Farewell, Al Schmitt – Thanks For The Great Interviews

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If you were lucky enough to ever get to work or even hang out with legendary engineer Al Schmitt, you know how much fun he could be. Always one for a great story, Al could have you hanging on the edge of your seat with an insider’s tale that would eventually end in the room bursting into laughter. Yes, he was a fantastic engineer gifted with God’s own ears, but even he would tell you that the secret to his success was the fact that he loved people, and they loved him back. My eyes swell with tears as I write this, since Al has passed on.

Al was the youngest 91 year old you’ve ever met, and that’s what kept him working right to the end. He never thought of himself as old, and as a result, neither did anyone else. He was always free with information no matter what you asked, as he’d seen it all (and used all the gear). There aren’t many people left who started in the days of mono – Al might be the last of them – but that experience was invaluable even in today’s unlimited track world.

I was lucky enough to interview him in depth multiple times and Al always treated it like it was his first interview – eager to please and more than willing to help make it the best it could be. This one for Lynda.com is one of my favorites because I was able to ask questions about his career as a producer (he went from engineer to staff producer at RCA where he wasn’t allowed to engineer, and back to engineer).

Al was on my podcast twice – on Episode #47 and right after his autobiography was published on Episode #239. I so enjoyed doing these.

Surprisingly enough, although I did get to hang out with Al a good bit (even on a 7 day Home Theater cruise once, along with Phil Ramone and Elliot Scheiner – what a crew), we didn’t talk tech all that much. We did in the following interview for my Recording Engineer’s Handbook. It’s a good way to remember that it’s always the ears that come first.

Bobby O: Do you use the same setup every time?

Al Schmitt: I usually start out with the same microphones. For instance, I know that I’m going to immediately start with a tube U 47 about 18 inches from the F-hole on an upright bass. That’s basic for me and I’ve been doing that for years. I might move it up a little so it picks up a little of the finger noise. Now if I have a problem with a guy’s instrument where it doesn’t respond well to that mic then I’ll change it, but that happens so seldom. Every once in a while I’ll take another microphone and place it up higher on the fingerboard to pick up a little more of the fingering. 

The same with the drums. There are times where I might change a snare mic or kick mic, but normally I use a D-112 or a 47 FET on the kick and a 451 or 452 on the snare and they seem to work for me. I’ll use a Shure SM57 on the snare underneath and I’ll put that microphone out of phase. I also mic the toms with 414’s, usually with the pad in, and the hat with a Schoeps or a B&K or even a 451.

What are you using for overhead mics?

I do vary that. It depends on the drummer and the sound of the cymbals, but I’ve been using M 149’s, the Royer 121’s, or 451’s. I put them a little higher than the drummer’s head.

Do you try to capture the whole kit or just the cymbals?

I try to set it up so I’m capturing a lot of the kit, which makes it a little bigger sounding overall because you’re getting some ambience.  

What determines your mike selection?

It’s usually the sound of the kit. I’ll start out with the mics that I normally use and just go from there. If it’s a jazz date then I might use the Royers and if it’s more of a rock date then I’ll use something else.

How much experimentation do you do?

Very little now. Usually I have a drum sound in 15 minutes so I don’t have to do a lot. When you’re working with the best guys in the world, their drums are usually tuned exactly the way they want and they sound great, so all you have to do is capture that sound. It’s really pretty easy. And I work at the best studios where they have the best consoles and great microphones, so that helps.  

I don’t use any EQ when I record. I use the mics for EQ. I don’t even use any compression. The only time I might use a little bit of compression is maybe on the kick, but for most jazz dates I don’t.

How about mic preamps? Do you know what you’re going to use? Do you experiment at all?

I know pretty much what I’m going to use. I have a rack of Neves that I’ll use on the drums.

How do you handle leakage? Do you worry about it?

No, I don’t. Actually leakage is one of your best friends because that’s what makes things sometimes sound so much bigger. The only time leakage is a problem is if you’re using a lot of crap mics. If you get a lot of leakage into them, it’s going to sound like crap leakage, but if you’re using some really good microphones and you’re get some leakage, it’s usually good because it makes things sound bigger.

I try to set everybody, especially in the rhythm section, as close together as possible. I come from the school when I first started where there were no headphones. Everybody had to hear one another in the room, so I still set up everybody up that way. Even though I’ll isolate the drums, everybody will be so close that they can almost touch one another.  

Let’s talk about when you do an orchestra. Are you a minimalist, mic-wise?

Yes, I try to use a few as possible. On some of the dates I’ll just use the room mics up over the conductors head. I’ll have a couple of M 150’s, or M 50’s or even M 149’s set to omnidirectional. I’ll have some spot mics out there, but lots of times I don’t even use those. It works if you have a conductor that knows how to bring out a section when it needs to be louder, so I’ll just try to capture what he’s hearing out there.

For violins I prefer the old Neumann U 67’s. If I’m working on just violin overdubs I’ll use the 67s and keep them in the omni position. I like the way that mic sounds when it’s open and not in cardioid. It’s much warmer and more open this way, but it’s not always possible to do that because if there’s brass playing at the same time then I’ll just have to keep them in the cardioid position on the violins.  

On violas, I like the Royer ribbon mics, the Neumann M 149s or the 67s, depending on availability. On celli I usually use the Neumann KM 84s or M 149s if they’re available. The mics on the violins are about eight or ten feet above them; the same is true for the violas. For the celli, the mics may be 3 or 4 feet above them. 

