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Love for Chaos: Willa Snow Live Sound Engineer

Willa Snow is an independent FOH, Monitor Engineer, and system tech based in Austin, TX. While she has only been working in Live Sound for just over three years, she is filling up her resume.  She regularly works with Texas Performing Arts, Stage Alliance, and C3 Presents, amongst others. She works as a board op/system tech for Bass Concert Hall, as a monitor engineer at Historic Scoot Inn and Emo’s, and as a FOH/MON engineer for several other clubs in town. She has toured with the Grammy-nominated choir Conspirare during the fall of 2018 for their piece, “Considering Matthew Shepard,” as an assistant stage manager and general audio tech.

Before Willa discovered the world of audio, she was pursuing a career as a singer/songwriter. She was playing coffee shops and small venue gigs at the age of 15, and she says “despite that I had no clue about the world of audio, all I knew was that I had to sing into a mic nice n loud.  I don’t recall ever having a monitor mix, or even an engineer introduce themselves.”

She would enroll in college with the intention of going into performance. This was until she was required to take a recording technology course for her major.  “That year I fell HARD for working in the studio. I loved how many variables there were to play with, and all the different directions that you could take a piece of music in. The creative process was suddenly busted wide open for me, and I couldn’t let that go, so I switched my focus to engineering. My decision to change solidified when I found out how few women there are on this side of the industry… less than 5% is just B.S! I became even more impassioned when I started working in live sound at 23 and discovered all the directions that you could take that path in, and all the wonderful types of music and performance that you’re exposed to! Since being a youngin singing acoustic pop-punk in run-down venues in Silicon Valley, my instrument has changed from a guitar and my voice to a console and mics. Each show that I work is a chance to explore and express my musicality alongside the incredible talent that I get to work with here in Austin, TX.”

Willa started out working in recording studios while in college as a ProTools op and audio engineer. She has a BA of Contemporary Music from Santa Fe University of Art and Design, where she was trained in various instruments, music theory, orchestration, advanced vocal techniques, western and world music history, and basic business management, as well as studio production. In contrast, all of her live sound knowledge has been developed on the job and through independent research on various subjects.

After graduating from college, she moved to Texas and ended up taking a job in live sound as an A2 for a small local production company, where she was taught how to build PAs and tune systems. While there, she soaked up everything she could learn and said she “initially hated live sound! In comparison to the studio, it’s loud, chaotic, and terrifying, Everything’s happening all at once, and almost nothing goes according to the original plan. I must have developed Stockholm Syndrome because now I can’t get enough of it! I’ve learned to love the fluidity and chaos, and I’m constantly finding myself challenged to grow and inspired by the techs that I encounter and the artists that I get to work with.”

Like many of us, when Willa first started running sound, she was terrified of failing. She put a lot of pressure on herself and says she feltthat as a woman, people were going to be looking at me as an example of all women engineers. If I wasn’t 100% absolutely perfect, then it would be reflected 100x worse on me than it would a male in my position, and it would be a stain on the reputation of women engineers the world over. I put all that pressure on myself, despite having only just begun my journey into live sound!”

Then  Willa started to notice something… “in my conversations with more experienced engineers and hearing their origin stories, they all said the same thing: they were TERRIBLE when they were starting out! I heard many tales of butchering mixes and struggling to make the broken gear work in dirty clubs. I finally realized that in order to grow and move past this mentality, I needed to give myself permission to fail. So, before every gig, I would have the following conversation with myself: “let’s go out there and SUCK! Let’s have the worst mix ever, and get shamed out of the club! The band is going to hate everything you do, and the gear’s going to catch fire, and it’s going to be GREAT!” And strangely, that worked for me. Giving myself the space to be an inexperienced failure allowed me to embrace that risk, and to go in with a clear head and tackle the show. At the end of the day, we’re all human, and humans mess up and make mistakes, and that’s okay; the key is how you recover from that mistake. Do you own it, fix what needs fixing, and learn from it? Or do you wallow? After a few months, I didn’t need that non-pep pep talk anymore. Now I just walk in with my shoulders back and a big, fat smile on my face.”

