PAMELA DWYER

live sound engineer +
production manager, CKUT 90.3 FM

photo by Roxanne Lemieux

photo by Roxanne Lemieux

Things will go wrong and they’ll go wrong in front of hundreds of people and you have to be able to handle that and stay focused.

from Women in Sound #6
released February 4th, 2019
interview by Madeleine Campbell

I know you primarily as a live sound engineer, but I want to know about your background as a musician. Your primary instrument is voice?
It’s true. I play some instruments, but vocals are my strongest suit. I’m self- taught on guitar and piano because I grew up very low-income, so we couldn’t afford lessons, but when we moved to Dunedin, a little town in New Zealand, my school librarian offered free vocal lessons. She let me do an audition. I had been singing in church since I was very young, so I had some chops. She happily took me on and put me through the classical circuit from when I was about 15, which is pretty old to be starting. It was a lot more high brow than what I was comfortable and familiar with, so it wasn’t a really fun experience to do the classical competitions, but she taught me a lot of the fundamentals of how to breathe and how to project and control. She was also very caring. She was one of three singing coaches I had that really showed up for me emotionally through a lot of hard stuff in my teenagehood and early 20s. That’s how I got going with singing. I kept singing in the church until I left the church when I was 18. I sang all the time. I was one of those kids that plastered my ears against the speakers and played Mariah Carey and Sinead O’Connor and tried to copy exactly what they were doing. I can still sing “Hero” and “I Will Always Love You” almost perfectly because I practiced them so much.

Is singing still an active part of your life?
Well, I direct a choir.

I didn’t know that!
Yeah. I started a queer feminist choir about four years ago. I think it was something that people wanted. I was in choirs throughout high school and really loved it. I started this all-voices chorus where you don’t have to audition. I have a firm belief that people aren’t -- Well, I haven’t met anyone that’s tone-deaf yet. Maybe tone-deafness exists, but of the hundreds of people I’ve sung with, that’s not a reality that I’ve seen. Pitch can have a lot to do with nerves and ear-training and learning to listen and learning to tune in to your resonance in your body. We learn everything by ear. I record all the parts and I arrange all the songs because I want it to consistently be pieces by women and gender non-binary folks. I co-direct with somebody now because it’s gotten pretty big — we’re at 45 members. Her name is Sarah Ayton. We arrange the songs, up to eight or nine parts, just recorded on audio software. We write formatted lyrics and teach the songs by ear. So far it’s worked well, but it’s a slower process when you’re working with a combination of people that have musical experience and people that have none, plus the fact that we’re not following a score. It’s incredible, though. We perform these songs that are complicated and have a lot of harmonies. It’s important to me that people feel music is accessible, because I believe it’s really healing. It’s the coolest project I’ve ever started. I’m proud of it.

I really appreciate that reading music is not a necessity to participate. You’re breaking down barriers of entry. That’s so cool. Does the chorus have a name?
It’s called the Forever Chorus.

How did you get started in live sound?
When I moved to Canada, I first moved to Ottawa. I applied to hairdressing school in Toronto and sound school in Montreal and got into both, but the hairdressing school required a high school certificate, which I didn’t have, so I went to sound school. It was something that I was drawn to purely because of the hardships I’d experienced as a musician, trying to play shows and record with sound engineers that were not good allies to women and queers and not understanding of the challenges that women and queers face in the music industry. I really wanted to upskill myself to understand that language and feel empowered as an artist.

Sound school was a wild ride and a challenge. When I came out of it, I started volunteering for the Rock Camp for Girls as their tech person. The partner of one of the coordinators was a tour manager for a band called Think About Life and also knew another tour manager that was looking for a sound tech for a band called You Say Party from Vancouver. He saw me mixing the Rock Camp for Girls showcase and asked me if I’d be interested in working for them. I don’t think he knew how green I was, but I said yes and met up with the bands. They were excited to work with me. That was that. I ended up doing a seven- week tour with You Say Party and then toured for two years with Think About Life around Canada, the States, Europe the U.K., Scandinavia. They took me everywhere with them. I learned how to do the job along the way. It was pretty wild. I went from a rock camp showcase mixing ten-year-olds to working in a professional context, mixing up to 5,000-capacity venues. I dug in and at first was scared shitless. There was new equipment every night. I’m friends with all of them, still.

