How to Succeed in the Music Biz

Al Schmitt and Lisa Hilton at Capitol Studios

I’m not sure if people will ever come to me on how to make it in the music biz, but if they do I’ll tell them: “Do what Al did – as in Al Schmitt, the celebrated engineer and producer and 23 time Grammy award winner that passed away at ninety – one last week. But before I share those thoughts, let me tell you how I met Al and started working with him sixteen years ago.

When I started composing, I recognized that I had to record the music if I wanted to share it with others. Somehow I found good people right away to work with and I generally was able to create work I was proud of even though those first few albums were low budget affairs dominated with performance anxiety. One year as I headed into mastering – the final step before finishing the music – I was particularly depressed at the sound of the piano. The mix engineer had over processed the piano so that it was hardly recognizable! I did a lot of research looking for better piano sounds and one name kept popping up: Al Schmitt.

I listened to Bill Evans, Diana Krall, and Rosa Passos and every great piano sound had the same engineer. Stuck in traffic on my way to the studio in Hollywood I came up with three wishes for my career that I repeated emphatically in my brain: 1) to have enough finances to pay my band, 2) to work in a studio with better bathrooms, (I had been working in some low budget studios sometimes), and 3) to work with the engineer Al Schmitt. Still feeling a bit glum as I arrived at the studio, I greeted my engineer Gavin Lurssen and his boss, Doug Sax.

Then Gavin introduced me to Doug’s client – Al Schmitt. Imagine my surprise to meet the one person I had been thinking about in traffic for ninety minutes! How remarkable was that? Al did agree to work with me the following year, and gradually we worked in better studios and fortunately my financials improved too. He engineered sixteen albums with me and we shared the same fondness for cookies, Cole Porter and great audio. The first couple years I thought I’d watch Al closely to discover his “secrets”, but like any great artist his work was effortless and just a natural part of who he was. But by watching him I saw the aspects that I see so often in people who are highly successful: of course he had a strong work ethic and top skills, but he always had time to look people in the eye and chat, and would easily give his time to teach or share with others.

When I worked with him he led a very balanced life, always nicely dressed, working out every morning and calling his wife when he left work every single day. He kept his commitments – if his job with Diana or Anita was running behind schedule, he still honored his commitment to our studio time. It was rare to hear a complaint from him even if the air conditioning went out on a hot day, although if you weren’t prepared he’d let you know you were slowing him down. Most of all, he loved what he did, and when you’re doing what you love doors seem to open up along the way – as they did for him time and time again, and as they have done for me too.

These days we seem to measure peoples’ lives by size, and by that yardstick Al’s life seemed bigger than anyone I have ever met. Imagine that every day he had the privilege of working with the greatest artists in the world, (Duke, Thelonious, Barbra, Natalie, Diana, Chick, Quincy, Frank, Norah, Joao, Liza, Elvis, and Madonna just to name a few), doing what he loved? I think we all would like to be able to just do what Al did and excel so consistently for decades and decades. He was a skilled master and an inspiration to all who knew him, and he will be missed by many.

– Lisa

a collage of al schmitt working at avatar and capitol studios with lisa hilton

First row: Al Schmitt at working at what he loved, At Avatar Studios NYC with Jeremy Pelt,
Christian McBride, Lewis Nash and Steve Wilson 2007.
Second row: Working with engineers Chandler Harrod and Al Schmitt at Capitol Studios 2019.