The Challenge of the Good LIfe:
Producing Records with Phil Ramone

(published March 2002, Album Network Magazine)

Part 2 in a series about the art of producing records, becoming a record producer, and the effect of changing technology!
By Rick Boggs

What if your personal computer with its zillion megahertz processor and electron laser storage drive actually developed a real mind of its own? You could harness its telepathic network connection to the greatest source of knowledge in the cosmos and ask it: "What would I have to do to become one of the world's greatest music producers?"

Chances are your super-charged computer would instruct you to accomplish all of the following and do so with class, style, and humility:

1. Work with a core of essential jazz musicians from John Coltrane to Wes Montgomery, and capture the subtle essence of American saxophone great Stan Getz and Brazilian legend Joao Gilberto, doing "The Girl From Ipanema."
2. Engineer and produce a number of all-time classic rock records including Alice Cooper¹s Welcome To My Nightmare and Billy Joel¹s The Stranger.
3. Hit the top 10 on the pop charts with records from every decade since the ¹60s with artists like Peter, Paul & Mary, Paul Simon and Billy Joel.
4. Accurately record and produce the flavor and personality in performances by world-renowned entertainers like Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra.
5. Record the performances of dozens of top Broadway sensations including A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.
6. Make great sounding records from mammoth outdoor performances such as Simon And Garfunkel¹s The Concert In Central Park.
7. Be awarded eight Grammys for records, songs and albums like Still Crazy After All These Years and 52nd Street.
8. Produce multiple movie soundtracks and actually create a television show about scoring movies called The Score.
9. Compose, arrange, sing, engineer, mix, produce, and while you are at it, play violin for the Queen of England.
10. Spend time on your farm with your wife and three sons.

Your brilliant 21st century computer, with its access to limitless amounts of information, might not be a reality yet, but the amazing human feats listed above are all part of the factual record of producer Phil Ramone's life to date.

The modest miracle of a standard telephone line brought the voice of Mr. Phil Ramone from New York to my recording studio in Los Angeles. This soft-spoken man, who prefers to be referred to simply as Phil, is an unassuming gentleman with a smooth, low voice and a hint of New York in his speech. Since Phil is accustomed to modest goals, we set out to discuss the art of producing a great record, developing a successful career as a producer, and how changes in technology affect those efforts--all in about 45 minutes.

Becoming A Producer

Phil describes himself as having been one of those fortunate "little brats who played the fiddle from the time he was three years old." This early exposure to the violin and music education, combined with an intrinsic scientific approach to finding better sounds, formed the foundation on which Phil built his illustrious career. "The violin helped me with intonation since it is a fretless instrument. Its tonality is one of the more difficult instruments to achieve." At age nine, his quest to find a better sound for recording his instrument drove him toward electronics. "I really understood more and more about the application of the sound of music. I think that's the first driving force. I became an engineer because of that."

Phil was a young man blessed with natural musical abilities and a family with means to provide him a violin and a Juilliard education. Still, he does not see these gifts as prerequisites for becoming a proficient producer. "I'll separate the two elements in producing. There are people who produce who are instinctively good, who have minimal education in music but who have tremendous spiritual and emotional sensitivity to music. I always had a tremendous empathy for the musicians in the studio; and as the engineer or producer, I found that understanding their plight was necessary in order to get the help and the attitude from them."

Phil's childhood preparation may have come easily, but he recalls the tough, cold reality of the recording business when he first broke in. "I explain to aspiring producers today that the vast experience of sitting in the control room is far better than when I started out, where if you were lucky you could get coffee or tea for the guy. You would bring him a Diet Coke and he would say, ŒSit down.¹ Otherwise, they wouldn't let you sit down. You watched and you watched, and you looked at the studio. You went out and saw how the mics were laid out and how he laid out his console. For all its technical aspects, the music business still remains a relationship-oriented occupation. One must not only observe what the experienced professional does, but must also make time for picking his brain. "I sat next to producers like Ahmet Ertegun and Tom Dowd for a good seven or eight years and got an occasional break by one of them leaving and saying, ŒFinish it up, send me a mix, let me hear what you have.¹" When opportunities to work with legends like Quincy Jones, Peter Paul & Mary, Paul Simon and Billy Joel came along, Phil rose to the occasion.

