The Phil Ramone Interview

April 22, 2013 11:58:19 PM PDT

Like many in the recording industry, we were deeply saddened to hear about the passing of the legendary Phil Ramone. The 14-time Grammy-winning producer, who worked with everyone from Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand to Billy Joel and Paul Simon, not only left an indelible mark on the music he shaped, but on the people with whom he worked with tirelessly to create it.

We were lucky enough to chat with Phil Ramone in 2008 at the NAMM Show in Anaheim, California. At the time he was at the Universal Audio booth, signing copies of his memoir, Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music. We discussed the influence of UA founder, Bill Putnam Sr., on his early recording career, and the state of the rapidly changing music industry after the advent of MP3 file sharing.

Phil Ramone passed away on March 30, 2013,
at the age of 79.

Phil, I read your book over the weekend. It was incredible. I had no idea that you had so much live sound experience. It's a pretty amazing career you've had.

Thank you. I'm very fortunate.

Documenting the history of recording has become really important for Universal Audio. It's amazing how much recording has changed in our lifetime, and that it's still all relatively new. Tell me about the first time you met Bill Putnam.

Well, I was a young punk in New York, making a fair amount of records. For me, Putnam's "sound" from the Universal Recording studio in Chicago was probably the greatest thing I'd ever heard. He was very much an idol for me, along with a couple of other guys that really took me under their tutorial wing, like Tom Dowd and the great mixers in New York.

The guy who put money into my studio — what became A&R Recording — was a good friend of Bill's. I was introduced to Bill, and he said, "Well, I'm going to record Sinatra. Why don't you just be my tape operator and people won’t ask who the hell you are." [Laughs.]

I was cheerfully running the tape machine, but more importantly, I got to talk to him a lot in that week. There was also a young artist named Joanie Summers, who was about 16 at the time, and we did a song called "Makin' Whoopee." He set new goals for me because of the calmness in which he operated. His demeanor is half of what you got to know when you were sitting there with Bill. The other half of him is his gear; he invented it, he used some unusual things. He let me have one of his preamps later on down the line. Then I begged him for a chance to try his limiter.

Those two pieces of gear really set the pace for what quality was. He got a brass sound like no one else in the world — just unbelievable. The designs of the rooms in Ocean Way Studios still speak to me. To this day, when I'm down there in Room B, when I put in a large orchestra — I did one with Natalie Cole — it still speaks to me. It's not just Bill's ghost. United Recorders had a great sound — that room and him, and the console, and how he laid out the speakers, that kind of speaker protrusion that went into the studio. That was the first 3-track, really, that you could really hear left, center, and right.

I think so many people have no real knowledge about him. When he was given a special award at the Grammys a few years ago, I begged them to let me introduce the piece. That was a special evening.

“Nobody’s messed with Putnam’s rooms, even now. You can [still] go into those rooms and say to yourself, 'This was designed by somebody who took the music first, and really made it work.'"

Was he generous with knowledge?

Oh yeah. He was a no-nonsense guy. His relationship with the band, Billy May, and Frank was just the kind of thing that I needed to get my young brain around. There are things that get put in your life and sometimes you don't watch and hear what they're saying because you get distracted. I wish I'd had a telephoto lens on Putnam and another on the relationship he had with the sound. They didn't do extra takes because Bill never had a problem. None. That told me a lot as an engineer. Obviously everybody that worked around Universal Recording was absolutely trained.

Later on, when I did a session at what was then called United Western Recorders — I begged him, I said, "I want to do a big date, can I get Western One?" Western One was an unbelievable room. He had converted it from an old radio studio. It had theater seating and everything else. That building has an interesting history. It's interesting to see what they're doing with it now.

What are they doing with it?

They've been doing lots of renovation and cosmetic work, but they're trying to retain the character of the rooms. They brought in Scott Putnam, one of the older sons. He does studio design, and they had him consult on keeping the rooms with their original character.

So is that EastWest, that company?

Yeah. And they're going to operate it as a commercial studio called EastWest Studios. I think it's supposed to open this spring. That should be interesting.

Oh yeah. I did an album a couple years back called Singing With the Big Bands, with Barry Manilow. We did one date in there, and they were kind enough to let me have some 10002 microphones [RCA Electrostatic Type MI-10002]; three of them, so I could do an honest recording, straight-as they would have in the '40s.

