Al Schmitt Interview
Part 2:"There's one person that I would like to do a record with now, and that's Sade..."
In the second part of the interview with Al Schmitt 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....
If you read the first part of this interview (link here), you will surely know how unusual the mood was created during this conversation. When you have the opportunity to have a moment of contact with a man with such an amazing life, when you have the opportunity to listen about so many wonderful moments that shaped the music... in the air something extraordinary is produced... spoken words turn into images and when the author of these words is Al Schmitt, these images are additionally filled with music, which awakened by the memories of Al starts to play, tearing down barriers between you...
This is an extraordinary moment, which will certainly not be repeated in the same form ever again... Perhaps that's why I've been looking for words to the introduction of this and the first part of this interview for so long...
For many, he is the best translator between the inspiration of the musician and what moves us later when we approach the speakers... Ladies and gentlemen, for the second and I hope not the last time, Al Schmitt....
Toni Braxton, another great vocal talent... why do you think she disappeared?
Yeah, I don't know what happened there. I don't know why she disappeared. I know she had a child that had some health issues, but I don't know anything more about that. She was a wonderful singer. That’s for sure. I only worked with her one time and I remember that I really enjoyed it. I thought she was just great and I don't know why she's disappeared. As I said,
I think maybe she's taking care of her child. But, honestly, I don't know anything for sure.
I wanted to ask you now about the recording studios.... it certainly hurts you that so many of them are being closed... do you think that we can somehow prevent it, change it today?
I don't think we can. You know, the problem is that so many people have home studios, really, too many people have studios in their homes. So, a lot of the studios where people would be coming in, to overdub a guitar and vocals and whatever, suffer. People are now doing that at their homes. So, the studios lost a lot of business. I don't think we'll ever get it back.
The great studios, like Capitol, Abbey Road Studios in England or Avatar, formerly the Power Station in New York. I think those big great studios will stick around, but a lot of the smaller studios must surrender and go out of the business.
Yes, but when we come into the studio, we also pay for the atmosphere, for inspiration, for all these priceless feelings and things, not only for the equipment and know how…
No, no, exactly! But, so many people are doing overdubs, all the vocals in homes, guitar overdubs in homes, even drum tracks in homes, and it sounds raw and rough. And, it really bothers me. I think that it has created a problem with the way music sounds today. A lot of those things don't sound like they would sound if they were done in a major studio or in a good studio. And, it bothers me. I think it all affects the music in a negative way.
Yes, and in a home studio you won’t be able to record great sounding live drums, so…
Yes, well, I don't work in home studios. I only work in good studios. I love to work at Capitol or in the Village in LA, or Sunset Sound or East West. We have some really good studios here in California, that are still operating and working. And those are the only places I work. If I go to New York, I work at Avatar, or the Power Station as it's called now. I love working at Abbey Road in England. That's another great studio. I'm blessed that I don't have to work at home. I even don't have a studio in my house and I never will. I don't like the idea of it. And I don't want to be in a situation, where I'm sitting around and suddenly I’m starting to think, oh, maybe I should add more bass in it. Then I run down to my little home studio and do that. When I'm done with the studio, I like to come home and relax. I like to spend time with my wife and my pets and listen to music, watch tv or read a good book and get away from the studio.
Which studio do you like best in Abbey Road?
Oh, I like studio two, the same room where The Beatles worked in. I love that room. I worked there with Diana Krall. I worked there with Paul McCartney. That's an amazing and great sounding room.
Once a record was a mystery, the atmosphere of the album, it's sound, lyrics, the cover art… all these elements were a whole, a complete story, today … We get singles, streaming services… there is no contemplation, no concept albums… why has music changed so much?
Well, I don't know. I think it's because of the invent of CD's and all that stuff. You used to have the back cover of the vinyl.
You had there the information about the producer, the engineer, you had the musicians, you had sometimes what microphones were used. That was the layout. There was always a little story about the album and the way it was done.
And now on CD's you don't get a lot of that. A lot of people don't even bother with the CD's, they are just downloading stuff and they don't have all the information about the record. They don't care about this information. I think it's very sad, it used to be that you could name all the musicians that played on the record. That doesn't happen much anymore.
Yes, we don’t communicate with artists today, we can’t identify ourselves with music albums…
Yeah, exactly. Not the way it used to be that's for sure. People don't know where it was recorded, who recorded it, there's not any of that info.
What do you think about plugins? Do you use them sometimes?
