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Al Schmitt, Legendary Engineer, Passes at 91

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.

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com

Pro Sound News’ Top 10 Articles of 2020

Pro Sound News top 10 articles of 2020New York, NY (December 24, 2020)—With the end of 2020 upon us (and not a second too soon), we look back at the year that was, presenting the Top 10 Pro Sound News articles of 2020 that appeared on prosoundnetwork.com, as ranked by the site’s Google Analytics readership statistics. Intriguingly, while the biggest news of the year was the pandemic, virtually none of these articles even mention it. Instead, audio pros like yourself were mostly interested in either looking ahead to when things would get back to normal by checking out the latest gear, or looking back at great moments in audio, whether it was the recording of classic albums or the earliest known stereo recordings. No one knows what 2021 will bring, but for now, enjoy the most popular articles from our site, and we’ll see you in the new year.

10. Discovering—and Preserving—the Earliest Known Stereo Recordings
By Clive Young. In 1901, German anthropologist Berthold Laufer used two wax cylinder recorders simultaneously to record Shanghai musicians, unintentionally creating the earliest-known stereo recordings.

9. Apple Mac Pro Rack: A Real-World Review
By Rich Tozzoli. Producer/composer Rich Tozzoli shelled out $10,000 for an Apple Mac Pro Rack computer; was it worth it?

8. The METAlliance Report: The Recording of Steely Dan’s Aja
By The METAlliance. Widely considered a pinnacle of recording excellence, Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja had an occasionally tortured gestation—but it won the Grammy for Best Engineered Album. Now METAlliance members Al Schmitt and Elliot Scheiner share the inside scoop on how…

7. Sennheiser Announces Layoffs Amidst Slowing Market
With consumer and live sound sales heavily impacted by COVID-19, Sennheiser will cut 650 jobs worldwide by the end of 2022.

6. Inside the Live Sound of Live Aid, Part 1: London
By Steve Harvey. We look back at the live sound effort that went into the legendary charity concert Live Aid, held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia. With 60+ acts on the bill and 160,000 in attendance—not to mention 1.9 billion watching it…

5. Creative Editing is Key to Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend Podcast
By Jim Beaugez. A variety of audio editing tricks help audio producer Matt Gourley ensure that the Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend podcast keeps the laughs coming.

4. Danny Leake, Legendary Studio/Live Engineer, Dead at 69
By Clive Young. In addition to working as Stevie Wonder’s FOH engineer for three decades, Danny Leake also recorded dozens of top artists in the studio, leading to six Grammy nominations for his efforts.

3. Tool Tours with Intricate, Immersive Sound
By Steve Harvey. Touring the world behind Fear Inoculum, Tool’s first album in 13 years, the prog-metal heroes are filling arenas with a massive audio system that takes a new approach to immersive live sound.

2. Exclusive: Yamaha Launches Rivage PM5, PM3 Desks, DSPs, More
By Clive Young. Take an exclusive sneak peek of Yamaha’s most ambitious expansion for the Rivage series yet, as the company introduces two new consoles—the PM5 and PM3—as well as a pair of new DSP engines—DSP-RX and DSP-RX-EX—and Version 4 firmware.

1. AKM Factory Fire—A Pro-Audio Industry Disaster
By Clive Young. A 82-hour fire in AKM’s semiconductor factory is already hurting numerous top pro-audio manufacturers around the globe.

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com

Recording Academy to Honor Ed Cherney, Daniel Weiss, Others

Ed Cherney
Ed Cherney

Los Angeles, CA (December 23, 2020)—The Recording Academy has announced the honorees for its 2021 Special Merit Awards, the honorees of which will be recognized on the 63rd Annual GRAMMY Awards on Jan. 31, 2021. Among the various honorees are a number of behind-the-scenes pros, including producer/artist Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and the late noted recording engineer Ed Cherney for Trustee Awards, and digital technology pioneer Daniel Weiss for the Technical GRAMMY Award.

“As we welcome the new class of Special Merit Award honorees, it gives us a chance to reward and recognize the influence they’ve had in the music community regardless of genre,” Harvey Mason jr., Interim President/CEO of the Recording Academy, said. “As a music creator and music lover, I am grateful that we are able to look back at our influences and see the impact that they have made on our community. In a year where music has helped keep us together, I look forward to honoring this iconic group of music creators.”

Ed Cherney was one of the most sought-after engineers in the industry. His four-decade career began as an assistant engineer working with Bruce Swedien and Quincy Jones on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall. Cherney went on to record, mix and engineer albums for artists such as The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, and Fleetwood Mac, among others. A four-time GRAMMY winner, he also won an Emmy and eight TEC awards over his career, founded the Academy’s Producers & Engineers Wing, was a founding member of the METAlliance, and even occasionally wrote in Pro Sound News.

