Sitting On Top Of The World – At Capitol Records

Capitol Records Building- Photo credit John Piro

There are a million stories in popular music.  People have been writing about the players and the events since the first concerts were held.  Inside of those stories, there is a subset that deal specifically with the places where the music is made, the factories of sound. These places where music is made are hallowed ground, they are our altars.  How many buildings do you associate with the making of all the music you know and love?

Abbey Road, Olympic Studios, The Hit Factory to name a few.  Maybe Mussel Shoals, Sun Records?  To me, these are all just studios inside of some nondescript buildings.  Maybe the Motown building is a bit more recognizable, mostly because of the big sign across it, proclaiming “Hitsville, USA”.  But there is not, nor ought there be a more recognizable and iconic source of music than the Capitol Records building in the heart of Hollywood.

It is common myth that the building was built to resemble a stack of records, complete with the “spindle” on the top of the building, but not so.  The building was actually the brainchild of Louis Naidorf who, at twenty-four years of age just wanted to build the world’s first circular office building.  The spire on the top of the building blinks out “H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D” in Morse code.  The switch to activate the signal was thrown by the granddaughter of Samuel Morse, the inventor of Morse code.

If the tower is the face of Capitol, the studios inside of this iconic building are it’s beating heart.  Capitol Studios are where Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, The Beach Boys, Barbara Streisand, and many others have made some of the most compelling music of the twentieth century.  Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon was mastered here, Frank Sinatra’s Duets was recorded here, and the list is endless.  Back in 2015, Capitol allowed a handful of people to tour the studios on a first-come basis, and I took the tour.  Recently I returned for a closer, more in-depth tour of the studios.  It doesn’t get better than this, does it?  It actually does because as part of this tour, I got to sit down with a legend, Mr. Al Schmitt, a man who has worked with just about everybody in the history of music.  Mr. Schmitt’s accomplishments would consume an entire book.

I’m headed to Capitol, and I couldn’t be happier. I get to make that short drive into Hollywood where it looks like you’re skimming along the tops of the buildings, jumping off the Hollywood freeway into the heart of the neighborhood. After pulling up to the wrought-iron gate at the rear of the building and watching it slide open to admit not just myself but my vehicle, I know that this is going to be one of the best tours I’m ever going to be a part of. This is Capitol!

After meeting my escort, I’m led down a hallway lined with black and white photos of all the iconic artists who have recorded here, into studio “A”.  I’m shown “Nat’s piano”, the very instrument that Nat “King” Cole recorded on.  I’m shown “Frank’s Microphone”, the same microphone that Mr. Sinatra used.  It seems like he never left the building.  There’s a stool, a music stand, and his mic, still there, looking like Frankie just stepped out for a shot and a Camel.  I’m led into the control booth, and after a short wait, Al Schmitt enters the room.  Normally I attempt to write a very descriptive article and try to take the reader with me, but in this case, I’m going to step aside and let the subject speak for himself.

What follows is one of the most engaging interviews I’ve ever had the pleasure of being part of.

How does recording at Capitol differ from recording anywhere else?

Wow, ok. There’s something special about recording at Capitol, all the people that recorded here before, when artists walk down the hall and see al the famous photos, like Sinatra, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, it’s an inspiration. The fact that the rooms are so great, the equipment is so great, they have great maintenance; they never have breakdowns, if something goes wrong it’s fixed in five minutes. I’ve been in studios where things can go down for an hour, and that’s not a good thing when you have a room full of musicians trying to get things done. It’s so comfortable to work here. Everybody is great here; the assistants are the best in the business.

How do they keep all of this equipment at peak efficiency?

They have three or four maintenance guys, and they’re on top of it all the time. I’d like to say they’re the best. If one little thing goes wrong, like a fader isn’t working right, it’s immediately changed, taken up to the shop, a replacement is put in and the part is fixed. We never have downtime.

Isn’t some of the equipment in use here what you would call “vintage”? Like the U47’s? Where do you find this kind of equipment?

Some of it, like the famous “Frank Sinatra Mic”, the Neumann U47, I just finished using it with Diana Krall; I was working on an album with her. People come here because they want to use that mic, or they want to say, “Hey, I sang on the same mic that Frank Sinatra sang on”.   Same with the piano in studio “B”, that’s Nat Cole’s piano, the Steinway, people love it. The fact that someone can play piano on the same piano that Nat played on is an inspiration to people.

Did Nat King Cole bring that here himself for a session? Was it his?

No, I don’t think he owned it; we call it Nat’s piano because that’s the one he played on all the time.

What do you think it is that makes the sound here so superior? Is it the board, the mics, the echo chambers?

