Audeze interviews producer and audio engineer Bill Schnee
January 28, 2022
Audeze interviews producer and audio engineer Bill Schnee
Bill Schnee is an internationally renowned producer, engineer and mixer. He's worked on over 125 Gold and Platinum records and 50 top twenty singles, and is considered a living legend in the music industry. Bill has worked on dozens of Grammy nominated and winning albums, and has been nominated 11 times for The Best Engineered Album category, winning twice for Steely Dan’s Aja and Gaucho.
"I found the LCD-Xs have the clarity, transparency, and low-end punch I was hoping for. But most importantly, their accuracy in the frequency spectrum was something I absolutely had to have." - Bill Schnee
Here's our talk with Bill:
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?
The short answer is ... no. But since you wouldn't be happy with that answer, for engineering let me start with Steely Dan's Aja, since it's on many people's list of favorite albums. The first Ringo album would have to be on the list, since I got to record all four Beatles - three of them in the studio at one time! That was the only time that ever happened after they broke up. In fact, if Paul hadn't had a small problem with a drug bust here where he wasn't allowed back in the country, I'm sure he would have come over and we might well have had a Beatle reunion. As a result, we went to England to record the song he and Linda wrote at Apple Studio.
Two of my favorite songs I produced would be Boz Scagg's "Jojo", and "Miss Sun". Like many other producers, some of my favorites are things few people know about. I'm very fond of two of the direct to disc albums I produced, Thelma Houston and Pressure Cooker, and James Newton Howard and Friends. For those that might not be familiar, with a direct to disc record you record one whole side of the album, one song after another without stopping, directly to the phonograph lathe. In addition to being all live performances under the controlled environment of a recording studio, there is a tremendous sound advantage as well. Because of their super high quality sound, these recordings were in every hifi store in the world being used to demonstrate the store's hardware. I wrote an instrumental on Thelma's album that was later sampled by Lupe Fiasco on his debut Grammy nominated album where he and Jay Z rapped over it. Who would have thought that a half Jew from Phoenix would be on a rap album? I sure didn't! In addition to James on that album were David Paich, Jeff Porcaro and Steve Porcaro from Toto, and Papa Joe Porcaro on percussion. That was the hardest D To D I ever did because after the drums and percussion, it was three guys playing all synths. For every song, I had to memorize what sound each guy was playing - a ridiculous test of memory! I wonder if I could still do that today.
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on today?
I'm very fortunate to be in excellent health and have the same passion for music I had when I started. Established artists are great to work with, but I really love producing new artists like I did with Huey Lewis and the News, and Pablo Cruise. I'm producing a new female artist now, named Alya. It's been especially fun because her music is somewhat experimental which is different for me. It's a modern in-the-box album made with programmed samples, but I did add real strings. I produced one country album in my career by an artist not enough people know about, Mandy Barnett. As I said in my book, "one of the best singers I've ever put a microphone in front of." I recently engineered and mixed an amazing album by her called Every Star Above. It's the torch songs from Billie Holiday's last album and was arranged by 94 year old Sammy Nestico - one of the real true greats! I recorded it all live with a 55 piece orchestra playing Sammy's amazing charts, and this songbird giving emotional readings to the great lyrics. I love mixing and I'm doing several projects right now, including a rock band, a singer/songwriter, and an old school R & B album.
How did you get started in music?
I play organ and started a band in my senior year of high school. We got signed to Decca Records right after I graduated. Our singles didn't make it, and we got a second record deal with Mike Curb, who was in the early years of his career. For this deal, an amazing musician, producer, and engineer named Richie Podolor produced us. We had previously recorded at Capitol and Western Studios - two of the very best in ’65 and to this day. Richie's studio was a bit funkier than those, but when I came in the control room and heard the playback of the track we had just cut, I turned to him and asked if he could teach me how to operate all the equipment. He told me he was already teaching someone and to just go out and do another take! From just hearing that 3 1/2 minute playback, I realized how much the recorded sound could add to the emotional content of a record. That was the "aha moment" when I knew I had to learn how to do that.
Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles?
