As a Northern student, Mike Picotte (BS 2001) spent much of his free time in the campus audio production labs, becoming proficient in their specialized software and equipment. Now he is realizing a major return on that investment. The Gwinn native is a senior sales engineer for Sweetwater, billed as “the world’s leading music technology and instrument retailer.” Picotte advises clients on gear purchases and designs recording studios and live venues. He also consults on complex sound systems for large tours by artists such as Carrie Underwood, Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake. In addition to his day job, Picotte has earned a stellar reputation among high-profile artists for his side passions: serving as a front-of-house engineer for concerts; and mixing/mastering records.
“There’s a rush that comes with delivering a performance to a large crowd at a live show,” Picotte said. “But you have only one shot to get the sound right; you can’t press stop and fix something. I like that pressure. It requires you to think fast and be a good problem-solver. If there’s a technical issue, you’ll destroy an artist’s confidence if they see you panic. You just have to roll with it and work around it.
“In the studio, the rush is in the creative process of influencing the final product in a beneficial way. But you don’t want to over-produce it to the point it doesn’t sound like the artist anymore. Even with all of the technology, you still have to approach it artistically with an ear for music, an appreciation for the blend and an understanding of the artist’s vision.”
Picotte has carved out a niche in the Latin pop market. He worked on an album by Mario Bautista on the Warner Mexico label, which had crossover success in the United States. That led to an opportunity to master a few songs for Luis Fonsi, though not on his Grammy-nominated “Despacito” album. Other high-profile artists he has collaborated with range from Earth, Wind and Fire, Styx, Lee Ann Womack and the Steve Miller Band to Pharrell Williams, Coolio, Theory of a Dead Man, 10 Years and Hollywood Undead.
There are a number of perks associated with this work. Picotte has received special guest admission to the Grammy Awards. He has worked in studios many artists aspire to record in, such as the Village in Los Angeles and Ocean Way in Nashville. Picotte was invited to sit in on a film mix at Sony Pictures while in California attending NAMM, one of the largest music, sound and event technology trade shows. He also was hired to record, mix and master a live record with Ray Fuller & the Bluesrockers at Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago.
Staying active in the music industry is a natural complement to Picotte’s day job with Sweetwater, which he started in 2002. He said the Indiana-based retailer is on the forefront of introducing new technology to the market, offers intensive training and certification programs to employees and boasts clients around the world. He added that Sweetwater’s Gear Fest trade show each June draws about 15,000 people to its campus.
Beyond the musical realm, Picotte is consulting with the NFL on technology used to transmit the Super Bowl. The goal is that future game coverage be piped between the host stadium, Culver City, Calif., and producers and directors in New York City via fiber networks. Picotte specializes in a relevant product line from a brand that Sweetwater carries.
Picotte recently worked with an NMU grad student and professor to update a campus audio recording studio (see related story here). He was named outstanding graduating senior by the Communication and Performance Studies Department and still keeps in touch with faculty members. His most influential mentor was the late Professor Chuck Ganzert.
“I was hit hard by Chuck’s death,” he said. “I would visit him when I came back to the area and send him records I worked on with a thank you note for his guidance and friendship. When I was a student, Chuck was always shocked at how early I got up to work in the audio production lab. Partway through the semester, he realized I wasn’t a morning person at all; I was just wrapping up an all-night session. That was a joke between us, but I learned a lot working on my own extra hours with the tools in the labs. I became extremely well-versed in Pro Tools software, and now I’m a specialist with that line.
“My advice to students is to dive in and take advantage of all opportunities available and build relationships with Northern professors because they’re helpful and have an open-door policy. Also, do more than what’s required and don’t procrastinate on projects. It can be scary stepping into a new professional environment after school. You have to be confident in your abilities and willing to continue learning and training to stay on top of your game. I feel blessed that I’ve reached the point that people value my opinion and ask to work with me.”
Prominent music schools have learned of Picotte’s reputation and tried to recruit him. He said he plans to immerse himself in his career for another 20 years, but does anticipate a future shift to education. He enjoys teaching master classes for advanced audio students from a nearby college and leading training sessions for new employees at Sweetwater University.
When it’s time to decompress and disengage from audio technology, Picotte is an avid mountain biker and competes in endurance events of 50 miles or more. His biography on the Sweetwater website includes his personal motto, which could very well apply to both his biking hobby and his successful career: “Only those who risk going too far will ever know how far they can go.”