ON TOURING AS AN ENGINEER and an ARTIST
April 11, 2018
interview by Madeleine Campbell
So you’ve just come off a couple months of touring?
Yeah, I’ve been out in various guises since February of this year.
Oh my gosh.
Yeah. I’ve been home for, at the most, maybe five days at a time so this is my first actual time at home. It’s been a pretty intense year. I’ve had some goals to achieve.
And some of that touring was with your own project Vorhees?
Yes. It was a pretty even combination. I did a couple tours where I was doing sound but also direct support. I just came back from my own tour in the UK and then some tours I was out as a front of house or monitor engineer. So there was a bit of variety this year.
So as a sound engineer, you’re self-taught?
How, when and where did your self-education begin?
My first tour I ever did was as a musician. I was a bass player for a band on Dischord called Holy Rollers. I was 19, I think? We went out on tour and I mean, I didn’t understand what a DI box was or how the bass amp and the cabinet worked together. I was a complete neophyte but I could play. About half-way through the tour we joined up with this band 7 Year Bitch.
Oh awesome! I love them!
Yeah, it was such an amazing experience. I was this young girl that was completely intimidated by sound people and the whole process. I just loved to play. When we hooked up with 7 Year Bitch, they were so encouraging and took me under their wing. They had a sound engineer named Lisa Faye who let me sit there and ask “What does that do?” and “What does this do?” I was curious because I had no idea how to communicate my needs for stage sound. She’s the one who basically took the mystery out of it to begin with and got me started and interested. After that tour I was working at the Black Cat [music venue] in D.C. They were also very open to letting me hang around and bother the sound engineers about what each element does. In my mind, I was just getting background. I knew how to talk to sound engineers. I knew what to ask for in the monitors. I knew the difference between a compressed sound and an uncompressed sound and so on. That was just me asking questions and finally they let me get my hands on things.
I was actually just there a couple weeks ago on my first North American tour.
Oh cool! For what show?
I was doing front of house for No Joy from Montreal, who was supporting Quicksand.
Oh wow. I know No Joy. I’m glad Quicksand is still playing. Very cool. I approve. D.C. is a small town but has a very big music scene. I knew a little bit about Dischord. I knew that where I grew up in Philadelphia, it was the territory of the skater boys and hardcore boys. It wasn’t something that I connected with until I moved there. But then it was a massive musical history education. The mixtapes people made for me were just amazing. They helped me get a much broader idea of what music can be. It was very encouraging. Holy Rollers didn’t last long after I moved there and we did that first tour but even after that, it felt like a completely open field and people were telling me to run. I’ll always be grateful for that. I was there for about three years. They let me be what I wanted to be. Basically, once I started doing sound and I realized how much I loved it and how creative it could be, [Black Cat] kept me involved even if I wasn’t playing in a band.
I’m slowly getting over my fear of asking questions. That’s always been a big hurdle for me. It sounds like you were unafraid to ask questions?
It came from being uncomfortable playing. There’s this standard response to sound people as the grumpy sound person, the person who wanted to be a musician but couldn’t make it so now they’re a sound engineer—and I’m not saying that didn’t become a cliche because it wasn’t true—but it’s a bit of an antiquated idea. But back then—I’m talking about the mid ‘90s—there weren’t a lot of women and I was, and still can be, quite shy. Because it was such an encouraging environment, it encouraged me to take control of what I needed and I thought the only way to do that was to learn how to do sound. It’s like if you’re playing guitar, you should really learn how to tune your guitar. You should learn the mechanics of your instrument. I thought, “Well, the stage is kind of my instrument when I’m performing. I should probably know how to ask for what I want with knowledge.” Then I didn’t have to be assertive. I could just lay out the facts and they would be there. It couldn’t have been a healthier environment for me to learn on my own. Also, the guys I was around in D.C. were way more enlightened than most men that I encountered in Philadelphia. They were absolutely instrumental in helping me get to where I was because there weren’t any female sound engineers in D.C. at the time. If there were, I didn’t know them. Nobody was reluctant to bring me into the fold.
After Black Cat, how and when did you transition into touring as a sound engineer?
