Track Naturally: Al Schmitt on the Recording of Roy Hargrove’s Earfood

Ever since Wynton Marsalis discovered him in high school, Roy Hargrove has been known as someone who can smoke on the trumpet. The Grammy winner’s skill at the instrument has led to more than a dozen records and collaborations with some of the finest musicians out there. His latest album with the Roy Hargrove Quintet, Earfood, [Emarcy] is a delicious mix of smooth, contemporary jazz.

But to get the smoky live sound the Quintet was looking for, Hargrove asked legendary producer and engineer Al Schmitt to come aboard. Schmitt—who has worked with Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Neil Young, and scores of other artists—won his first of 19 Grammys in 1962, and he has recorded and mixed more than 150 gold and platinum albums. He is definitely a man who knows what he’s doing, and Schmitt’s thoughts on the recording and mixing of Earfood are tidbits to be savored.

What was the basic vibe of the sessions?

We recorded everything pretty much live in the studio, and the neat thing about the record was that the guys had just come off the road, and their chops were at a high level. When we started recording, they nailed almost everything in one take. We rarely went to take two, and we did 30 songs! As a result, the track assignments didn’t change much, so most of the mix was balancing things, and putting a little echo here and there. Because I didn’t have to audition a bunch of retakes or overdubs, I was able to mix 23 songs in just two days.

Did you isolate the instruments?

We isolated the drums, but the rest of the guys were out in the open. I had the trumpet and the saxophone facing the rhythm section. The little bleed we got between the trumpet and sax filled out the sound of both instruments, and I could still pan the trumpet a little to the right, and the sax a little to the left . . . then, the bass in the center, along with the kick drum and snare. The drum overheads were panned left and right, and the toms were spread across the stereo field. For the piano, I put the low end on the left, and the high end on the right.

What was the main gear you used to record and mix Earfood?

I’m a big fan of the Neve VRP Series consoles. I’ve been using them ever since I can remember, and I started mixing records when I was a teenager. What I like about them is that they’re so musical-sounding. They sound natural, and they tend not to color anything. For my speakers, I’ve been using these hybrids by Doug Sax from The Mastering Lab. They have 10-inch drivers, and the cabinets and crossovers are all Doug Sax. They’re incredible. Whenever I bring something in to be mastered by Doug, he always says to me, “Never sell those speakers!” I’ll check the mix on other speakers—including the ones in my car—but I mix so that it sounds good on my speakers, because then it usually sounds good everywhere. I don’t tweak anything for mp3s or radio. I try to make records that sound good on anything, but my records are going to sound a hell of a lot better on my speakers than on your iPod.

During the mix, did you find yourself adjusting or refining any of the original sounds you recorded?

No. In fact, I don’t use any equalization. I just adjust the mics until I get the sound we’re looking for. It’s just my style. It’s the way I learned. I also use very little compression. I may put the bass through a tube limiter to get the sound of the tube, but, at most, I’ll pull down a dB. I’m pretty much a simple analog kind of guy.

Did you do any digital editing?

No. I mixed down to half-inch analog tape. Of course, Pro Tools makes editing easier, but tape hits you in the chest. Most people can’t tell the difference, but. . . .

You’ve made scores of hit records, but can you think back and remember one of your worst session gaffes?

In the late ’50s, Tommy Dowd—who was my mentor—and I were in the studio joking around, and I erased three or four bars on this project. We were just playing around, and my reflexes hit the wrong button, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, and we both dove for the tape machine. Then we spent the next six hours combing through outtakes trying to piece everything back together. I learned to be a little more careful after that.