In Memory of Al Schmitt, Part II: On Recording Three Albums of Old Songs With Bob Dylan

Al Schmitt at Capitol, 2017. Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter

The late great producer-engineer on recording live with Dylan in the studio where Sinatra sang

Bob Dylan and Al Schmitt

This is Part 2 of our series on Al Schmitt, the legendary 22-time Grammy winning producer-engineer who died on April 26 at the age of 91. See Part One here.

Al would have been a legend in the business simply for working with so many of the greatest musical artists of modern times, even if they didn’t make great music together. But he did more than that. He understood a basic truth about the art and science of recording music that a lot of people never grasp. Which is that with every new technological advance in recording, there’s something lost. There are those (such as the great Marvin Etzioni) who feel mono is more powerful than stereo. There are many who feels analog recording is much better sounding than digital, and that LPs sound better than CDs. 

But the biggest presumption, yet one which has waned precisely due to Al Schmitt and his work, is that multi-tracking is always superior to live recording. They key word being ‘always.’ Growing up in the 60s as I did, knowing The Beatles used multi-track recording to create absolute masterpieces, such as Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road, it seemed to be a no-brainer that this methos was far better. And there are countless examples of amazing, landmark albums made using multi-tracking. 

But like any technology, multi-tracking is great as used by great engineers, producers and musicians. The Beatles with producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick were all extremely talented, brilliant people entirely devoted to the mission of making amazing music within serious limitations. It wasn’t the technology alone which led to Sgt.Pepper. It was the genius songwriting, the amazing musicianship, the inspired experimental use of sonics woven in with electric, acoustic and orchestral instruments. 

And the heart of every Beatles recording was real-time performance. With rare exceptions, every song was recorded by starting with the band playing together. They would do many takes as a band before beginning to record, and then many on tape before landing on one good enough to use as the foundation of the track. 

It was only after capturing that real performance – which contains the living spirit of music being made in reality, the result of musicians interacting with each other–that the uverdubbing would begin. But almost always, those tracks – even “I Am The Walrus” and other especially experimental ones – began as performances. Even the drums were real, played by Ringo (almost always) with the band. On “Walrus,” the groove was so odd that McCartney helped Ringo keep the tempo solid by playing tambourine in front of him as they laid down the drums. ) It’s the essence of real performance, which can’t really be faked. It can be imitated, but without that performance element, it’s never alive in the same way. 

Yes, there are countless great records made entirely by multi-tracking, without any performance and often any actual instruments. Some music and songs lend themselves to a more mechanical groove.  But not all. And for certain artists, that performance element is crucial. There is a magic – and a seamless beauty – to music made in the old way, a singer singing live with a band or orchestra. It’s how Sinatra made his magic. Not only did he prefer always to record live so as to capture that real-time dynamic in which he was never separate from the music, hew thrived on the energy of performance itself — in front of an audience. At Capitol, where he made many records with Al as engineer, all the secretaries and other employess of Capitol were invited to attend their sessions, which always were late at night, and would never finish before dawn. To keep the audience awake, Sinatra would have boatloads of ice-cream brought in around 3 am, which perked everyone up. 

Al Schmitt was great at engineering live sessions back in the day, and he never stopped. Until April 26 of this year, when he died just a few days after his 91st birthday. Until then he remained the undisputed champion of live recording. Countless great artists,  each of whom understood the dynamic of live recording vs. the alternative, yearned to work with Al. Those who did never wanted to stop. Whether Diana Krall, Jefferson Airplane or Ray Charles, after doing one album with Al Schmitt, they did many more. 

Even Bob Dylan is in this club. He’s yearned for decades to record great songs of the Sinatra era – standards – as well as those which were not hits, but which reflected the sophisticated lyrical, melodic and harmonic artistry of that era. 

In 2015 Dylan started the cycle in 2015 with Shadows In The Night. Though many people, even lifelong Dylan fans, didn’t embrace this album, many did. These include my late friend P.F. Sloan. The last time I ever saw him was in 2015, the year of his death. He was super excited about this new Dylan album and wanted to talk about it. Yet he was the only person I knew who seemed to really get 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.”

(Though people often thought Phil (P.F) was crazy, which he was , they didn’t realize he was also right. Most of the time. And being right in a wrong world can make anyone crazy.)

Since then, Dylan kept returning to Sinatra’s  subterranean sonic sanctum (the studio is in the basement, underneath the iconic Capitol tower on Vine) to work with Al.  In 2016 he made Fallen Angels (2016), and then in 2017, Triplicate, a three-disc album 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.

Press events are often held in the studio, which are always a thrill for me to attend given the history of the place. Despite the reason for the event, I’d see if Al was around – he usually was – because I loved speaking to him. He loved telling stories – and his stories were remarkable – whether discussing Duke Ellington, Steely Dan or The Beatles. 

During one of these, I asked him about the Dylan sessions. That exchance follows. He echoed this sentiment expressed by P.F. Sloan, 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.

Dylan did no overdubbing on any of the albums with Al (which has always been his preferred method) and produced the album himself, under the name Jack Frost.  The players in his touring band played on the album. He and bassist Tony Garnier would devise a rough arrangement. Al Schmitt engineered all the sessions, and mixed the album. 

 

In loving honor of this great and beloved man and the many volumes of timeless music he has brought to our world, here’s a conversation with Al Schmitt on Dylan from 2017, soon after the completion of Triplicate, the third and final album in the series. 

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

AL SCHMITT: 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.

He’s done so many of these with you here. Do you think there will be another?

I hope not!

Why?

Because, you know, Bob is a pretty good songwriter himself. I think it’s time he started recording his own songs again.  

 

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