Producer, recording artists and label owner Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds is an 11-time GRAMMY winner, and has a record four Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical awards. He has been instrumental in the careers of artists such as Toni Braxton, Usher and TLC and has crafted hundreds of pop and R&B hits with artists including Whitney Houston, the Whispers, Brandy, Boyz II Men, Madonna, and Eric Clapton.

A pioneer of digital technology, Daniel Weiss founded Weiss Engineering Ltd. in Zurich, Switzerland in 1985. The company has designed and manufactured digital audio equipment for mastering studios, including the IBIS digital mixing console and the ultra-high-quality Gambit Series digital products.

The Lifetime Achievement Award honorees are Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Lionel Hampton, Marilyn Horne, Salt-N-Pepa, Selena, and Talking Heads, while Benny Golson will also be a Trustees Award honoree.

The Recording Academy • www.grammy.com

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com

The METAlliance Report – The METAlliance on Miking

The METAlliance includes: Frank Filipetti, Elliot Scheiner, Chuck Ainlay, Al Schmitt, Niko Bolas and George Massenburg.

The METAlliance — Al Schmitt, Chuck Ainlay, Elliot Scheiner, Frank Filipetti,  George Massenburg and Niko Bolas, along with the late Phil Ramone and Ed Cherney. The METAlliance Mission is to promote the highest quality in the art and science of recording music.

Chuck Ainlay and I were talking about microphones. We thought that it might make a nice column. Then we thought, “Wait a minute—we have the greatest resource in the world right here in the METAlliance. His name is Al Schmitt!” So, I interviewed Al. We not only got a great column, we got a whole series—here’s a portion:

Frank Filipetti: What is the first thing that you look for when you’re deciding on a microphone for purchase, or to go into the studio? Is it frequency response, polar pattern, off axis response, emotional response?

Al Schmitt: I think it’s more emotional than anything. I’ve been doing this for a long time and working on every kind of microphone you can imagine at some point in my career, and yeah, it’s become an emotional thing. I’ll have a favorite mic I love to go to on certain things; sometimes it’s a condenser mic, and sometimes it’s a ribbon mic. It depends on the artist and the circumstances of what we’re doing, and how we’re going to do it. If it’s somebody like Michael Buble, who wants to sing right in the middle of the rhythm section with the band, I’ll use a [Neumann U] 47 on him, in a cardioid position to get some rejection from the other side. He’s got really good microphone technique, so that works for him. Some others, you can’t do that.

Frank: You like to use a U47 in cardioid—part of that is because you’re looking for rejection, but are you also looking for any proximity effect?

Al: Well, a little bit of proximity effect, but it’s more about the setup. If the artist is in an ISO booth, you might use a different mic than if you had them in the room. It also depends on how much time you have—if you’re overdubbing a vocal, guitar, whatever, and you have time, then you can experiment with mics, have a couple of different mics up there, see which ones you like the best, and it’s a great learning process. When you’re doing that, you think, “Oh, I love this 47 a lot” or “This [Neumann U] 67 sounds pretty damn good to me.” And “How about that [Neumann] M50, or even [a Shure] SM7?”  It goes on and on.

Fortunately, we’re blessed; we get to use the best microphones in the world. A lot of people who read these magazines have little home studios, and the most expensive mic they have might be a $300 microphone or even a USB. They have to do the best they can with what they have. I’m fortunate that I have a great microphone collection; I know you do, too. And when I work at Capitol, they have unlimited mics.

Frank: Not only do you have unlimited access at a studio like Capitol, but you know they’re all in tip-top condition.

Al:  Yeah, absolutely.

The METAlliance Report: Sound Aesthetics – It’s Written in Stone

The METAlliance Report: The Recording of Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’

Frank: Let’s say for example, you have an artist who wants to be in the room with the musicians. Do you encourage or discourage that, especially if the producer wants to punch-in or be able to tune the vocal later?

Al: You don’t punch in, especially if they’re in in the middle of the section and you have all that bleed; you’re gonna hear that unless you’re punching in everybody at the same time, so yeah, you can’t do that. You’ll have to redo the vocal as an overdub and then fix whatever parts you want to fix that way.

Years ago, when you couldn’t punch in, the singer sang with the rhythm section and you needed to keep the vocal on top—and you learned which mic works best. Experience taught you how to use your microphones for separation and isolation. In the end, it’s the years of that experience that teaches you how to do that.