Background and opportunities aside, Phil considers the approach to making a record the essential element for success. "For me, it is always that performance I am interested in. Saving that first take with wrong notes--many artists will poopoo that. The truth of the matter is, it could be 60% there and the 40% could have been filled with errors. However, if the 60% has the basis on which to draw, you find you have the chance to really bring about something magical."

Phil has learned that long-term success in the field does require some political navigation and avoiding certain pitfalls. He deliberately diversified his experience and accepted some risky projects. "I was afraid that I would be classified as a pop engineer, or a jazz engineer, or a folk engineer. I saw too much of that happen to too many people. When somebody says, 'Would you do a performance on the lawn of Lincoln Center or in a park,¹ I would say, 'Yeah!' I know a lot of engineers who never like to venture outside of the realm in which they are comfortable. A lot of engineers would not go to other rooms. I recorded all over the country. When somebody said, 'Would you come to Cleveland?' I said, ŒYes,¹ and I was there. I was always afraid of being typecast. However, it is more important that the request came. I am a firm believer in being open to everything. If somebody walked in with a new baby band I would run with it. You learn so much every time out. The challenge is there. It is too easy to become a 'plastic surgeon' and do the same thing every day."

Producing A Record

Phil Ramone has mastered both the art and the science of producing great records. The artistic aspect of his job involves much more than the obvious shaping and coloring of the sound of the tracks. A producer must practice a kind of psychology and refine his interpersonal communication skills in order to help artists fully express themselves. "There is a human vibration that works between us. You can't be distracted. There is nothing worse than an artist looking in on a control room and seeing people moving around and picking up phones, or eating a sandwich and things like that. All of the mood is for them. It may take an hour to warm up. It may take two cups of coffee. It may take talking about the headlines. It's like a psychological game, but it's not a game. It's a clear understanding that there is a goal, yet some days you don't get close to it."

A producer must wade through the complexities of human personalities, to grasp the vision of a song and discover what the particular artist will need in order to convert it from idea to recording. "Every day is a new day with an artist, even though, as you get to know them, you find out their funny quirks and their sense of humor. Some people are extremely serious, and therefore you're not going to do something like making humorous remarks or off-the-cuff statements that don't mean anything. So, you take on the sense of what that artist is about. You're giving them 100% attention. That's probably the nicest thing you can do. I don't care how long I wait to say what I want to say. If somebody turns to me and says, 'Is that working?' I¹ll say, 'Yeah, but this may be something you could try.' So you become like the editor or the director of a film. You're working at every moment. That's why some days are extremely fun, and some days are great fun with a lot of exhaustion at the end."

Phil advocates a humble and responsible approach to making records. "It's never just another record, another song, when somebody trusts you to do something. You have to treat this as the whole mood of the project. If you create an uptight situation for them every day, and have to speak your mind and have to be recognized, that will go into the project. You chose the role to be there as the producer. If you can sing, dance, play, and do all of it, then you should do that. If you have to sing a backup part, then go sing it, but don't go and say, 'It was my voice that made the difference.' That's a large picture of what I look at all the time."

The Technology

Using his keen sense of rhythm and sharpened sensibilities, Phil determines precisely when the moment is at hand and the atmosphere is sublime. Then he engages his seasoned technical acumen and begins recording. He recalls the electronic considerations during his famous recording of "The Girl From Ipanema" with Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto. "The challenge was that it was the quietest music ever heard in a room. Antonio Carlos Jobim¹s piano and guitar was as quiet as Gilberto¹s, and Joao's sound was as tiny as it could be. The percussion was playing at a pretty good groove. Then there was Stan's sound. I get started with the way a musician plays, and then approach miking it. I tend to spend more time on getting the mic and the place right, because if you don't, it doesn't much matter what you've got after that. Understanding what Stan Getz was after for his sound and having the mics right was the key. The mics were wide-open, so the console was going to be noisy at that point because it was so quiet. But the room was very helpful. It was a semi-dry room, not much reverb in it. At the end of the day, I thought I did an okay job. I was focused on helping the musicians do their thing. I never felt better in any job than when musicians said, 'Man, nice sound.'"

