Have you ever looked at the back of a room during a show, and noticed a person straining their neck to listen to the band while also fiddling with some knobs and faders? That’s the sound engineer. Often forgotten (in my experience, until there’s monitor feedback or someone needs an instrument cable), they are an important part of local venues.
My journey as a live sound engineer began in 2010, when I started shadowing the legendary Slo’ Tom at the now defunct Zaphods. Prior to this, I’d worked recording ads and interviews in the production department at CHUO 89.1FM as well as recorded my own bands at home, but live sound was a different beast. Feedback, working with different musicians and music genres every night, as well as the notion that the show must always go on were very much part of this game! Shadowing Slo Tom was a great experience, and I learned to always treat musicians with respect and to not give in to the grumpy sound tech stereotypes.
By that summer, I was given my very first solo shifts at Café Dekcuf. Without going into too many details, let me tell you that I learned a lot that weekend, from everything from microphone stand placement to monitor feedback to how to never speak to a lead singer again. While my first night working alone went off without incidents, I almost ran out of the room on night two due to the crazy amount of monitor feedback. Fortunately, I stopped myself—I had the foresight to realize it would be hard to convince a club owner to hire me again if I took off mid-show!
I have now been working full time as a live sound engineer for eight years, both in clubs in Ottawa & Toronto, and as a touring Front of House and Monitor Engineer. Here are some tips and tricks to get you started on your live sound journey.
Find someone to shadow
In my opinion, the best way to learn how to do live sound is to shadow a live sound engineer. Don’t be afraid to ask local sound techs to come and shadow them as they work. Offer to help them put away equipment, to patch the stage and throughout the show. Ask questions. If you frequently shadow, a sound tech might let you mix an opening band, a great way to put your skills to use. Alternatively, there exist audio programs at colleges throughout Canada, but these can be expensive.
Always be ready to learn
Those first few weeks of working were a whirlwind of new information for me, from ways to ring out the feedback from monitors to how to properly patch a stage. Ask questions and learn from your mistakes. Find other local sound engineers to network and share knowledge with, or join online communities such as soundgirls.org, womeninlivemusic.eu or the Women’s Audio Missionto access great articles, training videos and forums. Note that these resources are available to people of all genders, not only women.
No show is too small
When you’re starting out, take all the gigs you can and learn from them. Do you have a friend who is organizing a show in a coffee shop? Offer to set up the PA for them and run sound. Even if it’s just amplifying three vocal mics, you will learn from this experience. No one starts off mixing in arenas, and it’s in those small venues where you will learn how to problem solve on the fly—an essential skill in live sound.
Know who your allies are
I am forever grateful to the community of sound techs I met through my work in Ottawa—my fellow Mavericks coworkers were the ones who helped me refine my monitor ringing skills on those first few shifts. Likewise, they were always available to answer questions when I had them. Most live sound work is freelance, and it’s important to connect with your peers. You never know when you will work with someone again, or when a friend might be sick and need a substitute for their gig.
Maxime working her magic on the board. (photo provided)
Treat people with respect
From the musicians on stage to the touring sound techs who come through your place of work, treat people how you would want to be treated. Don’t talk down to musicians about their amp tone or singing technique, but feel free to offer guidance in a gentle way if you think the performer could be open to your opinion. Likewise, if you are a touring sound engineer, the local sound engineer is there to assist you and make your day easier, so no need to be rude with them. I remember some of the first bigger shows I worked, and the way some of the touring engineers talked down to me. When I am on tour and am working with a new engineer, I try and show them tips and tricks if they’re doing things in a way that doesn’t work for my show, instead of simply yelling at them.
Know when to say no
You never have to do anything that makes you uncomfortable, whether that is working somewhere where there are safety concerns such as electrical hazards or inappropriate venue staff or musicians. As a woman, I have been in situations where musicians or touring engineers have inappropriately touched my body while on a show. There is never a situation where this is OK. If this happens to you and you feel comfortable doing so, report the individual.
Live sound is a creative job. Work with the bands you’re mixing in achieving their desired sound, and don’t be afraid to try something that seems totally unconventional.
Shameless self-promotion: if live sound is something that interests you, I teach an intro to sound class for women+ (inclusive of trans and non-binary persons) in Ottawa. To find out when the next class will be scheduled, visit the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition page here.
The issue of sexual assault at music festivals is a global one. A 2014 study done by Dr. Keri Sampsel at the Ottawa Hospital found that 25% of sexual assaults reported to the ER happened at large gatherings. Furthermore, over 60% of victims were unconscious at the time of the assault.
Women and trans folks who are especially at risk of sexual assault shouldn’t have to worry that a night of drinking and listening to live music could end like this. The risk of being assaulted is heightened by other factors as well – factors such as race, ability and sexual orientation.
As musicians, we shouldn’t have to worry about our safety once we walk off that stage either – but being followed around by strange men after our sets puts us into a state of hypervigilance almost immediately after a show.
Here in Ottawa, Project Soundcheck has gone through an evolution for its 3rd year of bystander intervention training to prevent sexual violence. From our community and artist consultations, we are digging deeper into the issue of sexual violence and predatory behaviours. It’s been very encouraging to have the support and input from festivals, industry folks, artists and community members on issues like accountability processes, racist sexual violence and new ways to keep festival goers safer.
This work is happening all across Canada right now and is just one piece of a bigger movement in music history.
Recently, New Brunswick festivals have also taken leadership in offering the Project Soundcheck bystander intervention training to their teams.
In Ontario, Vanessa Rieger’s performance art piece “Nightlife guard” has provided harm reduction and anti-harassment teams at Electric Eclectics and other music festivals.
In June, Montreal Jazz Festival introduced an all-female anti-harassment team called the Hirondelles, who can support people who feel unsafe. As well, Montreal grassroots collectives PLURI and AASK are also fighting rape culture by offering safer party crews for community events and information on how to support survivors of sexual violence.
Coasters handed out at Sled Island Music Festival.
From East to West, action is taking place. And festival season isn’t over yet, so here are a few strategies for you to intervene on pre-assault situations.
Discover – Be aware of your surroundings, if something looks creepy or concerning, but you’re not sure – you can take a moment to gauge the situation or find out more
Be a Distractor – If I’m at a show and I’m concerned for someone’s safety, I’ll try to act as a distraction to give them an opportunity to leave. If they are doing fine, then I’ll just be a friendly stranger! “Hey, are you enjoying the band?”
Be Direct – Directly tell the person that their behavior is uncool, or that you’re concerned for someone’s safety. “Are you okay?”
Delegate – We know being direct is difficult and not safe for everyone – so asses your safety and your comfort, and go to those people who can be of support – other friends, venue or festival staff and volunteers – to get assistance on checking out a situation.
Let’s keep this conversation going – tweet us @projsoundcheckottawa with your experiences, tips and questions!
Elsa Mirzaei is a local musician in Lake Urmia and a community educator for Project Soundcheck. They are dedicated to community building and creating safer spaces to create a local music scene that is more accessible and inclusive to women and nonbinary folks of colour.