The echo chambers are number one. There are eight live chambers, and that’s hard to find in any studio. You’d have to go to Europe to find that kind of chamber. The acoustics in the room, the isolation booths are done in such a way that the sound is really good in them. A lot of isolation booths are really boxy sounding; they don’t have that problem here. And, the fact that we can change the sound of the room with the panels, all the way around. We can make them all wood, we can make them all bright, we can put them in between so that they’re like a little bit more dead, so depending on what you’re recording and how you’re recording, you can change the acoustics.

What’s the maximum number of people you can fit into the studio? I understand you can take out the wall between studio A and B.

I think the most I’ve had was fifty-four, in both rooms. I think somebody told me that they had sixty-five one time. It’s a great option to have. When we were doing Sinatra we had the strings in B and then the wall open and the big band in A, and Frank right in the middle of the room, it was pretty cool.

That must have been a magical experience.

It was one of the highlights of my life.

Have you been affected at all by the construction going on outside?  

At one point we thought we were going to be, there was a little booming and banging, but Capitol Studios put a stop to that pretty quick. It doesn’t seem to be affecting us any more.


Let me ask you about Bob Dylan’s Shadows In The Night. I’ve heard this was a real labor of love. What were some of the technical challenges?

The first technical challenge was that he didn’t want to use any earphones, so fortunately that’s how I grew up in this business. When I first started out, we didn’t have earphones, so I was able to deal with that.

The second challenge was that he didn’t want to see a lot of microphones, so it was up to me to try and hide as many of the mics as I could. So what I did was put a mic on him, and then I had a mic behind that microphone, about two feet, that was an omni. I had the Sinatra microphone on his vocals. Then I had a steel guitar player, he was in the center, and what I did was, I had his amp behind him, and then I had the mic between him and the amp, so Bob couldn’t see the mic. The steel guitar player could hear very well because his amp was behind him, and Bob could also hear the amp.

I did the same thing on the electric guitar, so those were two mics that Bob couldn’t see at all. On the overhead on the drums, rather than using mics on all the drums, I just put up one mic, a stereo mic, a C24 right over the drummer. That’s all I used, and that’s a small microphone, and that didn’t obstruct much.

On the bass, I had the bass mic lower than I normally would have it, and over to the side a little more, so if he wanted to see it, he would have had to look down to see it, so it was really out of his field of vision. The only mic that was really there for him was the acoustic guitar mic, and that had to be there. At one point he said, “I can’t hear enough acoustic guitar” so we just moved the guy closer to him, and that solved that problem. So it was a matter of the musicians hearing each other comfortably and getting a balance in the room, and the fact that I’ve done this so many times. I was able to figure it out without a problem.

When we did the horns, I put them in the booth, but I had the door wide open so the sound came right into the room, and Bob could hear it but he couldn’t see it. And, we picked up a lot of the horn sounds in the room microphone, the one in front of his vocal mic. So, it was a challenge, but it was a ball. We had the best time, we did three weeks that time, and we did twenty-one songs on Shadows In The Night, and then the follow-up album, Fallen Angels. On March 31st we released Triplicate, an album we spent five weeks on, and did thirty songs for. The same kind of music, those “old chestnuts”.


It sounds like it’s part science and part magic. Almost like a chess game.

Well, it’s magic, that’s for sure. That’s the way we recorded back then, we didn’t have any earphones, we only had eight inputs on the console, so we could only use eight microphones. Not like today where they have twenty microphones out there when you’re doing a big band kind of thing. That’s how I learned, and it was really fun to do it. I did a similar thing with Neil Young; he wanted to do a whole thing with one microphone. We wound up using more than one microphone, but we had almost a hundred pieces with a sixty-five-piece orchestra and a choir and him singing live in the room.


Was there any connective tissue for you between Genius Loves Company, Q’s Jook Joint, and Duets?

I think Duets was probably the most difficult of all of them. Jook Joint, I just did the big band stuff with Quincy Jones. I’ve known Quincy for thirty-five or forty years, it’s always great working with him, he always kind of lets you do whatever you want. If he hears something he doesn’t like, he’ll say something, otherwise he’s just chatting away and enjoying the music. The difficult thing about Duets was that Sinatra did all the songs down only one time, he didn’t do two, three, or four takes, he did one take. The only time he didn’t was if he’d start the takeoff and the tempo wasn’t right, then he would stop and go back and do it from then on, and finish the song.