Frank: How about today’s way of making records, where isolation of every track is placed at a premium for fixing and tuning after the fact?

Al: Making vocals perfect always bothered me. Some of those recordings, where every note is right on the mark, it just becomes robotic. It doesn’t sound like a human after a while. Frank Sinatra didn’t sing every note in tune. The great thing is, you can fix a thing here and there, but to go in and tune every note, do we really have to do that? I don’t know; I don’t like to make music like that, and I try to stay away from that.

Frank: I do, too. It’s what I call the stonewall effect—that the old stone walls with their lack of symmetry grabs me more emotionally than the newer walls with their straight lines and perfect symmetry. When it gets too perfect, you lose that emotional response.

Al: Totally agree.

To be continued….

The METAlliance • www.metalliance.com

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com

The METAlliance Report: Sound Aesthetics – It’s Written in Stone

Metalliance I recently had the good fortune to find my dream home in a sleepy little Connecticut town along the shore. One of my favorite features of the area is the pervasive use of stone walls to mark off property lines. Our village was founded in pre-revolutionary war times and stone walls are everywhere in all shapes, sizes and designs.

Our property has several distinctly different periods of stone wall building and I began to consider how each variation appealed to me. Eighteenth century walls can be haphazard, having deconstructed over the decades until they’re often no more than piles of rocks, while many of the newer walls are more idealized with meticulously shaped stones, straight lines and even capped concrete.

The METAlliance Report: The Recording of Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’

So, what do stone wall aesthetics have to do with sound design? Well, for starters, I realized that each of these types of walls moved me emotionally in differing ways. The older, more random (less planned) designs appealed to my sense of well-being, nostalgia, history and oneness with nature. The more perfected designs appealed to my technical sense, giving me a feeling of symmetry, solidity and order—but they also left me cold emotionally.

No other art form is so intrinsically connected to the emotions as music. Popular music began a transformation in the early Fifties from the sophistication of Porter and Gershwin to the foundations of blues, “race music” and rock and roll. Early excursions into simpler melodies and structures mostly relied on an emotional performance as opposed to sophisticated structure.

By the Seventies and Eighties, recording techniques had evolved from a strictly organic process (just get it on tape) to the sophisticated use of multichannel and overdubbed tracking. As the capability to separate the bass from the drums from the voice became widespread, we also began to produce an arsenal of tools to help us improve on the performances themselves. The facility to duplicate (fly) tracks, correct timings, and tune voices and instruments became an integral part of the mixing process.

By the beginning of the 21st century, producers and engineers had a tremendous palette of movers, denoisers, tuners and duplicators to choose from, and with each new tool, we moved closer and closer to “perfecting the imperfect.” Today, we can tune a voice so perfectly that it sounds less human and more robotic. Have we gone too far?

If you look at the oldest stone wall, imagine this represents the music/recordings of the Fifties and early Sixties. Tracks were recorded live and released warts and all. As with the stonework, we had tension and release due to the imperfections. “Tension and release” is what emotion is all about. There is a primal appeal to these vintage recordings, as the performance was king, regardless of the musical or sonic imperfections.

As we moved into the Seventies and Eighties, popular music evolved into more sophistication harmonically, and our ability to fix and remix multitracked recordings became more the norm. Consider the second, more recent wall as a visual representation of this—there’s cleaner lines and shape, but the rough edges and quirks are still there.

Contrast that with the most recent wall, representing 21st century pop production. The lines are technically more perfect, ultra linear by design and topped off with a crisp, clean exterior. It may be aesthetically pleasing to some, but to me, emotionally, something is lacking. I can appreciate the “perfection” in the work, and I can enjoy the symmetry and polish for its own sake. But emotionally, it leaves me cold.

Over the past decade, I have found myself being utilized as more of a fixer than a mixer. My job is now to correct every possible “mistake” in a recording rather than spend the bulk of my time creating an emotional arc to the music. “Mistake” is in quotes as most of these “mistakes” are audible only after having looped the recording for dozens of times.

Now if all this work contributed to better and more emotional music, count me in. But I believe the boring state of modern music is not a result of inferior songwriting or performers, but instead due to the insecurity of the producers and engineers who can’t appreciate a gifted singer sliding into a note from a non-gifted one just missing it. Emotion is about tension and release, and by tuning and fixing every possible musical parameter, all we get is well-crafted boredom.

So, the next time you feel tempted to fix everything, ask “at what cost?” To my way of thinking, “Art is in the imperfection.”

