Glam Adelaide Music Editor Rajani Stengewis interviewed Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato to find out about life on the road as a female sound engineer for some of the world’s biggest musical acts.
How long have you been working as a sound engineer in the music industry?
What made you choose this industry and what was the process to get into it?
A love for music and a curiosity for the technical side of things. I took whatever jobs I could get in the business, I worked at a radio station for a brief time, then a small local sound company, I ran sound and lights at a few nightclubs, worked in the A/V department at an entertainment complex, mixed local bands, worked as a stagehand….I just took every job I could get and learned everything I could from it and from the people I worked with.
Is it hard being a female in this field?
It hasn’t been for me, but then again I’m not your typical female. I’m not a girly girl – I don’t mind working with men or doing heavy physical labor and getting my hands dirty. I can hang with the guys and I don’t get offended easily.
What are some of the challenges you face as a sound engineer?
I’d say right now the biggest challenge is digital consoles. There are so many different kinds out there and there is no continuity between them. I hate mixing on digital. They just don’t sound as good as analog and it’s really hard to be proficient on all of them. I can walk up to any analog console and dial up a mix really quickly but with digital every console has it’s own system- it’s like going from PC to Mac.
What is your ideal sound set up?
I am an old analog girl so my favorite console is a Midas XL4. A few pieces of out board gear I can’t do without are Empirical Labs Distressors, Eventide H3000, and TC Electronics M5000 reverb. I’m also a big fan of Aphex gates, Dbx 160a comps, Summit Audio and Avalon .
Do you like the direction the music industry is headed? Is digital now easier than the old analogue systems?
I definitely am not a fan of digital. Digital consoles are still not foolproof nor do they sound as good as analog. Sure you can take a rack full of high quality pre-amps, buy all of the expensive plug-ins and run a word clock to make it sound better, but why not just use an analog console that sounds great all on its own? I do see a place for digital consoles, but for me personally and the way I like to mix a show, digital just doesn’t work. I think people are starting to figure out that digital boards aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. In the last year I’ve come across a lot of venues that had in-house digital consoles and they were talking about going back to analog. I don’t think digital will go away but I do think we need to find a happy medium.
Who are some of the people that you have mixed for? Who was your favorite & why?
I’m currently mixing Melissa Etheridge, but I’ve also worked with Mr Big, Indigo Girls, Gwen Stefani, Jewel, Natasha Bedingfield, Spin Doctors, Joan Osborne, Collective Soul and Thievery Corporation…. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked for many incredibly talented artists and I’ve enjoyed all of their music, but if I had to pick a favorite it would be Mr Big, because that’s the kind of music that made me want to get into this business in the first place.
You have toured around the world a bunch of times, what is the hardest thing about touring?
Air travel ; )
What is the best country you have been to while touring?
I’ve got a few places that I love traveling to: Germany, Scotland, and of course Australia!
Describe a typical gig day for a sound engineer on tour.
Well, we typically load in around 9am and I set up and tech my own FoH. Once the PA goes up I’ll tune the system and after that’s done I’ll help mic and wire the stage. We’ll line check as soon as everything is wired and the back line techs are set up, usually around 1pm. Sound check is around 3 or 4pm. Then it’s dinner and hopefully a chance to relax for a bit before the show. After the show I strike FOH and help with load out, then it’s on to the bus to wind down for a bit before heading to my bunk….and do it all over again the next day.
Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to become a sound engineer or wanting to get in the music industry in general?
Listen, really listen, to as many different styles of music as you can. Train your ear to pick out all of the different instruments you hear and really listen to what they sound like. Get a gig working for a local band or sound company and learn everything you can. Two of the most important things to learn are signal flow and proper gain structure. Knowing signal flow inside and out will make troubleshooting a breeze and proper gain structure is crucial to getting the most out of your system.