Even by the exalted standards he shares with other high-achieving record makers, Al Schmitt has a stunningly diverse discography.
In a career spanning five decades, Schmitt has worked with such icons as Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Henry Mancini, Sam Cooke, Duane Eddy, Jefferson Airplane, Steely Dan, Hot Tuna, Patti Austin, George Benson, Toto, Al Jarreau, Madonna, Willie Nelson, Earth, Wind & Fire, Eric Clapton, Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, Dr. John, Diana Krall, Michael Bublé and, most recently, Paul McCartney.
Not only has Schmitt engineered or produced records for those artists, he has captured some of their definitive, enduring works.
A few that come to mind are Mancini’s “The Music From Peter Gunn,” “Sam Cooke at the Copa,” Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers,” Benson’s “Breezin’,” Steely Dan’s “Aja,” Cole’s “Unforgettable” and virtually all of Krall’s work. These and other artists have repeatedly worked with Schmitt because he consistently delivers for them.
Along the way, Schmitt has won a remarkable 21 Grammy Awards. This puts him at the top of the list among producer/engineers and also places him in a rarefied club of 20-plus winners that includes Mancini, Georg Solti, Quincy Jones, Alison Krauss, Pierre Boulez, Vladimir Horowitz, Stevie Wonder, U2, John Williams, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen and Vince Gill.
Despite the long arc of his career, two-thirds of Schmitt’s Grammys have come in the last 15 years. (His friends are reminded of this every time they email him, because Schmitt still uses an address that refers to seven Grammys-a vestige of early email days, and by now a digital time capsule that reflects the vibrancy of his career at a time when many might have retired.)
In addition to his individual statuettes, Schmitt has received the Grammy Trustees Award, which the Recording Academy gives annually to non-performers who have made significant lifetime contributions to the field of recording. Schmitt is also a member of the TEC Awards Hall of Fame, one of the studio industry’s top honors.
For all his engineering expertise, Schmitt is above all a music man who values emotional feel over technical perfection and understands what motivates people to buy records.
“I just love music, period,” he says. “Nobody ever buys a record because of the way the snare drum sounds. They buy a record because of the way it emotionally affects them. Back in the days before all this overdubbing, I did a record with Ray Charles and Betty Carter, and we did the whole album in seven or eight hours. The emotional feel of the record was great, and that’s what we went with.”
Although Schmitt has serious credentials in jazz, pop, R&B, blues, big band, country, surf, psychedelic rock and other genres, he’s best-known for his uncanny ability to capture the live sound of orchestras and big bands playing together in the studio.
Celebrated producers including Tommy LiPuma and Phil Ramone have consistently hired Schmitt to work his magic on dozens of hit records by the likes of Cole, Sinatra, Krall and McCartney, and Schmitt has never let them down.
“With Al, things have this transparency about them. It’s a very natural sound,” says LiPuma, who first hired Schmitt to mix Dave Mason’s “Alone Together” in 1970 and has since employed his services on landmark albums like Cole’s “Unforgettable;” a string of Krall records starting with her 1995 sophomore release, “Only Trust Your Heart;” and, most recently, McCartney’s standards collection, “Kisses on the Bottom.”
Ramone also has a long history of working with Schmitt, notably on Sinatra’s acclaimed Duets projects in the early ’90s.
“He’s a very courageous, comfortable guy,” Ramone says. “He’s extremely focused-one of the most focused guys you’ll ever meet. That’s important to everyone concerned. You don’t want to step into the doctor’s office and find him with his feet up watching television.”
Fellow engineer/producer Bruce Swedien, a five-time Grammy winner, singles out Schmitt’s exquisite handling of vocals. “If you listen to an Al Schmitt recording, you are going to hear the vocal with depth and clarity,” Swedien says. “I’m perhaps best-known for my work with Michael Jackson, and I hear a lot of the same elements in Al’s work in the way we treat vocals. When I think of engineers I truly admire, Al Schmitt is at the top of my list. There is a reason why Al has won more Grammys than any other engineer.”
Other peers have cited Schmitt’s reassuring presence in the control room, his focus level, his preparedness and the vast experience he brings to session work.
“Al is always prepared, he always has great assistants, he’s ready to go, and he’s just absolutely, totally professional in every way,” says composer/arranger Patrick Williams, who has collaborated with Schmitt on numerous projects including Duets. “Every time I work with him I look forward to it. I know it’s going to sound good and everything’s going to be taken care of.”
Producer/engineer Ed Cherney says, “You go in the studio with Al and you know you’re going to come out with something great. Anyone without that experience, you’re not going to get the same result. There are very few people who know how to capture the sound of musicians playing at the same time in a recording studio. There’s no way to develop that skill set anymore unless you sit behind Al.”
