Airshow HQ sat down with Mike Petillo, studio manager at our Takoma Park, Maryland location to talk musical influences, life in the studio, and the new expansion in Takoma Park.
Throughout our Engineer’s Corner series, we’ve explored how Airshow’s staff became interested in music and working with musicians. What are your musical roots?
I grew up outside of Philadelphia in the early 1980s, and R&B, soul, disco, and rock were huge on the radio. Through my dad I developed a taste for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but also Motown, like Rick James and Kool & the Gang, and a lot of 80s synthesizer pop music. As a teenager, I’d spend hours going through my parents’ record collection. On summer vacations to the Jersey shore, I’d listen to tapes over and over on my Walkman.
Many of our engineers are also musicians. What about you?
I’ve played guitar and bass since I was 12. I got into punk rock after the Nirvana Nevermind explosion—their songs were so easy to learn. I taught myself the power chords on an old Tempo nylon-string acoustic that my aunt lent me, but playing bass seemed both simpler and “heavier” to me, so I convinced my parents to get me one for my birthday. My friends and I would form sloppy little bands and set up concerts in youth centers and church basements. When one band released their own cassette I became excited by the prospect of putting out one’s own music. These days, I produce electronic music.
How did you end up in DC?
I moved to Washington to study history about 15 years ago, and after graduating I got a part-time job working on a very cool project in the George Washington University library. I left that job to tour with my punk rock band. We did three national tours of the US, and released a couple of singles and a CD/LP. I really enjoyed traveling and playing music. My bandmates were two of my closest friends; we played sleazy rock clubs but also skate parks in New Mexico, living rooms in Miami, and Anarchist bookstores in the Midwest. Of course we didn’t make any money, but it was a good way to spend one’s early 20s and see the country.
While touring, I got to check out record stores around the country, going to Gramophone and Reckless in Chicago for the first time, Bananas Music in St. Petersburg, FL, Twisted Village in Cambridge, MA, and of course all three Amoebas in California. All great shops that had terrific selections. I was often the guy holding up the rest of the crew shopping for music. In another band, I got to do two European tours and another record. The tours were fun, with the added bonus of getting to explore record shops in the UK, Germany, and France.
So it seems you really like to collect music, especially vinyl.
Definitely! It’s been my biggest musical inspiration. Finding new things, sharing them with friends, hearing new discoveries – I enjoy the whole process. There’s a ton of obscure but amazing music that came out only on vinyl. Even though there are many things being reissued these days there are, thankfully, still new things to discover. I go to second-hand stores around DC frequently. This area is a treasure trove for vinyl digging. I really like to DJ and also make mixes of records I enjoy.
How did you get started making electronic music?
Collecting records got me interested in dance music. Before eBay, vinyl shops almost always priced dance music 12” singles very cheap, so it was easy to take chances on them even when you didn’t know the song. Some friends who were record collectors and DJs threw dance parties around DC, so I started to connect with that environment. I found the audiences more open-minded and the sonic palettes more diverse from a musical perspective. One of my former band mates bought a used drum machine and sampler and we began to mess around with them. We didn’t have a plan to start making music but quickly hit on some chemistry. Around that time another friend self-released his own single on 7″ vinyl of an ambient hip-hop project he had just started, and soon we started a label together to document the music that we were beginning to make. Future Times has put out nearly 30 releases and has some cool new things planned (I stopped being involved at the end of last year). My duo Protect-U has released on the label as well as done some records for a few other European-based outfits. We play live when we can and have done a few small overseas trips. Traveling with our set-up is both amazingly fun and incredibly nerve-wracking, so I work on building up my electronic music studio rather than tour. The technology behind the music furthered my interest in electronic music production, learning more about synthesizers and working in a professional studio.
How did you first learn of Airshow?
Through Charlie Pilzer, whom I first met in 2007. At the time, I was working at the National Council for Traditional Arts in festival production. Charlie was hired to mix bands at our events, and he struck me as a fascinating guy with a great ear and reverence for music. I was blown away when I heard the mastering rooms on my first visit to the studios in Takoma Park. I had a strong urge to be part of a real studio environment, so when it worked out to join the Airshow team I jumped at the opportunity.
What do you feel you bring to the table at the studio?
Because I’m a musician myself, and have spent a lot of time working with musicians in a live context, I help facilitate good relationships between our clients and the engineers. As the studio manager in Takoma Park, I interact with musicians and labels constantly; I know that making recordings can often be an intense and occasionally stressful process, with creative decision-making, deadlines, and budgets all factors. I try and ensure everything is running as smoothly as possible.
Doing live events taught me how to work with people (especially in high-pressure, time-sensitive situations) so I support Charlie and our other mastering engineer Randy LeRoy any way that I can to get projects in and out to the client’s satisfaction. With mastering, our clients are in need of good communication about what the process is and what they can expect from it, where the final master needs to get delivered, and so on. We work with a variety of musicians who are working across all different genres, so like my previous festival work (as well as maybe my record addiction) it feeds my hunger for new sounds.
Recording and mixing projects can be complex. Scheduling sessions and juggling needs of the different musicians coming in can be challenging. If I am organized with logistical details Charlie and Randy can stay focused on engineering and things turn out well for everyone.
The Takoma Park studio is about to expand with the construction of the new Allyworld space. Tell us about that.
The space has been in the works for over a year but is nearing completion. It’s been a huge project that has utilized the talents of many people. It’s certainly presented a challenge from the scheduling side of things, as we had to book recording sessions when there is no loud work going on next door and often delay construction work to accommodate sessions. I’ve been able to get educated on the basics of acoustic treatments, and it’s been fascinating to see the development of the space from the initial state of the room to where it is now. It’s going to be an awesome place to track.
Please contact Mike via email or phone at (301) 891-9035 to discuss a project, book a session or schedule a tour in the Takoma Park studio.