Ay Ay Ford Wesley is an independent engineer working in both live sound and production and post audio. She is a co-owner as well as the head engineer with her husband of Sound Signature LLC. She is a graduate of Full Sail University and has been working in audio since 2011. But her love for music audio started in her early years.
She credits her two uncles with nurturing her love of music. They were both in bands and when she was growing up she would attend their concerts. She credits her Uncle Schiavone for the majority of her interest in music, he was in a band called Fighting Gravity and she had all his albums and just loved seeing him sing his heart out on stage. It made her want to be part of that world.
Ay Ay fell in love with audio during her teenage years, when she was working towards becoming the next Brandy. She would write, record, and mix her own music using Cakewalk Music Creator. Learning the software allowed her to be creative with her music and opened her eyes to producing and mixing. She remembers being in love “ with every little element of music and wanted to be that person that balanced everything and added cool effects to make it even more interesting. From there I researched more about what that was called and I found schools that focused on that craft. It became real to me. I went from wanting to sing like Brandy, to wanting to mix her next album. It’s still a dream of mine.”
Her path to audio started with her love of music, to writing and recording her own music and then one day she visited a recording studio and realized that there was a whole team involved in making an album, she met the recording engineers and saw the gear and she was no longer interested in singing. From there she would enroll in Full Sail University to study recording arts but would be introduced to live sound “I had a month of live show production, and discovered this world of concerts and live events and became intrigued. AND THEN my last month of school for my Associates’s degree, we focused on production sound, sound design and post sound mixing and I absolutely loved it! So my initial interest in audio was through music and recording, then it morphed into live sound and concerts and then evolved into post sound and mixing for films and animations.”
She started working live sound in 2011 with PSAV. She says that they were a great stepping stone but she says “ you had to motivate yourself and push yourself to advance through the company.” Motivated she was, pushing herself, learning every piece of gear they had in their inventory, taking on challenging and higher profile gigs.
“I would see other seasoned technicians who would be called in to do the bigger, more complicated and higher profiled gigs and I wanted to be like them. Also, the fact that there weren’t a lot of women audio techs made me stand out and work harder to prove myself. I know people have their opinions about this company, but I really have to give it to the manager that hired me. He asked me where I wanted to go in the company, I told him I wanted to be a top-notch audio tech and he made a way for me.”
During her years at PSAV, she learned that mistakes are going to happen and that they are the foundation for learning and growing. She also learned that there are so many people on the production team that often they do not understand the role of the audio engineer. “ I’ve learned to make sure you are in those production meetings so that you can be aware of any conflicts or issues that may arise during set up and show.”
She also had some really great mentors “Michael Coates was the man that gave me a chance and allowed me to navigate and learn all I could about anything audio. He also put me on complex shows and allowed me to grow. Also, an amazing audio engineer named John Beckstoffer let me shadow him various times during my first few years with the company and he would always give me advice on gear and mixing techniques. He is a person that you could just tell he loved to mix and he loved teaching people. When I started my freelance career and was looking to work on more concerts and tours, I have to give so much credit to Amanda Davis who is an amazing audio engineer! What an inspiration! She has been there to guide me and give advice and she has opened doors for me to work on some big concerts that have taken me across the world.”
Ay Ay’s long term goals are to focus on and continue to build Sound Signature LLC. She hopes to land a contract with a production company for an episodic series or for audiobooks. Of course, during COVID she is looking for more work she can do at home and building a solid foundation for her company to remain profitable, especially for when she decides to expand her family. We are positive she will be successful.
What is a typical day like?
My days vary depending on what type of gig I have.
If it’s a concert I’m mixing for the day, I am up early, packing my pelican with anything I think I may need for the show. I’m listening to the artist on the way to the venue to get my mind and my ear ready to mix and I usually show up to show site super early to have a moment to go over the PA set, mixers (whether I’m running FoH or Mons) and to walk the stage and do my own preliminary tuning and sound check. When the show starts, it’s all about the show! When the show ends I thank God for a wonderful show and help with loadout.
If I’m working as a production sound mixer for the day, I am up early, packing my pelican and making sure I have my sound bag charged and packed. The same applies, in that I will show up to the production location early to get a feel of the area, although I would have joined the production team during the location scouting. If I’m there early enough, I’ll go over the script again, and perhaps get some ambient sounds or room tone while it’s quiet. When filming starts I’ll be working, getting the best possible sounds from my boom and lavs and when the day wraps, I hand the DIT my drives, as well as a sound report and I, head out. Always thankful for the opportunity.
If I’m working from home as a post sound mixer or sound designer, then my day is a little more relaxed. I’ll get up, eat breakfast, get all my social media habits out the way (lol) and go down to my little mix studio at my home and load the session files and either get mixing or if it’s a sound design project, I’ll have my arsenal of microphones and go out and about to capture some sounds that pertain to the project I’m working on.
When I don’t have any work for that day or week, you can find me watching videos on other sound engineers or watching gear review videos and phantom shopping (window shopping) online for future upgrades and such for my home studio.
How do you stay organized and focused?
I make lists of everything I need for a particular gig. I find it therapeutic and a great practice to pack bags and cases the night before, have my show files updated and saved on a drive and have snacks and drinks packed. That way the morning of the show, I’m not doing any last minute things. My mind can just be calm and clear before the storm.
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
I really enjoy being part of the bigger picture. I love mixing a concert and seeing the audience having a wonderful time and the artists on stage feeling that energy. Whether you’re mixing FoH or Mons, they may be two different worlds but the goal is the same and that goal is to have a fun and successful show. I love the creativity behind any of the audio gigs I pick up. From production sound with hiding mics in places to pick up clear dialogue, capturing sounds for atmospheres and soundscapes, or creating sounds for certain parts of the film, it just pushes you to be creative. In post sound mixing, you can work at your own pace and you have the freedom to build this soundtrack of sounds that help tell the visual story. At the end of it all, when the film is shown at festivals or posted online, to read the comments and see people really enjoying the work, that is what I enjoy most.
