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

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Christopher Okula/KPCC

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- 21-time Grammy Award-winner Al Schmitt sits behind one of the largest sound boards in the recording industry in Studio A at the Capitol Records Building, Feb. 4, 2013. Schmitt, who has produced several U.S. chart-toppers by artists such as George Benson, Steely Dan, and Ray Charles, says that the board "isn't as complicated as it looks."

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Christopher Okula/KPCC

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- The historic Capitol Records Building looms over the famous intersection at Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. Stars marking the Hollywood Walk of Fame honor several of the musicians for whom Al Schmitt has produced records.

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Christopher Okula/KPCC

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- The Capitol Records Building at 1750 Vine Street is 21-time Grammy Award-winner Al Schmitt's playground. The building, completed in 1956, was designed in the Googie style, and resembles a stack of records only by sheer coincidence (according to a report filed by the late Huell Howser).

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Christopher Okula/KPCC

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- 21-time Grammy Award-winner Al Schmitt, a record producer and sound engineer, discusses his storied career with KPCC anchor Susanne Whatley in Capitol Records' Studio A, Feb. 4, 2013. Schmitt has to his credit several U.S. chart-toppers by artists such as George Benson, Steely Dan, Toto, and Ray Charles.

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Christopher Okula/KPCC

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Record producer Al Schmitt, a music industry goliath, says that he is as well known for his socks as he is for the music he has produced..

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Christopher Okula/KPCC

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Record producer and sound engineer Al Schmitt shows off a microphone dating from 1947 in Capitol Records' Studio A on Feb. 4, 2013. Frank Sinatra once crooned into this microphone, which 21-time Grammy Award-winner Schmitt regularly uses in his recording sessions.

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Christopher Okula/KPCC

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Studio A's sound board features a desktop image of the Capitol Records Building it calls home.

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Christopher Okula/KPCC

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- The Capitol Records Building at 1750 Vine Street stands in full view of the Hollywood Sign. The historic building is home to the famed "Studio A" and an underground echo chamber engineered by Les Paul, whom 21-time Grammy Award-winner Al Schmitt considers an "uncle".

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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