The Hit Factories

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Northfire Recording Studio boasts some of the latest recording, mixing and mastering equipment.

The learning curve that music making has is a steep one. And this curve applies to both musicians and those that work with and around them.

For both parties involved, knowing  what one is doing comes first and foremost.

Bands and artists have to make sure their members are ready and on the same page. They have to raise enough money to pay for recording time.

Artists have to have enough money to pay for mixing and mastering, as well. They have to grind through the recording process, which, in some cases, might take months.

Bands have to deal with creative differences and band members getting sick and simple disagreements about sounds and tones and maybe marketing strategies – getting an album to sell, however, is something wholly different.

But arguably the most important thing in the album making process is a band’s recording sessions. Not only is it the biggest step in the tangibility or creation of an album or a song, but it also sends the message that the band is serious.

This seriousness, however, can be put up to debate quite easily with one question: where are you recording?

The difference in available recording set ups is almost unimaginable. The spectrum’s breadth is pretty intimidating.

Studios can range from a few mattresses surrounding a microphone in a friend’s grandmother’s basement to a full-blown, studio instrument equipped commercial sound space with predetermined room atmospheres.

Artists could be dealing with a “sound engineer” or a sound engineer.

An engineer could be fumbling around with a bootlegged Logic program on a laptop or an engineer could be manipulating Pro Tools with his or her eyes closed while sitting behind a sprawling control board.

So what makes higher end so special? Why pay more for the latter options when your friend Brian can “hook you up?”

If you walk into Pilot Recording Studios in Housatonic, Massachusetts or Northfire Recording Studio in Amherst, Massachusetts, you would know why.

Tucked away around a bend in Housatonic sits a blueberry-colored church.

Large, verdant trees dot the front yard and follow the driveway into the back. Stained glass windows decorate the outside and white trim accentuates large arches and sweeping rooflines. Attached to the church’s side is what one might describe as a beautiful home, a building that seems welcoming and comfortable.

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The back wall of Pilot Recording Studios is covered in rare and high-end instruments. Schillinger said every instrument in the collection sees use.

The church, however, has no parishioners.

Instead, it has a combination recording engineer, owner and producer. His name is Will Schillinger.

The church, it turns out, is Pilot Recording Studios.

Schillinger’s Pilot Recording Studios is a sight to behold. A church turned recording studio with an attached lodging area makes for a stunning first impression. But the architecture is arguably the least impressive part. Schillinger is the true highlight.

Schillinger is a music industry veteran whose roots in the recording industry date back almost four decades. Schillinger is a man who has worked at Abbey Road – think The Beatles – and has worked alongside artists like Rihanna and Miles Davis.

But to truly understand Schillinger and his experience, one must appreciate the story of how he got to where he is today and how his history has influenced the former church in tiny Housatonic.

Initially, Schillinger was a student who studied the furthest thing from music.

“I initially pursued psychology in college,” Schillinger said. “But I was eventually persuaded to check out the Institute of Audio Research in New York City.”

At the time, Schillinger said, the IAR was on the bleeding edge: no other college had both the industry experienced teaching staff and such up-to-date technology to work with. It helped, too, that IAR was an accredited New York University school. IAR clicked for Schillinger – he later graduated in the 1980s.

From IAR, Schillinger spent time at a handful of prominent studios: Atlantic Studios, Penny Lane, The Record Plant and Marathon to name but a few.

But then Schillinger busted out on his own, opening Pilot Recording Studios in New York City’s culturally colorful Chelsea in 1993.

New York City, though, was not Schillinger’s final resting place. According to him, skyrocketing rent coupled with declining studio rates spelled both stress and disaster. Studios that had previously thrived, he said, were scrambling to stay afloat.

“The studio in New York City was extremely expensive. I got tired of New York City. I had had it,” Schillinger said. “High rent, low pay really drove me out. It drove a lot of studios out 20 years ago.”

Schillinger was ready for something new, he said. So he moved north to the Berkshires, a place where he is no stranger – Schillinger has had a place in Monterey, Massachusetts for more than 20 years. He also attended Simon’s Rock when he was younger.

The change Schillinger craved, it turns out, was fulfilled in his purchase of Housatonic Methodist Church, a purchase that culminated in finding the right environment for his vision.

Pilot Recording Studios is now set up in the Housatonic church Schillinger bought in 2011. Putting a recording studio in a church may seem odd to some, but to Schillinger, and to the Schillinger-educated, it makes complete sense.

“This seemed like the logical place to me,” he said. “You want high ceilings and a controlled room tone, you want the things churches have. The sonic signature here is a beautiful thing.”

This “sonic signature,” Schillinger explained, was what made the church so grand. When he first purchased the church, he said it was in good shape on the inside – the outside, however, was a story of repair.

But the inside is what really mattered. In the 1950’s, Schillinger explained, Celotex panels were added to the churches interior. Celotex is an insulation board, and, according to Schillinger, aids in the creation of a fantastic sound space. Schillinger repaired the church outwards, adding acoustic isolation layers over the outside of the church’s stained glass windows and layering foam board over the exterior walls to increase audio isolation.

