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Former VOA Engineer Nominated for Grammy - 2003-02-21

This year's Grammy Awards presentations in New York City will feature such well-known nominees as Sheryl Crow, Sting and the Dixie Chicks. But buried in the more than 100 Grammy categories are such awards as Best Engineered Album whose nominees are just as anxious as the pop stars to find out whether they are winners too. Among the nominees in the Best Engineered Album category is someone well-known to those in the recording industry: Al Schmitt.

Mr. Schmitt is hoping to get his 12th Grammy this year for engineering Natalie Cole's album, Ask A Woman Who Knows.

With a career spanning more than 40 years, Al Schmitt still spends long hours in "Studio A" of the legendary Capitol Records tower located near the fabled intersection of "Hollywood and Vine" in Los Angeles.

When we caught up with him in 2002, he was working on producing CDs by Natalie Cole and Diana Krall. Surrounded by 1960s décor along with the latest technology in recording equipment- Mr. Schmitt says he feels at home at Capitol.

"There's so much history here. People, when they come, feel the old Sinatra, Nat [King] Cole, Bobby Darin and Peggy Lee: they all recorded here in this studio," he said. " I try to work here as often as I can. People rise to the occasion when they come here; there's something in the spirit of the rooms."

It's been a long road for Al Schmitt, who got his start in the business - working for the Voice of America.

"Back when I started in New York, I was a teenager. We used to do all the Voice of America programs; and we'd do the shows in Italian, Greek Telly Savalas and his whole family did the shows. Werner Klemperer did the German shows," he explained. "I'd do at least one or two a week."

Al Schmitt recalls that during his childhood, the recording studio was like a second home. "I was fortunate," he admits. "My uncle had a recording studio in New York City. From the time I was seven-years-old, I've been around a studio, so I've been around it all my life. I learned from the best people in the business: my uncle recorded [legendary opera singer Enrico] Caruso and [pop singers] The Andrew Sisters. I used to watch a lot of those sessions, so it was natural for me to want to do this [work]."

After working with VOA, Al Schmitt went on to become the studio engineer on some of the best-known recordings winning his eleven Grammy Awards along the way.

"Early in my career, I worked with some of the best: Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker some of the great jazz artists. Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie," he said.

"When I came to California, I started working with Henry Mancini: all of the early Mancini records: [such as] Peter Gunn and Breakfast at Tiffany's, Hitari and Mr. Lucky," Schmitt recalled. "I worked with Sam Cook, … [and] Eddie Fisher, Frank Sinatra, Natalie Cole the Unforgettable album, I worked with Toto on Toto 4 with Rosanna and Africa. George Benson's Breezin'album, Steely Dan on Aja"

Why do the best musicians choose Al Schmitt to record, edit and produce their music? We asked the Grammy-winning engineer:

"Probably the most important thing is the passion for doing it. I just love what I do," he said, " I'm one of those people who are fortunate and blessed that I love to go to work every day. I'm very anal [i.e. precise] about what I do I make sure everything is working correctly. I use a lot of old, vintage gear. I think I have a signature sound that a lot of people enjoy. It's a warm, real sound. I spend time in the studio with the artist before I go into the control room to make sure everyone's comfortable and everything sounds right. I listen to the sound in the studio and try to capture it on tape."

That has clearly proven to be a formula for success for Al Schmitt, who may be taking home his 12th Grammy Award Sunday night.