Al Schmitt Interview

Part 1:"I was afraid of recording a large orchestra at one time. That was something that I was a little bit afraid of. And the biggest fear I had was of French horns... "

With Al Schmitt about pre-production, recording techniques, eqing, microphones, equalizers and other studio equipment, the work ethos, the most memorable recording sessions, and his extraordinary life behind the console....

When you meet Al Schmitt, you have a unique opportunity to touch the music. When you meet Al Schmitt, it gets to you that the most important thing is the song, a good composition, mutual harmony... that the most important thing is the atmosphere in the studio, a sense of unity and fun... 

 

When I started this interview, I quickly realized that this atmosphere, this fun, this unity... is created largely thanks to Al himself. During this conversation we talked about a lot of sound production related things, about recording techniques, eqing, microphones, equalizers and other studio equipment.  

We also had an extraordinary journey, into the golden times of music, to remember the key moments of Al's career...To talk about those with whom he worked most often, finally to go back to the sessions with those who unfortunately are no longer with us... 

 

Then this conversation turned into a kind of personal diary, I felt like I was watching a beautiful family album, and I am convinced that you will also feel this way when you read this interview, which is for me a deep look at the extraordinary life of an extraordinary man. A man, a legend, who spent most of his life in the recording studio. A man, who has recorded and mixed more than 150 gold and platinum albums and won over twenty Grammy Awards. A man, who over the years has collaborated with many outstanding artists, including Paul McCartney, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Toto, Natalie Cole, Tony Bennett and more... A man, who despite such an amazing biography,

still remains hungry and still has the same passion and respect for his work... 

 

Here he is, the one and only, Al Schmitt...

Adrian Lucas Witaszczyk: Hi Al, thank you for being here with me. It is an incredible pleasure to talk to you!

 

Al Schmitt: Hi Adrian, for me too! I know you have a lot of interesting questions for me...

 

There are so many extraordinary things that you've done over the years… Looking back at your career, how did you find the time to do it all? You have to be not only very well organized but also self-confident? What is your work organization like and do you have any problems making decisions?

I've found the time to do it all because I just love what I do. I work a lot and I never get tired of going into the studio. I Just really enjoy it. I think the key was that hard work has never been a problem for me. Oh, and I guess I live long enough to do it all! And with regard to the next part of your question, no, I don't have any problems making decisions. I know pretty much what I want to do and what I want to achieve. So when I have the opportunity, I make up my mind quickly.

You started your adventure in the world of recording studios in New York, during weekend trips to the studio belonging to your uncle Harry Smith... What fascinated you the most in your uncle's studio?

 

Yes, that’s true. I would go over there every weekend and spend the weekend with him and watch him as he recorded.  

His best friend was Les Paul, so, Les Paul was my uncle Les and I would hang out with him a lot, as well as with all the great singers and musicians that he worked with. I would get to be there with everybody, and then, they would talk to me and it was just a wonderful experience.  And it was a glamorous kind of life, you know... So, when I grew up, I wanted to be just like my uncle Harry.

 

Was it love at first sight? You know… You entered the studio and already knew that you would spend the rest of your life there, or was it a passion that developed slowly?

 

Absolutely! From when I was a child I always knew what I wanted to do. I always wanted to be an engineer, like my uncle.

What skill do you value the most in yourself?

Oh, the fact that you can count on me, and if I say I'm going to do something, I do it. If you ask me if I can help and it's possible for me to do it, I will do that. Oh, and I'm always on time. I don't disappoint people. I have some features of character, my personality that I like. I grew up like that. My father taught me to treat everyone like I wanted to be treated, so I do that.

So, if I say I'm going to do something, I do it.

Album or artist who has defined your musical taste?

Oh boy. Well, Henry Mancini would be the first artist, then Frank Sinatra would be another. And, as far as rock and roll, certainly a band like Toto and Steely Dan… Yeah, that pretty much says it.

Was there anything you were afraid of in the recording studio at the beginning of your career? Something you thought you would never learn?

Wow. I don't remember having any fears, but yes. I was afraid of recording a large orchestra at one time. That was something that I was a little bit afraid of. And the biggest fear I had was of French horns. So the engineer that I was learning from explained to me that there was nothing to be afraid of. He showed me how to record them and I went on and did it and that's it. I don't have any fears anymore.

You recorded Michael Crawford.... do you remember his vocal chain?  