“You can listen and play music at all hours of the day and night here,” Schillinger said, smiling and blasting music through the brand new speakers that were perched intimidatingly above the console. “The neighbors can’t hear nothing but crickets.”

The inside of the church houses a control room, which took almost two years to build; an isolation booth; and a sprawling live room that is dowsed in warm, stained-glass light. This warmness, Schillinger said, is a prized possession of his and even compliments the recording process.

“It is really a warm room, both acoustically and in terms of vibe. At night, there’s a certain glow, and we just jam,” he said, flicking different lights on and then off. “It’s an ideal space.”

Schillinger is right. The live room is truly a fuzzy, energy-driven place. There is no denying it – the feel of the room is something close to magic. According to Schillinger, who is a self-described “huge Beatles fan,” the studio was modeled with Abbey Road in mind.

The studio’s live room is also a sight to behold, with its exotic guitar decorated walls and its pseudo-stage back section. The guitars on display, however, are not just for show. In fact, Schillinger said, they are just part of his collection and are there to help artists achieve the tone they truly desire. This includes the live-room’s grand piano, an original Mellotron and dozens of other instruments.

“The majority of these guitars are ones not usually packed in any band’s arsenal,” Schillinger said in a lecturing tone. “We try to provide a variety of sometimes unusual instruments to help diversify the sonic palate.”

But the most impressive instrument in the room, it seems, is a fully functioning pipe organ that dates back to 1863.

The organ was moved, with some stained glass windows in tow, from a church in nearby Lenox, Massachusetts. It now sits in a corner of the live room and belts out notes that are borderline enrapturing. And don’t worry, the organ gets plenty of use.

“On pretty much every record you do, you have to use this,” Schillinger said, dancing his fingers across some keys.

The fact that Schillinger and the bands that record at Pilot make use of his pipe organ and his guitar collection highlights exactly what type of music he finds himself recording most – “organic” as he calls it.

In the day and age where, as Schillinger described it, “if you have a laptop and a program, you’re a producer,” he believes that Pilot Recording Studios goes beyond the typical recording space.

Pilot Recording Studios, he said, helps “capture the band.”

“We record largely organic music, guys playing instruments,” Schillinger said. “Bands that want to document themselves need a proper space with the right gear. Pilot Recording Studios is that space. You can’t really capture that at home on a laptop.”

But that does not go without saying Schillinger knows his way around some synths and beat making machines. In fact, Schillinger recently worked with Passion Pit, an indie and electronic mash-mish of a band. Passion Pit actually recorded their last album at Pilot Recording Studios, Schillinger said, and stayed for an extended amount of time to get it right.

Schillinger’s move to Housatonic also provided him a change of pace and a refreshed start at a career otherwise dictated by stretches of packed out production and insane deadlines.

“New York City was a work every day environment,” he said. “Here, it’s different.”

Not only has his life changed, but so has business, and positively at that.

“My business has increased consistently over the past five years in the new location, and it continues to grow,” Schillinger said.

And with a résumé that is decorated with names like Rosanne Cash, Yoko Ono, Ahmad Jamal, NPR Radio and a Grammy win from the acclaimed HBO series Flight of the Concords, it is easy to understand why business is booming. And for Schillinger, it’s full steam ahead.

“I really enjoy what I do… I don’t anticipate ever stopping,” he said. “I am reluctant to say it keeps me young, but it does.”

Pilot Recording Studios can be found at 1073 Main St., Housatonic, Massachusetts. You can contact Schillinger at (413) 274-1073 or via email at will@pilotrecording.com

Driving through Amherst, Massachusetts, one might just miss Northfire Recording Studio, even if he or she is looking for it. To get to Northfire, one has to take a few back streets and then a sharp right – and then another sharp right – to get to the studio’s parking lot.

The building is unassuming. There is no large branding or fancy banner or aggressive nameplate. Instead, on a window above the door, there is a leaf-shaped red and yellow section of glass that resembles a campfire.

Northfire Recording Studio is co-owned by Jason Metcalf and Garrett Sawyer. Both men have spent their lives involved with music and their resulting attention to detail is noticeable.

But what makes Northfire truly special is the atmosphere that is found within.

“We are a very family driven business,” Metcalf said, picking up his young daughter who was previously playing with dominos and plastic dinosaurs. “But our facilities are big-ticket ready. So is our staff.”

Northfire Recording Studio opened in 2006 in the college town of Amherst, just steps off the UMass campus. Northfire, Metcalf said, was designed with everyone in mind: this includes local bands making their first album and big name acts that need a place to record with the highest-end tech.

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Angelo Quaglia runs through some music during an afternoon recording session.

“I’ve always played music. I moved here to find people to play with. There was a need for a recording studio here,” Metcalf said. “There was nothing else like this around, and so we went to the nines with it.”

