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Grammytech 1: A Conversation With Musical Director, Engineer & Producer Phil Ramone

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Now that Grammy's glitz is fading, it's nice to pull the curtain on what goes on behind the scenes at such a gala. Over the next two weeks, I'm going to share a series of interviews with some of the music industry's heroes and working stiffs who literally brought you this year's awesome Grammy Awards with nary a hiccup.

First up at bat is Phil Ramone, one of the finest producers, engineers, and musical directors of our time. His duty was to oversee the event from both creative and sonic standpoints, and help the show flow smoothly from top to bottom as he has done for many years. Here is my conversation with Phil about the show, archives, and any other topics that popped into our heads with a little help from our friend, free association.

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A Conversation With Phil Ramone

Mike Ragogna: Hey Phil Ramone, what the heck are you doing here at the Grammys?

Phil Ramone: Well, first of all, sometimes you need to look for work. You'd never know amongst these great people here. They need help.

MR: You've got a resume together?

PR: I'm trying, I'm trying real hard.

MR: I'm sure you could pad it.

PR: I could go back as far as the seventies. There are a lot of people here, especially the people on stage, it's pretty amazing. I don't know if you've watched any rehearsals...The Beach Boys thing...

MR: Yeah, caught quite a few of them, they're all pretty amazing. Phil, you've produced half of that stage. (laughs) Sir, you have an amazing career and I don't even know where to start. Can you describe what you do in general for the Grammys every year?

PR: It started way back. Mike Green said you should try to be a trustee, you're on the Board of Governors in New York. I did a lot of work with Pierre Cossette and John Cossette. The dream was from the early days, as old as being at the Grammys at the Hollywood Palladium where they allowed people to drink. It was a very weird night, there were some people that had uncontrollable habits. This was also in the days where it was really being discussed how to become a live show. So, when it came to New York, I sort of became the ad hoc guy to coordinate. Sometimes it's luck, sometimes it's the way you're dealt the cards, how you end up doing these major events. In television, a lot of guys were great sports guys, and the trucks weren't like they are now. The brief history is that we talked Cossette and company into having separate entities. I would get a call on a Friday night to do some rock 'n' roll night, and the guys would have one truck. If you had 24 inputs, you were doing real good. You had to be really comfortable if you wanted to premix certain things. The trick was to take it from the stage, get a good mix from the drum kit and things like that, which is the long story of how we got into this. When you look at the size of this gear... but it's more about the training and the people that I've known here since they've become suggestions of mine and other people about working under fire. Sometimes, you're going to be doing a three hour show and you've got ten or twelve acts, and it's now fifteen, sixteen, or eighteen acts. You have to be really good, you have to know that everyone's doing their job. It's one of the finest net teams ever put together. I know some of the teams that work on the Tonys.

MR: And no one wants to mess up.

PR: How do you work under fire? How do you recover from a mistake? There are mistakes, they happen, people forget. My favorite stories are when we went to digital and automation, how wonderful it was until we went on the air and we were counting down, and we were in the last fifteen seconds and the console hadn't rebooted. So I end up going to an AES show, kill the console, turn it on. They said, "Are you crazy?" I said, "No, that's what happens." A computer is liable to do that, while you as an intelligent human being may not. It doesn't care if it's a commercial break. We've had moments in the show where you not only sweating it, you're worried that you may not get back on the air fast enough. We have emergency back ups like taking the PA console's mix and being able to flip-flop. Nobody flies without a parachute, you can't. So that's where I got started twenty some odd years ago, at the time when there was one truck, and when we got to 5.1, there were three trucks.

MR: Quality, of course, being the main concern.

PR: The late John Cossette and his dad Pierre were terrific with us, they believed in the quality of the show. My speech is as simple as, "We are the Grammys and shouldn't we sound better than any other show on the air if we could?" It set a new bar and a new standard. We have, what I call, a very cool, collected group of people. This project being able to take that mix, and take the Glen Campbell rehearsal and say to me come in and see what you hear, it's not like you're playing Supergod. You have to make what's not just passable audio. If everything is playing right, when we get to dress rehearsal, it will either be a disaster, nobody will put out at all, or everybody puts out.

