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Al Schmitt, Legendary Engineer, Passes at 91

Al Schmitt, arguably the most successful recording engineer ever, died Monday, April 26, at the age of 91, capping a career that saw him work with generations of superstars on iconic recordings of the era.

Los Angeles, CA (April 27, 2021) — Al Schmitt, arguably the most successful recording engineer ever, died Monday, April 26, at the age of 91. Over the course of a 70-plus-year career, Schmitt worked with multiple generations of music superstars, capturing some of the best-known songs and albums of his lifetime. The recipient of 20 Grammy Awards, Schmitt also won two Latin Grammys and a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award, was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (the first ever for an engineer), and had more than 160 Gold and Platinum recordings to his credit. Just some of the artists Schmitt worked with included Frank Sinatra, Henry Mancini, Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, Dr. Dre, Lady Gaga, Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, Toto, Diana Krall, Steely Dan, Luis Miguel, Norah Jones, George Benson, Natalie Cole, Quincy Jones, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters and Jefferson Airplane.

Born in New York City, Schmitt grew up around recording, often visiting his uncle’s facility in Manhattan, Harry Smith Recording, as a child. With that influence, it was unsurprising that after serving in the US Navy, he became apprentice engineer at 19, working under producer Tom Dowd at Apex Recording in NYC. Learning on the job, Schmitt was only entrusted with recording the occasional demo acetate until Duke Ellington and his big band—which included greats like Billy Strayhorn and Johnny Hodges—showed up unexpectedly to record on a quiet weekend in 1949. As the only engineer on hand, Schmitt tried to make the most of the eight inputs available, setting up mics using sketchy placement diagrams he’d hastily drawn while assisting on other sessions. He told Ellington “I’m not qualified” so often that eventually the jazz great had to calmly reassure him that he could do it.

Al Schmitt engineered some of the Peter Gunn soundtrack
Al Schmitt recorded the small combo tracks on the famed Peter Gunn soundtrack, paving the way for an extensive run of recording Henry Mancini soundtracks

After moving around New York studios for nearly a decade, Schmitt headed west to Los Angeles in 1958, initially working at Radio Recorders in Hollywood, where he first collaborated with Henry Mancini, recording small combo tracks on the composer’s 1959 The Music from Peter Gunn soundtrack. It was the start of a fruitful working relationship, as Schmitt went on to record numerous Mancini soundtracks, including Mr. Lucky, Charade, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (for which he got a Grammy nomination) and Hatari, which landed Schmitt his first Grammy Award.

Schmitt moved to RCA as a staff engineer in 1963 and was soon promoted to staff producer. While there, he produced the likes of Sam Cooke, Eddie Fisher, Ann-Margaret and Jefferson Airplane among others, but the endless 16-hour days and lack of support from upper management led to him quitting in 1966 to go independent. Over the next few years, he continued to produce Jefferson Airplane and added Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Al Jarreau and others to his discography, but found he missed engineering, as union rules of the era forbade producers from touching the console. As the 1970s wore on, he returned to mostly engineering, which he greatly preferred.

Al Schmitt Grammy Award for Aja
The 1977 Grammy Award for Best Engineered Recording (Non-Classical) went to Al Schmitt, Roger Nichols, Elliot Scheiner and Bill Schnee for Steely Dan’s “Aja”

It wasn’t a bad career decision—during the 1970s and 80s, Schmitt won a slew of Grammys for his work engineering George Benson’s Breezin’; Steely Dan’s staple Aja and stand-alone single “FM (No Static At All)”; and Toto’s comeback album, Toto IV. In the decades that followed, he would take home Grammys for work on multiple Diana Krall albums; Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable…with Love; albums with Quincy Jones, Luis Miguel, Chick Corea and Dee Dee Bridgewater; a pair of Grammys for Paul McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom; and a jaw-dropping five trophies for Ray Charles’s 2004 album, Genius Loves Company.

In 2014, Schmitt was honored by the Hollywood Walk of Fame with his own star, located outside the iconic Capitol Records building—home to Capitol Studios, where he spent countless hours recording over the decades. In the mid-2000s, Schmitt was a founding member of METAlliance, a group of top engineers who regularly hold recording workshops around the globe; Schmitt often shared his insights and knowledge with Pro Sound News readers through the METAlliance’s recurring column.

In 2018, he teamed with Maureen Droney, managing director of the Recording Academy’s Producers & Engineers Wing, to write his autobiography, Al Schmitt On the Record: The Magic Behind the Music, which shared not only much of his technical knowledge and wild recording session tales, but also career advice on what’s required on a personal level to stay at the top of one’s game for decades. Earlier this year, he collaborated with software company Leapwing to release a signature Leapwing Al Schmitt Signature plug-in.

At press time, the cause of Schmitt’s death is undisclosed, but a Facebook memorial page has been created in his name. His family released a statement April 27, noting,

“Al Schmitt’s wife Lisa, his five children, eight grandchildren, and five great grandchildren would like his friends and extended recording industry family to know that he passed away Monday afternoon, April 26. The world has lost a much loved and respected extraordinary individual, who led an extraordinary life. The most honored and awarded recording producer/engineer of all time, his parting words at any speaking engagement were, “Please be kind to all living things.”

Loved and admired by his recording colleagues, and by the countless artists he worked with, from Jefferson Airplane, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Diana Krall, Dr. John, Natalie Cole and Jackson Browne to Bob Dylan—and so many more—Al will be sorely missed. He was a man who loved deeply, and the friendships, love and admiration he received in return enriched his life and truly mattered to him. A light has dimmed in the world, but we all learned so much from him in his time on earth, and are so very grateful to have known him.