One of Willa’s Early Failures

Early on in my experience (I think it was my second gig), I had a show where All The Things Went Terribly. I was given an incorrect load-in time; I hooked up the mains wrong, my iPad mixer was futzing out, the stage sound was terrible, the FOH mix was REALLY bad… so bad in fact that when the singer of the band greeted the crowd and asked, ”how’s it sounding out there?” the audience responded with, “clap… clap… crickets…” An audience member standing near me even leaned over and asked me, “it doesn’t sound good, does it?” I could do nothing but admit that indeed it did not. Oh, it was so embarrassing!! Thankfully the band was very kind and even tipped me at the end of the night.

As soon as I got home, I called up one of my sound buddies and took him out for beers. I walked him through the entire gig, top to bottom, and asked him for some guidance on the mix, and for advice on how to do things better.

A few weeks later, I got the opportunity to mix the same band again. I made sure to get to the venue extra early, set up and rang out the stage as cleanly as I could, incorporated some suggestions my friend made into my mix and remembered exactly how the band set up the stage and where they needed lines. The band showed up, and this time, All The Things Went Smoothly. Stage and FOH sound were vastly improved, the band had a great time, the audience had a great time, they even gave me a ‘thank you’ shout out!

As Willa continues to learn and grow, her long-term goals are to become a touring FOH /Monitor Engineer and System Tech.

What do you like best about touring?

I like hearing how the sound of the music changes in different venues, and the constant momentum of traveling from place to place

What do you like least?

I miss my loved ones and my own bed while I’m away.

What is your favorite day off activity?

My favorite day off activities are resting and taking care of my plant collection. It’s lovely to have a period of quiet and calm after the storm.

What are your long-term goals?

I have several interests that I’m avidly working towards, my main ones being touring as a FOH and/or MON engineer, and/or as a system/PA tech.

What, if any, obstacles or barriers have you faced?

I’ve been turned down for a tour because of my gender, and am all-too-often dealing with unwarranted attention and sexist comments.

How have you dealt with them?

It depends on the situation. For the tour, I let it go and decided that wasn’t a tour I wanted to be involved with anyway. I turned to the SoundGirls forum for advice when going through that process, and deeply appreciated the support and words of encouragement that I received from the group. When dealing with sexist comments on the job, sometimes I’ll ignore them, while others I’ll confront head-on and shoot something back (ex: if I get called honey, I’ll call them sweetie. Stops that sh** real fast.)

The advice you have for other women and young women who wish to enter the field?

Learn as much as you can from every situation and interaction, and ask as many questions as you can at appropriate times. Don’t be afraid to work hard, and allow your enthusiasm to drive you. Always keep an air of professionalism at every gig, no matter how big or small. Say yes to every challenge and opportunity possible. Be authentically who you are and embrace that; faking it until you make it is not a thing. It’s okay to stand up for yourself when you are being mistreated; no amount of abuse is worth your time or mental health.

Must have skills?

Have a running knowledge of basic signal flow, mic placement, gain structure and EQ techniques, and learn to embrace failure (how else are you going to learn?). Be kind and cool to those you interact with, and keep your connections positive as much as possible.

Favorite gear?

Work gloves, c-wrench, and my Shure SE846 IEMs. An Allen & Heath desk is always preferred.

 

 

 

Soundgirls Expo 2019

This July the SoundGirls Orlando Chapter, along with B4 Media Production and Mainline Marketing, hosted our second annual SG Expo at Full Sail University. The expo was intimate; we had panel discussions and presentations followed by everyone filling the lobby to network and explore the vendor tables. The people who showed up were eager and enthusiastic, some were thrilled to bits that this organization existed and we welcomed them right into our community. Beckie Campbell, the Orlando Chapter Head, and owner of B4 Media Productions got the band back together with Willa Snow – the Austin SG Chapter Head and Laura Davidson with Shure.

Beckie Campbell has been on tour this summer as a FOH Engineer for the Indigo Girls. She found her way back to Orlando to host the expo. Beckie gave expert advice on live sound, production management, and being a small business owner.

Laura Davidson represented Shure at our expo for the second year in a row. Her RF presentation enlightened those new to using wireless microphone systems. Her RF Basics discussion is integral to any new engineers exploring the wireless in live sound production. She also shared some of Shure’s new wireless microphones, which had some impressive features. Shure’s rechargeable rack-mounted station was a favorite of mine. Having worked in live sound for over 15 years, changing batteries took up such a large part of my day when we had 20+ cast members with IEMs and belt packs. The ADX1M micro body pack transmitter was one of my favorite new items, the compact size was impressive (and adorable).

