Al Schmitt is the most decorated engineer with 23 Grammys. He shares insights on singers, mic choices and developing our listening power.
Al Schmitt has recently finished projects with Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Burt Bacharach.
Of course, that’s just a small slice of a musical pie which includes more than 150 gold and platinum albums and recordings with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Diana Krall.
Al is a graceful man and an incredible educator, so when we asked him to share his tips and insights for our VoiceCouncil community, he lept right in…
You’ve worked with the most famous singers of all time – what is the secret to getting a great studio performance?
Really pro singers, such as Natalie Cole, won’t be nervous about their studio work – but if you have a young singer is nervous, it is up to you as an engineer to keep them comfortable. Ensure that their earphones are working well and that they don’t feel afraid to ask for something. You need to be a calming influence as, if they are nervous, you won’t get their optimum performance.
You’ve obviously done this…
I think what you have to do is keep asking them questions – are you happy with the echo you are hearing? Do you want a little more? A little less? Can you hear the rhythm section comfortably? You have to be willing to go out of your way.
You sound like a patient man.
With singers new to the studio, it is a little like teaching a child something; you have to be patient. You also have to make them realize you know that you are doing – it makes them comfortable – tell them to sing their heart out and not worry about the recording.
What would you say the secret is to a great recording relationship with a musician?
I always tell engineers that their best friends are the musicians working out in the room. Make sure you know them and take the time to make them happy. Ask where they like the mics put. Ask them about the last time they had a cool sound on their instrument – that’s a great place to start your work together.
Let’s talk about mics and vocals – is there a mic that you ALWAYS try first for vocals?
The U47 – that’s the one I used on Bublé, Paul McCartney and so many others. Barbra Streisand, for example, has been using a particular Neumann M49 since we did “The Way We Were.” Brauner makes a great mic for vocals and Audio Technica have several that are really, really good.
What about a mic that you feel is unusually versatile?
It depends on the instrument of course, but if I could only have one mic it would be a Neumann U67. That mic works great on vocals, sax, trumpet, strings, upright bass – it is an amazing mic.
Other favorite Mics?
I love Audio Technica’s great new mics like the 5045, cardioid condenser instrument mic. I am fortunate that I get to use the U47s & 48s – the same exact mics that Frank Sinatra, Natalie Cole and Peggy Lee and so many others used.
A mic that you feel is often neglected but has something special to offer.
For ambience mics in the room, I’ll use the old Neumann M50’s –when I can get them. You see, they didn’t make a lot of those mics.
What tips do you have for Mic’ing vocalists?
I always suggest that if you have a singer coming in, and you have the time, pick 3 mics and put them out there; check out each mic with the singer to see which works best – some times you are surprised. I was surprised once when working with Natalie Cole; I had been using the U 47 but Phil Ramone asked me to use an Audio Technica tube 4060 and we all loved that with her voice.
A Memorable mic chain.
For Diana Krall and Paul McCartney (and others) I used a Neumann Tube U47 into Neve Preamp and then into a Fairchild compressor. That, to me, is the ultimate.
Top recording fail you’ve seen for vocals.
Over pushing the mic preamp or over compressing.
Is there any way one can develop their listening powers? Or, is it just what it is?
I think a lot of it is a natural gift, but you can develop your ears by having a decent system and listening to music. Don’t rule out listening to classical music. Listen to all kinds of music, dissect it, step back and consider what you’ve learned.
Was this your experience?
When I started, I was really fortunate. At RCA I could do a rock n’ roll session in the morning, be recording country in the afternoon and working with a big band in the evening. The next day, I might be working on projects from classical to Polka. These were the days when you recorded everything at one time – you got a mix immediately. There was no “fixing in the mix”.
You’ve used an analog approach with your recent projects too, haven’t you?
I’ve recently finished working on an album with Neil Young and also with Bob Dylan (Shadows in the Night). On both of these we went to tape and they were extremely excited. I recorded pro tools 192 as a back up – but those albums had a lot of tape. Almost everything I do is completely analog.
Al Schmitt is the legendary engineer and producer who has recorded and mixed more than 150 gold and platinum albums. He was inducted into the TEC Awards Hall of Fame and received the Grammy Trustees Lifetime Achievement Award. He has worked with Jefferson Airplane, Eddie Fisher, Glenn Yarborough, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Willy DeVille, Dr. John, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Diana Krall. His 21 Grammy awards include Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Best Pop Vocal Album – and many more. The Schmitt-engineered song “Moon River” and its associated album won two Grammy awards as well as an Academy Award for Best Song with its appearance in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. See www.alschmittmusic.com