Eddie Kramer Never Stops

Oct 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson


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One certainly wouldn't blame this year's TEC Hall of Fame inductee — engineer and producer Eddie Kramer — if he wanted to slow down a bit. After all, he turned 61 this past April, and he doesn't have anything to prove to anyone. He's done it all. In the '60s, he worked with The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Traffic, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, to name a few, and he was a principal engineer at Woodstock. In the '70s, he was behind the board for albums by the likes of Derek & The Dominos, Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, Humble Pie, Kiss, Mott the Hoople, NRBQ, Carly Simon and lots more Zep. He helped build Electric Lady Studios for Jimi Hendrix and then ran it for several years after Hendrix's death. In the '80s, the indefatigable Kramer was still rockin' in the studio with the likes of Anthrax, Alcatrazz, Triumph, Ace Frehley and others. The '90s brought him work with such varied acts as Brian May, John McLaughlin, Buddy Guy and many others. In the new millennium, he's still one busy dude: working on 5.1 mixes for various rock films and DVD projects; recording young groups in the studio (including a solo venture from Matchbox Twenty's Kyle Cook and the maiden effort of the Norwegian hard rock band Hangface); organizing his incredible photo archive into a lucrative business; lecturing far and wide about his experiences in the music business; and, of course, there's all that incredible Hendrix music. Kramer has been the de facto audio curator of Hendrix's legacy, and the releases — both CDs and DVDs — show no signs of drying up anytime soon.

Kramer has been a loyal friend of Mix's for a long, long time, always available to talk about music history and recording. In recent years, we've interviewed him for three “Classic Tracks” articles — Hendrix's “All Along the Watchtower,” Led Zeppelin's “Ramble On” and, most recently, Traffic's “Dear Mr. Fantasy” — and discussed his techniques for surround mixing (Mix, March 2003). With his induction this month in the TEC Hall of Fame, however, we thought this might be a good time to offer a more general overview of his glorious career. We caught up with Kramer at his Putnam County, N.Y., home in late July. More than 30 years in America have chiseled away at his South African/English accent — and also turned him into a hardcore Yankees fan. (Please don't hold that against him.)

He says one of his oldest memories is, at the age of three, sticking a metal rod into an electrical outlet and being knocked across the room (and then punished by his father), but we pick up his story a little later.

You were raised in South Africa and studied classical music primarily. Was any American rock 'n' roll getting through to South Africa in the '50s?
Plenty. We listened to Elvis and Chuck Berry. But the guy who really turned my head was Little Richard, since I was a pianist. I thought he was amazing. I remember being in school and I could hear the sound in my head, and I remember trying to play all those parts. I got thrown out of class one day for playing Little Richard! Actually, I was attempting to play it, because even though I could play all of these classical pieces, it was not easy to play Little Richard; those repetitive 16th notes; that's tough!

Was this your typical formal British-style school?
Oh God, yes sir! It was based on the English public-school model, actually. We had these hats called cheese-cutters, or straw boaters. We played cricket in the summer and rugby in the winter. We wore blazers and caps. It was very strict. You got caned on the ass if you misbehaved.

Worthy of a Roger Waters song!
Very much so. It was called SACHS, for South African College High School, and it actually was a very good school; it did produce a number of very talented individuals. But it also had a lot of very right-wing Afrikaner-style teachers who were pretty adamant. My father was very left-wing. He was South African and my mother was British.

Did you go to England much?
We kept going back. In '49, we were there for a year. We came back in '56, and were there for a year. Then, after the Capetown riots [1960], my dad said, “We're out of here!” I stayed on and finished high school, but in my last two or three years of high school, I actually attended the South African College of Music, so I was doing regular high school but also studying music at the university at the same time. I don't know how I managed to pull that off, but I did.

And you were studying classical music only?
Yes, I thought I was going to become a concert pianist. Then, during my last years of school, I became the chairman of the Music Society and I became very interested in jazz. I used to bring in jazz records by the Modern Jazz Quartet and Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker and then classical music, as well.