Willa Snow presented for Allen & Heath, giving us some insight on their new firmware updates and iLive family of consoles and accessories.  She also contributed to our panel discussions, giving our attendees a bright and refreshing attitude on mixing live music in Austin, TX.

Mainline Marketing, another amazing local company, supported our expo by bringing some amazing equipment for our guests to demo and get hands-on experience. Michael, Michael, and Zach provided us with expert knowledge and experience. They also brought along the fabulous Shure Jeep, which was a huge hit.

Some new players this year included Kaysen Thurber with Inearz, a local Central Florida company who are passionate about preserving hearing for musicians and Wesley Devore, the Documentation Manager for Presonus Audio Electronics.

Inearz is a Central Florida family-owned company. Kaysen’s father, Kim Fisher. Kim has been building IEM drivers since the 70s. He started his own company in 2003 and has kept it in the family ever since. Kaysen has been working with her father since she was 15 and continues to represent the brand passionately.

Wesley Devore braved a hurricane in her home state of Louisiana to join us in Orlando. Wesley writes the manuals for Presonus; her presentation featured Presonus’s Studio Live console and their scaleable ecosystem of products. Presonus’s NSB Stagebox was a beefy addition to their line of consoles, a stagebox that behaves as an I/O router with gain compensation down the line. Each integrated system would have control over its gain, so nothing is set by any one part of the system, in turn giving the operator complete control.

Featuring these women and providing a platform for them to be passionate about their products and experiences is the main reason we present this expo. We had several students from local colleges, including some who traveled over three hours to attend. Many of these women echoed the same stories we’ve heard over and over, being passionate about music and technology while feeling pushed aside by men who think their passion is more “serious.” Referring them to SoundGirls, including the scholarships that are offered and resources provided on the website was exactly what they needed to hear. Screw gentle encouragement; we can push these women into their dreams. Empowerment is in our tagline for a reason; we can equip these young ladies with the education and confidence necessary to succeed in their career of choice.

 

Musings on the Role of Femininity in the Music Industry

Historically speaking, women, and those that are female-identifying, have largely been unwelcome in the music business. Unless you were an overstated, hyper-exaggerated version of a sexual, feminine ideal in a front person role, you had no place, no business being near a stage, studio, or mixing board.

The concept of the feminine identity in relation to the music industry is one that perplexes and fascinates me. Now I don’t necessarily mean simply dressing in a “girly” way – most, if not all, of us, are unable to wear a skirt when working (it’s not practical in the slightest, not to mention a possible safety hazard in live situations. I prefer my trusty blue jeans.) – but more the attitude, the feeling of being “feminine,” whatever that means, and how it translates to our work.

I interviewed a few of my colleagues regarding their thoughts on this topic, asking the question, “have you ever felt like you’d have to reject your femininity in order to be successful in the industry?” Most that I asked this question to initially responded with a hard, “no.” Jill Meniketti, band manager for Y & T stated,

“That’s not something I’ve ever focused on.  I focus on my work, which I take seriously.  When you excel at your job, that garners respect, regardless of gender.”

Delving in a little deeper into the feminine mentality/attitude aspect garners a slightly different response. When I first got started in the studio, my college professor insisted that being a woman in the studio was a massive advantage, because they are better at keeping the peace and stepping into the role of the band’s creative therapist. My friend Eva Reistad, a studio engineer based in Los Angeles, echoes this thought. When I asked if there was a time when being feminine proved advantageous, she stated, “yes there was: band members sometimes are more open to the fact that you’re a woman, in which case they’ll sort of open up and tell you more things, which will cause the session to go better. I don’t think it’s really anything so much as femininity so much as being female.” Somehow, just being a woman allows people to feel more secure and comfortable in that situation.

Through all my discussions on this topic, the main conclusion I come to encompasses more than just femininity. It’s about being comfortable with who you are. As Eva puts it, in the end, what I think is how you present your aura, your energy, that will determine how you are treated. You cannot control how other people react. Be comfortable with yourself entirely.”

There is power in being a woman in the music industry. Being confident and secure in who you are provides a sturdy foundation for the rest of your work, whether you are a tech or an artist.