The first tour I did as a sound engineer was when I was still in D.C. It was an east coast run with Blonde Redhead. They were opening for Unwound. It was a really great tour. I had a vague idea of what I was doing. I really didn’t do a great job but I was also still beginning. I learned by being thrown into the fire like that. So after that I moved pretty quickly to New York. Again, D.C. is a small town. There were only two clubs I wanted to work at, the 9:30 Club and Black Cat. I was at the bottom of the ladder and I was very impatient. I knew New York had about 5,000 more clubs and I thought I’d get more opportunities. I got an internship at Greene Street Recording, which was a studio in SoHo that did all the original Def Jam records. I got into learning the basics of recording like aligning a tape machine and those sort of things. I was constantly looking for club jobs, as well. Finally I got into a venue called Tonic which doesn’t exist anymore. It was a club that focused on more experimental, downtown, New York scene free jazz. It basically took over from where the Knitting Factory left off in that respect. A lot of John Zorn projects, Marc Ribot, that kind of thing, but then also some interesting independent rock music and experimental classical. It was really exciting because as an engineer I was learning how to mic more than a guitar amp and a kick drum. From there, I was working with people that I’d become friends with or at least had a really good show with. I was always giving out my contact information. I’d say “Please call me if you ever need someone to tour with!” The first person that I worked with was Peaches. We ended up doing a tour with ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead and Queens of the Stone Age.
That’s an interesting combination.
Yeah! It was such an insane, beautiful tour. It was my first US tour. Peaches is just incredible. She would turn these really hard male-dominated audiences around and have them in the palm of her hand by the end of these shows. I relied on the generosity of the sound engineer for Queens of the Stone Age, a gentleman named Hutch. He kind of became my sound guru. He taught me a lot. I was always asking questions. Moving from a 300-person club to a 1,500- or 2,000-seat theater, you have to open up your mind to new techniques. Hutch was amazing for that.
Was that intimidating for you? I’m kind of at that point now where I’m touring more in venues that are much bigger than I’m used to.
It’s easy to walk into a place and think “Oh my god! This is massive!” and worry about how it sounds at the balcony and at the front of the stage. At this point, no. I’m excited to get into any new spot I can. The thing that’s most intimidating for me even still is just new technology because it’s just accelerating at such a pace. If you’re not constantly working, there’s gonna be something new out there that you have to learn right away. I had a job where I had to deal with a Waves SoundGrid which I never personally worked with before. I knew the concepts but I’ve got 22 years on the road and I had to spend a good hour and a half with Waves support to figure out what was going on. It turned out to be a physical problem. The card wasn’t seated properly, but this is the nature of the game now. People are using laptops more and digital consoles and you have to become a networking genius suddenly to do sound. I’m self-taught so I didn’t have this outlook. I always just trusted my ears. I never had a spectrum analyzer back then. I never had a laptop back then. If something did not sound right, I’d focus on that and try to fix it. I also tried to not overmix. My next big tour after Peaches was with Cat Power, so you’re dealing with acoustic piano and violin and drums and all these vocals and harmonies and whatnot. Her audiences are great because they really sit and listen. It put me in a very deep listening position where I would close my eyes and listen for anything that sounded incorrect and then move into the technical correction. If anybody ever asks me for advice, I just say, “Use your ears.”
Everything you’re saying is resonating so much with me. On the tour I did with No Joy and Quicksand, Quicksand’s front of house engineer was so gracious and kind to me. He fielded every question I had with such patience. But at a certain point he said, “You’re always welcome to watch what I’m doing but don’t get too caught up in it just because I’ve been doing this for a long time. These bands are totally different and I wouldn’t mix No Joy like this at all. Trust yourself and your ears!”
Absolutely correct. I’ve been doing this for a long time but there is still so much I can learn from so many engineers. Every engineer has something to offer. We’re basically interpreting sound in a specific acoustic environment. Even just learning how to interpret sound in a shed versus an arena versus a theater is something I’ve learned a lot about this year. I did an arena tour with Deerhunter opening for Kings of Leon.
It was very interesting. I learned a lot.
Was that your first experience in the arena setting?
I’ve done a couple arenas before. One of my favorite shows was getting to mix M.I.A. opening for Prince in London.
Oh my god!
No, I was with Cut Copy opening for Franz Ferdinand on their second album run. They were doing half arenas. This past one was definitely the biggest arena tour I’ve done. Getting to mix places like Madison Square Garden. It’s a totally different feel. You have to unlearn your instincts. You’re like 50 yards away from the mains and there are no delays, so it’s a totally different feel in how to mix. That’s something I had to relearn—how to feel out the mix being so far away from the mains. There’s always gonna be a new experience and there’s always gonna be someone that can offer some insight. If anybody tells you, “Do it exactly like this,” I wouldn’t subscribe to that train of thought. There are different ways to get to the goal. Some are more efficient than others but I don’t think there’s any wrong way if it sounds good. There might be a faster way [to learn] but I find that finding all of this out for myself, as opposed to going to school, has really given me a lot more options in how to get to a successful mix.
