Mastering engineer Peter Doell looked out at the crowd that usually gathers for his weekly “Audio Lunch Bunch” gatherings at a restaurant in Burbank, CA, which, this week, was markedly larger than usual. “There are probably no records being made anywhere in L.A. right now. Everybody’s here!” Doell said as a means of introduction.
Indeed, on April 17, about 120 recording professionals from around town gathered to celebrate the birthday of one of the most beloved figures in music recording, multiple-multiple Grammy-winning engineer Al Schmitt.
“Al is the godfather of the pack,” states mastering engineer Gavin Lurssen.
“We all want to be Al Schmitt,” adds producer Ross Hogarth. “We all want to be the consummate gentleman, the most talented engineer and producer. But it’s who he is as a human that’s the most important. We all look up to Al, and love him dearly.”
The three were among a who’s who of L.A. recording professionals who set work aside to come celebrate the veteran engineer, who, though his cake mentioned something about 65, insisted, along with his wife, Lisa, that he was turning but 39 that day.
Other congregants included the likes of Jack Douglas, CJ Vanston, Niko Bolas, Robert Margouleff, Moogie Canazio, Leslie Ann Jones, Ron McMaster, Steve Sykes, Maureen Droney, Bill Smith, Bruce Sugar, Steve Genewick, Lenise Bent, former Capitol Studios VP Michael Frondelli, Joe Sidore and dozens of others.
“Our success at Capitol Studios is interwoven with Al’s legacy, Al’s life,” notes studio manager Paula Salvatore, who first met Schmitt 28 years ago when he tracked Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable at the studio. “He calls me his ‘studio wife,’” With Lisa’s permission, of course.
“I owe my career to him,” says Genewick, who has sat by Schmitt’s side at Capitol for the last 20 years. “Everything I’ve learned about making records I learned from him.”
His technical skill is revered across the industry, as noted by those who have worked with him. “The best Aerosmith mix I ever got was from Al,” states Douglas. “It just had an incredible depth. And it was the first time a mix was done in less than two days!”
“He mixes for vinyl,” notes McMaster, who has been cutting lacquers for Schmitt for the last 15 years. “Everything is so well placed, the image is correct. Al might say, ‘Put a little top end on it,’ and that’ll be it. His work is unlike any others that we do.”
“He’s one of the most prepared engineers I’ve ever seen work,” says Frondelli. “By the time he gets in the room, everything’s set up to his specifications. He’s inspected every microphone, every position. He knows where everything is, he knows his players, he knows his equipment. Nobody does it better.”
Adds Sykes, “His unbelievable attention to detail with mic placement is incredible. Mic placement for Al is the key.”
Notes Doell, about his time spent working with Schmitt, “We used to say, ‘I’m gonna work with Al Schmitt today—gonna steal some of his shit!” he laughs. “But in truth, there really wasn't any 'thing' to steal. Al would listen to what the music sounded like in the room, go back in the control room, and…if it didn't sound THE SAME, he would either move the mic or change it. Reaching for the EQ to make it sound ‘correct’ was not his way.”
Schmitt made an impression regarding microphones even upon his arrival in L.A., Doell notes. “In Al's recently-released book [On the Record, co-written with Droney], he tells of why he made a big impression with his sound when he moved west from New York City. While ribbon mics were in vogue in L.A., he brought with him his preference for condenser microphones—adding pop and clarity to his recordings that made his sound distinctive.”
Sykes was first able to take advantage of his longtime friend’s expertise upon first arriving in L.A. in 1980. “I’ll never forget, when I first moved here, I was doing my first orchestra session as an engineer. I had never recorded one before. So I called up Al one night—we had just met—and asked him what to do. And he stayed on the phone with me for almost an hour, explaining every mic to use, what pattern to use, where to place it—every detail about recording strings. He’s one of the kindest human beings I’ve ever met.”
“He’s accessible to anybody,” adds Lurssen, who first met Schmitt 18 years ago, while working for mastering engineer Doug Sax (“I would pick up the sandwiches from Victor’s—pastrami”). “You can call him, and he’ll talk to you. It’s just amazing.”
His people skills with clients are equally revered. “He has the ultimate bedside manner,” states Hogarth. “He’ll say what he means, but he won’t ever say it mean.” Notes Vanston, “He has a diplomatic way of taking no shit, and keeping everybody focused on the important thing. He’ll sit back and let some stuff go on, and then there’s a certain point when he speaks up. And you know, when Al speaks up, it’s for a reason. There’s no ego involved, it’s for the project.”
After chowing down on Mexican food, Schmitt blew out his birthday candles and addressed his friends. “God, it’s great to be 39. If it’s good enough for Jack Benny, it’s good enough for me.”