Multiple Grammy-winner Frank Filipetti’s credits include Number One singles such as Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “I Don’t Want to Live Without You” (which he also produced), KISS’ “Lick It Up” and The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame.” He’s worked with acts ranging from Korn and Fuel to Barbra Streisand and Elton John, and has also produced, recorded or mixed albums for Carly Simon, George Michael, Dolly Parton, Rod Stewart, Luciano Pavarotti and James Taylor, among many others.

METAlliance • www.metalliance.com

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com

The METAlliance Report: The Recording of Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan
Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan in 1977 Getty Images Chris Walter/WireImage

Steely Dan were famous for their meticulous approach to recording. While they earned armloads of plaudits and Grammys proving they were right in their rigor, it’s the sound of their records that really makes the point. To this day, their albums are held up as pinnacles of recording—and a prime example is their 1977 classic, Aja.

Released in September 1977, Aja found the duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in top form, once again working with producer Gary Katz. Becoming their fastest seller to date, the album went on to go double Platinum and spawn three Top 40 hits with “Peg,” “Deacon Blues” and “Josie”—not bad for an album of only seven songs! Nominated for Album of the Year and Best Pop Performance at the 1978 Grammys, Aja ultimately brought home the trophy for Best Engineered Recording – Non-Classical—a triumph shared by engineers Roger Nichols, Bill Schnee and two members of the METAlliance, Al Schmitt and Elliot Scheiner. With that in mind, we sat down with Al and El to get their insights on recording the landmark collection. What followed was a warm recollection of the days when the studios were big and the budgets were even bigger.

How did you guys get involved with the project?

Elliot: I started on the album before, which was The Royal Scam, and we had a falling out during that project. We had a deal: “Come out to L.A. and we’ll do the record. We’ll be done in two months maximum.” … and I didn’t know enough about how they worked.

I stayed in the Beverly Hills Hotel, Donald got me a Mercedes-Benz sports car and it seemed good, but we only recorded maybe once or twice a week. We started at one studio and moved to Village Recorder. After month or two of that, I got really fed up, and wouldn’t you know it, I got a call on the last day of that week and they said, “We’re not working today.” We hung up, I packed my bags, I left and never said anything. I just got out.

We didn’t talk again until a year or more later. Gary called me and said, “Do you want to mix this record?” I was just in New York at A&R Studios, and it was a great opportunity for me to be back with those guys. We were friends before any of that started—I’d known them since the late ’60s when they were the backup band for Jay and the Americans—so I took it.

Related stories:
The METAlliance Report: Critical Listening and Critical Evaluation, by George Massenburg, Jan. 30, 2019
Recording All-Stars Welcome Niko Bolas to METAlliance, May 14, 2020
The METAlliance Report: Ed Cherney (1950–2019), by Elliot Scheiner, Nov. 25, 2019

Steely Dan "Aja" album cover
Steely Dan’s “Aja” went Double Platinum and spawned three Top 40 singles.

Before Al came in, I was mixing the entire record. Bill Schnee had recorded “Aja” and “Black Cow,” and everything else was recorded by Roger Nichols. The only thing that was recorded at A&R was “Peg”—we ended up recording it in one night. I think they actually came up with the song that night and decided to record. It was so much sick s— that happened during that time period. At some point, we finished. I thought.

I had mixed everything on [the title track] “Aja,” but they came back because there was so much leakage in the room on some of the things. Most everything was on one 24-track tape, and in some cases it had three or four things on a single track and they each had to be mixed differently—verse by verse, chorus and bridge all had separate setups. When you got finished with a verse, you now had a guitar on a percussion track. It kept moving around like that, so you had to change panning, EQ, everything—and the whole song was like that, just trying to get the thing together before we even edited. We did that, and about three weeks after, they said there’s no bass in a lot of the mix.

I said, “That’s impossible.” I thought about everything that went into that and the last thing I wanted to do was do it again, but at some point, I thought to myself in the night, is it possible that I didn’t switch it on when it had to be muted? There was no automation—it was all manual, right? They were coming back on a Monday, so I came in early and put the whole mix up, listening to the original. There were notes for EQ and not really as much for level setting. I recalled the whole mix, and put it down with the bass really loud. [laughs]

They came in, and Donald and Walter looked at each other, thinking, “Wow, this is really f—-d up. There was no bass on this.” I started to laugh and they knew instantly what happened. They said, “Okay, so you put it in today. Let’s start the whole mix again.” We did and that was the only thing that got redone by me. Then I didn’t hear until the record came out that Al had mixed two songs.

Classic Tracks: Elliot Scheiner and Steely Dan, by Robyn Flans, Mix, Jan. 31, 2018

Al Schmitt
Al Schmitt

All right—so, Al, how did you get into this?

