Sound Signatures

 

 

Eddie Kramer

A Slight Return

Part 1

 

By Chip Stern

 

 

 

What do James Joyce, Elliot Carter and  Jimi Hendrix have in common?

The legendary recording engineer Eddie Kramer.

 

 

For many years, the recorded legacy of Jimi Hendrix was controlled by a host of music industry bottom feeders, who not only fleeced Jimi’s father Al Hendrix (pictured with baby Jimi to the left) and the rest of his family out of their rightful heritage, but deprived the listening public of authentic access to Hendrix’s music—by flooding the market with sub-standard digital re-issues and bowdlerized versions of music from Jimi’s vast taped archives. 

 

In most cases, the erstwhile producers of these new Hendrix releases made one dubious artistic decision after another in the forms of edits, new overdubs and mixes that were so haphazardly produced and assembled, that they served only to weaken the musical legacy of one of this past century’s great musical originals.  Nor did these gatekeepers of the Hendrix legacy even see fit to consult with such intimate Hendrix collaborators as drummer Mitch Mitchell, bassists Noel Redding and Billy Cox…or engineer Eddie Kramer.  However, when the justice system finally spoke, all rights to Hendrix’s music, image and trademarks were returned to the family. 

 

Which meant that one of Jimi Hendrix’s most creative collaborators was now very much back in the loop.  While Eddie Kramer never sought to hold sway over the recording process in the way some modern desk jockey’s might, he became one of the first true superstar engineers of the modern recording era by virtue of his innate sense of musicality, his intuitive feel for the recording process and his spiritual-emotional connection to the artist.  Much as Jimi played with the spirit and for the spirit, Eddie Kramer was able to facilitate a pure, direct connection to the artist’s muse, and to translate that spirit into sound. 

 

We’re certainly not dismissing the contributions of recording console-production giants such as Les Paul, Tom Dowd and George Martin, nor overlooking the sonic purity of those early stereo jazz recordings Roy DuNann did in the mail room at Contemporary Records (take note of the props Eddie gives to influential classical music engineers such as Bob Fine, Bob Auger and Keith Grant later in our interview). 

 

Eddie Kramer at Blue Heaven Studios

Adjusting Microphone for Jimmy D. Lane Session

Courtesy APO Records

 

Still, given his family pedigree, creative background and understanding of modern music, Eddie Kramer was surely the right man at the right time, and his spiritual connection to Hendrix was such that everything just clicked.  Kramer’s was able to respond to Jimi in the here and now, just like an improvising musician.  Not simply to capture the dynamic energy of an event, but also to interpret and organize sounds with an artist’s eye for detail and a finely-tuned emotional perspective. 

 

Kramer was thus able to articulate Jimi Hendrix’s post-modern vision of sound, and together they transformed the recording studio into a painter’s pallet of pleasing new possibilities.  Along with the Beatles and George Martin, Hendrix and Kramer pioneered recording techniques that spurred the development of modern multi-tracking and signal processing. 

 

Looking back upon this era from the Arctic digital perspective of the Pro Tools generation, one frankly waxes nostalgic for the quaint humanity and emotional directness of the methodology Kramer and his contemporaries improvised on the fly with their Neolithic technology.  And now that Kramer has been able to employ today’s advanced new audio technologies in the analog and digital restoration of the Hendrix catalog, we can finally experience these recordings as Jimi and Eddie did—from behind the recording console. 

 

Eddie Kramer

Transformed The Recording Studio Into A Painter’s Pallet Of Pleasing New Possibilities

Gary Kellgren/Courtesy Kramer Archives

 

On the eve of the initial roll-out of Hendrix Family-Approved restorations of Jimi’s core catalog, I got to spend some time with Kramer at Sterling Sound as he completed analog masters for a limited edition LP release of A Band Of Gypsies (for the Classic Records audiophile label), and at Electric Lady Studios, the recording womb Kramer helped craft for Hendrix.   Decades latter, Kramer’s creative devotion to his musical brother endures undiminished, both in words and deeds.

