Life-Altering Songs

Producers and engineers share career-defining songs at GRAMMY SoundTables: Sonic Imprints: Songs That Changed My Life at AES Convention
  • Photo: Bobby Bank/
    Al Schmitt, Maureen Droney, Chris Lord-Alge, Phil Ramone, Ken "Duro" Ifill, Steve Lillywhite, and Ann Mincieli
October 31, 2011 -- 9:46 am PDT
By Janice Brown /

On Oct. 22 the 131st AES Convention played host for the Producers & Engineers Wing's second installment of GRAMMY SoundTables: Sonic Imprints: Songs That Changed My Life.

Taking place at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, five-time GRAMMY winner Chris Lord-Alge moderated a discussion and related playlist that spanned jazz great Jimmie Lunceford to rap icon Jay-Z, highlighting seminal moments in the lives and careers of a stellar panel comprising Ken "Duro" Ifill, Steve Lillywhite, Ann Mincieli, Phil Ramone, and Al Schmitt.

Topics explored included what motivated these exceptional producers and engineers to pursue their paths in music production and the songs that were either career milestones or inspirational touchstones in their lives. The answers made for a lively listening session and discussion, as well as a chronicle of audio excellence.

A GRAMMY-winning engineer and owner of Jungle City Studios, Mincieli chose "In My Life" by the Beatles as a highlight to her personal soundtrack. "The Beatles are a big inspiration to me," said Mincieli. "And that's one of my favorite songs — it's inspired me to be who I am."

Legendary 13-time GRAMMY-winning producer Ramone played Harry Nilsson's sublime "Everybody's Talkin'" — which he re-recorded for the soundtrack to the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy. It was Ramone's first production credit, and a collaboration with GRAMMY-winning film composer John Barry.

"Talk about changing your life — seeing the word producer in front of your name is probably the biggest thrill [you'll] have," Ramone said.

Lord-Alge also called the track a favorite, describing it as "a real haunting number by an amazing artist that may be overlooked."

"I didn't record it, but this record changed my life," Schmitt said regarding Henry Mancini's The Music From Peter Gunn. The project, which was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 1998, helped launch the career of Schmitt, who has gone on to win 18 GRAMMY Awards.

"The producer was [Simon] Rady, and the engineer was Bones Howe. They got into a beef over something, and Si fired Bones and brought me in to finish the record," Schmitt recalled. "So I finished the album and went on to do More Music From Peter Gunn and then Breakfast At Tiffany's, and then all the RCA records from Shorty Rogers to Ray Peterson.

"If Bones had stayed with Si, I may not have ever had that opportunity. That album was also the first album to win a GRAMMY for Album Of The Year."

Duro described A Tribe Called Quest's "Check The Rhime" as "the first time that I heard a song where I really noticed the difference in the sound. Up to that point, I'd been experimenting making music with friends and I was interested in production, but this is when I changed gears. I thought maybe if I was an engineer, I could learn how to be a better producer. Once I started interning and being around the studio, my passion turned more to being an engineer and mixer."

Lillywhite produced classic U2 albums such as 1981's October and 1983's War, but "Vertigo," a song from 2004's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, made for an interesting production tale.

"They were in a pretty down place, and called me in to help finish the album," said the five-time GRAMMY winner. "They played me a song called 'Native Son' and it was a good song, but it sounded sort of stodgy. So I said I'd love to re-record it.

"We cut the track and then spent ages with Bono working on the chorus — we must have had about 30 vocal ideas for the chorus. And then the 'hello, hello' thing — which wasn't a eureka moment, it was just another chorus. It was one of those things we just really turned around."

Later in the program, the audience heard "White Heat," a standout track recorded in 1934 by jazz saxophonist/bandleader Lunceford. It turned out the song inspired a young Schmitt to follow in his uncle's footsteps and become a recording engineer.

"My uncle had a recording studio in Manhattan so I was hanging out in the studio from the time I was 7, watching him record these big bands," Schmitt recalled. "And I wanted to be like him.

"When I was about 11, I heard this song on the radio, and something about it struck me. So I saved my money and I went out and bought it. I had a little portable phonograph, and I would play this record over and over and I would imagine myself as my uncle recording it. I never wanted to do anything else in my life after that."

"Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," a song from Jay-Z's 1998 album Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life, proved to be another career turning point for Duro.

"At that time, Puffy was kind of running urban radio, using a lot of glossy, catchy sounds [and] disco loops," said Duro. "'Hard Knock Life' was a lot darker. It wasn't what was going on. And people were suggesting it wasn't the right single, but [Jay-Z] stuck to his guns [and] he didn't change what he was doing to satisfy radio. He stood up for the song. And that set an example for me. I started taking stances about what I would and would not do as a mixer for the sake of making the track louder."

Finally, the story shared by Ramone detailing Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are" touched on how a classic love song almost never came to be.

Working together for the first time on 1977's The Stranger, and looking for another track to finish the album, Joel played Ramone what he described as "the worst song I've ever written."

"He thought it was crap, a wedding song," said Ramone. "I said, 'Let's try it.' But when the band started doing their 2/4 society beat, he ran out of the studio and said, 'That's it!' I went in and talked to the drummer about certain samba beats, and Billy ultimately relented to it.

"We finish it and the album stiffs really badly. But [he went] to do this new show called 'Saturday Night Live,' and then they don't have a sketch that can fill the last four minutes. So [Billy] ends up playing 'Just The Way You Are.' And the next day, it's picked up by radio."

"Just The Way You Are" ultimately turned out to be a sonic imprint for not only Ramone, but for millions of listeners as the song became Joel's first Top 10 hit and picked up GRAMMYs for Record and Song Of The Year in 1978.

(Janice Brown is the co-founder of, an online magazine and community bridging the New York City-area music, sound and recording industries.)

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