Industry Profile: Al Schmitt
By Larry LeBlanc
This week in the Hot Seat: Al Schmitt, producer/engineer.
There are so many things that make the production of music magical.
Al Schmitt is one of them.
Los Angeles-based Schmitt, a 19-time Grammy Award-winning recording engineer and record producer, has been involved in creating some of the most memorable and sophisticated recordings of the contemporary pop era.
Over a dazzling five decade career, he has worked with such leading musical figures as Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, George Benson, Barbra Streisand, Madonna, Steely Dan, Ray Charles, Connie Francis, Michael Bublé, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Duane Eddy, Al Jarreau, the Jefferson Airplane, and Quincy Jones.
The Schmitt-engineered version of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” co-written with Johnny Mercer, and its associated album won two Grammy Awards in 1961, as well as an Academy Award for Best Song with its appearance in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany's.”
The following year, Schmitt won his first Grammy for engineering Mancini’s “Hatari!” soundtrack.
Among his Grammy triumphs are wins in the engineering category for such albums as: George Benson's "Breezin,'” Steely Dan's "Aja," Toto's "Toto IV,” Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable,” and Diana Krall's "When I Look In Your Eyes." Additionally, he won a pair of Latin Grammy Awards for Luis Miguel's album “Amarte Es Un Placer” in 2000.
In 2006, Schmitt received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.
As a child living in Brooklyn in the late ‘40s, Schmitt would catch the subway on weekends to spend the day at his uncle Harry’s independent recording studio, Harry Smith Recording. Recording engineer Smith handled sessions for Decca-owned Brunswick Records including those with Bing Crosby, and the Andrew Sisters.
At 19, Schmitt began working at Apex Studios in New York. When Apex closed two years later, he went to work at Nola Studios for a year before receiving a call from ex-Apex engineer Tom Dowd to join him at Fulton Recording (which was later acquired by Fortune Pope, who also owned the Coastal Recording Studio).
At Fulton, Schmitt learned how to record big orchestras from master engineer Bob Doherty. Schmitt also worked on recordings by such jazz legends as Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Bob Brookmeyer and Jim Hall. Then Richard Bock, owner of the Pacific Jazz label in Los Angeles, coaxed him to move west in 1958.
At Radio Recorders in Hollywood, Schmitt continued to record for Bock, while learning more extensive recording techniques from such experienced engineers as Bones Howe and Thorne Nogar.
Soon after coming to Los Angeles, Schmitt got a break when Howe and producer Sy Rady had a falling out during sessions for Mancini’s “The Music From Peter Gunn.” Schmitt was tapped to engineer the last half of the album. He continued working with Mancini on numerous projects, including “Breakfast at Tiffany's,” “Music From Mr. Lucky,” and “Hatari!”
When RCA Victor opened its Hollywood studio in 1963, Schmitt was the first engineer hired. For the next three years, he worked on sessions--as either an engineer or producer--for Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, Billy Eckstine, Ann-Margret, Eddie Fisher, Cal Tjader, Al Hirt, Rosemary Clooney, Glen Yarborough, the Limelighters, and the Jefferson Airplane. As well, he worked on Hugo Montenegro’s hugely successful film and TV soundtracks.
In 1966, Schmitt left RCA to be an independent engineer/producer. Two weeks later, the Jefferson Airplane asked him produce their album “After Bathing at Baxter's.” Afterward, he continued producing the San Francisco band, including the albums “Crown of Creation,” “Bless Its Pointed Little Head,” and “Volunteers”. As well, he produced the debut album of the Airplane’s splinter project, Hot Tuna.
As an independent, Schmitt also produced Eddie Fisher, Glenn Yarborough, Jackson Browne, and Neil Young. In the mid-70's, he returned to engineering, as well as mixing.
Among his career highlights since have been his engineering of both Frank Sinatra “Duets” albums as well as Ray Charles' “Genius Loves Company”; and working behind the console with his long-time friend, producer Tommy LiPuma, for Diana Krall for over a decade.
