Longtime music engineer Al Schmitt continues to mix things up with another Grammy nod

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The most decorated engineer/mixer in Grammy history has an opportunity to add another trophy to his vast collection when the Grammys take place this weekend.

Al Schmitt is nominated in the Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical category for his work on Melody Gardot's album "The Absence." And this past Wednesday, the Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing honored Schmitt with a special award. 

In more than a half a century at the mixing board, Schmitt has racked up 18 Grammys, two Latin Grammys and a Grammy Trustees Lifetime Achievement award. 

"I've won them for Henry Mancini to Natalie Cole's 'Unforgettable' to George Benson's 'Breezin.' And I can go on and on," the affable engineer told KPCC during a recent interview in the Capitol Records basement Studio A. 

Tatum to Toto

Nearby on Schmitt's computer screen were the tracks of his latest mix: Gloria Estefan's lush cover of "What a Wonderful World." It's the latest addition to his discography that could seemingly fill a tome.

He's also worked with the likes of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Toto and, more recently, Paul McCartney.

But being around famous musicians is something Schmitt has done most of his life. His uncle and godfather Harry Smith owned a studio in New York City and Schmitt spent many weekends of his childhood watching his uncle at work. 

"I would sit on the piano next to Art Tatum and he would show me little boogie woogie licks with my left hand,” said Schmitt. “And, you know, the Andrews Sisters would come in and Orson Welles would rub my head. It was just a wonderful experience." 

Mixing new and old technology

Technology has come a long way since, and this seasoned pro blends the old with the new in his recordings.

Schmitt uses modern equipment like the digital editor Pro-Tools, but he still prefers some of the older microphones such as the Neumann U-47, finding that they produce superior vocals to the newer models. In fact, that particular vintage mike was set up across the glass in the studio, awaiting that afternoon's session with Joe Cocker. 

Schmitt says he still uses the skills he learned from his uncle and other mentors but he's adapted them to the times. 

"I went from doing mono and two-track stereo records and everything was done at once and no mixing," said Schmitt. "Now we get things with 120 tracks on it, so (there's) a lot of mixing. Digital recording is getting better and better every year. I'm pretty happy with way things sound now. I've kind of embraced it."

A vote for vinyl

As you might expect, Schmitt also does his share of music listening off the job. A few thousand records fill his house. He, like many audophiles, says the old LPs just sound better.

"When you listen to something digital and then listen to a great vinyl, there's a major difference," said Schmitt.  

He hears a warmth and dimensionality that make the effort of putting a disc on a platter and later flipping it over worthwhile. But it could be a long time before listening to records at home becomes a full-time hobby for Schmitt. He says retirement isn't on the horizon. 

"I worry about retiring because I know so many people who retired and they just kind of fade off, and I don’t want to do that," said Schmitt. "I think as long as people call me and I can do it, yeah I’ll work. I love what I do. It’s a joy."

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