MR: With the technology that's being used now versus what was being used before, are you feeling like a proud parent?

PR: I don't know what it is in me. I get credit sometimes for being on the edge of the cliff. If you're not, if you sit back, I think you're not paying attention to what's being invented. If you don't invent it yourself, you need to go and sit with people that are bright enough to do it. The guys from Izotope that I befriended here a few years ago have built gear for me. One of the deepest fears you have in live action, is that suddenly the singer who, at dress rehearsal wasn't putting out at all, suddenly smells the 10,000 people and goes off the top. I grew up having Tom Dowd and people like that school me and it was like, "How do you record Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles? Carefully, smart, and don't miss a thing, never miss a thing." That's kind of the philosophy of new invention. We're trying out something in the truck, it's like a 64-track record. It's built for something that gives you an immediate possibility in being able to record without having to refit your truck. People like Springsteen, who have been doing it for years, record everything, long before it was fashionable. I think when you hear that, you say, "That's somebody that's thinking ahead."

I've just been on the road for three months with George Michael, and we recorded every show, every night, everywhere, including run-throughs and sound checks, because I never know if I can grab a moment, something that happens. The band starts to play something new and it's great. You need to become more immediate, you can't be as complicated as we've created. Some of these trucks became obsolete because the gear got harsh. You can do better if you never take this for granted.

MR: Phil, you've either produced or engineered some of the greatest records of all time. It seems that the studio would be more of the home for you, yet live shows seem to be equally important to you.

PR: I think it started in the early '60s, I got a call to do an event for the president, it was a big fundraiser. There was so much talk about the how hall was a disaster--it was an armory in Washington. When somebody says to you when you're 22 years old or something that you can do anything you want, you say, "Oh, so I can have 400 speakers?" "Yes, anything you need." "So I need 400 amps, and can I help with the architecture because it's everything you don't want?" Every acoustic thing you've ever learned, however you've learned it coming from the studio side gives you all kinds of answers about leakage. How come this works? How come that works in a room? What is that big piece of wood doing over there? Can we use it? Can we not use it? Can we put something on it? That was my first real big event, which became doing things in the park with Simon & Garfunkel years later, or with Streisand. "How do you work in these venues? I always thought the studio is my home, and it's also the home to remix stuff. In those days, multi-track was far from what we have now. If you had a 24-track or 16-track mixer, you were a big guy.

MR: Do you remember when 24-track become the standard?

PR: I think in the early '70s. 16-track was the standard for so long. 24-track was a little bit dicey at times.

MR: Yeah, it also affected the size of recording of tracks, their density, on the tape.

PR: I have a son who's really done well learning. We sat the other day while he was mixing. He must have had 8 different echo chambers on the board, more of this for that. I said, "I just want to challenge you once." I was one of the first guys to rent echo chambers at Capitol. These things can sound dead even in a big arena. You didn't understand how important it was to get an echo chamber that didn't sound like the spring of a Fender amp. The guys who have grown up in the last twenty years are totally spoiled by what's available. The intricate side of it is how many choices do you have and how many can you do. "You only have 164 tracks? I need more tracks!" (laughs) It becomes what I consider the lack of what you've learned in the studio, the training grounds.

MR: How did you learn your craft?

PR: I was brought up real tough, since 15 in the studio--forget delivering coffee--assisting the dates and having the engineer, the first time I did the date, go behind the racks and cut half of the grounds off and say, "Survive." Soldering gun... "No, THAT'S the ground. Okay, we just took the hum out of the bass line." You learn the process in studios. You could do a jingle in the morning, you could do a film at two until four, then do something else. Around ten at night were the great r&b dates. Those were the late night Atlantic jazz dates or whatever they had.

MR: And, I imagine, the learning process always continues.

