Al Schmitt, Maestro of Recorded Sound, Is Dead at 91
Al Schmitt, who as a boy watched Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters record music in his uncle’s studio and later became a Grammy-winning engineer for a long list of artists including Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles and Diana Krall died Monday at his home in Bell Canyon, California. He was 91 years old.
His death was confirmed by his wife Lisa Schmitt.
For over 60 years, Mr. Schmitt brought with him skillful technical skills and a sixth sense of what made a song great for his collaboration with dozens of musicians and singers. He was known for his ability to make subtle but critical changes during a recording session.
The gentle, informed guidance from Mr. Schmitt behind the recording console was an essential, if invisible, element in 15 of Ms. Krall’s studio albums.
“That’s how he heard things,” she said over the phone. “Sometimes he would turn the microphone up a bit or put his hand on my shoulder and say, ‘It’s okay. ‘I don’t know if he set the microphone or me. “
During the recording at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, she added, “Al would say, ‘Why don’t we bring out the Frank Sinatra stool?’ And you would make the best of your life. “
Mr. Schmitt, whose technical credits included Sinatra’s popular “Duets” albums in the 1990s, won 20 Grammys, most for an engineer, and two Latin Grammys. In 2006 he won a Trustees Award from the Recording Academy for his life’s work.
In 2005, Mr. Schmitt’s contributions to Ray Charles’ own duet album “Genius Loves Company” earned him five Grammys. (He shared four – for album of the year, record of the year, best pop vocal album, and best engineered album – with others; one – for best surround sound album – he won alone.)
As an occasional producer, his credits include albums by Sam Cooke, Eddie Fisher, Al Jarreau, Jackson Browne, and especially Jefferson Airplane. In his autobiography “Al Schmitt on the record: The magic behind the music” (2018) he described the zoolike atmosphere during the recording of the airplane album “After Bathing at Baxter’s” in 1967.
“They came into the studio on motorcycles,” he wrote, “and they got high all the time. They had a nitrous oxide canister set up in the studio, they would roll joints all night, and there was a lot of cocaine. “Despite these obstacles, After Bathing at Baxter’s was well received and Mr. Schmitt produced the group’s next three albums.
A tamer atmosphere prevailed in 2015 when Mr. Schmitt developed “Shadows in the Night”, Mr. Dylan’s album with songs related to Frank Sinatra. In between sessions over three weeks, they listened to Mr. Dylan’s little gamer Sinatra play the songs they wanted to record.
Mr Schmitt remembered that they tried not to address every song “in the same way” as Sinatra, but rather to “get an idea of the interpretation,” he told Sound on Sound magazine for a couple of hours in 2015 about how we do it would make the song. “
He said he was initially unsure whether Mr. Dylan, who produced the album under the name Jack Frost, could sing the Sinatra standards, but he was thrilled with what came out of the speakers from the start.
“If there was something off the field, it didn’t matter because his soul was there and he laid the songs open and bare them as they are,” he told Sound on Sound. “He also wanted people to experience exactly what was being recorded, so no studio magic or fixing or turning things or moving things and so on.”
Albert Harry Schmitt was born in Brooklyn on April 17, 1930. His father, also known as Albert, built PT boats at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and later worked for a printing and plate processing plant. His mother, Abigail (Clark) Schmitt, was a housewife.
Al discovered his future in his uncle Harry Smith’s recording studio in Manhattan.
“I loved my mother and father, but life with Uncle Harry was glamorous,” wrote Mr Schmitt in his autobiography. (His uncle had changed his last name from Schmitt.)
First, his father accompanied him to the studio on the weekend. But at the age of 8, Al rode the subway alone. He enjoyed listening to Crosby, being asked by Orson Welles if he believed in Martians (shortly after Welles’ country-rattling radio show of a Martian invasion in “The War of the Worlds”) and being taken to bars by his uncle and loved one friend Les Paul.
His uncle made Al work – set up chairs for a big band and cleaned cables. And Al learned from proper placement of musicians in a single mic studio.
After Mr. Schmitt was discharged from the Navy in 1950, his uncle helped him get a job as an apprentice engineer at Apex Studios in Manhattan. He had worked there for three months, still not sure what he could do when he was alone in the studio on a Saturday. He was surprised when the members of the Mercer Ellington Big Band arrived with Mr. Ellington’s father Duke.
Afraid of messing up the meeting, he brought out a notebook with diagrams showing how to set up the seating and set up the microphones. He apologized to Duke Ellington.
“I’m sorry, this is a big mistake,” he recalled. “I am not qualified to do this.”
“Well,” said Ellington, “don’t worry, my son. The setup looks good and the musicians are out there. “
Over three hours, said Mr Schmitt, he had successfully recorded four songs.
Mr. Schmitt worked in other Manhattan studios before moving west in 1958 to switch to Radio Recorders in Los Angeles, where Elvis Presley recorded “Jailhouse Rock” and where Mr. Schmitt was the engineer for the famous 1961 album “Ray Charles and Betty Carter ”and Henry Mancini’s soundtrack“ Breakfast at Tiffany’s ”.
Mr. Schmitt was nominated for a Grammy for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but he didn’t win. His first Grammy came in the next year for his work on Mancini’s score for the film “Hatari”. (That year he was also nominated for “The Chipmunk Songbook” by Alvin and the Chipmunks.)
After five years at Radio Recorders, Mr. Schmitt was hired by RCA Studios, where he switched to production. After three years, he left RCA to become an independent engineer and producer.
Those years were among his busiest as an engineer. In 2018 he remembered a period of two days during an interview on Pensado’s Place, an online series about audio technology.
“From 9 to 12 I did Ike and Tina and the Ikettes; We took a break and from 2 to 5 I did Gogi Grant, a singer with a big band, and that night I did Henry Mancini with a big orchestra. The next day, Bobby Bare, a country record and then a polka record.
“I hated polka music,” he added, “but I would focus on getting the best accordion sound anyone has ever heard.”
Mr. Schmitt continued to work until recently, helping to shape the sound of artists well into the digital age. His last Grammy in 2014 was for Mr. McCartney’s DVD “Live Kisses”.
In addition to his wife, his daughter Karen Schmitt survived Mr. Schmitt. his sons Al Jr., Christopher, Stephen, and Nick; eight grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; his sister Doris Metz; and his brothers Russell and Richy. His last three marriages ended in divorce.
In 2015, Mr. Schmitt received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
At the unveiling of this star, record producer Don Was said Steve Miller recently played him several new songs.
“I listened for a minute and said, ‘Did Al Schmitt record this?'” Mr. Was said. “He was surprised and said, ‘Yeah, how did you know?’ I said, “Because your singing sounds better than I’ve ever heard them before.”