 

Michael Crawford. Oh my God. No, I don't remember Michael’s vocal chain details, but I think It was probably a Neumann U47 and a Neve 1073 preamp I think. Yeah, that was pretty much it. Maybe also a Fairchild compressor.

Did his voice require any special treatments?

No, not really. He’s a great singer, it was all his beautiful voice.

Where did your love for classical music orchestra come from?

Wow. Yeah, I love large orchestras! My uncle would take me to Carnegie Hall and we saw a large organ, and a really large orchestra there and I just fell in love. I love music, and all kinds of music. I love classical music, I love opera, I love Bebop Jazz.  I love it all, the Big Band Swing. So, yeah, I just have a love for music, any period.

How do you usually prepare for your studio work?

Usually I find out from the producer what the instrumentation is going to be. I'll call him up and find out exactly what we're doing and what they're looking for. And then, I sit down with my assistant and we figured out how to setup everything. How are we going to set up the musicians and we figure out what microphones we are going to use. Then we get to the studio, something around three hours before the start time and we set everything up. We check everything out, all the microphones. We make sure everything's working correctly; we make sure that we don't have any phasing problems, and that's it.

So, usually, by the time the musicians are getting into the studio, I'm all ready to go.

What do you pay attention to when making your first decisions about the shape of the sound? Are you concentrating on key instruments? The construction and arrangement of the song? Its Dynamics? Dramaturgy? Maybe you try to understand the story presented by the vocalist, and on this basis you choose the sound and the way you mix the project?

 

Wow, that's a tough question. Well, I try to find out - if it's a vocal song, who the singer is, and what the song is about.

I try to talk to the singer before the session if it's possible, and find out what they liked to hear in their headphones. So, I try to prepare for everything. I think one of my good qualities is the fact that I'm always prepared and ready to go, and there are no last minute surprises.

How important is pre-production for you?

Pre Production is the most important thing! It is where you have to understand what's going on in order to prepare for everything. So, the pre production is when you sit down and decide what kind of sound you're looking for, what's the expectations, what key, what’s the instrumentation, who the singer is, and then figure out how are you going to capture all that.

How important is it for you to choose the right instruments, to achieve so-called natural separation?

 

Well, I don't particularly like a lot of separation and things like that. I like things that bleed. So I always use really good microphones.  Most of the time, the microphones are in the Omni position. So they're open all the way around because I love capturing the leakage that gives things a little bit more of a three dimensional sound. So, I look for the leakage and try to use it as much as I can.

So, are you using bleed on any tracks?

 

Yes,  I love the bleed, sometimes even on vocals.

 

Looking at your career I get the impression that you pay special attention to vocals, am I right?

 

Oh yes, of course! The vocal is the most important thing! I mean, if that will be the singing artist, the vocal is the most important. I always tell people that on the record, the artist's name goes on the front. If you're lucky, your name goes on the back. You know, it's an artist's record and you must pay most detail to the main artist, the singer. You have to make sure that they feel comfortable, that they are hearing well, that the headphones are right for them. Or, if they're in the room, that they are in the right spot in the room where they can hear everyone. They have to see the conductor, and It’s nice if you could have a view of them too so you could see what they're doing on the microphone. So yeah, for me the singer is a very important part of the record. Most of the times, the most important part of the record.

 

Could you tell me how you usually start working, mixing the vocals?

 

You see, I started early with vocals. I mean, I started doing vocals when I was 19, and I would do a little voice and piano or a guitar and voice and piano, or a guitar and voice. So, I've been working with vocals all my life.  I enjoyed singers anywhere from Frank Sinatra to Billy Eckstein to you name it... So, you know, times are changing but I still use the same proven methods. I use what simply works. Of course, the basis is always a really good microphone, a preamp and the atmosphere in the studio. But, it depends on the vocal. As you know, every vocal is different. There is a difference between Frank Sinatra, Natalie Cole and Diana Krall. They all sing differently. They have different textures and techniques, so you have to be aware of that and be prepared for what they need.

Larry Carlton, George Benson, Neil Young, Barbara Streisand ,Toto... You worked with them many times, you came back to them most often....  What decided that? Work atmosphere, mental understanding? Were you a fan? Did you like the material? Or are they are just inspiring and interesting people from whom you could learn a lot?

 

I like to work with them in general. I liked the material and their music, but most of the names you just mentioned are all outstanding at what they do! And so I like to work with people who are the best, and the people you mentioned, they are some of the best at what they do. So, I'm always comfortable being in there with people who really know how to sing or play the guitar or whatever and, their confidence in themselves, and my confidence makes it work. But the most important thing is that I really enjoy working with great artists.