Obviously he wasn’t the same Sinatra as he was in the seventies and the eighties, so there were some parts that weren’t really strong, and some parts that were. He’d say “OK, next song” and go right into the next thing. Phil Ramone, who was the producer of the record, and was a genius, he was able to figure out the sections of the songs where Sinatra wasn’t as strong, and that’s where he used the duet. He figured out this whole thing where they were going to parry back and forth, and what he did was take the weakest part of Sinatra and take them out, and Luther Vandross or Streisand would sing in those sections. It sounded great and I think it was the largest selling record he ever had.


So there was no point in the recording process where Sinatra laid down any of these tracks with the other person physically present in the room?

No, he didn’t even know at that point, and I don’t think that Phil Ramone did either, which artist was going to sing on which song. They knew which artists they were going to do the duets with, but they worked who would be singing on which song much later.


Do you have to change the room around when you’re doing a “Duets” kind of album?

Here’s a little story. Phil had them build a little isolation room in the studio, with oboes and things, it had air conditioning and we had the Frank Sinatra microphone set up in there, and we had a bottle of Jack Daniels and a bunch of Tootsie Rolls, (Frank loved Tootsie Rolls), and a pack of Camel cigarettes. We had gone through all the rehearsals with the band when Frank wasn’t there; so all the setup was great. Frank walked into the room and asked, “Where do you want me to stand”? I said to him “right in there”, motioning to the booth. He looked over at it and said, “I’m not going in there!”

So I asked him “where do you want to be?” He said “how about right here in front of the band”? I said “sure”! I wasn’t producing the album, it wasn’t my problem, it was Phil’s problem. I looked over at Phil and I saw the look on his face, but this is where Frank wanted to be. And he didn’t want a stationary microphone, he wanted a hand-held mic, it was almost like he was performing in a live show. And it came out great! He started to sing, and I opened up a fader on his vocals, and we heard that voice come out, and I started smiling. I turned to look at Phil, and he had a big smile on his face, Frank’s manager was sitting down at the end and he started smiling. It was like “this is going to work”. Up to that point, there was no guarantee that he was going to be able to do it, he hadn’t sung in a while.

I had done an interview with Mix Magazine prior to Duets, and they asked me if I had any regrets in my career up to that point, and I told them “Yes, I have always wanted to work with Sinatra”. He was my idol when I was young. I used to play hooky from school to go and see him at the Paramount Theater in New York. One day I get a call from Phil Ramone and he asks me what my schedule is like. I asked him when, and he gives me the dates, and I checked my schedule and I’m free for those dates. We go through the process of how much I charge, going back and forth through all that stuff. He was a bit taken aback because I was a little expensive. But we chatted back and forth, and he tells me “OK, I’ll see you on those dates then”, and gets ready to hang up the phone. I stop him and say, “Wait, who’s the artist”? He says “Frank Sinatra”. I say “Phillip, if you’d have told me that up-front, I would have done it for nothing”. And he says “and if you’d have asked for more money, I’d have given it to you”. So, that’s my Duets story. It was wonderful.

With the song Unforgettable, we knew who was going to do the duet with that. Unforgettable was done on a three-track with Nat in the center, and there was leakage into his mic, so we had to take out as much of the leakage as we could. Today we have the facility to get rid of it all together, but back then we didn’t. So we filtered things out, and in between, we took out what we could, but there were still some sections where for instance the flutes came through his vocal mics, so when Johnny Mandel did the arrangement he had to cover those things up, so he had to write flutes in those same parts and try to cover that section up. The biggest problem I had with that was trying to match up Natalie and her dad, the vocals were done twenty years apart. So it was a matter of working with the echo and trying to get the blend together with them so it sounded like they were in the same room, not like it was an overdub. And we were able to do it with the way that we used the echo and so forth, and how we were able to EQ his voice a bit, and bring it more up to modern times so to speak.


I’ve seen some interviews you did on-line where you’ve stated that you actually prefer to work digitally. Tell me about that.

It took me a while, but yes. When they got to 96 (kHz), I said to myself, “Yeah, OK, I can do this”, and we started using it. Now I’m up to 192 and it’s sounding really pristine. We were doing a Diana Krall record and they wanted tape. We had the tape machine and we had ProTools at 96, and we recorded both, and we had a switch where we could lock them up during playback and go back and forth between tape and digital. Diana and Tommy LiPuma the producer came in to listen down, and we kept switching back and forth and they couldn’t tell the difference, so that was one convincing thing. The second thing was we did three takes, and the third take was great but she loved the piano solo from the second take. So in ProTools it took less than five minutes. If we had to do that on tape, it would have taken at least a half an hour because you’ve got to cut the tape, take it off, etc. It would have just taken time out of what was going on, and we had a great momentum going.


