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‘Your only boss is you’: Catching up with the next generation of pro audio

With this year's festival season jam packed with live shows and gigs galore, PSNEurope’s Fiona Hope spoke with a range of audio professionals about their experiences within this buzzing industry and how they’d advise others who are navigating the field

With the summer months now upon us, the professional audio industry’s busiest time of year is currently in full swing. Whether it’s traditional festivals out in the fields attracting hundreds of thousands of punters from across the globe, city-based outdoor gigs or comparatively small-scale boutique gatherings, the live events merry-go-round seems to grow more expansive and more diverse with each rotation. As such events grow and diversify, so too do the audio specifications required to ensure a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

To find out about some of the biggest challenges facing engineers out in the field, we spoke to some live sound professionals to gain in-depth insights into what it’s like to work the summer season and find out the best and worst advice they’ve ever received, from dealing with the industry’s more technical hands-on challenges, to facing and combating gender discrimination and coping with the strain such work can place on one’s mental health…


Name: Beth O’ Leary

Job Title: All round sound person

Based: Sheffield, UK

Projects: PA tech for Arcade Fire, J Cole, Elvis Live on Screen and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Paul Weller, Roy Orbison, Monitor tech for Kylie Minogue’s Golden tour, and PA/stage tech at major UK festivals

Tip and tricks for audio professionals?

• Write the band member’s names down on your desk and use them during soundcheck. It really helps to show you’re paying attention and care about their gig. It also gives you a fighting chance of knowing who they’re talking about when someone yells they want ‘more of Dan in their wedge’.

• The people you think of as your bosses aren’t. Your only boss is you – those people are your clients.

• Be nice to everyone you work with, especially the caterers.

Biggest challenges of the job?

Working to tight deadlines while keeping safe is a priority – we all try our best but it isn’t worth risking anyone’s health to soundcheck on time.There also comes a point on every tour when everyone is tired and grumpy, and it can be hard to always remain positive.

What is the worst advice you’ve been given?

Either “drink through the hangover” or “you won’t make a living from this industry so don’t even try”.

Name: Abby Hillyer

Job Title: Freelance sound technician/engineer and music journalist

Based: North-East England/UK

Past projects: Freelance sound engineer for TedX event, Newcastle College, and planned and hosted an all-female music event

What are the biggest challenges of your job?

The biggest challenges I’ve found so far regard negativity. With the work being so fast-paced and tiring, many people can get frustrated and irritated at the littlest things.I’ve also dealt with discrimination due to my gender. People have this strange idea that in sound, women aren’t as capable as men, or that we don’t know what we’re doing. It’s hard to get on with the job when people are constantly wanting you to prove yourself and your knowledge because you’re a woman. I’ve had people question my authenticity as a female sound engineer, and more recently, I was denied access into a venue because they didn’t believe I was there to collect PA equipment, because I am a woman.

Another experience I had on account of my being a female sound engineer was someone telling me to “Show your tits to any sound company and you’ll get a job in no time”. Quite obviously, this is absurd and isn’t the way the music industry works. It’s not about who you are, your gender and your physical attributes, but how hard you work and the quality of work you produce. However, the music industry is heavily male-dominated, which can make it daunting for women to head into it for a career.

What’s the best job-related advice you’ve been given?

To persevere and put in as much effort as possible. This is so important because as a sound engineer, there are going to be times when you’re working a gig on no sleep and little energy. You’re there to set up before the show starts, throughout the show, then afterwards to pack-down and organise equipment. Pushing through and getting on with it is essential. Also, always bring snacks!

What’s the worst job-related advice you’ve received?

The worst advice I’ve heard is to only rely on the people that you know. This is something you’ll hear quite often in the music industry – “it’s all about who you know”. Realistically, it’s about hard work, time and effort and getting to know people from all areas of the music industry. When I initially started out, I didn’t really know anyone, but I started going to gigs and networking with sound engineers and musicians in order to make contacts and work with as many people as I could.

Name: Laura Nagtegaal

Job Title: Self-employed tour manager and guitar technician

Upcoming projects: Ayreon 2019

Awards/nominations: 2018 Backliner Of The Year, Women In Live Music

Best advice you’ve been given?

One of the first, and still among the best advice I’ve been given, was by my friend Raymond, shortly before I landed my first tour. We’d known each other for about seven years by then, and while he saw the talent I had for making it in this industry, he also saw what was holding me back. He said: “Be more assertive; but not arrogant. Don’t ever say you can do it if you aren’t confident that you actually can. If something’s broken and you’re not 100 per cent confident it’s fixable, approach it like ‘I will give it a shot if you want me to fix this (and in the mean-time acquire the knowledge that I might be lacking), but I am not sure I will be able to’, instead of ‘Sure, I will fix it’.”

What do you find to be the biggest challenges of this line of work?

Maintaining mental, social and sometimes even physical health while on the road full-time are an often overlooked aspect of touring. This aspect is rapidly receiving more attention though. Of course, it is usually the performers themselves making headlines, but it still results in more awareness for the industry as a whole.

Name: Kelsey Brooks

Based: Manchester, UK

Job Title: Studio and live sound engineer and music producer

Current projects: Three studio albums, and giving talks about sexism in the industry

What’s the worst advice you’ve heard?

A lot of people told me not to bother with university for sound engineering, but for me personally, it’s one of the best things I ever did. I picked the right school (SSR Manchester), I was taught by industry active tutors and got access to commercial studios and a mock live venue, which taught me so much. Because I had a student loan that I could live off, I could use all of my spare time to freelance and shadow other people. I did so much networking and got as much out of the experience as possible; it made a massive difference to my career prospects.

And the best tips you’ve been given?

The CEO of Women In Live Music (womeninlivemusic.eu), Malle Kaas, once told me that everyone is nervous in this industry, it’s just that some people are better at hiding it than others. That really stuck with me. I think trusting in your knowledge and remembering that, whatever a gig or project throws at you, you’re a good engineer and qualified for the job – without being conceited. Having the right amount of confidence is really key.

What are the biggest challenges of the job?

A lot of people say stress, but for me it’s not so much that, because adrenaline takes over and I switch into autopilot. I think post-show analysis is horrible, and I can stay up all night thinking about how I’d do things differently. I do the same thing when my studio work is released.I’d also say there are massive equality and diversity issues in this industry, not just with gender but also race and sexual orientation. I personally have been discriminated against in the past because I’m a girl, and not only does it suck, but sometimes it can be difficult to get support in standing up against that kind of thing.

The second half of interviews will be released tomorrow.

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