27 Mar 2024


by Andy Stewart

He’s the caped crusader of audio: no one knows what he looks like or where he lives, and yet his compressors sit in pride of place in the outboard racks of almost every professional recording studio the world over. He doesn’t advertise, spruik his wares at trade shows, or boast about his impressive career. And as far as I’m aware, I’m the only person in this industry who knows his whereabouts.

Al Smart is an enigma wrapped in a riddle: a man unique to the audio industry. His gear is ubiquitous; his Smart Research C1 and C2 compressor/limiters have been conspicuous in the outboard racks of almost every studio worth its salt for decades. His only 500-series module released thus far, the C1LA stereo compressor/limiter, has sold by the shedload, and yet he has never advertised it. Indeed, he doesn’t advertise his gear anywhere, in some cases, even on his own website. And somewhat incredibly, he still manufactures most of his Smart Research products by hand, himself – I kid you not – ultimately testing every single unit personally on his workbench, including all the 500-series C1LAs, before anything heads out the door. Why? Because, as Al sheepishly admits: “I can’t help myself; I just have to test everything, otherwise I can’t sleep at night. And besides, I don’t like anything coming back.”

Unlike so many other notable designers in the audio industry, Al’s ego is firmly in check, almost to a fault. He never boasts about his considerable achievements or takes advantage of his hard-earned reputation. To Al, that sort of behaviour somehow feels tawdry, tacky even. And if you so much as suggest that his products have a cult-like following, or infer that his reputation precedes him, like Batman, Al will disappear in a cloud of purple smoke faster than you can say Attack or Release.

But his reputation most certainly does precede him, and his gear is iconic. Just don’t mention that to Al.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. I suspect many people reading this article won’t know who Al Smart – or his company, Smart Research – even is. Let me back-track briefly and cast an historic eye over Al’s amazing career in audio thus far.

Mr. Commissioner

In classic fashion, Al began his early career working in studios in England first as a tea boy, then tape operator, tape machine repairer and finally a console ‘modifier’ for Peter Gabriel at the ex-Genesis frontman’s early Ashcombe House ‘barn studio’, before finally meeting Colin Sanders from SSL in 1981, back in the day when that company owned a small studio in Stonesfield, Oxfordshire called Acorn. Colin’s company had, to that point, already been highly successful in the ’70s revolutionising pipe organs around the world, replacing mechanical systems with solid state logic – hence the name – and by the end of that decade SSL had also designed and manufactured a handful of A and B Series consoles. In 1981, SSL was on the cusp of releasing its new flagship E Series console when Al was invited to join the company.

This came as a distinct surprise to Al, who prior to this invitation, had worked with Colin Sanders at Stonesfield masquerading as a ‘recording engineer’. On this fateful day he worked on the very console that Colin had originally designed on a paper napkin at two in the morning a few years prior. Colin sat quietly beside Al during the tracking session, occasionally leaning over to suggest that maybe it would be a good idea not to have the red overload lights flashing on every single channel across the console! Like so many who started out pushing faders around on an analogue board, Al was in the deep end.

When Al was subsequently offered the job at SSL as its new ‘commissioning’ guy, he was suddenly thrust into the limelight. After two or three months working in the test department, right when the E Series console was exploding in popularity amongst the top studios around the world, Al became the person SSL would fly around the world to oversee the installation of its substantial (and expensive) analogue consoles.

Al commissioned SSLs for George Benson’s Lahaina Sound in Hawaii, Virgin’s Townhouse (1 and 2), Sarm West, Abbey Road, Air Studios and countless others, in countries far flung as Denmark, Japan, Holland, France, Germany, Italy, South Korea, the West Indies and the USA. He can recount a million stories about this period of his life: everything from flying an SSL console high across the London skyline on a crane, to breaking out a jackhammer to free a console stuck in a concrete stairwell in Soho.

After Al’s short but highly eventful tenure at SSL, where he gained a reputation for being able to service just about anything, Al moved to Barbados (as you do) to become chief engineer at Eddy Grant’s Blue Wave Studios, where he ran the facility for projects such as Sting’s ‘Dream of the Blue Turtles’, and worked with the likes of Bryan Ferry, Mick Jagger and the Thompson Twins, amongst countless others.

He moved back to the UK the following year, working as a freelance engineer on projects with Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney, and Joni Mitchell. It was through his working relationship with Mike Large, who had earlier joined Peter Gabriel from SSL, that Al subsequently became heavily involved in the planning and construction of Peter’s now iconic Real World Studios.

Al was, by this point in his career, already a highly credentialled audio engineer, as well as expert in everything from electronic design and maintenance to studio construction.

Everywhere he went from then on, Al was either designing studios (for people like Jamiroquai and Tears for Fears), developing customised in-house circuitry, modifying existing equipment or servicing and repairing endless faults. He even built entire music equipment systems for Peter Gabriel’s live tours.

Needless to say, as far as knowing how studios worked, or how they might be modified or improved, Al was all over it.

Smart Alan

It was probably inevitable then that Al Smart would eventually start making products for the wider world, rather than one-offs for individual studios where he worked, and so Smart Research was born.

Nowadays the brand is extremely well known amongst the professional audio community, and many who use Smart Research C1 and C2 compressors – which have been around for decades now – know them to be among the world’s best stereo mix bus compressors.

But what might come as a considerable shock to many who know the Smart Research name is that Al, these days, lives in Australia … somewhere in Melbourne … having married an Australian some years ago. Consequently, the Smart Research C1, C2 and C1LA compressors (amongst other variants and products) are made in Australia. Al is now even an Australian citizen, although he still has one foot firmly in the UK, communicating with people he knows over there in the middle of the night, most nights.

Al does have a second electronics wiz who also builds units for Smart Research in the UK, but these are subsequently tested by Al himself, in a somewhat extraordinary act of refusing to let go of the company reigns!

Future Smart

At his secret hideout in Melbourne, where Al and I recently spent a day talking the leg off a chair about all things audio, I was unexpectedly shown a small selection of Al’s many designs that are slated for future release (hopefully) – some of which are close to completion, while others are in their theoretical stage. I can’t divulge here what these consisted of, but what was extraordinary was just how many there were. Indeed, the accumulated stack of design paperwork stands taller than the man himself and grows nightly.

Which begs the question: how can one man be the designer, developer, manufacturer, builder and then promoter of a catalogue of products without the whole enterprise remaining tiny, and never quite reaching its full potential?

In truth, it can’t.

This is why Smart Research has remained so esoteric, and the man himself remains less recognisable than the kid who knocks on your door delivering pizza. Al never goes out because he’s too busy building stuff!

So while Smart Research may be a well-known brand worldwide, much has changed in the last two decades in our industry, and in that time fledgling audio companies have grown into behemoths, older ones have passed into history while others still have enjoyed a renaissance.

Smart Research meanwhile has seemingly done none of these things. It has remained at the top of its game, albeit on a far smaller scale than other brands that have exploded in both scope and fortune, taking their owners away from the soldering iron (if indeed they were ever there) and onto a beach somewhere.

There are more pro audio brands and products on the market now than ever before, and the competition is fierce. Al Smart, meanwhile, has so many ideas and designs in the pipeline that Smart Research may yet become one of the world’s larger players. But to do that someone will need to lock Al in a cupboard for 12 months and ban him from touching a soldering iron for years to come.

I put this idea to Al, who paused briefly, then self-effacingly said:

“Andy, you’re right of course…”


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