How do you protect yours ears?
Well, I don’t mix very loud. When I go to the theater to see movies, my wife always has a set of ear plugs for me. I watch it. I take care of them.
Do you use headphones in the studio?
I never use headphones. Never.
You seem drawn to singers.
I like singers but I also like instrumentalists too. I’m just a music freak. I was a bebopper as a kid growing up. I am particularly fond of jazz, jazz instrumentalists and singers.
You seem busier than ever.
The older I get, the more business I get. I’m getting busier and busier. Last year, I had one of the best years ever.
What are you currently working on?
I am getting ready to do something with Ivan Lins. He’s a wonderful Brazilian songwriter and singer. I’m also getting ready to work with Dutch singer Trijntje Oosterhuis. She’s fantastic.
A decade ago, recording budgets were slashed, and a lot of production work shifted from professional rooms to home studios.
The only cut back I went through was companies cutting back on budgets, and they would try to cut my (producer’s) fee. The same with engineering fees. They tried to cut them down to the bone.
Producer and engineers have seen a shift in the split in their fees. Say you were getting $20,000 for engineering, and $10,000 for production. Labels try now to make the deal the other way around—$10,000 for engineering and $20,000 for producing, so they can recoup more for the production.
Absolutely. They aren’t stupid.
With the kind of work you do—big bands, horn and string sections—you need a bigger room. Do you also have a studio in the house?
I wouldn’t do that. Are you kidding? I would never get any sleep.
The process of going into a studio is a filtering process. Artists, arrangers, producers and engineers all prepare for the date.
Many singers in the ‘50s and ‘60s were performers who worked in nightclubs; and they learned their craft there. Singers like Rosemary Clooney, and Ella Fitzgerald had unbelievable microphone technique. I don’t think we have that today.
We don’t. Taylor Swift, the girl who just won Album of the Year (for “Fearless”), she’s a lovely young lady, and a reasonably good songwriter. But she’s not a good singer. Years ago, I don’t know if she would have been signed. When you can’t tune and paste (edit) and do all that, you wouldn’t have been able to make good records. The people signed in those days all could sing. They were all in tune. Nobody tuned Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, Peggy Lee or any of the others (using technology)
Just listen to those Verve records with Ella Fitzgerald, recorded in the ‘50s.
(Engineer) Thorn Nogard did a couple of those at Radio Recorders (in Hollywood) and I was fortunate to be in the studio when some of those went down. You know that everything was done at once? The vocals were live. Everybody bounced off everybody else as it was going down. Today, with all of the overdubbing that goes on, you lose some of that (interaction between players).
Was working last year on Rod Stewart’s "Soulbook” like a glance in the past? He said you are the closest he’s going to get to Sam Cooke.
Rod is a lot of fun in the studio. Every time he sees me he wants to hug me. It was great doing some of those songs again. Steve Jordan, who produced a lot of the tracks, was an amazing guy to work with. (Producer/engineer) Niko Bolas was mixing in B, and I was mixing in C (at Capitol) because we had deadlines and we were trying to finish. We had so much fun. He would be so loud. I would call him on the phone, he’d pick it up, and I would say to him, “I can hear (the track) through the door; you need more bass.” And, he’d tease me about stuff. We had a great time. That album was wonderful to do.
You have worked with Diana Krall for more than a decade,
I’ve worked on every one of her records. She’s absolutely the best. She is one of my favorite people. She is so endearing, and caring about everybody. I love the way she plays piano. She’s a marvelous player. Her solos are just incredible. One of my all-time favorite records is the one we did of her, “Live in Paris” (2002). I love that record. The DVD is incredible.
How far back do you go with her producer (and Verve Group Chairman Emeritus) Tommy LiPuma?
