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Q&A with Bill Schnee

Exclusive Interview by Karen Beishuizen
Photos provided by Kenjamin Franklin/RadioTV.com

Bill Schnee is an internationally renowned producer, engineer and mix master. He has over 125 Gold and Platinum records and 50 top twenty singles. He has worked on dozens of Grammys nominated and winning albums and has been personally nominated 11 times for The Best Engineered Album category, winning twice for Steely Dan’s Aja and Gaucho. He also has won an Emmy Award for Best Sound Mixing for a Variety Special and a Dove Award. He worked with Steely Dan, Chicago, Barbra Streisand, Marvin Gaye, Herb Alpert, Whitney Houston and many more. He launched the career of Huey Lewis and The News. His book Chairman at the Board tells the whole story. If you have not read it yet, please do. It is great!

KB: Describe to the RSR readers what makes a great song?

A great song has a memorable melody over a special or unique chord sequence, with lyrics that will evoke emotion by most people. There’s a big difference between a great song and a great record. A great song will most often stand on its own – meaning it’s still great when sung and played with just piano or guitar accompaniment. There are many great (pop) records that depend on the production more than the song itself.

KB: You are a big fan of Henry Mancini. What is so special about him that others don’t have?

It’s his je ne sais quoi – those qualities in his composition that are hard to describe. He is certainly not alone … Desplat, Williams, Morricone, etc. It’s how these people hear melodies and chord structures that allow them to flourish.

KB: One of the early records you bought was The Lonely Bull by Herb Alpert, many years later you are mixing an album for him. Describe the feeling.

I’ve been very fortunate to get to work with many artists I looked up to in my younger days. The best part about Herb is Herb. In addition to his deep musical sense, he is a very special human being. I am very proud to call he and Lani friends.

KB: What makes a great sound engineer? Who are your favorites?

Someone who has command of the craft so he can serve the artist and their music, but not get in the way. I hate giving lists for fear of my memory not serving me, but off the top of my head – Glyn Johns, Elliot Scheiner, and George Massenburg.

KB: Your first serious sound engineering and mixing were two demos for Screen Gems and Warner Bros and then came Three Dog Night. Describe the feeling you had that day they came in.

I was begging Richie Podolor for two months to hire me at his studio. When he finally let me do a couple of demo sessions, I was thrilled. But when he then threw me in the deep end of the pool with Three Dog, I was petrified! Fortunately, I managed to swim.

KB: “There is no substitute for talent” – What makes a great talent? Did Richie think that of you?

I think God gives everyone gifts and talents. Finding and developing them is the key for a happy life. I’ve watched lots of people in the music business trying to do what they weren’t cut out to do, which most often doesn’t end well. I’m sure Richie didn’t know if I was talented or not … I know I had no idea myself back then. I just knew I really wanted to do it.

KB: You worked with Barbra Streisand on her album Barbra Joan Streisand. Describe that experience.

Speaking of greatly talented people … she was the first “star” I worked with. I loved that she was a foodie and was blown away when she sent me a box of chocolate covered pretzels, which I had never heard of in 1971. All of my times working with her over the years have been wonderful.

KB: Of all the people you worked with, and that is a lot, do you have favorite(s)?

I do have favorites, but don’t like to name them for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.

KB: You launched the careers of Huey Lewis and The News. What was so special about them that you wanted to work with them?

The manager of Pablo Cruise who I produced asked me to come up to the Bay area and see a group he was interested in managing. After I watched their set, I told him the band was pretty good, the songs needed work, but “that kid is a star.”

KB: Breakaway by Art Garfunkel is in your Top 5 of favorite albums as you mention in your book Chairman at The Board. What are the other 4 albums?

I did mention that in the book, but in reference to what I mentioned above, wouldn’t want to list the other four – assuming I could limit it to five. Okay., Aja is in the list.

KB: You worked with Whitney Houston on her debut album Whitney Houston. How was it working with her?

Unfortunately, as is often the case, she didn’t come to the mixing. I didn’t meet Whitney until I recorded “I Will Always Love You” several years down the road.

KB: Two Grammys, one Emmy, more than 135 gold and platinum records and you have recorded/mixed over 50 top twenty singles. That’s one hell of a career! What is next?

I’ve just completed mixing the cast album for the Neil Diamond musical, A Beautiful Noise, that is currently on Broadway, and also an R&B record I’m over the moon about by Charles “Wigg” Walker that will be out soon. I’m very excited to say that I’m going to be producing Boz Scaggs again. He’s one of my absolute favorite artists and human beings I’ve worked with. There I go filling out lists again!

Check out Bill’s website: HERE
Find Bill on Facebook: HERE

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