When people use the phrase "...it's the end of era" with regards to someone's passing, it's almost always a respectful exaggeration. But with Phil Ramone's recent death, it's the definition of "The End Of An Era," and I'm sure most who consider themselves pop music aficionados would agree.
I personally was saddened by the iconic producer/engineer/mastermind's recent passing not only because I kind of bonded with him during our two interviews together, but also because his sonic fingerprints are all over so much of the music I grew up on. Also, during our first interview, he personally schooled me on how to trade the "planned questions" approach in favor of a more coherent, "conversational" style, an approach I used ever since.
Presented here are those interviews I mentioned that might give you some insight into the man, his talent, his humor, and pop music history from his perspective. In addition to my original posts, I've included the first interview's intro paragraphs to give readers a two-second prep.
If you've ever read his Friday Huffington Post column 'Dog Ears Music,' you're aware that Phil Ramone is fond of some pretty great records. Every week, he and Danielle Evin suggest albums and tracks from various decades that deserve attention as they happily update music lovers on artists' gems and buried treasures. His weekly advisories immediately proliferate across the internet, no surprise to his admirers and contemporaries since all of his work is backed by an intense knowledge of music and a history of godfathering some of the best recordings ever made.
Over the years, this innovative producer and engineer has been at the board behind many classic records, earning fifteen Grammy awards that began with "Best Engineered Recording" for his skills on the legendary Getz/Gilberto album. He is credited as a technical innovator for introducing optical surround sound, as a pioneer of the compact disc, and for practically reinventing the way '70s singer-songwriters presented the sonic side of their art. To this day, records bearing the brand "Produced by Phil Ramone" are guaranteed to have musical sophistication, impeccable sound, and a recording artist represented in the best possible light.
A Conversation with Phil Ramone
Originally Posted October 16, 2009
Mike Ragogna: On the recent compilation you produced, What Love Can Do, artists such as Burt Bacharach, Eric Clapton, Kris Kristofferson, and Brian Wilson participated. The title track was written by Wilson and Bacharach which makes the event pretty newsworthy. What are your thoughts on Brian Wilson?
Phil Ramone: A few years ago, there was a celebration of Brian's work at Radio City, and it had Elton John, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, George Martin...that was the re-establishing of Brian. He not only is a great writer, but I think a great producer. I heard the band he was working with, and I thought this was the greatest thing I'd heard in years. Brian was just beginning to perform again.
George Martin and I were brought in to produce the "Jubilee For The Queen," a show at Buckingham Palace that was performed live on the lawn in front of 10,000 people. The place went crazy when Brian performed, and he had a complete resurgence in Europe because of The Beatles and everyone that had given him so much credit for Pet Sounds, etc. I remember Paul McCartney and I driving from London to the South of England. It was an hour-and-a-half drive, and we sat there in the back of his car playing Pet Sounds saying look at how it changed all of our lives.
I've worked with Brian off and on over the last five years. We did a tribute to him at MusiCares, and at their request, he had written out a book of his words and music. It was beautiful--all handwritten and signed by him--and they did it as a live auction to see if it would do anything big. People thought five or ten grand would be a wonderful bid. When it got up to 25-30,000, I thought, "Oh my God!"
The guy's work was not only artistically interesting but beautifully done as well. Brian had been a major point of reference in music in so many people's lives. When we did this record, when the label asked, "Would you talk to him about doing this?" he had just written that song three or four months back with Burt Bacharach. And it was kind of ironic that we had recorded it in the same studio where Brian made his first famous recordings. He's an amazing guy.
MR: You also have been at the heart of a lot of important recordings, producing classic albums by so many significant artists. When you read "Produced by Phil Ramone" on records by Billy Joel, Paul Simon, etc., it's pretty clear that there's something about your "sound" that helped these artists organize and clarify what they were trying to communicate. What was your role with regards to bringing their creativity front and center?
PR: It's a matter of trust. When an artist feels as comfortable as they can be, better things come from it. So that when you do make a remark--like "that's really good" or "that's wonderful"--it has to ring true because, when they get to be famous, they hear a lot of wonderful things, but those aren't the things they tend to listen to. They listen to the criticisms.
MR: But you take on the role of advisor and they obviously respect your guidance.
