The legendary producer recalls creating some of rock’s greatest recordings

By Michael Gallant

Eddie Kramer is a rock icon. The sheer number of superstars whose music he’s shaped is stunning—from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin to Buddy Guy, Anthrax and Carly Simon. “I’m still standing and still making records,” the 72-year-old says with a laugh.

Born in South Africa, Kramer studied classical piano before making his way to London in the early 1960s. After landing a job at Pye Studios, he worked with the Kinks, Petula Clark and Sammy Davis Jr. By the end of the decade, Kramer’s engineering resume included the Stones’ Beggars Banquet and the Beatles’ hits “All You Need Is Love” and “Baby, You’re a Rich Man.”

In the summer of 1969, Kramer was tapped to record the Woodstock festival for the film Woodstock and the album Woodstock: Music From the Original Soundtrack and More. “Woodstock was three days of drugs and hell,” he recalls. Perhaps so—but the event cemented Kramer’s reputation as the era’s preeminent live rock producer.

Yet his most defining and lasting relationships have been with Led Zeppelin, Kiss—and Jimi Hendrix. Kramer recorded all four of the legendary guitarist’s pioneering albums Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love, Electric Ladyland and Band of Gypsys, as well as many posthumous albums. He also helped design and manage the famed Electric Lady Studios in New York City.

Kramer credits his success to his eclectic passion. “I’ve recorded everything from symphony orchestras to film music to jingles. I enjoy everything. As long as it’s good, I’m into it.”

The Renaissance man is also a noted gear developer, photographer and author, who’s currently compiling the photography book From the Other Side of the Glass. He also takes on new acts—his latest is Memphis rock band American Fiction. “I’m always getting flooded with requests,” says Kramer, “but the moment I heard them, I realized that there was something really good going on here.” American Fiction recently released their debut album, Dumb Luck.

Tell us about your creative process.

It starts when I first hear a song. Usually, these days, a band sends a digital file of a rough track. If I like a song, I start prepping it over the phone with the artist, and get into the studio to rehearse. Then the real work begins of tearing a song apart, rebuilding it, and ensuring the singer or songwriter’s desires and message gets across. I want to help translate what he or she is thinking into reality, so that when the audience hears it, they go, “Wow, that’s cool.” I want listeners to love the way a song sounds, love the way the vocalist is singing. I want to capture emotion. I don’t want any song to be a stiff, by-the-numbers kind of thing.

How do you make that happen?

I love tracking live, with all the musicians recording at the same time. You get such a remarkable flow of energy and communication. But to do that you have to find a band that can actually play, and a singer who’s not going to be a quarter-note sharp the whole time.

Is that hard to come by?

It is! When I found American Fiction, my first reaction was, “Man, what a great singer,” and the rest of the guys are fantastic musicians as well. It makes such a difference. How many times did I pitch-correct vocals? Maybe once or twice, just a tiny bit. But 99.9 percent of the time, the guy is just singing in tune—which means it’s real. I will always leave something that’s a little off in Pro Tools. Is the singer communicating with me, and the audience, from an emotional standpoint? Is he getting the message of the lyrics across? I’d rather take that than just a series of perfect notes.

So imperfections can be good. 

We’re in an age where Pro Tools can do so many things, but it’s also destructive. Producers and engineers are now trained to fix every damn thing. It’s the antithesis of what rock is all about. Listen to great records—Zeppelin, Hendrix, the Stones, the Beatles, I don’t care. You should hear the crap going on in there! Things are out of tune, out of time, and there’s no click-track. But music has to breathe—it’s a living thing.

Prefer digital or analog?

We could get into a day’s discussion on that. The upshot is that over the last 10 years I’ve figured out how to combine the best of analog with the best of digital. It’s sort of a handshake between the two. (laughs) It probably started with the Hendrix material, which I’ve done a lot of work on in terms of restoration. We always have to be extremely careful to preserve the original analog sound. So I figured out how to do that in the digital world, and applied it to the way I record bands.


I record to analog tape and then transfer everything into the digital realm with a specific type of analog-to-digital converter made by Burl. It’s allowed me to work on the music digitally without losing the cool analog sound. I continue to work in the digital world until we mix. Then I mix back to analog again.

Is analog tape hard to find?

Not that difficult. Just place your order well in advance. If you’re working in the analog world, I urge bands to buy their own tape. You can keep reusing it. I’ve done an entire album on one reel. The moment you cut your track, you can dump it into Pro Tools, wipe it, and use it again. It’s an investment. Even if it costs you $250 for a reel, that’s nearly what a hard drive would cost, and you can keep using it—not ad infinitum, but for a while.

If the Beatles, Zeppelin or Hendrix were recording now, how would they use Pro Tools?

I imagine they would do what I’m doing—record analog and dump it into Pro Tools. [Jimmy] Page grew up on analog, like I did. They would marry the two worlds.

How did you capture Hendrix’s guitar?

If you go back to the ’60s, there was a specific mic that I liked, the Beyerdynamic M160—a ribbon mic. That’s probably one reason his guitar sounded the way it did. But there are so many factors that you can’t just say it’s the microphone. It’s Jimi’s technique—the way he played was unusual. It’s the amp, an original Marshall. Then you have the sound of the room, the console, EQ, mic preamps, compression. Add up all those factors and you get magic.

Have a clue he’d become a superstar?

No, because the biggest things I was focused on were making sure Jimi was happy and getting sounds he hadn’t heard before—which I think we did. He was always very happy with the sounds I got. When you’re in the moment like that, that’s what you’re concerned with—and also keeping your job. You’re not worried about much else.

How did you get those sounds?

It was always a challenge because Jimi was constantly futzing around with his amp and guitar. He was a master of tone control. He knew what his guitar and pedals could do for him. Inherently, the sound we got was governed by what he created in the studio. Once that was together, it was possible to expand the horizon by using the limited resources we had in those days, which was pretty much nothing. (laughs) We had EQ, compression, reverb, backwards tape, flanging, phasing. If you’ve enhanced the sound to the point where the artist comes in, hears something he hasn’t heard before, and there’s a smile on his face, you know you’ve done something right.

How was producing Steve Vai different?

It’s very similar. An amplifier is an amplifier. What comes out of it is up to individual players, their techniques, and the way they learned to play. Their approaches are so completely different, but hopefully, you treat them in the same manner—get the best out of the artist and his amp and realize what he’s trying to do. Obviously they’re going to sound different but it’s all sound, after all. It’s not rocket science. A microphone goes in front of a speaker cabinet, through a mic pre, into some EQ and stuff—and away you go. There’s nothing really mysterious about it. I want to debunk the myths.

What about Anthrax?

Anthrax was something new to me. They were an excellent band. The style of playing was so radically different, with way detuned guitars, and the way they used distortion. This was the early stages of heavy metal, thrash metal. They opened the door for that style of music. I had to rethink my approach to recording—I would use dynamic or condenser mics on the amps instead of ribbons, for example. The approach to mixing as well was completely new and required a different sensibility. The music needed more compression and was much more over the top. The ’80s was a very interesting time—I try to forget the ’80s.

How did you approach recording Carly Simon’s vocals?

Very carefully. You have to think about the female voice and what kind of condenser you want to use. Generally speaking, you want something that will capture a lot of the high end, but be smooth in the mid-range and give you lots of presence. I usually ended up using a Neumann U47 or U67. The compression has to be very gentle, as you don’t want to squash the dynamics too much—just ride the vocals and catch every phrase.

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