Over a 40-year career, Phil Ramone has built up perhaps the most impressive discography of any producer working today — and although he emphasises the importance of traditional engineering and people-management skills, his work is also at the limits of what cutting-edge technology makes possible.
Phil Ramone is the archetypal Man With The Golden Ears. In the four decades that he's been active in the music industry he's been involved in the making of an unbelievably long string of classic albums by the likes of Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Barbra Streisand and many, many more.
If you want to know what makes him so special, one answer might be 'cool' — in the original meaning of the word, which translates as the ability to exhibit grace under pressure. For instance, Ramone was music director at President Kennedy's famous birthday party in 1962 when Marilyn Monroe sang 'Happy Birthday' to the president. Ramone was subsequently invited to do the sound for a musical production at the White House, during which the electricity failed twice. His capacity to stay calm in these circumstances probably won him as many friends as his ability to keep all engineers on track when the computers froze during the 2003 Grammy Award ceremony.
What's the secret? "Joviality," says Ramone, "taking your time. Sometimes when the clocks go full blast against you being able to say, 'OK, I'm willing to gamble that I'll get something in a few performances at the end,' rather than trying to do 20 takes and cutting that up. All that's in the producer's hands. Convincing people that they are really good and getting them to play at a new level, that's what I look for. And understanding what the assignment is, because that's forgotten for most of the time. People can perform and play well, but the actual intent in what they're trying to do in the music can be lost. Trying to get everybody on the same page is what being a good producer is about."
In the 1960s, when Ramone came to the forefront, recording sessions were short and producers often acted like dictators. Even then the young Ramone settled on a more modern approach. "I served a long time as an engineer," recalled Ramone, "and watched many famous producers work, and I decided on the personality that came most easily to me, which is the more relaxed; to give artists encouragement when needed. Players are like prodigies, thoroughbreds. You have to handle them with care, and if they start competing with each other it can be the most terrible sound you ever heard. But if you get them wound up to perform together, there's nothing like it."
Ramone used this ability to the full on the soundtrack to the film Beyond The Sea, with Kevin Spacey acting and singing the parts of Bobby Darin. "We spent three years preparing vocally and finding the original big band charts and getting Bobby Darin's family to give us permission to use them," Ramone recalled. "We recorded at Abbey Road 2, the Beatles' studio, with John Wilson's big band. Geoff Foster was the engineer, and we got him to mic things a little bit differently than one would normally record big bands. Kevin wanted to record everything live, and I fully supported him. The band sat in a semicircle, with the drums and bass off to one side, and the guitar opposite, and the brass off to the right, the clarinets and saxes to the left, the trombones next to the saxes, and the trumpets at the end. We also had a string section of 35 on many of the tunes. We had one microphone on each player, and spent a lot of time getting the room microphones right.
"During the three or four days of rehearsal we could test the miking, and we placed the room mics against the side walls, on high booms, using [Neumann] M50s with a directional pattern, instead of just using omnidirectional mics. During the mix at AIR London, which we did in the Neve room, we used a combination of the room mics and EMT 140 plates for the reverb, which we had to keep fairly short, because you didn't want huge echo on the vocals, and then suddenly in the movie you're back to intimate dialogue. In any case, I'm very fussy about reverb, and don't like to exaggerate what's in the room. Also, the Beyond The Sea project was recorded on two HD Pro Tools systems and two 24-track analogue tapes at 15ips, Dolby SR. I wasn't going to lose anything."
Phil Ramone's obvious love for music and those who perform it find their origins in his beginnings as a musical child prodigy. He later became an engineer at A&R Studios in New York in the late 1950s, where he worked with many of the great producers and songwriters of the era. Some of these, such as producers Tom Dowd, Creed Taylor, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, and songwriting duos Leiber & Stoller and Bacharach & David, would have a decisive influence on his career.