PR: I think from the beginnings of working with an artist, no matter how many records you make that have done really well, every day is a new day. And for that artist sitting there getting a constructive piece of information--sometimes it comes from a look from both of us, when something just doesn't ring true--I think that's probably the most important role that any producer plays for them. You know, how do you say to someone, "I think you can be better?" It's the way you say it. I started in the musical world by studying music and engineering a lot of projects, and I watched other people work and saw that one remark could turn an artist off, like looking at the clock too tightly. These things become part of the project if you do that.
MR: Yet there's a schedule you have to keep.
PR: To this day, after all these years, people say, "Are we going to run overtime?" or "Is this going to cost us a lot of money?" and I go, "I don't know, but I know that if it's inspired, it can happen in ten minutes or it can happen in hours." That's the unpredictable. Those artists you mentioned are all people who are known for taking their time to do it well. It gets harder with more success, of course. I remember working with clients who wouldn't spend the extra half-a-day or the extra hour, and sometimes a mix went out and I'd go crazy. Every time I heard it on the radio, I'd keep thinking, "If I only had that extra twenty minutes..."
MR: Well what happens when it's a hit?
PR: I'm happy for the hit, but I know we could have done better.
MR: There are certain sonics, such as the sustained reverb on Paul Simon or Phoebe Snow's cymbals or your rounded guitar ring-offs that add to the song's interpretation. It seems like these nuances in your productions add to an artist's dialog with the listener.
PR: It's funny but I've been working with Paul Simon recently, and I reminded him there was a certain "sizzle" cymbal that could be placed where "air" would be created, where the mind and emotions could feel it. I just know that the atmosphere you create is critical, and space works just as well as a musical note.
MR: It's clear you injected a "grown-up" sound, an elegance or "jazz" into pop music.
PR: Soloists were free to play what they felt, and jazz is all about that. It's free, and rock 'n' roll was supposed to stand for freedom. The creativity of rock 'n' roll soloists was similar to that in the world of jazz.
MR: Another side of your work includes an Anne Murray duets album on which she revisits many of her best-loved hits. Have you previously worked with her?
PR: I met Anne Murray a long, long time ago when I was a young engineer. I'd done a show with her and Engelbert Humperdink in Bermuda, and this was in the day when guys like me would be called to do the insane jobs. Engelbert was doing a song on a Bermuda racer, and nobody told me that I was going to be tied to the mast and record the vocal 90 degrees to the water. Meanwhile, I'm recording him live against the track, and the next day, I'm working with Anne Murray and him in a carriage...you know, it was one of those horse-and-carriage songs. I'm being driven in a golf cart, and, for some reason, my instinct told me this horse was not going to just keep trotting. He suddenly broke into a higher gate, and I told the driver, "Move it, move it, we're gonna get blown over!" Fortunately we went into a ditch and the horse and carriage went right by us. Anne said, "I thought for a moment, you were gone!"
MR: How did this new project come your way?
PR: I hadn't seen her for twenty-some-odd years, and then her manager called me and said, "Anne wants to do a duet album, all women." Well, she and Karen Carpenter had original sounding voices. If you analyze the music, it's all about how quickly the individual voice is recognized when you hear it, and she's got one of those voices. And I heard she was a super-professional. Everyone I ever met from Canada asked, "Have you ever worked with Anne Murray?" and I'd say, "Very little," and they'd say, "Boy, is she efficient." She's on time, she gets to the gig, and if you start wasting time or do too many jokes, you'll know that she wants to get this thing done right. We just hit it off from the first day and we talked about the best way to do it. The key to an artist redoing their own material is similar to what Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, or any of those guys had to do. You have to bring something new to it, like how you share the song, when the harmonies make sense. She was very willing to sing what was needed to make sure the story worked. There wasn't an ego problem, like "I have to sing those lines" or "those are my lines," nothing like that. It was all about the story and Anne letting her guest sing those lines and she'd sing the answer.
MR: How did you work up the arrangements before recording them?
PR: She has a wonderful daughter named Dawn (Langstroth), and I made demos with the two of them so that everyone would know what the arrangement was, what would get changed-up, if things were in different keys.
MR: You've also been working with Nikki Yonofsky?
PR: Oh yeah. I heard her when she was thirteen, recorded her a lot when she was fourteen, and I'm still recording the album. I would suspect it'll be out this year or the beginning of next year. Things just change, you know, from fourteen to fifteen, there's a huge change in a woman, both physically and vocally. The voice has matured. When I first met her then started working with her, she said, "What makes a great artist?" I said, "Some of them are just great singers, like Ella Fitzgerald and folks like that. But the ultimate, if you can do it, is to learn to become a good writer, and then you've got everything you could ever think of." It's a hard road to hoe, but she's doing it, and she'll come out on top. She's being introduced to a lot of good, young writers which is a great development. You couldn't go to a better school to learn to write a song.
