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Q&A with Bill Schnee


Bill Schnee is a producer, Grammy Award-winning engineer, and author of Chairman at the Board—Recording the Soundtrack of A Generation.


What inspired you to write the book?
I’ve always loved telling stories, and had considered writing a book, but thought it was too self-serving. The tipping point came when a client encouraging me to write a book said that the music business was born in the 50s, grew up in the 60s, and peaked in the 70s going into the 80s. He said it was a very short time, a very iconic time—never to be repeated again—and you were there! Hearing that made me realize a book didn’t have to be, “I did this, then I did that.” Rather, I could tell stories about other fun things I had nothing to do with, like the cute story about Miles Davis. Read that in the book!

To be clear, this is not a “how-to” manual.
No, and I’m afraid some engineer types might be disappointed about that. I’ve written the book for anyone like me who loves music and records but hasn’t been as fortunate as I have to go behind the curtain. Early on I came to the conclusion that producing and engineering are servant’s roles…you’re there to serve the artist and his music. Beginning my career as an artist on the “other side of the glass” helped me realize that. I started recording by being thrown in the deep end of the pool with Three Dog Night and managed to swim.

Is your primary aim as an engineer to be mostly invisible at a session, or are there times when you need to step in more forcefully?
I definitely try to stay out of the way unless I see there’s a need that I can fill. It may be a sonic or even a musical suggestion. I think most people know that the musician in me is there waiting to contribute, and so I’m most often encouraged to do so.

What artist(s) surprised you most by the sheer breadth of his musical talent?
That’s an easy one…Barry Manilow. I was actually not a fan back in the day, but found quickly what an immense talent he really is.

The industry has changed. What do you miss most about the golden age in which you worked?
Before computers, an artist had to work in a recording studio with very expensive equipment where a group of musicians would all play together making the record. Today, “professional recording equipment” is within everyone’s reach, so most records are recorded in pieces in different people’s home studios. There’s something very special about the synergy of a group of musicians playing with and off each other.

In a career filled with so many achievements, what do you think was one of your greatest moments personally and artistically?
One that I would hope speaks to your audience is the Thelma Houston and Pressure Cooker direct-to-disc album (I’ve Got The Music In Me, 1975). That’s the album that brought direct-to-disc back in the modern era. Shortly before he died, I was proud when Doug Sax told me it was the most exciting record Sheffield ever made.

On Ringo’s self-titled album you ended up working with all of the Beatles on different tracks. How often did you pinch yourself during those sessions?
Those sessions were all fantastic, so I’m sure there were little black and blue marks all over me. For that record, Ringo’s mates had decided to pitch in and give him a leg up. When John came in to record his song, for the first and, I believe, only time after the group’s breakup, I had three of The Beatles recording in the same room. That was a magical night to be sure. Paul was not allowed in the country because of some little problem about drugs. If he could have come, I’m pretty sure there would have been a Beatle reunion. So we went to London to record the song Paul and Linda wrote for Ringo (“Six O’Clock”). I guess you could say he got by with more than a little help from his friends!

Using a word or phrase, how would you describe your encounters with each former Beatle at that time?
Ringo—very jovial and a real sweetheart. John—a bit dark but absolutely brilliant. Paul—warmest, sweetest, and most melodic of the four. George very warm and studied as a musician.

What is the most important skill required to succeed as a mastering or session engineer?
The art of critical listening.

What is the key to longevity in the recording industry?
Staying current. When hard-disk recording was coming in, I had to learn a whole new way of capturing sound. I knew when I started that if I was going to have a long career, I had to take extreme care of my ears, and I have. I didn’t realize back then that eyes would become more important than ears!


By Neil Gader

My love of music largely predates my enthusiasm for audio. I grew up Los Angeles in a house where music was constantly playing on the stereo (Altecs, if you’re interested). It ranged from my mom listening to hit Broadway musicals to my sister’s early Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Beatles, and Stones LPs, and dad’s constant companions, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. With the British Invasion, I immediately picked up a guitar and took piano lessons and have been playing ever since. Following graduation from UCLA I became a writing member of the Lehman Engel’s BMI Musical Theater Workshops in New York–working in advertising to pay the bills. I’ve co-written bunches of songs, some published, some recorded. In 1995 I co-produced an award-winning short fiction movie that did well on the international film-festival circuit. I was introduced to Harry Pearson in the early 70s by a mutual friend. At that time Harry was still working full-time for Long Island’s Newsday even as he was writing Issue 1 of TAS during his off hours. We struck up a decades-long friendship that ultimately turned into a writing gig that has proved both stimulating and rewarding. In terms of music reproduction, I find myself listening more than ever for the “little” things. Low-level resolving power, dynamic gradients, shadings, timbral color and contrasts. Listening to a lot of vocals and solo piano has always helped me recalibrate and nail down what I’m hearing. Tonal neutrality and presence are important to me but small deviations are not disqualifying. But I am quite sensitive to treble over-reach, and find dry, hyper-detailed systems intriguing but inauthentic compared with the concert-going experience. For me, true musicality conveys the cozy warmth of a room with a fireplace not the icy cold of an igloo. Currently I split my time between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Studio City, California with my wife Judi Dickerson, an acting, voice, and dialect coach, along with border collies Ivy and Alfie.

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