Phil Ramone and Al Schmitt during the 1993 sessions for
Frank Sinatra’s Duets album.
It was a beautiful memorial gathering on April 9 at Capitol Recording Studios for Phil Ramone, providing a bit of closure. Many of us who knew and loved the man and his work have been wandering around, trying to grasp the fact that Phil’s movie has come to The End. And like a great movie, we just wish that it could go on a little more.
Al Schmitt was the Master of Ceremonies and did a great job, and the scores of stories were full of life and love and guts and humor. Burt Bacherach even sat down at the piano and played a song for Phil, and for all of us: “A House Is Not A Home.”
My wife, Keiko, and I were blessed with a very sweet friendship with Phil and when we got together, I would try to shut up for a change and listen to the two of them talking about art and life and Japan. I loved it when he called me “Dahling” with a smile when we met up. I had the luck to photograph and interview Phil for more than 30 years. The photo is from 1993, taken during the Frank Sinatra Duets sessions in Capitol A, where the memorial took place. Here’s a story from 1998…
Phil Ramone is renowned as both producer and engineer for such major artists as Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Gloria Estefan, Luciano Pavarotti, Natalie Cole, BB King, Paul McCartney, and Frank Sinatra, to name but a few. On the technical side of the music making process, he pioneered satellite links for recording, Dolby 4-track discrete sound (A Star Is Born, 1976), Dolby optical surround sound (One Trick Pony), digital live recordings (Songs In The Attic), and fiber-optic systems to record in real time from different locations (Sinatra’s Duets).
Ramone got an early start in music as a three-year-old child prodigy violinist and played a Command Performance for the Queen of England at age 10. He entered the Juilliard School of Music at 13, but by 17, was experimenting with jazz musicians and recording at home. By the time he was 21, he was engineering for Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Quincy Jones, Leiber and Stoller, Neil Diamond and Doc Pomus. The records have never stopped spinning.
Ramone is an engineer absolutely in control of his sound; a producer with the creative powers and sensitivity to make sessions push into peak performance. He’s a gambler on both artistic and technical levels. In this funny business, you can’t have longevity without unpredictability.
When was the first time you felt passionate about music?
I was three years old and a violinist in a restaurant just drove me crazy. It was gypsy music and I wanted to play.
How do you mic a tuba?
Carefully. [laughs] I mic it upstairs, at least three feet above the bell, using the ceiling as a reflector. I like an old AKG ribbon mic because it’s not so sensitive to the “splat” and captures the warmth. The secret to making great music in the studio is to understand the instruments by studying them in natural settings.
What was your first hit as a producer?
I believe it was “Everybody’s Talkin’” with Harry Nilsson for Midnight Cowboy.
How do you produce a hit?
It’s about the song and the artist. Be true to the song. If everything is honest, there’s a chance it will work. The “hit” comes after the fact.
What is the biggest mistake of your life?
Not continuing my studies in arranging, playing the keyboard, and practicing.
Could you give me one of your recording secrets?
If you are in trouble with a singer who is extremely sibilant and very soft, it might help to use a condenser mic with a ribbon or dynamic mic underneath. Mix the two for both depth and the cancellation of the sibilance. I tend to record many vocals with an omnidirectional mic, because it gives you scope in a nice little room and the cardioid pattern gives the artist more space to move around in.
Do you have any business tips?
No matter what you do, you must have a piece of paper. Even a letter of intent, which is witnessed and legal. When somebody loves you and thinks you are great, they will hand you all sorts of things in a verbal agreement. If things go wrong, your deal will change. I am very trustful of people, but it’s important to be clear. It’s perfectly OK to say, “Before we go to work on Monday, we need a proper piece of paper.”
Any advice for surviving in the music business?
Don’t lose your passion. Be faithful to your dream.
How does it feel being the Pope of Pop?
[laughs] It’s OK, because whatever it refers to is flattering. I guess it has to do with my sensibilities in music, and if the works becomes popular, so be it. The moniker was intended to be humorous and it keeps me from taking myself too seriously.