On harp, I like the Schoeps, the Royer or the Audio Technica 4060. On the French horns, I use the old M 49’s. I use the M 149’s on the rest of the woodwinds.  

Do you have a philosophy in your approach when you’re recording?

I get with the arranger, find out exactly what he’s trying to accomplish, make sure that the artist is happy, and get the best sound I can possibly get on everything. If there’s something that’s near and dear to the artist or arranger, then I’ll work towards pleasing them, although most of the time they’re happy with what I get. Most of the guys that I work with, like Tommy LiPuma or David Foster, concentrate on the actual music and leave the sound up to me nine times out of ten.

I’m always very early on dates. I want to make absolutely sure that everything is working. I don’t just click through mics, I talk into them to make sure that they sound right, then during the session I’m constantly out in the studio moving mics around until I get the sound that I’m happy with. I’ll do this both between songs and every time there is a break.

What’s the hardest thing for you to record?

Getting a great piano sound. The human voice is another thing that’s tough to get. Other than that, things are pretty simple.

The larger the orchestra, the easier it is to record. The more difficult things are the eight and nine piece things, but I’ve been doing it for so long that none of it is difficult any more.  

What mikes do you use on piano?

I’ve been using the M 149s along with these old Studer valve preamps on piano, so I’m pretty happy with it lately. I try to keep them up as far away from the hammers as I can inside the piano. Usually one captures the low end and the other the high end and then I move them so it comes out as even as possible.

How about on vocals?

I try to keep the vocalist about six inches from the windscreen with the windscreen an inch or two from the mic, so the vocalist is anywhere from seven to ten inches from the microphone. That’s usually a good place to start depending on the kind of sound you’re looking for. If the vocalist is trying for a breathier quality, I’ll move the mic up closer.

The microphone I’ll use generally depends on the voice, the song, where it’s being recorded, and the acknowledged favorite mic of the vocalist. For example, Barbra Streisand has been using this particular Neumann M 49 since we did “The Way We Were.” It matches her voice so well that she will not use anything else. This particular mic is a rental, but she knows the specific serial number so that better be the right mic sitting up there when she’s ready to record. That being said, I’ve done 12 song albums where I’ve used three different mics in the recording; one for up-tempo songs, one for medium tempo, and another on the ballads. 

On Diana Krall and Natalie Cole I’ve used a special 67 treated by Klaus Heine into a Martech preamp, then I go into a Summit compressor where I pull about a dB or maybe two. I use very little compression, but I use it for the sound a lot. I also do a lot of hand compression as I record. I always have my hand on the vocal fader and ride the level to tape.

What’s you’re setup for horns?

I’ve been using a lot of 67’s. On the trumpets I use a 67 with the pad in and I keep them in omnidirectional. I get them back about three or four feet off the brass. On saxophones I’ve been using M 149’s. I put the mic somewhere around the bell so you can pick up some of the fingering. For clarinets, the mic should be somewhere up near the fingerboard and never near the bell. 

For flute, I usually use a U67 positioned about three to four feet above the middle of the flute, but I may have to move it around a bit to find the sweet spot. If I want a tight sound, I may have the mic about 18 inches away. I may move it closer to the flautist’s mouth or further down the fingerboard depending on the sound I’m trying to get. For flutes in a section, I usually have to get in a bit closer and more in front of the instrument.  

How do determine the best place in the studio to place the instruments?

I’m working at Capital now and I’ve worked here so much that I know it like the back of my hand so I know exactly where to set things up to get the best sound. It’s a given for me here. My setups stay pretty much the same. I try to keep the trumpets, trombones and the saxes as close as possible to one another so they feel like a big band, and I try to use as much of the room as possible.  

I want to make certain the musicians are as comfortable as they can be with their setup. That means that they have clear sight lines to each other and are able to see, hear and talk to one another. This means having all the musicians as close together as possible. It facilitates better communication among them and that, in turn, fosters better playing.

To get a tight sound on the drums and to assure there’s no leakage into the brass or string mics, I’ll set the drums up in the drum booth. Then, I’ll set the upright bass, the keyboard and the guitar near the drum booth so they all will be able to see and even talk easily to each other. Jazz setups generally involve small rhythm sections, so eye contact is critical. It’s important that the bass player sees the piano player’s left hand. Ideally they should all be close enough to almost be able to reach out and touch each other.

If there’s a vocalist, 90 percent of the time I’ll set them up in a booth. Very few choose to record in the open room with the orchestra, although Frank Sinatra and Natalie Cole come to mind. 

On a large orchestral piece or a score for a motion picture, I set up the other instruments in the room as if I were setting up for a symphony orchestra. The violins are placed to the left, the violas in the center, and to the right will be the celli and the basses. Behind the violas will be the woodwinds and behind them the percussion, with French horns to left of center in the room and the other brass to the right of center.

If I am doing a big band setup, I’ll put the saxophones to the left in the room and the trombones and trumpets to the right center. For a pop record, I will usually overdub these instruments.

If you had only one mic to use, what would it be?

A 67. That’s my favorite mic of all. I think it works well on anything. You can put it on a voice or an acoustic bass or an electric guitar, acoustic guitar, or a saxophone solo and it will work well. It’s the jack of all trades and the one that works for me all the time.

Hopefully Al is engineering God’s big band now, and you know that means it’s sounding better than it ever has. So long, Al. Thanks for everything!

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