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Interview with Legendary Engineer/Producer Al Schmitt

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Al Schmitt Interviewed by Sweetwater
Al Schmitt Interviewed by Sweetwater - youtube Video
Mitch: Hi, I’m Mitch Gallagher, welcome to GearFest 2017. I’m in the studio with a very special guest. Al Schitt is here! Great to see you.

Al: Great to be here!

Mitch: Glad to have you here. JBL brought you in and sponsored your visit?

Al: Yes, yes.

Mitch: In fact, the two of us just came off of a seminar where we were talking about your career, and playing some music, incredible stuff.

Al: Yeah, that was pretty fun, I enjoyed that. Peter brought me in, and Peter and I have been dear, dear friends for many, many years. Actually, he was my assistant at some point in my career.

Mitch: Is that right?

Al: Yeah.

Mitch: There you go, there you go.

Al: Yeah, it was cool.

Mitch: Well, they brought you in, and they also brought in their incredible M2 speakers that we played the music through, which were just…

Al: Yeah, oh my god, stuff sounds great, it really did.

Mitch: Well, the music sounds great anyway, but through a set of speakers like that, it’s…

Al: No, it was great, I can’t wait to get my set.

Mitch: Yeah, me too! We each get one!

Al: Yeah, that’s what they told me!

Mitch: So 160 Gold and Platinum albums. 22 Grammy awards.

Al: Actually, 23.

Mitch: 23 now? Lifetime achievement award from the Grammy’s, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, that’s just an absolutely incredible career as an engineer/producer, and it’s even more amazing when I learned that you actually started as an engineer at 7 years old.

Al: Well, I didn’t actually — you know, I cleaned patch cords, and setup chairs. It was funny, I would watch my uncle record on the weekends, and he had all of the musicians take their shoes off, because you could hear the tapping, and as a kid, 7 and 8, it was fun. I got to see guys had a hole in their sock, and their toe was sticking out, and I’d giggle, thinking it was really funny watching that.

But they did. And then you know, he’d set the band, he’d listen, then he’d go out and move guys around, then come back in and listen, and then when they were soloing, they’d get up and walk to the microphone, and yeah. It was pretty…

Mitch: Pretty amazing.

Al: Yeah, it was pretty amazing stuff.

Mitch: So did you know at that age that you wanted to be in the studio?

Al: Yeah, I did. You know, my uncle took — for me, he was also my godfather, besides being my father’s brother, but he was the epitome of success to me, I mean, he dressed nice, he always had a lot of money in his pocket, he knew — he’d go to restaurants, and everybody knew him, he had special tables with the best seats at the fights, or Madison Square Garden, the hockey games, so it was all the things as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, and we were quite poor, it was things that, “Wow, this is what I want to…”

So he could’ve been a plumber and I would’ve wanted to be like him. In fact, he was an engineer, and it was great. His best friend was Les Paul. I mean, they hung out with each other all the time, so Les was my uncle too, he was uncle Les to me.

And Bing Crosby, he was good friends with Bing Crosby, and so many — you know, Orson Welles would tell me stories about aliens coming down, you know, I mean it was — yeah. Art Tatum had an office on the seventh floor in the building, and he would come down on Saturday, and if there was nothing going on, he would use the — this beautiful Steinway grand at my uncle’s studio, and he would work out on that.

So he would take my hand and show me little boogie woogie licks, and… So it was, you know, Kate Smith who back then, was very famous for singing, “God Bless America,” and she was there and treated me nice, so I felt like a little celebrity in a sense, and this is what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to do this, because this looked like fun.

Mitch: It had to, you know, thinking about it, being exposed to all of those major celebrities at that young age, had to make it easier for you to — I would assume — had to make it easier for you to deal with when you work with Paul McCartney, and Bob Dylan, and the list of people you’ve worked with is just astounding, and so you probably learned a bit about interactions.

Al: I did, I was not intimidated by people, because I was around so many celebrities when I was young, and they were all so nice to me, so you know, there was no fear of being rejected by anybody or whatever. Then certain people, like, you know, I just finished working with Paul McCartney again, I don’t know if there’s anybody nicer than him in the music or entertainment business than Paul.

He’s the nicest guy you ever — you’re so comfortable with him in two minutes. And Dylan, you learn about him, he’s a really private guy, but he’s a nice man when you get down — when you break that down a little bit.

Then you become friends with people like Natalie Cole, and Diana Krall, and you know, it’s — they become your friends.

So yeah, I think a big part of it is just growing up around these people, and then of course, when I started recording my first job, really, at 20 at Apex recording studios, all of my idols were coming in. It was like, Babe Ruth and Joe Dimaggio walking in the studio. You know, it was Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie, and…

Mitch: The list just goes on and on.