PR: I think the variety of learning experiences is what these guys do in three and a half hours. Kenny Ehrlich, our producer, thinks of the most bizarre combinations of people that could be on the stage together. It's great--you're moshing on one side and you're doing a classical cellist at the same time. We all grew up with working with anything that was thrown at you. We're not heroes, believe me. But you can make it solvable so people don't turn off their TVs or say, "This is so terrible sounding." If you can't hear what they're playing, you're in trouble.

MR: You must get surprised by occasional glitches where you have to pull off a little magic. What are some of those moments?

PR: I think things that go wrong in the truck when you're in between commercials and the guys on stage don't have it together yet and something's gone wrong. We learned our lesson that anything pre-recorded was always a danger. Most live performances have become a lot of pre-recorded effects. I just did a show where we were probably running two full rigs of Pro Tools with effects and other things, and running full click on everybody, including every person in that orchestra, no amps on the stage and everything coming acoustically, and then being mic'd and mixed. It's a much more complicated situation, it's not just background singers, it's a lot of stuff musically. I've seen it where an act is out there and they aren't lip-syncing, this is live. The worst that can happen is you're late or something doesn't work from the stage. It happens. I've seen Madonna and many artists recover so quickly and thinking, "How did you do that?" Some of it isn't us. We're not looking to blame, but how do we cover? It looks stupid when you see 30 violins and you can't hear them. It's dumb stuff that, to me, is like I'm going to get letters from Idaho. I've created a fake lady that sits somewhere between Idaho and Iowa and she listens to everything. She can hear when there's a distortion on your foot. (laughs)

MR: What becomes you're favorite recovery moments among all that?

PR: You're favorite moment is to recover and not have it look like anything went wrong. Cooler heads do prevail. We all kind of do a talkback meter during the summer where we talk about the things that didn't work and how we can avoid that. The stage manager carries a wireless mic in his back pocket just in case. Has he ever used it? Once or twice. If somebody comes up in front of a talk mic and it's not there and you're about to introduce an act, it sounds stupid, but it's really dumb when you don't have an answer. So you see a guy with a microphone put it on a stand or hold it and give it to the guy. It looks totally cool. "Look at that, they gave LL Cool J a mic," and they have no idea it wasn't intended. I also think the Pavarotti moment was one of the great moments in the show. For me to run up five flights of stairs is a challenge.

MR: (laughs) Can you tell us that story?

PR: When I was in the wings, out back in the truck, they yelled and said, "Get down here, Pavarotti needs to see you." I've worked on different occasions with him. He had a scarf around his neck and he said that he couldn't speak. He had done the dress, and two nights before at MusiCares, Aretha had done a version that we had created of just piano and bass and the place came down. So now we go to the Grammys, his rehearsal is just great, but his throat doctor is worried about him singing. Sometimes, they give you a steroid shot. Whatever it is he got, he couldn't sing. Kenny Ehrlich was standing in the wings with Sting and he's about to come up with what they are going to do. Kenny said to me, "Could Aretha do 'Nessun Dorma'?" I said, "She could, but it's in the wrong key, and she's never sung it with an orchestra."

I run up the flight of stairs, I get up there to her very warm dressing room. I put the cassette on and I said, "You need to listen, I need your help. I don't have an answer." She loves "Nessun Dorma," it's like saying to her, "I want a song only you can do." It's true. At that point, nobody else could do it. I played it for her about three or four times, then we went live on the air. It was about 9:30 or whenever it was. It's about ten of ten. I'm trying to not look hysterical and she agrees. She says to me, "Turn off all of the air," which is a command that I'm used to with her. In big arenas, Madonna and other people, say, "Turn off the air." They don't fear the air conditioning, which is terrifying for a singer, especially the way we use it. But there is ice underneath the hardwood, it's rough on the voice. They call it a Vegas throat, it's created by a lot of dust and a lot of stuff in the air conditioning.

