For this special feature celebrating the accomplishments of multiple Grammy Award-winning engineer/producer Al Schmitt, many of his renowned colleagues provided recollections and praise.
Tommy LiPuma and Al Schmitt are one of the dream teams of the recording industry. They have known each other for half a century and collaborated on commercially and critically acclaimed recordings by Dave Mason, George Benson, Natalie Cole, Diana Krall and Paul McCartney, to name a few.
Many of those projects marked turning points in Schmitt's career. When LiPuma called his old friend to mix Mason's breakthrough solo album, "Alone Together," Schmitt hesitated because he had spent the previous several years as a producer and had gotten far away from microphones and mixing boards. LiPuma convinced him, and the album launched Mason's solo career.
Similarly, Cole's "Unforgettable" album represented something of a comeback for Schmitt, who had been laid out from an injury that had affected his hearing for years. Unforgettable won the Grammy for album of the year in 1991 and put Schmitt back on the map, paving the way for the peerless work he would do with Krall starting in the mid-'90s.
"When you think back on all the things that Al and I have done together, there's some pretty classic work there," LiPuma says. "We're such close friends that we work like a hand in glove. We just have this unspoken thing between us. He's my first call."
Schmitt and Phil Ramone met in the early '60s through Henry Mancini and have been friends and collaborators ever since.
"We work well together," Ramone says. "We have standards that we both agree about. It's very much a part of the way he sees and hears things. He's a Zen guy when he sits down at the console. Few words are spoken until he looks up and says, 'And? What do you think?' There's a lot that guys could learn from Al."
Ramone adds that Schmitt gets repeat business because clients value the engineer's attention to detail and sensitivity to all the participants in the session-producers, engineers, musicians, singers, assistants, studio staff, even label personnel.
"He's sitting in the captain's chair to make sure all the elements that could go in the right direction are wired and ready to go," Ramone says. "That preparation is very important and that's why he keeps getting return customers. A lot of these customers go back 20, 30 years, and that's a high count."
Award-winning engineer, producer, inventor, audio pioneer and educator George Massenburg is one of Schmitt's most fervent admirers.
"Al is the Leonardo DaVinci of engineers," Massenburg says. "He has the most perfectly refined muscle for responding to quality music and sound."
Having watched Schmitt mix, Massenburg has been struck by the engineer's patience in setting levels until they're just right.
"Al has, in the best sense, a slow ear," Massenburg says. "He takes his time deciding how loud something should be and what its perspective is in the mix. He has an inner mechanism that says, 'Over this whole mix, here's where the fader should be set.' This gives musicians a dynamic contribution to a mix that they don't get from a guy who responds very quickly to every lurch and wiggle. Al listens over the long term."
The quality that composer/arranger Patrick Williams most prizes in an engineer is musicality.
"The first thing I think about is an engineer being a musician," Williams says. "It's not just about the knobs. It's about making the music, and Al's the best."
Williams hired Schmitt to engineer an album of original compositions arranged for a 22-piece band. The budget didn't allow for overdubbing and mixing time, so the session had to be approached as a live gig.
"I said to Al, 'Essentially what we're going to do at Capitol Studio A is a concert, and you're going to have to record it that way.' And he said, 'Very good-the way we used to make records!' That didn't intimidate him at all. He got a great sound and essentially mixed live. And it was complicated music. I can't think of anybody who is as good as Al at that kind of thing."
Since the late '60s, when he opened the Mastering Lab as one of the first independent mastering facilities in the world, Doug Sax has had the pleasure of counting Schmitt as one of his faithful clients.
"If he had a choice of where to work he would work with me, and it's a mutual respect," Sax says. "He's certainly a client that every other mastering room would like to have. He makes me look good and he would make any place look good."
Sax has worked on virtually all of Schmitt's work, including such landmark recordings as George Benson's "Breezin'," "Toto IV," Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable", virtually all of Diana Krall's records and Paul McCartney's "Kisses on the Bottom."
More than a mutually rewarding professional relationship, theirs is a deep friendship.
"He's a mensch," Sax says. "I would claim him as a Jew at any time. He's welcome to join my tribe."
Elliot Scheiner recalls first meeting Schmitt at the 1978 Grammy ceremony, where they both received engineering statuettes for work they did separately on Steely Dan's "Aja."
"For me, he was a larger-than-life icon," Scheiner recalls. "I always said, 'When I grow up I want to be Al.'"
They became friends some years later when they ran into each other at a studio. Eventually, Scheiner hired Schmitt to engineer orchestra sessions on the 1995 Toto album "Tambu."
Since then, they have worked together on various projects, including some where they filled in for each other in a pinch. For instance, during sessions for McCartney's "Kisses on the Bottom," Schmitt was stuck in Los Angeles at a time when McCartney was available to track vocals in New York, so Schmitt called on Scheiner.
"I was like, 'McCartney? Are you kidding? Of course! I'll pay you,'" Scheiner recalls.
The two have also collaborated on academic programs for Berklee College of Music and the Music Engineering and Technology Alliance, of which they are founding members.
"He's been doing this a long time but the quality of his work gets better," Scheiner says. "He's an amazing person. I consider Al one of my best friends. As a human being, he would give you the shirt off his back. He's just remarkable."
Ed Cherney first became aware of Schmitt through Steely Dan's "FM (No Static at All)."
"I wore that record out," Cherney says. "It set the standard for me."
Cherney, like many other studio professionals, cites Schmitt's mic technique as one of his many virtues.
"What Al does better than anyone is he knows what microphone to use and where to put it," Cherney says. "Instead of reaching for an equalizer he'll walk out there and move a microphone two inches and it's all the difference in the world. And it's only years of experience that enables you to do that, and having the perception and talent to know how to do it.
"The music business has traditionally been a business for young people," he adds. "A lot of times experience isn't rewarded, but Al is a testament to what experience is all about."