Archive Interview: Eddie Kramer
Posted on: Monday 24th of May 2021
Eddie Kramer never tired of the experience, in this 2009 interview (Resolution V8.4) with Nigel Jopson, he talked Woodstock, Hendrix, heavy metal and 5.1 DVDs.
After studying classical piano at the South African College of Music, Eddie moved to the UK with his family and got his first studio job at PYE in 1964, where he recorded Petula Clark and The Kinks. Subsequently he joined Olympic Sound Studios — at the time the top London independent — where he engineered albums for a panoply of 60s greats including Traffic, The Small Faces, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Family and Jimi Hendrix. Kramer and Hendrix formed a bond that saw him go freelance, following Jimi to New York to work at the Record Plant. Eddie recorded seminal acts like The Nice, Curtis Mayfield, John Mayall, Derek and the Dominos, Humble Pie and Led Zeppelin — his name appears in the engineering credits for Zep II, Zep III, How the West Was Won, Houses of The Holy, Physical Graffiti and Coda. In 1969 Kramer recorded and mixed the epoch-defining Woodstock Festival for both album and film.
Eddie was director of engineering at Electric Ladyland studios from 1970-1974, he recorded every Hendrix album from Are You Experienced? to The Cry of Love, and after the untimely death of the guitar legend he co-produced War Heroes, Rainbow Bridge and Hendrix in the West. Some might have been content to hang up their headphones after such an action-packed decade: for Eddie it was just the start.
In 1975 Kramer produced Alive, the disc that saved the career of masked merchandisers Kiss, and in 1976 he engineered Frampton Comes Alive, the six-time platinum double-LP which became an audio and sales benchmark for live albums. Kramer took the production chair for five further Kiss albums, another album for Pete Frampton, plus an album for smokin’ Michigan boys Brownsville Station. The 1980s saw Eddie producing a menu of metal bands, including Twisted Sister, Fastaway, Triumph, Icon, Pretty Maids, Anthrax, Robin Trower and Loudness … his ears survived, and during the 1990s Kramer produced Carl Perkins, John McLaughlin, Brian May, Paul Rodgers and Buddy Guy. He received a Best Contemporary Blues Record Grammy Award in 1996 for Guy’s Slippin’ It In, which he produced and engineered.
The millennium saw Eddie delve into 5.1 and DVD production, notably The Festival Express movie (featuring Janis Joplin, The Band and Grateful Dead among others — Resolution V2.6) and surround-sound DVDs Jimi Plays Berkeley and Monterey Pop. Resolution met Eddie at Metropolis studios, where he gave us the first ever European preview of a Woodstock 5.1 DVD, to be released to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the festival this year.
Does the new Woodstock DVD contain previously unseen footage?
It actually came about as a result of the Jimi Hendrix Woodstock DVD, which was released about three years ago. We realised there was a tremendous amount of stuff still in the vaults which had never been seen. Just to name a few artists: Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band, Janice Joplin. Bill Rush at Warners had worked with me to find all the unreleased Hendrix material. He and I put our heads together and came to the conclusion there was so much high-quality footage, perhaps there was more? He went on a search and came up with about ten hours of material that had never even been seen or heard. It’s monumental; it took about two and a half years of work and research.
How did you deal with technical or musical mistakes that spoilt otherwise great performances, the show must have been littered with them considering the chaos and chemicals at Woodstock?
Carlos Santana had apparently gone on stage in a rather delicate state; his tuning was so far out it was in another country. I replaced the first minute and a half of his guitar on Evil Way with a session player because basically the track was unusable, I sent a rough mix to Carlos and he said: ‘Wow, I can’t believe it, man, I’ll help you out.’ So we went up to San Francisco and he fixed those portions of the song with his original amp and guitar, he nailed it within an hour. It was fantastic; we salvaged a song that would never have normally been available. That sort of thing went on a fair amount, usually the opening song from each set was a disaster because I had no communication with the stage, we’d be guessing as to which mics would be where, so stuff got lost. With Canned Heat we were able to punch in the original bass player Larry Taylor, playing his original bass with the original style of amp, to recover what hadn’t been recorded, and it sounds perfect. To me, there’s a legitimate reason to replace missing or spoilt parts with the original player and recreate the sounds on a particular song so it’s seamless. I don’t have any qualms about that whatsoever because we are saving songs that would never normally have been seen or heard.