Jill’s Website:

Eva’s Website:

 

Brace Yourself

Starting out in the audio industry, whether in live or studio, is a wee bit tough. Even when I was in school during finals week, when I had three papers due, juries and ensemble shows to perform, and recordings to finish while also working a day job, I don’t think I was this stressed and worn out.

I wake up in the mornings with my teeth sore from clenching, my brain slipping though my ears from what feels like overuse. I pay my bills with a day job that is far removed from what I want to be doing, and on the few days and evenings I have off, I’m at the job that I do want to be doing.

It’s physically grueling. Many of you youngins may also be feeling the same way. But it’s all worth it, because the pride I feel when a session is going well, or when I successfully help rotate one live band’s setup to the next band’s setup in less than fifteen minutes is immeasurable.

Throughout all this stress, it’s important to remember to carve out even just a few little minutes a day for yourself. It can be anything; reading a favorite book in the break room, taking a few centering breaths before bed, stepping outside to stretch… Anything. Beyond that, make sure you’re surrounding yourself with a strong support network of people who “get it,” those that understand that you’re working towards something great.
Steeling yourself away is a tough thing to do, especially if you’re on a gig that’s lasted over nine hours, and you haven’t showered in two days. But it’s as necessary as a decent night’s sleep, and it’s what will keep you moving forward. After all, you can’t give from an empty basket.


SoundGirls.Org  Note – Keeping yourself sane and avoiding burnout is important. Some of our contributors have written about avoiding burnout and stress.  Here are a few

Finding Balance

The Grind

Hi! My Name is Samantha and I am Addicted to Work

Part Time Mixer —– and Part Time What?

A Perspective on Success

Taking Care of You on a Gig

Happy New Year! Goals Anyone

A Little Dab’ll Do Ya… Bringing a Corporate Mindset to the Music World

Despite the fact that we are in a creative business, I have found that a little dash of “corporate” goes a long way.

My mother is an MBA, and a wiz in the corporate world. While I was growing up, she would come home from one networking event or another and would tell me about the discussion topic of the night, who she met, etc. When I was older, she took me along with her to a couple of these events. It is from these experiences that I picked up a few techniques that have served me surprisingly well as a youngin’ coming up in this industry.

The first of which is the use of LinkedIn. You’d be surprised how useful this social media platform has been! It’s fairly simple: you create a profile, post some pictures, fill in your resume, and voila! LinkedIn profile. A lot of the older industry corporate bigwigs are on this platform (which you can find by searching the company they work for), and you now have immediate access to them. Start looking for groups and conversations that they’re creating or commenting on, and start participating in the discussions. The more you talk, the more views your profile will receive, and the more connections you will gain. I myself have connected and chatted with studio owners and assistants, other musicians, and radio DJs. Also found on the site are interesting and fascinating articles regarding the state of various aspects of the music industry, from the SoundCloud changes to the debate on whether record labels are still relevant. Lots of interesting perspectives, and a wealth of knowledge and connections, all at your fingertips.

Secondly, prepare for and learn how to network, and always be in “networking mode.” I always keep a stock of business cards on hand, whether it’s in my wallet, a cardholder, or just my pocket. You never know who you’re going to meet in your day-to-day life! As soon as you do exchange cards with someone, keep in mind that this whole industry is based on connection, so be sure to follow up with them via either email or phone as soon as possible. And definitely FOLLOW UP! It’s a rare thing for people to keep in contact, let alone show up, and just the initiative of sending off that little thank you note for meeting with you says wonders.

The bottom line is this: CONNECTION. Keep meeting with, and talking to, as many people as you can, and build relationships. Every time you meet with someone, don’t necessarily expect to come out of it with a new job or opportunity. Hope to come out of it with a new friendship, mentorship, or connection. Ask them about their life, their career moves, what benefitted them, what didn’t, etc. People love to talk about themselves, and 9 times out of 10 they’ll be happy to answer and help you out.