What advice do you have for someone about to go on their first tour as a sound engineer?
I was very green when I went on my first tour, too. I think the most important thing to understand is that the house engineer is there for you. When you’re touring with a band, your main jobs are to be a mediator between the house engineer and the band and to mix the band that has hired you to mix. If you have an agreement with the band stating you’ll also pack up their equipment and set up or load out their gear, there’s that too. But in terms of the venue, the house engineer is there to support you. They’re there to teach you how to use their system. They’re there to plug in all the lines, then you go ahead and do the mic placement how you want. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Many times there have been house technicians that have decided to leave and I say, “No, please stand next to me so I can ask you questions if anything happens.” I could be using brand new equipment. I’ve potentially never used this board or these compressors or effects. I need the house engineer to be there in case I need help in the moment. When you’re working in live sound, you don’t have time to find a pathway. You need to have the person that’s familiar with the system be able to point out the problem immediately. That’s their job. It’s not always like that. Sometimes they don’t understand that’s their job or they’re trolling you because you’re a woman or whatever. Don’t be afraid to assert yourself.

At the same time, it’s worked for me to be very friendly and very respectful of the house technicians. As soon as I come into the venue, I go up to the house technicians, shake their hands and look them in the eyes. I don’t walk behind their equipment without asking. I ask them what they like and don’t like about their equipment. I ask them about their room. Give them that credit that they do understand the space and the equipment. Start off building that rapport. You need them through that night. Ask from them what you need.

portrait by Maggie Negrete

portrait by Maggie Negrete

I want to revisit a topic we discussed at our panel in Montreal. You were reflecting upon something that I hadn’t thoughtfully considered before, but it needs to be discussed more. There’s this ever-present archetype of the grumpy sound man. Why is that? Could you reiterate your thoughts about the intersections of class and race in our field and how it affects both engineers and artists? And how it’s affected your practice?
I think it’s important to acknowledge that when you go into audio engineering, you have two main routes: one is studio work and one is live work. One of the key differences between the two is that in live work, you don’t need any equipment of your own. If you don’t have money to create a studio or buy fancy equipment to record people in a studio, you go to live. It’s a job you can jump right into and get a paycheck at the end. There is a pretty clear divide. This isn’t to dismiss the work of studio engineers. Some people get great opportunities in studios and there are also really big venues where people make more money. Either way, you can intern with a live sound technician with nothing. For myself, as a working class, low-income person, that was the main reason I went into live work. Following along with that, live sound techs in a lot of places -- certainly in Montreal and throughout Canada and I believe the United States, as well, and I know in Australia and New Zealand — generally don’t get paid much. There are a few places I’ve been where live sound techs get paid well, but generally speaking, live sound technicians get paid minimum or low-income wages. Sometimes you’ll get a flat fee for the night. The job is exhausting. You have to deal with new people all the time and many of those people are nervous and stressed out. They’re putting that energy out there in their soundchecks and you have to manage that and take that on. You work long nights with no benefits and no dental care and no reasonable wages. It’s very much a working class job. That takes a toll on anybody. No one I know doing live sound has a retirement fund or takes vacations. It’s a service job. For me, the longer I’ve been in it and the more and more credit I’ve gotten for my skill sets, my wages have not gone up. My wages have not reflected the accolades that I’ve received. I see older technicians whose bodies have been worn out by this job and whose hearing has been really damaged. Their bodies are damaged from carrying equipment and being crammed into little booths and staying up late over and over again. Drinking can be a big part of that, too.

I do have a lot of compassion for that because of coming from a working class family and having a dad who always labored. I see the exhaustion and the toll it’s taken on him and the stress of not having your retirement laid out for you. So I do have a lot of compassion for the people in the industry later into their lives who don’t find other avenues to take and often damage their hearing so they can’t even keep working in audio. It creates bitterness. It is really hard to bring that loving energy to artists when you are not being taken care of in your job and you feel cornered in that job. And unfortunately, this directly affects artists on stage and disproportionately young artists, queer and women artists and artists of color.

It is really hard to bring that loving energy to artists when you are not being taken care of in your job and you feel cornered in that job. And unfortunately, this directly affects artists on stage and disproportionately young artists, queer and women artists and artists of color.

Thank you for acknowledging this.
Mm-hmm.