What do you like least?
For live sound, I hate when things go to hell lol. I HATE having a bad show, it’s such an awful feeling because it doesn’t matter if it’s not my fault, I still feel horrible. Whether it’s a lack of a soundcheck or the band shows up minutes before the show begins and I’m scrambling to get the lines up, or I’m working as BOTH the FOH and monitor engineer when there should really be two separate people doing the job (yes….there are companies that cut corners like that). Sometimes there are shows I have worked on and there hasn’t been any communication between the company that’s putting the show on and the artists that are performing, so I haven’t gotten a stage plot or an input list or anything.
Unprofessionalism and sexism are also what I despise in this industry. It literally takes a team to put on a production, we are all working together to accomplish a single goal. What does it matter that I am a woman? Why are you shocked that I know what all those buttons do? And the gossip, sometimes it just turns me off. Why get offended when I take my lunch breaks at my console so I can check to make sure my outputs aren’t muted and that there aren’t any surprises before the show instead of sitting in the break area talking about…nothing? That really happens. The annoyance of it all.
What’s your favorite part of touring?
I have worked on two tours in my freelance career and I really liked advancing the show, as it pertained to the audio portion. I loved being in contact with the production companies and show venues to make sure they’ve received all of our needs and requirements. Instead of relying on someone to communicate with the other side of the tour, I did it and it allowed me to be calm and know exactly what we were walking into and what gear would be there at the venue. Any changes that were made I was one of the first to be aware of it. I’d have to say I liked that the most out of anything.
What do you like least?
With those two tours being my first major tours, there was still a lot I was learning as I was on tour and with that, I was so anxious and nervous. I didn’t like how anxious I was on those tours. I was so focused on perfection that I could barely enjoy the countries I was in. I was scared to make a mistake and I just kept to myself. I was a wreck haha. There wasn’t a production manager, I advanced my own gear, lighting advanced their own and the tour manager managed the tour so I was learning as I was going. Honestly, the anxiety I had on those tours really made me not want to tour anymore, but of course, if I’m asked to go on tour in the future, I’m pretty sure I’d say yes lol.
What is your favorite day off activity?
Playing video games. Specifically Elder Scrolls Online.
What if any obstacles or barriers have you faced?
When I first started freelancing, and I wanted to get in with an audio warehouse or a touring house to learn more about concert touring and building audio racks, I faced a lot of barriers as I didn’t have the “qualified” experience to work at one which blew my mind because I was wanting to work there to learn more and gain experience. My resume wasn’t “impressive” enough and I slowly realized that it’s more of who you know that could get you in the door of certain facilities. Also, marketing yourself as a freelance audio engineer was a huge obstacle as I didn’t know how to “show” my work and experience without it being a list of concerts and shows I’ve worked on my resume.
How have you dealt with them?
I’ve always believed that there are multiple ways to get to a goal. If I was met with rejection from one company I would move on and pick up a gig with another. I would also pick up gigs as the audio assistant or the stagehand in order to meet people and network. To promote myself, I created a website and an audio-focused Instagram page and started documenting my shows. I got a lot of exposure that way and now use those pages as a sort of portfolio. I’ve gotten gigs from just my Instagram page which is cool.
Advice you have for other women and young women who wish to enter the field?
Have fun and learn all you can! I truly love everything about the audio industry and the technology is ever-changing and advancing and it’s our job to keep up with it. This is such a great industry to be a part of. I would also advise women to be very aware of some challenges they may face along the way. Depending on what part of the audio industry you decide to pursue, you will (it’s inevitable) encounter sexism. You’ll meet people who don’t believe in you and who thinks a man is a better fit for the job. Please don’t let these people deter you. There’s a reason why you’ve chosen this path and you should pursue it with an open mind and an open heart. Your best weapon is your knowledge of the industry and its technology, which ANYONE can learn. Your drive and motivation should be what keeps you moving. Also, the most important advice I can give is to surround yourself with others that are also pursuing this journey. Join sound engineering groups, go to trainings and conventions, meet people and network, see if you can shadow an engineer on a show, which is a great way to learn!
Must have skills?
Troubleshooting is a must. It’s great to have flawless shows, but you need to know what to do and how to pinpoint a problem when things go wrong. Also, understanding the power requirements for gear and acoustical engineering also helps!
I love my Whirlwind PA-1 personal headphone monitor. I use it as a cable tester and to check outputs. Also, my laptop/Ipad and network routers. It’s so helpful to be mobile when tuning a system or checking levels, tuning stage monitors, or doing line checks and monitor requests for musicians.
Sound Signature LLC was founded in 2018 when Ay Ay and her husband Marcellus realized we had more than enough live, production and mixing experience between them to open up shop. Sound Signature LLC covers live gigs, production sound mixing gigs and post sound gigs. Sound Signature LLC is proud to have had the opportunities to work on such projects as:
“Cycles“- Directed by Kathrine Street, which is currently making its’ rounds in the Independent Film Festival circuits.
“Loving Byron“- Directed by Deante Gray, which made its’ rounds in the Independent Film Festival circuits back in 2019.
“Comrades In Arms: The Manila American Cemetery”- Directed by Joshua Colover of Aperture Films, this documentary has been posted on the American Battlefield Monuments Commisions’ Youtube page.
“Harriet Tubman: Soldier of Freedom”- Directed by Joshua Colover of Aperture Films, this short film is posted on the MarylandDNR Youtube page.