Al Schmitt: The Journey from Student to Legendary Engineer
November 30, 2017
From his humble beginnings in Brooklyn, to becoming a big-time Hollywood recording engineer and producer, Al Schmitt tells the story of how he followed his heart and made a career in the music business. With 20 Grammy wins, two Latin Grammys, and one Lifetime Achievement Award, Schmitt has crafted the soundtrack to many of our memories. He had the opportunity to work with the "cream of the crop" in the business, from Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles to Barbara Streisand, Madonna, Sam Cooke, Paul McCartney, Celine Dion, Diana Krall and many, many more.
NAMM sat down with Schmitt for an exclusive interview to talk about funny stories, favorite equipment and industry secrets to success (although for Schmitt, there are no secrets). Here's what he had to say.
How did you break into the recording industry?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn. My uncle was a recording engineer and had his own studio called Harry Smith’s recording. Every Saturday, I would get on the subway by myself and get off on 47th street to spend the weekend with him. My family was really poor and he had a really nice place on Riverside Drive. He had a lot of money and great apartment. He was my godfather and didn’t have any children. He treated me like his son. I would set up chairs and clean patch chords for him. Art Tatum would come over often and play on my uncle’s Steinway. Les Paul was my uncle’s best friend. He was my “Uncle Les.” I got to run into people like Bing Crosby while I was there. I watched him record big bands and things. The guys would have to take their shoes off because you could hear them tapping their feet in the record. I laughed at the guys who had a big toe peeking out of their socks. My uncle knew everyone and I wanted to be just like him. That’s when I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life.
Not too long after I got out of the Navy at age 19, my uncle called and said his friend had a job opening at his studio and asked me if I wanted an interview. I knew I would get the interview because they were friends; and sure enough I got the job. It was at Apex Recording Studio on 57th street in New York in the Steinway building. My boss told me to show up Monday at 9 AM. When I got there, I met two engineers. One of whom was Tom Dowd. Tommy and I became instant friends and he took care of me. He showed me everything like what mics to use and how to diagram the setups. I loved it. I was a bee bopper. I got to meet people like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Tadd Dameron. It was like seeing Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio play. You know what I mean?
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
Making music, recording music and knowing some of it will become hits. I love that what I am doing is going to reach millions. That kind of responsibility is special. I’m lucky I get to work with the cream of the crop. I’m on a first name basis with so many of these musicians. I was a part-time drummer as a kid in high school but I was never good enough to become a professional musician. I just knew I wanted to do something in music, so I learned everything on the job. My uncle always told me to treat equipment like a delicate Swiss watch and I never forgot that.
What’s it like to have been nominated for the Grammys 36 times?
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was my first nomination and I lost to Judy Garland in Carnegie Hall. The following year I was nominated for “Hatari” and won. I remember passing the Grammy around at a party afterwards. Everyone was getting drunk and it came back to me in two pieces! They were made of cast iron back then. I had to ask for another one to be made. I won for “Breezin'”, with George Benson and I didn’t think I would win that time. I did a record with Melody Gardot titled, “My One and Only Thrill” and everyone said I had it in the bag. But then I lost to some girl who had never won a Grammy before who had mixed a record on her computer. That was a big surprise to me!
Looking back, who have been your favorite artists to work with?
Henry Mancini is still one of my favorites. And I love working with Diana Krall. She is the best and we have become very good friends. I love the way she attacks making a record. Paul McCartney is another. I don’t know if there is anyone in the business nicer than Paul. He’s a warm guy. Tony Bennett is another really nice man. I’ve been working with Bob Dylan, who is a real private guy, but we have become fairly good studio friends. We chose each other. Natalie Cole—it doesn’t get any better than her. George Benson. Toto is crazy but fun. The few things I did with Steely Dan were always exciting. These people are the cream of the crop.
How do you get the most from the artists you work with?
I get the most by being honest with them. You let them know things that could be done a little better. When you reach a point where you have won so many Grammys, they look to you for advice. During a break, I'll usually walk down the hall with them and mention Sinatra, Dean Martin and Natalie Cole as we pass their pictures on the wall. I’ll say, “All of these people are rooting for you. They are all counting on you to do well.” That always works really well.
Is there anyone you’d like to work with, but haven’t yet had the chance?
