Facilities

On the Cover: Breaking Sound Barriers

Pilot Recording Studios Finds a New Home in the Berkshires
Will Schillinger in his spacious control room, from the vantage point of the 80-input SSL 4080 G-Plus console. Photo: Eric Limon

The late, great Stephen St. Croix had a theory about why audio engineers tended to prefer powerful, responsive, high-performance cars for their lives outside the studio. For 12 to 18 hours a day, he reasoned, they would take direction and respond to demands, no matter how inane or how spot-on. When they got in the car to drive home, alone, it was a matter of being in complete control. Turn down the volume, press on the gas.

Well, Will Schillinger is a pilot, and after 35-plus years as an engineer/producer in and around New York City, the last 23 of them as a studio owner to boot, he is fully in control of both his personal and professional lives, blending the two harmoniously in a residential recording facility in the quaint little hamlet of Housatonic, Mass., in the Berkshires of Western, Mass., a few hours north of his roots.

It’s not that he wasn’t in control before; far from it. After graduating from the Institute of Audio Research in the late 1970s, under the tutelage of Al Grundy and Phil Stein, he was hired right around the corner by RPM Studios on East 12th Street, where he gained real-world knowledge from mentors Ken McKim (founder of Retrospec Audio) on the tech side and Ed Stasium, among others, on the creative. From there he spent time at Atlantic Studios, Electric Lady, Right Track, Penny Lane, Marathon and eight years on and off at Record Plant. In 1992 he opened Pilot Recording Studios in Chelsea, bought a couple of Neve VRs, and did very well, working with the likes of Junior Brown, Alexi Murdoch, Carole King, Marshall Crenshaw, Warren Zevon, Shawn Colvin, Roseanne Cash, Dar Williams, Joey Ramone, Ian Hunter, John Leventhal and countless others. He formed friendships with producers and artists that remain strong today.

But New York City had changed over the years. The recording industry had changed. In the early 1980s, he recalls, major studios were booking between $185 and $210 an hour for studio time; by the time he left in 2007, some were getting half of that. Meanwhile, rents and overhead had soared. It wasn’t that he wasn’t still enjoying the life; he was. But budgets had plummeted, big studios were giving way to condos, and he found himself spending too much time trying to meet a monthly nut and less and less time making music the way he wanted to make music.

“I had been renting the former Pilot Recording Studios space in New York from 1993 to 2007 and we had a great run,” Schillinger says. “However; as we know, the model of a high-end recording studio in the heart of the city has changed with the times. There’s nothing new there. But for me, New York had lost its edge. I had my fill and it was time to move on. I have owned a house in the Berkshires for over 20 years, so in 2007 I set up all of the Pilot gear, except for the Neve and my tape machines, in the basement of my house in Monterey, Massachusetts.”

Schillinger continued to engineer and produce sessions in Manhattan, and roughly 40 percent of his regular clients stuck with him through the move. But the Pilot plan was never about working on a control surface in his basement, no matter how good the music. He wanted to create a destination studio, with an analog desk and a big room to record in and a place for artists to create outside of the hustle and bustle. Soon after the move he began scouting real estate in the Great Barrington area, in the heart of the Berkshires, near Tanglewood, artists and rural culture. He found a church.

THE CHURCH

“I looked at dozens of places in which to build the new studio, and the former-church was one of the first that caught my eye. I immediately saw huge potential,” Schillinger recalls. “I am a fan of large rooms with a distinctive room tone. Having engineered dozens of sessions at Abbey Road, I was looking for a smaller but similar room with that kind of manageable large-room signature. This place is all about that. In these days of digitized music, it is even more relevant that ‘room tone’—particularly for lower in level, higher transient material—be translated as an identifiable thing to ‘tape,’ or most often to digital audio converters, which might disregard this material as noise. I am a fan of rooms that sound like a room. I believe that people identify with the characteristics of musicians performing in a recognizable space such as a big largely rectangular room.”

It took more than a year for the owners of the church to respond to his offer, so Schillinger continued to look and to work, putting together an 18-rack remote rig with wiring assistance from Stephen “Stitch” Keech to complement his C24-Pro Tools equipped home studio. When the call came in mid-2012, he jumped. It was everything he wanted in a studio, and more. Despite the fact that the church dated back to the 1930s, and the accompanying parsonage back to the 1830s, it was in remarkably good shape, requiring just a bit of roof repair and some shoring up of the foundation.

One of the first things he noticed about the interior was that someone had added Celotex paneling to the walls above the wainscoting around the 1950s, so he didn’t mess with that. Other than adding an iso booth tons of all-new wiring, and some subtle acoustic treatments to control resonances, he left the room alone and built out from the exterior, adding a couple of inches of dense foam board and strapping it over the stucco wall, then re-siding the entire building, including the parsonage, to create a unified feel. He also added some thick Lexan acoustic isolation windows over the stained glass (some of them Tiffany!) to create extended window jambs, boosting the isolation and significantly increasing the insulation. It’s dead-quiet.

“I have always preferred capturing the live performance of a band in a room, and we now have no shortage of space to fit almost any ensemble,” Schillinger explains. “It comes down to the following elements: First, interplay, performance and the connectivity of players in a comfortable environment is crucial; if they don’t feel it, you likely won’t either. Second, the tonality of the instruments should work well together. Capturing this in a binaurally pleasing manner is key to what we do. Fewer microphones, well-placed, and the willingness to commit to them without compromise. Learning one’s room and understanding what mics work best where, and for what type of production, is of course a big part of this process. Relying on redundant coverage is something I try to avoid. Checking phase where applicable and using my ears is really what it comes down to. I believe in stereo by definition, and I mostly try to re-create the live event based on room placement and phase coherence. Some of the most ‘binaural’ records ever made were mono, and many of them were recorded with one microphone or direct to disc. It’s easy to set up 20 or 30 mics while recording a band and, yes, you might want to decide later as to what really works. For the most part, I have stopped doing that.”

