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RE/P Files: An Interview With Al Schmitt

An in-depth discussion with a true recording legend talking about his craft, circa 1983.

By Robert Carr December 22, 2015

From the June 1983 issue of the late, great Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P) magazine, Robert Carr delves into the career of one of the most accomplished and respected producers in the industry.

In 1950, Al Schmitt started work at Apex Recording in New York City, alongside chief engineer Tom Dowd. The studio thrived on sessions for many of the top R&B groups of the Fifties — The Drifters, Clyde McPhatter, and The Clovers.

But by 1958, after stints at several smaller studios in the Big Apple, Schmitt relocated to the West Coast. His first job at Radio Recorders lasted only about a year and a half (long enough to record Elvis’ first post-army album G.I. Blues), at which time he made the jump to the new RCA Studios on Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. Schmitt won his first Grammy there for engineering duties on Henry Mancini’s Hatari album.

Around 1964, the yen to become a producer was so strong that he took a cut in pay to work in RCA’s A&R department. For five years Schmitt didn’t touch a recording console, but his separation from engineering eventually came to an end.

Since 1968, he’s been independent, and during that time has worked with artists such as Barbra Streisand (The Way We Were), Neil Young (On the Beach), Steeley Dan (Aja), Bill Evans, Randy Crawford, and Al Jarreau, and has earned two additional Grammy Awards for George Benson’s Breezing and, most recently, Toto IV, which he shared with co-engineers Greg Ladanyi, Tom Knox, and David Leonard.

Reflecting on his colorful 33-year career seemed like the perfect place to start the interview (conducted in 1983).

R-e/p (Robert Carr): Throughout your career you’ve produced, engineered sessions, and worked in A&R. Are you just engineering now, or still doing projects in other capacities?

Al Schmitt: Basically I’m just engineering, but I’ll do some production if it’s a project I’m really into. I usually like to produce something that’s different and unique, like the Jefferson Airplane, Al Jarreau, and Jackson Brown sessions. But I don’t do production as much anymore.

I’ve found that it’s awfully difficult to engineer and produce at the same time, at least for me. I tried that with Al Jarreau’s fourth album [Fly Home], but there were just too many things to concentrate on. I’d be trying to focus on getting a sound right, and I’d miss something else. So I ended up hiring Hank Cicalo to engineer for me.

Doing both simultaneously could work, but it depends on the artist. If it’s a group, and you have somebody from the group sitting in the control room
with you who can be aware of the feel, or whatever, it helps a great deal. But doing both by myself is too difficult for me anymore.

R-e/p (Robert Carr): Going to the other extreme, what’s it like working with Toto, where everyone in the group is the producer?

Al Schmitt: Toto is great to work with. Whoever writes the tune seems to be the one that’s mostly in charge of what’s going on. David Paich wrote most of the material on Toto IV, so he basically did most of the producing, along with Jeff [Porcarol.] But [guitarist Steve] Lukather had a tremendous amount of input on his own ballads. For the individual performances, like guitar solos or piano solos, it was pretty much left up to the individual player.


R-e/p (Robert Carr): Everybody monitors themselves?

Al Schmitt: Pretty much so, with input from everybody else. They’re such great pros. That’s another aspect to consider. Engineers who are just starting out usually work with musicians who also are just starting out. So it’s tough for a young engineer to get a good drum sound on a drummer who doesn’t have a good-sounding set of drums, or doesn’t have them tuned right. If you can’t get a good sound on Jeff Porcaro, you’re in trouble. The same with Steve Gadd or John Robinson; any of the big session players. Once an engineer becomes established, and begins working with the better musicians, the job becomes a lot easier.

These guys play in the studio everyday — they know what their instruments should sound like. The first time the group runs down a tune, I’ll stay in the studio, and listen so I know exactly what they sound like live. Then when I go into the control room I have a reference to work with, and it’s just a matter of trying to get in the control room what I heard in the studio.

A lot of engineers have their own drum sound that goes from record to record, no matter who the drummer is. I don’t have an “Al Schmitt drum sound.” I try to capture the sound of the drummer in the studio. Another thing: some engineers screw around for three hours trying to get a sound on something. I don’t know of any album that’s ever sold because of a drum sound. I think if the “feel” is there, that ‘s what is important.

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