Al Schmitt, Maestro of Recorded Sound, Is Dead at 91
Al Schmitt, who as a boy watched Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters record music in his uncle’s studio, and who went on to become a Grammy Award-winning engineer for a long roster of artists including Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Diana Krall, died on Monday at his home in Bell Canyon, Calif. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Lisa Schmitt.
For more than 60 years, Mr. Schmitt brought deft engineering skills and a sixth sense about what made a song great to 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, informed guidance from behind the recording console was an essential, if unseen, element in 15 of Ms. Krall’s studio albums.
“It’s how he heard things,” she said by phone. “Sometimes he’d adjust the mic a bit or put his hand on my shoulder and say, ‘It’s OK.’ I don’t know if he was adjusting the mic or me.”
While recording at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, she added, “Al would say, ‘Why don’t we bring out the Frank Sinatra stool?’ And you’d do the best take in 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’s own duets album, “Genius Loves Company,” brought him five Grammys. (He shared four — for album of the year, record of the year, best pop vocal album and best engineered album — with others; one — for best surround-sound album — he won on his own.)
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 described the zoolike atmosphere during the recording of the Airplane’s album “After Bathing at Baxter’s” in 1967.
“They would come riding into the studio on motorcycles,” he wrote, “and they were getting high all the time. They had a nitrous oxide tank set up in the studio, they’d be rolling joints all night, and there was a lot of cocaine.” In spite of those obstacles, “After Bathing at Baxter’s” was well received, and Mr. Schmitt went on to produce the group’s next three albums.
A tamer atmosphere existed in 2015, when Mr. Schmitt engineered “Shadows in the Night,” Mr. Dylan’s album of songs associated with Frank Sinatra. Between sessions over three weeks, they listened on Mr. Dylan’s small player to Sinatra’s renditions of the songs they were about to record.
Mr. Schmitt recalled that they were trying not to approach each song “in the same way” that Sinatra did “but to get an idea of the interpretation,” he told Sound on Sound magazine in 2015. “We then would talk for maybe a couple of hours about how we were going to do the song.”
He said that he had initially been uncertain that Mr. Dylan, who produced the album under the name Jack Frost, could sing the Sinatra standards, but that he was thrilled by what emerged from the speakers from the start.
“If there was something slightly off-pitch, it didn’t matter because his soul was there and he laid the songs open and bare the way they are,” he told Sound on Sound. “He also wanted people to experience exactly what was recorded, hence no studio magic or fixing or turning things or moving things around and so on.”
Albert Harry Schmitt was born in Brooklyn on April 17, 1930. His father, also named Albert, made PT boats at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and later worked for a printing company and for a record processing plant. His mother, Abigail (Clark) Schmitt, was a homemaker.
In his Uncle Harry Smith’s recording studio in Manhattan, Al discovered his future.
“I loved my mother and father, but life with Uncle Harry was glamorous,” Mr. Schmitt wrote in his autobiography. (His uncle had changed his surname from Schmitt.)
At first his father escorted him on weekends to the studio. But by age 8, Al was taking the subway on his own. He reveled in listening to Crosby, being asked by Orson Welles if he believed in Martians (soon after Welles’s nation-rattling radio broadcast of a Martian invasion in “The War of the Worlds”) and being 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 cables. And Al learned from being there about the proper placement of musicians in a one-microphone studio.
After Mr. Schmitt was discharged from the Navy in 1950, his uncle helped him get a job as an apprentice engineer at Apex Studios in Manhattan. He had been working there for three months, still not certain of his capabilities, when he was left alone in the studio on a Saturday. He was taken aback when the members of Mercer Ellington’s big band arrived, along with Mr. Ellington’s father, Duke.
Fearful of fouling up the session, he fetched a notebook with diagrams about how to set up the seating and place the microphones. He apologized to Duke Ellington.
“I’m sorry, this is a big mistake,” he recalled telling him. “I’m not qualified to do this.”
“Well,” Ellington said, “don’t worry, son. The setup looks fine and the musicians are out there.”
Over 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 for both the celebrated album “Ray Charles and Betty Carter” and Henry Mancini’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” soundtrack.
Mr. Schmitt was nominated for a Grammy for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but he did not win. His first Grammy came the next year, for his 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 independent engineer and producer.
Those years were among his busiest as an engineer. In 2018, during an interview on “Pensado’s Place,” an online series about audio engineering, he remembered one two-day period.
“From 9 to 12 I did Ike and Tina and the Ikettes; we’d take a break, and from 2 to 5 I’d be doing Gogi Grant, a singer with a big band, and that night I’d be doing Henry Mancini with a big orchestra. The next day, Bobby Bare, a country record, and then a polka record.
“I hated polka music,” he added, “but what I’d concentrate on was getting the best accordion sound anybody ever heard.”
Mr. Schmitt kept working until recently, helping to shape artists’ sound well into the digital era. His most recent Grammy, in 2014, was for Mr. McCartney’s DVD “Live Kisses.”
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. His previous three marriages ended in divorce.
In 2015, Mr. Schmitt received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“I listened for a minute and I said, ‘Did Al Schmitt record this?’” Mr. Was said. “He was taken aback and said, ‘Yes, how did you know?’ I said, ‘Because your vocals sound better than I ever heard them before.’”