t learn from each group of musicians you work with, you might as well hang it up. You have to keep your mind open; I’ve learned new techniques, I’ve learned how to work with Pro Tools and the digital world, but I’ve found a way to integrate the two worlds to make them compatible with each other . . . to get the best out of both, and make them a unified whole.

“When I play the faders, I play them like a piano. I must have that tactile feeling — I want to be connected to the sound with my fingertips.”

Which is probably why the music he’s worked on connects with your emotions. Eddie is the first to credit the artist, which is not surprising. But look a little deeper: Eddie has served as an amplifier for the artist’s art — and that’s a type of amplifier no technology can create.