You have witnessed the development of the world of audio, of brands,... Which mixing desk, in retrospect, do you consider to be the most successful design and why?

Oh, that’s another tough question. I like working on Neve consoles. I love really good microphones, whether it's Neumann, Royer, Audio Technica,  Schoeps, or a C 12. Great microphones are the most important thing to me. I don't use EQ when I record and I don’t use much EQ when I mix, so I like to make sure I'm capturing everything the way I want it, so I don't have to try to change the sound at all.

What features should a mix engineer have?

Well, the best feature that the mixer should have is the ability to balance. To be able to get a good balance and to know where to place things, how much bass, how much drums, how much piano, how much brass, how much violins and where to put the voice. It's all about balance. I think that's the number one feature. Great, really good mixing engineers have great balance.

Let's now enter the shoes of the producer... What should a good producer have?

A producer should have a great knowledge of music. He's got to know what the artist wants. He's the guy that captures what the artist is trying to do and comes up with the ideas, and maybe helps with the songs. They got to have a great knowledge of music. Hopefully, they should have some knowledge of the equipment that we're using, and be able to be a psychologist in a sense, to be able to handle difficult artists. Some artists can be very temperamental and he has got to know how to handle them. Other artists need to be encouraged to get the best from them. So a good producer has all those qualities.

You have mentioned Toto… You are the father of the sound of Toto. What do you value the most in this band?

Oh, I love those guys. You know, what's great about Toto? They have so much fun in the studio. I mean, they make great music, but they have fun doing it. It's always a joy to be in the studio with those guys. They are just great. They're friends of mine and they’re also friends with each other, and  it's great to be with them. They enjoy what they're doing and they do it so well, and it's always a pleasure to be a part of that.

Which album was the best for you to work on with them?

Toto IV, with Rosanna and Africa and all those great songs. That was my favorite. Listening to this album you can feel the wonderful atmosphere that prevailed in the studio while recording.

You worked with Miles Davies, how dp you remember him?  What kind of musician was he?

Oh, he was an incredible musician. He had so many great lines. He said once, “it's not the notes you play, it's the notes you don't play that make things sound so great.” He was an outstanding musician and knew exactly what he wanted. Maybe you don’t know this, but he was one of my all time favorite musicians even before I ever worked with him. So I used to go see him at clubs and stuff like that all the time, and also listened to his albums. He was, and still is one of my favorite artists.

Did he have his own patterns, or did he always improvise?

Well, he was pretty much an improvise type of guy, you know, I don't think he ever played the same thing twice. I mean, when he was doing takes, take one was different than take two, and take two would be different than take three. He was always in the moment of how we felt. So, you had to be prepared and you had to capture what he was doing.

So, what decided which take remains on the album?

Well, that was a combination of things. Usually it was the producer that decides which take was the one. But sometimes it was a combination, in which the producer, artist and the engineer get involved... Sometimes we were making takes and somebody said, “hey, let's go back and listen to take one.” So, we go back and listen and try to figure out if maybe that's the take we should use. Sometimes, you don't hear something about the first take. Sometimes it has the passion, so... But basically it was the producer, who decides which take stays on the record. Unless it's Frank Sinatra, then, he usually had the last word.

Natalie Cole ... the secret of her sound ? Her vocal sound ? Which mic which desk and outboard gear did you use on her vocals?

Wow. There is no secret there. That's how her vocal sounded, and my job as the engineer was to capture that beautiful voice as best as I can. I must tell you Adrian, that she was just amazing. She’s another example of a great mixture of passion and technique... She would stand right in front of the orchestra and sing live. She was so good. And, there was no EQ on her vocal at all. And what I would use is a Telefunken U47 microphone, and it would go into a Neve preamp, and then we would use maybe a little compression with a Fairchild. That's it. And the rest of it was her voice. She just had a beautiful voice, like Barbara Streisand. It's the same way. Beautiful voice.
 

The second part of the interview with Al Schmitt can be found here. We will once again return to the times when there was no digital. We will also talk about today's music, full of compression and lack of dynamics. We will talk about his path to the Grammy Awards, the art of catching the "right moment" in the studio, we will also meet those who unfortunately are no longer among us.... Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis and the king, Elvis Presley....

For more information about Al Schmitt (including his new book Al Schmitt on the Record) go to: www.alschmittmusic.com

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