Al: Yeah, it was just on and on, because we were doing all the prestige records back then. All the Atlantic stuff, Sittin’ In label, and it was the happening place for Jazz, so it was pretty cool.


Mitch: So is that where you worked with Tommy Dowd?

Al: That’s with Tommy. Tommy and I worked together there for almost two years, and then the guy that owned the place had a drinking problem, and it went under, because we were pretty busy. Anyway, it went under.

So Tommy went to a studio, and I went to another place, and I was at the other place for like, a year, and Tommy called me, because the studio he was at was looking for someone, and he recommended me, and I went over there, so then I was back with Tommy until I moved to California in 58.

Mitch: Okay, okay. What did you learn from him.

Al: Oh god, everything. Microphone techniques, how to put yourself in the studio, how to act around people. He taught me no matter what you do, no matter what it is, do it the absolutely best you can in every way. If you’re shining your own shoes, shine them the best you can. No matter what you’re doing, do it the best you can, and that will come across everything you do. And that was a really important lesson. Really important.

You know, and plus the fact that he worked on the atom bomb, the guy was a genius. Just how he talked to musicians, and he had so much confidence in himself and what he did, and that helped everybody else to kind of relax. It was great. He was a great guy. I miss him — whenever I see a picture of him, I think of good times, because we both were big hockey fans, and we used to go see The Rangers play all the time in New York, and it was great.

Mitch: Speaking about microphones and microphone technique, you said earlier you really don’t use equalization. You do everything with a microphone.

Al: Yeah, when I record, I don’t use — or mix my own stuff, I don’t use EQ, and people are amazed all the time, and they’re always calling my assistant, Steve Genewick, and saying, “Is that true?” He’s like, “Yeah, it’s true. You can come up to the board and look at it, there’s no EQ in.”

I just learned to — we didn’t have equalizers when I started with Tommy and that, so we learned to equalize with microphones. So if we wanted something a little brighter, we used a brighter microphone, and we learned where to put microphones to change the sound of what we were capturing. If something had a little too much low end, you’d move it to a certain area it would take away some of that.

The other thing he taught me is go outside and listen. Listen to what they’re doing, and then you know what you have to get, what you have to capture. You don’t just put up a mic and walk in there. Make sure when you hear the guy playing, you know what it sounds like, then go in and make sure you’re getting that.

So yeah, it was great lessons for me. I was really blessed with my uncle, who taught me as a child, you have to treat all of this as if it’s a Swiss watch. It’s very delicate, and the better care you take of it, the better results you’re going to get, and that’s another thing that stuck with me all these years, taking care of my gear.

Mitch: Yeah, sure, sure. So it has to then, if you’ve taken that care to capture the actual sound of the instrument in the room, and you’ve equalized it properly through your placement, I would expect that makes mixing fairly easy at that point.

Al: It makes it a lot easier. That’s why I mix fast! I mean, I’ll mix — I’ve got, I mean, it wasn’t too long ago, I think I mixed eight songs in one day, stuff that I had recorded, it was easy to put through.

I just did an album with a woman singer, Lyn Stanley, and I had recorded it, and it was 12 songs, and we mixed it in two days. So yeah, I’m pretty quick, yeah.

Mitch: Moving fast, yeah. So at that point, it’s just a matter of getting the balances right, and placing things in the stereo field.

Al: Yeah, exactly. Getting the right balance, using the right echo.

Mitch: Are you a fan of using a lot of dynamics processing.

Al: Yeah, yeah. I am.

Mitch: So you’re compressing, and you’re limiting things. Yeah. Do you have specific things that you look for dynamics processors to do, or are you using those as effects, or how are you doing that?

Al: I don’t know, that’s hard for me to explain, because for me, it’s all about feel, and how things feel, and my ears, how it works. Then I keep doing things until I get tuned in. You know, it’s like tuning in an old radio, you know, you’ve got to find that spot, and when it’s there, it’s there.

Mitch: So it’s all by feel and by ear, you just kind of know after years of doing it it’s right or it’s not.

Al: Yeah, exactly.

Mitch: Right. One of the hallmarks for you, when I listen to your mixes, is everything is big. There’s a depth to what’s happening there, but everything also has its place in the frequency spectrum, and there’s a distinction to each of the parts, and a lot of clarity to it.

Talk a little bit about how you’d achieve that, because I know a lot of times, you record everybody at once, or you record a large group. Talk about — to me, those are typically kind of different things. Typically, you expect more when you’re overdubbing.