I arrived in England in December of 1960, not quite knowing what to do. I started off as a messenger boy for a fashion magazine, learning the streets of London. Then got into an advertising agency as an internal messenger boy, delivering stuff between floors. On the second floor of the building, there was a television production suite, which had two back-to-back projection booths, with two theaters — one on each side — and they would show the dailies of the commercials that they'd shot there.

I became friendly with the guys in the projection room, and one day, one of them asked if I would help him wire something, so I helped him wire up these pieces of antique furniture, where we put amplifiers and tuners and a really nice turntable. I'd been interested in electricity and sound and all that for some time. Later, I was able to buy a tape recorder that ran at 15 and 7½, and I bought a couple of microphones. I had a nice small grand piano in my place, and I'd invite friends over to my living room to record. I remember wandering around the room and since I only had the one mic at one point, when it came to a solo, I'd have to move the mic.

Anyway, after a while, I got kind of frustrated working at the agency and I figured, “Music? Electronics?” A light bulb went off, and that's when I decided to try being an engineer at a sound studio. So I opened up this book that listed all of the recording and film studios [in London], closed my eyes and I stabbed at it with a pen six times. I wrote off six letters, and one of them came back and asked me to come in for an interview. That was Advision, and I got a job as an assistant; a tea boy, as they were called in England. I learned a lot there: how to work a projector, record mono, some mastering. And meanwhile, I was still experimenting with my friends — now bringing them into a proper studio. The studio had these great big Painton faders. I'd have to take them apart, clean them every week and put the bloody things back together. We also had a very interesting tape machine called a Magnetophon. It was a version of one of the German wartime machines. It was a nasty thing because it was all DC voltage, and when you'd push the Stop button, sparks would fly out and you'd get a shock. You had to figure out how to push it fast and get your finger away, which ended up being great training for punch-ins later. [Laughs]

Obviously, there was a point when you decided that being a concert pianist wasn't for you.
I gave up that idea in late high school. The idea of practicing endlessly was just too much. But I had a damn good education, I must say. And a very wide-ranging taste in music: everything from jazz to blues to rock 'n' roll to R&B. Popular music. Bach, Brahms, Beethoven. Bartók. Shostakovich. I was interested in all forms of music.

There aren't that many people who get that kind of education anymore.
That's true, and it's unfortunate. Even the guys up at Berklee, where I do some teaching, are so specialized now.

You moved from Advision to Pye, which was more of a music-oriented studio.
Yes it was. My first mentor was a guy named Bob Auger. Bob was building Pye Studios, and it was very unusual in the sense that it was basically an American-style studio. He had a dear friend in New York named Bob Fine, of Fine Recording Studios, and Bob Auger was tremendously influenced by him. So when Bob decided to build Pye, he made it like an American studio with Pultecs, great mics and all. In fact, he went so far as to have an entire room, with big transformers, wired for 110, which was highly unusual. He thought the machines performed better at 110. We had a Neumann mobile board that was plopped down in the Studio A control room; the preamps were down on the floor, and my job was to run down and move the attenuator 10 dB, 20 dB. It was all Ampex 300 3-track. We recorded Sammy Davis Jr. in an amazing first-time midnight session. We'd go down [to Walthamstow Town Hall] and make classical recordings with a portable Ampex 3-track and three Neumann U47s. That was it; you had to figure out how to make it sound good. That influenced me tremendously; in fact, it influenced how I record drums. We did some great sessions at Pye: The Kinks, Petula Clark, all sorts of pop and rock things.

You were still an assistant.
Yes, it took me awhile to become an engineer. It took me from '62 to about '66. It was when I went to Olympic that I became an engineer full time.

How did you end up there? I know you'd worked at your own studio, and at Regent Sound after Pye.
Well, I just kept hearing about Olympic through the grapevine, and then I kept pestering [Olympic technical director] Keith Grant, who was also a student of Bob Auger's, so there was a heritage there. Keith was an amazing engineer. He taught me how to do so many things. One of the famous sessions we did together was The Beatles' “Baby You're a Rich Man,” and I also did “All You Need Is Love.” It was a great training ground and the studio was just a magical place. It was remarkable in the sense that it was the up-and-coming independent studio.

