Producer/Engineer Bill Schnee: Talking With the Chairman at the Board

Producer/Engineer Bill Schnee: Talking With the Chairman at the Board

Written by John Seetoo

When one thinks of some of the iconic records from the 1970s through the 1990s, albums and songs like Steely Dan’s Aja, Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love For You,” Carly Simon’s “You're So Vain,” Ringo Starr’s “Photograph,” “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” by Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand, and “Up Where We Belong” by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, to name just a few, often come to mind. These songs are still played on the radio and have achieved iconic status.

The man who sat behind the mixing board capturing those performances and blending the musical elements into the final recordings that we have all come to know and love, was an immensely talented and humble gentleman named Bill Schnee.

Hailing from Phoenix, Arizona, Schnee was a keyboardist who developed a fascination for the recording process and progressed so fast in his craft that he received his first Grammy award engineering nomination for Carly Simon’s No Secrets while still in his early 20s. Among the other artists he has worked with are Dire Straits, George Benson, Toto, Natalie Cole, the Pointer Sisters, Boz Scaggs, America, Bette Midler, Kenny Loggins, Teddy Pendergrass, Chicago, Rod Stewart, Billy Joel, Randy Travis, and Michael Jackson.

In addition to becoming a first-call sound mixer for CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) artists like Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, Andrae Crouch, and Carman, Bill Schnee has also been a mentor to other engineer/producers, most notably Jack Joseph Puig.

Schnee’s autobiographical memoir The Chairman at the Board: Recording the Soundtrack of a Generation, was reviewed in Copper Issue 160. It covers his career during the latter half of the 20th century. Thanks to Ken Franklin of, Copper was able to interview Bill Schnee about his book and go more in-depth on his body of work.

Bill Schnee, Chairman at the Board, book cover.


John Seetoo: You mention in your book that you are a perfectionist and that overthinking mixes and sessions has been a problem for you in the past. Now that you have the luxury of hindsight on an incredible career, are there things that you recall from past projects that you would have done differently at the time?

Bill Schnee: I don't believe I overthink in recording sessions, but I often do overthink mixes of songs I have produced. One example that comes to mind is from a record I produced with Colin Blunstone, the great lead singer from The Zombies. A friend had turned me on to the song "Never Even Thought" by Murray Head, and I thought it was a great fit for Colin. It was one of those times when I had the entire concept and 80 percent of the arrangement in mind before we hit the studio. I worked really hard on the song, and pushed Colin on the vocal harder than I've ever pushed an artist. He came through with flying colors, and killed it. Jeff Porcaro and James Newton Howard were absolutely brilliant on the record. When I got to the mix, I got intimidated and could never get happy with it. It's like the left brain kept challenging the right brain. I don't think it's a bad mix, but I know I could have done it better.

JS: In one example, you cite Three Dog Night's second album, Suitable For Framing, as your "baptism of fire" so to speak, and that you were still very inexperienced, yet managed to get a good record completed. Looking back, would you have used different mic setups or positioned musicians differently with the knowledge that you now possess?


BS: That was my tryout to work at Richie Podolor's great rock studio, American Recording, where my band [had] recorded three years earlier. As a result, I just copied everything Richie did, because I knew it worked. Honestly, at that time I didn't know enough to have tried anything different. It wasn't until I left Richie's and went independent that I started to figure things out in greater detail. By the way, I only recorded two tracks on that album, and a bunch of overdubs. But [in order] to learn, I did spend every hour I could watching Richie work.

JS: Your first engineering Grammy nomination for Best Engineered Album was for Carly Simon's No Secrets. In that year, Stevie Wonder's Talking Book took the Grammy, and you mentioned that you thought Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon should have won. What aspects of that record (i.e., panning, use of reverbs, mic placements, etc.) impressed you so much to warrant such praise?

BS: At the Grammys that year, Bob Margouleff, one of the two engineers of Talking Book, came up to me after the awards ceremony and very kindly said he thought I should have won. I told him I thought The Dark Side should have won. I think No Secrets is a very good sounding album – in great part due to the terrific job of recording Robin Cable did. I just think Alan Parsons did a wonderful job engineering Dark Side. I can't point to individual aspects of that album that cause me to feel that way…I just love the way the music feels.


Bill Schnee at an earlier time in his career. Courtesy of Sallie Schnee.


