RIP Al Schmitt

Apr 28, 2021

The great Al Schmitt has passed away at the age of 91. A few years ago, I was hanging out with Marty Stuart’s band at Capitol Studios in Hollywood. Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s band was there producing the band. Hanging In the hallway with the Marty Stuart guys, we were suddenly surrounded by the guys in Bob Dylan’s band, who were recording in Studio B, next to where Marty and his band were recording (no, I never met Bob, I had to leave to go pick up my kid from school, and supposedly Bob showed up about 30 minutes after I left). I was completely nonplussed by all these famous musicians, until a little old man walked by in the hallways. “That’s Al Schmitt,” Kenny Vaughan whispered to me. I was speechless, and had that feeling that 13-year old girls get when in the presence of their favorite boy bands.

It was AL SCHMITT! Quite possibly the most famous and respected recording engineer of all time. The man recorded Sam Cooke, Henry Mancini, Elvis Presley, surf band The Astronauts, Al Hirt, Jefferson Airplane, and countless others, with a career that just kept going through the 70s, 80s, 90s and the 2000s (a lot of stuff outside my field of interest, but gold records like Steely Dan, Diana Krall, Natalie Cole, Toto, Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan). The guy was a walking discography!

After missing my opportunity to meet him that day (literally the only time I can remember where I was too star-struck to even speak), I made up an excuse to interview Al a few years ago for a recording magazine, which he agreed to. I met him at Capitol Studios, where he was doing something with Don Was, and picked his brain for two hours in a small break room. His eyes lit up when I asked about his early years.

In the early 1950s in New York City, he hung out at his uncle’s recording studio and learned the craft (“My uncle was good friends with Les Paul. I was ten years old, and hanging out in bars while my Uncle and Les Paul drank beers and told stories.”). After learning quite a bit from his uncle and another recording legend, Tom Dowd, Schmitt began engineering his own sessions in New York City while still in his teens. When he was given the opportunity to move to Los Angeles in 1958, he jumped at the chance, becoming a staff engineer at Radio Recorders in Hollywood.

The stuff that Al told me about those years at Radio Recorders was absolute GOLD, absolutely essential things that anyone interested in the old days of analog recording would kill to know (one famous example: Al was the first engineer on the West Coast to put a microphone on a kick drum. Until that point, drum kits were usually recorded with one simple microphone over or near the kit. When Al was recording a jazz band and heard the drummer doing syncopated rhythms on his kick drum, Al put a mic on the kick. Soon thereafter, it became a standard practice).

At Radio Recorders, Al recorded Henry Mancini and started winning Grammys (Al would go on to win 23 Grammy awards, the most ever given to a recording engineer—he’s also the only recording engineer with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame). He started working for RCA Records in the early 1960s, including a session for Elvis’s movie G.I. Blues, Sam Cooke, and many other RCA recording artists.

The stuff that Al told me about those years at Radio Recorders was absolute GOLD, absolutely essential things that anyone interested in the old days of analog recording would kill to know.

I picked Al’s brain hard about Sam Cooke as much as I could in our short time together. The thing that I got out of talking to Al was that Sam was his good friend and that he was still in shock all these years later that Sam had been killed (“I saw him right before it happened, we were at Martoni’s, he was hanging out with my wife and I. Then a few hours later, I got a phone call in the middle of the night. Sam had been shot and killed. I couldn’t believe it.”). Al talked about the joy that Sam Cooke brought into a room when he walked in, and the joy that came through in his music.

When RCA built their new recording studio building at 6363 Sunset Blvd, Al became the chief engineer there for RCA artists. One of those artists was the Colorado surf band The Astronauts, who recorded several flawless albums with Al at the helm (“You must be a guitar guy. Guitar guys are always driving me crazy with the Astronauts. When I met Skunk Baxter, that’s all he wanted to talk about.” My response: “Well, Al, those are literally perfect recordings.”)

I asked Al if he had ever engineered any Rolling Stones sessions when they recorded at 6363 Sunset in the mid-1960s: (“No, that was Dave Hassinger. But I’ll tell you a story. One evening after the Stones left the building, Dave said to me, ‘I have something you gotta hear, Al.’ I went into his studio room and he still had the tape up on the machine. He pressed play, and it was “Satisfaction.” The Stones had just recorded it. We both looked at each other and knew it was going to be a huge hit.”)

Later, Al engineered records by The Jefferson Airplane. Al told me a story about how the band tried repeatedly to “dose” him with LSD, until finally they succeeded, something he was still pissed off about. I asked him what he thought of that generation of late 1960s rock acts: (“All of a sudden I was having to babysit these young kids who did a lot of drugs and took six months to make a record. I was a big band guy. I liked making records with guys like Al Hirt, and recording horns. To me, that was fun. Recording bands like the Airplane was a lot of work.”)

I picked Al’s brain for as long as I could, but eventually he had to go do his session. He told me he was recording a big band in Studio A that evening, and I watched as he surveyed the array of microphones that the assistant engineer had set up for the 30 or so musicians that would be arriving in an hour. He looked at one Neumann microphone, high up on a stand, and brought it down to adjust the angle slightly. I swear, it was like watching Pablo Picasso mixing colors before he began to paint. Ultimately, I never published my interview, because a few months after I spoke with Al, he released two books, both of which I would call ESSENTIAL if you’re interested in sound engineering or recording. Many of the things he told me about when I interviewed him are in these books, and much, much more. The books made my interview with him irrelevant, but I was really grateful that I had been given the gift of a few hours with the man.

The word “legend” gets thrown out a lot. I dare you to go listen to Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” soundtrack, Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me,” Al Hirt’s “Java,” The Astronauts “Baja,” The Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers,” Neil Young’s “On The Beach,” George Benson’s “Breezin’,” Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable,” Steely Dan’s “Aja,” Ray Charles’ “Genius Loves Company,” and Bob Dylan’s recent triple album “Triplicate,” and when you realize that all these recordings were made by one guy, and these just represent a tiny sliver of his recorded output since the 1950s, and that he was still engineering at the highest level in the business at age 90 (!!), then you begin to realize: Al Schmitt is the sort of rare individual that the word “legend” doesn’t even begin to cover. Rest in peace, sir, and thank you for all the music that you gave the world. What a guy!