I don't mix in the box. I don't do anything in the box. I don't know how to do it, and I don't do it. Everything I remember, I do with the analog board and it's all analog except I use Pro Tools and I go up to 192 in Pro Tools when I'm recording or mixing. I don't like in the box, I don't use plugins or any of that stuff. I just record the same way that I use to record with the orchestra. A console into Pro Tools, as, now we don't use tape anymore, because it's hard to find a good tape and it's so expensive.
So, now we go into Pro Tools, up to 96 or 192. It sounds fabulous. So we don't need tape anymore. So, I don't do anything in the box. I don't know how to. I don't care to.
Your opinion on the phenomenon called the loudness war?
Well, I think that's crazy. I don't know what's going on. Every CD is trying to be louder than the one before it, and everybody's trying to make things louder. You know, Adrian, I have a theory that if you want to listen loud, just turn the volume up, and you can listen to as loud as you want. It's just stupid that people made these things. Everything is compressed as hell and distorted, I'm not thrilled with that and I'm not into the loudness war at all.
Why do you think we are so eager to use compression today?
To make things louder, that's the thing. And then, you know what? A lot of engineers get lazy instead of using their ears, moving faders, and properly doing everything else. They're letting compressors do some of the work, and you just can't put everything in a compressor. It just squashes the sound. You don't get that open sound. So, I'm sorry, but I choose to use very, very little of compression. I'm do this tastefully and that's it. The only time I could use more compression is if I'm trying to get an effect on something.
So, why are so many engineers forgetting about dynamics today?
I don’t know but it is so unnatural. Almost all music today is near squashing. I've seen guys recording vocals, and the person recording it was pulling seven, eight, or even ten DB, it’s ridiculous! You know, I'm the old school guy and that's the way I like it, and that's what I do. And when people want me to record and do stuff, they want me because I do what I do. I just did a great album with Trisha Yearwood, which is called Let's Be Frank, and it was produced with Vince Mendosa doing the arrangements and it's just came out, and it's a beautiful record. It sounds great and I'm really happy with it. The vocals are incredible. The songs dynamics are incredible as well, so, you know, this is what I love to do and I do it my way.
What do you pay attention to when selecting equipment?
I always pay attention to the quality of the equipment, you know, who made it, what is inside... I like to talk to the manufacturers. I don't just use something, because it's there, I want to find out, how it was made, who made it, what's involved with it. So, I like to get to know the manufacturer or the designer and find out what they have in mind when they do it. And then I decide whether I want to use it or not.
You mentioned that your favorite compressor is the Fairchild, I know, that you usually don’t use EQ, but if you must pick your favorite equalizer…
Well, I have a few. George Massenburg has a great equalizer. John Oram has a great equalizer that I use and I really like. Neve preamps, a lot of them have great equalizers on them. So, there are quite a few good equalizes around. And when you're equalizing, sometimes it's not about what you add, it's what you take out, that's also important.
You mentioned John Oram, I also know his equipment. Did you use only his equalizers? Have you ever mixed on his console? You said that you love Neve consoles and what about the desks from Oram Sonics?
He makes great equipment. I don’t get a chance to use much of his consoles because the studios I work at don’t have any.
A lot of home studios have his gear and I’m hearing some wonderful recordings done on Oram consoles.
The worst memory from the studio?
Oh, that's a really tough one. I don't know if I have any worst memories. I'd have some memories where the board went down and we had to sit around for a while and try to get the board back. I don't know, but... there was one group that I worked with many, many years ago , and, it got so crazy. I had called my attorney to get me off the project, so, that was probably one of the worst times in my life. We start working at 8:00 and then we'd go till three or four in the morning.
Then the next day we come in at 9:00, then the next day at 10:00 and then, we were coming in at midnight and work until nine in the morning and it was crazy. So I asked my attorney to get me off.
Equipment that never let you down?
Well, most of the time a good Neve board is usually a pretty cool thing to be working on, oh, and good Neumann microphones rarely ever let me down, you know, that kind of stuff.
Which of your records do you come back to most willingly?
Oh wow! Some of the Mancini things. A lot of Diana Krall, Toto IV. There is a lot of music that I listened to.
All the records that I've done and the records that other people have done. I love Miles Davis. I love the old Bebop things that I grew up with, Big Band records. I love Big Band music. So, I guess it depends on my mood, or when I'm in the mood to listen to certain records.
The session you remember the most?
I think there are two. I think Frank Sinatra and I think Sam Cook, whatever records I did with Sam, I'll never forget those. Those were just amazing times…
Is there still anyone with who you would like to work with? Someone you would like to mix the album with?