Tommy and I have been together for so long. We met in 1961 in L.A. Then we hung out together, and became very close friends. Tommy is like a brother to me. I love working with him because with Tommy, it’s all about the music. There’s no personality bullshit going on or anything else going on. As a producer, he doesn’t stay in the control room. He sits out right in the middle of the musicians with earphones.
When you were recording full orchestras for Henry Mancini or Ray Charles dates, it was all recorded live to mono or 2 and 3--track. What you got on tape was it. Fix it in the mix was unheard of—there was no mix. Today, producers and engineers go to their basement and work on tracks forever with ProTools.
That’s what happens. I know guys that spend weeks just tweaking little stuff because they are mixing in a box. They go down to the basement in their little studio and spend time doing that. If I had a home studio, I’d be up at 3 a.m. I’d wake up thinking I had to do this or that and go down. I don’t want to do that.
You have said it was easier to record an orchestra of 65 players back then live to mono or 2 and 3--track than 8 players. Why?
It was harder to record 8 pieces than doing 65. The conductor with a big orchestra was balancing the orchestra in the room. If he wanted more strings or if the French horns were too loud, we’d tell him, and he would have (the players) soften in the room. So most of the balancing was done by the conductor, and we would just capture everything. We worked hand in hand with him so if we needed more celli (cellos) in one spot, he would bring it up or more flutes, whatever. It was always easier to do that. For me, anyway.
What is it like working with producer David Foster with 95 musicians all starting at the same time?
It’s unbelievable, the sound when that happens. When the sound comes out of the speakers, your jaw drops open. It is just amazing. Working with David is great too. He’s brilliant. I know him as a musician before anything else. He was a great player (as a session musician). He’s still a great player.
You and musical arranger/ orchestrator Claus Ogerman have worked together on Diana Krall’s recordings as well as those by George Benson, Michael Franks, and João Gilberto.
When you push the faders up on Claus Ogerman’s, he got the strings out there. If you don’t get goose bumps, you’re dead.
Well, he did arrangements for the Drifters’ "Save The Last Dance For Me" in 1960.
How about (Lesley Gore’s) “It’s My Party” (1963)? He did the arrangement on that with Quincy Jones who was the producer. Claus won a Grammy this year (for "Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)" for the arrangements of (Krall’s)"Quiet Nights." Claus and Johnny Mandel are in a league of their own (as arrangers).
What makes a studio room sound great?
It is just the acoustics of the room. Some times it is a matter of luck how great a room turns out. I used to do things in New York at Webster Hall, and Columbia Records (30th Street Studio). What an incredible room that was. It was just magic. Everything there just sounded so rich. There were no things bouncing back to change the quality of the sound at all. It was just great
[In 1949, Columbia Records transformed an abandoned Armenian Greek Orthodox church, between 2nd and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, into one of the world's greatest recording studios, where Bob Dylan, Johnny Mathis, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and Glenn Gould recorded some of their most memorable recordings.]
Capitol Studios in Hollywood is another storied recording facility.
When Diana (Krall) or anybody else walk down that hall to go to studio A or wherever, with all those pictures on either side of the wall of Frank Sinatra, Kelly Smith, Deane Martin and Nat Cole, they know they are walking into history. Whether it’s a singer or piano players or musicians of all types, there’s something that happens. I get the feeling too, and I have been working there forever on and off. Just when you walk down the hall, there’s just a vibe to it. There’s something magic there. It’s like these people are still around. We still have Sinatra’s microphone that he used, and Nat Cole’s piano. It’s amazing there.
[Capitol Studios, located in the famous Capitol Tower at 1750 North Vine St. in Hollywood, is one of the most famous recording studios in the world.
The 54-year-old facility--the oldest music recording studio on the West Coast--casts a long shadow in contemporary music history. Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, and Peggy Lee cut landmark recordings there. As did the Beach Boys, Gene Vincent, the Raspberries, Bonnie Raitt, Prince, Crowded House, Anne Murray, and Barbra Streisand.]
