From an early age, Charlie Pilzer connected with music – and other musicians. A native of the Washington, DC area, Charlie began playing bass and piano in junior high school. He drew from many sources: an influential band director, his fellow players in the Montgomery County Youth Orchestra, and other young rock musicians who were picking up guitars in the wake of the British Invasion. DC’s cultural prominence and place on the international touring circuit also exposed Charlie to traveling acts like Stan Kenton and the Count Basie Orchestra.
During the early 1970s, Charlie left DC to attend school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After a brief stint majoring in engineering, he began to study music. Within the confines of the conservatory, Charlie learned music theory and the vast worlds of classical greats. Outside of school, he was also exploring Ann Arbor’s burgeoning folk scene. He became enthralled by the levels of musicianship he saw at dance halls and at now-legendary folk venues like The Ark.
After graduation, Charlie’s growing fascination with traditional music forms allowed him to connect with music makers across the globe. He joined Spælimenninir, a pan-Scandinavian band based in the Faroe Islands ( located between Norway and Iceland), as their touring bassist in 1977. The group played in many countries (and were a popular favorite of Garrison Keillor, who booked them multiple times on A Prairie Home Companion), and Charlie appeared on nine of their albums. (He is still technically a member of the group, which he describes as “currently in a quiescent state.”) His connection with the music of Scandinavia led him to form a trio with Andrea Hoag and Loretta Kelley, whose blend of Swedish and Norwegian dance music earned them a “Best Traditional World Music” Grammy nomination for their 2006 album Hambo in the Snow. He has also performed bass with the renowned Norwegian-American group The Berntsons, and has been a player in various bands (contra dance, English ceilidh, and others) up and down the East Coast, sometimes playing tuba and accordion as well as bass and piano.
Charlie’s musicianship, his fascination with (and deep respect for) anyone pursuing an authentic musical path, and his open-minded personality enabled him to find a home within DC’s folk and roots music scene, where he met many people who would eventually be his clients once he began producing and engineering. Charlie was in demand as both and player and producer for many folk musicians, and while working on recordings he grew more and more comfortable with being in a studio. He also had a background in computers, and during the course of one intense editing session in the studio, he began learning some basics of digital editing software. After many hours (“and some really bad edits,” he says), Charlie’s basic understanding of the technical aspects of mastering began to take shape. He had worked with David Glasser and Airshow Mastering as a producer and musician, and before too long, started working as an engineer on mastering projects. Charlie’s reputation for knowing acoustic-based music inside and out earned him a dedicated client base of musicians, engineers and producers who were active in the DC area and beyond. In 1997, Charlie and David worked on the restoration and mastering of the Smithsonian Folkways CD release of the seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, which earned both engineers Grammy awards. It was a milestone achievement for Charlie, whose musical outlook was shaped heavily by the sounds of those early recordings of American traditional music. “I first listened to the Harry Smith LPs when I was in Ann Arbor,” says Charlie. “It was a world of music that didn’t exist in my school curriculum, and those recordings really taught me something. And there I was, transferring the 1/4″ tapes that Harry Smith spliced together.”
In 1998, David moved to Boulder, CO to open a mastering facility there, and Charlie, keeping the Airshow operation going in Springfield, VA, continued to be one of the go-to engineers in the mid-Atlantic for folk, blues, jazz and roots music. Charlie mastered releases by notable DC-based and national acts like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Beauty Pill, and continued a strong relationship with labels such as Smithsonian Folkways (handling the mastering for their historical releases by Ella Jenkins, Woody Guthrie, Dock Boggs and contemporary artists like Quetzal, Los Texmaniacs and Los Plenaros de la 21) as well as other labels like Rounder, Severn, Maggie’s Music and Appleseed Records.
Working with a variety of artists in the mastering studio as well in the folk and traditional music scene encouraged Charlie to think how he could continue to assist musicians realize their goals. Charlie had been mixing live sound for a number of years at the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Folk Festival, Washington Folk Festival, and various other gatherings of folk and traditional musicians. By this point, he was knowledgeable about microphone and recording techniques and wanted to be able to offer tracking and mixing services, in addition to mastering. Obviously he needed more space, so he figured, why not open a studio right in his hometown of Takoma Park?