Sade. I love her voice. I think I could make a great record with her. I love all her records. She’s amazing.
Was there a time that you had to really think out of the box when working on a project?
We did some new things with Toto on Toto IV. We did a two-bar loop and wound it around a tape machine, around a microphone stand, on “Africa.” With Jefferson Airplane, we rewound the tape machine with the head closed and put it at the end of the song. I did a lot of stupid things, and most things don’t work, but some did. If I hear a sound on a record that I like, but I can’t figure it out how they did it, I’ll call up the engineer and ask how he did it. Most of the time they’ll tell me. I only had one guy tell me he wasn’t going to giveaway his trade secrets. He said it would be the same as if Macy’s gave Gimbels their competition. But I don’t have any trade secrets. I’m an open book.
So then, what are your secrets to success?
I prefer using my mics in omnidirectional instead of cardioid. I open my mics as much as I can. I embrace leakage in the studio. A lot of guys try to separate everything, but I try to blend it all together. I don’t ever use an EQ when I record. They didn’t have EQ when I was learning and I chose just never to use it. I learned to use my microphones. If the sound was too dark, I would use a brighter microphone. Because I do that, I don’t have all the phasing problems that they run into when people use a lot of EQ. I don’t think it has to be the way everyone does it, but it’s the way I do it.
What is one piece of equipment you could not live without?
My favorite mic is a Neumann U 67. I love that microphone. It works on everything. You can put it on a vocal, on a sax, or on a violin, and it all sounds good. It works well on background voices and an upright bass. It’s a great sounding microphone on cardioid or omnidirectional.
You said, “as much as sound is important to me as an engineer, it is the performance and the feel that sell the record.” Can you share any techniques you use to achieve this feel?
As soon as we start playing, I start recording. I can’t tell you how many times the master take is the first take. Of the eight songs we recorded on “Breezin’”, six of the songs we used were from the first take, including “This Masquerade.” And “Breezin’” won a bunch of Grammys.
After the first take, people start changing things and trying to do new things. There’s a freshness and something emotional to that first take that just happens. Sometimes the artist gets away from what they really wanted to capture. I suggest always recording the first take, even if it’s not sonically perfect. With Bob Dylan, that was true. We would do four or five takes and he’d listen back to the first one and say, “that’s it.”
Are there any words of advice to aspiring professionals who want to be in this business?
Follow your heart. Do something you really want to do and something you believe you can do. Don’t give up. You know, there are not as many recording studios as there used to be. It used to be that you could walk up to every door of the recording studios with your resume and make an impression. If they didn’t have any openings, you would wait awhile and then do the rounds again. Sometimes you’d get to the door at the right time, when someone just left or moved, and there would be an opening. There’s no better way to make a living. I am so in love with what I do, that it doesn’t feel like work. I don’t think I’ll ever stop. They are going to have to carry me away when it’s my time to go (laughs).
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry? Are there any trends you see upcoming in the industry?
I think the biggest change was when we went from analog to digital. First it was acetate to tape and then tape to Pro Tools. At first, I didn’t like digital. I didn’t start using digital until I could record at 96kHz and Pro Tools. Now I record at 192kHz. Before that, I liked the tape sound better. Digital wasn’t as musical sounding to me. Capitol can still do analog and so can Avatar, Village and other studios. Tape is so expensive now and it’s a slower process. The first couple sessions I did with Bob Dylan was on tape. But then we were able to convince him to go digital. He was finally happy, and now the last 32-40 songs I’ve done with him have been digital.
I wish I could put something on my head and see the future. I really honestly don’t know where the industry is going. I think people will be able to use the kind of surround sound they have in movies today and use those speakers for their home theaters.
COMPLETE THE THOUGHT...
Something people don’t know about me is… I’m shy. Deep down I’m shy. It’s something I have to overcome all the time.
When I’m relaxing, my favorite type of music to listen to is… jazz and classical.
I’m most proud of… my family— my wife, and five children.
When I’m not in the studio, you can find me… home reading.
My life motto is… be kind to all living things.
My best advice for someone in this industry is… do everything you do the best you absolutely can.
One thing I have yet to do on my bucket list is… to go to the Galápagos and study the animals. I am so interested in wildlife and how they live in their natural habitat. I do everything I can to protect wildlife.