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Al Schmitt, Maestro of Recorded Sound, Dies at 91


Al Schmitt, who as a child watched Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters record music in his uncle’s studio, and who became a Grammy Award-winning engineer for a long list of artists including Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Diana Krall died Monday at his home in Bell Canyon, Calif. He was 91 years old.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Lisa Schmitt.

For over 60 years, Mr. Schmitt has brought his skillful engineering skills and a sixth sense to what made a great song in his collaborations with dozens of musicians and singers. He was renowned for his ability to make subtle but critical changes during a recording session.

Mr. Schmitt’s gentle and insightful advice behind the recording console was a staple, though invisible, in 15 of Ms. Krall’s studio albums.

“That’s how he heard it,” she said over the phone. “Sometimes he would adjust the microphone a bit or put his hand on my shoulder and say, ‘It’s okay’. I don’t know if he was adjusting the mic or me. “

While recording at the Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, she added, “Al was like, ‘Why don’t we bring out the Frank Sinatra stool?’ And you would do the best of your life. “

Mr. Schmitt, whose engineering credits also included Sinatra’s popular “Duets” albums in the 1990s, won 20 Grammys, the most ever for an engineer, and two Latin Grammys. He also won a Trustees Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Recording Academy in 2006.

In 2005, Mr. Schmitt’s contributions to Ray Charles’ duet album “Genius Loves Company” won him five Grammys. (He shared four – for Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Album, and Best Engineering 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 most notably, Jefferson Airplane. In his autobiography, “Al Schmitt on the Record: The Magic Behind the Music” (2018), he describes the zoolike atmosphere during the recording of the Airplane album “After Bathing at Baxter’s” in 1967.

“They came to the studio on motorcycles,” he wrote, “and they got high all the time. They had set up a nitrous oxide tank in the studio, they were rolling joints all night and there was a lot of cocaine. Despite these obstacles, “After Bathing at Baxter’s” was well received and Mr. Schmitt continued to produce the group’s next three albums.

A subdued atmosphere existed in 2015, when Mr. Schmitt designed “Shadows in the Night,” Mr. Dylan’s album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra. Between sessions of more than three weeks, they listened on Mr. Dylan’s little player to Sinatra’s renditions of the songs they were about to record.

Mr Schmitt recalled that they tried not to approach each song “the same way” Sinatra did “but to get a feel for the interpretation,” he told Sound on Sound magazine in 2015. “Then maybe we would talk for a few hours about how we were going to do the song.

He said he was initially not sure that Mr. Dylan, who produced the album under the name Jack Frost, could sing Sinatra’s standards, but that he was delighted with what stood out above. -speakers from the start.

“If there was something slightly off, it didn’t matter because his soul was there and he unveiled the songs 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 around or moving things around and so on.

Albert Harry Schmitt was born in Brooklyn on April 17, 1930. His father, also named Albert, built PT boats at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and later worked for a printing and record processing plant. Her mother, Abigail (Clark) Schmitt, was a housewife.

In his uncle Harry Smith’s Manhattan recording studio, Al discovered his future.

“I loved my mom and dad, but life with Uncle Harry was glamorous,” Mr. Schmitt wrote in his autobiography. (His uncle had changed his last name from Schmitt.)

At first, her father would escort her to the studio on weekends. But at the age of 8, Al was taking the subway alone. He reveled in listening to Crosby, being asked by Orson Welles if he believed in Martians (shortly after Welles’ radio broadcast of a Martian invasion in “War of the Worlds”) and taken to bars by his. uncle and his close friend Les Paul.

His uncle put Al to work – setting up chairs for a big band, cleaning the cables. And Al learned by being there about the proper placement of musicians in a single microphone studio.

After Mr. Schmitt was relieved of his Navy duties in 1950, his uncle helped him find a job as an engineering apprentice at Apex Studios in Manhattan. He had been working there for three months, still unsure of his abilities, when he found himself alone in the studio on a Saturday. He was surprised when members of the Mercer Ellington big band arrived, along with Mr. Ellington’s father, Duke.

Fearing that he would ruin the session, he went to get a notebook with diagrams on how to set up the seats and place the microphones. He apologized to Duke Ellington.

“I’m sorry, that’s a big mistake,” he recalls telling her. “I am not qualified to do this.”

“Well,” said Ellington, “don’t worry, my son. The setup looks correct and the musicians are there.

In three hours, Mr. Schmitt said, he successfully recorded four songs.

Mr. Schmitt worked at other studios in Manhattan before moving west in 1958 to join Radio Recorders in Los Angeles, where Elvis Presley had recorded “Jailhouse Rock” and where Mr. Schmitt in 1961 was the engineer. famous album “Ray Charles and Betty Carter” and the soundtrack to “Breakfast at Tiffany” by Henry Mancini.

Mr. Schmitt was nominated for a Grammy for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but he did not win. Her first Grammy came the following year, for her work on Mancini’s score for the film “Hatari”. (He was also nominated that year for “The Chipmunk Songbook,” by Alvin and the Chipmunks.)

After five years at Radio Recorders, Mr. Schmitt was hired by RCA Studios, where he moved into production. He left RCA after three years to become an engineer and independent producer.

These have been some of the busiest years as an engineer. In 2018, during an interview on “Pensado’s Place,” an online audio engineering series, he recalled a period of two days.

“From 9 to 12, I did Ike and Tina and the Ikettes; we would take a break, and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. I would do Gogi Grant, a singer with a big band, and that night I would do Henry Mancini with a big band. The next day, Bobby Bare, a country record, then a polka record.

“I hated polka music, ”he added,“ but what I was focusing on was getting the best accordion sound you’ve ever heard.

Mr. Schmitt continued to work until recently, helping to shape the sound of artists in the digital age. Her last Grammy, in 2014, was for Mr. McCartney’s “Live Kisses” DVD.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Schmitt is survived by his daughter, Karen Schmitt; his sons, Al Jr., Christopher, Stephen and Nick; eight grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; his sister, Doris Metz; and his brothers, Russell and Richy. Her three previous marriages ended in divorce.

In 2015, Mr. Schmitt received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Speaking at the star’s unveiling, 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, ‘Yes, how did you know that?’ I said, ‘Because your voices sound better than I’ve ever heard them before.’ “



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