Phil Ramone, 1934 – 2013

Phil Ramone, arguably the greatest record producer of all time, died on Saturday. He was a towering presence in the recording industry, and his death is an enormous loss to us all. His work, and his influence, touched every aspect of recording. (He’s even the man responsible for putting that long-familiar pair of Shure SM-57s on the Presidential podium.)

I didn’t know Phil well, but I did do a couple of dozen sessions with him over the years. He was a lovable, genial guy, and one heck of a storyteller.

His New York Times obituary is here.

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4 Comments

  1. Ron D says

    Malcolm,

    I never met Phil, but he was a big influence on me, indirectly. I always said that I received the best on the job training based off of the two best schools of thought when it comes to recording – the Power Station (now called Avatar) and Phil Ramone.

    I was lucky enough to learn my craft from many different engineers when I was first starting out. Two important people were first, our humble host, Malcolm. Make no mistake, Malcolm is one of the best engineers out there even though he would never lead you to believe that by reading his blog here. He was my indirect line to the Power Station, which is no doubt one of the most influential studios in the world.

    The other person was an engineer who was Phil Ramone’s assistant at A+R Recording, which Phill owned (he was the “R” of A+R). I was lucky enough to hear all kinds of stories and techniques about working with Phil in the recording studio. The thing that stuck with me the most was Phil’s “record now, ask questions later” type of approach. What I mean is that Phil was the kind of recording engineer (and more famously a producer) who understood the value of a great performance over anything else. A great performance would always override any recording/technical details or subtleties of a record. Phil operated on the basic principle that no matter how good of a sound technically a recording engineer could get, it would all be for nothing if you did not get a great performance from the artist on tape.

    As a full-time recording engineer and one-time only record producer, I know first hand how easy it is to get wrapped up in all of the technical minutiae that go into making an album. It often can stop the creative process. But all the technicalities good or bad (bad only to a degree, mind you) pale in comparison if the song and the performance are not top notch. In fact, Phil’s theory was that the studio and its staff should be “invisible” to the artist, all in the name of getting the best possible performance out of the artist. Phil did everything to make his artists comfortable and challenged them enough to get the best performance out them. This transcends the countless technical details that go into making a great album. Few realized this like Phil did.

    I feel a strong connection to Phil despite never meeting him. If anyone would like to know more about his musical genius, please check out his autobiography called, “Making Records, The Scenes Behind The Music”.

    Posted April 5, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Ron,

    Spot on. That’s a perfect summary of what made Phil Ramone one of the very best.

    Thanks for the kind words! I’d like to tell our readers that Ron is also a superb practitioner of our arcane craft. Check out the record he produced, arranged, and recorded for the legendary swing-era pianist Marty Napoleon, here.

    Posted April 7, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Permalink
  3. Hey Malcolm,

    Indeed Phil was one of the best. I had the chance to work with him when was the Executive Producer on my record for N2K. He spent an afternoon with us at the Carriage House in Stamford and it was a real treat.

    My favorite Phil story was when we put together a group to play at a festival at South Street Seaport. We were rehearsing at SIR and the house engineer (a young intern, it seemed) came in at first to get the sound system working. He spent a couple minutes and then left the room. The overall sound was pretty terrible — but rather than spend time tweaking the sound for a rehearsal, we figured our time was better spent working on the material.

    An hour or so into the rehearsal, Phil came in with a few other members of the label to check it out. Phil, noticing that the sound was sub-par went behind the console and started adjusting things. While he was back there, the “intern” came back into the room and noticed Phil behind the console. Obviously not knowing who he was, this guy somewhat gruffly shouted at Phil, “Hey hey, what are you doing over there? Who are you??,” as if only SIR guys were authorized to access the console. Phil looked at him and politely answered, “I’m Phil Ramone.” The guy’s face went blank. “Oh,” he said, realizing his error. Then he quietly left the room – never to be seen again.

    He’ll be sorely missed, but it’s hard to imagine having a bigger impact on music and the music business. There was no one like him before, and everyone that came after him owes him a little something (even if they don’t know it).

    Malcolm, hope you’re well…

    /sergio

    Posted April 8, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Sergio! Great story. (Just as Phil seemed to have a story about everyone, it seems that everyone in the music biz has a story about Phill, too. I guess that makes sense…)

    It’s so nice to hear from you. Please give my warmest regards to your father.

    Note: For those of you who might not know him, Sergio Salvatore is a gifted jazz pianist, a truly beautiful player. He was an astonishing prodigy who made his first album at the age of 11 in 1993. I was fortunate enough to have engineered those sessions, and also to have engineered his second record, a year later.

    Here’s a brief documentary about the young Sergio.

    Posted April 10, 2013 at 10:10 pm | Permalink