Oh Wow. You know, I've worked with everybody pretty much. But yes, there's one person that I would like to do a record with now and that's Sade. I love the way her voice sounds and I think I could make a great record with her.
Oh, now you hit me! You and Sade would be a great combination. I think she needs a return to a really organic sound, so…
Oh, there you go! She's great. She's retired now though, and I'm not sure she's going to come back.
I like the sound of her first two albums the most. Diamond Life and The Promise. Both have an incredible atmosphere. Songs such as: Sweetest Taboo, Haunt Me, Never As Good As the First Time, Jazabel…
Yeah, me too. The same here!
I know that your favorite microphone is Neumann U67. Why this particular model?
Yes, that’s right. Because you can use it on anything. It works great on a voice. It works great on upright bass. It works great on guitar. I heavily use it on strings. I use it on saxophones and I can use it on trumpets. It works well on everything. If I could only have one microphone, that's the microphone I would choose.
Any difference in sound between U67 and U47 and the other models?
Honestly, I don't know how to describe it, but it is different. I like the U47 on voice, but the U67 also works well on voice and everything else, and I'm not so sure about the U47. It works well on voice. It works well on upright bass and that kind of thing. But, I don't use it on strings, so, I think the 67 is the most versatile microphone made and I love the new one that they just made.
Working with sound is work in which we constantly learn something new. Is there something you don't know yet?
Oh, that's a funny and great question. Yes, there are still things I don’t know yet, and I hope to find out more great things.
I think I learned and I still learn something every time I go into studio. Something about a new microphone or something about an instrument. I learn something every day I go in, so I'm sure there is a lot left for me to learn.
Do you still experiment in the studio? You still try to break the schemes?
Yeah. I still experiment with setups and microphones, you know, I tried new microphones and see how they work out.
I experiment a lot. Yeah. That's how you learn, by trying new things.
Your most daring experiment in the studio?
Well, there's been so many of them. Some of them work out. Some of them don't. I did a setup one time, it was years ago at RCA and everybody showed up, the band and everything. But, as soon as I heard the first notes played, it sounded so terrible. I had everybody in the wrong place in the room. I had to tell everybody to take a break and re set the studio up.
This story ended up so that I had to change the studio, so, that was the one, when it didn't work.
What would you like to share with others from the perspective of these four decades of your experience?
Oh wow. Well, for me, the most important thing in the studio is to be kind to everyone, you know, treat everyone like you want to be treated. I think that's the most important thing. And what I would say for young engineers and young assistants, get a notebook and draw the setups, keep the setup sheet, so you know, what other engineers did, and how they did it. What microphones they used... I think that's important for young people to do. Those are the things I can share. That's what I was told to do when I started and it certainly helped.
The most valuable advice? The most valuable lesson you got in the studio?
I think the most important thing was, that I was told and told to always be on time. To always be ready to go.
So, you know, get there early, get everything ready and make sure you're set up and ready to go when the musicians come into the studio.
Your most beautiful memory of youth?
Oh, that's a hard one. My most beautiful memory... Well, God, I have so many great memories. Wow, maybe when my first child was born, yeah I think that is one of the most beautiful memories of mine.
If you were to start your career today... what would be your first step?
If I was going to start my career today, I would go to school. And I would go to a university like Berklee in Boston, and learn as much as I could about music and recording and really immerse myself in learning there as much as I could. And then, when I graduated I would try to get a job at a studio…
If you were to compare musicians once and musicians today, is the world of music still developing?
You know what Adrian? I think the musicians, they used to play together a lot. They played together not only in the studio, but they also played in clubs and things like that. I don't see as much of that anymore. And I miss that. You know, that back in the Bebop era and Jazz and those kinds of things, it was the music that I love the most, and you don't see much of that anymore. It's not happening. Young people aren't interested in it. They're more interested in rock and roll and that kind of music.
So, these days you just don't see as many clubs. You don't see as many places for musicians to play.
Is the audio industry today still about music or rather about money? What is in the first place today?
Well, I would hope, it would be about music, but I think it's more about the finances and money and downloading music… and all that stuff. You know, you just don't see many people going out buying records anymore. And I think that's a shame.
People download songs or albums, but they don't know who played on the album. They don't know who produced it, who engineered it, in what studio it was done in. So they just don't get all the credits. And as I said, I think that's a great shame.
Could you tell me more about working with the king, with Elvis Presley?
