Al Schmitt is one of the most renowned recording engineers in popular recorded music. With more than 20 Grammy awards to his credit, Al Schmitt has worked on the albums of many artists including Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, Jackson Browne, Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young, Ray Charles, Henry Mancini, Diana Krall, George Benson and the last two studio albums of Frank Sinatra. In this inside look, we get to meet the man behind some of the greatest recordings in recorded music – Al Schmitt.
I want you to take us back a little bit. What was life like when you were growing up?
Well, I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. And we were very, very poor. My uncle, my father’s brother, had a recording studio in New York City, called Harry Smith Recording. So my escape from being poor was to get on a subway when I was 7, 8 years old and go over to Manhattan and spend the weekend with him. He didn’t have any children. He was not only my uncle, he was also my godfather. So, he treated me like I was his son. So I got to spend every weekend. He had a beautiful apartment on Riverside Drive, he had a beautiful car, he just lived well. He took me to great restaurants, he took me to sporting events, and I got to hang out in the studio all weekend, which is when I fell in love with music and recording.
Take us back to that day. The first time you went into a recording studio; what are your memoires? What was exciting about it?
Oh boy, my memories. He was recording a big band. I would remember when they would play it down and he would have the musicians move around in different places so they could get a better balance. I also remember he made all the musicians take their shoes off because you could hear their foot tapping on the wood floor. Just all the equipment that was there, laves and that kind of stuff. I had never seen that kind of stuff, so I was totally I awe.
What is the most important thing for a recording engineer to do or to keep in mind when making a recording?
The most important thing is to remember that the music comes first. You’ve got to get yourself out of the way, get your ego out of the way. It’s all about the artist and the music you’re recording. I think that’s the most important thing.
What do you think about people who record albums in their homes?
Well, yeah that happens a lot. Unfortunately, some of them are successful, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they sound good. A lot of the stuff that’s being done in guy’s homes are, uh… they qualify as a recording, but they’re not top notch kind of music. If you’re trying to capture sounds, really capturing sounds, what a good instrument sounds like, you’re not going to do that in your bedroom. You can get maybe a decent sound on a voice, but it’s not the same as if you’re in a beautiful room. Certainly you can’t put a bunch of strings in your bedroom, or a big band or any of those things so there are a lot of limitations of recording at home. I don’t have a studio at home, and I don’t think I would ever have one. I’m such a perfectionist at what I do that I would be getting up in the middle of the night and going into the studio to make sure I had enough bass on things or whatever.
How did you meet Phil Ramone?
In New York, I met Phil a while back. We got introduced to one another. Whenever really got close. He called me one day, he said, “hey Al, are you busy?” So and so, he gave me a couple of dates, couple of weeks. It was like three weeks. These dates. And I said, well let me check. I checked my book, and I said, “no I’m cool Phil.” He said, let me preface this. Before this, I did any interview for Mix Magazine or one of those magazines, and someone said do you have any regrets regarding your career? And I said, I have one regret. I never got to work with Frank Sinatra. And so anyways, back to the Phil Ramone story, so he calls me and I got the time for him and we’re talking, chatting, asking what my fee was and I told him and he kind of hesitated for a minute and then he said, “okay, okay, okay.” He gave me my rate. Just before we hung up I said, by the way, who is the artist? He said, Frank Sinatra. I said, jeez Phil, if you told me that up front, I would’ve done it for nothing. He said to me, yeah well if you asked me for more I would’ve given it to you. Then Phil and I became extremely close friends. We were almost like brothers, the last 20 years of his life. We spent a lot of time together, made a lot of records together. After the Sinatra record, he used to call me all the time when he came out to California to record.
When he told you about the Sinatra project, and after you got over the excitement, what were your first thoughts?
Haha! Well, when I was a kid I used to play hooky from school to go to the Paramount Theater in New York to see Sinatra. Sinatra was my idol when I was a kid. I loved everything he did. The excitement, of thinking oh my God I’m finally going to meet this guy and be in the same room with him, it was beyond words for me. It’s like meeting Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio or somebody like that, Jackie Robinson.
In course of working on the duets project, did you have a lot of interactions with Mr. Sinatra?
Oh yeah, quite a bit. At one point he asked me what I did. I said to him, “well I’m the guy in the booth making you sound good.” He said, “keep it up kid.”
What was it like to work with on a professional level?
For me, he was amazing. He was very professional. You know the first day he came in, he sang for about five minutes and he said, not tonight guys. His voice just didn’t have it. He was just kind of hoarse, so that was it. The next night he came in and he just killed it. It was great. We did take, 1 take, 1 take. We did nine songs in maybe a 3 ½, 4 hour period, I don’t know something like that. The only time he ever stopped is if the tempo wasn’t right for him. He was so professional it was ridiculous. He knew exactly what to do, he had great microphone technique. He was wonderful.
Is there a track from either “Duets” volume 1 or 2 that you’re especially proud of?
