Mixing with a Master

A session Eddie kramer. On a cold Sunday afternoon in New York City, legendary engineer and producer Eddie Kramer walked into the "SSL Room" at the SAE
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A session Eddie kramer.On a cold Sunday afternoon in New York City, legendary engineer and producer Eddie Kramer walked into the "SSL Room" at the SAE Institute of Technology, a school of audio engineering and multimedia technology on West 40th Street. Kramer was there to demonstrate his mixing techniques to a group of student engineers (and one journalist) who were eagerly anticipating his appearance.

The South African-born Kramer is most famous for his work with Jimi Hendrix; he engineered some of the guitarist's classic albums, including Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland. (Kramer later was director of engineering at Electric Lady Studios, which he helped design.) The rest of his resume is equally impressive and reads like a who's who of classic rock: Kramer was behind the console for five Led Zeppelin albums, including Led Zeppelin II and Houses of the Holy, and he also worked with the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Traffic, Kiss, Peter Frampton, Joe Cocker, and David Bowie, to name a few.

These days, in between producing new acts (he's currently producing an album with an all-girl punk rock band from Nashville called Fair Verona) and working on The Other Side of the Glass - a new book of photos from his classic sessions - Kramer gives lectures around the country on recording and production techniques. That Sunday afternoon he was wrapping up a four-day event at SAE. During the first three days, Kramer had given an opening-night lecture and conducted pre-production and tracking sessions for the students to observe. The band he produced and recorded for these sessions, the Coby Brown Group, was chosen based on its demo tape of "Please," a melodic pop-rocker.

DIGITAL CRITIQUEDuring the lecture, Kramer - a staunch proponent of analog recording - pulled no punches in assessing current music technology. "The CD," he said, "is the biggest piece of crap ever invented. And why? It's 16-bit, and 16 bits are nothing. I can play you tapes that are 30 years old that will kick the ass of most digital tapes made today."

He talked about the sonic differences between analog and digital and about comparing the same material through both formats. "Hit a chord on a piano," he said, "and listen to the decay on a digital machine. It falls off very rapidly, and not in a nice way. You don't get that lovely soft decay like you do with analog. The other thing you don't get in digital is tape saturation. The only way to get tape saturation is with tape!"

Kramer then backed up his proclamations by pointing out what inevitably happens these days at major recording sessions. "Even if it's an all-digital session," he said, "what's the first thing the producer is going to do to make it sound better? He goes into the mic closet and pulls out a U-47 tube mic. In the rack are a Pultec tube equalizer and an LA-2A tube limiter. This is ironic. Here we are in the year 2000, and we're using 60-year-old technology to make the digital format sound good. Hello! This does not compute."

He expressed special disdain for the low quality of digital files downloaded from the Internet. "Look what's happening today. The kids are getting into Napster and MP3.com and downloading that stuff, and it sounds like garbage. But they don't care about quality as long as it's free."

Even with his strong views, Kramer concedes that digital technology has its useful aspects (especially when it comes to editing flexibility) and thinks that the best way to go is to use both formats. "A lot of producers," he said, "are recording 16-track 2-inch at 15 ips just to get the nice air, warmth, fatness, and a little bit of extra distortion and dumping it into Pro Tools, or into an Otari Radar - which is what I've been doing - and then proceeding from there. It's all valid. I use digital and I use analog, and I use them in a way that they complement each other."

Not surprisingly, though, Kramer chose to record the Coby Brown Group on an analog multitrack: a 24-track 2-inch Studer A827 running at 30 ips. He said he would have preferred 15 ips with Dolby SR - he likes the bottom-end response you get at 15 - but the machine at SAE wasn't equipped with it.

12:30 P.M.: FAST-FORWARDAfter spending a bit of time chatting with the students, Kramer was ready to begin the mixing session. The console was a 32-input SSL S4000G+, and Kramer had firm opinions about it. "I don't like SSL consoles in general, except for the 9000," he said. "I prefer the sweet sound of the vintage Neve consoles."

This particular SSL had automation capability, but because the system was temporarily down, the mix had to be done manually. Kramer prepared the console by putting down white tape to the side of each fader so that he could mark levels as the mix progressed. He explained that when he does have automation available, he still marks all his levels just in case the system fails during the session. "I do it on every single session," he said. "Nine times out of ten, something is going to happen to the computer. It will snap back at you; your levels will all go crazy. You've got everything beautifully set up, and - bam! - the computer breaks down. If you have it marked, you can always restore your mix to a point very close to where you had it."

Kramer's mixes are usually very complex and require many passes on an automated system. Typically, he pushes up the levels of various elements, such as fills by the drums or bass, to exaggerate their emphasis and give the mix more energy. One of the secrets to his mixes is having a great deal of internal movement, in terms of levels as well as panning.

