In April of 2021, 2 months after we released our first signature plugin with him, our dear friend and sound engineering legend Al Schmitt passed away. His passing is a great loss for so many. Throughout the last year, friends, family and industry professionals have paid heartwarming tributes to him, celebrating the legacy of Al Schmitt. The countless number of award-winning albums, his inspiring books and all the great stories shared, will remind us of his kindness and the sparkle he brought to the world of music and audio. With the Al Schmitt plugin, the first in our Signature Series, we wanted to capture the magic of Al Schmitt and pass his legacy to the next generation of sound engineers.
We interviewed Robin Reumers to learn more about the development process of the Al Schmit Signature plugin.
I believe it was around seven years ago when we first met in L.A. through mutual friends. At this time, Emiliano (Emiliano Caballero), who lives in L.A., became quite close with Al and they became really good friends. And then, one day when I was in L.A., Al invited me to come over to witness one of his sessions at Capitol Records. I can tell you, that was such an amazing experience. Just watching him work in the process was simply mindblowing.
In 2018, we invited him to come to Amsterdam to do a masterclass for my students at Abbey Road Institute Amsterdam. So, we got to meet again and hang out in Amsterdam with him and his wife Lisa. We had a great time. Al was such a nice person. And his wife Lisa is also such a lovely person.
What do you remember from that masterclass in Amsterdam with Al Schmitt?
I remember that before he came over, we watched a Mix with the Masters’ session where Al mixes one of his multi-tracks, together with the students. And we decided to challenge ourselves with the students, to mix the same song from the exact same multitrack! We watched closely what he did during the session and tried to mix it twice, before AND after his masterclass. And there we realized that there was something that Al did during the mix, which was impossible to replicate. It just didn’t sound the same nor had the same vibe. It’s that magic touch that only Al Schmitt could do.
So that somehow always stuck in our heads; why does Al get it to sound so good. Even with the same multi-track because a lot of people say “yeah, he just records great”, and there’s certainly a lot of truth in that, he makes great recordings, and that’s a big part of the sound. But even just looking at the way he processes things and how he hears things, which I think is very unique and it always kind of intrigued us.
Robin assisting Al Schmitt at Abbey Road Institute Amsterdam
So, what is it, that makes his sound so unique, you think? Is it related to the tools he uses?
I would say it’s 50-50 (possibly up to 30-70); one part is related to the tools he used, which were very well maintained at Capital Studios by their amazing staff. Think about their iconic echo chambers and the classic outboard gear collection, containing the Fairchild and Pultec. The other half is basically the way Al ‘hears’ things. The way he would listen to the music on his speakers, for instance, the system he has been using for such a long time, became his main reference. I mean, in his head, he already knew how it had to sound.
I’ve had the privilege to be able to watch Al work, and compared to other mixing engineers I’ve observed, I always had the feeling he perfectly knows what he wants and how to get there in a short period of time. He could simply do a mix in one hour and be done with it. That is super impressive! After 70 years of experience, I can only assume it became his second nature.
What made you guys decide to create the Leapwing Signature plugin with Al Schmitt?
It was Al himself that mentioned the idea to Emiliano. In the past, Al has been approached several times by different companies to make a plugin that represents his working process. And he always declined the idea. But at a certain point, he reached out to us and said he wanted to do this with us. And of course, we were extremely honoured, and immediately said yes. But where to start? So, we started sending him some rough ideas which he liked and shortly afterwards we started going further into the whole process.
Can you tell us a bit more about that process?
First, we sat down with both Al and Steve Genewick. Steve has been the staff engineer at Capitol Studios since 1994 and has assisted and collaborated with Al for the last 20 years working with some of the greatest artists on the planet. He was Al’s right-hand man and analyzing Al Schmitt’s workflow together with Steve was crucial for us.
Analyzing the songs he worked on consisted of different steps. Basically, we analyzed the recording, the mix, and the released master and tried to look for common things and similarities. He had a lot of specific tricks and little things he would apply, depending on the style or genre, or things he would do with vocals, etcetera, etcetera, and we would put those pieces of the puzzle together and try to define Al’s signature sound.
Besides Steve, we also had Niko Bolas and Chandler Harrod involved. Niko is also a great engineer and a trusted friend of Al Schmitt. And Chandler is an assistant engineer at Capitol Studios, and also assisted Al in several sessions. Al wanted both of them involved as an extra set of trusted ears, to check if things sounded right. Both of them helped a lot with analyzing the gear used by Al Schmitt and getting the recall sheets.
You talk about analyzing the workflow and sound. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
We started with figuring out the common threads. As soon as we reached the point of ‘ok, these are the pieces of gear that we think have an influence on Al’s sound’, we would go in-depth, like looking at the schematics of the gear, run test tones through the devices, basically analyze everything from top to bottom and as far as we could go.
This also included gear like the Fairchild’s, Pultecs, and even the converters. We took everything into consideration because every element in the recording or mixing chain influences the sound. Take the Neve console for instance: the load of all the gear connected to the Neve changes the sound of the console. Even if the gear is not used during the recording or mix. With all these tiny influences, we just felt it was important to try to get as close as possible to the source we could.
