Technical GRAMMY Award: Roger Nichols

Elliot Scheiner and Al Schmitt pay tribute to the late pioneering recording engineer

FEBRUARY 04, 2012 — 3:55 AM

By Elliot Scheiner/Al Schmitt /

It was seldom that an engineer would be in the same control room with another engineer working on the same project. Roger and I worked on many albums together and it was during those times that I saw the true genius of this warm and lovable guy.

Roger was a man who wore so many hats, and the one he loved most was engineer. His craft was pure and his taste was simple, something that most engineers lack. He also had the gift for utilizing and building a computer before anyone had really understood what they could be used for. Roger created the first programmable drum computer, Wendel, that allowed you to use your own samples. I believe he was the only guy in our industry who possessed that kind of knowledge. Roger taught me one of the most important lessons of my life: It is important to remain open to new ideas and to share those ideas with your peers. He was an open book in that regard. I never hesitated to go to him with a problem that I couldn’t solve and never worried about his opinion of me after the fact.

True to the spirit of being open to new ideas, my friend was truly an adventurer and a daredevil. One night after we finished work at the Village, Roger offered me a ride back to my hotel in his Pantera. Of course, there was a side trip involved where he drove me up the 405 freeway at about 200 miles per hour. When I think back to that moment it was like being inside a video game. We were going so fast that even the police couldn’t catch us. He exited the 405 and ducked into a canyon and then took the side roads from there. I had the feeling that this wasn’t the first time he’d done that. I know I was white as a ghost when he dropped me off. He turned to me and just smiled. I think he was laughing as he drove away.

I will miss him dearly.

— Elliot Scheiner

I first met Roger in 1977 when he was working for Steely Dan. I was asked to mix two songs for the Aja album. Two things stuck in my mind at that point about Roger: his attention to detail — nothing got by him; and his wry sense of humor, which was always welcome during some otherwise long and grueling sessions.

We got to spend even more time together the following year when we collaborated on Steely Dan’s “FM (No Static At All).” I found him to be similar to Tom Dowd, who had been my mentor. Like Dowd, Roger studied nuclear physics, and worked at a nuclear power plant. He was very bright. And also like Dowd, he was a meticulous engineer, never failing to dot every “i” and cross every “t.” I remember how committed he was to make recording better. He changed the way many records were made with his inventions of Wendel, Wendel II and Wendeljr. I know I didn’t see a drummer for quite awhile following the advent of Roger’s state-of-the-art drum machines. He also started Digital Atomics, a company that developed the rubidium nuclear clock, which helped synchronize digital recording equipment, and the vacuum desiccation system for tape restoration.

I got to see Roger quite a bit over the years and my respect for him continued to grow. He was deeply involved with The Recording Academy’s Producers & Engineers Wing and a member of The Academy’s Florida Chapter Board. He was a great teacher, always willing to impart knowledge to his assistants and anyone else willing to learn. He had very strong opinions and was ever eager to share them.

I miss seeing Roger, with his great smile and his friendly hugs. This is a well-deserved award. I wish he was here to accept it.

— Al Schmitt

(A six-time GRAMMY-winning engineer/producer, Elliot Scheiner has worked with artists such as Eric Clapton, Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and Foo Fighters. He won five of his six GRAMMY Awards with Roger Nichols for work on Steely Dan’s 
Aja (1977), Gaucho (1981) and Two Against Nature (2000). He is nominated this year for Best Surround Sound Album.)

(An 18-time GRAMMY- and two-time Latin GRAMMY-winning engineer/producer, Al Schmitt received a Recording Academy Trustees Award in 2006. Schmitt has collaborated with artists such as Ray Charles, Diana Krall, Henry Mancini, and Toto. Two of his GRAMMY wins came for Steely Dan projects with Roger Nichols, including Best Engineered Recording — Non-Classical for “FM (No Static At All)” in 1978.)

In addition to the GRAMMY Awards, The Recording Academy presents Special Merit Awards recognizing contributions of significance to the recording field, including the Lifetime Achievement AwardTrustees Award andTechnical GRAMMY Award. Each year, The Academy invites friends and colleagues of Special Merit Awards recipients to pay tribute to the honorees’ career accomplishments, while also adding colorful anecdotes and personal accounts. In the days leading up to the 54th GRAMMY Awards, will present the tributes to the 2012 Special Merit Awards recipients.

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