Preparing The Audio Recording Session – Al Schmitt

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The most decorated engineer/mixer in Grammy history.


The following material is adapted from page 191 of The Recording Engineer’s Handbook by Bobby Owsinski

“The art of being prepared for the studio, along with a lot of the engineering arts, is being lost in all the cut-and-pasting. I’ve found that the preparation that people have before coming into the studio has diminished over the last few years by an astounding amount. People will come in and work hard to get something on the first chorus and then say, “Okay, can’t you just paste that everywhere now?” When people used to play these performances from top to bottom, there was a synergy with the track that happened. Something would evolve as the track went on. You definitely lose that if you’re just using a hard disc recorder as a glorified musical word processor.”

– Wyn Davis

Al Schmitt – Preparing for the Session

I talk to the contractor and…

1. Find out how many musicians are going to be on the date and who they are.

  • This is important to me, because having worked with so many of them for so long, I often know how they play and what their sounds are like.
  • For example, I may know how many toms they have on their drums (whether it’s two, three, or five) and this helps me plan my mic setup.

2. I’ll contact the studio and get a list of their microphones.

  • And I also own a large complement of mics.
  • Together, I usually have what we’ll need. But I determine up front if we’ll need to rent any.

3. Then I begin visualizing how I’m going to set up the studio and what microphones I’m going to use.

4. I’ll plan how I’m going to lay out the board as far as what mics are going to go in what positions on the board.

  • I usually start by putting the bass first,
  • then the drums,

So the rhythm section would be first. Percussion might be next.

  • then the keyboards, and
  • then the guitars.

If there is brass…

  • I’ll set up the saxophones, the trombones, and the trumpets.
  • Then I’ll have the ambience mics for the brass.

If there are strings…

  • I’ll put the harp first (if there is one),
  • then the violins,
  • the violas,
  • the celli, and
  • the upright basses.

5. Once the board is set up, I’ll think of how I’ll take these instruments and put them to tape (or to the DAW).

  • For example: if I have a direct pickup on the bass and a microphone on the bass, I will combine them and put them to track 1.

Then drums will be next.

  • I will put the kick to track 2;
  • the snare to track 3;
  • the high hat to track 4; and then depending on what there is,
  • I might put the toms next and then,
  • the overheads or
  • I might combine the toms and overheads together.

This will depend on how many tracks I have available and on how big the session is.

Next, I will put the keyboards, whether it is acoustic pianos, [Fender] Rhodes, or synths.

  • The keyboards will be together or close to each other on the tracks.

Then, I’ll put the guitars, then perhaps the vocal, the ambience mics, the saxophones, the trombones, and then the trumpets.

Then it’ll be the strings and, depending on how many tracks I have left, I will determine how I lay out the strings.

  • I may use two tracks for the violins and one for the viola, and I may use just one track for the cello and basses.
  • Again, the layout of the strings depends on what my options are as far as number of tracks remaining.

6. I’ll also set up all my echoes, which are merely for monitoring purposes at this point.

  • If I’m doing a live date, chances are I will have enough space on the board to use two or maybe three echoes.
  • I’ll set up an echo for the vocal.
  • I’ll set up an echo for the strings, and then the brass.
  • If I’m working at a studio like Capitol (Recording Studio), I’ll use a live chamber.
  • I’ll use a separate chamber for the drums and for the brass and saxes. I’ll use these merely for monitoring purposes.

The (echo) will not go to tape. I’ll print everything dry (no effects).

Echoes will be added during the mixing.

7. I’ll get a setup sheet from the studio and then discuss it with my assistant, Bill Smith.

We’ll talk with the studio assistants, one or two, depending on how big the session is going to be and discuss what we’re going to be doing:

  • how we’re going to lay out earphones,
  • where the instruments are going,
  • what mics we’re using with what instruments, and
  • where the mics are going to go.

This sets everyone on the same page before we even begin.

Download sample track sheets:

8. Then, about three hours before the downbeat, we set up the room.