The 10th anniversary of the passing of Phil Ramone at the age of 79 is upon us. A giant of the music industry, he was at the helm for a half-century of recordings by a who's who of popular music, recordings that sold well over 100 million copies.
Ramone passed away on March 30, 2013. He produced or engineered for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, Luciano Pavarotti, Natalie Cole, BB King, and Tony Bennett to name a few out of many.
A fixture at AES (Audio Engineering Society) conventions throughout his career, the 14-time Grammy Award-winner (with 33 nominations) was paid tribute at the 2013 convention with a series of presentations collectively called “What Would Ramone Do?” The seminars were assembled by The Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing, which he had chaired.
I interviewed Phil Ramone almost 20 years ago, initially for Medialine magazine, and then reprinted in a program guide for a surround sound conference that Ramone keynoted. (Portions of the interview also appeared in Gene Pitts’s The Audiophile Voice. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the studio where we talked. The interview follows, along with a bit of never-before-published material.
He Wouldn’t Interrupt Genius
Being a Dylan fanatic, I had to ask Ramone about engineering Blood On The Tracks. Dylan started to record the album at A&R Recording Studios in New York, then re-recorded five songs at Sound 80 in Minneapolis, although material from his original versions emerged officially in 2018 on Bootleg Series Vol. 14: More Blood, More Tracks.
Here’s a Copper exclusive: Phil Ramone revealed to me that he realized that a button on Dylan’s jacket was getting picked up by the mic while he strummed. At no point, not even after Dylan called the session as being done after listening to the playback, did Phil think to let Bob know. “I wasn’t going to interfere with his genius. My job was to engineer, not produce.”
On remixing Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks in 5.1 surround nearly 29 years after he engineered the original recording sessions, Ramone noted, “when I compared the original CD with the quarter-inch master tape, it was like night and day. Even the tempo and the speed of the tape accidentally in transfer went up an eighth of a tone. Well, that's enough to make anything sound a little Mickey Mouse; the voice does go up [in pitch]. The whole CD was off [as a] reference because of the generational thing that happens (transferring from one generation of recorded media to another). These are just small, but very important points to why we must hand-care [when transferring to] new media. It was a challenge to rehear it, and see what could have/should have been better.
[The 1974 recording sessions] were four nights of incredible music at the original A&R Studios, which were once Columbia Records Studios, where Dylan would feel most comfortable. [For the surround mix,] I spread the guitar the way it should be, him in the middle, and the bass player behind him. [It's as if] you're sitting 15 or 20 feet in front of Dylan. When you hear the Hammond [organ] or another guitar, it comes in appropriately in balance. Not to prove, ‘Wow, we got six speakers.’ It's not about that.”
Format-agnostic, Ramone had remixed not only Blood On The Tracks in 5.1 for Super Audio CD, but also Paul Simon's Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints for DVD-Audio. He had hoped the hi-res formats would figure out a way to peacefully coexist, to no avail.
At the time of this interview, Ramone was recording the soundtrack for the Bobby Darin biopic Beyond The Sea, starring and directed by Kevin Spacey, and had recently produced tracks for Rod Stewart's hit album As Time Goes By: The Great American Songbook, Volume II.
Ramone’s Observations About the Changing Biz:
On the challenge of file sharing: “The music industry needs to embrace new business models. Young peoples’ musical tastes are being fed a tremendous amount. Young people will accept almost minimal quality for the enjoyment of [being able to access the music]. [Downloadable] singles for a buck? Nothing wrong with it. Do the royalty structures get screwed around? Probably, but better that way than to have them blatantly taken away from you from a copyright point of view, a production point of view, and an artistic point of view. Can we remember back in the '60s when singles drove the market? Singles were an invitation, after hearing two or three of them, to buying the album. Yes, the impression that [internet downloading is] all free has been a misnomer. How do you readjust music to people?”
On how much time the CD has left as a medium (remember, this was in the early 2000s): “God forbid you'd say today that the CD will be gone soon. [The music industry] had a 25-year ride on the CD. Not bad. They had 25 years on the LP. All of these inventions are part of our culture. I never thought that it was appropriate for us (the music industry) to stop each new invention. You can't put business and commerce over here, and the art over there.”
On surround mixes as a selling point: “I've always maintained, in many ways naively, that when the quality is there, you gain a loyal audience. All I ask for is to let the audience experience home theater in a store, and let [surround] music be the demo. Just wait until they have the portable 5.1 headset version. I think all of this is making music appealing.”
On the quality of the first CDs: “Did they make bad, problematic CDs in the beginning? Absolutely. Some transfers from audio tape to CD were done carelessly, or had been done from a safety (master copy) that had been equalized for an LP. It took months and months for the record companies to realize, that's not the master. Some used second-generation copy masters, which meant they were made for cutting-room purposes. So they had this ridiculous EQ, and then suddenly people were saying the CDs were ‘mean-sounding, brittle.’ Yes, of course. To this day, I'm very critical of how we transfer good control room sound to the audience.”
On the critical nature of digital transfers: “The making of a CD [or currently, a digital file as well] is not just a transfer, but an art form. The people who make masters are very craft-worthy about how it gets to manufacturing. And now when you get to [a] 5.1 [mix], it's even 50 times more critical because the transfer of the original multi-track, if you don't do it yourself or supervise the process, could be off the EQ or the curve of the original recording…a compromise of what the original tape sounds like.”
On how Billy Joel's 52nd Street was selected to be the first-ever commercial CD to be released (on October 1, 1982): “I was in Japan the year before and had met with Sony, and came home with some classical records on CD. I was asked the question: "what would happen if CDs were presented in the US?" I said, "simply, it has to come into the pop market." Billy Joel was as popular as any artist you can think of. Sony was partners at the time with CBS, so it was a natural to have a CBS/Columbia act to be the first CD. The Stranger (also produced by Ramone) and 52nd Street were both in consideration. The sound of the record was a factor. Nobody knew if it would even translate well, and there weren't many people who had a CD player then. So, we knew it would reach a very limited audience. But you had to start sometime. The rest is history.”
Phil’s Tech Achievements
One of Ramone’s final projects was producing Mexican singing sensation Alejandro Fernández’s Confidencias, which topped Billboard’s Latin Pop charts. The album featured guests Christina Aguilera and Rod Stewart.
Since the early 1960s, Ramone played an integral role in pioneering many of the recording industry's technological developments. His achievements include the first use of a solid-state console for recording and mastering; the first Dolby four-track discrete sound for the 1976 movie A Star Is Born, (for which he connected, for the first time, a movie studio and post-production facility via satellite); the first Dolby optical surround sound for the 1980 Paul Simon movie One Trick Pony; the first use of live digital recording for Billy Joel's Songs in the Attic, and the first use of a fiber optic system to record tracks in real time from different locations for Sinatra's Duets I and Duets II.
Besides being a studio innovator, Ramone made an impact on concert audio (Simon and Garfunkel’s Central Park concert), film sound (Midnight Cowboy, Flashdance, and Reds, among others), TV (numerous awards shows), and even American history. Ramone designed the Oval Office recording system that hastened President Nixon’s resignation after the Watergate scandal.
For more about Phil Ramone, please see John Seetoo’s review of Ramone’s book, Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Vinyl in Issue 162.
Header image of Phil Ramone courtesy of AES.