We get her on stage and she said, "How many bars is it before I enter?" I say, "Four bars with choir," and it's a thirty voice choir. Then it goes to piano and that's where you go. "Is the air off because I'm not going on!" Kenny is like pulling whatever he could pull out of his skull. Sting is standing by, and I don't even remember the intro, other than me counting bars. I'm miles from her, she can't really see me, but my instinct was to at least give her the downbeat. It's not complicated, but it's different, especially in the new key. She doesn't bail, she sings. She does one of the greatest performances of all time, and 6,000 people in Radio City stand up and give her an ovation. Literally, this was a real ovation. Pavarotti's in tears because he's left, his wife has no idea that he wasn't going to sing, nobody knew. Those are classic moments. They get recalled even in this Grammy show. Adele talks about how that was her favorite moment watching this show. It has many moments--Eminem and Elton--a lot of repairs.

MR: Way back, you had interesting technical challenges when working with Simon & Garfunkel as well.

PR: I think you take on certain things, like when we were doing the show in the Park with Paul and Artie. We had Roy Halee who was a wonderful engineer and who had been their producer for years, and me the new kid on the block doing Paul. It was sort of not what Artie wanted. He shows up for dress rehearsal, and we only have an hour, maybe less for the noise control in New York. All of the cops are given VU meters to measure how much sound you're putting out. The commissioner of the park says, "You can only go to the monitors on stage now, you can't have the big speakers." Of course, Artie says, "No I have to have the full system on." I said, "Artie I can't. This rule wasn't created by us." We don't even get a chance to see what it looks like at dusk in the summer, because the sun doesn't set early. All of the things that you want control of, like, "Turn off the lights." "No, that's God, you have to ask him, it's his sun." (laughs) Artie was in a state of mind that for the next night, I wasn't sure how it was going to work. Lorne Michaels was calling what it is and when. The mayor was saying when do we start?

MR: That was Koch at the time, right?

PR: Yeah, that was Koch. Koch was saying, "We should get going." There were 600,000 people on the lawn. It took me probably twenty minutes from 150 feet out to climb over the crowd and go to backstage. So I made a pact with myself and everyone around me that it's got to be two way communication. It's hard, you think you've set up all of the communication you need.

MR: Working with all the acts from rehearsal to the end, big changes occur.

PR: Oh yeah. It's the same story of how fast can you come from this rehearsal mode to then having a second truck, and being able to go back and remix the things you did that you felt didn't have enough time. That alone, putting that back into the computer, gives you a starting point. There is a vast difference, because in the old system, you had one truck with three different mixers. You had the problem of interpretation. Our guys really trade off where they feel more competent and there's only so much reset time. We have recall on the console, things like that that you never had. How do you recall a mix that may start here, and the first note hits you and it's twenty db louder. And you're shocked?

MR: (laughs) Obviously, there's a lot of theoretical in the beginning, and then you refine it.

PR: If you have taken the time to take your project that you did, Glen Campbell lets say, you refine the mix, it may change. I was talking to Eric about the mix going for the Beach Boys--there are really three Beach Boys bands out there on the stage. What makes me feel more proud of everything is it's a tale of 50 years. We were laughing in the truck about a couple of the guys in the younger bands, like the guys from Foster The People. That guy looks like he just started in the Beach Boys. Here's this voice, and here's this interpretation. Some things are really the basics of what makes music keep going.

MR: And with The Beach Boys, it always does come down to the basics.

PR: Look at Brian Wilson and Mike Love, co-writing Pet Sounds. I drove in the car once with Paul McCartney. We had a two hour ride and we listened to Pet Sounds about 5 times. Albums weren't long then. You realize what the backbone of our industry is.

MR: Will you be wearing out the Smile Sessions too?

PR: Mark Linnet is supposed to bring me a copy at some point.

MR: After Brian Wilson's Smile documented how he envisioned it, as brilliant as it was, a lot of people were saying, "No, you've got to get the original back out." And strangely, without ever having been released, the somewhat mythical Smile had been in the culture for decades.