 

What was your background before you met Hendrix?

 

I was an engineer at Olympic in London.  And I heard about Jimi.  He had done the first single as a B-Side at another studio in London, and I think Chas [Chandler] and he were unhappy with the sound, and they couldn’t play late at night; rather, they had to work late at night—they couldn’t play during the day.  And they had heard about Olympic Studios where I was working.  So I was given the task of working with Jimi Hendrix.  And the studio manager said, “Well, there’s this guy Jimi Hendrix, this wild guitar player from America coming in, so we’ll give it to Kramer—he does a lot of weird stuff anyway.”  I used to do a lot of orchestral work.  My background was in classical music.  I’d recorded Elliot Carter’s Concerto For Piano And Orchestra

 

Oh, that’s one of my favorite pieces.  That’s actually a pretty logical leap from Elliot Carter to Jimi Hendrix…

 

Well, they figured I was the weird guy; I did all the weird stuff—so give him the weird guitar player from America.  And that was very fortunate.  It worked out great because we immediately enjoyed each other’s company; enjoyed turning each other on to sounds.

 

Elliot Carter

Visionary American Composer

Born: December 11, 1908

Mandela Mary Morgan Stern/Collage John Potis

 

I loved what he did; he liked what I did, and Chas liked what I did, so the team started, I guess, at that point, with the Are You Experienced album.  They had already started on it, but basically, I took over the re-mix and overdubs and finished up some stuff they’d done before and did some new tracks.

 

 

 

So Axis: Bold As Love would have been the first album where you were involved from the get-go?

 

Right.

 

In terms of recording at that time, especially in terms of the electric guitar and rhythm instruments, what was it you were doing that was an evolution of the art?

 

Well, strictly speaking, I’d been influenced by two engineers I would call my mentors: one was Bob Auger, and the other was Keith Grant.  In fact, Keith used to work for Bob.  I worked with Bob from ’63-’64—I was at Pye Studios. And Bob was influenced by a very famous American engineer named Bob Fine, who you’ve probably heard of if you listened to a lot of classical music.  Bob Fine was the guy who did all of the experimentation with 35 mil, 6-track, 3-track Ampexs—left, center, rights—using the famous Bob Fine microphones and the Neumann M-50s and U-49s and all that stuff.  Bob Fine in America and Bob Auger in Europe were the two guys who kind of shared their technical prowess in recording symphony orchestras, and Bob Auger in London made Pye Studios like an American studio: it had Pultecs and a Fairchild cutting lathe, and all of the latest American technology was combined in this one studio, so I got to see American technology in London.  And not only that, but I went out on the road with Bob Auger recording at Walthamstone Town Hall and these various classical venues, and learning how to record orchestras with three mikes: three Neumann U-47s, left-center-right, and the balance was controlled by the conductor, which was the whole key to the thing.  So there was my experience with that, as a classical recording technician, and then I’d go into the recording studio with Bob Auger as he recorded the Kinks. 

 

Neumann U-47

 

And that was my first exposure to loud rock and roll: Petula Clark and Joe Brown and Kenny Ball and all that early British pop stuff in the early ‘60s.  So I had this background of classical, pop, rock, jazz big band—we would do everything there.  So watching all of this work is what enabled me to sort of say “Hmm, well, I’ve got the technique down.”  Then I went to work for Olympic, and Keith Grant had been an engineer working for Bob Auger, and Keith now runs Olympic which was like huge, an enormous place—they’d do symphony orchestras.  And there I was doing the same thing: I was doing jingles and film music and classical and pop stuff.  And by the time Hendrix comes around in January of 1967, I have this cool background in not only the music I love, and the ability to record it, but I was able to take those techniques from classical music and apply it to recording rock, which is the same thing I still do today—which is left-center-right overheads on the drums…very important….