An even more unusual aspect of Kramer's technique is that he generally prints effects and EQ to tape during tracking. This is contrary to conventional wisdom - that tracks should be printed dry and effects and EQ experimented with during mixdown. "When I hear a piece of music for the first time," he explained, "I create in my `mind's ear' the final product. I hear how it's eventually going to sound. And I go for that sound immediately and commit it to tape. If I have doubts, I'll print the reverb and the effects on separate tracks, just in case, and I can always mix them over later."

"Last week I was in Florida," he continued, "and I recorded the Gabe Dixon Band, which I discovered at a lecture at the University of Miami. I did 12 songs in two days; I mixed it in one day [on an SSL 9000 at the Hit Factory/Criteria in Miami]. All 12 songs. Think about it. How was that possible? One, the band was tight; two, they knew what they were doing; and three, I was able to get a good sound that stayed consistent throughout the session. I committed that sound to tape. The instruments were premixed to tape. Virtually all the effects were printed to tape. All I had to do was put the faders up, and it was mixed. But you really have to know what you're doing."

He used this same process during the tracking portion of his SAE workshop while recording "Please." So when it came time to mix, most of the tracks had already been equalized, and many already had reverb and/or compression.

Despite all the talk about recording techniques and equipment, Kramer stressed that the most important ingredient in music is the material itself. "The bottom line is songs," he said in his lecture, and he gave some advice to songwriters: "Forget the long intros. If the A&R guys don't get it in the first ten seconds, forget it. Keep it simple, keep it short, and keep it honest."

1:00 P.M.: TAKE IT TO THE LIMITERA rack of vintage - and vintage-style - outboard gear was brought in for the session (the equipment had also been used for the earlier tracking session). Included in his rack were two Purple Audio MC76 limiters, two Urei 1176LN limiters, two Pultec EQP 1A equalizers, a Lexicon PCM 80 reverb, a dbx 160 A compressor, two Teltronix LA-2A Leveling Amplifiers, two Empirical Labs Distressors (compressors), and a GML Model 8200 stereo parametric EQ.

Kramer had just finished preparing the console and was ready to mix. He first brought up the drums, which were recorded onto nine tracks: kick, snare, hi-hat, stereo toms, stereo overhead, and stereo room. He panned them from the drummer's perspective, with the hi-hat on the left. After listening for a while, Kramer decided to add some compression to the kit in a rather unique way. First he submixed the drums and patched the output of that submix into the two Empirical Labs Distressors. He then brought the output of those compressors into the console through a pair of inputs; this allowed him to mix in the compressed drums with the unaffected ones (see Fig. 1). "It gives you the option, depending on how nuts you want to get," he explained. "You can have less of the original drums and more of the compressed sound. The idea is that you have a choice."

The next instrument brought in to the mix was the bass guitar, which was recorded onto two separate tracks - one through a direct box and one through a mic on the amp. After getting the bass level set relative to the drums, Kramer turned his attention to the acoustic guitar. It was also recorded onto two tracks, one miked and one direct, and compressed as it went to tape. Kramer had equalized the track as it was recorded, boosting at 4.5 kHz and cutting at about 800 Hz.

In this case, Kramer built his mix in the conventional manner - starting with the drums, going to the bass, and then continuing on to the other instruments - but he doesn't always work that way. Sometimes he'll focus first on another element in a mix. "Maybe it's a vocal sound or maybe it's a guitar tone that I'm looking for," he explained. "I'll go for that first and build the mix around it. Sometimes I'll throw up a quick reference mix and then isolate everything and work on that one sound - which will be the key element that drives the mix."

1:30 P.M.: STAIRWAY TO HEAVENKramer had finished bringing the various instruments into the mix. After listening to it, he wanted to add more reverb to certain key tracks. Although he had a Lexicon PCM 80 at his disposal, he was looking for a different sound. He decided to use the natural ambience of the SAE building's concrete fire stairs as a reverb chamber.

With the rest of us in tow, Kramer walked out of the studio, down a long hallway, and into the staircase. He went to the landing below and started clapping in different areas, listening to the reflections. When he was satisfied that he'd found the right spot, he had the students place a monitor wedge at the top of the landing and an AKG C-414 mic (set to omni) on the landing below (see Fig. 2). "You do want to use an omnidirectional microphone," he said, "although sometimes I've tried a figure-8, and you can get different reflections off the wall. You should also use a decent speaker that has fairly full-range response."

The wiring scheme for the reverb "chamber" was simple and straightforward: the instrument or vocal track to be affected was sent out from one of the SSL's aux sends and through a power amp to drive the monitor. The signal emanating from the monitor was then picked up by the C-414 and returned via the console's mic inputs.

Back in the control room, Kramer brought up the aux send on one of the channels to try out the "homemade" reverb. The hard concrete surfaces of the stairway made the reverb sound hard and edgy, with a short decay. For those of us accustomed to getting our reverb digitally from a little black box, it was very cool to hear it produced naturally.

