Recording engineer and producer Phil Ramone had three things going for him when he set up A&R Recording in 1959. First, he was a trained classical musician who could hear what most of his peers could not. Second, he was passionate about making records that sounded more vivid and dynamic than everything else on the market. And third, he was fortunate to have come in contact with the right people at just the right time—notably Atlantic's recording engineer Tom Dowd and producers Quincy Jones and Creed Taylor. [Photo by Dave Allocca]
Phil has always understood that every album project has a distinct personality. Each recording artist and instrument configuration is different and requires care to capture the nuances and hushed warmth or explosive energy. The sonic texture of principal players and playing styles also demand consideration. How good an album sounded back in the 1960s depended largely on a studio's physical construction and interior design as well as where microphones were placed and how tapes were mastered.
In Part 3 of my five-part interview with Phil Ramone, the famed producer talks about recording The Genius of Ray Charles, Kai Winding's More and Getz/Gilberto:
JazzWax: What was your role on Ray Charles’ The Genius of Ray Charles in 1959?
Phil Ramone: Tom Dowd and Bill Schwartau were the engineers. I was the third guy, an assistant. Atlantic had tried to book its favorite studio for the date but it was overbooked. Dowd loved how A&R Recording sounded so we were top of mind when they were in a jam.
JW: How did so many musicians on that date fit in your studio?
PR: [Laughs] Originally it was supposed to be Ray Charles with just a horn section—four guys. But Quincy [Jones] decided to write bigger. Much bigger. There was something like six trumpets, four trombones and six saxes. Ray was so close to the control-room window that if he could see he probably would have walked out of the session.
JW: One of the first big pop hits you recorded was Kai Winding’s More, the theme from Mondo Cane, in 1962.
PR: Carroll Music, an instrument rental company, was in our building. As a studio, we were in constant need of instruments at the last minute, so we rented from them. Carroll eventually preferred to just leave the instruments we needed most frequently on our floor. They did this to avoid slowing down the tiny elevator every time we needed a set of vibes or other large instrument sent up. We kept a menu and running tally of whatever we used and for how long. Then we’d pay Carroll each month. One day Carroll [Bratman, the owner] introduced this little Frenchman to us. He had developed an electronic keyboard with two octaves. It was a small version of how a Moog synthesizer would sound years later. That’s the instrument you hear on More. It wasn’t a theremin, though many people believed it was.
JW: You recorded Getz/Gilberto in March 1963 at A&R but the album wasn’t released until 12 months later.
PR: I believe the delay had to do with The Girl From Ipanema.
JW: What happened?
PR: Producer Creed Taylor liked Ipanema and wanted to record it as a pop single. But the original words by Vinícius de Moraes were in Portuguese. Before the date, Creed had asked Norman Gimbel to write words to the song in English. Creed felt Ipanema had more pop power as a single than the other songs for the date. He wanted to lay down a demo of Ipanema as a single because Quincy wanted Sarah Vaughan to record it.
JW: How did Astrud Gilberto come to sing it?
PR: On the days we recorded, Astrud came to the date with her then husband, guitarist Joao Gilberto [both pictured]. Astrud was in the control room when Norm came in with the English lyrics to Ipanema. Creed said he wanted to get the song done right away and looked around the room. Astrud volunteered, saying she could sing in English. Creed said, “Great.” Astrud wasn’t a professional singer, but she was the only victim sitting there that night [laughs].
JW: What happened next?
PR: Creed [pictured] handed Astrud the word sheet and she went into the studio and did it. That’s Creed at his best. The idea of that melody getting English lyrics was his, and taking a chance on Astrud was his idea, too.
JW: What happened with the record?
PR: When Sarah heard the demo, she decided at first not to record it. Eventually she did, as The Boy From Ipanema, in August 1964 [after Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald had recorded it]. But for about six months in 1963, The Girl From Ipanema sat on a shelf on Sarah’s end waiting for her decision. I think the strategy was to let Sarah record it first and then release Getz/Gilberto after her version. Many months later, Creed finally released the single, with Stan Getz’s Blowin’ in the Wind on the B side. It was a charming little recording. When the single became a hit, it drove the album and took the bossa nova to a new level in the U.S.
JW: So the single of The Girl From Ipanema with Astrud Gilberto originally was intended as a demo?
JW: How did you place the musicians for Getz/Gilberto, to create that intimate, pin-drop sound?
PR: I have to give credit to the room. I sat the musicians very close to each other. Antonio Carlos Jobim was on piano in the upper left hand corner of the studio. Stan Getz was facing both Jobim and Gilberto. I had them clustered together instead of separated behind baffles [acoustic screens].
PR: People I knew from Washington, D.C., where Creed had recorded Jazz Samba in 1962 told me as soon as the album had come out that I had to hear the new Brazilian music. So I did. I already knew it was music that had this relaxed intensity and that everyone in the studio had to adjust to each other for the sound to come together just right. I didn’t have the musicians wear headphones. That’s a false hearing. I wanted them to hear each other and their individual sounds, so they'd gel.
JW: How did you mike them?
