Engineer Al Schmitt on Winning 23 Grammys and Working With Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney & Steely Dan
The award-winning engineer's new autobiography shares seven decades of tales.
Al Schmitt may not be a household name, but his name is undoubtedly on several records in your home.
Over his seven-decade career, the recording engineer and producer has worked with Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Neil Young, Quincy Jones, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Diana Krall, Toto, Steely Dan and hundreds of others. He has recorded more than 150 gold and platinum albums.
With 20 Grammy wins — not including two Latin Grammys and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy — Schmitt is the most awarded recording engineer in Grammy history. He won five statues in one night for his work on Ray Charles’ 2004 set, Genius Loves Company. His Grammy count would be much higher, but the Grammys didn’t include engineers for album of the year until 1999.
As a little boy growing up in Brooklyn, Schmitt shadowed his uncle, a producer, in the studio. At home, he dissected records. “My uncle bought me a little wind-up phonograph and I was listening to big bands all the time,” he says. “I listened to where they had the strings, how the string are set up, what rhythm sections sounded like, how far in front the vocalist was. Those were things that were important to me when I was even a little kid.”
Schmitt, 88, has written On the Record: The Magic Behind the Music (Hal Leonard Books), a combination memoir/how-to-manual (complete with diagrams of studio mic placements for some of his biggest sessions), out Nov. 6. The book, written with engineer Maureen Droney, is a fascinating blend of Schmitt’s life story, a master guide to recording techniques and tales about working with some of the most famous artists on earth to create tunes loved the world over.
Fittingly, Schmitt spoke with Billboard at Hollywood’s Capitol Tower, whose storied ground floor studios have served as his primary home since 1976, about working with Sinatra, McCartney, Toto, Sam Cooke and so many more.
You started hanging out in your uncle’s studio when you were seven. Was there ever a plan B?
Nope. All I ever wanted to do was become a recording engineer just like my uncle. If I didn't do engineering at all, I would have liked to have been Elmore Leonard [laughs]. I loved his dialogue.
One major impression from the book is that so much of being a great engineer is trial and error and always being flexible.
Yeah. A lot of experimenting. Somebody always asks me, "Where do you put the mic, Al?" and I say, "I always put it where it sounds best.”
At 88, you are still at it. How have you protected your hearing?
I don't listen very, very loud, and when an artist, like a rock band, wants to crank it up, fine! I'll crank it up and walk outside. I don't have to stand there when they're listening. I try to stay away from listening very loud.
When you started, it was one-track recording. Now there are 128 tracks and Pro Tools. What has been lost in all this technology?
On the Bob Dylan album that I did [2016’s Shadows in the Night], we went back to the way we recorded 40 years ago and it was amazing. I think the art that's lost is in the overdubbing of things. One guy's in Phoenix doing a guitar part, a drummer's in San Diego, and that kind of thing. But when everybody's in the same room together, they all play off one another. It's a whole different world.
But you’re one of the reasons remote recording is possible. When you and Phil Ramone recorded Frank Sinatra’s 1993 album Duets, his duet partners were spread all over the world, marking the first time that had happened. So you're a little to blame!
I am! And I resent it too [laughs]. I wish that never happened. We're in New York, recording Charles Aznavour in Paris. It's like “What? Wait a minute, there’s something wrong here. This is not the way it's supposed to be.”
What piece of technology is the bane of your existence?
Probably equalizers. The only time I use equalizers is if I'm working on something that someone else did and then I'm trying to mold it into something that I think is right. But I record with no EQ and mix with no EQ. It's rare. [Legendary producer] Tommy Dowd taught me how to use my microphones as equalizers. If something didn't sound bright enough, put a brighter mic on it, rather than try to crank something up.
You love your microphones!
They have the original Frank Sinatra microphone at [Capitol], and I use it all the time. It's the first mic I put on someone. Sometimes it's not the right mic for them, but in most cases when you tell someone “This is Frank's mic” or “You’re sitting on Frank's stool” or “This is Nat [King Cole’s] piano,” there’s something about this that says, “Wow, I'm on Frank's mic, I'm really gonna do it now."
How is that mic not in the Smithsonian?
They're not going to give it up here. Are you kidding? It brings people in. It’s not gonna go away.
What’s your best Frank Sinatra story?
When we were doing Duets, Phil Ramone built a vocal booth and in the booth we had a bottle of Jack Daniel's, Tootsie Rolls and a carton of Camel cigarettes. And I'm standing with him and Frank turns to me and says, "Where do you want me, Al?" I said, "Right in there," and he looked in [the vocal booth] and then looked at me with those blue eyes and said, "I'm not going in there." I said, "Fine, where do you want to be?" He said, "How ‘bout right here” on the floor. Right in front of the band, like a performance. He wanted a handheld microphone, not his normal mic, because he wanted to feel more like a performance because it was late in his career and I think he felt more comfortable that way.