“Baby You're a Rich Man” was done at Olympic?
Yes. Of course, The Beatles almost always worked at EMI, but they came to Olympic for the very simple reason that they couldn't get into EMI at the time and they wanted to record. We were the competition and we got the gig. “Baby You're a Rich Man” was recorded, overdubbed and mixed all in one night.

I'd been recording Jimi and the Stones and that was really cool, but The Beatles coming in was a very big deal and I was nervous. You know, for a while, I'd been taking pictures of all the artists I was working with, but this was the one time I chickened out. I didn't think it was appropriate at the time. It would have been nice to have some photos of that, of course. [Laughs]

Speaking of the Stones, you've said that their producer, Jimmy Miller, was another teacher and mentor.
When I think back, the three people that influenced me the most were Bob Auger and Keith Grant as engineers, but as a producer, Jimmy Miller was it; he was the king. He had such a wonderful ability to sense where the band was at, get into their heads, get their confidence, and then fire them up in the studio and get great performances from them. He was able to put such a spark into the cutting of the tracks. I started working with him on Traffic's Mr. Fantasy and then moved onto the Stones' Beggar's Banquet. He was an extremely impressive individual. He was able to grab the artist by the balls and bring them along with him. He could help them with song structures and be very involved on that level, or be a fly on the wall when he needed to be.

So many of the big albums from that era — Sgt. Pepper, the first Traffic album, the Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request — were notable for the amount of musical and sonic experimentation on them. No idea was too weird, it seemed.
We were willing to take chances and encouraged to take chances. That was a part of the spirit of those times. It didn't matter, somehow, whether this player or that player could really play some of these instruments. No one was thinking, “Well, they're not going to play a track with a sitar on the radio!” If it sounded cool and it was going to add to the track, we'd try it, and sometimes we'd use it.

When did you first encounter Hendrix?
Well, of course I knew about him already. Jimi had come to London from America [in the fall of '66] and almost immediately, he had a hit with “Hey Joe.” The word was out that there was this amazing American guitar player. Anyway, I remember one day, the studio manager [at Olympic] — this lovely, very prim and proper English lady — saying to me, “Oh Eddie, there's this American chappie with big hair named Hendrix coming in. You do all the weird stuff, so why don't you do this session?” At that time at Olympic, I was doing avant-garde jazz, experimenting, trying all of these different things. So I got the Hendrix gig, and, obviously it was a very fortuitous experience. [Laughs]

They'd already recorded “Hey Joe” and some B-sides — maybe three or four songs — so what we did was continued with that work on what became the first album [Are You Experienced?]. We re-cut some guitars and then started new tracks. It was a wonderful time. Imagine the excitement of being in the studio with Jimi — he was so incredible! We hit it off immediately. He'd be in there cranking up the guitar and I'd hear these amazing sounds, and I'd think, “Okay, let's see what happens to that sound if I tweak it like this.” Then he'd come in the control room, listen and say, “Whoa, that's cool, man! What happens if you do that and then I turn this knob?” So he'd try this and try that. He was excited about what I was doing and I would get excited about what he was doing; it was a great feeling of camaraderie, because every time we rolled tape, we were doing something new. Chas Chandler [Hendrix's manager and producer] said it so well: “The rules were, there are no rules.” I have to quote him, because without Chas, we wouldn't be talking right now! [Laughs] Chas was “the guv'nor.” He really helped Jimi tremendously on those first two records.

Was what you did with Hendrix as an engineer that different than what you did with everyone else?
I was much more inclined to take chances. His playing was so different and unusual and had so much depth that it encouraged me to see what interesting things I could do with it: “Let's see how far out we can take this.” We experimented with phasing and EQ and compression and reverb, and he was up for it all. He loved that phasing; wanted it on everything. [Laughs]

Did Sgt. Pepper affect you the way it affected so many other engineers?
I'm not sure it affected me other than it was obviously a brilliant record. I was so involved with the next session that I didn't really have time to digest it from a technical standpoint, or think too much about how it was done.

