Hollywood, CA—Capitol Studios hosted a DVD launch party at the end of July for The Art of Recording a Big Band, starring Al Schmitt. The documentary, directed by Shevy Shovlin and available from Hal Leonard, captures a two-day recording session in the facility’s legendary Studio A with the 19-piece Chris Walden Big Band.
The original session, in August, 2013, was a masterclass by Schmitt and Capitol staff engineer Steve Genewick, his long-time collaborator, that attracted nearly two dozen engineers and mixers from across the country and around the world. “We were just doing it to show people how we set up and record a big band,” Schmitt recalled, “but someone decided to film it, and Shevy, with his genius, put this thing together.”
Don Was, president of Blue Note Records, had the unenviable task of introducing a man who needs no introduction at the launch event, but actually had plenty to say about the 22-time Grammy Award winner. “His status among record makers is absolutely unparalleled. He’s the greatest of all-time,” said Was.
Was recounted an experience he had with Schmitt in Capitol’s Studio B, another jazz big band session, that reinforced the central message of the new DVD. Spoiler alert: It’s all about the microphones. “It took Al about eight minutes to get a sound on everybody,” said Was. Listening back to the first take, he continued, “Not only was all the excitement in the room present, coming back through the speakers, but there was this incredible depth and dimension. It was like putting on 3D glasses.
“I looked down at the board…There’s no EQ, no cables running everywhere. We mixed it the next day; it took about 20 minutes. It sounded even better than the night before. It was absolutely mystical. Then I realized—he was mixing when he put the microphones down.” As Schmitt notes in the film, when he first started out, in the early 1950s (he won his first Grammy in 1962), there was no equalization on mixing consoles, which meant that the engineer had to get the desired sound through microphone choice and positioning. “If you make records, I think you know how wild a thing that is,” said Was.
As Genewick had predicted at the time of the original session, a clip included in the documentary, “We probably won’t use an EQ on this whole record.” Among the microphones used to record Walden’s band were RCA ribbons, vintage Neumanns and various models from Royer Labs on the brass and woodwinds. Although, as Schmitt observes in the documentary, Capitol’s 72-input Neve 88RS console has great sounding preamps, he achieved the sounds he wanted by pairing the mics with a variety of outboard preamps, including Neve 1081, 1081R and 31081 models as well as Studer 1019s, Great River and custom Upstate Audio units.
Schmitt didn’t have to look far for a big band to record. As Walden explained in his remarks at the DVD launch, he moved to Los Angeles from Germany about 20 years ago. “Shortly after I arrived, I had to do a big band recording for a German project. I booked Capitol Studios, and the engineer was Al Schmitt. That set the standard. When I started my big band, there was no question who I would call to record it. I’m still working with Al. When Al asked me if I could provide the big band for this project, I couldn’t have been happier.”
In exchange for giving up a weekend, Walden and his band of first-call session musicians came away with a 12-track CD, Full-On!, released on Origin Records. The masterclass sessions also included contributions from a number of vocalists, including Walden band regulars Tierney Sutton and Courtney Fortune.
Sponsors of the original sessions included Audio-Technica, Delta H Design, Mojave Audio, Royer Labs, Tube-Tech and Vintage King Audio. Several of the companies contributed product giveaways and technology demonstrations at the time.
The Art of Recording a Big Band