What were the typical characteristics of Al Schmitt’s workflow?
What stuck with us about his way of working is that he used reverbs, or echoes as he called them, to change the tonal qualities of a sound. We all know, that growing up as an engineer, you learn that you use EQs to change the tone/timbre of the sound. But Al took a more elaborate approach! To start with, he would choose the tone based on the microphone and in the mixing process, he could affect the tone by choosing a specific type of reverb. So, he would use warm reverbs to make it sound warmer or use a brighter reverb for an opposite effect, changing the tone of the instrument. Using reverbs to equalize, we thought was brilliant.
And then there were several other things. Like the way he applies compression, it is very subtle. And this would include adding harmonic distortion, depending on the instrument. Again, extremely subtle. But still, in the end, everything adds up to that characteristic Al Schmitt sound. On vocals for instance, if you activate his mixing chain, you instantly realize it sort of glues everything together and adds magic to it all. And his recording chain, the way he wanted to connect things, was something he’s been working on for such a long time. That’s what we wanted to analyze and recreate and replicate.
It would go through the Neve console, then through the Fairchild and the Pultec. And the settings were often neutral. And the Pultec and the Fairchild have tubes. So, there are multiple gain stages that all affect the sound.
The building blocks we analyzed as part of his unique workflow were the Fairchild, Pultec, Phoenix compressor, NTI, Tubetech, TLA 100, the Neve VR console, and many other hardware devices from TC Electronics, Lexicon and the echo chamber.
What was the overall idea behind the design of the plugin?
On the algorithm side, since the beginning, the idea was to create a sound that represented Al. This means, it shouldn’t be extreme, and it shouldn’t be aggressive. However, it should be gentle, it should enhance the sound, and of course, be super pristine, with the highest quality we could create, and fit with our overall Leapwing values. We always aim to create high-quality things.
But in this process, we felt it was important to focus on the subtle elements. Al was not somebody who would slam a compressor like 30 dB. Looking at the functionalities we wanted to give the user just the right amount of knobs and just the right amount of texture, without overdoing it.
If you look at the design and the interface of the plugin, there are only a few controls.
Yeah haha, that was a long discussion with the designer. We started talking about Al and how he was as a person and also how he listened to his music. I mean, it’s just very refined, real, classy, all these words that came to mind. For instance, Al was always wearing his shirt and tie while working, and the plugin should represent that. We didn’t want it to look gimmicky and bulky. And when he was mixing, he didn’t use fifty compressors on things. It was like a couple of devices here and there, twisting a few knobs, a bit of this, a bit of that and that was literally it. As I said before, often the mix was done in an hour or so.
Emiliano talking to Al Schmitt in Amsterdam
What makes the plugin so special from your personal perspective?
Personally, I love the reverbs, the EQs and the compression. And I love the way you can get great results in a short period of time. Recently I was working on a mix for a movie and there were twenty different voices and we just needed to get a great sound very quickly. So, we just put the Al Schmitt signature plugin on everything. And literally, in like five minutes everything sounded great. So I love that idea of being able to have the tools available that are like, ‘I need something quickly and I need it to sound good’. You just put the Al Schmitt Signature plugin on it and boom it’s there.
What did you learn during the process of building this plugin with Al?
I think we’ve learned so much about Al’s process; about how he works. I knew a lot about Al and I have seen him work a couple of times, but there was always this mysterious thing in his work. It always came out sounding amazing, and always asked ourselves ‘how the hell did he do it?’ There were still so many things in his head that I wish we could have analysed and implemented in the plugin. But, yeah, just being able to better understand his work and create tools that represent what he did, has been the most exciting and rewarding part of this process.
And as an engineer myself, my main takeaway is the subtle things; you don’t have to do much to make it sound good. You just need to have a very good recording with a selective amount of high-quality tools.
This is the first signature plug by Leapwing. Are there more coming?
Yes! We can’t say much yet, but yes, there will be more.
How has the feedback been so far on the Al Schmitt signature plugin?
So far, we’ve been overwhelmed with positive feedback. Everybody who really listened to it and tried it out came back to us saying how they love the sound, and the way it represents Al. And all the reviews we’ve seen so far have been really good. We’re really happy that people accepted it the way we intended to be.
Some even called it a secret weapon.
Haha, it certainly can be! But I think it really depends. I mean there are different types of engineers; first you have engineers who love tweaking a lot and that’s their thing. But second, I also learned that most engineers only care about the results. They want to get a good sound and they’re also not embarrassed to use presets for example. I personally love getting results fast. I think it’s important that when you’re doing a mix your only objective is getting the sound right in the first hour or two. If you can’t get a good sound in that period of time, you’re going to be digging and shoveling for a long time.
Thanks a lot Robin for this interview!
Homage to Al Schmitt (pureMix):
His book, learn more about Al’s recording process:
Bob Dylan’s ‘Shadows in the Night’:
Al Schmitt at Abbey Road Institute Amsterdam: https://abbeyroadinstitute.nl/blog/a-dream-come-true-with-al-schmitt/
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