Hollywood, CA—Less is most definitely more for Al Schmitt, who recorded Bob Dylan’s latest 30-song release, Triplicate, at Capitol Studios using just seven microphones. And no EQ.
“In the last two and a half years, I’ve done 51 songs with Dylan,” says Schmitt. “We did Shadows in the Night; that was 10. Fallen Angels, in 2015, was 11. Then he came back last year and we did 30 songs in five weeks. We thought it was going to be three more albums.”
Dylan instead released the new recordings as Triplicate, a three-disc set on CD and vinyl.
For these latest sessions, Schmitt and assistant engineer Chandler Harrod set up Capitol’s legendary “Sinatra mic,” a Neumann U47, for Dylan in Studio B, where Sinatra recorded many of his classics. “Studio B has that nice, warm, punchy sound,” observes Schmitt.
“The first day, we were standing out in the middle of the room and Bob said to Chandler, ‘Where do you want me?’ Chandler said, ‘Where do you want to be?’ He said, ‘Here’s good.’ Chandler put the mic right there, and we worked around him.”
Dylan’s five-piece band was arrayed in a semi-circle facing him and the control room. Schmitt, behind Studio B’s 56-input Neve 8068, used barely more than a handful of the desk’s 1073 mic preamps.
Clockwise, from his left, Schmitt says, “I used a Royer R-122 on the rhythm guitar [Dean Parks], a Neumann M149 on the acoustic bass [Tony Garnier, Dylan’s music director], an AKG C24 overhead on the drums [George Recile], an Audio-Technica AT4080 on the electric guitar [Charlie Sexton] and an AT4080 on pedal steel [Donnie Herron]. In the middle of the room, I used a Neumann M49 in omni for ambience.”
Schmitt continues, “He didn’t want to see a lot of mics; that was the word that we got. I had one mic on the bass—I usually use two—and I had it down low and off a little to the side, so it wasn’t in his vision. On the electric and steel guitars, the players’ amplifiers were behind them. I had the mic in between them and the amp, so Bob couldn’t see those mics at all.”
The six musicians played live, with no earphones. “At one point, Bob said, ‘I can’t hear enough rhythm guitar.’ We went out and moved it closer—the way we used to do it.”
Several songs included three-piece horn arrangements featuring various combinations of trombone, trumpet, French horn and saxophone. Schmitt captured the section on a Royer R-122, Neumann U67 and a Neumann M149. “We had the horns in the booth at the side of the studio, but we had the doors wide open so that the band could hear them.”
The bleed between all the mics added to the ambience of the recordings. “It gave things more depth, an open feeling. It sounds a lot bigger than just five pieces.”
The musicians did everything they could to help achieve the right sound, he says. For instance, “I asked the steel player to take his echo off, and he took the EQ off. We used our echo, which is so silky, and no EQ, and it just sounded great.”
The five-week session, produced by “Jack Frost” (Dylan), kept civilized hours: “We did five days a week and took the weekends off. We’d start at three and go to six, then we’d take a two-hour dinner break, come back at eight and go until 10:30, maybe 11.”
Schmitt reports, “There were a lot of first takes. We did maybe three takes at the most, but sometimes we’d go back and pick the first take.”
Unlike his previous Dylan sessions, which went to tape, Schmitt recorded the Triplicate tracks into Pro Tools at 192 kHz. Otherwise, the project was decidedly old school: “No editing. No tuning. No EQ. The only compression was a Fairchild on his vocal. I just tapped it a dB or so; it gave that Fairchild warmth to the voice.
“I grew up making records like this. We didn’t have equalizers or limiters. It’s how I started, so this was fabulous,” he says. “There was hardly any mixing. Most of it was the way it came off the speakers.”
Schmitt did enhance the ambience, though: “I used our great live echo chamber. And I have a Bricasti that I like that I also used.”
Each day of the session, he says, “I would get up, get in the car and say, thank you, God. Bob sounded wonderful; so much heart. And we all had a good time. It doesn’t get any better than that.”