 

That’s a classic technique, tried and true. What perspective of the drum kit do you like to depict—the audience perspective or the drummer’s?

 

What I do that not many people do, is that I record everything from the drummer’s perspective, and present it on the record as the drummer sees it—not as the audience sees it.  So the drummer’s hi-hats are always on the left.  Always.  I like to pretend that I’m the drummer—it’s more exciting that way. 

 

I think it’s interesting that you went from recording classical music—big masses of strings—because the drum kit notwithstanding, Jimi Hendrix and Noel Redding approximated big masses of strings. 

 

Yeah, I think it was very useful having these two guys as mentors, and to this day, I still think Bob Auger was a fucking genius—an absolutely amazing engineer.  And the same with Keith Grant…Keith’s still around doing stuff.  I don’t know if Bob is still active—he must be retired at this point, nearing 70.

 

Well, obviously your background gave you a lot of flexibility.  But in terms of what, at that time were unprecedented levels—even by rock standards—of distortion and feedback…I recall hearing this story about a mastering engineer encountering Are You Experienced for the first time, and he freaked out.  “My God, something’s wrong here.  Listen—it’s all distorted.” 

 

[Laughter]  Yes, something was wrong—I think it was with that engineer’s ears.  But yes, it was a shock, of course.  But we didn’t feel that.  Hearing Jimi’s guitar miked up for the first time may have been a revelation.  But what one has to put into perspective was I was an engineer working for a studio, and we had a job to do.  We were there to record music, put it on tape and do the best job we could.  I think the fact that Jimi and I and Chas got on so well right away was a blessing, as was the fact that Jimi was able to play in such a way that it made my job easier—because all I had to do was just mike it correctly and interpret what he was doing.

 

Now there’s where the trick comes in—in the interpretation of the sound.  Because he would play a particular part with a lot of distortion or a particular device, and it was my job to enhance that sound and put it on tape in such a way that it would improve what he had done in the studio.  And to that end we were flying by the seats of our pants, because I don’t think we really had a clue as to what we were doing; we were just doing it—there was a certain amount of instinct going on here.  And I think that the previous experiences I had as an engineer must have all kicked in at the same time, because here I was presented with an artist who was obviously the consummate artist, a man who was really totally at the top of his game, and here we were, a young sort of engineer, producer and artist making new music, basically, and really in uncharted waters as far as the techniques.  Every time we were in the studio it was a new experience, and I don’t mean to use that as a pun, but it was—it was a completely challenging and exciting time, because he’d play something and we’d go “Wow!  That’s great Jimi, that’s fine.  Okay, let me see, what can we do with it?  We can compress it.” 

 

Jimi Hendrix

Belly Button Window

Courtesy Nona Hatay

 

Thinking about it now, I can analyze it.  But thinking about how I was reacting to it then, it was pure instinct.  There was not a process going through my mind: “Well, this is Jimi Hendrix and I have to do X-Y-Z to the sound.”  No.  As the sound occurred I would instinctively reach for reverb, tape delay and compression.  We had literally, four or five things at our disposal—that was it, in terms of effects that I could do, and eventually phasing of course.  Really primitive recording techniques by today’s standards, yes.  Put all of that together, the fact that you had Jimi and Mitch and Noel creating all of these great sounds, and then what I add to it, whether it be reverb or compression, EQ, balancing and panning…the one thing that I did do that probably was more innovative was the use of panning.  Not that it hadn’t been done, but I don’t think that anybody had quite taken it to the extent that I did, which was doing a rhythmic pan, in the sense that if Jimi’s guitar was playing a particular rhythm, and I felt that when he swept across the guitar that I could sweep the pan pot at the same time—that hadn’t been done, because nobody really thought like that.  I tried to use the board, the console, and what I had at my disposal, as a pallet.  Much as an artist would pick the colors, I would pick the colors of sound.  And interestingly enough, talking about colors and sounds, Jimi used to describe the idea that he had in his head about a particular sound, in color.  And whether it was a purple sound or a red sound or a green sound or a black sound, or whatever sound he was describing had a color attached to it, and I guess I instinctively knew what he meant.   So I could say, “Well, maybe green means reverb, and red means distortion.”  So there was this immediate symbiosis.