"I've had probably some of the best tuition that you can ever have," muses Ramone. "I witnessed how many of the greats handled things, and took my cues from there. Tom Dowd was a great role model both engineering- and production-wise. Creed Taylor was a quiet man who taught me about the value of diplomacy. Lieber & Stoller came from the good guy/bad guy tradition, and also with Bacharach & Davis, Hal would be very quiet and gentle, whereas Burt could be very effusive with his feelings."
Ramone didn't disappoint his mentors. He received his first Grammy in 1964, for Best Engineered Recording, on the classic Getz/Gilberto album. After this it was full throttle ahead with engineering credits for the likes of Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Procol Harum, Rolling Stones, the Band and so on. Ramone received his first producer credit in 1969, for his contribution to the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack. Following this there were more Grammy Awards (for instance as a producer on Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years), his engineering of Dylan's legendary Blood On The Tracks, and his initiation as producer into rock & roll blockbusterdom with Billy Joel's The Stranger in 1977.
Ramone left more of the engineering to others as he expanded his production career. Whilst continuing to work with many of the luminaries mentioned in the main article, he also produced acts like Chicago, Kris Kristofferson, Lou Reed, Madonna and Sinead O'Connor. In 2004 alone he recorded Tony Bennett, Elton John, Barry Manilow, Olivia Newton-John, Peter Cincotti, Kevin Spacey, Natalie Cole, Bonnie Raitt, Diana Krall, Clay Aiken, Ray Charles (on his final album Genius Loves Company), and more. And as if that weren't enough, he's also worked on numerous film soundtracks and Broadway shows.
"It's fortunate that people call me for all these different things," reckons Ramone, "and that I don't get stuck into doing one genre of music or one particular activity. You need different skills in all these different disciplines. A Broadway show requires a different kind of microphone setup than a pop record. With live recording you don't have the privilege of overdubbing and spending time redoing things."
Phil Ramone explains how working with the John Wilson Orchestra gave him back the group feeling and camaraderie that he's found missing in recent years. "For three weeks we put in hard days' work, and then we'd sit together and socialise. You're sharing an experience, and the next day you laugh about the musical stories you heard. That builds a bond, and so when you then say to the trumpet or sax player 'I'd like you to play with less vibrato,' there's no feeling of a dictator telling him what to play."
He's probably best known for working with older artists and more traditional musical styles, but Ramone has consistently been at the forefront of developments in music technology. "I agree that probably my strongest point is to get a group of people to play well together in each other's structures, so in that sense you could call me an 'old-style' producer," he admits, "but I'm in favour of high-end technology. I'm always seeking for the better sound and the better computer. And if you are going to use loops, get a musician to make them. There are some people that may not be as familiar as they should be with a computer, but they have great musical talent, and when you put both elements together, it can be pure magic. You're not putting a musician out of work, you're adding another dimension."
Ramone was the first, in 1966, to use a solid-state console for recording and mastering. He was the first to use Dolby four-track discrete sound in a motion picture and to link a recording studio with the Hollywood film sound facility Todd-AO via satellite (A Star Is Born, 1976). He was also the first to use Dolby optical surround for a film (One Trick Pony, 1980), the first to use digital live recording (Songs In The Attic, 1981), and the first to use the EDNet fibre-optic system to record artists in different locations in real time, for the Frank Sinatra Duets albums (1993-4); and he still keeps a keen eye on developments in recording technology.
"Ten years ago we weren't even close to what we can do today. You can now paint in acrylics or in oil or any medium you want: analogue, digital in different resolutions, and so on. What's great is the speed of new technological advances and what you can learn. The increments in knowledge can go so quickly, even in three-month periods. At AES, I looked at some piece of software that can change the key or tempo of a piece of music in seconds without changing anything else. It's an invention that is musically incredibly helpful, because when you finish a mix, sometimes you realise that with the click track and all that it sounds stiff, and sometimes it sounds stiff because it's a little bit too fast. It's tremendous that digital technology allows you to address that now.
