Producers, engineers, and other audio professionals who worked with Phil Ramone, who passed away Saturday morning, remember his love of music, his pursuit of excellence, his sense of humor, his soothing presence, and his uncanny ability to stay calm and rise above the drama in even the most chaotic sessions.
Mastering icon and multiple Grammy winner Bob Ludwig was inspired to pursue a career in the studio when, as a student at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, he attended a talk by Ramone. Upon graduation, Ludwig went to work at Ramone’s A&R Studios in New York.
“When Phil took me under his wing at A&R, I was blessed to be working with one of the world’s greatest engineers at one of the world’s greatest independent studios with one of the greatest maintenance teams ever assembled,” says Ludwig. “I learned so much from him, his 100% striving to get the most musicality out of any situation, whatever it took. That was something that just formed my whole way of being.”
Like many engineers, Ludwig recalls Ramone as someone who always set a high bar for those around him.
“At A&R Phil would make rough mono mixes of the date on the fly just to have as a reference,” says Ludwig. “When it came time to do the actual mixes, some of the other engineers had a hell of a time trying to equal, let alone beat, Phil’s rough mixes.”
Legendary engineer Al Schmitt, a collaborator with Ramone on projects including Frank Sinatra’s “Duets,” remembers Ramone’s friendship as much as his studio prowess.
“Phil and I worked together an awful lot over the years,” says Schmitt, who has won more Grammys than any other producer/engineer (and was honored by the Grammy Producer & Engineer Wing last month). “The work thing was wonderful, but the hang stuff was the greatest, the stories, the companionship, the camaraderie, his sense of humor, his kindness, his generosity. He was an amazing human being. It’s the end of an era. I don’t think there’ll be anybody like Phil ever again. He was one of a kind. He was such a perfectionist and it rubbed off on everyone around him.”
Frank Filipetti, also a multiple Grammy winner who has collaborated frequently with Ramone for the past 20 years — including two current projects — says Ramone was like “my dad, my mentor. I certainly had a reputation before he came along, but if Phil Ramone taps you on the shoulder you kind of feel like you made it. If you get the imprimatur of Phil Ramone, it’s like, ‘OK, you’ve done alright.’”
Although Filipetti rose to the ranks of the industry’s top producers in the ‘90s, he has continued to engineer and mix for Ramone.
“I never tired of working with Phil,” says Filipetti. “It was watching a master at work, and he was a kind-hearted, generous man. He was full of life and humor, and it was a joy to work with him. The real giants, the people that oversaw this business when it was really something to be proud of, another one just left the planet. We were lucky to know him and to work with him.”
Award-winning producer, engineer and technology pioneer George Massenburg shared much in common with Ramone and worked with him extensively in the Recording Academy and the Music Engineering and Technology Alliance (METAlliance), a collaborative of like-minded studio veterans established in 2005 to promote excellence in audio production.
“When I first started getting interested in sound and recording in the early ‘60s, it was Phil Ramone’s recordings that really captured my imagination,” says Massenburg. “Phil’s work was always hi-fi, and that’s what I chased as a recording engineer, as a design engineer, as a systems engineer, and as a producer. He was the guy.”
Multiple Grammy winner Elliot Scheiner, also a METAlliance member, got his first industry job as an assistant at Ramone’s A&R. Scheiner went on to establish himself as one of the world’s top engineers, producers and surround-sound innovators. All along, he remained close with Ramone and worked with him on numerous projects.
“He was a gift,” says Scheiner of his mentor. “Aside from being a great engineer and a great producer and always looking into the future, what could be the next thing that nobody’s looked at. He was a visionary in that regard. He loved to be working constantly, whether it was in the studio or not. METAlliance and the Academy were two big causes for him.”
Award-winning producer and label veteran Tommy LiPuma, a longtime friend of Ramone’s who shared production credits him on many iconic recordings, was amazed at Ramone’s sense of control in the studio.
“He was in situations where it would have been very easy for anyone to lose his cool, but Phil was always calm,” says LiPuma. “That’s one among numerous things that a producer has to have, is this ability to be able to stay calm under circumstances that sometimes aren’t.”
Veteran producer Tony Visconti, best known for his career-defining work with David Bowie and T-Rex, admired Ramone long before he got to know him and work with him.
“I was a big Phil Ramone fan since his engineering on the Getz/Gilberto material in the ‘60s,” says Visconti. “The sound of this iconic recording simmers with a bubbling passion, an enviable achievement by today’s standards. And after I got to know him through our work with the Recording Academy I admired his kind, nurturing nature.”
Ramone’s touch extended far beyond the confines of the control room. Entrepreneur, author, and educator Chris Stone, who founded the world-renowned Record Plant Studios in the late ‘60s, remembers Ramone as “a brilliant spokesman for our Industry.” He adds, “Phil is irreplaceable. Everyone loved him. He was a beacon to the many men and women in the business of music and always set the prime example for us of ‘how it should be done.’”
Pro audio industry veteran Peter Chaikin, currently senior manager of recording and broadcast at JBL Professional, was a fan of Ramone’s as a young aspiring musician on Long Island. After scanning the credits on a Simon album, Chaikin looked up Ramone at A&R and called him out of the blue. Ramone was generous enough to take the call and struck up a friendship with Chaikin. Through Ramone’s recommendation, Chaikin landed a job at the Record Plant in Los Angeles and rose through the engineering ranks. Chaikin moved over to the technology side of the business, working a long stint at Yamaha and eventually ending up at his current position at JBL Professional. He considers himself fortunate to have worked with Ramone on numerous studio productions and technology initiatives.
“Phil would embrace any technology that would help get to a better performance, but he didn’t need it,” says Chaikin. “If he walked into a studio and the gear wasn’t working and all he had was a pair of orange juice cans and a string, he’d use that and still get amazing results.”
Author, photographer, and audio industry publicist David Goggin had a long relationship with Ramone that involved the Recording Academy, the METAlliance and many other industry organizations and initiatives.
“My wife, Keiko, and I were very blessed to have a sweet friendship with Phil, meeting up each year at music gatherings,” remembers Goggin. “I loved it when he called me ‘Dahling.’ And he put up with my hounding him for yet another photo, again and again. In 1998, I asked him, ‘When was the first time you felt passionate about music?’ His answer was, ‘I was three years old and a violinist in a restaurant just drove me crazy. It was gypsy music and I wanted to play.’ He played a Royal Command Performance for the Queen of England at age 10.”
For most, playing for the Queen would be a career pinnacle.
For Ramone, it was just the beginning.