Al: No, actually it’s the opposite when you’re overdubbing, I think it’s less, because you’re not getting the bleed from one instrument to another, and you have the saxophone, you have a mic on it, and if that sax is leaking a little bit into a trumpet mic, and vice versa, you get not only the sound here that you got that sound, but you’re getting the depth of that leakage, so that’s why it’s important to use good microphones, because as I said, if you’re getting leakage into a good microphone, that’s good leakage, and that makes things sound bigger, and you get more depth I think.

If it’s cheap microphones, it’s cheap, and that’s why you don’t want the leakage, and that’s why if you don’t have good microphones, you really stress the separation and try to keep things separated, because you don’t want things leaking. You get phasing problems, and that’s another reason I think my stuff sounds the way it does, because there is no EQ, so there is no phasing happening on boards.

Mitch: Right, it’s a purer approach, a purist kind of a thing.

So talk a little bit about how you approach miking up, say, a session. Say you got an acoustic bass and a drum kit. Are you working mainly from the overheads on the drums, do you use close mics, approaching the bass and piano?

Al: Well, with the bass, I always use two microphones on a bass, I use one down by the f-hole, and then one up higher by the fingerboard, and I’ve been using Neumann M149s on the bass for ever since I got mine, and that’s been quite a few years ago, and they work. That’s it. And now I have great bass players that say, “Yeah, I go to other studios, and I tell the engineer, ‘Al Schmitt puts the mic here, and he puts the other mic here, and that’s why…’” So that’s kind of my — it makes me smile, it is a compliment.

So yeah, I use — on the drums, when I setup the drums, I have a D12 number 4. The 4th D12 made. I have that, I love that mic. I use that on the kick. On the snare, I use the 57 underneath. I use a 452 overhead, and the snare underneath is out of phase, I put it out of phase on the board. I use 414s on the toms, I use a 452 on the hi-hat, and on the overheads now, I’ve been using an — Audio Technica makes a 5045 that just blew me away when I tried it out on the overheads of drums, and the drummers love it. It’s got a really nice top end to it that just makes the cymbals sound great.

So I’ve been using that a lot. Those are really nice microphones. But I experiment with mics a lot, I love microphones, and I have a fairly good collection myself.


Mitch: Sure you mentioned earlier, a lot of times, you use your microphones in omni pattern which I…

Al: Yeah, when I’m doing orchestra stuff, I use my mics in omni all the time. I use, on the overheads on strings, they’ll be 67s in omni, on the trumpets, 67s in omni, yeah. I do that a lot, because I like the leakage, that’s what makes things big.

Mitch: Right, right. We talked about a few of the recordings that you’ve done with an orchestra, and with, for example, Frank Sinatra, and those things, and it’s hard for me to fathom mixing that with all of that leakage. I guess you just have them placed properly? Like the album we were talking about was a Duets album, and you said he had wanted to use a handheld microphone?

Al: Yeah, I did. It was a wireless handheld mic. I can’t remember the model right now, but it was weird. But I figured, “Hey, I’m the engineer, it’s up to the producer to tell Frank he can’t stand there,” so I looked over at Phil, and Phil wasn’t saying a word, so I figured you want to be here, this is where you will be. You know, tell Frank.

Mitch: So things have changed a lot in the studios, it used to be you would mentor with an engineer, you’d be an assistant, and you’d work your way up, and for a lot of us coming into the studio world that don’t have that opportunity, do you have recommendations for somebody that wants to learn the craft, and really develop their ear and become a great engineer?

Al: You know, it depends on where you are. I certainly would recommend anybody to go to Berkeley or a school like Berkeley to get that basic education, and then if you’re lucky enough to get a job at a decent studio, I mean, if you’re really blessed, somewhere like Capitol, and at Capitol, even if you’re just a runner, you have all of these great engineers coming in all the time.

So my recommendation would be to watch these guys, see what they do, you know, see what you like that they do and maybe take that, and someone else, you like what they do here, and take that, and put those things together.

But you know, making records, it’s a joy to go to work every day and make music. I mean, let’s face it. And you know, we’re blessed when we can get to do that. And I see some of the seconds, or the runners as we call them now, you can see the guys that are going to be good, and you can see the guys that are going to be maybe okay.

You know, there’s just something in their eyes, and their attitude, when they go to get coffee or something, it’s just the way they do things that they’ve got it.

Mitch: So attitude is a big part of it?

Al: Attitude is a major part of it, and like Tommy told me, do the best at everything you do. I try to tell that to people all the time. And you know, I’m an open book. I don’t have any secrets, and you know, at Capitol, some of the runners, I’d say to them, “When you’re not doing anything, come on in. If I’m doing a session, you’re welcome.” I’ll let you know if the artist has got a problem, or the producer has a problem, but otherwise, just come in and watch. Learn.

