Recording Engineer Al Schmitt Talks Working With Bob Dylan on Standards Albums

Al Schmitt. Photo by Paul Zollo

He’s a legend in the business for good reason, as he’s engineered and/or produced landmark albums by countless legends, including Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Lena Horne, Ray Charles, Henry Mancini, Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley,  Brian Wilson, Rumer, Neil Young, Steely Dan and many others. Most recently, in addition to a new Diana Krall album of standards, Al Schmitt has been working with Bob Dylan on his series of albums of Sinatra-era songs right there at Capitol in Hollywood, where he worked with Frank. Dylan started the cycle with Shadows In The Night (2015), then Fallen Angels (2016), and now Triplicate, a three-disc CD of these classic songs.

Today Al kindly took time in the middle of his always busy schedule of recording and mixing at Capitol to answer some questions about these new Dylan albums.

When Dylan first released his initial album of these songs, the late great songwriter P.F. Sloan, who wrote “Eve of Destruction,” among other classics, was keen to discuss it. “I think it is the album he always wanted to make,” he said. “It is his ultimate album. Because it shows his great love of the craft and artistry of songwriting. To him, these are the songs that need to be heard and be sung and be remembered. Maybe more than his own, even.”

Al echoed this sentiment in the following, that this entire series of albums reflects more than anything Dylan’s lifelong love of songwriting itself, and the beautiful traditions of the songs of this era.

You sure have been recording a lot with Dylan. We thought at first it would be only one album.

I know! We did 51 songs with him! The new one, Triplicate, has three discs. That is a lot of material.

Were those all live sessions?

Yes, it’s all live. Everything was live. No ear-phones. Him right in the middle of the band.  It was cool.

Did it require many takes of each song?

No, no, no. The most we did was three takes of any song. Most of the time it was one or two, and that was it.

Were the arrangements something he devised?

It was between him and his bass player. They would work out the arrangements in the studio, and they would go over what everybody was going to do. We would spend about two hours going over things, and then in the last hour we would record. We would do one to three takes and that would be it. Then we would take a break for a couple hours, come back, and do the same thing.

Did he ever tell you what led him to do these albums?

I think the most important thing was the songs. He wanted to make sure he could keep these songs alive. And to show people what great songwriting was about.  We seem to have forgotten. Some of the hit songs today are sort of goofy and don’t make much sense. Most of these songs told a story. And he’s just an amazing writer, himself, so for him to do this says a lot.

You are someone who has worked with Sinatra, and other singers who originally recorded these songs. What is it like for you to work with Dylan’s voice and those songs? Did it work for you?

Yeah, it worked absolutely. You know what? The thing that really impressed me is that the songs came alive when he was singing. It was all about the emotion of the song. It was great. We really had a lot of fun making these records.