One thing that did influence a lot of us in England, though, was the sound of the bass on so many American records in the mid- and late '60s. We would study records by Dylan and some of the R&B and pop artists and we'd hear this bass and wonder, “Damn, how the hell did they get that sound?” I know this for a fact because I came to America in 1968 and figured out how to do it.

And the answer was….?
It was Pultecs and LA-2As and all of the American preamps that engendered that sound. Of course, a lot of it was the playing, too.

It's funny, because while I was trying to figure that out, all of the American engineers would ask me, “How did you get that sound on Hendrix?” So there was a great cross-pollenization of ideas. Plus, you had the great English bands coming over to the States being influenced by the Americans, and vice versa. I think at the time, we had the better consoles in England: the Helios and such. But we didn't have 8-track yet, and we were very jealous of the Americans for that. When I came to the States in April of 1968, I jumped from 4-track to 12-track when I went to work at the Record Plant, and that was quite a challenge.

Once you were here in the States, you still worked with Hendrix on Electric Ladyland, and then you also worked on Led Zeppelin's second album. What was it like working with Zeppelin?
I very much enjoyed working with the Zeps. Obviously, they were a great, great band, and by the time I recorded them, they were already quite a success in both the U.S. and in Europe. I mixed that second album in just two days at A&R Studios on a small, 8-channel board with two pan pots! With Zeppelin, you always knew who was the boss: Jimmy Page. He always had very specific ideas of what it should sound like, what the solos should be, how the vocal fits in with the overall sound. He was very, very much in charge at all times, and very talented.

You got to work with the best rock guitarists of that generation: Clapton, Hendrix, Page. Then later, you worked with bands who had been influenced by those players and were clearly more derivative than they were original, such as Kiss. Was that at all strange?
Not at all. I really liked working with Kiss. You have to look at Kiss in a different light, because they are such a different animal. Gene [Simmons] had this concept about making a rock 'n' roll band with makeup and each member having his own identity. And they played this hard rock that was pretty good, but with them, it was the whole thing: the music and the image. Ace [Frehley] was certainly influenced by Clapton and Henrdrix and Page and all of the great guitar players, and you can hear it, but at the same time, he combined those influences in some interesting ways. I think he's a greatly underrated guitar player. Also, I liked their rawness and directness. Kiss is an anomaly. They're really an entertainment band, like a traveling rock 'n' roll circus. It's theater, kabuki, rock 'n' roll on steroids. It's made for fun.

I remember going in the studio and cutting their demo: a 4-track at Electric Lady. I still have the original quarter-inch. They went off and did their touring and got their record deal. I didn't actually do an album with them until the live album [Kiss Alive]. When I got the phone call from Neil Bogart, who was the head of Casablanca, asking if I wanted to do the live record with Kiss, I had a tape on my desk from Tom Scholz and Boston and I listened to it, and I thought it was tremendous. I called Tom back and I said, “Tom, this record is great, man, put it out the way it is. I can't add anything to it.” So I did the Kiss record. I wanted the challenge of working with a band that was leaping around, bombs exploding. How do you make that sound good? They're out of tune, they're out of time…

It's interesting that you were doing that at the same time you were working on Physical Graffiti with Led Zeppelin, which is a really bold and sophisticated album through and through.
That's true. I was very fortunate. I went to England and recorded a whole bunch of tracks for them using the Rolling Stones mobile. Again, Jimmy knew what he wanted. I will say this, though: The unsung hero of that band was John Paul Jones. He was very, very bright and knew a lot about arranging and had many good ideas.