Just learn everything. What the engineer does with the producer, and how that reaction is, and I always tell the assistants, “If you make a mistake, let me know, and then forget about it, I’ll take care of it,” because I don’t want you worrying about the mistake that you just made, because if you are, you’re going to be making more.

So just tell me. Everybody makes mistakes, nobody’s perfect, you’re not going to get killed, just let me know, and it makes them — they feel a lot easier about what they’re doing. And they know that nobody’s perfect. Certainly I’m not.

Mitch: Sure, yeah. You were talking about something interesting with producers and engineers where you had said — You were talking about the benefits of the engineer being in the control room, with the producer actually being in the studio with the artist. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Al: Yeah, I can. I work with Tommy Lipuma for years. Nineteen — I think we did our first project together in 1970, and he would be in the control room, and talk to the musicians, and its really always bothering me, “You know, I hate this Al, I’ve got to talk, hit the button, talk to the glass to these guys, then I’ve got to release the button to wait for them to talk back to me,” and so he said, “You’ve got this covered, I don’t have to be here telling you what to do. I’m going to go out there.”

So he did. And we put up a music stand, and a chair, and earphones, and he had his music out there, and he was right with the rhythm section, or whatever, or with the band, and as things happen, he’d want to make a change, he’d say, “Hey, hold it right there. You know, that section, we’ve got to do…” And then there was communication back and forth, it made everything so much easier for everybody. I think every producer should do that. If you have an engineer, you might want to make sure that sounds are there as you want, and then go out there with the fine tuning.

It was amazing. I was blown away. I’d never seen anybody do that. It was great. And from then on, that’s all he ever did. And a lot of producers I’ve seen ask me that now, you know, “Do you mind if I sit out there with the guys?”

We prefer it. I don’t want you in here. You know? So yeah.

Mitch: [laughs] Yeah, sure. Sure. You’re also an advocate for recording the band as a band, as opposed to overdubbing parts. Tell us a little bit about why you do that.

Al: I like it, because you hear everything at one time, you know where the fixes go, and the musicians are interacting with one another, so they’ll be talking about a note or something, and be able to make a correction there. If you’ve got the track done, and now you’re overdubbing the sax, he’s got no one to bounce off. He’s just got that track. Or if it’s a guitar, he just has the track, whereas if he’s there with the musicians, they’ll maybe play something different, or maybe the keyboard, and he’ll figure out something that’ll work a little differently, a little better.

So yeah, I’m a big advocate of everybody recording at the same time, I think it’s the best.

Mitch: I have one last question for you. When I have someone in for one of these interviews that’s on a very high level, I like to ask this question, but in particular, I’m interested in your response, because you’ve worked with virtually everybody, and that is, what makes a great musician? What makes a great artist?

Al: I think it’s the heart. I think it’s the passion that they have for the music. You know, the heart they put into it. Yeah, the great ones all have that, you know? Sometimes they can be nasty people, but for the music, there’s that heart that’s there all the time, because not every musician is a nice person to hang out with. You know, some of them are real [redacted] holes, but you learn to stay away from that part of it and all.

But the fact that no matter what they are personally, their love for what they’re doing, that’s what makes a difference.

Mitch: Right, that’s awesome. Absolutely incredible. Al, thanks so much for coming in today, we appreciate it. Such a pleasure to do this interview with you and have you do a workshop, and we’re doing a panel discussion tomorrow.

Al: Yeah, tomorrow, I look forward to that.

Mitch: We’re keeping you busy for GearFest, right?

Al: Yeah, it’s nice, and we’re off and running right after that.

Mitch: Yeah, off to home, and probably back in the studio again.

Al: No, actually, I got — I’m off next week.

Mitch: A well earned vacation.

Al: Yeah, I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I’ll do something.

Cameraman: Just don’t pick up the phone.

Al: Yeah, right.

Mitch: Maybe listen to some music?

Al: I do that a lot, I only listen to vinyl now. That’s all. So I’ve been digging out my old vinyls, and buying new stuff, and I really enjoy it. I’ve got my turntable setup, and I have a nice system, I’m waiting for some great speakers from somebody who’s going to send me some nice speakers.

Mitch: Maybe you know somebody who’ll hook you up. [laughs] Well, thanks again Al, have a great week off, great to see you.

Al: You’re welcome. Oh, thanks, thanks, I will. And thank you, this was great, you made it so easy for me.

Mitch: Oh, thank you, appreciate that. And thank you for joining me here at GearFest 2017, I’m Mitch Gallagher.



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