The Music Man: Phil Nicolo

A GRAMMY® Award-winning music producer's take on High-Res Audio and more

The sweet sounds of his father’s favorite operas have surrounded Phil Nicolo since childhood. And once he heard the rock ’n’ roll music of a famous British foursome and caught “Beatlemania,” Nicolo was impassioned to pursue a career where the melodies would never have to end. Since opening his first studio in his parents’ attic, Nicolo has gone on to work with Aerosmith, Bob Dylan, Lauryn Hill, among others. As a Grammy Award-winning American music producer, studio owner, mixer and mastering engineer, Nicolo works alongside his twin brother, Joe, producing music for multi-platinum recording artists and up-and-coming stars. 

Read on to learn more about Nicolo’s lifelong passion for music, his advice for aspiring music producers and how High-Resolution Audio is improving the quality of music for fans and those working in the music industry.

 Q: What is your earliest memory related to music? 

Nicolo: My earliest music-related memory was formed even before I could speak. My dad was a huge opera fan so I grew up listening to everything from “La Traviata,” “Rigoletto” and “Aida” by Giuseppe Verdi to “Tosca,” “La Bohème” and “Madame Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini to “The Barber of Seville,” “La Cenerentola” and “La Gazza Ladra” by Gioachino Rossini, just to name a few. This early exposure to such wonderful music is what gave me a great passion and love for all music forms. And when I heard the Beatles in 1964, that was it. I knew music would absolutely be a part of my future.

Q: How did you start your career in music?

Nicolo: While we were juniors at Temple University, my twin brother and I built a studio in my parents’ attic. We sold audio equipment through a retailer (Stereo Discounters) and put all the money we made back into the studio.

Q: What was it like opening your own studio? 

Nicolo: While the studio attic was a great initiation, we eventually moved out of our parents’ attic and opened our first real studio in Center City Philadelphia in 1980 and called it Studio 4 Recording. There we faced many unexpected challenges. It’s one thing to be able to make a good recording; it’s another to market a new business. We slowly built the studio by hanging in there, working and doing as many things as we possibly could (sometimes for a very low rate, just to keep the lights on). With patience and perseverance, we became one of Philadelphia’s premier recording facilities.

Q: What is it like working with your brother Joe?

Nicolo: It’s been a fantastic partnership. Even though we are twins, we still look at things differently. While my brother and I have similar musical tastes, they definitely differ. He swings more toward hip-hop, and I swing a bit more toward rock. I like mixing and touching the knobs a bit more than Joe does, so quite often when we’re working together, I find myself pushing him out of the way because I’d rather do it myself!

Q: What are some of the qualities you need to succeed as a music producer? 

Nicolo: To succeed as a music producer, you need the ability to listen and the ability to communicate with an artist. But I would say the most important quality music producers must have is patience. It’s really important to let artists try out their ideas, even if they seem crazy at the time. When you start down a path, particularly if it’s one that seems unusual, you never know where you’ll end up. You never really know when that genius moment is going to happen.

Q: Who are some of your favorite artists you’ve ever worked with? What is your favorite musical genre to produce? 

Nicolo: I’ve been fortunate enough to work with so many great artists, it’s hard to pick just a few. On the top of the list would be blues musician Taj Mahal and R&B singer Lauryn Hill. Both of them are amazing artists who deliver 110 percent all the time, and expect everyone else to do the same. 

I love production of all kinds and have been lucky enough to have worked in many different genres of music, but my favorite would be traditional jazz.

Q: If you could work with any musician, living or dead, who would it be? 

Nicolo: Without a doubt, my answer would be John Lennon. It was wonderful to work with Yoko Ono on the re-issue of John’s solo catalog. It would’ve been an honor to have worked directly with him while he was alive.

Q: What has been your proudest moment in your career so far?

Nicolo: My proudest moment was winning the Grammy Award for mixing and mastering the salsa/merengue hit album “Across 110th Street” by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra in 2005. It was amazing to win a Grammy in a genre of music that I was still learning about. The salsa genre, just like any musical genre, has its own specific sounds, textures, arrangements, musical dynamics and instrumentation. It took me a while to discover what all these different things were, and how they are used in salsa music. I thank the producer, Aaron Levinson, for instilling in me the love and passion that is salsa music.

Q: What are your thoughts on High-Res Audio?

Nicolo: To those of us who make music our life, High-Res Audio is very important. It’s tragic that even as music has progressed over the last few years, sound quality has diminished through the use of MP3s and streaming. It’s time we turned that trend around by educating and exposing people to great sound. As more music lovers experience High-Res Audio, I think they’ll realize how much better and more fulfilling the experience really is. Why wouldn’t you want to listen to your favorite artist in amazing detail and separation? 

Q: How have you educated others about sound quality and music? Why do you think this is important? 

Nicolo: In 2003, I was inducted into the Temple University Communication Hall of Fame. At the time, they invited me to teach a course, Advanced Music Recording Techniques, and I’ve been teaching it ever since as an adjunct professor. It’s great being around young people and rediscovering and learning new things myself. I love being able to educate others about sound quality and music production. Passing on this knowledge to all generations is important if we’re going to maintain a high level of quality in all aspects of music, from sound to production to creation.

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