Led Zeppelin was one of those groups that went through that interesting progression of becoming really, really huge and having a scene around them that got progressively weirder and druggier. As an engineer, were you affected by those kinds of changes?
Sure, you couldn't help it. With Zeppelin, it became a battle, because they started to come into studio with such an attitude. At one point, they came into Electric Lady to mix one of their albums, the one with “Stairway to Heaven.” We started and then one night, the band ordered some Indian food and a whole bunch of it spilled on the floor and I asked the roadies to please clean it up. The studio was brand-new and I had a lot of pride in it. And suddenly, they're yelling, “You don't tell our roadies what to do!” And they pulled out; they left, and I didn't speak to them for about a year! Then later, they called back and asked me to record them again as if nothing had happened. [Laughs]

How did you become Mr. Live Recording? Was it recording Woodstock?
Pretty much. After that, it was, “Let's get that guy Kramer.” I did Derek & The Dominos, Peter Frampton, Humble Pie.

What's the key to recording live? You'd never been a front-of-house engineer, right?
No, I hated that. I would never do that. It's a question of keeping the band happy and comfortable. The key is their performance. Really, it's a question of capturing that performance and not getting in the way at all. Even if I have to put a mic in a place where I normally wouldn't, so be it, if it makes the band more comfortable. The most important thing is to get the performance.

When you made Frampton Comes Alive, did you have any sense that it would be so popular?
How could one? It was the same thing with Kiss: “Ah, we've got a good record here. It would be nice if it sold a couple of hundred thousand.” And it took off like a bloody rocket, sold 3 or 4 million. With Peter, we knew he had a fan base, but we couldn't have possibly predicted it would sell 14 million records. Who the hell knew?

When you work with young engineers, as you invariably must, do they all defer to you because of your track record? I mean, you're Eddie Kramer!
[Laughs] Well, I suppose some of them are a bit intimidated at first, but you know, I like working with young engineers because they have a different perspective and they have some cool ideas of their own. It's not like I know everything. I'm still learning. I'm open to new ideas.

That said, there is a certain way I like to record: I have my own methods of doing drum and guitars and my EQ'ing. I suppose I am slightly old-fashioned — I hate to use that term — in the sense that my method of recording is getting sounds now. I believe in committing to the bloody thing. Get the compression right; get it sounding cool now. Otherwise, you're just prolonging the agony. Later on, you're going to have to twist knobs for three hours, trying to figure out how the hell you want to make the guitar sound. I like to get the sound then and there, and everybody's happy. Then, when I get to mixing, it's a much easier job.

As one who was so good at recording bands live — both in the studio and onstage — did you ever go through a phase in the '70s or '80s when you would record every element separately one at a time, agonizing over sonics? Spend five hours getting a snare drum sound?
I never did that. I made a very strict rule: I walk in the studio and if in 20 minutes I don't have a drum sound, I go home.

I tell [students] that when I lecture at Full Sail or Berklee or the University of Miami, and they're always shocked because they think you're supposed to agonize over it, like you say. But I'm serious. This is not f***ing rocket science. Yes, there is a bit of science to it. There are some technical things you have to know. But, basically, it's about the song, the song, the song, the song. And then the performance. And then the sound. Of course, your technique has to be as good as the song and the performance. All of those elements have to come together. But don't belabor it!

One of the unfortunate things about today's music is that everyone has become so perfection-oriented. I have to blame that to a certain extent on Pro Tools and the ability to make things perfect. Don't get me wrong: Pro Tools is a wonderful device. It's a great editing tool. But I know from bitter experience that you give certain people Pro Tools and they'll sit there for months dicking around trying to make it perfect. The whole idea of rock 'n' roll music, to me, is going in there and playing like a band and trying to get out some emotion. Not making the vocals perfect and the guitar parts perfect. Rock 'n' roll should have some hair on it, if you know what I mean. Now, even hard-rock bands are working that way: They'll play a small section and then they'll time-stretch it and fart around with it, fix notes and all this. C'mon! Let's play this stuff for real! It really pisses me off.

I use Pro Tools myself. It used to be that I'd record on analog and dump it into Pro Tools and work with it. Now with HD, you can record directly to Pro Tools and it sounds pretty good. It's still not as good as analog. If you want that crunch in rock 'n' roll, you still want some analog equipment in the chain. I think the two worlds can coexist very happily together. But don't abuse the digital world or become a slave to those computers! It drives me nuts.

