Pictured (l-r) are Steve Lukather,
George Benson, Al Schmitt, Ken
Luftig Viste and Natalie Cole.
Photo courtesy of The Recording
Academy/Photograph by Maury
Phillips/WireImage.com © 2009.
Santa Monica, CA (June 2, 2009)–The Recording Academy’s Los Angeles Chapter and Producers & Engineers Wing recently presented an exclusive and intimate Up Close & Personal interview with legendary engineer Al Schmitt.
Schmitt, the recipient of 17 Grammy Awards, two Latin Grammy Awards and a Recording Academy Trustees Award, was interviewed by Grammy Museum Chief Curator Ken Luftig Viste, and regaled an audience of more than 200 with stories spanning his career and life in the recording business.
Joined onstage by Grammy Award winners Natalie Cole, George Benson and Steve Lukather, all artists with whom Schmitt has worked, the audience was given insight into Schmitt’s philosophy of life, work style and how he has stayed busy and relevant throughout his long career.
The event was held at the Grammy Museum’s SoundStage, a fitting location, as Schmitt himself is a veritable one-man “museum.” His first Grammy came for Henry Mancini’s Hatari soundtrack, and his most recent was awarded this past year for his engineering role on Natalie Cole’s Still Unforgettable album. As a producer, engineer or mixer, he has worked on more than 150 gold and platinum albums for artists ranging from Sam Cooke and Steely Dan to Jefferson Airplane and Barbra Streisand.
Opening remarks were delivered by Recording Academy West Regional Director Lizzy Moore and P&E Wing Senior Executive Director Maureen Droney. The Los Angeles Chapter President Tom Sturges then 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 and video congratulations from Streisand, with whom Schmitt is currently working.
Schmitt entertained the audience with anecdotes from his career. He laughingly told of 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 Mercer Ellington, Duke’s son, with the Duke right there. “I kept saying to Duke, ‘I’m not qualified.’ And he just kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, son–we’re going to get through this,'” Schmitt recalled.
Schmitt recounted one amazing studio experience after another, actually drawing some gasps of awe from the audience as he described typical workdays in which he’d record Ike and Tina Turner in he morning and Henry Mancini in the evening, or Eddie Fisher in the afternoon and Jefferson Airplane after hours. Despite the wide 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 skillful use of strings. 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 Natalie 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 with the jazzy Unforgettable With Love in 1991, and she notes that Schmitt’s 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, 10-time Grammy-winning guitarist George Benson, who quickly credited Schmitt as having a profound effect on his career, as the engineer’s recording of “This Masquerade” from 1976’s Breezin‘ gave him 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,” recalled Benson. “He didn’t touch anything, 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 the end of the evening, Schmitt 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. 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 do have the passion, trust your ears. That’s what I do.”
The Recording Academy
Producers & Engineers Wing