The tools of the trade have changed dramatically, but Phil's relationship to the equipment remains the same. "You have to tune out cell phones, you tune out everything. You make your control room a receptive place; no excessive dialog, nothing to discuss. I tell engineers, 'Look, I understand your plight, but do me a favor, go in the back room and discuss why this is working or why this cable is giving you hell.' I mean, if suddenly this person starts to sing and he's got a buzz on the mic, the last thing they want to hear is, 'Can you wait a couple of minutes?' That's the stuff that drives me crazy in a room. However, as much as I am a fusspot about how the control room should be, and what the equipment should be like, you're still a victim when the computer says, 'I crashed.¹ Wait around, go in the other room, reboot. Those are the factors that you have no control over. So, you can curse and you can throw things. I encourage people not to curse at computers, because I do think they have their own mind. You never know. This computer is laughing at us while it's waiting for a reboot."

Whether a producer is dealing with artistic or technical issues on a particular job, Ramone contends that it is the overall approach to recording that makes all the difference. "Some of the best recordings I have been involved in have been stuff done in the street, stuff done unprepared, albums cut in the studio where the rehearsal was used as the basis. If I hadn't recorded the rehearsal, people would say, 'Oh just run a quarter-inch or something, it'll be good enough for the rehearsal,' and I'd run the multi-track. The owner of the studio would say, 'Man what a waste of tape,' but I would say, 'Twenty years from now you won't say that, because there's an outtake from Count Basie. There's a piece from Ellington. Sinatra humming something with a writer at the piano. Those are the moments where you¹ll slap yourself and say," I saved the guy eight bucks for tape--what kind of an idiot am I?'

Television

Just like our hypothetical computer, Phil Ramone's achievements far surpass expectation. He has recently added the challenge of producing a television show to his weekly calendar. Trio U.S.A. Networks has just started airing The Score, a program that reveals the way producers work together during a film score project. "ŒThe Score¹ was an idea that had been sitting around in my head for a couple of years. In talking with other people, I said, ŒThe thing that never gets talked about is how the musicians and composers and filmmakers work together. I am a huge fan of films. I had several scores that I worked on in lots of music for film. I figured nobody knows what that's all about. What happens is, after the day of work, people sit around and we look at what we just did. We go back, we listen, we talk. I developed this little idea when I was sitting with Norman Lear and some friends one night. They said, ŒThat's a television show.¹

"The Trio is a very new adventurous network that Barry Diller heads up. I pitched the idea to Andrew Kadison and a couple of big bosses sat around, and I left the office not thinking that we sold anything. About an hour later, they said, ŒWhy don't we try four of these. Like a pilot.¹ So instead of four we did five. It's humorous and it's sweet and it has live music on the show. I would love to see us do a bunch of these. If it gets picked up, we are going to hear stuff that most people never get to hear. This is like after the show, after the workday. To me that is the most appealing thing. I am proud of it. I think it does say something, and God knows what the audience will think. We have more movie buffs and music buffs today than we have ever experienced."

What Is Important

Phil Ramone is quite clear that at the end of the day in a studio, what matters most is whether the essence of the artist's song and performance were well recorded. He explains what's most important to him in his amazing career as a producer. "I did this world economic forum the other night--produced the show with Quincy Jones--and we had artists from at least 10 different countries playing. I watched the sophistication and the elements of all of the stuff we know how to do, and in the quick dress-runthrough, I saw every artist in the room absolutely ogling at everyone else's performance, applauding and cheering them on. Watching Dakai Leeds and Noaz from Israel and Iedmondeen, the Palestinian boy and a Puerto Rican girl singing with an Algerian. I mean these moments, in the room, where India.Arie turned to me and said, ŒOh man, you are going to have me sing after that?¹ I said, ŒYeah, cause watch what happens.¹ Suddenly, the other artists were looking at her, saying, ŒOh God, how does she do that so beautifully and so from-the-heart.¹ It was an emotional evening, an amazing moment for me to capture. If there ever was a chance for a peace mission in this world, we've got to go back and look at it and give peace a chance here."

The End.

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