JS: Steely Dan's Aja was a landmark record on a number of levels, but in addition to your engineering Grammy win, Aja has become many producers' preferred reference disc for auditioning and assessing monitors in unfamiliar studios. Why do you think this has occurred?

BS: I have to give a great deal of the credit to the musicians and the simple, but elegant arrangements of that group of songs that seemed to come at the time from another world. I think that the confluence of elements happened to line up to create that "magic" that us older veterans in the business sometimes refer to.

JS: Was there a special combination of events and equipment that allowed you to achieve that pinnacle of audio fidelity, and were you cognizant of how special Aja would become when you were working on it?

BS: I had recorded albums at Producer's Workshop [recording studio] before and after Aja. It was a great little room with an amazing-sounding console. I remember driving home each night playing a cassette of the day's work and thinking, "What is this? It's not really rock, it's not jazz, but it gets jazzy from time to time – even a bit bluesy sometimes. I don't know what it is, but it sure is great!"


JS: You were called in to remix the Joe Cocker/Jennifer Warnes duet "Up Where We Belong" from the movie, An Officer and a Gentleman, which in 1983 went on to win an Oscar and a Golden Globe award for best original song, and a Grammy for Best Duo or Group Performance. How do you approach remixing a song on a project where someone else has recorded it, versus one for which you were also the recording engineer?

BS: For the purpose of answering your question, let me simply divide a mix into two parts: how it feels and how it sounds. Of those two, the feel is much more important to me. The feel is from the music itself, so between music and sound, the music is much more important. Mediocre-sounding great music is better for me than great-sounding mediocre music. Obviously the goal is to make both great. If I have recorded the tracks and hopefully done a good job, the process will be a little easier, since I know how all the pieces fit together. The exception is when I've produced the song and I get hung up on mixing because I'm trying too hard, like I mentioned earlier.

JS: Do you need a certain amount of time to attain an objective perspective from when you were recording the songs, or if you've heard the previous mix which may have been done by a colleague?

BS: I like to move quickly in all aspects of recording. That's when my creative juices flow the best. So on every mix, I try to jump in and get things moving right away.

JS: In your book, you talk about Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," where after the strings were recorded, David Foster added some percussion and guitars and then mixed it. There was a rough mix the assistant had done after the string session, and Clive liked that rough mix better than the final one and that became the record. Do you have your own guidelines or protocols as to when too much sweetening and overdubbing detracts rather than adds to a track?


BS: I didn't do that final mix that Clive rejected, but I did hear it. There are plenty of cases where too much overdubbing hurts a record instead of making it better. More sugar doesn't necessarily make a cake better. However, this was not one of those cases. I have to say I think the real mix was better than the rough [that] Clive released. David fought really hard with Clive to release that mix, almost to the point of damaging his relationship with Clive. Would it have sold ten more copies? Probably not. But I do think it would have felt a bit better on the radio.

JS: In an unusually humble move, you acknowledged being too close to the material for Huey Lewis and the News' Hard at Play to be able to mix it objectively, and selected Jack Joseph Puig to mix it with you. When you make a decision like that, is your choice of an alternate mix engineer predicated on their similarity to your approach, or do you want somebody coming from a completely different perspective to inject new elements and ideas into the process?

BS: That record was a very long but fun process…but long! I knew that would have been another example of me trying too hard on the mix, so I asked Jack to help me. I had spent quite a few years with Jack assisting me, and he was [then] coming into his own. I believe that's the only time I ever had someone help me with a mix. It worked out really well because Jack came up with some great drum sound ideas that inspired me, and he kept me on track.

JS: You are an engineering pioneer of direct-to-disc recordings, with Thelma Houston's Grammy-nominated I've Got the Music In Me and Lincoln Mayorga's Distinguished Colleagues in particular. Although the microphones and equipment used at the time were state-of-the-art, the basic protocol of recording live with no opportunity for post-production is not all that different from when Thomas Edison created his original paper and cylinder recording devices. Can you go into some of your memories of that experience?

BS: Until we started recording on magnetic tape, all recordings were [of] a live performance, usually of just one song. Magnetic tape is not a mirror, meaning it does not give you back exactly what you put into it. It has a sound of its own that is added to the music, and once we started recording on tape, that became the sound of music. With multitrack recording, we got two doses of that "sound" [because of having to mix the multitrack tape onto a second-generation stereo tape]. So going direct-to-disc eliminated that sound, giving a much more real depiction of what was happening in the studio. Digital promised to do that, but initially didn't deliver without unwanted artifacts, for years. I have now been doing live recordings at 24-bit/192 kHz with proprietary equipment that sounds like the best of the direct-to-disc recordings I did back then.