MR: Can you talk a little about the Shelby Lynne album you produced that's a tribute to Dusty Springfield?
PR: Yeah, that's one of her more interesting and wonderful records. She's one of everybody's favorite singers, and her love for Dusty is the same thing that I found. I mean, Dusty In Memphis is one of the great albums of the seventies. Shelby's got a lot of those attributes too, and we cut the album in a week. I think every musician that played on it and everybody that was in the building at Capitol Studios where we recorded it would come in and ask if they could just listen for a couple of minutes. It was the talk of the town. She came in one day and said, "Can you believe the label put out a vinyl version of the record? And it became the #2 record in the vinyl world!" I said, "What's the #1 record?" and she said, "The Beatles." Not bad, not bad!
MR: What are your thoughts on vinyl?
PR: Vinyl has its own cult of people now.
MR: And it's being marketed to a younger demo where it's a first go-round with the medium.
PR: My nephews and nieces are all young. The ones that are nine and ten see it in the DJ world. They see the sixteen-year-olds play a lot of hip-hop music on two or three turntables. So, they wanted a vinyl turntable to go right into their iPods. There is a side to it that I like because how the 12" albums work is interesting.
MR: I imagine you develop close personal relationships with the artists you work with, for example, Billy Joel. You guys are pals to this day, right?
PR: Oh yeah, we sure are. We both had birthdays recently, and I said, "Did we ever think any of us would be plus thirty?" We started really young together.
MR: When you worked with him, the story goes that you gained his confidence by insisting that his band be on his record. The Stranger validates that approach and created what became the Billy Joel sound. Did your relationship and his trust in you allow you to be completely honest with him?
PR: I always felt completely open to saying exactly what was on my mind. If he and I were looking across the table after working hours on a song, and the question came up, "Is this bridge bulls**t?" in a British accent, I would reply, "I'm afraid so."
MR: How did applying that kind of honesty affect his writing?
PR: I've always said that an audience figures out an artist, they do. The more pretentious they become, the more obvious it is that that's what's hanging out. That's why he couldn't write a bad lyric. It's part of his character to scrutinize his words and his music.
MR: And an additional payoff is that feeling of satisfaction when a project is completed, right?
PR: I always took an album and said, "Okay, we did a good piece of work here. Hopefully, he'll call again."
MR: Alongside your film and music productions, you write a column for The Huffington Post's entertainment page. In your own words, what's the purpose of the column?
PR: Dog Ears is a column that Danielle Evin and I write as a series of recommendations and insights into some great artists' songs from current to past eras. There are many songs that don't get heard, and Dog Ears is meant to evoke interest in them, it's not a column of criticism. It explores music that we both love, and it's like a treasure hunt.
A Conversation with Phil Ramone at The 2012 Grammys Prep
Originally Posted February 14, 2012
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: 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: 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
DEBUTING H.D. HARMSEN'S VIDEO "TEETOTALER"
So here's what someone who knows a little somethin' about a certain Iowa artist has to say about the act...
"There's no one else like Des Moines, Iowa's H.D. Harmsen. He stands over a precipitous divide, one foot balanced on the shoulders of the Gershwin brothers and another in the hands of Lou Reed, with Brian Wilson calmly whispering words of encouragement. Harmsen is one of the few songwriters bridging the gap of the classic American songbook with the ever-curious wave of progressivism rippling through this country's underground scenes and splashing every couple weeks onto the music media's radar. Harmsen proudly holds up the flag of the power of music, smiling with glee and embracing sentimentality. And these aren't just words. The music stands behind him. With an album that features everything from strings-laden chamber pop to Tin Pan Alley to crunchy rock and roll and folk-punk love songs, it's like a modern day White Album, Harmsen shows he's sings what he means and he means what he sings. The debut record from H.D. Harmsen serves as a portrait of the artist as a mature musician, and a bedrock for the shape of Harmsen's work to come."
Okay, so now you know. Here is the debut of the video for the song, "Teetotaler," featuring H.D. Harmsen fronting a 1920's era jazz band, screaming in discontent about only pursuing a life in rock 'n' roll, with no sex and drugs involved. The video was directed, shot, and edited in beautiful black and white by Patrick Tape Fleming, and the debut record Papoose will be released on April 30th from Maximum Ames Records.
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