"Digital didn't use to give us the same high-end transients and compression as analogue. Analogue tape compression is still far more interesting, but HD digital is now a lot better at translating transients and hence for getting big drum sounds. Despite this I will sometimes still record the drums on analogue tape, well below peak levels so you don't round off the transients, and then transfer things to digital. You get a better shot at getting things right that way. It's also very important that you make sure you back things up, whether you carry an analogue machine with you, or a simple Tascam DA98."
Ramone has repeatedly gone on record about his ambition to maximise the sound of an orchestra, and he now appears to have taken out all the stops. He used two Sony 3348 digital 48-tracks and a Euphonix R1 desk to record Elton John's four-DVD Dream Ticket set at the Royal Opera House in London in 2002, with full-blown band, orchestra and choir, as well as an extended band. Then, in 2004, Ramone and Frank Filipetti recorded Elton John's Radio City Music Hall concert (to be released in 2005), this time to Pro Tools. The Radio City Music Hall concert was captured using a staggering 114 Audio-Technica microphones, including 60 ATM35s, 21 AE5100s and 20 AT4050s for the orchestra, as well as 13 AE5400s for backging vocals.
"The Royal Opera House recording was as elaborate," says Ramone. "In both the latter and the Radio City Music Hall recording we put contact microphones in the F-holes and on the tailpieces of the strings, but we used predominantly Sennheisers at the Opera House. One reason for the close-up miking was the presence of Elton's rock & roll band, which gets pretty loud and reflects off the back wall. When recording orchestras you're trying to do several things, to get the details, which is difficult because the miking and surroundings are unnatural. It's not like a concert hall where you hang several microphones in the middle of the hall. So you need lots of individual or section mics. And you add overheads for the ambience. It's a very delicate mix to get that right. Of course, with so many inputs, you mix things down right away."
Ramone and Filipetti mixed both concerts in both stereo and 5.1. "When mixing concerts in 5.1, I often think what would be the most ideal seat for a customer — would it be 50 feet out, or would it be on stage? I like the idea of the listener being on stage, with the feeling that he or she is standing right next to Elton and his piano, and watching him play, positioned slightly left and right of centre in 5.1. There's something about that perspective that allows for a lot of details to be heard. Normally in big arenas you don't hear much detail, even though the miking is very careful. But with all the big subwoofers going you get lots of reflections. If you get a little closer, and you can get the stage monitoring on and feel the drums right behind your ears, there's something magical about it. So we did this with the Elton John 5.1 mixes. Not everybody agrees with this way of doing it, but then I say 'Who wrote the rule book?'
"When I record today I think in stereo first, because 90 percent of the public still only owns stereo, and that's what they'll hear, in their homes, in the car, wherever. Of course I'll stick up some extra microphones that I think of using in 5.1 later on. Any of these systems now has 90 or more tracks, so why not? Sometimes it can work out great, at other times, after you've done all the edits and corrections and added effects, these overhead and rear-end mics can become useless. But in general I think it works better to start with a balance in front of you in a two-track format, and make that work."
Ramone's appreciation of digital technology has found its reflection in his own studio complex, The Shire, in upstate New York. It sports a Yamaha DM2000 and Steinberg's Nuendo in one room, and two Yamaha 02Rs and a Pro Tools HD system in the other room. Both rooms are set up for 5.1, with Yamaha MSP10 bi-amplified monitor speakers and Yamaha SW10 subwoofer.
"The studio started out very simply in the back of a small building that I had on my small farm," comments Ramone. "Seven or eight years ago I installed a little eight-track there, which became a 16-track, and then I needed a computer and so on. I also have an 80-foot-long horse barn, and the room above it has a nice 28-foot ceiling. I cut it in half, had it refurbished, air-conditioned and heated, and made sure the measurements of the two resulting rooms were comfortable for listening and working and for 5.1. I'm in the process of doing 5.1 mixes here for Paul Simon's Graceland and Rhythm Of The Saints albums.
"It's not a commercial studio, it's a private residence. We can come into the kitchen and have our cook come in, and we can put people up for a few days. We're about 50 miles from NYC, and for the artists that come here, it's like being in the wilderness. This very much helps concentration. I can have two engineers working full-time in both studios if needed, and we've mixed four albums here in the last year. Although we can do some overdubs, the two rooms are essentially for pre- and post-production. It's too expensive to sit in a big studio doing things like that, so we're doing the needlework at home.