I was talking about something similar with a friend yesterday. I studied cello in undergrad and, truthfully, it led me to not want to play much at all. It was so hard to play for fun or with friends. It was hard to unlearn so much structure and so many regimented rules and ideas.
I hear you exactly. Cello was my first instrument. My lessons started off in school when I was about nine years old and then became weekend lessons with a pretty sweet lady and then I moved onto taking lessons with one of the cellists from the Philadelphia Orchestra who was a very strict, authoritarian Austrian fellow. Everyone does not learn the same way. If there’s no joy in it, then what’s the point? It’s like when I was reading books in English class and we had to dissect the writing to the point where the story was just lost on me. For me, and it sounds like for you, as well, there’s a little loss of freedom when you break it down so far that there’s no organic quality to it anymore.
That’s a perfectly succinct way of phrasing it—the “loss of freedom.”
I will say that on the other hand, since I had no formal education, there’s a lot of basic stuff that still remains a mystery to me that I can get by without. I find myself doing research now just to get that real base knowledge in working order. I’d love to know more about how a transducer works, for example. I’m not really a systems tech. When I get onto a console I love and I can really dig in there and make that show file my own, I love it. When I get to a new desk and have to learn a new system, it takes a while to be comfortable and there is some base knowledge I wish I had more of a background in. So it goes both ways. I think it’s really important to know, especially when you’re starting out, how you best learn and follow that route instead of forcing a formal education on yourself if that’s not the best way. That’s part of the battle.
I also wanted to ask you about your own project. Black Horse Pike was released this year?
Yeah. It came out in February.
And that’s the album you’ve been touring with?
Can you tell me about that project? A rundown of what your setup is? Are you playing everything?
Yes, I’m playing everything except there’s one snare drum on the last track that I’m still amazed I got Greg Fox to play. I absolutely love his drumming. I did sound for Liturgy. That’s how I met him. When I started Vorhees, I was just playing on my own at home and it wasn’t music for anybody else. It was just for myself. Then I asked my friend Sadie to play drums with me and we had a couple rehearsals and it was really fun. Then I went on tour as a sound engineer for months at a time and it left her without someone to play with. She ended up joining up with my other friend Lizzi and forming I.U.D. I totally don’t blame her. I was asking her to wait on my completely erratic schedule. I had to learn how to play on my own, which brought me to the good old loop pedal that now is ubiquitous. At the time it felt very new and interesting. I got a loop pedal and started improvising and it kinda grew from there. The only pedal I think I had was a loop pedal and maybe a distortion pedal. Maybe an MXR distortion stompbox. I don’t even remember if I had a tuner. That’s just where my head was. I’d come home from tour and I literally would just put my laptop on top of this little practice amp that I had and use the internal mic and I would just do these improvisations. They were basically ruminations on physical environments that I grew up in in New Jersey. Then as I started working more and being able to afford more, because you know this is a very expensive hobby, I started understanding what I wanted from my guitar sound, what I wanted as far as being able to sculpt the sound. It’s slowly growing. It’s still changing. I don’t know what it’s gonna look like a year from now. At the moment, I mix myself on stage and send left-right out. The only reason for that really is because I still use a loop pedal but I also have a couple other pieces of electronics that I use as aux sends. I have to have the mixer to have my four to six aux sends that can route my vocals or my synths or whatever to either my loop pedal or my Kaoss pad or the audio input of my Electribe. There’s just no way for me to do all this without a mixer. And because my mix is so weird and I know what I want it to sound like and I can’t afford an engineer, I just send them left-right. It’s been working recently a lot better than it has in the past. I got a digital console so I can have snapshots for every song which makes everything really consistent as far as levels and output, so it’s much easier for the engineer these days.
Which console did you get?
It’s gonna elicit a lot of groans from sound engineers, but I got a Behringer X18 mixer. It’s a small desktop mixer. The reason why I like it is that it’s much smaller than any analog mixer but it also offers six aux sends and 18 channels. Most compact mixers will maybe offer two or three aux sends at most and maybe only 12 channels and three of them are stereo channels which are only RCA inputs. It’s really hard to find something small that’s comprehensive. I actually put it in my carry-on for my trip to the UK and that worked fine. It’s convenient. I use an iPad as a controller and I have to use it over WiFi. They haven’t figured out the firmware to make it hardwired yet, which was a dicey situation but I got an external router. The interior of the software has all the same plugins you see on an X32 or an M32. It’s all the same software so I have all these analog modeled compressors and 31-band graphic EQ that I can put on anything. I have some nice reverbs, some nice delays. Until I can find something better that offers all these options, all these channels, all these aux sends, this seems to work pretty well.
