Back in the late 1950s, New York was peppered with recording studios. Most were on the West Side of Manhattan, between 39th and 58th streets—within striking distance of the Brill Building on Broadway, the television networks on Sixth Ave. and record distributors on 8th and 9th avenues. When Phil Ramone began his career as a recording engineer, he learned the ropes at JAC Recording, which was in the heart of what was still the city's nightclub and entertainer-hangout district.
In 1958, Phil left JAC to start his own recording studio with Jack Arnold. They set up shop on 48th St. just off 6th Ave. Highly sensitive to sound, Phil soon began remodeling to maximize the room's acoustics and personality for recordings.
In Part 2 of my five-part interview with Phil, the in-demand producer talks about how he learned to mike a studio and where he went for advice to sweeten A&R's sound:
JazzWax: Who taught you how to record jazz?
Phil Ramone: Don Elliott mostly. He was a client at JAC Recording and a good friend of Quincy Jones’. In addition to playing trumpet and vibes, Don could write and arrange. He also always had a vision for what he wanted to record. He’d say, “I’ll bring a bass player to the date and then I’ll play vibes and overdub French horns or a mellophone. Then he’d write for that collection of instruments.
JW: Elliott was also something of a recording buff, yes?
PR: Yes. Don had started a jingle business and rented a studio near Coastal Studios on 40th St. between 5th and 6th avenues. Don also had a recording studio in his home in Weston, CT. Back in the ‘50s, to have a home studio was the heights of luxury for a musician. He taught me how to record and how to avoid distortion.
JW: What did that entail?
PR: You have to mike the instruments carefully. And you don’t want to overload the preamp, into which mikes are plugged. For example, if you place a microphone at the bell of a horn, you’re going wind up in trouble as an engineer when the horn opens up. There's going to be enormous distortion. Don taught me that you have to use the room when miking instruments so the room accompanies the sound and helps produce the best results.
JW: How so?
PR: Back then equipment couldn't support many mike inputs. This forced you to feel and work with the room’s sound. This is the sound a room's design elements and materials produce when instruments play. For example, wood and stone surfaces will result in different sounds. Raw wood and polished wood results in differences as well. Sound doesn't happen the way you think it does. When you went to a club then—and this may still be true in many clubs today—the sound you heard was actually coming off the back wall. You thought it was coming from in front of you because your eyes told you so. But in truth, the music came off the back wall. It left a horn, bounced off the back wall and then hit your ear. Today, you can mike every instrument in a band. But in those days, musicians often shared a mike so room surfaces mattered.
JW: What did you learn about mikes?
PR: How to hang one just right in the middle of musicians. Bill Schwartau taught me tons. Bill was an engineer who worked at Coastal. He came over to my studio when I formed A&R. Bill was great at looking at a room and understanding design and how to maximize it for recording.
JW: By the way, what did A&R stand for?
PR: A&R was named for Arnold and Ramone. Jack Arnold was a partner at JAC who left with me to form our new recording studio. I liked the name because it sounded like the name of a garage.
JW: Where was A&R originally?
PR: Jack told me about a room for rent. It was an insert stage on top of Manny’s Music on West 48th St. in New York, where the Fox News Building is now. The location of A&R was 112 West 48th St. and it was perfect. Next door was the bar Jim & Andy's. Legends like Gerry Mulligan and George Barnes would gather there. When a contractor was short on musicians, he’d just call down to Jim & Andy’s.
JW: What did you think when you first saw the space for your studio?
PR: The floor was a disaster. It was part concrete, part something else. But it sounded good. After a year, I changed it because musicians would complain that when they walked across it, they’d get dust all over their clothes. Musicians had to dress up in those days [laughs].
JW: What did you do to the space?
PR: I developed a room that many producers loved. Creed Taylor recorded many of his Verve albums at my studio in the early 1960s. I also recorded a fair amount with Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic. He was a mentor. When I befriended Quincy in 1959, he recorded the Genius of Ray Charles for Atlantic at A&R. The reason Atlantic came to us is because the label’s engineer Tom Dowd had heard my room and loved it.
JW: What made your studio’s space so special?
PR: It had a 12-foot ceiling, which gave recordings a sense of space and depth. In the beginning we gave away time to guys like Don Frey and Skitch Henderson [pictured]. Don had worked for NBC for about 10 years as an engineer on live TV. Skitch was leader of the Tonight Show's band. They'd get free recording time, and we'd experiment with them. The results were great, and word of mouth traveled fast.
JW: What would they say?
PR: They’d tell others, “There’s no air conditioning, it gets really warm in there and the place is a dust barn. But when you walk out of there, you have a tape that sounds unbelievable.” To this day, the stuff that was recorded there stands up, audio-wise.
JW: What else about the studio?
PR: When I wanted to refurbish it, Don Frey and I went to this guy in Astoria and asked him, “What can we do to enhance the sound texture but not cause the room to seal?”
JW: What did the guy say?
PR: He came up with a finish for the floor that wasn’t too shiny. I fought so many people on adding a reflective surface —except Bill Putnam [pictured] on the West Coast who used shiny asphalt tile at his Universal Recording studio. You don’t want a bad acoustic slap off the floor, so you have to be careful. After we put that surface down, guys in Count Basie’s band said they didn’t feel like their ears were plugged. You could hear yourself play in there.
JW: What else did you do to the room?
PR: I put up masonite walls, believe it or not. Hey, we had to make money. I hung some two by fours, put lighting on it and created a waffle ceiling. Now if you ask me where that education came from, it’s purely experimentation. I know what I had hated and tried things to overcome them. I knew I hated a flat ceiling so I tried something to create a wave form. I did it with tiles. The other thing I did was add echo chambers.
JW: How did you know so much about floor surfaces?
PR: At JAC Recording, where I had started, we had taken a bedroom in an apartment and shellacked it for four weeks. Every Friday or Saturday we’d shellac the walls and floors until the room sounded like you were in the smallest little gymnasium—but sweet. So I knew that adding shellac to the floor would give the room a warmer character.
JW: Were you spending wildly?
PR: Actually, many of the things I did were done to conserve money. Money was a big problem when you ran a studio. If you wasted discs, you were losing money. If you weren’t aware of how loud a bass drum was and didn’t prepare for it and the drummer hits the bass, the needle wiggles and skips, ruining the disc you're cutting from the tape. So you have to baby sit that disc. You previewed everything. There wasn’t automatic previewing back then. It was all gut and artistic judgment.
Tomorrow, Phil Ramone talks about recording Kai Winding's hit Mondo Cane #2, Ray Charles' Genius + Soul = Jazz, carefully miking Getz/Gilberto, and why The Girl From Ipanema originally was recorded as a demo for Sarah Vaughan, who rejected it.
JazzWax clip: Phil recorded Quincy Jones' Big Band Bossa Nova at A&R in 1962. Here's Soul Bossa Nova, the album's most notable track. Listen how large the 13-piece band sounds in the room...