One of the highest marks of excellence for recording professionals is their ability to use the studio as a creative canvas. This quality is often cited in connection with George Martin, Brian Eno, Todd Rundgren, Alan Parsons and other producer/engineers who have pushed sonic boundaries through such techniques as tape looping, backwards recording and intentionally unnatural effects processing.
Schmitt rarely engages in those types of practices, yet his peers unanimously cite his gift for making music with microphones, consoles and recording spaces.
Cherney says, “The recording studio, the console, the space and the microphones are absolutely his piano, his instrument.”
Schmitt attributes his versatility to his early training as a staff engineer in New York studios where a typical day might have consisted of a commercial jingle in the morning, a pop vocalist in the afternoon and an R&B band in the evening. The next day, it might be a classical session followed by a news radio broadcast followed by a jazz combo. As soon as a session ended, the engineer needed to be ready for the next one.
When the Duke Showed Up
Schmitt was born in Brooklyn and grew up visiting his uncle Harry Smith’s eponymous studio on West 46th Street in Manhattan. As a very young child, Schmitt would spend weekends at the facility helping clean patch cords and set up gear.
Smith eventually recommended his nephew for an apprenticeship at Apex Studios, where the staff engineer was the legendary Tom Dowd. Dowd took Schmitt under his wing and showed him the ropes.
“I was like his little kid brother,” Schmitt says. “I followed him around and watched everything he did. My hours were nine to six but I’d be there till midnight every night. Tommy [Dowd] bought me a little notebook to put diagrams of the setups, what mics were used, where they were placed and so forth.”
Like many studio pros of his generation, Schmitt got his engineering start almost by accident when his boss left him in charge of a big session with no warning or preparation.
“This one Saturday I was the only one in the studio doing what I thought were demos,” Schmitt recalls. “At 2 o’clock I had my last client. In the book it just said, ‘Mercer,’ so I was waiting for Mr. Mercer to show up and do his demo. Suddenly the elevator doors opened and all these musicians came out and said, ‘Hey, kid, where’s the studio?’ It turned out it was the Mercer Ellington Band, with Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn on the piano and all these guys who were like baseball heroes to me.
“Duke Ellington sat next to me, and I was so nervous and it was obvious. I kept saying, ‘You know, Mr. Ellington, I’m really not qualified to do this. This was a huge mistake.’ And he kept patting me on the leg and saying, ‘Don’t worry, son. We’re going to get through this.’ And that was it. I got thrown in, we got it done, we did four sides. The nice thing was it gave me confidence that I was able to do it. I often think that if they’d told me the night before that I was going to record Duke Ellington the next day, I probably would have called in sick.”
Asked how Dowd reacted when he learned of the Mercer Ellington date, Schmitt chuckles and says, “Tommy laughed, patted me on the back, and said, ‘See, that’s how it happens. Now you’re on your way. Now you know how to do it.'”
Apex closed not long after the Ellington date and Schmitt landed at Nola Recording Studios, a rehearsal/recording complex in the Theater District. About a year later, Schmitt rejoined Dowd at Fulton Recording, a large facility on West 40th Street.
Fulton engineer Bob Doherty schooled Schmitt in the art of recording orchestra dates, which Schmitt had been unable to do at his previous workplaces because they weren’t spacious enough to accommodate large ensembles. Despite being so nervous he had to grab the console’s rotary faders to keep his hands from shaking, Schmitt again rose to the occasion and engineered two-track mono sessions for jazz greats including Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan.
Go West, Young Man
One of Fulton’s regular clients was Richard Bock, owner of Los Angeles-based Pacific Jazz Records. Bock encouraged Schmitt to move to Los Angeles, to which Schmitt responded: “Get me a job there and I’ll come out.”
Three weeks later, Schmitt accepted an offer from the renowned Radio Recorders, then the premiere Los Angeles facility. At Radio Recorders, Schmitt engineered Mancini’s 1959 smash, “The Music From Peter Gunn,” an album notable for being the first to win the Grammy for album of the year, a new category in 1959. Eventually, the Library of Congress chose the album as a 2010 addition to the National Recording Registry, a collection of works that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
As Schmitt was basking in the album’s success, RCA Records opened a Los Angeles studio and hired him as staff engineer. Schmitt worked with many of the label’s top talents, including Mancini-whose Hatari! soundtrack yielded Schmitt’s first Grammy-Charles, Carter, Billy Eckstine, Billy May and Cooke, whom the engineer remembers with particular fondness.
“He was my all-time favorite,” Schmitt says of Cooke. “Sam wrote the songs, he’d get the arrangements exactly the way he wanted, and he was a great bandleader. He was also a sweetheart of a guy. We became really close friends. I had dinner with him the night he was killed.”
By 1962, Schmitt had acquired such a strong reputation that other studios were clamoring for his services. At the same time, he had been around enough producers to know that many were getting paid more than he was without doing much work. Schmitt proposed to RCA management that they promote him to staff producer, arguing they were going to lose him as an engineer anyway because of the competitive offers he was fielding.