Anne Murray’s daughter Dawn told me she had the same experience walking down that hallway while working on her mother’s album “Duets: Friends & Legends” three years ago with you and Phil Ramone.
Isn’t she a good singer? Oh my! I hope something happens for her. What a nice lady. Anne was great and her daughter was just so sweet and nice. She has been working with (Nashville-based producer) George Massenburg.
You combined Natalie Cole's vocals with those of her late father, Nat 'King' Cole (recorded in 1952) for the 1991 duet "Unforgettable.'' Was that a difficult process matching it up? The original with Nat was recorded in 3 track.
It was three track but there was leakage. There was no isolation booth, but they put baffles up to isolate (the backing instruments) a bit. So there was leakage but we were able to get most of it out.
You mixed Robbie Williams’ 2001 album “Swing When You're Winning” which emulated that Sinatra/Martin/Cole ‘50s era. Any memories of the mixing session.
(British producer) George Martin would come and sit with me every day for an hour. He’d come in at 9 A.M., and I would be there setting up to mix. We’d sit and chat for an hour.
You also remixed tracks for Joni Mitchell’s 2005 compilation “Songs of A Prairie Girl.”
Her management company (Macklam/Feldman Management, which also handles Krall) brought me in. We would mix (a track), we’d make a ref (reference copy) for it, and she would go out to the car and listen. Then she’d come back in and she’d have, maybe, two minor changes. We’d make those changes, make another reference, and she’d go back out. What a talent.
You grew up in Brooklyn during the ‘40s when jazz and big bands were popular.
I bought my first 78 when I was 10 years old. I had a little windup phonograph. I went out and bought the Jimmie Lunceford record "White Heat" and the back side was "Jazznocracy." Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra’s was my favourite band. (The 1942 hit) “Blues In The Night.” Unbelievable stuff. I got to work with (Lunceford/Tommy Dorsey arranger) Sy Oliver too. That was a thrill.
Your uncle was the legendary Harry Smith who worked for Brunswick Records.
He was my father’s brother, and my godfather. My middle name is Harry. He worked for Brunswick for years. He had what I think was the first independent recording studio in New York City (Harry Smith Recording). I worked there (setting up chairs and things), and I got to meet all of these old timers like Bing Crosby, Orson Welles, and Art Tatum.
Bing Crosby saved MCA. He was so popular.
That’s right. He saved the record business for awhile there. He’s also the guy behind the introduction of tape recorder (in the United States). He was a big investor in Ampex. With (tape recorders) producers and engineers were able to do editing which was a big thing for Bing Crosby. It was amazing that they could now edit (performances). It was great.
[In 1947, Jack Mullin, who had discovered Magnetophon recorders with AC biasing in Germany at Radio Frankfurt near the end of the war, pitched the technology to the major Hollywood movie studios. When Bing Crosby heard a demonstration of Mullin's tape recorders, he saw the potential of the new technology and commissioned him to do a test recording of his radio show. After ABC agreed to allow Crosby to pre-record his shows on tape, Crosby appointed Mullin as his chief engineer. He also invested $50,000 in Ampex (then a small six-man business) so that the company could develop a commercial production model.
The company's first tape recorder, the Ampex Model 200, revolutionized the radio and recording industries. Guitarist Les Paul, a friend of Crosby's, received an early Ampex Model 200, and he modified the tape recorder by adding additional recording and playback heads, creating the world's first practical tape-based multi-track recording system.]
You went on to work with Tom Dowd at Apex Recording Studios in Manhattan.
I learned everything from my uncle and Tommy Dowd. First of all to be on time. I learned about how to set up; I learned microphone technique; how to use microphones, where to put them; everything, from them. The most important thing is that I learned. My uncle told me to think of the equipment as a delicate wrist watch, and to take care of it that way, and it will always take care of you. Tommy Dowd was the same. So I had two of the greatest mentors in the world. I was really blessed.