Right before Sheffield Lab president Doug Sax passed away, we had lunch and he told me the most exciting record they ever did was Thelma's, and the best-sounding record they ever did was James Newton Howard and Friends. I honestly never thought some of my Grammy noms for Best Engineered album deserved to be nominated. On the other hand, I've always felt JNH and Friends should have been.


The studio I did Thelma's d-to-d in was Producer's Workshop, the same studio where I tracked Aja. It had changed hands a few times and was a long way off from where it was in the ’70s. About a dozen years ago, a guy rented the space and was working hard to put it back to where it once was. I went to visit him, and found the recording room itself was virtually untouched. I couldn't believe how small the room was – so much so that I wouldn't attempt to do the Thelma album in there today. It shows the bravado of youth.

JS: Lupe Fiasco and Jay-Z took a sample from the song "Pressure Cooker" off the album, I've Got the Music In Me for "Pressure," which earned a Grammy nomination. What are your opinions about sampling and how it's used on many contemporary recordings?

BS: "Pressure Cooker" was a rock instrumental I wrote for Thelma's album. I was quite surprised when Lupe and Jay-Z sampled it, and have never been able to find out who listened to Thelma's album and found the song. I am open to all forms of musical creativity, so I don't have a problem with sampling, as long as the original songwriters are getting paid.

JS: Although you are primarily known as a studio wizard, you have also done live remote recording, such as Marvin Gaye Live! Have you done many other live recordings, and how would you compare your approach for doing a live remote recording versus recording in the studio?

BS: At the beginning of my career, I did a Barbra Streisand live album. I didn't think I could do it, but producer Richard Perry said he knew I could, and talked me into doing it. Two years later, I did Marvin's live record, and then recorded a Neil Diamond live [album]. Several years later I traveled with The Jacksons and did their live album, and after that I followed Miles Davis around recording a European jazz festival tour. The approach to a live album is the same as a studio album, only you don't have as much control as you do in a studio. The choice of microphones and how they're placed will be a little different also. The mission is the same – capture the performance.

JS: You appear to have mastered the art of diplomacy to the extent that you have worked on repeat occasions with a number of people known to be difficult to work with in the music industry due to their strong personalities, such as Richard Perry, Barbara Streisand, Miles Davis, and Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan, just to name a few. Was this trait something innate or was it a skill that you had to develop over the course of your career?

BS: It must be innate because I've always just tried to be myself with artists. I feel that engineering and producing are servant's roles – meaning you are there to serve the artist and their music. With the great producer Richard Perry and his constant search for something better, I certainly had to bite my tongue many times. I've worked with Barbra quite a few times over the years, and can honestly say I've never had a problem with her.

JS: Ringo (1973) was the only near-Beatles reunion of newly-recorded material until Jeff Lynne produced "Free as a Bird" in 1995, which featured the then-surviving Beatles with a reworked John Lennon demo recording. As you had worked with Richard Perry previously on Carly Simon's No Secrets, the Barbara Streisand records, and other projects, did you approach recording and mixing Ringo any differently, and if so, in what ways?


BS: I look at that album as Ringo's mates all jumping in to give his solo career a leg up. My approach to recording it was the same – capture the performances as best I could. The big difference was my nerves – first, recording a Beatle, then two, and then…three! The session for John's song, "I'm the Greatest" was the only time after the Beatles' breakup that three of them would be in the same room actually playing together. At that time, Paul had had a drug bust that kept him from coming to America for an extended period. As a result, Richard (Perry) and I had to go to England to record the song Paul and Linda had written for Ringo. If that weren't the case, maybe there could have been a real reunion.


Track sheet for "Oh My My" from the Ringo album.


Track sheet for "Photograph" from the Ringo album.


JS: You note in your book that due to plug-ins [computer software that mimics the sound of recording studio hardware, often classic gear – Ed.], the signature sounds of certain studios and their echo chambers are now accessible to anyone with a digital audio workstation in their bedroom. As a result, this has led to a homogenization of sounds on contemporary records, with a particular studio's sound no longer having an overall bearing on an album.

You also note that the DIY trend on recording has led to new releases being a compilation of individual overdubbed tracks with ever-decreasing live ensemble performances, due to costs.