 

Something you said before has been rattling around in my brain.  When you used the three-mike technique with a symphony, the final recording reflected the conductor’s perspective.  It seems to me that what Jimi trusted you to do, was not to be the conductor in the sense of directing his music, but in the sense of giving it a sonic perspective, so he could go in and hear how you’d interpreted something and either give it the nod or ask you to try something else, and over time the process evolved to the point where it was largely unspoken.

 

That’s a very good point.  I think that during the making of the Are You Experienced album, he sensed—or at least I think he sensed—that I was able to make that leap, if you will, of understanding where he was coming from, and he was able to relax to the point where “I know that Eddie will be able to get me the sound I want or need.”  And that’s very important for an artist to go into the studio knowing that the producer or engineer is capable to interpreting what it is he wants and putting it on tape effectively—or even better than the way he had thought of it.  And it’s a very relaxing thing for an artist and gives him a lot of freedom…very good point. 

 

It’s interesting, because the first album’s perspective is very distant; it’s almost like you’re sitting on the shore and seeing this incredible event happening from a great distance.  Things are not very vivid.  But the fact that it’s very obscure, the primitive nature of the sound—and this isn’t meant pejoratively—has always been very appealing to me, sort of in the manner of Fresh Cream, which was their first recording as well. 

 

Jimi Hendrix

Purple Haze

“Maybe Green Means Reverb, And Red Means Distortion.”

Courtesy Nona Hatay

 

But there is something about that album that just screams 1967, and trumpets the feeling out process, whereas by the time we arrive at Axis: Bold As Love, there’s a clarity that’s analogous to a jazz recording.

 

That’s a good point, because I was talking about that in an earlier interview.  And it’s very true.  And fortunately the reissue of all the albums actually focused my attention on that very fact; that I was able to listen to Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love, Electric Ladyland, and First Rays Of The New Rising Sun (which is really The Cry Of Love with additions), and hear the genesis of, not only Jimi’s playing and his music, but also what I did with it, and hearing the primitive sounds as you so aptly put it—and I think that’s very true. 

 

And I felt myself, that Experienced was very primitive.  The drums are on one track; and the bass is sometimes mixed in with the drums on one track; and then a guitar track, and then another guitar track; and a vocal—and maybe that was bounced down.  There wasn’t as much four to four going on; maybe there was only one layer of four to fours. However, by the time we hit Axis, we were able to go to the next level.  It afforded us more time.  By this time I had felt out how I was going to approach the sound and I was already experimenting with a stereo drum image.  By this point, throughout the entire Axis album, the drums were in stereo and nothing else was interfering with that.  What I did was dedicate the first layer of the four track to stereo drums, bass and guitar; mixed that to two tracks on another four track, filled that up and bounced back again—so sometimes there’d be three generations of four to four.  So in each case, every time I did a bounce, that mix had to be damn good, it had to be right on—there was no second-guessing because it affected every subsequent mix.  I was lucky. 

 

I was thinking, that with all the new technology, some of which is so bloody wonderful it’s amazing, something was gained, but something was lost as well.  I just got my reference audio system up to a reasonable high level of resolution, and I went back to some of those Beatles albums, like Sgt. Pepper’s and I thought, “God almighty—this sounds great.”  I think perhaps that while the science of modern technology is far more advanced, there might have been more art and soul involved in that earlier process.

 

I think the word is integration.  I think the way that we functioned in those days, we had to integrate all of the music and the technology—everything had to be done then and there.  You didn’t have a chance to come back and fix it later.  You had to get it right then and there.  And that immediacy forces you to really pay attention to detail and think ahead. 