Al: I got a call while at Sound Labs Studio 2 [in Hollywood]. We used to do a lot of work there at that time, and I said yes. They came over to bring their tape and brought five or six 1176 limiters—I don’t know what the hell they wanted me to use them on, but they did. They dropped the tape off and left.

I put the tape up and it’s “Peg.” I get a mix on it and it sounds pretty good. I know there’s going to be a lot of things that have to be done, but I get the mix up—and then I turn the monitor off, and I hit the playback. I’m watching the meters on the Quad 8 board to see how the meters are reacting and everything. Then I turn the monitor back up, so here’s this mix coming out of the speakers. And little did I know, they had come into the room [while the monitor was off]. They were standing behind me and Gary said, “F—–g Al, he can mix without even hearing this s—!” [Laughs]

Elliot: They told that story to anybody who would come in the room, that Al was capable of mixing without speakers. I remember saying to Gary, how is that possible? Gary, in his wisdom, said, “He looks at the meters!” [Laughs]

Al: Anyway, it was such a complicated mix that we were all mixing the record. I was at the board, Donald and Walter were doing something with echo and something else, and Gary was doing something else—and we were there for 12 hours. I had never worked that long on a mix in my life. I’d get it right, but maybe Donald would say, “I missed the echo. I didn’t get in the right spot,” and so we had to keep doing it over and over and over. Every time we ran it down, it was a performance, because we were all performing, right?

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”

I mixed another one, “Deacon Blues,” and then at that same time, they were doing “FM (No Static at All),” [the theme song to] the movie FM, and they asked me to record. Although they had a track done, we got Johnny Mandel in to do the arrangement. We did that at Capitol in Studio A and Johnny said to me, “These guys know what they’re doing?” I said, “Absolutely.” At one point, he was running things down and Donald hit the talkback and said, “Johnny, there’s something wrong in the violas.” And sure enough there was—and that turned Mandel right around. That’s when he really knew that they had ears—they could hear and they knew what they were doing. Then I mixed it back at Sound Labs. The funny thing about that single? I got this Best Engineer [Grammy] award for that, and that was the first and last time that ever happened.

The story you always hear is that they would record a track a number of times with a number of players to get it right.

Elliot: Yeah—I remember on [the follow-up album] Gaucho, they would record songs five, six, seven times, and with completely different bands. With Aja, I only recorded “Peg,” and that was one band. Rick Marotta, Chuck Rainey, Don Grolnick, Paul Griffin and Steve Kahn. I would only do the tracks and then Roger would do all the overdubs. [Legendary session drummer] Steve Gadd played on “Black Cow” and “Aja,” and when we finished mixing “Aja” the first time, they said, “Why don’t you bring Gadd in?” He came in and was really f—-d up. He started listening to the drum solo and was nodding like, “This is incredible!” And at the end of the song, he said, “Who’s playing drums?” [Laughs]

Elliot Scheiner
Elliot Scheiner was initially only going to mix the album, but soon recorded the hit “Peg” as well.

There’s that old adage that when people listen to something they worked on a while back, they hear something they’d want to go back and change. You guys don’t seem to have that affliction.

Elliot: For me personally, when it’s done, it’s done. But if I hear it a year later? Oh. My. Gosh.

Al: I’m exactly the same—I hear it a year later, I say, “Oh, why didn’t I do that? How did I miss that?” That’s the perfectionist in us. Somebody asked me recently, am I happy with anything I’ve ever done? I said, “To be honest with you, no matter what record it was, I can always take something and make it a little better.”

Steely Dan: A Guide to Their Best Albums, by Paul Elliott, Classic Rock, Nov. 12, 2018

Is that something about how you’ve changed since then? Is it that you learn something on a subsequent session, or perhaps you grow as people or grow as engineers—or do you think there was actually something that you probably knew but you just missed it?

Elliot: I think it was a case of missing for me. Here’s an example: The dynamic between Donald, Walker and Gary was such that when we were actually doing the cut “Aja,” Gary wasn’t in the room. He would come in to start the session and then drift out. Nobody knew where the f— he went, but after three days of mixing, Roger was doing the two-track edits when we finished. We played it back and thought it really sounded great.

Gary came in and was on the other side of the console, standing with his ears in between the speakers. After it finished, he looked at Donald and Walter and said, “There’s not enough cymbals.” [Laughs] Walter looked at me and said, “You know, wherever you are, get the f— out of here and go back there.”

METAlliance • www.metalliance.com

This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Pro Sound News. METAlliance Report is a monthly column in which members of the METAlliance discuss topics of interest to audio professionals.

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com