Eddie Kramer on Guitar Tones, Working with Musicians, and the Modern Studio Process

In the recording studio, there’s a ton of talent on both sides of the glass. Much of the magic is made out of sight, by people whose names once could be found on the backs of LP sleeves, and later in the small print inside the jewel case of a CD. But as music moves ever deeper into virtuality, those names get harder and harder to find. No wonder Russell Simmons and Diddy had clothing lines on the side.

Eddie Kramer has dabbled in schmatte — a line of scarves he designed to evoke the synthesis of “vintage rock meets sophisticated Englishman lifestyle.” But he made his bones as a recording engineer and record producer at a time before that role made him a celebrity. His ear was sharp and as a result his discography is stunning. He helmed Jimi Hendrix through the Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love, Electric Ladyland and Band of Gypsys albums.

His touch on the faders also is all over seminal records by Led Zeppelin, Kiss, the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Tommy Bolin, Eric Clapton, Brian May, Ted Nugent, Todd Rundgren and Johnny Winter. And he’s responsible for recording and producing several of the most iconic live albums of all-time, including Kiss Alive! and Frampton Comes Alive! And that just takes us into the ‘70s.

Since then, the South African native, who grew up in legendary London studios, like Pye and Olympic, also delivered hits for Steve Vai, Anthrax and many others. As importantly, he’s also turned the role of producer into that of curator, working with the Hendrix family and bringing Jimi’s legacy into the 21st century via carefully remixed and remastered posthumous releases.

But deep down inside, Kramer retained the sensibility of a musician, the kid who took piano lessons after school, who grew up listening to Bach and Bartok, which led him to jazz, and finally to a career that shaped much of the canon of rock music. Eddie Kramer understands musicians because he is one of them.

The world knows you as a creature of the recording studio, but do you still consider yourself a musician?

My dad was an avid amateur violinist, and there was always music in the house. My earliest and clearest memory growing up in Cape Town was listening to 78 RPM records dropping down on the automatic changer. I could, at a very early age, recognize from the labels precisely what it was I wanted to listen to. I pointed out if I wanted Tchaikovsky or the Bach or whatever.

So having had that experience, and growing up with classical music all the way up until I was a teenager; that’s when the train ran off the track. I got into jazz, much to my father’s chagrin. He was really pissed about that because he didn’t want me going to the clubs and smoking weed or whatever. He would use the South African expression, “You don’t want to go and smoke all that dagga down there.” I loved jazz very much, equally as much as classical, and then I continued my classical studies. I actually went to the South African College of Music, even though I was still in high school. Then all bets were off when I got to London.

That’s when you went right into the studio side?

Pretty much. I arrived in England in December of 1960 and by the end of ’61, January of ’62, I was in Advision Studios, my first job. But the musical part of it never left and it’s always a huge front-and-center part of my life. And it’s front and center when I react to anything, I’m so blessed to have had this wonderful musical background. I feel like there are a lot of young bands out there that are cutting edge, that are doing great things. I listen to the music first and the technical stuff is really secondary, that’s more means to an end.

When you meet a musician you may want to work with, what do you look and listen for? What cues beyond their chops are you looking for?

Feel. Feel, feel, feel. Give me feel over technique any day. It’s the way the artist expresses him or herself."

Feel. Feel, feel, feel. Give me feel over technique any day. It’s the way the artist expresses him or herself. Initially, if I’m listening to a piece of music, I listen intently for the communication level. If there is a huge level of communication from an emotional standpoint, that gets me right off the bat. I never have worried about mistakes, I’m not attracted to musicians who are technically perfect. Although I admire them, it doesn’t rock my boat.

You’re known as a guitarist’s producer. For someone who’s spent so much time with guitar players in the recording studio, how does that influence your approach to musicians who play other instruments? Do you somehow unconsciously not lean towards the keyboard-centered bands?

I don’t consciously; I just think that the music is thrust upon me and I sort of react accordingly. Obviously, because of my history, I get guitar-centered bands. But think about some of the other records I’ve made that have been big hits, like Carly Simon’s first album, that’s very keyboard-central. “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be,” which was a nice hit. And I love working with solo artists who play keyboard. I don’t care if the artist were playing French horn or an oboe. If it’s cool and hip, I’m in.

Eddie Kramer in the studio (Photo from eddie-kramer.com)

So is it the artist or the song?