Oh boy, I don’t know, I think the one from Luther Vandross I think. That was exceptionally good. “Lady was a Tramp,” I think. That may be one. They were all great. The arrangements were great, the band was good, we got to use both rooms at Capitol Studio A and studio B, and we had all the strings in B, and we had it wide open but we had some separation there so that made it great. It was just a great project to do and everybody was so professional. It was Hank Cattaneo, who was Sinatra’s right hand guy at the time. He was great, he was so helpful. Everybody was excited about getting this done. Everybody knew it was his last project and we wanted it all to be a great one. When Frank started to sing and it sounded so good, and I looked at Phil and Phil looked at me. We both had these shit-eatin’ grins on our face, and his manager, Sinatra’s manager at the time was right next to Phil, and we were all just glowing. It was just, “oh boy here we go.” Then it was just a matter of capturing everything.
All of the duets were done with the other singer that was joining Sinatra. They weren’t in the same room. Why was it done that way?
You know what? I think some cases they didn’t even know who was going through he duet with Frank on these songs. So Frank sang the songs down from top to bottom, like there was nobody going to do a duet. That was it. He just sang it down like he would normally sing the song. It was up to Phil Ramone to figure out who they were going to get to do it and how they were going to do it.
I see. A moment ago you mentioned Capitol Studios. Tell us about that room. As a sound recording engineer, what is Capitol Studios like to work in?
It’s incredible. It’s my favorite place to work in right now and it has been for so many years. I’ve done so many records. It’s almost like home to me. I know the room so well now, I know it like the back of my hand. The room just sounds great. They have great equipment. They have the greatest maintenance staff. Everything works all the time, and if something does go wrong, it’s fixed in five minutes. I’ve been in studios where things go down and an hour goes by before you’re back on again and you’ve got a room full of musicians. It just takes the wind out of your sails. That never happens at Capitol. It’s an amazing room. And it’s a versatile room, you can do all kind of things in that room. I just love it.
One recording artist who did an album at Capitol Studios that you mixed the album for, Robert Davi, the album “On the Road to Romance.” What are your memories from that project?
Oh, those are all fond memories. I remember when they were recording it. Actually, they were recording in studio A, and I was doing something else in C. I would go in and say hello and just kind of listen for a while. It was going really well. I think Phil got involved with Robert on vocals and helped him with his vocals and get the vocals done. I was just really blessed and lucky to mix the record. It was a fun, fun record to mix. Robert was a great, great guy. He’s a great actor, and I remember him from you know the James Bond movies and those things. So it was just really fun for me to meet him. And how well he sang those Sinatra things! He knew Sinatra inside and out. It was great. It was a really fun project to do; everybody had a really great time doing it. There was no tension. It was just great.
What do you think about him as a vocalist?
Robert? Oh, Robert he’s a terrific vocalist. He had classical training when he was young. He could’ve been an opera singer. He’s terrific. Just a matter of having the right person. Unfortunately, Phil isn’t around anymore, but Phil was the perfect guy for Robert. Phil is a gentle guy, and an incredibly knowledgeable guy. So I think Robert can get somebody like that to guide him through the vocals. He’s terrific.
One of the albums you worked on, another album of many classic, classic songs: the Paul McCartney album, “Kisses on the Bottom.”
Hahah, so what’s your question?
First of all, what made you chuckle?
That was one of the most fun projects I’ve ever done in my life. Now, after I did Sinatra, someone said to me, “God. Is there anybody else you want to work with?” Well, there’s a few people now. Paul McCartney is one, Bob Dylan is one. So, here I am, doing Paul McCartney. And I have to tell you, I worked with a lot of people. Paul McCartney is one of the nicest, most professional people I’ve ever worked with. He comes in the control room, he introduces himself to everybody—“Hi. I’m Paul McCartney” – no kidding. And he’s just amazing! He’s an incredible musician. We were scuffling along trying to find the right way to do these things because he had never done them before except they were songs that his parents and his relatives would sing. Once he found it, and he was the one, boy he just locked it. That was it. It was just a ball. And then I got to work at Capitol with him and I worked at Avatar in New York which is another incredible studio, it’s one of my favorite studios. It’s my favorite in New York, obviously. And then I got to work in Studio B at Abbey Road, over Studio 2, which is where they did all The Beatles records with Paul. For us to be there, and Paul telling us stories about how they made their records—it was just an unbelievable time, and one of my all time favorite records.
It’s interesting that so many of these artists you mention – McCartney, Bob Dylan, Robert Davi – are doing these songs that are from the ‘40s, and sometimes ‘20s, ‘30s, early ‘50s: the American Songbook. Why do you think these singers are so attracted to that music?
Wow. Well one of the things: the songs are so great. Those songs, they’re just American classics. Tell me the song that was number one in the United States two, three years ago. Does anybody sing that song now? Is anybody covering that song? But no, but those songs written by all those guys, Rodgers & Hammerstein, all of them, Cole Porter, those songs, people are still recording and they were done 50, 60 years ago and people are still recording them, because they’re great song. They tell stories. They’re great songs to sing because there’s an emotion to them. It’s amazing. And I love the fact that both Sinatra and McCartney got the essence of the song; they knew the story they were singing. They weren’t’ singing words; it was telling a story. I think that’s why people keep doing them. And I just did that record with Dylan, and God that was incredible! And he’s been telling he’s been wanting to do that for 40 years. To be able to do that with him was—that was another thrill, another great thrill in my life.