Where did you mix the Woodstock DVD, and did you use any special equipment or plug-ins?
I mixed it at Capitol studios and at Village recorders in LA. The mixes were tricky — can you imagine trying to make 5.1 from just seven tracks? But the result was good and I’m very pleased with it. We used an A-D converter I’ve recently discovered: the Burl B2 Bomber.
It’s made up in Santa Cruz and it’s the best damn A-DC that I’ve ever heard. It gave a stunning sound to the transfers from one-inch 15ips. Once the 24-bit, 96kHz transfer was done, I had a pretty wonderful representation of what the original analogue sounded like. Just before we finished, when we were working on the lot at the Warner Stage, Rich Williams of Burl had just developed the D-A convertor, so we were able to run the mixes back through them … it sounded fantastic. Most of the mixes used a combination of Waves plugins and regular analogue gear. Quite frankly there were times when I couldn’t really tell the difference between the plug-in and the original analogue gear it’s emulating. Waves are getting so good, and they are so close. Some of the things the Waves plug-ins can do, especially in the realm of de-noising, de-clicking and restoration… you can’t beat it.
Kim King [a former engineer at Electric Ladyland] said about you – ‘Kramer was a director, there was no telling Hendrix what to play, but if he was “on” Kramer would channel him into something productive’ – I thought, that’s the definition of a record producer!’
That is quite accurate, and it’s extremely nice of him to say that …
If it were 2009, and you were recording the Electric Ladyland album with Hendrix, your management would probably have negotiated a production deal with royalties for you, wouldn’t they?
Yes … short answer!
Hendrix was one of the first artists (apart from The Beatles) to use the recording studio as a writing tool. In the post-Chandler era, would he just hang out and jam to come up with ideas?
Chas Chandler not only helped Jimi with his earlier songwriting, he also really restrained Jimi in his writing so that he worked to a shorter time frame. In the early 60s shorter songs were necessary for radio. So you can imagine all this amazing amount of talent and energy squished into a short time period. He started to drift away from Chas after the first album. He was bringing a lot of people – 20 or more — into the control room. Chas felt he wasn’t concentrating on the game, which was not really true.
There was a very specific method Jimi used. He would go to the Scene Club, on 46th Street in NY. He would have the studio booked for 7 o’clock and we’d be sitting there … Jimi would be at The Scene checking out the musicians … who were the cool guys he needed to play with that night? There would be a plan afoot, once he’d figured out who the musicians were, he’d walk down to the studio carrying his guitar over his shoulder with this entourage — the sight must have been enough to stop traffic. Often they were British musicians as it was the beginning of the next wave of rock guys coming over, one evening Jimi turned up with Steve Winwood and Jack Casady [of the Jefferson Airplane]. They’d do one run-through, then we’d start the tape, it was live off the floor, no overdubs … that’s what I call genius.
I read that Jimi ran up a studio bill in 1969 at the Record Plant of $60,000.
Jimi was spending an inordinate amount of money at the Record Plant, in ’69 anyway, when he was sort of just jamming away with nobody supervising him. When I went down to the building he was intending to buy as a night-club, I said ‘Guys, let’s make this the best studio in the world.’ So Electric Ladyland was born … but, you know, it cost about a million bucks! In 1970 dollars that was a lot of money. We probably made it back within a couple of years, but still it was a lot of bloody money!
After Woodstock, you carved something of a reputation for yourself with live recordings, you produced Kiss Alive for example … Alive spent 110 weeks in the charts and the band went on to sell over 35 million records, but at the time it was released, I believe Kiss were at the end of their tether and Casablanca Records were pretty much bankrupt.
They were about to take a dump. We were very surprised, we didn’t think the Alive album was ever going to sell … maybe a few thousand, but never the millions it did … the sales and royalties, I’m very happy for that. I did a lot of live recording in the 70s with Kiss, Peter Frampton … The Frampton Comes Alive album has a very professional sheen to it. There may have been the odd punch-in here and there, but that was very much live, I can vouch for that. The stuff I did was all 16-track, it was lovely. He played great, the band was terrific.
There are different stages to your career, in the 80s after Kiss you produced Triumph, Fastaway, Anthrax, this was definitely the metal era. After Hendrix, was this the equivalent for you of James Joyce writing a pot-boiler?