If you’d like to go more in-depth in your reading about networking tips, I have found this article to be extremely helpful: 20 Tips on Networking in Music Industry  

 

 

Relocation Adventures

I recently took a huge risk. I took everything I had, packed as much as I could into my little white Volkswagen Beetle, and drove across three states from California to Texas. I had no job prospects, small savings (most of which went to fixing up my car), and no one with me except for Siri on my GPS. I did it because I knew that I couldn’t afford San Francisco, I didn’t want to be in Los Angeles or New York, and because I was eager to be a part of a music community again. As of the broadcast date of this blog, I will have been in Austin for three weeks, have been networking my tushy off, and have found a day job.

For me, this is the way I prefer to do things when it comes to relocation. I find somewhere I want to go, and then jump in headfirst. There’s nothing like fear as a motivator, and if you’re not willing to risk everything, then what’s the point, right?

Since so many of us will most likely relocate at least once or twice in our lives, I thought I’d share my process for moving to a new town.Relocating-for-Job

Step 1: Find a Place.

    There are several ways this can happen. You may get a job offer in a new town, or like me, you may just want to go somewhere new where the music is happening. Or hell, even just throw a dart on a map!

Step 2: Budget.

    If you’re not moving for a job offer, once you determine where you want to move, figure out how much your monthly expenses are going to be (rent, utilities, groceries, monthly record collection updates and gear buying, etc.), then start saving up enough for at least 4-6 months of “rainy weather” in that location. Now, this is just what I prefer (I like having a decent nest egg to start with, plus, if something like massive car repairs come up on the road, you have enough to cover it), but usually, 2-3 months of a nest egg is just fine.

Step 3: Reach Out.

    The super-cool advantage to being a part of SoundGirls… They’re EVERYWHERE! Reach out on the Facebook page, let them know where you’re going, and connect with some new friends! If you’re on LinkedIn, reach out on there, too! You never know who you’re gonna meet.

Step 4: Find a Place to Live.

    Go on Craigslist, Zillow, local listing websites, or reach out to friends and family you may have in the area. A lot of the time, larger cities will have a Facebook group dedicated to finding roommates or people to sublet.

Step 5: Breathe.

    In, out… It’s going to be great, it’s going to be fantastic, and if it’s not… well, nothing’s forever (repeat steps 1-3).

Step 6: Go.

    You’re gonna kill it.

How to Turn an Unpaid Internship into a Compensated Growth Opportunity

 

Ah, the unpaid, post-graduate internship. You know the one I mean: the one that has no defined time period, expects you to work an undetermined schedule (yet still be able to commit to 30+ hours per week), promises great connections, will probably have you doing nothing but “gopher” work the whole time… and yet, you can’t help but think that despite all the massive drawbacks, there may be some small chance that it will actually be a really good experience for you. Alrighty then. This is where your negotiating skills will come into play.

To turn this sad excuse of an opportunity (seriously – who offers an unpaid position with little wiggle room for the individual to have paid employment???) into something advantageous, the first thing you need is confidence. Know your worth, and be willing to back it up. Take a minute if you’d like, and reflect on everything that you’ve done. Think about your skillset, and know that you can totally do this. Toot that celebratory horn of yours!

The second step is to research the company offering the position. Oftentimes, if they are a small company such as a local studio, they really can’t afford to compensate you financially. But can they give you free mixing time in their rooms? A discounted room rental rate for clients you bring in? If they are a big company, keep your internal alarms at yellow alert.

The third is to create a time limit for the internship. What I usually propose is a 1 or 3 month-long time period (depending on the internship and my financial situation), working no more than 15-20 hours per week, which should be documented in a time log. If by the end of the time period I have not proven myself to be a good fit, then the internship is terminated, and we both go our merry ways. You can tailor this to your needs, of course.

Finally, GET ALL OF THIS IN WRITING. You never, EVER want to leave it up to chance that the person you’re negotiating with will keep their word if they don’t write it down and sign it. Type up all of your requirements, and send it to them (if everything was discussed in person or on the phone, do this in the format of a follow-up email). If they agree, fantastic! (And make sure you hang on to that email, you ever know when you might need it to remind someone of the guidelines they agreed to.) If they don’t, then you don’t want to work for them anyway. They probably suck in real life and have no business taking advantage of us youngins.