Tell us about meeting Mr. Dylan the first time. When did you meet him?
I met him at the studio when he came in. we recorded at Capitol in Studio B. We were in the room, the main recording room, and he said, “the room sounds good.” And I said, “Yeah this is a really nice room.” Nat Cole did a lot of his stuff there and all.” So he said, my assistant at that time Chandler Harrod was with me. So he said, “Well, where would I sing?” It sounds good right here. Chandler said, “how about right here?” And that’s where he put the mic stand, and that was it. And then we just talked about how we wanted to do things and the best way to go about it. We were off and running. The first day, he’s a very private guy. We would talk, but there wasn’t a lot of conversation going on, but at the end, when he knew I was on his side and to do the best for him, he started to loosen up. At the end of the first day, we had two or three things that we did that were really, really nice. I gave him a big hug. I don’t think people do that to him too often, but I just put my arms around him, gave him a big hug. And he kind of stiffened for a second and the next thing I know he relaxed. There was a big smile on his face, and that was it. From then on, it was a walk in the park. It was just so much fun. And he would often say, “Well, what does Al think? Al, what do you think of that?” And then so forth. So I became a really big part of making that record. It was a joy for me, I had a great time and a great admiration for Bob Dylan. I’ve always been a fan. Anybody that could write “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Blowing in the Wind,” those kinds of things. I was always a fan. But to get to actually be quite intimate with him was really pretty great.
I’ve read that he listened to the recordings of Sinatra sing these songs prior to singing them himself.
Yeah, that’s correct. He listened to the original recordings that Frank did in the ‘40s and ‘50s. and he would listen, and not to do the song like Frank, but to get an essence of how Frank did it and what the song meant and all, because you know, Frank’s things were done with a big band or with a large orchestra, and we were in there with four guys, five guys. He made them his own, that’s for sure.
Was there a song on “Shadows in the Night” that you thought he really, really shined on in particular?
Oh God, there was so many. One of my favorites—just a great song. “Don’t Try to Change Me Now,” that’s one I really liked a lot. But God, there’s just so many great ones. Out of the 10 songs, 5 of them were my favorite. And they were songs that I loved, that were around when I was a kid growing up. I knew the songs well because I had recorded so many of them with other people. It was great. And we had great working. He would commit at three, and we would work from three to six, and then we’d take a two hour dinner break, and we worked from 8 to maybe 10:30, and that was it. We worked Monday through Friday, we took the weekend off. It was great, just great. And he was just a kind, considerate guy. It was cool.
Do you think that he planned the fact that this album was released on the centenary year of Frank Sinatra’s birth, 100 years later? Do you think that was planned or do you think that was just a coincidence?
I don’t know, he’s wanted to do this for a long time, so I don’t know. I can’t get into his head and doubt what was on Dylan’s mind, but it’s great that it came like that, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s kind of magical.
And I understand you recently worked on an album that’s going to be coming out soon.
An incredible album, with Pat Williams, a big band album with Pat Williams, the arrangement, composer. It is a sensational sounding record album. One of the best records I’ve ever made, sound-wise. It’s just incredible. So that won’t be out until September, and the name of the album is “Home Suite Home.”and they’re all original songs. Frank Sinatra, Jr. sings on it, Tierney Sutton sings on it, Patti Austin sings on it. The rest are instrumental cards, and it’s just a fabulous record.
What is the best thing about being Al Schmitt?
Hahah! The best thing about being Al Schmitt; I have a wonderful family, I have so many wonderful friends. To be honest, I don’t think I have an enemy in the world. I think that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s not a good thing. Maybe that says something about me that shouldn’t. But I am totally in love with what I do. You know, I get in the car, I get out in the freeway, drive out. The first thing I do is say, “thank you God for giving me this opportunity.” I’m just blessed. I go to work, I love what I do, I’m blessed I do it well. That’s it. And I’m still busy. I’ve been doing this for 50 years and I’m still able to do it and still go to work and I smile all the time. If it’s somebody that gives me a bad time, I just don’t work with them anymore. Nobody does that to me anymore, I get a lot of respect, so it’s great.
What do you want to say to anyone?
Well, what I really want to say to the world and to everybody that’s listening to this is be kind to all living things. There’s too much killing in the world and we have to stop. The other thing that I would say to anybody that wants to be doing what I’m going or wants to be in the music business – follow your heart. Don’t give up. No matter what you’re doing, if you’re hired on to make coffee, make the best coffee ever. If you’re hired on to clean the studio, make it the cleanest studio ever. Just do the best you can at whatever you’re doing, and that will translate into everything you do from then on. Do absolutely the best you can.
Who is Al Schmitt?
Al Schmitt is a kid that grew up in Brooklyn, played stick ball in the streets, ringolevio, had a bunch of friends growing up, loved music from the first time I heard my first record. I don’t know. I think an all around general good guy.
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