That room is just so sweet. If you play to the room and actually play to the right balance, the conductor's your person. You're on. It's a great room. Incredibly live, but also very, very controllable. I had some fun in that room. But you know, I think Putnam's room in Chicago is one of the best. When Bill had the original Universal, after he left Chicago, I recorded in there with Paul Simon once with a big choir. You know Bill — he had a magical touch. There are a lot of great studio designers, and it's not about how expensive the diffusers or the bass traps were. He used a much simpler approach, but boy, did it sound good. He was a musician's engineer. I never heard anything negative about him.

There's a small Bill Putnam-designed studio in San Francisco called Coast Recorders. It’s been through numerous hands and some young guys bought it about six months ago. I went over to check it out, to see what they're doing. They are really trying to retain the character and keep the tradition alive. They have racks of UA gear!

I love that stuff in your book about your studio, A&R Recording. That sounds like an amazing time.

It was. I had no acoustic degrees by the formal world, but when guys would come in and shoot ping-pong balls, and check for bounces and all this other stuff, they would say to me, "So where do you learn that?" And I would say, "From really good rooms."

The beauty of it is that nobody's messed with Putnam’s rooms, even now. You can go in that room, and you can say to yourself, "This was designed by somebody who took the music first, and really made it work." I studied his first echo-chamber sounds from those first records. I thought if you could get music and an echo to work together it would be great. Of course I overexaggerated it in a lot of records that were big hits, but I understood the delays and things that he put into his chamber was really fantastic. The chamber in Universal was gorgeous. It'd make most singers really feel like they're inside the band, but right up front. 

Do you have any Universal Audio hardware that you use regularly?

I've gotten to the point now where I'm experimenting with the plug-ins because I travel so much. And obviously, when there's a studio that has some of the older gear, you can't expect all the older gear to survive. A lot of it does. It’s like the weekend special car they keep only in the garage for people like me. [Laughs.] There are studios that seem to be doing both.

Phil Ramone with the Putnam children (Scott, Bill, Sue, and Jim), accepting
the posthumous Technical Lifetime Achievement Grammy for Bill Putnam Sr.

The ideal in our lifetime is what you guys at UA have done. I think that's the key to it. It’s hard to say to somebody, "This sounds like an LA-3A, or it doesn't sound like an LA-3A." It's so inside your head about what you think it sounds like. And you don't want new colorations unless it's better. Every time I walk out of the garage in New York where I park, there's a Manny's next door and Sam Ash and they still have the same rack of gear in the front window, it hasn't moved in years. But I see my own son who just turned 25, and I see how he shops and what he shops for. He's very much in the world of today's plug-ins. He lives by that. 

If I ever were to say something that Putnam showed me was that with a good preamp and a good limiter, you're on your way. And don't let anything that doesn’t need to color the vocal be heard between that and the signal flow. And, if you're careful, and you don't hit the levels that people think is necessary for a vocal, you come up with this pristine-sounding vocal. I defy anybody to not talk about all those albums that we recorded with Frank Sinatra when Reprise started and he redid his catalogue. It was incredible to listen to. There's no overdubbing. There's no "strings versus non-strings" in the room — you don't lose them when the brass plays. Also, there was very careful use of any compression. You'd be hard pressed to tell me where the compression is.

But that really set the pace. From the hardest rock ‘n roll that came through those doors, you could still feel the difference. And when you go into some of the heavy-metal studios and the like, you'll see vintage gear. But the sadness of today is watching these studios fold. I walked into a studio the other day and the console went for five grand. You know, somebody's going to keep it up and just put it in their basement, or their house, or garage. The psychological thing is the hardest part.

Are you using any UAD Plug-Ins?

Oh yes. The LA-2A and 1176 especially. I work with Frank Filipetti a lot and he runs four UAD cards. The newer engineers are starting to understand that focus on the usage of color and paint. How you paint and what you paint with is all based on what you’re hearing. When you use UAD or any kind of device, your ears are telling you whether this vocal is going to be pristine, or if it is going to be colored with something that you don't need.

I'm a nutcase about the sense of what music it is. If you're doing a hard rock ‘n roll record, you're looking for effects and sounds. Frank loves to pound the equipment, so I sit with him a lot and as some new gear or new plug-in comes in, sometimes we take two days to formulate where we're going. And then something happens, and we find the basis of how the rhythm should sound, whether we're putting the snare through something. That’s kind of the way I work, and I can work rather rapidly. That's a Putnam specialty. That's where I came from. Frank is much younger and has a different approach to things, but we've all learned our lessons about what speed and reliability is.