"The days that loads of time and money were spent on records are gone. People have become fussy, and nobody wants to hand in a record that costs so much that you can't recoup. Also, we live in a world where we correspond with Pro Tools or some other hard disk format back and forth across the world. I have hard drives everywhere, and need to be able to return to a place where I can have an objective view on what I'm hearing. It's very helpful to have your own setup. I have both Pro Tools and Nuendo, because the world keeps changing, and I need to be able to change with it."
In such large projects, Ramone often has assistant mixers doing instant section mixes and feeding Filipetti and Ramone submixes as stems. "Stem mixing is very helpful," explains Ramone, "because later on when they want to make a TV mix, or they want to add a new vocal for a different mix, it's much easier. The beauty is that you can go in two weeks later and say 'I'm going to punch this in here, and here's your stem and here's how things sound.' And they'll sound exactly the same as two weeks before. You don't need to set up your mix again, and you're able to sit with maybe just 16 or 32 faders and get a great general balance. The stems will be there right from the beginning, as soon as possible. You may have a stereo drum stem, stereo piano stem, stereo guitar stems, and so on. They're really mixed, not just thrown together.
"To me it's like when you're cooking an important meal. When you line up all the ingredients, it's just a conglomerate of nothing. But when you put things together in different bowls, with each bowl containing a unique dish, then you can start creating a great four-course meal. It's for this reason that I also like to have a control surface to work with. I find that when you're making emotional moves between, say, a call-and-response vocal stem and guitar stem, there's something about riding a fader, versus saying 'OK, plus three, or minus two.'
"Mixing with your hands is totally different to doing it with a mouse, when the emotional side of you is not involved and you're looking at a screen. I know it's personal. There are people that prefer to fly a plane on automatic pilot, and there are people that like to feel the plane in their hands. I'm in the latter category. In addition, I find that when engineers are looking at a screen, they're often distracted and less focused on the music and on what happens in the session. With all the systems, Pro Tools, Steinberg, there's so much information on the page, it's easy to lose focus. We're all suffering from information overload today.
"On the issue of man and machine I have a simple opinion: I'm afraid that man should be in charge. People sometimes look at me and ask why I still carry complicated lyric sheets and columns. I tell them that it is because I can call out all the winning combinations of takes right off the bat, and when the singer walks in with a cup of tea, he or she can hear a performance. If you sit with a blank screen with an attitude of 'Let's now fill up 50 tracks of vocals,' it means that you land yourself with days of just listening, and you may choose the wrong thing. Paper is still required, and I still prefer to shut out the computer when I'm thinking.
"I'm often trying to explain to the next generation how easy it is for them that they now have full undo and recall functions, so if you make a mistake you can instantly put back what you erased. With tape you could never get things back. That's a big advance, but being able to redo everything also decreases the intensity of the recording process. My motto remains that if you treat a studio session like a live date, if you make sure everyone is working with that kind of focus, your results will come out far better.
"The problem with computers is that people often can't take their eyes off them. Also, there's a whole generation of people who are not quite used to the fact that if something fails, they're responsible, and not the machine. I tell young engineering students that they should be as efficient as any system, but they have to prioritise understanding music, rather than numbers and waveforms. For instance, they need to know exactly where to punch in and why, rather than miss the punch and say 'Don't worry, we'll fix it later.' That's like making a crash landing and saying it doesn't count. That's crazy. The artist will be much more confident when he or she hears the punch and knows it's correct and everyone is on the same page. The engineer's job is to make sure that what's being done is tied together musically. Otherwise I could get an electronic editor to design all punch-ins and punch-outs."