Did you know Tommy’s background of working on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb?
Absolutely. Tommy and I were…I became like his kid brother. We became very close friends. I remember his first wife Jackie. You know what is so sad? At the end of his career, he was living in a little apartment in Miami. The guy had nothing. Nothing. I blame a big part of (what happened) on Atlantic Records in the sense that they didn’t take care of him. It was just terrible the way that he was treated. In the end, even though he made all of those great records, he was in debt. It was sad.
[After a lengthy battle with emphysema, producer/engineer Tom Dowd passed away in 2002. Dowd, who designed the first 8-track console for Atlantic Records because no commercial counterpart was available, worked at the label throughout the ‘50s & ’60, recording the Drifters, Clyde McPhatter, Joe Turner, Aretha Franklin and others. Among his post-Atlantic work were recordings by Lynard Skynard, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, and the Bee Gees.
In 2002, Dowd received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards. Eric Clapton wrote in the program "There is a tribe of musicians, spread all over the world who have been fostered and nurtured by Tom Dowd. We know who we are, and we are proud of who we are, but most of all, we are proud of him. I am honored and privileged to be one of them." Dowd’s life is chronicled in the superb film “Tom Dowd & the Language of Music” which premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.]
In the ‘50s, few people got paid well in the recording industry. And it was all rights in with most contracts.
Well, artists were getting 5 percent and new artists getting signed were getting 2 and 3 percent. And there was no producer money. So the companies were making fortunes. Elvis Presley was making 5 percent when he was signed at RCA, and the producer was always an in-house producer so there were no other royalties going out. And then the label would charge him for breakage, and for promotional copies.
After three months at Apex Studios, you were able to work on basic demo records, voice and piano things. Is it true that one Saturday you had a session with Duke Ellington and his orchestra that you didn’t know about in advance? And in mono? And with Billy Strayhorn on piano?
That’s a day I will never forget as long as I Iive. That was an amazing time. Duke Ellington was such a wonderful man. He was so nice to me. I kept saying to him, “Mr. Ellington, I’m not qualified to do this.” He patted me on the leg, and he looked me in the eye and said, “It’s okay sonny, we are going to get through this.”
What did you think when the band arrived unannounced with all of equipment?
I didn’t know what to do. I was the only one there. The first thing that I did was to try to get to the phone to get hold of Tommy Dowd but I couldn’t reach him. I then tried to call my boss and I couldn’t reach him either. Tommy had bought me a little note book and I would do diagrams of all of the sessions that we would do, what microphones there were, and where to place them. So I had that book with me all of the time, and I used that.
You did some work for Atlantic Records while at Apex.
I did a lot of stuff for Atlantic. Whatever Tommy didn’t do, I did. They were doing everything at Apex. Tommy was their engineer. When he couldn’t do stuff, I was the guy. So I was doing dates with the Coasters and Clyde McPhatter. It was a great time. I was still in my teens.
When Apex closed, you then worked at Nola Studios?
For one year. Then Tommy called me and said there was an opening at the studio that he was at.
That was the Fulton Studio on W. 40th Street where Bob Doherty was an engineer?
Right. He was another mentor of mine. He taught me how to record large orchestras.
in the ‘50s, New York was the epicenter of jazz. At Fulton, you recorded Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. In those days it wasn’t unusual having jazz tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet on a rock ‘n’ roll session.
Absolutely, I know. Jazz was huge. The East Coast jazz, in particular, where there was Bird (Charlie Parker), Miles (Davis), Bobby Brookmeyer and Jim Hall, was popular. It was just an incredible time. I went to Birdland all of the time.
In fact, when I was a kid, I used to go to Bop City before Birdland or the Royal Roost. You could get in there when you were 16. You paid a dollar. They had a roped off area where you could stand. I’d catch George Shearing with Marjorie Hines playing vibes and after that it would be Illinois Jacquet. There would be three shows. One artist right after another. It was pretty amazing.