Yeah, sounds like it’s everything you need.
It really is. And then when I’m rehearsing at home or writing, it’s just a USB out and I can multitrack straight into Logic, which is really nice just for casual archiving or trying to work out demos or whatnot. It’s very easy.
So Logic is your DAW of choice?
Yeah, I do a lot of composition for dance, as well. For that, Logic excels for me. I work more heavily on the computer when I’m working for dance. For Vorhees, I try to keep the computer out of it as much as possible. It’s just for tracking and mixing but not for live performance at all. That restriction comes from a lot of different places. As a sound engineer, I was just getting tired of hearing computers so much, I guess. I find the restriction kind of helps me be more creative with my sound source instead of relying on anything post or plugins. But yeah, I do like Logic. I just moved up to Pro X. I’ve been on my old laptop from 2008 which would not update to Maverick. I really liked Logic 9 and now it seems I’m relearning Logic all over again with Logic 10. I did get a new laptop finally. It’s gotta be done. This is where sometimes I wish I had better training in the computer world. It’s a little bit slower learning on my own but it’ll come around eventually just as I learned it at the beginning.
I sometimes feel like being the technician or engineer has taken over my space for my own creative output. As a touring musician and a touring sound engineer, do you ever feel this tension? Do you have to actively make space for your own creative output?
It’s a difficult question to answer only because there are so many facets to it. I live in New York, which is extremely expensive. It’s something I’ve been struggling with a lot existentially. Why am I hustling to afford this apartment so I can hustle to afford this apartment and be in a completely non-sustainable, cyclical lifestyle? If you take each tour individually, there are definitely great experiences and lots of things that you learn. But I am perpetually saving money for rent and having to work for rent and when I have to work I don’t have time to work on my own thing. I did make a promise to myself this year when the record came out that I would invest fully in my music and honor it by making time for it. I have a record label contract and now I have a manager and a booking agent. There are other people relying on me to work on this now. That responsibility plus my own need to be creative definitely pushed me towards making time for myself, but the reality is I don’t come from money and I live in New York and I have to also pay rent and pay bills. So yes, I wish I had more time, for sure. I’m taking off the next couple months at least to make this record but I’m gonna run through my savings really fast. I’ve already picked up a bunch of work for November. No tours but things that will take me away for a day or two here and there. That’s gonna severely cut into my time to write and record. It’s hard to find a balance. I haven’t figured it out yet. I think if I won the lottery it’d be very easy to figure it out. There’s the question, “Do you need to be in New York?” No, you don’t need to be in New York but I also have been here for 20 years now and I also have a lot of work that I get because I’m based here. I do a lot of fashion week work. A lot of the labels have bases here. When that English band comes over for that one showcase show and they want to save money by not flying over their engineer and paying for a visa for them, that label will always call me. I’m very much in the world here and it’s my comfort zone in a way. I’ve also thought if the music thing works out for me, I can have the freedom to go somewhere else. I won’t be as reliant on sound work as much. I’d love to live in the country somewhere but when I do need income, I’ll need to be somewhere where there’s a venue or be able to go on tour pretty quickly so it goes both ways. I don’t have it figured out.
You mentioned fashion week. What’s your involvement in fashion week? And what does being the music director at a fashion house like Rachel Comey entail?
I’ve worked for a lot of designers doing production for fashion shows or actually doing the music for fashions shows but the Rachel Comey collaboration goes way back. We’ve been friends since before she was making clothing. When she started making clothes and it started taking off, there were a bunch of people doing different things for her and she always involved me. So now she has this amazing company and she’s just got a really singular aesthetic and music is a big part of that. She’s always been a huge music fan. She gives me a lot of freedom to collaborate with her and her creative partner on what to do for fashion shows. A lot of times she does live music when she can. In that sense, we talk about the vibe of the collection, what musicians are available and who can we get and how we are gonna make this sound good and look good in this space. She appreciates my aesthetic. Her and her creative partner and I will talk about where we wanna go, where we wanna bring the audience during the show. I can’t say enough good things about Rachel. Also, I really appreciate fashion. I’m DJing a sample sale next week for credit. It’s a good barter system. She pays fairly and she respects me as a music fan and I respect her holistic exhibition. I don’t typically like the fashion industry. Everybody thinks their industry is the worst but I definitely feel better in the music industry. Fashion is a totally different industry but it is really cool and you do get to have a collaboration. It’s almost like scoring a short film. You’re bringing visual into the audio world and audio into the visual world and making a complete picture.
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