THE CONTROL ROOM

Schillinger has been designing and building rooms for a long time, since at least back in the 1980s, with Allaire (NYC), Pyramid, Pilot, Shakedown, Atlantic and others to his credit. The design and orientation of the Pilot control room is his. Construction assistance came from his former second engineer, Brett Long, as well as Jed Tuchscherer, Liam McGrath,  Jerome Fox and Josh Morse. They went back to the studs and built a room within a room, adding seven layers of 5/8-inch sheetrock. The inner room has four layers built to a heavy gauge steel frame, which is hung from the joists above and isolated from the floor below. The floor and the interior walls are sitting on floats, and there are extensive wire troughs throughout.

“When we went in, we found that the building floor structure is made up of railroad tracks, actual steel rails from the Housatonic Railroad, so the load-bearing characteristics allowed us to use an adequate amount of mass below and around the control room,” he explains. “After months of extensive TEF measurements and room plotting, we were able to design a room that enables a wider sweet spot. There are no parallel surfaces and there is extensive acoustical treatment of the interior walls and ceiling. It is very well balanced and has very few hot spots. The energy in the room is amazing. With diffusers built by Flourish Acoustics and designed to our specs, and a hard front-end speaker soffit constructed by Josh Morse using the seats of the former church pews, we have built what I believe to be one of the best-sounding control rooms anywhere.”

Schillinger is something of a gear-junkie and had amassed a huge amount of vintage front end and processing over his years at Pilot to complement his Apogee-based Pro Tools rig, Studer A827 24-track 2-inch and A800 2-track ½-inch and ¼-inch . Then he loaded in his Pultecs, Avalon, Manley, Focusrites, Hardy, Millennia, Dangerous, Teletronix, Crystal Industries, UREI, Fairchild, Neve mic pre’s, Telefunken V72 and V74, and countless amps and instruments, including a beautiful 1863 pipe organ in great working condition made by E & G. G. Hook that came with the purchase of the church (just go to his website; it’s impressive). He has a huge mic closet, including one of the more extensive collections of ribbons anywhere. But he still wanted a large-format console. He turned to his longtime friend, from back when he grew up in Englewood, N.J., Dae Bennett, of Bennett Studios.

“Our console is an 80-input SSL 4080 G-Plus that we got from our friend Dae Bennett,” Schillinger says. “We did the basic cleanup that you would expect, and with balanced power feeding all the gear, and the console running on clean 220v, the noise floor in the control room is just amazingly low.” He also picked up a pair of custom Augspurger mains with dual 15s from Bennett and put them in the walls, added his ADAM S3A near-fields, and he was ready to push Record. The first session was an impromptu gig with the Beth Rose Band, a jazz group, and he was thrilled with the sound.

FRIENDS AND FAMILY

During the entire two years of construction and build-out, Schillinger maintained a busy producing/engineering career out of his Monterey studio and in frequent trips to NYC and other locales. He has continued to foster the relationships he developed over his career, and many of his friends and family he still works with regularly, including folks like Jon Herington, Jerome Fox, Joel Martin, Melodrome, Hack Monet, Tony and Pete Levin, Steve Jordan, Danny Kortchmar, John Leventhal, Peter Stroud, Joe Vitale and many others, including numerous film and television productions.

He has also developed relationships with a host of new artists, many of them from the area. He recently co-produced and mixed the great Ahmad Jamal’s disc Saturday Morning, cut tracks and co-produced with Marvin Etzioni with songwriter-artist Jonah Tolchin, and had Passion Pit up for a couple of months, staying in the Hollenbeck house next door. Schillinger is presently working with David Anderegg, who is recording his original music for 4-part mixed choir and featuring the Cantilena Chamber Choir. He recently collaborated with producer Jerome Fox, a friend, on a new Chrissy Gardner project, with Gardner on piano, Tony Levin on bass, Benny Landa and Peter Stroud on guitars and Joe Vitale on drums. “It’s a fantastic record,” Schillinger says.

Bennett has also made the trip up from New Jersey, and he says: “I finally got the opportunity to record at Will Schillinger’s beautiful Pilot Recording Studios last week with the great Karp/Foley band. I can’t say enough about this place—unbelievable room, great setting in the Berkshires, and fantastic equipment and mic selection, as if I had picked it out myself! Ha! We got fantastic takes and sounds for Peter and Sue’s new record, and the new songs represent a real musical ‘turning point’ for them supported by their steadfast rhythm section of Mike Catapano and Niles Terrat. To all my audio professional-type friends, if you get a chance to work at this amazing place, take it!”

Schillinger is a true left brain-right brain guy, and now that Pilot is up and running, with more than three years under his belt, he keeps turning to other projects. He can’t sit still. He has aligned himself with the local Emerging Artists Network, founded by his friends Danny Lipson, Peter Stroud and Brian Grossman. EAN uses data to find the most promising emerging artists and matches artists with brands, with Pilot being the recording partner. He is also plunging into the manufacturing business, working on a super-cooled mic pre and some opto-limiters. The address of his studio, 1073 Main Street, provides a clue as to his direction.

So life is good for Will Schillinger. He’s busy, and he’s relaxed, taking in the beauty of the surrounding Berkshires every morning and making music the way he always dreamed of making music.

“I no longer stress about how I am going to book the crazy number of studio hours that were required in New York to float the boat,” he concludes. “I am able to lock out the studio with artists who are able to come and go as they please and record records in a relaxed, laid-back environment with idyllic surroundings. I wake up and go for a long bike ride or get out in the country and enjoy it. I feel blessed living where I live and doing what I do.”

 

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