The Live Sound Puzzle
June 17, 2017
There's a certain feeling that comes to me in a room full of people who are there for one simple reason – music. I probably won't talk to many people around me but we're connected by our appreciation for the musicians as they share their love for music on the stage. I knew pretty early on in life that I wanted to work with music in some form but it wasn't until I started seeing live music that it made sense. Running live sound has never been a chore for me because I am creating a connected, musical environment for the people in the room like so many musicians and audio engineers have done for me.
Growing up in southern New Jersey, I spent most of my free time studying flute and playing in bands and orchestras. I loved to perform. Everyone around me seemed to agree that I should pursue music, but performing wasn't the only thing I wanted to do. I decided to attend a university and study Music Technology, which included performance, studio recording and live sound. I interned at a recording studio and live sound company and realized that I belonged in the action of live music. It's always felt right to me. Currently, I work as an audio engineer for several sound companies and venues in the Pittsburgh area. I love what I do and I hope sharing my experiences might encourage others to follow their dreams of working in audio.
Starting out as a young audio engineer, it can be hard to be taken seriously. Live sound is like a puzzle. It takes many pieces to be successful. Building a reputation for yourself takes time. You have to be willing to work hard and constantly learn new things. Being taken seriously as a female audio engineer can be a much bigger hurdle. If a man is sitting next to me at the board, whether or not I'm doing all the work, the artists almost always ask him questions about sound. It can be frustrating but you have to speak up. Sexism is common in the music industry but women are challenging it. It's important to know you're most likely going to have to work harder than the men who want the same jobs as you, but trust me, it's worth it. I've had people approach me at the board and tell me to change certain elements of the mix. Sometimes something that affects the sound is out of your control. Sometimes they know nothing and have no business saying anything. It's still important to be kind and reasonable.
Having people skills is an important piece of the puzzle. This includes networking in person and online. Being a nice person will go a long way. I can't tell you how many times artists have told me they usually deal with audio engineers with huge egos, who are rude and think they "know it all." I'm not sure why that is but it’s my goal to be extra friendly at every gig. Not only do I enjoy spreading good vibes but they're much more likely to call me the next time they need someone to run sound.
Communication skills are important in live sound. Listen to everything the artist is saying. It's important to be receptive and patient. There will be people who don’t deserve your kindness, but give it to them anyway because an argument is the last thing you need during sound check. No matter how rude they may be, do the best job you can. That includes working to make them sound as good as possible.
Live sound requires passion. At times you're lifting heavy equipment, running cables, and trouble shooting technology. It's not always glamorous, but you're making music happen. Always listen because your ears are your number one tool. Listening to well-mixed music often is helpful because your ears will be accustomed to a great sounding mix. Be aware of all the frequencies in your live mix, wanted and unwanted. A lot of noises can come from a sound system. Through experience, engineers learn what they mean and how to fix them.
Curiosity is also an important piece of the live sound puzzle because no audio engineer has used every type of equipment. There are hundreds of brands of mixers that function differently. Be adaptable and always have a way to Google things. Sometimes an artist will bring some kind of equipment you've never used before. It's helpful to have the manual handy. If I know I'm going to be using a mixer I haven't used before, whether or not it's self-explanatory, I read the manual beforehand. It gives me more confidence when I know what every single button does.
Ultimately, the real teacher is experience. If possible, show up to your gigs early. Mess around with the equipment and familiarize yourself with its sound. If live sound is truly what you want to do, go the extra mile to be better than the rest.
I hope I can inspire other women, as well as men, to work confidently in live sound. It takes courage to work hard at something that many people may tell you is a waste of time, but it's worth it to be part of something so much bigger. No one should ever get in the way of your dreams. We are paving the way to a brighter future for women in the music industry. Music is a universal language and being part of that every day will never feel like work to me.
- Women in Sound 2019 -