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Pete Szkolka: A musician who does it all

Friday, September 14, 2007 | 11:08 a.m. CDT; updated 10:01 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008
Pete Szkolka works with Dave Para and Cathy Barton to smooth over glitches in the track they just laid down in Szkolka’s recording studio off North Oakland Gravel Road in Columbia.

COLUMBIA — The tone in Pete Szkolka’s recording studio can vary strikingly from client to client. On this day, the thud of a bass reverberates as the voices of Columbia rap group TBK thunder over the speaker, radiating subtle vibrations through the room.

Szkolka sits at his work station among the cousins and girlfriends of the rappers, who excitedly bob their heads and arms to the music, calling out advice despite the soundproofing that prevents their friends from heeding it.

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His biggest challenge is discerning what level of involvement his clients need or expect from him. “It’s a people skill that’s necessary in my business that has nothing to do with knobs and switches.” Szkolka said.

A short hour later, the room fills with lilting clarinet as folk duo Dave Para and Cathy Barton arrive to record. The musical atmosphere is distinctly different; with closed eyes, it feels more like a ballet moments before the curtain goes up.

The source of the clarinet, Steve Litwiller, is a friend of Para and Barton and a studio newcomer. When the group gathers to listen to the first take, this fact became evident as Litwiller observes with some alarm, “Being miked that close is like getting a rectal exam from a pit bull.”

The diversity of Szkolka’s client list — encompassing rock ‘n’ roll group The Hipnecks, Latino group SL Son and the Columbia Handbell Ensemble — is a reflection of his own musical range.

Szkolka is, first and foremost, a musician. He has played professionally for more than 30 years, is a member of a number of Columbia bands including Chump Change and the Fried Crawdaddies, and has a range of instrumental ability that includes guitar, keyboard, electric bass, synthesizer and the drums. Curiosity and extensive time spent in the studio eventually lured Szkolka into production.

“He’s truly a part of the fabric of the Columbia music scene,” said Jack Smith, a retired executive from the advertising agency Leo Burnett and an adjunct advertising faculty member at MU. “There would be a gaping hole without Pete.”

Smith, who has recorded jingles in Szkolka’s studio, called him a total musician. “I’ve never known anybody who could write, play any instrument, record the tracks, mix the tracks and create the music from scratch like that all by himself,” Smith said.

Para said Szkolka’s experience as a musician is a great advantage.

“Pete has a great set of ears, and because he’s a great player he knows how things should be played and when they’re not played well,” Para said. “His own musical skills can really enhance a project.”

Szkolka began his foray into music at age 3, learning piano by ear by fiddling on a great aunt’s donated piano in his family’s Chicago dining room. He attempted formal lessons a few years later, but they fell by the wayside after about a month as Szkolka seemed to play just fine by ear.

In high school, his friends lured him into joining the school jazz band with talk of travel and partying, and Szkolka finally learned to read sheet music “as an afterthought.” At 16, he finally gave in to taking formal lessons — as it happens, from the same man who attempted to teach him 11 years earlier.

The only formal training in production Szkolka had was a basic audio production class at MU that he admits he “pretty much slept through.”

Szkolka called Bob Pruitt, former owner of Columbia studio Land Recording, his mentor and said curiosity about the production end of recording came “as a result of standing next to him (Pruitt) for a couple of years.” Pruitt gave him opportunities for hands-on experience and guided him to the right reading material, so Szkolka said he learned the trade “through doing and extensive reading.”

“I was kind of his in-house music guy,” Szkolka said. “A lackey.”

Szkolka has lived in Columbia on and off since 1974. He attended MU twice, first as a biological chemistry major from 1974 to 1976 and again as a communications and Spanish major from 1986 to 1991. Szkolka’s tuition was covered by scholarship, and he paid his other bills playing music and touring in the Columbia area.

“I remember studying Spanish with the dome light on in the van,” he said.

Szkolka said that when he graduated in 1991 the slow economy pushed him into making his vision of owning his own studio a reality.

“I thought, ‘If I’m going to be poor, I might as well be poor and play music,’” he said.

Szkolka started operating out of a spare bedroom and using an old reel-to-reel tape recorder 15 years ago, doing most of his business recording soundtracks for instructional hunting videos.

He said most of his methods back then were on the primitive side and recalled a contraption he conceived for the drums called “the teepee of sound,” which involved a sheet, some metal poles and a good deal of outside help. As business progressed, Szkolka began reinvesting his profits in new equipment, eventually adding two more rooms to, as he put it, “rescue” his now wife, Jeanne, from the noise.

They have since moved to northeast Columbia, just outside the city limits. Converting the barn into a fully equipped studio took a year. A tractor once occupied the space where a grand piano belonging to the Hennessy Brothers sat just a few months ago when the jazz group was recording.

The first project in the new studio was a tribute album to Columbia musician Lee Ruth. The studio wasn’t quite done yet, and the walls, so essential in establishing the acoustics, were unfinished,

“We put pillows and carpet pads up,” Szkolka said.

Since then, the studio has seen completion of more than 100 projects.

Szkolka has evolved along with his studio. Although he admits he initially avoided the hip-hop business, he has since integrated a number of rap groups into his client list. Hip-hop’s unique methods have drawn the experienced musician further into new realms of production.

“I had to learn to establish new production values,” Szkolka said. “It really made me hone my editing skills.”


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