Kramer tried the stairway reverb on several tracks, including the background vocals, the snare, and the slide guitar (which played the lead solo in "Please"). He finally chose to use it just for the slide track. He panned the dry slide-guitar track hard left and the reverb return hard right during the solo. He planned to rotate the pan pots so that the dry and affected signals crisscrossed during the solo. Kramer is clearly not afraid to push the envelope during a mix. Considering that he was recording back when many of the effects we take for granted today were being discovered by trial and error, this is not surprising.

"When we were recording stuff like Hendrix," he said during the lecture, "the audio world was our oyster. We didn't give a damn because we knew nothing. We were experimenting. Every time we rolled tape, it was like, `Wow, that sounds cool - and if I turn this knob up here and I turn that knob up there, I'll get a weird effect.' Experimentation was the name of the game; it didn't matter what we did. With Led Zeppelin, I remember putting one of Jimmy Page's Fender amps inside a fireplace, upside down, and miking it from the top of the building."

Kramer also recalled when he first figured out how to do stereo phasing - using a pair of 2-track machines - during the recording of Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love. "We experimented for about two weeks with stereo phasing," he said. "I brought Jimi in the studio one day and said, `Jimi, check this out.' I'm phasing away, and the drums kick in, and Jimi says, `Oh my god, oh my god. That's in my dream!' He was sitting on the couch behind me, and he fell on the floor. He said, `Oh my god, play it again.' And we played it about ten times. He said, `Man, I gotta have that sound on everything.'"

Kramer spoke reverently about Hendrix and let the students in on some interesting inside observations. Despite his drugged-out public persona, for example, Hendrix was all business when he was recording. He had a keen musical mind and knew precisely what he was doing in the studio. "He knew before he walked in the studio exactly where each note was going," said Kramer. "He was so prepared. Every detail was in his mind. It was the antithesis of what you would think Jimi Hendrix is all about."

2:00 P.M.: PRACTICE MAKES PERFECTAnticipating more mix moves than he could handle himself, Kramer proceeded to enlist two students to help push faders. With the multitrack of "Please" playing back, Kramer and his student helpers rehearsed the mix a number of times.

While this was going on, we suddenly heard voices emanating from the Mackie HR-824 studio monitors. After a moment of confusion, it became clear that a group of people were ignoring the "Recording in Progress" signs and had walked into the fire stairway near the mic and monitor set up for the reverb effect. (That's one of the problems inherent in using a public space for a reverb chamber.) Luckily, they left quickly and didn't interfere with any actual takes of the mix.

2:30 P.M.: LET IT ROLLSatisfied that the mix had been rehearsed sufficiently, Kramer turned his attention to the mixdown deck. Not surprisingly, he had opted to mix onto 2-track analog rather than to DAT, even though the only available 2-track machine was a well-worn 11/44-inch Studer PR99 MKIII (see Fig. 3). "The idea is to go to analog tape and, once you've stored your mix on analog tape, then dump it across to DAT," he said. "Why just go to DAT? DAT is a horrible format. I'd much rather get the nice, fat, warm sound off the tape and then make a digital copy of it."

After testing out the 2-track deck, Kramer discovered that the tape was hitting the edge of the take-up reel as it rolled. An SAE technician was called in to fix the problem.

"Let's try a take," Kramer said, and the 2-track rolled while he and the students furiously made their mix moves. All went as planned - until they discovered on playback that the right and left signals had been accidentally reversed when they were patched into the 2-track. After repatching, another pass of the mix was recorded. In the middle of this take, Kramer turned the volume down considerably and monitored the rest of the mix at a low level. To gain even better sonic perspective, he switched between the Mackie HR-824s and a pair of Genelec 1038Bs on playback, listening at various volume levels. When asked about the problem of ear fatigue, Kramer said that a mixing session shouldn't be longer than 12 hours and that his preferred method was to listen at a relatively low volume on small monitors.

3:20 P.M.: FINE-TUNINGAfter Kramer finished listening to the playback of the latest mix, he decided that it could use some overall EQ tweaks. He patched the GML Model 8200 parametric equalizer into the stereo bus, explaining that he uses the GML in this fashion on most of his mixes. "I add a tiny bit of high end and a little bit of low end," he said. "Very subtle, maybe 1.5 to 2 dB of high end or 1.5 to 2 dB of low end. Just to put a little air in there and some oomph down below."

He continued to tweak the mix, adding chorus to the bass guitar in one section of the song. Pleased with his progress, he decided to go for a third take. After it was recorded successfully and he listened back, Kramer appeared satisfied that he'd gotten the result he was looking for. "This old 11/44-inch machine still works," he remarked, and the session was over.

LESSONS LEARNEDWatching Kramer work and listening to his philosophy about recording were quite instructive. Most impressive was his absolute control over the process: he knows during pre-production what he wants a song to sound like in its final form, and he takes the necessary steps during the recording and mixing processes to make that concept a reality. He controls the process, rather than letting the process control him. And because he has so much experience and such a strong understanding of the technology, he's often able to ignore the conventional wisdom and still end up with a superior product.