Engineer/producer Eddie Kramer has a resume that’s a mile long, but the credit that he’s forever tied to is Jimi Hendrix. I was lucky enough to be able to spend some time with him a few yeas ago, and he gave me this great interview for The Recording Engineer’s Handbook. Here’s an excerpt from his interview in the book, centered around his work with Hendrix.
“Were you using a combination of close and far mics on those records?
Yes I was. In fact on the Hendrix stuff in ’68 at the Record Plant on the Electric Ladyland album, if you listen to “Voodoo Child,” you can hear the way the room just resonates. That’s because I had mics everywhere, and the fact that Jimi was singing live too! I wasn’t afraid of recording an artist in the room live as he was cutting. To me, anything that was in the room was fair game to be recorded. Don’t forget that I had an artist who was an absolute genius, so it made life a lot simpler. When you’re recording someone of Hendrix’s ilk, you’re not going to be overdubbing much if it’s a live track. You put the mics up, place them correctly, and give the artist the room and the facility to work in and make sure it sounds cool so when they walk into the control room they say, “Oh, that sounds just like I was playing it out there.” That’s the goal; to capture the essence of what the artist is actually doing in the studio.
Obviously there are other ways to do it. You can do it in sections and pieces by overdubbing and recutting and that certainly works too, but to me there’s nothing more exciting that having the band in the studio cutting live straight to tape where that’s the performance and that’s what gets mixed. That’s the essence of any great recording. I don’t care if it’s classical or rock or country, you’ve got to capture that performance and the hell with the bloody leakage.
When you started you were pretty limited by the number of tracks and channels available.
Definitely. You have to use your imagination and think really hard about how to plan it out. For instance, on Hendrix’s stuff, which is the classic example, it was done on four track. On Are You Experienced we used mono drums and mono guitars and so forth. We would fill a four track up then dump it down to another four track, leaving two tracks open, then you may have to do that again. On Axis: Bold As Love, I was recording stereo drums which made a big difference.
Was your approach different when you went to stereo?
Yes. When it was mono I just used a single overhead, a snare mic and bass drum mic. There might be one or two tom mics but that would be it. When I went to stereo I probably used a pair of 251’s or 67’s, I can’t remember which. I was just trying to get that left to right image when the toms would go left to right. I always record from the drummer’s perspective and not from the listener’s perspective.
Has your approach to tracking changed when you do it today?
Yes, it has been modified in the sense that you don’t have to use an enormous room to record the drums anymore. In fact, bands today don’t want that huge reverberant drum sound that we used to love, so you can record drums in a smaller deader space and still get a big fat sound. Obviously I’m using more mics, multiple mics on the bass drum, multiple mics (top and bottom) on the snare, which I didn’t do before. I use a lot of mics on the guitar and then pick the ones that I like.
Didn’t you tell me once that “All Along The Watchtower” was take #27?
That’s a great example of an artist of Jimi’s stature starting from square one with a very difficult arrangement. He’s yelling at Mitch [Mitchell, drummer for the Experience], “C’mon. Here’s how you do the rhythm part,” then Mitch eventually gets it. Then he yells at Dave Mason because he can’t get the secondary rhythm guitar part. Eventually he gets it and Jimi keeps going at it and going at it. At one point Brian Jones walks into the studio drunk out of his mind and starts to play piano. Jimi politely lets him play, I think on take 20 or 21, and then excuses him by saying “No, I don’t think so, Brian.” Then by take 25 it’s a 4 star, take 26 is good but take 27 is the master, you can just tell. Everything is perfectly placed and has the intensity that Jimi wanted, so the song evolved because it had to. There was no time for rehearsal, this was something that had to be learned in the studio. It’s not the way you want to do it, but because he’s a musician of that stature, you don’t mind if it takes 30 takes.”
You can read more from Eddie Kramer and The Recording Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.