PR: Historically, we're in a very strange place, all of us. They put out a collection of albums I did with Billy Joel. I'm anxious to actually listen, just to see if they accurately copied it. If they didn't mix it again, it would be my pleasure.

MR: (laughs) No worries, I believe it was possibly remastered and mainly repackaged.

PR: Yeah, but the remastering and all of those words have to do with did you use the original quarter inch master.

MR: Exactly, or the concept becomes if they are using the flat masters that you produced, are they using your EQ notes? Your EQ notes are only relative to vinyl.

PR: They are very useless. I did a redo of Blood On The Tracks. My discussion with A&R was, "The Blood On The Tracks that you had out is not the same as what was available." I played it for them and said, "That is a Columbia tape." It's a copy, a master copy of a master. We were very meticulous. They usually throw away your tape sheets or they paste them on the back of the box, and ink runs. It's horrible. Fortunately, Dylan, in his storage, had exactly what was needed.

MR: Did he have the original masters there too?

PR: Yes, so the copy was at Columbia. The question we always had was, during the day, you were supposed to give them the original. Since the original always became a copy, I always said, "It's your history, it's your life, we should store this in some really good vault with temperature control. Alignment for me is probably as critical as you could ever talk about, whether it's half-inch, quarter-inch...those are words that people don't have much to deal with.

MR: And with Billy Joel's masters?

PR: The guy found a whole bunch of tapes that I used to run with Billy Joel. I used to get scolded for running two-inch tape all the time. They would say, "Why do you have twenty roles of tape?" I would say, "It's because he's writing, and he's better off writing in the studio by himself and with us than it is lugging a truck over to a guy's apartment in Manhattan. We do keep things. I used to call it the spare parts closet. He would say, "Do you remember that bridge that I wrote that you said would be a good bridge when we got stuck?" I would say, "Yeah, give me a minute." I would go back and find what was labeled as "If lost, this is a bridge." It's all of the souvenir stuff, but it's also--as I said to him the other day--it's like ringing the sponge out. It's great, but it should be an event and that's the market now. It's Bruce Springsteen, it's Elton John, it's a lot of stuff that was saved by accident. Some of the guys that worked with me would have two-track that was on the air but never used.

MR: So you were documenting and archiving from the beginning.

PR: I was kidding when I would say to the staff when we've done a rehearsal with the orchestra from two to five, and he shows up seven to ten. "I want you to start the tape machine when I give you a cue, which is when the car pulls into the parking lot." They would say, "Why?" I said, "We can record in an hour, if you get him coughing or saying something or singing eight bars that you're never going to get again. He's not famous for take two and four." I think if we hadn't, there are songs that aren't finished. I would love to get my hands on them, but now they are holy property.

MR: I bet there are projects that if Phil Ramone asked to mess with, labels would cough up the tapes.

PR: Legally, people have learned a lot, and some of the best books are like what you need to know about the business.

MR: Yeah, like Donald Passman's.

PR: I always tell Donald every time he puts out a new edition, "Here comes another class of people coming out of Berklee and Full Sail who know more than we do." It's great, I don't care about that. But I do care about who's watching the store when, at the Library of Congress, here come tapes of Kennedy talking. Fitting the room with a couple of omni directional mics, you're a young kid and you're saying, "Mr. President, some of the older presidents preservation is 16 millimeter film from news reels. Roosevelt had a broadcast every week." I said every word this President utters should be recorded.

MR: You initiated the new procedure?

PR: The procedure was done because when he would go into the rose garden and make an ad lib speech, nobody was there. I don't take credit for it, but I did say to the president at the time, "Can we get rid of all of these other mics? We should be feeding the PA system and the press." That's what kind of became the two-mic Shure system. It's amazing how simple it was. I watched when a certain company put in a condenser mic--I think it was President Johnson. We were outside and had a condenser mic with the weather in Washington in August being very muggy. It failed. The only thing that saved my life was I had something where he was standing, so his speech wasn't lost. That's when we initialized how it was going to be preserved and where it was going to be preserved. People donate their tapes and life work. There's now more of a budget for storage for tapes. I've been asking schools to make it a credited course. Let's say a kid comes in the first two years, he can volunteer every weekend and get paid to do proper transfers to digital.

