Recording Academy event explores the genius and secrets of multi-GRAMMY-winning engineer Al Schmitt
"Trust your ears." That was the key advice and philosophical mantra coming from guest of honor Al Schmitt at Up Close & Personal With Al Schmitt, an event encapsulating his remarkable career as an engineer, mixer and producer.
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Opening remarks were provided by Academy Western Regional Director Lizzy Moore and P&E Wing Sr. Executive Director Maureen Droney, and L.A. Chapter President Tom Sturges delivered well-wishes from some Schmitt colleagues who could not be in attendance, including a heartfelt letter from Schmitt's longtime producing partner Tommy LiPuma and a special audio congratulations from Streisand, with whom Schmitt is currently working. GRAMMY Museum Chief Curator Ken Viste served as the evening's moderator, and when he brought Schmitt to the stage the capacity crowd responded with a standing ovation.
Schmitt has a reputation for being calm, forthright and good-humored in the studio, and was all of those things on this night. He laughingly recalled his initial plunge into the recording world when, as a teenager working at his uncle's New York studio, a scheduling error had him single-handedly running a session for the jazz band of Mercer Ellington, Duke's son, with the Duke right there. "I kept saying to Duke, 'I'm not qualified,'" recalled Schmitt. "And he just kept saying, 'Don't worry, son — we're going to get through this.'"
In a low-key fashion, Schmitt recounted one amazing studio experience after another, and actually drew some gasps of awe from the audience when he described typical work days in which he'd record Ike and Tina Turner in the morning and Mancini at night, or Eddie Fisher in the afternoon and Jefferson Airplane at night. Despite the incredible stylistic range of artists Schmitt has worked with, there are some common elements in a Schmitt-engineered track: an engaging natural presence to the vocals, an organic feel to the rhythm section, and a deft use of strings. But when asked for the secret to his sound, Schmitt shrugged, "There's no secret. Use great omnidirectional microphones and put them in the right place. Done. It's easy."
Special panelists for the evening included Cole and former Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, both of whom achieved some of their greatest successes while working with Schmitt. Lukather marveled at how great a sound Schmitt could pull from his band simply by miking the players well, and without relying on EQ, compression or other standard studio tricks. "Never mind the record," joked Lukather, "Even the headphone mixes sounded phenomenal." Cole took an ambitious step away from her R&B comfort zone when she recorded the jazzy Unforgettable With Love in 1991 with Schmitt, and said his skill and support were crucial. "Working with Al, I felt like I was flying as a vocalist, and he made that seem effortless."
The group was also joined by an unscheduled but very welcome special guest in the person of 10-time GRAMMY-winning guitarist George Benson, who quickly credited Schmitt as having a profound effect on his career in explaining that the engineer's recording of "This Masquerade" from 1976's Breezin' gave him the confidence as a vocalist he'd never had before. Benson also spoke of trying to pin down the elusive secrets of Schmitt's sound. "I brought him to my own studio, and I figured I'd watch everything he touched and write down every setting. He didn't touch anything," Benson said. "And it still sounded beautiful." Benson also probably spoke for many in the crowd when he said to Schmitt, "I really appreciate what you've done for the whole industry. Thank you for being the kind of person you are."
At evening's end, Schmitt willingly fielded questions from the audience, sharing anecdotes about his work with Frank Sinatra on his Duets comeback album, and advising that an engineer should try to stay involved with a project all the way through to the mastering phase. Fittingly, he then returned to the main themes of his life's work: loving and listening. "I've been blessed with so much joy in my life and I'm happy every day I go to work. I love being in the studio," said Schmitt. "I don't think you can do this work unless you really have the passion for it. And if you have the passion — trust your ears. That's what I do."
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based writer who contributes regularly to The Hollywood Reporter and is co-author, with Kyra Thompson, of Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, published by Simon Spotlight Entertainment.)