You mentioned you work at a community radio station now. What does this work entail for you?
It’s really interesting! I’ve never really worked in radio before besides a few small mixing contracts. The work is diverse. Fundamentally, I’m in charge of all the equipment, so I have to make sure everything is functioning. The equipment is quite different than what I’m used to in live work. We also have little studios for recording ads and station IDs and interviews. Outside of that, it’s my role to make sure the audio that’s coming out on air is good quality. I train programmers on how to use the equipment properly and teach them about mic technique. I teach them how to mix their shows. I’m also aware of what’s happening up at the antenna and I keep track of that and update it. The equipment on the antenna has an audio processor that’s like a mastering suite. I have control over adjusting all of that, too, meaning what happens to the audio once it leaves our studio. After that, because it’s community radio, a big part of the job is upskilling people. We have a bunch of portable recording devices. We teach people how to use those. We have outreach events to run. We teach people how to record events and how to do a remote recording from a show and send it to the station. Right now I’m working on a bunch of podcast projects. There are a couple of women interested in being my interns, so I’m organizing a group of people that will create podcast content, which I’ll executive produce. I’ll teach them how to produce and then I’ll oversee that production. It’s quite cool in that way. It’s really broad. I’m also supposed to repair equipment. That’s the thing I do the least and tend to get my volunteers to do because it’s really time-consuming. There’s a lot of learning in that for me. I’m pretty green to it so I’m often watching YouTube videos and trying to work out how to do it. I do like doing that stuff but my job is quite big and that work is slow. I focus on the bigger picture.

Wow. You wear many hats.
Yes. My title is “production coordinator." I’m the only one who gets paid for production work.

What’s the name of the radio station?
It’s called CKUT 90.3 FM. It’s connected to McGill University.

As someone who has attended an audio school but also learned a lot on the job and now trains other people, what advice would you give to someone who would like to start live mixing but doesn’t have foundational knowledge?
Going to school costs a lot of money. I don’t really recommend it. The amount it costs doesn’t match up with the pay you normally get. There are probably schools in different places that have better internship programs than what my school had that could help you get into the industry. You’ve got to bear in mind that if you want to get into live sound, the best way to make money is to go on tour, so you have to consider if you want that kind of lifestyle. The thing is, you can’t really “study” live sound. You can learn some of the fundamentals of the equipment and signal path, but you’re not going to really learn it until you’re doing it. In that way, my advice would be to find a sound technician that’s willing to have you shadow. I’ve done it for a lot of people. I have them shadow me for multiple evenings and I gradually add things they get to do rather than watch. I do it pretty quickly because it’s important to have hands-on experience and it’s important for people to know if they have the right kind of personality for it. You have to be someone that gets focused when the stress level goes up. You can’t get frazzled. Things will go wrong and they’ll go wrong in front of hundreds of people and you have to be able to handle that and stay focused. I’ve definitely been really upset from shows before when things have gone wrong and felt really bad about myself, but overall, my mind goes into focus zone and I enjoy the adrenaline of it. That’s why it’s a good fit for me.

What music excites you lately?
I’ve been getting a little nostalgic, to be honest. I was really into Scandinavian music in my early 20s, like Sigur Rós and múm. I’ve been digging into some of that and thinking about starting a show of Scandinavian music at the radio station. For me, it was a big part of the ‘90s, that really ambient, sad, drony music. I was reminded of it by a band in Montreal called Syngja, whom I’ve mixed quite a few times. I went to their album launch recently. They’re very inspired by Icelandic sounds. I had the privilege of going to Iceland Airwaves, which is a music festival that hosts primarily Icelandic bands, but they bring a small group of international bands every year. You can only play that festival once. It feels really special and magical when you’re there. It feels like you’re being let into an environment that you won’t see again. The whole of Reykjavik turns into venues, every coffee shop and swimming pool. It’s just filled with music from morning until night. It really brought me back, seeing their album launch. There’s this energy of nature. Something really organic and really electronic fuses together in this very layered way. It takes you on a slow journey that feels very much like a landscape. It’s been fun to dig in again. I’m excited to see what’s new coming out of Iceland and Sweden and Denmark. I haven’t been following that genre for a while.

Winter seems like a good time to dig in.
Doesn’t it though? I’ll let you know what I find.
- - - - -


- Women in Sound 2019 -