 

It also puts you on the level of the musician in terms of thinking on your feet in a spontaneous creative process, and then that echoes the music.  Without losing what little thread of continuity we have going here, just to backtrack a bit to the first album, I was curious what types of mikes, boards, tape machines and outboard gear you were using on the first and subsequent albums.   

 

    

 

Let’s think of the first two and a half albums as one period of time. Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love and part of Electric Ladyland were all done at Olympic so they have a unified kind of sound, in the sense that they were done there with pretty much the same microphones, though slightly different techniques in terms of stereo imagery.  But basically, by January-February of 1968, before I came over to America, I had already cut four songs at Olympic. 

 

So a very big room, and everyone in the same room, but the room was so big…

 

…that you could get separation; you could get a nice drum sound.  So I think of that time period—1967 through the beginning of 1968, when Jimi came to America, and I followed him in April of that year—as one sound period: all Olympic and all four track; Ampex 440 half-inch using MR 56; mostly [Neumann] 67 mikes and [Neumann] M160 for the vocal and guitar—all tubes.  And lots of board compression.  There was a thing called a Pye Limiter, which was a great limiter, which we used on everything.  And also, Olympic had it’s own proprietary limiter which was based upon the same circuitry.  So yeah, it was all pretty much homegrown stuff.  So by the time we got to the States in 1968, Jimi was already ensconced at the Record Plant, which was the brand new studio on the east coast.  And they flew me over to continue my relationship with Jimi. 

 

So are we up to eight-track yet?  The sixteen-track emerged in the ‘70s, right?

 

No, no, no.  I arrived April 17, 1968.  Jimi was already in the studio working.  And they’d taken the four tracks we cut over at Olympic on 4-track/half-inch and transferred them over to the new medium of the day, which was one-inch/12-track—we skipped 8-track at the Record Plant.  It was a bastard formula, a horrible machine: a 12-track Scully one-inch; noisy as shit; punch-ins were a nightmare—however, it was a big jump.  So I jumped from four to twelve and all of a sudden had eight more tracks to play with—whoopdedoo!  But I was still using the same 4-track mentality in terms of being economical in putting the tracks down.

 

Just bumping them and building layers.

 

We just added more layers.  However something occurred towards the end of 1968, the beginning of 1969: the 12-track machine was scraped, and the first 16-track machine came in.  So during that period [Eddie pauses to recollect]…when was Electric Ladyland completed?  I think it came out in early 1969.  So somewhere in there, the 16-track machine appeared.  All the 12-tracks that had been filled up were then transferred to sixteen.  I can give you a good example:  “All Along The Watchtower” went through three generations, from 4-track, to 12-track to 16-track.

 

Interesting.  Because that track always felt very different from anything else on the album.  It sounded somehow smaller, in the sense of the original Experience album—that distant perspective.   

 

I think what happened—because I have a copy of the original 4-track basic track of  “All Along The Watchtower, ” and it’s so beautiful and open and right in your face, it’s scary—is that Jimi got really carried away with the amount of tracks that were available.  Imagine going from a 4-track tape and all of a sudden you have 16-tracks to fill up.  So by the time it was finished, there was too much stuff there.  So that’s the genesis of the recording process.  By the time Electric Ladyland is done it’s all 16-track/two-inch.

 

Well you had a hand in designing the Electric Lady Studios, right?

 

Yes, I was fortunate enough that they asked me to contribute.  Where you’re sitting right now used to be the kitchen.  In the 1920s this was a club called The Village Barn.  In the ‘20s and ‘30s they used to have square dances and stuff, so there was always music here.  Then in the ‘60s I think for a brief period of time it was a nightclub called The Generation, which Jimi used to frequent and come down and jam.  He liked the place a lot and did some great jams here.  So he bought the place in 1969 with his manager, Michael Jeffrey.  And it stood vacant for about six months while they figured out what to do with it, and then they decided to make it into a nightclub. 

 

John Storyk

L: America’s Preeminent Acoustic Designer

R: With Eddie Kramer at Electric Lady Studios

“Let’s Build The Best Studio In The World.”