The design and construction of the Takoma Park studio began in 2008-2009. Charlie brought on board Sam Berkow and SIA Acoustics (who designed Airshow’s Boulder facility) to lay out his vision of two full-fledged mastering suites combined with a sizable tracking and mixing room and smaller production room. “With Airshow Takoma Park, I wanted a versatile studio that could quickly evolve and grow to meet musicians’ demands,” Charlie says. “Each client who comes in, whether to record, mix or master, has different expectations and work methods, and I wanted to be able to have a comfortable space that can allow for both control and experimentation, which is essential to getting the music to sound exactly right.” (A case study documenting the construction of the Takoma Park studio is available on the Airshow Library & Resources page.)
Opening officially in January, 2010, Airshow’s Takoma Park studio greatly expanded Charlie’s ability to work with musicians, engineers, and producers from across the DC area and beyond. A typical day in the studio may start out with him taking a listen to some mixes; perhaps someone just recorded in a big, reverberant church and wants to hear what Charlie thinks. Or maybe a fellow engineer who is tracking a band in his or her home studio wants to have Charlie put his ears on the mix. Many musicians working with acoustic- based instrumentation seek out Charlie’s advice on microphone selections and mixing techniques to get the right sounds of what are sometimes delicate and finicky instruments.
Longer mastering and recording sessions take up the bulk of Charlie’s workload; while in Takoma Park, Charlie has mastered releases by The Seldom Scene, Sara Curtin, Brother Sun, John McCutcheon, The Nighthawks and many more. He has recorded, mixed, and mastered many full length, EP and single projects, including piano pieces by chamber music ensemble The Mendelssohn Trio (read an account of the sessions here), moving tributes to Pete Seeger by Emma’s Revolution, and the old-time stomp of DC’s own Bumper Jacksons. He’s done remote recording too, most recently traveling to France for two weeks recording Ensemble Toss the Feathers (who play traditional and early Scottish and Irish music) in the summer of 2014. “When I work on a project, I don’t want to make my own record,” says Charlie. “I want to help the artist make their record.”
Some creative professionals can appear to demonstrate magical powers, and many of Charlie’s clients would attest to being in awe of what he can do on a console, computer or in a room full of microphones and esoteric stringed instruments. However, as Charlie would be the first to admit, good engineers do more than just display technical prowess. “Charlie is amazing to work with not only because of his skills on a mixing board, but because he perfectly balances maintaining an atmosphere of fun with a need for efficiency,” says Jess Eliot Myhre from the Bumper Jacksons. “He has a mastery of his craft, and clearly loves what he does.” Even when behind the console at Takoma Park’s Mastering A room, Charlie often ends up applying his passion for music-making (and his own deep sense of musical intentionality) during the final stages of a recording’s life before it becomes a commercial product.
Charlie’s love of music has pushed him beyond the boundaries of Airshow’s main studio into many directions. His founding and continued involvement in the DC-area based cooperative record label Azalea City Recordings has enabled it to document local musicians for nearly twenty years (they just released their 5th sampler CD, which Charlie mastered – as well as mostly recorded and mixed). In 2014, Charlie co-produced (along with Dan Schatz and Mick Lane) the Compass Records release Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie, a two-disc set devoted to the catalog of one of America’s most treasured folk musicians. It features cover versions of Ritchie’s material performed by Dale Ann Bradley, Alison Brown, John McCutcheon, Suzy Bogguss, Robin & Linda Williams, John Jennings, and the late Pete Seeger with much of the material recorded, mixed, and/or restored by Charlie (he mastered the entire release).
One of the most exciting barriers that Charlie has passed has been breaking down a wall – literally. Charlie’s plan since the opening of the Takoma Park studio has been to expand into an adjacent space to create a larger tracking area. In 2014, construction began to triple the size of the studio’s recording room and convert what was once a fitness center into a professional, acoustically treated studio space. Now, within several months, the new 800 square feet space called Allyworld (named after Charlie’s sister who passed away in 2013) will offer new recording options for bigger groups and choruses. In addition, it will serve as a standalone facility completely separate and acoustically isolated from the current Airshow space and be available to rent for concerts, workshops and classes, as well as group rehearsals and video shoots. Charlie wants the space to be seen as a hub for creative work within the DC area’s musical ecosystem. “I got my start as a musician from a community of like-minded individuals who were dedicated and hard-working, and I’m trying to keep that spirit going with Allyworld,” says Charlie. “Airshow’s studio and the new facilities of Allyworld exist as tools to help people accomplish their musical goals. I try to be the facilitator as much as possible, as I really just love being around musicians doing their thing.”
Check out Charlie’s credits at All Music Guide as well as selected credits and his favorite piece of gear here. To book a session with Charlie please get in touch with our Takoma Park studio manager Mike Petillo at (301) 891-9035 or firstname.lastname@example.org.