Do you have any ideas on what the record industry should do these days?

Yeah. Pay attention to the audience, not be so paranoid. I think the line changed six, seven years ago. You can't make the audience the enemy. If they're going to copy and steal, nobody wants that, but how do we train people to understand? Most people will pay to go to a concert — you don't see them jumping over the turnstiles. And when they go to the grocery store they pay for their food. So it's not a habit lost. Maybe, for instance, the price of what you got for your money is one of the problems. We have to have alternative distribution, I think. It's paramount in our thinking. And we have to go around the country and start putting good sound in junior high schools. Let them actually hear it.

“The better one will follow, that’s the rule.
You gotta at least step up. If you have a hot period,
great, but you must step up to the plate and invent.”

People are asking why you care so much about high-resolution recording and delivery when most consumers are just listening on an iPod. The consumer doesn't seem to care — they’re happy with MP3s.

You gotta argue that point! When television first created its sound, a lot of us were hired as consultants. But there was nothing better than the mono TVs with the little inch-and-a-half to three-inch speakers. It was really tough to beat. And when they introduced FM radio, people didn't flock to it right away. But once they found "the sound,” you gotta give credit to the people who created and made better-sounding gear to hear it on. 

The car is a haven. Ten, fifteen years ago, it was the worst place to ever play a cassette or anything else. It was disgusting.

People would call you after you finished a mix, and they'd say, "This thing doesn't sound good." And I'd say, "Well, where are you listening to it? Where is the problem, and what are you listening to it on?"

And of course it was usually the same thing. It's not better or worse than it was — MP3 versus a cassette versus ear buds. I say to people, "Yeah, but when you get home, do you watch the HDTV?"

"Oh, yeah," they say.

I say, "Well you can't put that on three-inch screens,” although the iPhone does manage to compress it and make it look pretty good.

So saying it'll never be better — I heard that for years. We used to make records, and we had two radios sitting on the console so we could hear what would happen with the compression. We’d have 1176s across both channels and listen to it while compressing it 'til it was almost flat to the screen, just one and a half to two dB of movement. That was the way I used to find out what was going to happen to my work on the radio.

And a lot of times people said, "Why do you mix for that media?"

I said, "Because 80 percent of what we do gets heard on radio."

Some of the stations started calling people like myself to make the studio and the radio try to match. It was a very difficult stage, but FM really got going, and a lot of concerts and other things that were being broadcast became a much better standard. I'll take a tour through the studio with some kids, sit them down in the center seat, and say, "Here. Here's what you just bought. Now, listen to how it really sounds." Why wouldn't you want to do that?

They go to concerts now. Concerts used to be atrocious and they're not anymore. They're loud, but if a good mixer's mixing, you're going to love that night. I mean, you might burn your ears a bit, but that's the point. Record companies have to change the paradigm. It really shifted around 2000-2001. I have nieces and nephews, all now approaching 10 to 15 years old and they know the house rule — you're not going to rip off anything and not pay for it. It's a no-no.

I say it with all due respect — the record companies have done beautifully for fifty years, whichever way they ran their business. It's time to realize there is a better way, or a different way, to service a country. And then there’s the amount of time people have to give you, the amount of excess time they have is cut more than half. It's not about attention span. There are so many things to do … "I've gotta run, and then I've gotta pick up the kids, and then I've gotta do this, and then, oh yeah, maybe I'll buy a CD, maybe not. You know, I just love that one song that so-and-so sings.” I think that's important for us to understand.
Well, thank you so much. You are always a wealth of knowledge and history. Good luck to your son as well, sounds like he’s been busy.

I promise you that both of us will. I don't know if we'll unite together in the same studio, but he's producing, and I stopped in to see what he was doing, and I said, "OK, I'd love to hear it in two weeks." It's hard to be father and son. I don't think that's an easy role.

You're a hard act to follow.

The better one will follow, that’s the rule. You gotta at least step up. If you have a hot period, great, but you must step up to the plate and invent. And musically, it's where you have to go now. His reference is much better than mine was growing up, not that I had any problem. But the reference of music from the last fifty years really is a pretty good playground.

— Marsha Vdovin