I only worked with him one time and we worked something like twelve hours straight in the studio. He had just got out of military service. I was doing the album, called the G.I. Blues and I worked on part of that just for the one day. But I can say, that he was very kind. My assistant engineer admired a bracelet he had. Elvis had a turquoise bracelet that day, and my assistant said, oh, that's a beautiful piece, and I collect such a little art like that. And he just took the bracelet off and gave it to him, and I thought that was really, really a generous thing to do. So I said to Elvis, Elvis you have that beautiful car in the garage. And I was thinking, oh, maybe he'll give me the car. But he didn't do that. So, that was my working with Elvis. He was great. He was very nice, very kind, and we had a good time in the studio, it was a lot of fun. We ordered some food in and we had pizza and stuff. So, it was twelve hours straight with him and a lot of fun.
Thank you so much Al, It was such a pleasure for me to listen about all these things and experiences.
I thank you Adrian! It was a great time. You had a lot of great questions!
For more information about Al Schmitt (including his new book Al Schmitt on the Record) go to: www.alschmittmusic.com
Adrian Lucas Witaszczyk: You won a Grammy in the category of best engineering twice for your collaboration with Henry Mancini....did you feel that you were going for a Grammy while working on these releases?
Al Schmitt: Did I feel it back then? No, I didn't. I didn't have any idea we were going to be nominated or anything.
My first nomination with Henry Mancini was for Breakfast At Tiffany's, and then my second nomination was with a Hatari! And I won the Grammy for Hatari! for the best engineer, so no. When you make a record, only maybe sometimes when you're done, you do realize how good it is, and that maybe there's a chance for something. But back then, no, I didn't have any idea that there would be any Grammy's involved.
From your perspective, what prevailed, what decided that it was you who ultimately reached for this award?
Just the fact that you know, you did a good job and you captured everything, and everything just sounds really good.
And when you play it against other things, it just jumps out. You know, sometimes you can get a sort of an idea. When I did Toto, I had a pretty good idea that we were going to be nominated for a Grammy because it sounded so great. So, that's the best answer I can say now.
Do you remember the equipment and recording/mixing techniques you used when working with on these releases with Henry?
We were using great microphones! At RCA back then we had incredible microphones. Lots of great Neumann microphones and Telefunken microphones. So, it was just a matter of using old great microphones, and Henry Mancini used the best musicians in the country on those records. That's why everything just sounded so great. My job was just to capture that sound. So, you know, putting the right mic in the right place is the most important thing. And, you have to learn how to do that.
How technically conscious of a vocalist was Frank Sinatra?
When I did Frank Sinatra, he just wanted to stand right in front of the orchestra and then he asked me for a handheld wireless microphone and that's how he would sing. He wanted to make it like a show, like he was doing a performance.
So, he stood right in front of the band and sang on a handheld wireless microphone.
Was he able to move in a recording studio? Did he understand the world of equipment? The world of the studio?
Oh yeah, he did! He understood everything and he knew what was going on. He knew what kind of microphone he would like for what particular song he was doing. He understood the recording process very, very well.
So, Is it true that Frank Sinatra had his favorite microphone with which he usually recorded?
Yes, he did have one. There was a favorite microphone and they still have it at Capitol. It's a Telefunken U48.
Oh, and what’s the difference between U48 and U47?
Technically, it's just a pattern. U48 can only go cardioid and a binaural, and a U47 can go cardioid, binaural and Omni Directional. So, it’s just the pattern difference. Otherwise, it had the same tube and everything.
Can you say how he was working on his vocals? Was he a perfectionist? How many approaches did he usually need to lay down his tracks?
Well, he would only do a vocal once or twice, so you had to be ready to capture it. He'd walk out of the studio if you didn't capture it on the fly. So, if you’re not doing the right thing, you are in trouble. You really had to be prepared with Frank to make sure everything was working right before he even came to the studio. It was important. He was a perfectionist, but he always wanted to get it right the first time. So, very rarely he would do more than a couple of takes.
How did you get that unforgettable velvet sound of his voice? What preamplifier did you use? Which compressor ... you know I ask about the periphery, outboard gear?
I think we were using Neve preamps, the old Neve preamps, a lot of those, but I have no idea what preamps they used at some of the early things that he did. I think they used whatever preamps Capitol had in those days, I'm talking about 1955/56/57. I wasn't there then so, I don't know what they used.
Any Outboard gear?
A very little compression and I always tried to use the Fairchild and just a touch of it. Maybe a dB or a half dB or something. Because I love the sound of the Fairchild. The tubes, you know...
Yeah! And it makes things more forward...
Yeah, Fairchild is a great unit.
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