In Memoriam: Al Schmitt

Noted anthropologist Ashley Montagu once observed that “The idea is to die young as late as possible.” Certainly that notion captures the life and essence of the late legendary recording engineer Al Schmitt. He worked up until the day that he finally pulled down the faders on his 91-year odyssey on April 26. He remained youthful in both body and spirit, was wise in the ways of audio and even more so in the ways of life.

My favorite recollection of Al is of the time that I sat in Studio A at Capitol along with a few others. I began to tell the story of how my mother met Bob Dylan in Chicago about a year before the release of his first record. I’d only begun to unpack my tale when someone interrupted me––perhaps unintentionally––and began to relate his own Dylan anecdote. Once he finished, Al turned to me and said “Rob, what was that story you were telling about your mom and Bob Dylan?” That’s the kind of person he was. He had great ears and an even greater heart.

Below, friends and audio allies share some thoughts and memories of this great man. Over the decades-long span of his career, he earned more than 20 Grammys and worked with artists including Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Quincy Jones, among countless others.

“Al loved music and he loved musicians. That was a large part of his secret to success. One of his favorite things in life was a big orchestra date where he got to interact with a large room of talented musicians.”
– Maureen Droney
The Recording Academy; co-author of Al Schmitt on the Record: The Magic Behind the Music

“I was fortunate enough to have been on the board of governors and also a trustee at NARAS with Al for a total of nine years. He was always a solid voice of sober reason and was perhaps the most respected member of the body. His solutions always carried integrity and fairness and he was turned to for them often. Regarding his pioneering work, he is one of our engineering and production geniuses. 91 years: wow! I join all those who loved him in celebrating his tremendous legacy. He was such a great guy.”
– Steve Vai

“Al Schmidt had the best ears in the business and was also the nicest guy imaginable. I loved seeing him at Capitol Studios and exchanging war stories. Even though we are from different eras, we could talk music and engineering for hours. I asked him once, ‘Al how do you get it to sound so rich and beautiful?’ Without blinking he said, ‘Rely less on EQ and more on true balancing.’ Turns out it takes talent to do that and boy did he have boatloads of it!”
– Rob Cavallo

“It’s his kindness and enthusiasm that will stay with me. The first time I met Al, he hugged me like he had known me forever. That was Al.”
– Bill Putnam Jr. CEO, Universal Audio

“I never got to work with Al, but I admired him like a hero and strive to emulate him. The biggest influence he had on me was his philosophy of getting the sound right at the beginning. Choose the correct microphone, place it correctly and go from there. He didn't spend much time fucking around with the sound after it was recorded because he didn't press record until it sounded good. That simple idea has guided me in my work since I first heard him talk about it and is the most important lesson I've learned. He was the ideal engineer and my personal role model.”
– Steve Albini

“Every man wants to BE Al Schmitt––and every woman wanted to be WITH him. Not because he was a ‘stud’ so much as his combination of comfort, confidence and kindness! And his work shows those same qualities––in spades. Hardly ever does one say about a 91-year-old’s passing ‘He left us w-a-y too soon!’ But that IS the case with Al.”
– Pete Doell
mastering engineer

“I met Al about a week after being hired at Capitol Studios. He was recording a Willie Nelson orchestral album. It was by far the biggest session I had ever seen up to that point. That day changed my life. A few years later I became Al’s full-time assistant engineer, and we spent the next 21 years side-by-side, mostly working at Capitol but also travelling around the world making records and teaching seminars. At the time, I thought I took the job to learn how to record music from the greatest engineer in the world. But what Al really taught me was how to treat all living things with kindness, respect, empathy, humility and love. The world has lost a great engineer but also a great man––a man I feel so grateful to have called my friend. We’ll miss you every day, Al.”
– Steve Genewick
recording engineer

“Al was an amazing person and like a father to me for the 30 years I was blessed to know him. He had a kind and encouraging word for everyone, was always interested in what others were doing and constantly learned new things. He touched the lives of everyone he met, even if briefly, and you knew that he truly cared about you. He changed my life for the better in countless ways and I owe him a debt I can never repay. God bless you, Al. It was my honor and pleasure to call you my friend. The sound quality up in heaven just got a whole lot better!”
– Bill Smith
Chief Archiving Engineer,
United Archiving

“Al was a titan of our industry, loved by all who knew him. It was a tremendous honor and privilege to spend time with him. You could always tell when Al was in the house the moment you set foot in the tower. The vibe was different on those days. All of us at Capitol Studios will miss him, but we are so grateful to have known him.”
– Patrick Kraus,
SVP Recording Studios & Archive Management, Universal Music Group & Capitol Studios