Did you direct Frank?
No, nobody did. Nobody directed him. We did everything top to bottom, each song. But he would stop a song if the tempo wasn’t right, but he was the one that counted stuff off. So if it wasn’t quite right, he’d stop and go back to the top. It was late in his career and obviously nobody wanted to push him. The first day, he didn’t show up. The second day, he came [and he stayed for] five minutes. He said, “Not tonight, guys.” And God bless him for that. That he knew it just wasn’t there.
What made him so great?
He’s the best singer I ever worked with. He studied lyrics. What the song was about. He knew the people who wrote most of the songs. His phrasing is unbelievable, you could understand everything. There was nobody before him and nobody after him. He was the absolute best.
Would you take a great musician who's a jerk over a very good player who's a nice person and knows how to work with others?
I think it was the great band leader Benny Goodman who [answered that] question, and he said ,"Gimme a prick that plays." [Laughs.] It's that simple. I don't care about his personality. If he could knock me out, that's what I want. There are a lot of assholes, guys you wouldn't want them as friends, but they come in and knock your socks off when they play.
What about working with Sam Cooke?
I had dinner with him the night he was killed, and that’s a sad, sad, sad story. That should have never happened. Sam was a really good looking guy. Dressed really well. He was a chick magnet. He was a star. When I was producing him at the end, RCA had visions of Sam being another Nat Cole. Someone who could star in movies.
I just loved being with him, and I spent one afternoon of my life with him and Cassius Clay. I was producing [the] Live at the Copa album, and Sam was helping Cassius Clay. It was before [he was] Muhammad Ali. He was helping him with the lyric because [Ali] was recording for Columbia. I went over to Sam’s [hotel] because we were talking about what we were going to do at the show and Cassius was there. They had me on the floor -- I mean, they were so funny and irreverent to one another. It was just hilarious. I wish I had recorded that.
Totally changing topics, when you recorded “Africa,” did you and Toto know you were making a something special?
Yes. I honestly did. I had a friend of mine who always wanted to go to the Grammys with me. Freddie Stewart his name was, he played in all these movies years ago like Sarge Goes to College.
He said, “Next time you’re going to be up for a Grammy, I’ll go with you.” When we were recording these, I called him on the phone and I said, “We’re gonna go to the Grammys.” We just knew that it was going to be that big. [Toto IV, the album that included “Africa”] won six Grammys that night.
You won a Grammy for working with Steely Dan on 1977’s Aja. They were notorious perfectionists. Was there ever a time when you were like, “Guys, it’s fine!”
[Laughs] Oh, there might have been a couple of times. It was amazing working with them. The first thing I did with them was “Peg.” Michael [McDonald] singing background. But at the end of it, there was a lot of joking around because we were all young and having a good time. I don’t think it really got tense, at all. We’d laugh, actually. We finally got what we wanted.
The only album in the whole book that you say readers must listen to is 1961’s Ray Charles and Betty Carter. What do you remember about that one?
We did that whole album in two days. Marty Paich did the arrangements, everything was live. Ray was very young. He was playing piano, and [Betty] stood right next to him with a hand on his shoulder. It just was a spectacular record. That’s when they did the great “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” which is just outstanding. At that point, Ray was was having a major drug problem. So every time [there was] a 10-minute break, they would take him off into the bathroom, and God knows what happened, what went on. It was sad to see that, but when he opened his mouth and sang, and [with] Betty, I mean, I got goosebumps. It was just unbelievable. That was one of my favorites.
Paul McCartney wrote the foreword for the book. You two worked on 2012’s Kisses on the Bottom.
One cute story about that: we’re [recording] in London and it was my daughter’s birthday so I was on the phone wishing her a happy birthday. Paul came out, he took the phone from my hand, and he sang “Happy Birthday” to her.
The traditional “Happy Birthday” or the Beatles’ “Birthday"?
The real “Happy Birthday.” That’s the kind of guy he is. He is probably the nicest person I’ve ever met in the record business. He is just a total gentleman, nice man. And I loved hanging with him.
Why are there so few female producers and engineers?
That’s so sad and I bring that up all the time because I think there should be more. When I do my classes over in Provence, France, I’ve taught seven times, and each time we have 15 in the class. I’ve had two women. I just had the third this last time. It’s a job certainly women can do. Women hear better than men, I think.The women I know that do it — Sylvia Massey, Leslie Jones, she was my assistant here for a while — are all outstanding.
What are you working on now?
I just finished mixing 18 songs on the Carpenters [for Carpenters With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, out Dec. 7]. It’s all the old [songs] with Karen and they added some different orchestrations in London and changed some of the drums and keyboard parts.
You’re 88. Do you even consider yourself semi-retired?
[Laughs] No. Only when the phone doesn’t ring!