Tag Archives: steely dan

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

Michael Whalen, Future Shock | The Vinyl Anachronist

Future Shock, the new album by keyboardist/composer Michael Whalen, comes at you from so many directions that you’ll wonder what it is, other than good and snappy and vibrant. It’s closer to ’70s prog rock than fusion, and while it has the same jazz underpinnings as Steely Dan, you might hear a shade of Daft Punk here and there. The energy is consistent, though, even though each of these ten original compositions lives in its own distinct aural neighborhood. The common thread in Future Shock is Michael Whalen himself. He plays all keyboards, synthesizers and programming, he composed and arranged and even mixed the results. He provides plenty of layers to the sound, which is perhaps why these tunes are so difficult to pigeonhole. On the title track, Michael Whalen sounds like he’s skirting along the edge of hip-hop with sampled voices and steady beats. On softer tunes, reed player Bob Magnuson takes over and draws the soundscape into something more panoramic, with feelings that might be normally expressed through films that use a lot of saxophone themes. Simon Phillips’ drumming, however, keeps pulling quartet back into the arena with rock and roll rhythms pulled from the ’70s and ’80s. [...]

Original Resource is Part-Time Audiophile

Steve Gadd Band at Blue Note Tokyo | The Vinyl Anachronist

I can imagine a hardcore Steely Dan fan, one who probably does agree with that popular YouTube video that makes the case for Steve Gadd’s drum solo in “Aja” being the all-time greatest, listening to the Steve Gadd Band (website) and thinking just wait, he’s gonna get rolling here in a second. You’ll see. You’ll laugh if you’re a fan of the Steve Gadd Band, and you consider yourself knowledgeable about the man behind the drum kit. On this new live album, At Blue Note Tokyo, he spends the first few songs developing the slow burn, the steady tension, and then he’ll deliver a quick solo, nothing as mind-blowing as The Aja Solo, and then he’ll keep it tight and let the rest of his crew step into the spotlight. That’s when you notice that Steve Gadd is doing the Mick Fleetwood thing. (Or perhaps Mick Fleetwood was doing the Steve Gadd thing.) Do you know what I mean? For more than a decade, Playboy picked Mick Fleetwood as their favorite rock drummer in their annual music awards. This wasn’t Hef picking the winners, but genuine music critics and writers. This was back when I was young, back when I’d [...]

Original Resource is Part-Time Audiophile

Diego Baliardo, Este Ritmo | The Vinyl Anachronist

Colleen has told me once or twice that she wishes I would play more music for her in the evenings, when she comes home from work. She’s a great cook, but sometimes she needs musical inspiration and after all these years I still don’t have a bead on the music that really moves her. Like me she’s a classic rock kid, raised in Southern California in the ’70s and ’80s, so her ears prick up when I play things like Steely Dan and Dire Straits. But I do know she has a special place for the Gipsy Kings–she even brought a few of their albums into the relationship. That’s where Diego Baliardo’s Este Ritmo (website) comes to the rescue. I don’t know Diego Baliardo by name, but when I put Este Ritmo into the CD player and pressed play I instantly thought oh, this is just like the Gipsy Kings. There’s a good reason for that: Baliardo is one of their founders. (If you’re a Gipsy Kings fan, you know the group was started in 1987 by two pairs of brothers from the Baliardo and Reyes families.) He’s formed a new band, The Gypsy Revolution, and they are dedicated to [...]

Original Resource is Part-Time Audiophile

The Music List: Is It Really Necessary? | The Vinyl Anachronist

A few weeks ago, I found myself editing an equipment review and I got to that section. You know the section, the one where the reviewer gathers up copious notes on the music used during the review and condenses it into a survey of sorts. I call it the Music List. In this particular case, the Music List went on and on and eventually became the largest section in the review. I asked myself an important question—do we really need all this? Is it necessary to discuss the fabled drum solo by Steve Gadd on “Aja” as extra punchy on a particular pair of speakers? Or how easily we can hear Yoko’s back-up vocals on “Obla-di, Obla-da” through the latest DAC? Maybe. I published a review not too long ago, and I didn’t mention any particular pieces of music in the “listening” section—on purpose. Within a few hours of publication, we received a comment on the website: “What music did you listen to? How are we supposed to put your review in context?” And I came to the realization that we all expect reviewers to go on and on about the records they listened to, a linguistic touchstone for the [...]

Original Resource is Part-Time Audiophile

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

dCS Legends: Al Schmitt and Steely Dan’s Aja | The Vinyl Anachronist

When I first read about the dCS Legends series, which celebrates Grammy-winning engineers, I was surprised at just how many of these classic recordings I own and how I have a personal story for almost every one. When you glance at this list, you see Al Schmitt‘s name at the top, and that always reminds me that he had a lot to do with making Steely Dan’s Aja such an iconic recording. Over the years I’ve owned several versions of Aja–if I remember correctly, it was the second Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs LP I ever bought, right after Supertramp’s Crime of the Century. Strangely enough, I no longer own the MoFi LP. I have the MoFi CD, and an old LP that I found at a flea market that wound up being in fair condition at best. I do play that Steely Dan CD a lot, but one day I will find a killer remaster on vinyl. When I bought the MoFi LP back in the late ’70s, I wasn’t really a Steely Dan fan. The only reason I purchased it–at the whopping cost of $17.99–was because my buddy Dan was standing next to me at Licorice Pizza when I [...]

Original Resource is Part-Time Audiophile