Al Schmitt has won 20 Grammy awards, that more any other engineer or mixer. Not only that, he’s also produced or engineered 160 platinum and gold albums!
Over his six-decade career, he’s recorded Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Willie Nelson, Dr. Dre, Usher, Steely Dan, Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley and so many more. I went to the Audio Engineering Society show last week in New York City to check out not only the hardware exhibits, but also to glean some knowledge at the seminars. Al Schmitt’s On the Record talk was the high point of the show.
Right away you could hear it in his voice, how much he loves his job. He’s still working on getting better sound six decades into his career. He credits his success by giving musicians the sound they want. He always listened to what they want, and then tried to give it to them when he recorded or produced rock, pop, jazz, movie scores and classical music albums.
The best part of Al Schmitt’s talk was recalling how that, early in his career he had wound up recording Mercer Ellington’s big band session due to a scheduling mix-up. He had no clue how to record so many musicians at once, so while they were setting up he frantically looked around the studio for notes and diagrams on big-band mike placement. Before the band played a note, he told Mercer’s father Duke Ellington that he’d never done anything like it before, but the jazz legend didn’t seem the least bit concerned. All went well.
Schmitt has published a number of books on the art of recording, including Al Schmitt on Vocal and Instrumental Recording Techniques, which I just recently read. I’m not about to change professions, but learning about how mikes change sound is a continuing fascination for me. Schmitt is always going for a sound that “feels good” as the emotional pull of the music has to be there. If it’s not, the listener will be bored and even the latest technology can’t save a boring recording.
Schmitt says microphones are his favorite things. He went so far as to say they’re beautiful; they are, after all, the first and primary tool for any recording engineer. Schmitt says if he wants a recording to sound a certain way he doesn’t reach for an equalizer, compressor, or high-tech studio gadget. He just picks the right mike to get the sound he wants. Of course, knowing which mike is the right mike — that takes years of experience.
If you’re the kind of audiophile who wonders how engineers perfect a recording’s sound, Schmitt’s book will take at least some of the mystery out of the art of recording music.