The first unpaid internship I ever worked was with a nonprofit radio organization as a digital editor, working with what I thought were good, honest people, and providing an excellent community service. At the beginning of the internship, it was proposed in an email by the company head that I would receive a small stipend of $600 at the end of the summer, which I agreed to (I then foolishly deleted that email, expecting that they would follow through with this). The internship went great, and there were multiple occasions throughout the summer where my boss told me in person (and often in private) that I was providing some of the best work that they had ever received, and that I had a guaranteed paid position starting in the fall. However, once the summer came to a close, I suddenly had no paid position, only $75 for compensation, and a request to continue to work for them without being paid. If only I had saved that email. Thankfully, the lessons I got from that experience only cost me $525; I’ve since heard many stories where the damage was much worse.

So, to recap:

Now go forth and get yourself some learning opportunities!

**DISCLAIMER: This is not to say that ALL unpaid opportunities are BS… I have worked several that were extremely rewarding. The only thing is, they made sure I had the support I needed to find paid employment elsewhere.

 

Occupying Both Sides of the Glass

When I’m working with other artists in the studio, my main concern is emotion. I start by recording as many instruments as possible live, preferably with minimal metronome use, to keep everything sounding organic. I keep the emotion of the song at the front of my mind, with technique taking the side burner (not completely top priority, but still important). I’m in the business of tugging heartstrings, of helping to create impactful art that is also something that the artist can feel proud of. However, when it comes to developing my own music, it’s a totally different story.

I had an interesting realization recently: In all my time being involved in the music world, never once have I entered the recording studio as simply an artist. Every time I entered that space to record my own music, I was either the engineer, the producer, the intern, assistant, mixer, writer, or a combination of all of them, in addition to being the one recorded. As such, when I am developing my own music in the studio, I am very much in a production state of mind.

I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be just the artist in the hands of a producer (though I’d imagine that it’s something like going to the auto mechanic when you know next to nothing about cars). Becoming an educated listener and engineer has definitely impacted the way I look at my own music when developing my songs in a recording session. For one thing, not only am I analyzing the way everything sounds, but I end up becoming so nitpicky that it’s darn difficult for me to ever call a mix, “finished” (though I’m sure that’s true for most sound engineers, no matter who you’re recording). Instead of viewing my songs as stories, I start using them as a sonic playground, blank canvasses to experiment with different mics and instrumentations.

It’s always a significant challenge to take a step back and to try to “hear the full picture,” as it were. On the one hand, it’s a great way for me to unleash the experimental side of myself without worrying about paying the engineer’s hourly rate. On the other, however, is a risk of never finishing anything. But it’s always an excellent exercise in letting things go as they are completed, and in keeping the overall goal in mind.  

 

So. When Can I Expropriate the Sound Guy?

 

While I was working at South by Southwest, I went to go check out a performance from a friend’s band downtown. The bar was the usual dive, narrow and rectangular, not much in the way of sound equipment. While the friend’s band was setting up, I noticed that the engineer was, to put it mildly, drunk as a skunk. Not only was he slurring his speech and making jokes that he’s checking out porn on his laptop, but he was dropping mics right on their heads, knocking over equipment, and had a rat’s nest of cables sitting in the back corner of the stage.

Once the performance began, the mix was just horrible; the vocals were overpoweringly loud, you could barely hear the drums, and the guitar and bass were just swallowed whole. Periodically throughout the performance, the sound guy left his post at the board to go to the bathroom and the bar, sometimes gone for whole tunes. At one point the singer’s mic cable got tangled with some of the lighting equipment, and the engineer was nowhere to be found.

I felt horrible for the talented musicians that were on stage. They didn’t deserve the terrible sound the venue stuck them with. To me, this brings up the question of when, if ever, is it okay to expropriate the sound guy? He was clearly unable to effectively do his job, and the music suffered for it, not to mention the fact that he was causing damage to the venue’s gear. It made me feel so angry for the band, and I was astonished that someone would do this kind of work while completely fershnickered; almost like an affront to professional sound engineers the world over, dive bar or no dive bar.

I was taught, and firmly believe, that one always respects the lead of a project, no matter what. If there is a problem, you quietly take the lead aside and address your concerns. But this was no studio, and this was certainly not a collaborative project. And whether I liked it or not, this guy was employed by the venue to provide sound for the band. As much as I wanted to be that knight in shining armor, it would’ve been in bad taste to just kick the current reigning sound guy out with a cup of coffee… Or would it?

For now, I think I’ll go write a Yelp review.