I love the reference! My father was a scholar of James Joyce and my sister and I used to read Finnegan’s Wake aloud to him when we were nine years old. Talking about pot-boiling: a couple of years ago I did a commercial for GM for the Silverado truck. It was a $170m ad campaign, the artist was John Mellencamp, so that shows you the extent of my pot-boiling! You have to make a living, and you choose to record people who you think will do OK … or better … you do music that you want to record. There’s a couple of bands that I’m working with now: Joey Santiago and Dave Lovering, the guitarist and drummer from the Pixies, have a band that I’m producing called TheEverybody. They’re really good and I’ve just finished a whole bunch of tracks with them. We’ve been working on the project for about six months, I helped them out and loaned them some gear, then started producing. It’s an ongoing project.
When you produce guys like that, do you use an engineer?
It’s just me and them, they have their own studio, I bring my gear in and help them record then leave them alone for a while. They’re quite independent and self-sufficient. Once they’ve done their overdubs we fix it up together and I mix it.
Is that in Pro Tools?
It’s all in Pro Tools, unfortunately most people cannot afford the luxury of multitrack tape these days. However, I mix with an analogue console, often at this little studio in North Hollywood called LAFX, it has a lovely old API console with Martin Audio automation, and I mix onto half-inch tape at 15ips, using the Burl A-D convertor, which makes such a huge difference to the sound.
Is there still a way for top-class recording facilities to be commercially viable today?
This statement applies not only to recording studios, but also to me and people like myself: diversify or die. As you can tell from my career in the last ten years or so, I’ve tried to diversify as much as I could. I still want to be active and involved, but I can’t rely 100% on producing records, I’m not 23 anymore!
You worked on an interesting guitar pedal for Digitech.
I’ve worked on a couple of pedals, the Hendrix pedal and the Brian May pedal. More recently I’ve been working with Waves, I did a tour for them last year, one section was exclusively Waves, the second half of the year was Waves and Apple Logic. It was quite challenging and very cool because we worked with a live guitar player onstage.
Do you enjoy the educational theme of this sort of event?
I like the idea of passing on to the next generation something of what I’ve learnt. I do a lot of lectures in the US at universities like Berklee College, Full Sail and SAE … the audio engineering schools, of which there are about 300 in the US. We’ll get a local band, find a song, then rip it apart, rebuild it: basically I show them how to make a record. It’s great because it also gives me a new perspective about what’s going on in the real world.
Do you feel that all those colleges might be training youngsters for jobs that don’t exist anymore?
They’re training monkeys, unfortunately. Not in every case –- maybe that sounds a little harsh — but I would say this: in every school there’s usually just 10%, maybe more if you’re lucky, kids who really, really get it. Who understand what it takes to be an engineer, and then possibly a producer later. It’s dedication, it’s the musical smarts … the musical intuition that it takes to interpret. You’ve got to be a great interpreter of what the artist is looking for, you can’t just be a numbers pusher. It’s very easy to sit there in front of a computer and bang away at it. To be creative, you have to get in the studio where four musicians are going to look each other in the eye and say: ‘I hate you, but I’m going to record with you’. You want to get that interaction going and how do you create the atmosphere to make it work? A musical education is, in my mind, the most critical part. If you can’t play an instrument, don’t even bother trying to become a production professional. You really have to be able to understand what it takes to make music, otherwise what the hell’s the point?
When you first started work at Olympic Studios, the big money for artists was to be made from touring, the record was almost like a promotional device: is there a sense that, 45 years later, it’s come full circle?
It really has. The record business is down the shitter, we all know that, the industry as we knew it 20 years ago just does not exist. One has to apportion some of the blame to the record labels, their own stupidity and short-sightedness: trying to make the teenagers with their downloads go away –- wrong — now you’ve missed the boat!
If you were starting your career as a young man today, would you see enough value in recorded music to become an engineer or would you aim for something more multi-skilled or visual?
With hindsight I would choose to be more multiskilled … I think if one goes back perhaps a hundred years, it was an advantage to be considered a Renaissance-type person, interested in all of the arts, although I think it would be a bit bold for me to say that about myself! We’re at a sort of crossroads point: it’s wonderful on the one hand that kids can open up their laptops, plug in a little preamp and mic, record in the basement and come up with an album. Some of the attempts have been quite good, but it bears looking at because the end results often don’t sound that good, and I still think there’s work for great engineers in great studios. It’s just different — one has to approach it differently.
You can read all of Resolution issue 8.4 via Issuu here.