Kramer vs Hendrix, Hear My Train A Comin’

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Eddie-Kramer-for-Waves-by-Brian-Petersen
Kramer vs Hendrix, Hear My Train A Comin’
Wednesday, November 20, 2013

After forty plus years producer/engineer Eddie Kramer is finally getting the appreciation that he’s due for the work he did ‘capturing lighting in a bottle’ with rock legend Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix is experiencing something of a renaissance today not least because of the documentary aired by the BBC in October. Eddie was at Metropolis Studios in Chiswick to talk about the time he spent recording Hendrix and to deconstruct some of the original tapes he made in the sixties.

Kramer originally came from South Africa and paid his dues in various London studios before going to the first truly independent studio Olympic in Barnes, a place where they had two four track recorders and a degree of freedom unheard of at the major labels (EMI, Pye, Decca etc) of the time. When Chas Chandler brought Jimi over from the US he prophetically told Kramer that there are no rules when it comes to recording Jimi, and he took him at his word. Kramer was not afraid to experiment and with Hendrix’s encouragement he came up with the psychedelic sound that, like it or loathe it, is a trademark of the guitarist’s seminal early albums. The engineer came up with numerous techniques to get the effects, including wrapping tape irregularly around the capstan on the recorder to get a wobbly sound, and recording one of Jimi’s guitar parts at half speed then adding it to the mix at normal speed. This raises the pitch to something that sounds pretty tinny on its own but which adds a fairy dust to the final result.

 

 

 

 

When Sgt Peppers came out Kramer heard effects that neither he nor his colleagues could figure out so he asked George Martin how he’d done it. Rather than explaining Martin pointed him to a BBC handbook and left the legwork to Kramer, but the result was mind blowing for Hendrix who apparently fell off his chair in amazement.
What struck me most about Kramer however is his ability to get the ideas and energy of such a formidably creative musician down on tape in an era when the technology meant you had to get it right first time. With only a handful of tracks to play with the post production opportunities were very limited. But he wouldn’t have been able to get the results any other way and blames the infinite editing possibilities of Pro Tools and its ilk for taking the spontaneity out of modern recordings. Equally important is the way in which he helped Hendrix to get what was inside his head down on tape, a skill that undoubtedly contributed to the quality of longevity of Hendrix’s legacy. Kramer recorded all of Jimi’s albums, the first two being made back to back, he showed a picture of Hendrix listening to an acetate of Are You Experienced during the sessions for Axis: Bold As Love. Kramer took a lot of pictures and his forthcoming biog, Through the Glass will be almost as interesting for this as his memories. One of which is about building Electric Lady Hendrix’s million dollar New York studio, a place that he liked so much that he would turn up on time every night.

 

 

 

 

The highlight of the event was hearing the individual tracks on three Hendrix classics: Little Wing, Purple Haze and Castles Made Of Sand. Kramer mischeviously playing one small element and seeing if the audience could recognise the song. Without leakage from the guitar it would have been very difficult. The bells at the beginning of Little Wing are pretty obvious in the final mix but without the other elements it’s harder to pinpoint the track. I’d never noticed the “Purple Haze” background lyric sung by Mitchell, Redding and Hendrix on that that song but they are clearly there when you turn everything else down. You can get some idea of the sort of thing Kramer showed us on his YouTube clips under JimiHendrixVEVO but no proper idea of the sound we enjoyed at Metropolis.

These tapes sounded incredible played back through big PMC BB5/XBD active speakers in Metropolis’ largest live room Studio A, I was lucky to get a central seat and have rarely heard so much detail delivered in such an effortless fashion. It’s hard to imagine a mastered release ever sounding so good even in a room like that, but it would have been interesting to try. Kramer did play some of his other artists including the Kinks, Petula Clarke and the Rolling Stones, straight from his laptop on this system, and it has to be said they were also laid bare in remarkably appealing fashion. The character of the bass on sixties records is so different when you hear it on a system like this and the shear power of the bass on some of the later Hendrix tracks was surprising, they can’t have had monitors this good when he made the recordings but they got the results.
I particularly enjoyed hearing some all too brief clips from the work he did with Led Zeppelin, recording the band in the garden at Stargroves, Mick Jagger’s country pile. It’s Kramer’s voice that says “gotta get this plane off” at the beginning of Black Country Woman (Physical Graffiti), Robert Plant replying “Nah leave it on yeah”.
Kramer went on to work with a literal who’s who of rock royalty but he is best known for his work with Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Kiss. If he ever decides to give a masterclass on the Zeppelin tapes I will be first in line.

Hear my train a comin’ was sponsored by Experience Hendrix, Metropolis Studios, PMC Loudspeakers and Guardian Masterclasses.
Photography: Eddie Kramer for Waves by Brian Petersen, Metropolis by Keith Tonge