Phil Ramone's production of Ray Charles' last album, Genius Loves Company, turned out to be a very moving event, as Charles was ill during recording and died soon afterwards. He collaborated with a range of A1 artists on the album, with Ramone overseeing the duets with Diana Krall, Elton John, Natalie Cole, Bonnie Raitt and Van Morrison, and mixes by Al Schmitt. On a technical level, what catches the ear is Ramone's trademark combination of a rich, velvet sound, and utmost clarity and transparency, both sonically and in the arrangements.
"I think you have to use your ears to decide what works well for you," Ramone comments. "It's great if you feel you can do everything inside of your computer with plug-ins, but my experience is that if you do that, things come out sounding very flat. Some of the plug-ins are great, like Waves make some great ones, but to me they usually don't sound quite the same as Class-A gear. So I like valve gear, things made by Summit, Avalon, Massenburg, Tube-Tech, and so on, and it was certainly used on the Ray Charles album.
"There's one issue for me here, which is that valves can be unpredictable, and different copies of the same piece of gear can sound different. And I like things to be consistent and repeatable. This is why I rent gear for weeks. If I feel I have the right microphone or outboard gear, I want to have that very same piece of equipment throughout the project. One of the hardest things is to have recorded a vocal on day one, and the sound has changed on day nine of the project.
"With Ray Charles this was particularly important, as I was working with a man who was getting increasingly fragile as he got more ill. So everything, the microphone, the preamps, the compression, had to be consistent. And I told the engineer, as I always do, to make sure that he got the early takes. With regard to the microphone, we put an expensive mic in front of Ray, and it sounded a bit harsh, and so we ended up using an Audio-Technica 4060. We put a couple in front of him, and after that it was capture, capture, capture."
Being one of the éminence grises of the music industry, Phil Ramone is active in many industry organisations, and clearly sees it as part of his job to share as much of his knowledge and experience as he can, and to stem the erosion of traditional engineering skills caused by the closure of many recording studios. He's also battling to resolve the problems posed by multiple, incompatible digital formats. "It's a technological jungle out there," remarked Ramone. "It used to be very dictatorial in the early days, when maybe two companies were making consoles and two companies were making tape recorders. But now the audio industry is suffering from many other errors and its biggest responsibility is to form the alliance that a lot of us are trying to create between different manufacturers. For instance, to have two competing formats like DTS and SACD on the market has hurt the development of 5.1 tremendously. You can confuse the public once, but the second time they won't accept it. The other issues are the creation of a standard hard disk recording format to which everyone can adjust, and long-term digital audio storage. Hard disk data is still very unstable, and for this reason a lot of guys are mixing their 5.1 mixes to eight-track analogue tape."
Despite the confusion, Ramone believes that consumers will eventually be convinced to shell out again, after replacing their vinyl collections with CDs, now to replace their CD collections with a new, high-resolution digital format. "If the audio is processed properly, when what you give them is sufficiently high-quality, they'll feel like they become a member of a club. But it means going back to the original tapes, and getting people to hear it at the correct speed and with the instruments sounding like they sounded when they were recorded. Like with the 5.1 mix of Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, it was a matter of getting it to sound like when I engineered the album. In 5.1 you're sitting in front of Bob singing and playing, and the bass is off to the left, and the guitar player, if he's there, is to the right. It's gorgeous to have Bob sitting 25-30 feet in front of you. It's not about showing how amazing 5.1 is, it's about showing how your full digital response is working in 5.1.
"Of course, you have to be careful in your choices when you go to HD and 5.1. You have to use the original mixes as your guide, even if you may not like the compression on them or something. It's like you're transposing a movie from 16mm to 35mm. Of course you're not going to re-light and re-shoot the movie. That's a different animal. The only problem is that analogue is far more forgiving, while digital is very unforgiving. It sees past the wall and past the drummer and hears everything. Yet the advantages are also obvious. There is better listenability, better speaker content, better amplification and better re-transfer at the D-A consumer end. Until not so long ago the transfer from D-A at the consumer end was pretty awful."
Now that A-D and D-A converters, and digital in general, finally appear to be working well, Ramone is optimistic about the future. "24/96 is an incredible sound compared to 16/44.1," he says. It seems digital can finally satisfy his golden ears.