Morris Levy co-owned Birdland with his brother Irving who was stabbed to death there.
There’s a great story about Moishe Levy. Joe Reisman, who was recording Jimmie Rogers, went in and asked for royalties on the Jimmie Rogers’ records. Joe told me this story, “Moishe looked me right in the eye, and said, ‘You want royalties? Go to England.’”
[Morris Levy, born Moishe Levy, founded Roulette Records and signed Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Buddy Knox, Jimmie Rodgers, and Joey Dee and the Starliters. In 1986, Levy was convicted on charges of extortion but died in 1990 before serving any time in prison. The HBO series “The Sopranos” featured the character of Herman 'Hesh' Rabkin, a mob-connected record mogul that has drawn comparisons to Levy.]
Nobody got royalties for sessions then.
I remember doing dates at Apex where the producer (Bobby Shad) would take a .32 automatic and put it on the producer’s desk. He would have a wad of money that he paid each musician with. At the end of the session, they all got paid $15 for three hours. But he had the gun right there too.
Was it Dick Bock, owner of the Pacific Jazz label, who brought you to Los Angeles in 1958?
Yes. He got me a job. He came to New York to work with me. I did a bunch of things for him, and one day-- I think we were doing “The Gerry Mulligan Songbook”—he said, “Why don’t you come to California? Then I wouldn’t have to come to New York and use you.” I jokingly said, “Get me a job out there, and I’ll come.” Three weeks later, he called me on the phone, and said he got me a job out there if I wanted it. So I flew out and talked to the guy, and they hired me (at Radio Recorders in Hollywood).
In Los Angeles, the top engineers at the time were Bones Howe and Thorne Nogar.
Thorne, Bones Howe and I all worked at Radio Recorders at the same time. Actually, Bones was doing Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” album [“The Music From Peter Gunn” which stayed #1 on Billboard in 1959 for 10 weeks] with producer Sy Rady. Apparently, with Bones and Sy, something didn’t work right between the two of them. So I got asked to finish the record, and I did.
You won your first engineering Grammy Award for Henry Mancini’s “Hatari!” soundtrack which featured "Baby Elephant Walk."
The first time I got nominated for a Grammy was in 1961 for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with Mancini (along with engineering nomination for “Great Bands With Great Voices” by the Johnny Mann Singers). I lost out to Judy Garland’s “Judy at Carnegie Hall.” Everybody was telling me that I was going to win, but I lost. The following year “Hatari” was up (along with a nomination for Si Zentner and the Johnny Mann Singer’s “Great Bands With Great Voices”] and I didn’t think that I had a chance at all to win, and I won it. That was my first Grammy.
Henry Mancini’s achievements as a composer and orchestrator in film and TV are unparalleled.
He was a real down-to-earth guy. I loved him. He was a fun guy to work with and just good people. I just finished a record with Monica (Concord Record recording artist Monica Mancini, Henry’s daughter) that will be out in March. I think it’s her best album yet. It’s unbelievable. She’s a dear friend of ours. Her and my wife are very close.
Henry Mancini’s arrangements were great.
One of the things that made him so great was…in those days you would do a session from 8 to 11 at night. In those days, if you went one minute overtime, all of the musicians got paid a half-hour over time. There was always someone from the (musician’s) union to make sure of (being paid)
So we would get the final take (of a track) about two or three minutes before 11, and we’d say, “Okay, Hank. That’s it, man. It’s great. We’ve got it.” Hank would say, “No. I heard a little thing over here. We have to do it once more.” He would do one more (take) and all of the guys got a half hour over time. He did that on every session. It was his way of thanking the musicians. They loved him for that.
And there was fact that he was a brilliant melody writer, and arranger too.