So efficiency plays a big part in it then?

Oh yeah, and tape is extremely expensive. When I did Shadows In The Night, we used almost fifty rolls of analogue tape, and at almost five hundred dollars a roll it ran into a lot of money.


I’m sure Bob can cover it.

I’m sure that was not a problem for him (laughs). But I convinced him too, and so the last things we did with him were all done in digital.


Do you have any sort of portable music player, like an iPod or other mp3 player?

No, but I have a great system at home, and I have a great system in my car.


What do you have at home?

At home I play a lot of vinyl. I just got a new turntable, an Audio Techniques turntable and a fantastic pickup, and I have Tannoy self-powered speakers. I love the Tannoys, I use them on everything. I’ve been using them probably for the last fifteen or eighteen years. They’re the Tannoy ten-inch drivers, and then the cabinets are the Doug Sax mastering cabinets with his crossover. Pretty cool!


So then I assume Neil Young didn’t try to sell you a Pono music player?

No, he gave me one. I have a Pono, I have a Sonos, I have all kinds of stuff I can listen on. I buy Tannoys and if I get things sounding great on them, they sound great everywhere.


Which Tannoy model do you prefer?

I can’t remember, I’ve had them for eight or nine years now, they were five grand when I got them a long time ago, but I can’t remember the specific model number.


You’ve worked a lot with Barbara Streisand; did she record with you here?

Yes, she’s been here recording, we did an album with her and Diana Krall that Diana produced, and I worked on “The Way we Were”, where Tony LiPuma produced, and I worked on “Back To Broadway”, I worked on about five or six of her records.


Does she have her own mic here, like the Sinatra mic?

No, it’s not her own mic, it’s a Neumann M49 and what it is, it’s a rental mic. She tried to buy it from the place where we rent it, and the guy won’t sell it. So every time we do a session, we have to rent that mic.


Is her voice as stunning in person as it sounds on record?

I tell you, God kissed her right here on the neck, she’s amazing. She’s a real perfectionist and when she opens her mouth, it’s like goose bumps, I’m a very lucky guy, I get to work with all these people.


You take part in a class called “Mixing With The Masters”. What prompted you to start that?

I didn’t start that, but they call me one of the founders, I’m one of the twelve that originally started going over to France, but it was founded by three guys, two Frenchmen and a guy from New York. I go once a year to teach a class, it’s usually 15 engineers from all over the world. We get them from China, Brazil, Argentina, Iceland, all over the world, and they come and spend a week with me, and we’re kind of captive in this beautiful French château. We start at ten in the morning and kind of go until six or seven at night and we just sort of talk. We have breakfast, lunch, and sometimes dinner, and we just talk about recording, and we’ll bring in a jazz group and record them, and I’ll show them my technique. A lot of guys do this now, Chris Lord-Alge shows how he mixes, shows his techniques, so it’s a great educational thing, and for Engineers like me, it’s wonderful because I get to make new friends all over the world, so wherever I go, I always know somebody, it’s a wonderful perk.


It sounds a lot like fantasy camp for sound people.

It is, it’s like a baseball fantasy camp. I bring tracks of things that I’ve done, like “Peg” or “Deacon Blue” from Steely Dan’s “Aja” and they get a chance to put up a mix of it, to show what they can do, and then I explain to them what they did wrong, or how they could have made it better. It’s really cool.


One last question, what would you say is your biggest professional accolade?

Oh my, well there are three that really stand out in my life. I got a lifetime achievement award from the Grammy’s, that was really cool. I got an honorary doctorate from Berklee, that was pretty cool, and then I have a star right in front of Capitol, on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, right outside. I’m the only Engineer ever to have a star, and I have more Grammy’s than any other Engineer ever, so those are three pretty cool things.

The fact that I’m still doing this, that’s really cool. I do pro-bono work every year for the Grammy Foundation’s Jazz Session program with high school kids. I mix it, and Capitol gives the time, and I give my time.


It’s a shame the way they keep cutting funding for the arts.

I don’t even want to get into that, I mean, what are we gonna do?


I don’t know either, but I know how important it is to fund music in schools. If it weren’t for these kinds of things, I would never have made it through high school, music literally saved my life. I don’t think I want to get into it either.

The acoustics in this room are just great, aren’t they?

It doesn’t ever get old or wear off, every time I get in a car and think “I’m coming to Capitol”, I think to myself “thank you God”.

Same here Al, same here!

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One Response to Sitting On Top Of The World – At Capitol Records

  1. Wow, interesting to know! And, I have been to Hitsville back in the day! Gotta love it. Great article.

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