Interview: Producer/Engineer Eddie Kramer (Part 1)
By Anderton |
Yes, Eddie Kramer is a part of history — but what’s he’s doing today will be tomorrow’s history
By Craig Anderton
About 20 seconds into the interview, Eddie says the mic sound from my hands-free phone adapter thingie is “…shall we say, not of the best quality.” So I adjusted the mic placement until Eddie was happier with the sound.
Nit-picky prima donna? Absolutely not. He’s just a very nice guy who’s unfailingly polite and helpful. Articulate, too. And that’s about 80% of what you need to know about Eddie: He really, really cares about sound, even if it’s just an interviewer’s mic.
Which is probably what helps account for the other 20% you really need to know: He’s been behind the boards for some of the most significant musicians of our time, including Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Buddy Guy, Kiss, Peter Frampton, the Beatles, AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, Carly Simon, Traffic, Joe Cocker, David Bowie, Johnny Winter, Bad Company, Sammy Davis Jr., the Kinks, Petula Clark, the Small Faces, Vanilla Fudge, NRBQ, the Woodstock festival, John Mayall, Derek & the Dominoes, Santana, Curtis Mayfield, Buddy Guy, Anthrax, Twisted Sister, Ace Frehley, Alcatraz, Triumph, Robin Trower, and Whitesnake. And let’s talk versatility: country act the Kentucky Headhunters, and classical guitarist John Williams. (For more information, there’s a short-form bio on Wikipedia.) And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as he’s documented much of what he’s done with an incredible body of work as a photographer. You can find out a lot more about Eddie, including his latest F-Pedals project, at his web site.
Given his history, if you think he lives in the past, you’d be one-third right. Another third lives in the present, and the remaining third in the future. During the course of an interview, you can find yourself in 1968 one minute, and 2016 the next. Cool.
Eddie has enough savvy to know when it’s important to just go with the flow. Like that famous moment in “Whole Lotta Love” where you hear Robert Plant’s voice way in the background during the break. Print-through? An effect they slaved over for days?
“The time of that particular mix was 1969, and this all took place over a weekend at A&R studios in New York. Imagine [mixing] the entire Led Zeppelin II on 8 tracks in two days! As we got into “Whole Lotta Love,” I actually only ended up using seven tracks because tracks 7 and 8 were two vocal tracks. I think I used the vocal from track 7. We’d gotten the mix going, I believe it was a 12-chanel console with two panpots.
“During the mixdown, I couldn’t get rid of the extra vocal in the break that was bleeding through. Either the fader was bad, or the level was fairly high — as we were wont to do is those days, we hit the tape with pretty high levels. Jimmy [Page] and I looked at each other and said “reverb,” and we cranked up the reverb and left it in. That was a great example of how accidents could become part of the fabric of your mix, or in this case, a part of history. And I always encourage people today not to be so bloody picky.”
Eddie has this wacky idea that the music is actually the important part of the recording process, not editing the living daylights out of it. To wit: “We’re living in the age of [computer-based programs like] Pro Tools, where we can spend hours, day, even weeks on end fixing all the little ‘mistakes.’ And by that time, you’ve taken all of the life out of the music. I don’t want to come off as trashing [Digidesign], but I feel that Pro Tools — which is a wonderful device — has its limitations in certain aspects.”
And what might that main limitation be?
“The people using it! And it becomes a sort of psychological battle . . . yes I can stretch that drum fill or performance [with bad timing], or I can effectively make a bad vocal sound reasonably decent, but what the hell is the point? Why didn’t the drummer play it right in the first place? Why didn’t the singer sing it right in the first place?
“And that begs the question, do we have too many choices . . . and when we do, we sit there thinking ‘we can make it better.’ But for God’s sake, make it better in the performance! I want musicians who will look each other in the face, eyeball to eyeball, and I want interaction. I want these guys to be able to play their instruments properly, and I want them to be able to make corrections on the fly. If I say ‘In the second chorus, could you double up that part?’ I don’t want the guitarist giving me a blank look.
“Learn your bloody craft, mates! The way we’re recording today does in fact give a tremendous amount of freedom to create in an atmosphere of relaxed inspiration. The individual can record in very primitive circumstances — bathrooms, garages, hall closets. Unfortunately for a lot of people, this means doing it one track at a time, which I think makes the final product sound very computerized and not organic. The other side of the coin is that many bands can think in terms of ‘let’s find a fairly decent acoustic space, set up mics, look each other in the eyes, and hit record.’”
MIXED OUT, MIXED DOWN . . . OR MIXED UP?
Ah, the lost art of mixing. If all you do is tweak envelopes with a mouse, that’s not mixing — that’s editing. If you think Eddie Kramer is a fix-it-in-the-mix kinda guy, you haven’t been paying attention. But there’s more.
“One of the most exciting things as an engineer is to create that sound as it’s happening; having a great-sounding board, set of mics, and acoustic environment can lead one to a higher plane . . . when you hear the sound of the mixed instruments — not each individual mic — and get the sound now, while it’s happening. I don’t want to have to bugger around with the sound after the fact, other than mixing. There’s a thrill in getting a sound that’s unique to that particular situation.
“The idea of mixing ‘in the box’ is anathema. It defeats the purpose of using one’s hand and fingers in an instinctive mode of communication. I am primarily a musician at heart; the technology is an ancillary part of what I do, a means to an end. I want to feel like I’m creating something with my hands, my ears, my eyes, my whole being. I can’t do that solely within the box. It’s counter-intuitive and alien. However, I do use some of the items within the box as addenda to the creative process. It lets me mix with some sounds I would normally not be able to get.”
So do you use control surfaces when you’re working with computers, or go the console route?
“Only consoles. I love to record with vintage Neve, 24-track Dolby SR [noise reduction] at 15 IPS, then I dump it into Pro Tools or whatever system is available, and continue from that point. If the budget permits, I’ll lock the multitrack with the computer. I’d rather mix on an SSL; they’re flexible and easy to work. I like the combination of the vintage Neve sound with the SSL’s crispness. And then I mix down to an ATR reel-to-reel, running at 15 IPS with Dolby SR.
“With the SSL, I’m always updating, always in contact with the faders. I always hear little things that I can tweak. To me, mixing is a living process. If you’re mixing in the moment, you get inspired. I just wish I could do more mixes in 4-5 hours instead of 12, but some bands want to throw you 100 tracks. Sometimes I wish we could put a moratorium on the recording industry — you have three hours and eight tracks! [laughs] I’m joking of course, but . . .
“On ‘Electric Ladyland,’ ‘1983’ was a ‘performance’ mix: four hands, Jimi and myself. We did that in maybe one take. And the reason why was because we rehearsed the mix, as if it was a performance. We didn’t actually record the mix until we had our [act] together. We were laughing when we got through the 14 minutes or so. Of course, sometimes I would chop up two-track mixes and put pieces together. But those pieces had to be good.”
So do you mix with your eyes closed or open?
“The only time I close my eyes when mixing is when I’m panning something. I know which way the note has to flip from one side to the other; panning is an art, and you have to be able to sense where the music is going to do the panning properly.”
(to be continued)