Absolutely. Things like “Baby Elephant Walk” and “Hatari!” are incredible. When we did “Hatari!” he had brought back from Africa a lot of drums---the big shakers and a kalimba. Shelly Manne played kalimba on a on a couple of songs on “Hatari!” Hank was brilliant. He had great ideas, and he was very innovative. On his arrangements, he would use four trombones, 4 or 5 trumpets, 4 French horns, and 5 chaste flutes. It was just unbelievable.
Sy Rady and Dick Pierce started using you on many of their RCA sessions.
I became the RCA engineer on the west coast even though I was still working for Radio Recorders. Then, when RCA opened their studio at the NBC Building at Sunset and Vine, I was the first engineer that they hired. The head of engineering hired me, but I had all of these recommendations from Bob Yorke (RCA Victor division VP in charge of the commercial records department) and all of those guys. It was a no brainer that they hired me.
At RCA you worked on sessions with Eddie Fisher, Ann-Margret, Ray Charles and Betty Carter.
Sam Cooke, the Jefferson Airplane, Glen Yarborough, the Limelighters. The list just goes on and on.
Anything that came through the door. So you had to do everything?
Yep. But it was a fun time. After I had engineered there for a few years, I wanted to get into producing, Steve Sholes (then West Coast manager of RCA Victor) gave me the opportunity to go into production.
[In 1955, as head of RCA’s country division in Nashville, Sholes signed Elvis Presley. He also signed Chet Atkins, Eddy Arnold, the Browns, Hank Snow, and Jim Reeves to RCA.]
You worked with producers Hugo and Luigi (Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore) on Sam Cooke sessions, including for “Bring It On Home,” and Another Saturday Night.” You produced his 1965 hit “Shake”.
Oh yes, I was the engineer on a lot of that stuff like “Cupid,” and “Twistin’ The Night Away.” When Hugo and Luigi left RCA in 1964 (and then bought Avco/Embassy Records) RCA wanted to get a producer for Sam. He said, “I want Al.” That was really nice.
You were the engineer for his classic 1964 album “Sam Cooke Live at the Copa.”
I love that record. That’s also one of my favorite. Sam Cooke was one of my favorite people to work with. I loved that guy. When he was in the studio, he was amazing. We’d come in, the arrangements would be there, and we’d start to run it down. All of a sudden, he was telling the drummer what to play, what beat he wanted. He was changing horn lines. He was amazing.
How difficult was the Copa album to produce?
It wasn’t that difficult to do because the band had been rehearsed really well. We went up to the Catskills, and Sam showcased the show up there. It stiffed up there because there were all of these old Jewish people there; they had no idea about Sam Cooke at all. But the recording itself wasn’t that difficult to do. We recorded a few nights. The difficult thing was picking the right takes, and putting everything together so it was seamless.
You worked at RCA when the label studio system was in place. In the '70s and '80s, RCA and Capitol in Los Angeles struggled whether to continue to function as in-house facilities or try to attract other labels' clients.
Absolutely. After awhile, (the label executives) realized that it was good for their profit and loss to start letting people in. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, there no independent engineers. They all worked for studios or record labels.
You left RCA to be an independent engineer in 1966. You were one of the first independent engineers in Los Angeles.
I was doing Eddie Fisher in the afternoons from 2 to 5; and Jefferson Airplane from 8 to 4 in the morning. I called my boss Ernie Alschurer (division VP and executive producer of top A&R at RCA)—his claim to fame was that he was the engineer on Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” I called him, and I said, “I can’t do this anymore. I am working until 4 or 5 in the morning. I go home and get a couple of hours sleep. I have to come in, do all of my budgets and get liner notes together, all of these things, and then do Eddie Fisher in the afternoon. You have to get someone who can do Eddie Fisher.” He said to me, “Well truck drivers do it.” He was talking about working 16 hours a day like truck drivers. I said to him, “Ernie, get yourself a couple of truck drivers. I quit. I sent in my resignation. I stayed two weeks and I left.