 

And they called John Storyk, one of my oldest and dearest friends, to make it into a nightclub, with a studio.  And that’s when they called me down to ask me what I thought of the idea of making it into a nightclub with a little studio where they could record stuff.  And I remember walking in here, and looking at the raw space, and I said, “You guys are crazy.  Forget about the nightclub.  Let’s build a studio—let’s build the best studio in the world.”  Thirteen months and a million dollars later, we had Electric Lady.  And I had quite a large hand, certainly in the design of the electronics and what went in and where it was to be positioned, and how John did the interiors.  The acoustics were really sort of a guessing game.  John and myself and the acoustician sort of fiddled about until we got it right.  We just got lucky.  In those days it wasn’t so much of a science. 

 

So, the use of isolation booths and so forth weren’t common?

 

There were a lot of things that weren’t common.  The thing is that we wanted to make this a comfortable environment for the artist—this was an artist driven studio.  And we wanted to make Jimi very comfortable.  So we installed a very elaborate theater lighting system.  All the walls were white carpet, so we could wash the walls with any combination of colors; we had this huge theater lighting panel in the control room.

 

So you could match the environment to suit his mood or make things nice and dark so he could disappear and do his vocals.

 

Precisely.  And the thing we talked about earlier—blue, green, yellow, purple, red—any color of the rainbow you could make it.  It was an environment for Jimi to work in, and he loved it.  He was so comfortable working here.  He was so enthralled with the idea that his money was able to make a space he could record in.  And he was here religiously every night, on time for all his sessions—never late. 

 

And what did you record here?

 

Well, we basically took the tapes from 1969 that he had done under no supervision, which was a shame—he basically spent all of 1969 just jamming and putting ideas down on tape.  And we took those tapes and examined them very carefully, and selected the tunes we were going to work on, and from that came The Cry Of Love album, which really in essence is First Rays Of The New Rising Sun. 

 

I always thought that was a remarkably underrated album.  And to listen to it…I never really saw it as incomplete…

 

Oh it really was.  And when you hear this now, you’ll hear how all of the pieces fit together, because that was the name that Jimi really wanted it called.

 

Sure, but if you put on The Cry Of Love and follow it up with say something like John McLaughlin & The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s The Inner Mounting Flame, there’s a direct line to the next generation of musicians and the next generation of music and recording techniques and drum sounds and guitar sounds.  I always found it to be a very evocative album, and when that Voodoo Soup shit came out, I was really quite horrified.

 

Yeah, it was definitely.  But to get back to your question, from the time that the studio opened, unofficially in May of 1970…May, June, July, August…four months—it was a very intense time.  We were in the studio every single day, apart from him being on the road.  But when he wasn’t on the road, he was here.  And we mixed some songs together, thank goodness, and some of them still survive, like “Dolly Dagger” and “Room Full Of Mirrors.”   When you hear them all together, you’ll see how they fit.  It’s not so much a chronology as that all of these songs were meant to be together. 

 

“Hey Baby” was always a favorite of mine.  There’s a surviving concert performance from September 3, 1970 in Copenhagen, Denmark, that the author-collector Bill Nitopi gave me, that was such a high compared to the rest of that tour, and on those performances, you can hear the next two years of music coming together. 

 

There it is.

 

So you feel this chronology of tunes is a more accurate representation

of what you guys were doing during those final four months?

 

This is pretty much everything.

 

Well, a few things didn’t make it.  I don’t see “Pali Gap” here.

 

But you have to understand what “Pali Gap” was made for. 

It was really made for the movie Rainbow Bridge.

 

                                                                                                               Hendrix Image Courtesy David Pearcy/Collage by John Potis

 

What about that orchestral studio version of

“The Star Spangled Banner”?

 

That’s an oddball.  It’s amazing, but it doesn’t quite fit with this format.

 

 

 

Click Here To Continue to Part 2

 

 

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