I would say the song really gets me first. I mean if somebody just sends me an MP3, which is how I’m getting a lot of my stuff, and I don’t care who the artist is, I click on it and I listen. It’s the song that grabs me first, and then how does the artist sing, what’s the band doing, all that kind of stuff. But if the song doesn’t grab me, I’m not interested so much.

Was that the case with Kiss? There was such a visual component there.

You know, it was that completely wonky, off-the-wall kind of thing. I knew Gene [Simmons] and Paul [Stanley] because they were always hanging out at Electric Lady, and of course their first album, as Wicked Lester, sort of went straight in the toilet. But Gene and Paul had this concept. They had an idea how to take glam rock and Kabuki theater and explosions and all the rest of that, and try to make it into some sort of a show. I remember going to see them at the Hotel Diplomat in New York in 1972 and I was blown away because of the show. That was undeniable, and the kids were going out of their bloody minds.

Was it a challenge to translate that visceral experience into the studio?

I think the reason that I wanted to do Kiss was because it was a hell of a challenge. They couldn’t play in time; they couldn’t play in tune, because of all the dancing."

I think the reason that I wanted to do Kiss was because it was a hell of a challenge. They couldn’t play in time; they couldn’t play in tune, because of all the dancing. Imagine you’ve got six-inch heels, you got bombs going off, fireworks, smoke, and you’re jumping around in these boots and you’re trying to keep everything in tune and in time. It was pretty tough. So that was the challenge: how to make it all sound cool and tight.

You began working in an era when it wasn’t unusual for a producer to work on a record from basic tracks to overdubs through the final mix. That’s much rarer these days. What kind of a difference did that deeper involvement with the musicians in a band make in the relationship, and can we still achieve that these days?

It’s a great question because so many bands now, XYZ producer will do some pre-production and cut the basics. Then the next guy will come in or maybe the band will do the overdubs. And the third guy will do the mixing and final overdubs with the vocalist. It’s a bit of a mix and match, isn’t it? You don’t get the consistency that you’re looking for, and it makes for a poor understanding of the band and the music and the direction. It’s valid I guess, it’s just not my style.

Eddie with Led Zeppelin backstage at Madison Square Garden. (Photo from eddie-kramer.com)

It’s funny how the pro audio magazines Sound on Sound and MIX have the same department: Classic Tracks. There’s such a fascination with how people made records 40 years ago. And then they turn around and they say, “OK, let’s go. We’ve got 200 tracks on Pro Tools, we’ll make decisions later.” Musicians’ decision-making processes have changed.

This is the bane of my existence. And I say to all the students that I have the great pleasure of talking to, whether it’s at Musicians Institute or Berklee or wherever: Make the decision -- and the commitment to that decision -- as you’re doing it. Don’t delay the process because you’ll screw yourself in the end. And there you are, sitting with your Pro Tools file and there’s however many bloody tracks there are, and none of it has any sound to it. Then you have to start pissing around with the bloody computer and plug-ins and all the rest of that, trying to find “the sound.” You can be there for bloody months. Whereas the way I do it, I cut 24 track or 16 track, 15 inches per second, and then dump that into Pro Tools 24/96 and now we do some overdubs and finish. But it’s a continuous process. Once I get to the final mixing stage, now we’re mixing through an analog console, through tons of vintage outboard gear, in addition to which I’m also mixing in the box as well. It’s an in-and-out-of-the-box hybrid, where you get the best of digital and the best of analog.

Is Eddie Kramer ever going to make a record on a laptop?

No.

When you’re in the studio with a band, do you tend to spend most of your time in the control room or in the recording space?

A combination of both, but mostly in the control room. But I’m running in and out, tweaking the mics, you know. But the traditional way is still a good way: You put the amp head in the control room with the guitar player. You can stare at him, he can stare at you. He can get pissed off or whatever, and we help each other. It’s an interactive process. I prefer to be in the room making the decisions with the guitar player. Let’s just take a guitar player doing his overdubs at home and he sends me the file. Yeah, that’s cool, but you know there’s something missing. And once I bring him into the studio and we set up the amps and we start recording, all of a sudden he’s on fire. Why? Because there’s an immediate reaction from me. “Hey, you know that little piece there, in the bridge, turn it around.” And all of a sudden the guy gets excited, I get excited, and the performance is better.