Where do you like to work?
In L.A., I work at NRG a lot. It's a nice amalgam of high-tech 2003 digital recording and vintage analog. In New York, there are a bunch of studios I use. The obvious choices are the Hit Factory and Right Track, and Avatar's very nice, too. But there's a very nice studio called Clinton that I really like a lot. I used to go to Electric Lady, of course, but haven't been back there for quite a while.

You worked with a third generation of rockers in the '80s, bands like Anthrax. You did all these hardcore heavy-metal bands.
I sure did. [Laughs]

How's your hearing, Eddie?
Whaaaat? [Laughs] Seriously, I think the idea is to minimize your hearing loss by using small speakers where possible. Initially, when I'm tracking, I'll use the big speakers to make sure that the relationship between the bass drum and the bass guitar is what I think it should be, even though the big speakers can be horrible; it seems like in a lot of studios they are, which is unfortunate. I like Dynaudio speakers. I can use Genelecs; I think they're okay. Just keep the volume down. You don't have to crank it all the time. If you have it up loud for an hour, you're going to have hearing loss, period. So keep the bloody volume down. I think you get better perspective, too.

Has the basic personality of bands changed during the years?
Nah! [Laughs] It's usually the leader of the band that has the best ideas and is the smartest…

And then the others are resentful of him…
Yeah, absolutely. There's always the next guy who maybe thinks he's as good, and that's where the battles start. But you know what? If the battle is over creativity, hopefully what comes out is a fine product. Because I think if there's no resistance and there's no spark, what the hell do you have? A piece of wet, soggy paper. When you think about Robert and Jimmy of Led Zeppelin, they were knocking heads all the time. Same with John and Paul in The Beatles.

Well, there was always a tremendous undercurrent of mutual respect in those cases.
Undoubtedly. The point is, without that spark, that creative tension, you don't have as much.

What have you done the past few years that excites you, other than the reissues?
What I love right now is the fact that I've been able to go in and do 5.1 surround mixes. What a marvelous thing 5.1 is, particularly for me, because I'm a big fan of movies and I love the fact that I can get in there with a live recording with a good picture and really work with the sound. It's a great challenge and the results can be amazing. I've just finished this film, The Festival Express [a documentary about a 1970 trans-Canada train trip by Janis Joplin, The Band, the Grateful Dead and others] and it was so much fun. The tapes were very old; they sat untouched in a vault in Canada for 25 years. I did Monterey Pop and that was quite a challenge. I just finished doing a 5.1 of Jimi Plays Berkeley and it's stunning! The “Johnny B. Goode” is just hair-raising!

How much Hendrix stuff is left at this point?
We still have enough material in the library to come out with something completely new for many years to come. That's not including film things we're working on. It's a massive library and it's well-taken care of.

A lot of it is really good, and there are some things that aren't that great, of course. We grade it by the quality of the recording and the performance. There are some things that only the really hardcore fans will like; things that sonically might not be that great, but are great performances. So I'll do the best I can with it, but the buyer has to know that there are limitations. We have some audience tapes like that and also some less-than-great 2-tracks from the board. But the idea is to make it available to the fans on Dagger label at a reduced price. It's not junk; it's EQ'd and mastered properly.

Do you have to bake the tapes?

No. Most of the stuff was pre-'70s, which is when the tapes started going to hell. The saddest thing right now is that BASF/Emtec is no longer; that really hurts because it's been my favorite tape forever. All of the early tapes I did with Jimi in '67 and part of '68 were on BASF LR56, that horrible, sickly green tape that sounded so great! To this day, I've played tapes from those sessions and they track perfectly; no shedding. They sound absolutely wonderful, and I've never had to bake them.

It's still a thrill for me to go back to the master tapes and pull up the faders and listen to Jimi talking to me, or Chas saying something, or Jimi making jokes about Mitch and Noel. And, of course, much of the music is just wonderful. I never get tired of working on Hendrix.

Want more Eddie Kramer? Check out this interview from the Mix archives, August 1998.

Blair Jackson is Mix's senior editor.

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