Angela Piva was at a holiday party many years before Covid was ever a thing. This holiday party was a who’s who of audio royalty. A circle Angela was privy to, but yet… at the end of the night, someone decides to take a group photo – a photo of all the engineers. As she walks up, someone jokes “hey, no wives!” Someone comes to defend her, “She’s an engineer!” The echo reverberated in slow motion throughout the room. “I started laughing, because, you know, you have to laugh at those things because you can’t get mad, you can’t get upset… not cry…Like, Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening. [My friend] pushes me up there and I’m like, going up there anyway.”
Today, I reiterate the importance of knowing the women who came before you. And so I’m dedicating this blog to the one and only Angela Piva. You may have heard of her. You may not have. But I guarantee you’ve heard some of her work. Her credits span from Michael Jackson, Run DMC, and Naughty By Nature, to Color Me Badd, Mary J. Blige, Ronnie Spector, and more. She broke into the business at a time when you really just didn’t see women in the game. So here’s (some of) her story.
When Angela walked into Berklee College of Music, the program was just getting started. In 1982, the school had this fancy new Mac Plus and had invested in state-of-the-art gear. She started college young and had a particular interest in synthesis but was also open to trying lots of different things. “I was like, well, let me try this and see what happens because I have plenty of time to change gears and maybe do something else. But if I don’t try it, I’ll never know, you know?” And so Angela set herself apart. She landed a job as a work-study overseeing the recording studio and then quickly got an internship at Mission Control in Boston, a studio owned by Michael Johnson and Maurice Starr. Yes, the producers for New Kids on the Block. This studio had an SSL console, which at the time was a big deal, and Angela got to learn the ropes.
These ropes would eventually lead her to Unique recording in NYC. Unique Recording Studio was a five-room studio in Times Square that ran from about 1978 to 2004. Anyone from Madonna to 2pac to Quincy Jones could be found there on any given day. It was owned by a married couple, Bobby and Joanne Nathan, and Angela says having a woman co-founder really made a difference. She says, “They were very open. There was no discrimination of any kind, you know, whereas there was at other studios and that was blatant at that time. I mean, there was one studio manager that literally told me to my face he would never hire a woman.”
Angela quickly moved up to assistant engineer. Since Unique was a 24-hour facility, she found it was a good training ground for an engineer. “You got tons of experience nonstop and the number of sessions I was on just as an assistant with well-known people, artists, and session musicians. It was so not just learning about technology, but the art of recording production. And it really trained me to be a good vocal coach for a lot of the sessions,” says Angela.
Unique’s specialty was MIDI equipment and programming. This is where Angela carved out her niche and became an asset. “I really worked my way in as an engineer through synth and MIDI programming, so we didn’t have the kind of libraries, etc. that you have nowadays…we would sample. We had drum machines and things; we used the 808, 909, you know, Kurzweil and other things. But you know, I was always working on it and synth patches. So a lot of clients had to try to hire two people. So by doing those two jobs, which I loved anyway… creating my own library and being valuable in that way too, is how I worked my way in.”
In the beginning, she assisted a lot of the big sessions, but as she says when you’re just starting out, you don’t get the top of the line. This changed over time. She developed a reputation for her programming and engineering abilities. She did a lot of indie records and one of her first radio-friendly records was with Heavy D, Somebody for Me. This then landed her a session with a little-known group at the time, Naughty by Nature who we all know would become a Grammy Award-winning hip hop trio. “They liked the work that I did with Heavy D a lot, and so they met with me and they played me some of their stuff. So I ended up engineering their first record, and O.P.P.,” says Piva.
At the same time, Angela got a gig with another “unknown” group. Angela’s colleague and friend, Dr. Freeze were producing them. “I had worked with him a lot, and he wrote the song I Want to Sex You Up. So I recorded that with him and Color Me Badd.” Color Me Badd went on to sell over 12 million records, but back then, Angela says they had never been in the studio before. So she worked with them to teach them how to sing on the mic. Recording both at Unique and Quad Studios, the vocal sessions would last all night long starting at midnight.
Both Naughty by Nature and Color Me Badd’s albums went on to be double platinum in the next year. Angela remembers what that moment was like fondly. “I kept watching Billboard every week and then watching it rise. I remember being out in the street and just hearing people blasting out of their cars. [Then later] I remember once going to a club on the Upper East Side a long time ago. And I saw like a couple of hundred white people dancing to O.P.P., you know, and I almost fainted. I’m like, wow. … That was kind of the moment everything kicked off. Everything sort of changed a bit. And I was gaining more notoriety. A lot of folks contacting me, and starting to do different things. I started to work with other groups. But that really gave me the jumping point to kind of go from there.”
Angela eventually struck out on her own to begin engineering her own clients. While it was hard at first, it was a necessary move since assisting didn’t pay much, so going out on your own was necessary. She found people were really supportive. Angela says, “Run-D.M.C. was very supportive of me. When they saw me start to become an engineer, they’re like, you know, ‘Angela, you made it. You were just the little assistant. Now, look at you’… You know, for minority folks, too, like they know what it’s like to be discriminated against. So I think that’s why they were pushing for me…It felt good, positive, and uplifting when that happened when people see how far you’ve come. It’s hard to get acknowledgment from your peers.”
As the years rolled on and the economy changed, Angela began to diversify her portfolio. “If you want to be in this kind of field, you may have to wear different hats a lot. So you have to be versatile and kind of skilled in different areas.” She worked in audiobooks for a while, voiceovers, and got into the podcasting game before it was cool. While it can be difficult to break into these gigs when you start out in music, Angela says having good contacts and good recommendations really helped her. She had a colleague at Harper Collins get her first gig.
Eventually, in 2011, she landed her current position as part of the staff and faculty at Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema@Steiner Studios – part of the City University of New York. “I teach advanced recording and mixing techniques and a lot about music production. I like to teach about techniques in general and how to apply them to different situations. Because I feel like, you never know where people are going to end up, what they’re going to love or what opportunities they’re going to get.”
Angela paved the way for many of us. I asked her about any challenges she faced as a woman, but she said while things weren’t always easy, she was always respected because of her work ethic. Hard work, dedication, sacrifice, and discipline are words that Angela has lived by in her decades-long career. “Being different gave me an edge. It helped me. I think it was more helpful than it ever was hurtful. Maybe there were people that didn’t work with me because I’m a woman, but I’ll never know because they didn’t really tell me. [But more importantly], don’t go where you’re not wanted. You need to be in the right place in order to get to the next level… If you love something, if you work hard, if you put a lot of energy into it, positive energy, you’re going to find your way somehow. The path will keep leading you somewhere.”
Angela Piva is the current president of the New York Section of the Audio Engineering Society and was also recently elected Vice President of Eastern Region, USA/Canada.
Make sure you get to know the people who paved the way for the rest of us. You will inevitably learn from them, be inspired, and also maybe make a new friend! Cheers, Angela!