Bands may fancy themselves as good musicians but there are times when the producer may feel the need to bring in other players. What’s that dynamic like?

Tough. Sometimes you’ve got to be the heavy and say, “Dude, it’s just not cutting it. I mean, bring in Tim Pierce or somebody.” That’s a tough one. You give a guy every conceivable chance to cut it. And if it falls short, it’s not only going to be him. It will be the whole band who’s going to say, “Dude, that solo’s still not making it, we’ve got to bring somebody else in.” Most of the time it does not happen, but when it happens it always causes a bit of grief.

Eddie Kramer in the studio (Photo from eddie-kramer.com)

What kind of tricks have you used from group to group to get a good performance?

The whole thing, it’s a game. How you build confidence in the artist, whether it’s the guitar player, the piano player, I don’t care, but let’s use singers for example. In order to build the confidence, one of the easiest things to do is to make sure that the headphone mix sounds really cool. Get that right and you’re halfway home. Obviously you adjust the atmosphere in the room itself. The artist has to feel comfortable. Sometimes they don’t want to look at you, so you turn them around and they’re fine. Sometimes the artist will say, “I can’t get the vibe in here, I don’t want to hear headphones.” Cool, bring them in the control room. I’ve done many vocals in the control room with an SM7, even with the monitors fairly loud. I don’t care if there’s a bit of leakage, if he gets the great take, we’re in.

When do you know it’s not going to work? Would you go to remedies such as AutoTune faster these days? Electronic remedies?

If it’s a really great performance and there’s a couple of suspicious notes, first thing I would try to do is copy and paste from another performance. Or if that doesn’t work, then I’ll do a little touch-up with Melodyne. I really try to avoid it if I can, but sometimes you have to. Unfortunately, you’re opening a Pandora’s box, aren’t you? Then everything sounds so bloody perfect. And then when you hear the singer live, you wonder, who is that?

Do you work with a musician on their combination of instrument, amplification, and processing? Do you sit there and coach a sound out of somebody?

Absolutely. One of the first things we do is we set up the amps and I like to have a bunch of them. Small amps, vintage ones, Marshall, an AC-40. The musician will have his or her guitar amps and guitars and we go through them. We may even have to go for a rental, like a really special Guild from 1940. We’ve often done that. We set a big line up in the studio and go check each one, same guitar, couple of chords, okay this one’s cool, this one maybe not so much for the solo; yada, yada, yada. We go through all of those, find a great rhythm sound, whether it’s a combo of an Orange and a Marshall or whatever it is, and then I dial that up in the control room with the guitar player and we go: hmm, that’s cool, but let’s just try a little bit of this distortion or that pedal.

Are guitar players, or musicians in general, over processing their sound?

Yeah. Yes, they are. Do I love just a guitar straight into an amp? You bet. One or two, three pedals, fantastic. I think the over-usage of pedals sort of masks the music. Yeah, it’s fun, it’s cool, it’s interesting, nice tone colors. But I’m a little bit, shall we say, prejudiced in terms of the purity of how things should sound or could sound without the intervention of a pedal board.

Eddie Kramer (Photo from eddie-kramer.com)

Is over-processing compensating for something else?

There’s a bunch of guys who do the pedal board so bloody well and their music is still cool, so you can’t really make that accusation. But correspondingly, there are a bunch of guys who rely sort of heavily on the bloody pedal board and it sounds a little bit cheesy. If a band walks in and they’ve got a gazillion pedals on their pedal board, I say, “Guys, bypass everything. Let me hear you play straight through the amp. Let me just see what you’re doing. Oh, OK. Well, that sounds nice. Maybe we just add a little bit of this, and a touch of that. And all of a sudden, the sound is purer and heavier, fatter and in your face; and the message doesn’t get degraded.

One last question, and it has to do with business but it also has to do with the relationship between you as the producer and the artist. What’s the new economic dynamic between producers and artists these days? It’s no longer three points and an advance. Has that conversation become a hard one to have with artists?

Very. You try not to have it with the artist as far as possible. Instead, you try to go through their manager to make that deal. Obviously, the deals that are structured today are completely different. No longer are there the $50,000 or $60,000 advances. You’d be lucky if you get that. Yes, there are some record companies that are giving small advances but generally speaking not. The money is not there as it used to be. How we get paid is a trick, and that’s another conversation for another day.

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