Northfire’s studio space includes three isolation booths, a sizeable control room and 675-square-foot live room with 14-foot high ceilings. Even the studio’s bathroom is wired for sound, and both the bathroom and hallway to the live room are designed as reverb chambers, Metcalf bragged. Acclaimed designer Michael Blackmer, who has worked with Joe Perry and Daddy Yankee, it turns out, designed the studio.

But in order to record, and record well, one needs a proper sound engineer.

Northfire hosts a handful of engineers, and that list even includes co-owner Garrett Sawyer. But, more importantly, Northfire boasts a Grammy-nominated employee by the name of Angelo Quaglia, a well-loved engineer and producer who has been with Northfire since the beginning.

“Angelo’s the man, he gelled really well when we opened,” Metcalf said. “He has the experience, that’s for sure – he walked in with gold and platinum records for a résumé, after all.”

Quaglia, 46, is a kind person and a humble one at that. He is Northfire Recording Studio’s senior engineer. His experience should not be doubted. Quaglia, although not quick to provide a list, has worked alongside the likes of Luther Vandross, Ludacris and DMX, to name a few, and earned his experience in the battleground that was New York City.

“I worked a lot with specific producers. I didn’t work strictly for a studio – it was sort of like freelancing,” Quaglia explained. “I’ve worked with so many great people, I don’t think I have a favorite. Who’s your favorite child?”

Quaglia got his start in music at the age of 15. Between a father who was constantly involved with music – and in a handful of bands – and just simple personal interest, Quaglia said becoming a sound engineer and producer involved a bit of destiny.

“I felt a connection to music,” he said. “But I was also that guy that could figure out how to work the four track machine.”

He came to western Massachusetts after leaving the New York City scene and quickly found his spot at Northfire. Part of what drew him to the Amherst studio was what the studio could brag about – high ceilings, fantastic design and a glowing feel to the building, he said.

“Let’s say $40 or $50 is going to get you a basement with an 8-foot ceiling,” Metcalf said, explaining how Quaglia felt. “You can’t compare that to us here. You can’t compare the two.”

Now in the swing of things, Quaglia is involved in a little bit of everything: some engineering and producing, but also working in every musical genre under the sun.

“The studio is designed for commercial usage and every genre,” Quaglia said. “Punk rock, heavy metal, country, hip-hop. We do spoken word and voice over work too.”

Although Northfire is decked out with top of the line equipment, Quaglia also sees lots of local bands come through the door.

“There are a lot of local kids, local bands, local artists,” he said. “And we can take care of them all, local kids to big commercial jobs. It’s very diverse here and that’s what makes it fun.”

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Angelo Quaglia said that while all the knobs and twists may seem intimidating at first glance, a lot of them serve the same purpose. “You get used to it,” he said.

Quaglia’s responsibilities at Northfire run the gamut of production. According to him, he has not only acted as a producer – “someone who takes care of budget, deadline and quality, also known as the trinity,” he said – but also as an engineer, someone who takes care of microphone placement and recording and mixing and mastering.

“Engineers work with knobs and sounds,” Quaglia said. “Producers make creative decisions and handle preproduction. They can overlap, but I don’t like to do that.”

The engineer also described his job as almost requiring psychic powers.

“I have to see the vision of what the artist wants,” he explained. “I have to look into the future.”

Metcalf described Quaglia’s job simply: “Musically, you may sound good, but you can lose a lot of things in the middle or in the process. The engineer goes in and carves out the details, carves the different layers of your sound so it doesn’t seem muddy.”

Quaglia is involved with the mastering of records and songs, to. In his words, mastering boils down to “the final touch,” the addition of “just a bit of polish – you got the car painted, now you need a wax job.”

The hardest part of the job, though, he said, is having to deal with otherwise stubborn clients.

For Quaglia, an artist or band’s “unrealistic expectations” are sometimes a deal breaker. Furthermore, he said, he has seen groups coming in with ideas they simply cannot afford.

“Preparedness is key. It can streamline the process and save a lot of money,” Quaglia said.

But despite the bumps that come with the entire music making process, Quaglia said he will continue being an engineer for the foreseeable future. His plans include staying at Northfire.

Northfire Recording Studio, Metcalf said, is also working towards music education, a progressive touch to an otherwise exacting business practice.

“I’m here, there’s a great music scene here, and we are going to push the education component,” he said.

Education, Metcalf said, includes a budding internship program at Northfire. Sam Laughlin, a 21-year-old junior at UMass, is one of these interns.

“I look over the engineers’ shoulders,” Laughlin said. “During recording, I’m part of the set up and tear down of mics and such.”

Laughlin is part of the local music scene, he explained, and is a “musician like most of the people” that work at Northfire.

For Laughlin, interning at a place like Northfire is an unparalleled learning experience.

“The learning curve here is really great,” Laughlin said. “I’m just trying to get my feet wet, see what it’s all about.”

Northfire Recording Studio can be found at 15A Grove St., Amherst, Massachusetts. You can contact the staff at (413) 256-0404 or via email through a contact form on their website, http://www.northfirerecording.com.

This story first ran in the Berkshire View.

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