Do you think these trends, along with streaming, have contributed to a return to the emphasis on singles, and do you see albums and studios with signature sounds ever making a comeback?

BS: As I said earlier, I am open to all forms of musical creativity. But honestly, there is a difference between musicians playing in a room together and doing the recording piecemeal. You can get great results either way, but there's nothing like a group of talented musicians in a room, pooling their talents and expertise towards a common goal. It's definitely a more expensive way to make a record, but it's a positively brilliant experience!

I think the emphasis on singles comes from the fact that we're not making a product to sell anymore…just to lease, so to speak. The good news is there are more people making records than ever before. The bad news is many of them probably shouldn't be. But if they enjoy it, why not?

JS: There are a number of heralded producers and engineers who are in either the digital or analog camps when it comes to recording. Some, like Alan Parsons, who recalls having to extract a single note from a multitrack tape with an X-Acto knife, would be ecstatic to never have to touch analog tape again. Others, like Steve Hoffman, love analog so much he remastered Jethro Tull's Aqualung by searching the Warner Brothers library in order to splice in a section from the analog safety to replace a stretched portion of the original analog master, rather than comping it from the digital master. Where do you find yourself in the digital versus analog spectrum and why?

BS: Having spent a good number of years with analog, I know the ins and outs of it pretty well. I think the worst aspect of analog tape – especially all the later low-noise [recording tape] versions – is that the sound doesn't stay on the tape. If you put a freshly-recorded track away and play it a month later, you will find it has lost some of its zeal. Some of the low-level high frequency information (the hardest thing to capture with analog) will be gone, and the track will be a little less punchy. And that doesn't include what punishing the tape by playing it over and over for overdubs will do to the sound.

There are some that want to get that warm and friendly sound of analog tape. I find an interesting comparison between the history of recorded sound and making movies. Movies started being made on film – the only medium available at the time. Later, when the video recorder was invented, people wouldn't accept a movie being made with one because it didn't "look like a movie"…it was too lifelike. The look of a movie was etched in people's minds, and that was from the colorations of film. If video had been invented first, that would have been the "look of a movie." If later on someone made a movie on film, people would have said how the colors weren't real, and there were distortions in the picture, etc. The sound of music we all knew after the late ’40s was from analog tape. Digital definitely gives a more lifelike picture, unfortunately in most cases with unwanted artifacts.

I loved working on analog because it was all we had. I went kicking and screaming into the digital world because I didn't think early digital sounded very good. However, when I saw the production value of a DAW, I knew digital would take over, no matter how it sounded. But in the last 30 years, we've learned a lot about digital and, as I said earlier, a 24-bit/192 kHz recording with the best converters can be breathtaking. I now love working with Pro Tools.

JS: Do you have your own studio, and if so, what kind of equipment are you using?

BS: I built Schnee Studio and operated it in Los Angeles for 34 years. When I saw the handwriting on the wall about the future of the music business, I decided to sell it. I kept all the equipment including my large vintage mic collection. I'm actually in the process of re-purposing the modules from the console, packaged in pairs by Teegarden Audio, to sell. I now have a mix room where I mix in the box [on computer – Ed.]. To get the best sound I can, I sum the mix with 24 stems out of Pro Tools through 16 custom solid-state D/A converters and eight tube D/As. Then the stereo analog mix goes through a Mastering Lab tube amp, and is printed through a custom analog to digital converter. All the custom equipment (except the Mastering Lab tube amp) has been designed by Josh Florian of JCF Audio.


The main room at Schnee Studio. Courtesy of Sallie Schnee.


The console at Schnee Studio, custom-built in 1980. It has no transformers except at the mic input. Every component was hand-selected, including the IC chips. All the switch contacts, including the relays, were doubled. The idea was to keep the amount of circuitry to a minimum in order to preserve sonic purity. Courtesy of Sallie Schnee.


JS: What kind of hi-fi equipment do you use for your own listening pleasure? Copper's audiophile subscribers are always interested in what professional producers and engineers like to use at home outside of the studio.

BS: I do most of my listening in my mix room where I have Tannoy [speakers] with 10-inch woofers and Mastering Lab crossovers. However, I also have a much more hi-fi system for phonograph records…a MoFi Electronics preamp and turntable, a JCF-modified Yamaha 2200 power amp, and TAD Compact Reference One speakers.


Header image courtesy of Diane Mileson.

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