MR: Excellent idea, really. You know, a major problem has been respectful and adequate tape storage for masters. Now we've got the same problem with hard drives.

PR: You have to exercise the hard drive.

MR: Exactly, so there's still a need for people to do maintenance, and if the labels won't take responsibility...well, I guess you've got UCLA and schools that have audio programs.

PR: If they invite us to make a speech or have a general class. One of the objects is really to pull out a 16-track. I've spoken to most places, they've basically discarded all of the analog. I said, "You know, you need to get four channels in analog, get the preamp and the amp, and let the guys learn what it's like to go into distortion land and have a problem--the first year of school, not the tenth year.

MR: By the way, I really admire your co-production on the latest Paul Simon album So Beautiful Or So What.

PR: It was pleasant. We took our time, which you have to appreciate with him. Last week's work doesn't make it to next week's work. I think a painter that works like that is really what he is.

MR: Production, in every medium, has to evolve.

PR: We can stuff more information into a young person because they're available. The computer taught them that from the first time they pick up an iPad. They are totally adept. The choices come quick. My son tries not to do it because he knows how annoying it is. He'd listen to one of those vocal contest shows, within 30 seconds, he'll say that's going nowhere and he's gone. I looked at him and said, "My rule is I listen to a verse and a chorus of every song someone sends me." That's why I say don't send me more than four. If it doesn't happen in those fifteen minutes... We have to give it that long. Some of us have to decide what that career could be, how much time it would take, how long would it take, what is the investment for the record company and the production company? Here's a little 16-year-old girl--we met her at 13--and by 15, I said we should make the record. By 17, her dad is saying it's doing okay, I don't want her to be a novelty. When she goes from 17 to being 18, she is going to be seen differently. The musicality is more important, so she can go through whatever awkward age it is, and we all do no matter what profession it is.

MR: Phil, what advice would you have for new artists?

PR: You have to do what's all in your history is available. You can go on iTunes and spend a week and go listen. For me, I ask them to send me the best seven to ten things they heard. It's not about how famous they became, what's good about that voice? You can be Adele, but you have to grow from something to be Adele. I've worked with a lot of young artists, and they're much quicker. The learning process is quicker because you can play them more things. You say, "Here, this is what this is, study it, imitate it, it's okay because you're not going to sing like that." I think you're seeing it on any of the reality talent shows, there's a lot of terrific talent. It's scary, because if you had a big record industry right now, they would all be signed. That's been the duty of record companies for years. The age level is dropping. You would see a pianist at 10 years old and it would scare the hell out of you or a girl singing opera at 11 years. What inspired it? How did it get there? We have to have a device that stores your music and performances. The big large building of twenty stories of marketing will be different, it's already different. As long as we keep making good music, then our standards won't change. Rihanna was on the show a couple years back. She has a phenomenal career. A lot of people are like that, Taylor Swift for instance. They learn through the process, they become so famous. Novelty is over at a certain age too, when you lose your cuteness, whatever that is. Having spent a few months with George Michael on the road? Wham! was as big an act as you could have in the early '80s and George is loved. He's still part of Wham! in one way, and here's this great songwriter and here's this great performer.

MR: What advice would you give young Phil Ramone?

PR: Take all challenges, and even if you're great in the studio, get yourself out of the studio to understand. Stand amongst ten thousand people that are screaming and try to mix. I say to everybody this is the standard. It's not going to be easier, I wish there was a second level that would be below a thousand people. I grew up where you went to clubs and there were ten tables, that's how rock 'n' roll was administered to people.

MR: Any last words of wisdom?

PR: The minute you shut off and start to read your reviews from the past, you start to get in trouble.

Transcribed by Theo Shier