Then, Jefferson Airplane called me and asked if I’d like to produce them on an independent basis. They had been given to someone else at RCA, and they didn’t like them. They were happy with me. They were told they could hire anybody they wanted. I said sure.
You recorded four albums with them.
I liked them. Also at RCA my salary was $17,500 a year. I could get a (producer’s) bonus of $5,000 depending on how successful my records were. I made that (bonus) every year. So, in essence, I was making $22,500. The first independent record that I produced was the Jefferson Airplane’s “After Bathing At Baxter’s.” My first royalty cheque was $50,000 just for this one act. I was doing 10 and 11 acts for RCA for $22,500. So leaving was a no brainer.
Jefferson Airplane was quite a contrast to working with Eddie Fisher.
I learned something from each one of them. But I have to tell you they had a tank of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) in the studio. They came in with motorcycles. There was a lot of cocaine and marijuana around. They would write a song while we were in the studio, so, it would take forever to get anything done. The first album I did with them, “After Bathing At Baxter’s,” took 5 1/2 months to do. I had never been in the studio for more than two weeks on an album. To produce something that took that long was crazy.
When I was doing the Airplane, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell and all the Byrds would come by. People would come, and hang out because (the sessions) got to be a festive kind of thing. That was another reason it took 5 1/2 months to do the album. There were a lot of social things going on.
So that was the first time you received a percentage royalty on an album.
Two points. My upfront producer’s fee was $5,000 which was recoupable, But, I will tell you those early L.A. days were some great times in the record business. It was just exciting. I’d do Ike & Tina Turner in the morning from 9 to 12, and then they would get go off somewhere on tour. I did the Ikette’s 1962 hit “I’m Blue (The Gong-Gong Song.” You remember when doctors used to have little bags to visit people. Ike would have one of those, and it would be full of money. He paid everybody cash all of the time.
After years of producing you returned to mixing in 1970.
In 1970 Tommy asked me to mix Dave Mason’s “Alone Together” album. I hadn’t mixed anything in years. I didn’t think I could do it. I said, I would do it on one condition, “If it’s not working you have to tell me right away. If I don’t think it’s working, I will tell you.” Tommy said “Not a problem.” As I got into mixing the album, I realized how much I missed being an engineer. That (engineering) was why I got into the industry in the first place. I love capturing sound and mixing the music.
Why were you hesitant to mix again?
I couldn’t touch the board at RCA. The union was so strong. That’s why I was apprehensive. But once I got into it, the tracks sounded great. Tommy looked and me, and I looked at him and said, “This sounds pretty nice. We’re having a good time here.” And we did have a great time mixing the record. It’s a great sounding record. Bruce Botnick (engineered) the recording, and I mixed it. I love that record to this day.
You and Elliot Scheiner were among the first to remix in 5.1 surround sound for releases on the Super Audio CD format. Is surround easier to mix?
It may be a little easier. But when you are sitting in the “sweet spot,” and you hear the orchestra around you, it is just amazing. Elliot and I mix down to two-inch analog with an 8-track head. We use the 6 tracks and 5.1. It is just an amazing thing. We don’t do enough of it anymore. For awhile we were doing quite a bit. Musicians would come in and listen. They couldn’t believe how great things sound. The clarity of it all is amazing.
Do still mix down to analog on most recordings?
Not all of the time. I do mix down to analog some times. What I have been doing lately is mixing down to 192 (192 I/O audio interface). I have been very happy with it. I mix down to analog at 192. Then I go to (mastering engineer) Doug Sax and we listen and decide what we are going to use. Whether we’ll use the 192 or the tape.
Studio technology has evolved but with tape everything is there.
Yesterday, we were mixing back into ProTools--I was mixing to 192 on this Tascam (recorder)--and right in the middle of the mixing, and everything went away. My assistant Steve Genewick said that this was the second time this has happened to us in about three or four years. But it does happen. Thank god, we back up everything.
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.