RCA agreed and Schmitt began a fruitful production career. He continued to work with artists whose records he had engineered, including Cooke, and also took on projects by the likes of Ann-Margret, Eddie Fisher and Jefferson Airplane.
In those days, union rules barred producers from touching the recording console, so Schmitt’s promotion had the unintended effect of taking him away from the thing he loved most and did best: engineering and mixing records.
By 1970, Schmitt had been off the engineering beat for long enough that he wasn’t sure he could still do it. Fortunately, LiPuma, who as a song-plugger in the early ’60s had pitched material to Schmitt, convinced his old friend to give engineering another try.
LiPuma had just started the Blue Thumb label with Bob Krasnow, and one of their first signings was Mason of Traffic fame. Mason was working on his first solo album, Alone Together, and the engineer who had committed to mixing it had a last-minute conflict. LiPuma dialed up Schmitt and offered him the mixing gig.
“He said, ‘Man, I haven’t been behind a board for years,'” LiPuma recalls. “And I said, ‘Al, it’s just like riding a bike.'”
The relationship between LiPuma and Schmitt flourished in the ’70s, culminating in the Benson smash “Breezin’,” which won multiple Grammys-including one for Schmitt’s engineering work.
Mastering veteran Doug Sax, who has worked consistently with Schmitt since 1969, considers “Breezin'” one of Schmitt’s high-water marks. “For its time, that was a pretty stunning album,” Sax says. “It felt great and sounded great. I also think everything Al has done with Diana Krall has been stunning across the board.”
Schmitt also distinguished himself in the ’70s and ’80s with recordings by Jarreau, Steely Dan and Toto. He produced and engineered all of Jarreau’s ’70s releases, which established the artist as a smooth jazz singer and paved the way for his massive commercial successes in the ’80s. Schmitt engineered and mixed some of Steely Dan’s most enduring sides, including “FM (No Static at All)” and “Deacon Blues.” And for Toto, Schmitt was behind the board on the band’s biggest commercial success, 1982’s “Toto IV.” Schmitt’s recordings for both Steely Dan and Toto resulted in engineering Grammys.
An ‘Unforgettable’ Comeback
Schmitt took a hiatus from recording in the late ’80s following an accident that left him with limited hearing in one ear. By the early ’90s, he had fully recovered and was back in the engineer’s seat for one of the landmark recordings of that decade: Cole’s multiple Grammy-winning “Unforgettable.”
Executive-produced by LiPuma, the album featured material made famous by the singer’s late father, Nat “King” Cole, including the title track “duet” between father and daughter. The massive success of Unforgettable re-established Schmitt as a top-echelon engineer and reaffirmed his gift for capturing orchestras and large bands in their full splendor.
When LiPuma began working with up-and-coming jazz chanteuse Krall in 1994, there was no question Schmitt would be his first call. As a producer/engineer team, LiPuma and Schmitt have recorded every Krall release since 1995. Their latest collaboration, the 2009 Verve title “Quiet Nights,” marked Krall’s ninth album to debut at No. 1 on Billboard’s Jazz Albums chart.
So naturally, Schmitt also got the call when LiPuma was hired to produce McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom. Schmitt recalls, “I’ve been doing this a long, long time and that was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Paul is just the best. He was so cool, he loved to hang out, he loved to tell stories. It was wonderful.”
A Masterful Mentor
As dedicated as Schmitt is to the recording craft, he’s equally passionate about mentoring the next generation of engineers. He’s an enthusiastic participant in workshops, panels, master classes, technical presentations and other educational events for organizations including the Recording Academy, the Audio Engineering Society, Berklee College of Music and French recording school La Fabrique.
Together with a group of like-minded producers and engineers-Ramone, Cherney, Elliot Scheiner, George Massenburg, Chuck Ainlay and Frank Filipetti-Schmitt co-founded the Music Engineering and Technology Alliance (METAlliance), an advocacy group that promotes high technical standards in audio production. One of the group’s core activities is a series of in-depth recording and mixing workshops for aspiring engineers. The group most recently met in 2011 at Avatar Studios in New York, where Schmitt and Ramone were paired up in Studio A to record with jazz artist Kat Edmonson.
Scheiner, who has collaborated with Schmitt on METAlliance sessions, Berklee workshops and other events, says, “It never fails to blow my mind how much you can learn from Al, no matter what stage of your career or your life you’re in. He’s always got something that’s going to open your eyes and ears.”
Schmitt considers these academic programs part of his calling. He’s humble about the gifts he has received and motivated by the possibility that one of his students may embark on a career as long and decorated as his.
“To do what I do for as long as I’ve done it is just a blessing,” Schmitt says. “Not many people have that good fortune. When I get in my car and I’m heading to the studio to work with Diana Krall, I say, ‘Thank you, God.’ It’s a blessing. I love what I do.”