The first real studio that hired me was a really great one, but I had no frame of reference and didn't realize it until I went independent and started working in other studios. At that point, the same way I had been doing things was not producing the same results. My first production was four sides on a gospel artist I had found for Mercury Records. When I got to mixing the single, I was very frustrated. I really wanted it to sound great, and it didn't. Hearing my frustration, a friend said I was being too hard on myself - that 99% of the people won't know the difference. That calmed me down and allowed me to finish the mix. In a week, Mercury called and said to come pick up a test pressing for approval. When I got it home, I very excitedly put it on my turntable. But when it came to the first chorus, I picked up the arm, stopped the record and thought, "I know the difference!". It wasn't as good as I wanted it to be and the other 99% didn't matter anymore. I committed right then to do whatever it would take to get what I wanted in the studio at the highest level. I fixed my aim at the very top and worked tirelessly to get there. I came to realize what elements in that first studio made the results so much better than in other ones. It had a great sounding room, great mics, and a simple but great sounding console. Learning this and how to achieve it all helped form the basis of building my own studio ten years later.
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project?
In 1980 I built my studio in Los Angeles with all custom equipment that we built, even the recording console. Early on in my career I became a fan of vintage tube microphones. I happen to think there's some kind of magic between tubes and transducers - speakers and microphones. I was fortunate to buy lots of them at ridiculously low prices in the 70s because everyone wanted the new "improved" transistor models. I came to find out that in audio electronics, newer isn't always better. Back in the day, for one of my favorite microphones, the Telefunken 251, I would pay between $400 and $500 dollars for one. Today they go for about $25,000. With the decline in the record business, I decided to sell the studio in 2014, but kept all the equipment. I still use all the mics and custom tube preamps on live sessions. I'm in the process now of packaging the modules from the console in pairs for resale.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire to get where you are in their own careers?
My dad was an old school Jewish doctor, and never wanted me to go into music. Before he passed away, when I probably had 3 or 4 Grammy nominations and maybe 10 gold records, he still said, "Bill, when are you going to get a real job?" As I was getting going in the studios I even started law school to appease him. But I was really faking it because between the lectures and sessions, I couldn't keep up with the reading. In the second semester I decided to quit for a year and a half to see if music could support me. I was ready to re-enroll when a client bragged to Clive Davis about me. Clive called and asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I planned on going back to law school. He said, "Why? You know if you've got music in your blood, that's what you should be doing." He offered me a shot and I took it. Lots of young people are into music. But if you've really got it in your blood, go for it - especially while you're young. It wasn't easy back when I got started, but it's much harder today. You're going to have to be committed. With the new paradigm for music, young people will often have to wear many hats to get themselves going.
Also, be wary of the internet. There can be great information there, but there's also a lot of garbage that passes for truth and knowledge.
How long have you been working with headphones, and what inspired you to start including them in your workflow?
I never used to mix with headphones, but would sometimes check a mix on them if a client wanted to see how they related. When people started listening on ear buds and such, I was depressed. We spend so much time and effort in the studio making the music sound as good as we can, and the public listens on those? But I was thrilled when real headphones started becoming popular. I knew the listeners were now hearing something close to full range. Unfortunately we had to live through the Beats ordeal. There's nothing like great headphones ... and those are nothing like great headphones!
My wife and I moved to the Nashville area almost four years ago. I built a mix room in the house which is not soundproofed from the rest of the house. As an early riser, I like to get up early and mix while my wife (who is anything but an early riser) is sleeping. I started doing just the set ups for a mix with headphones so as not to wake her up. Then when she got up, I would continue mixing on the speakers. One day I decided to do the whole mix on headphones. I found it to be great fun, and when I sent the mix to my mastering engineer, he said it was perfectly balanced. So I've continued to mix on headphones, and I'm loving it.
Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?
There is so much more to music than streaming with ear buds where you're not hearing all of the art. Having great headphones - especially with a HiRez source like Tidal or Qobuz - gives the listener a more accurate representation of what we work for in the studio. I know this makes all of the artists I work with happy.
I've written my first book, Chairman at the Board, Recording the Soundtrack of a Generation which came out last year. I've written it for anyone who, like me, loves music and records but hasn't been as fortunate as I have to go behind the curtain. I hope you find it an enjoyable read.
How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?
Between the changing world of music reproduction and Dolby Atmos, I found the need to check my mixes on headphones. I had a pair of very good ones, but wanted to see and hear something even better. I tried at least a dozen different models, and many were quite good. But when a good friend and fellow engineer told me his LCD-Xs were the first headphones he trusted the bottom end on in a mix, I borrowed them right away. I found the LCD-Xs have the clarity, transparency, and low-end punch I was hoping for. But most importantly, their accuracy in the frequency spectrum was something I absolutely had to have.