PR: I miked the session like a nightclub set, grouping the musicians tightly as though they were on stage. I also turned down the lights in the studio to create that atmosphere. Stan’s mikes were first. He was going to be explosive with huge dynamics, and I wanted to capture all of that.
JW: Dynamics like Stan's could present big recording challenges, yes?
PR: Oh sure. But I knew that he would play to the room. So I put a mike above the bell of his horn—just below the mouthpiece and slightly in front of him on a boom. I also set up a back-up mike down low near the bottom of the horn on a stand. I did this because I was worried about the evenness. By the way, the mike above was a Telefunken U47, a superb classical microphone.
JW: So you have two mikes on Getz. What else?
PR: I had a mike on Gilberto’s guitar, between the strings and the instrument’s “f” hole. There wasn’t a formula for placement. I did things by the seat of my pants back then and still do. I simply got down on my knees, and when I heard the right sound I place the mike. I did this while the musicians were running through some of the material. I also placed a mike on Jobim at the piano. And two on the drums—an overhead and one near the snare. There were probably eight mikes total.
JW: How did you get the hushed feel?
PR: The studio wasn’t bright and noisy, so we could get that woody, intimate feel. When I was developing that room, the test I did to get the right reflections was to put a bass player on one end and a drummer on the other to see if they could play in time, with no delay. When I did this, the two could indeed hear each other perfectly and keep time without a problem. By cutting out the delays at that distance, you know you have warmth. [Pictured from left: Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto in 1963]
JW: What don’t most people know about the Getz/Gilberto session?
PR: Stan and Gilberto were uncomfortable at first.
JW: Why? Because of where you had placed them?
PR: No, no. That was fine. They initially thought the room felt dead [laughs]. I laugh because that was the comment everyone who recorded there had made at first. When they played, they said they thought their sound was lifeless. Until they heard the music played back. Then they realized how mistaken they were.
JW: Why did they feel the room was dead?
PR: All of the studios at the major labels were massive spaces. To musicians who had recorded there, A&R Recording was tiny by comparison. But our more compact size is what made it easier for musicians to adjust to each other while recording. There was no hearing problem at A&R. The playback said it all. I’ve always had to fight for what’s good. In all fairness to Stan and Gilberto, why should they have believed a young guy with cropped hair [laughs]?
JW: What did they realize when they heard the result?
PR: That the room wasn’t dead. I added just a bit of echo chamber on that recording so the sound was even more authentic. Stan when he heard the playback gave it his blessing by saying: “Wow, that’s the way I sound. That’s the way I want to sound.”
JW: And Gilberto?
PR: He was very quiet, but he couldn’t deny that his guitar sounded great. It was essential that Jobim played light on the piano along with the drummer Milton Banana. If Milt had played too loud, we would have had problems.
JW: That explains the intimacy of the recording. What about the sterling clarity?
PR: Creed would always let me do things other engineers wouldn't or couldn't do, mainly because Creed knew how focused I was on the audio side. The music had to come first, of course, but the sound also had to work. Creed was big on sound quality.
JW: What did you do?
PR: I wanted to master the Getz/Gilberto tape right off the three-track recording. For your readers who aren't familiar with what this is, it's one tape with three tracks recorded onto it—left, center and right. All three tracks were recorded onto the one tape simultaneously. I wanted to take the three-track tape directly to MGM’s cutting room and have the guy master it directly right from that.
JW: Why was that important?
PR: This would allow us to ride the gain whenever Stan was on the middle channel. Meaning to reproduce the full sweep of his sound. Tracks #1 and #3 were like stereo, capturing different elements, and #2 was for the solos. I also rolled the tape machine at double speed, using much more tape than a normal session. The faster tape rolls through recording heads the more acoustic information you pick up. We got blasted for doing that. Creed took heavy artillery from the bosses [laughs].
JW: So why was mixing directly from the three-track recording a problem?
PR: It was risky. Most producers would have told me to first make a two-track mix from the three-track recording and work from the two-track. Creed knew that the sound was going to be better by doing so.
JW: What's the big risk?
PR: If something screws while you're working off an original three-track recording, you'd be in big trouble. It’s your only original copy. But I wanted to avoid the loss of sound that comes by creating a copy of the three-track recording. Every copy you made from a recording was never as good as the original.
JW: Was there a time-money issue as well?
PR: Yes. Verve didn’t want to waste either of them. They wanted the tape transferred to disc and put it out. Fortunately, I knew the guy who ran the cutting room. I said to him, “Listen, if it doesn’t sound great, we’ll have wasted one disc.” In those days, I also used to make a two-track recording at the same time in case something happened. I didn’t want to have to use the two-track as my source, but I had it just in case the three-track recording didn’t work out. My drive for fidelity on this recording session cemented my relationship with Creed.
Tomorrow, Phil Ramone talks about recording Dionne Warwick's hits with Burt Bacharach and Hal David's songs.
JazzWax clip: Here's Sarah Vaughan's version in 1964 of Boy From Ipanema...
Here's Astrud Gilberto singing The Girl From Ipanema on a TV show with Stan Getz on tenor sax and Gary Burton on vibes.