My school guidance counselor had no idea what an audio engineer was and could only point me to broadcasting…”
Melanie Renecker—Sound Engineer
Hi Melanie, thank you for taking the time to talk with us. I know what a busy year it was for you. You were out with Deer Tick and Delta Spirit. Am I missing anyone else?
Yes, I was out several times with Deer Tick and Delta Spirit. I mixed several one-offs with Cults, Guards, and Diamond Rugs as well as a two week run with Melody’s Echo Chamber, who opened for The Raveonettes.
Where did you tour and what type of gear were you carrying?
Most of the tours were US and Canada based, though I did do a European tour with Deer Tick. Depending on the band, I typically carry my own mic package and effects rack. I feel it’s important to limit the variables when mixing a band. For Deer Tick, this was the first year we upped our production by adding a visual element to their live performance as well as transitioning some of the guys to in-ear monitors.
Did you have any experience mixing in-ears before they switched over?
Prior to touring, I had several house gigs around New York and often worked with in-ear systems. This year was the first time I had to build a system and really research the best options for them. I’m a big fan of Sennheiser and think their transmitters are some of the best units on the market.
How was the transition for you and the band? Any good advice that you can pass on to anyone thinking about switching over to in-ears?
I was introduced to Ultimate Ears through an LD friend of mine who was working with Matt & Kim. Initially I was just in the market for custom earplugs (which I purchased), but then concern over stage volume, floor monitor mix levels and the band’s long-term hearing got me interested in options for in-ear monitors. We demo’d a few models while in San Diego on tour last year and convinced some of the guys to invest in the UE7s. There are 5 guys in the band and we have the keyboard player, drummer and bassist on in-ears. Once the kinks were worked out of the system I built, we were on a roll. When we can invest in a monitor board we’ll be able to do stereo mixes, which will only make the UE’s sound even more amazing. The guys really do love them. As for advice, I’d say don’t psych yourself out of getting into IEMs, you can still connect with your band and your fans. By moving what you need to hear directly into your ears, you’ll have a better show no matter where on stage you stand.
I know that we’ve talked a bit about musician ear plugs in the past but I’d like to delve into it a bit more. I don’t see as many engineers as I’d like to using hearing protection all the time. When did you first start using custom ear plugs and how do you use them?
Hearing protection is very important to me especially if it allows me to do what I love for a few extra years. I got my first UE custom ear plugs a couple of years ago. Before that, I was working 1-400 cap rooms mixing a lot of hip-hop, hardcore, and metal. Those shows were really loud and I would mix with foam earplugs in. The foam earplugs would always move around or fall out of place. The custom earplugs fit snug and comfortably in the ear. At first I got the -25dB filters but then moved down to the -15dB filters for better mix clarity. I try to always wear the plugs when I’m on stage placing mics or wiring the stage. At FOH, I start plug-free until I feel comfortable with a mix then put the plugs in for the remainder of the show. I pull them out only if I need to scrutinize a sound or cue my effects.
So I’m curious, how did you get involved in mixing live sound? How did you first start out?
I honestly wanted nothing to do with live sound—I really wanted to be a recording studio engineer. It stemmed from a high school dream of making my friends’ punk bands famous and a selfish wish to see my name in liner notes. But, I grew up in Spokane Washington, where school counselors had no idea what an audio engineer was and could only point me to broadcasting, which I wanted no part of. I gave up that ambition until I moved to Seattle and worked for a local alternative weekly paper. There, I was immersed in the art and music scene and met musicians, audio engineers, producers, and many other music industry folk. I dropped my full time job to go to the Art Institute of Seattle for audio production. When I graduated, I moved to New York where I envisioned working at Avatar or Electric Lady Studios but I was happy to get a job or internship anywhere. Through friends, I got a job working at The Knitting Factory in Tribeca. The Knit, as we called it, had three venues in one and I started out in the Old Office—in the basement—and worked my way to the largest room.
I also got an internship at a jingle house and eventually a studio management job at The Magic Shop. My experiences working in studios versus my experiences working in venues made me rethink my goals. Mixing a live show and experiencing the energy from the band connecting with their fans is more gratifying to me than having my name in print. I never get bored because there are always new challenges, new things to learn, and new places to see.
That’s a great story. So who were some of your early mentors?
My heart still very much lies in the studio. Jack Endino came to one of my classes at AIS, which was one star-struck moment of my youth. I also admired Phil Ek who ran in several of the same social circles as I did in Seattle. On a trip to DC, I visited Inner Ear studios and met Don Zientara. When I moved to New York, a friend hooked me up with a session with Larry Crane (of Tape Op) and that same friend introduced me to John Goodmanson and the helped me land The Magic Shop job. When I’m home from tour, I check in with John Agnello and shadow him from time to time in the studio.
And I’m excited to talk about this because in my opinion, there aren’t enough women sound engineers out in the field and besides for you being a top-tier sound engineer, I also like to think of you as a role-model for a whole new generation out there. What can we all do collectively to help make aspiring female engineers feel more comfortable in the industry?
It was never my intention to be a role model, though I don’t mind. There are people who are good at their jobs and people who are bad at their jobs, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. The best thing we can all do is treat each other as peers and expect the same effort and work ethic regardless of gender. My biggest pet peeve is when a female intern or engineer shows up to a gig in a skirt and heels—that really degrades those of us who are serious about our jobs. If you’re there to work, then dress and act appropriately; if you’re there to flirt, you should be behind the bar.
Lastly, what’s your 2013 look like? Any big plans that you can announce?
Winter is the slow season, I’m not expecting to hear about any tours until February. For now, I just plan on subbing shifts at some local venues and laying low. Hoping 2013 is as jam packed as 2012.
Well said! And with that, here’s to seeing you at all the festivals and out on the road in 2013!
Melanie Renecker is a Brooklyn-based audio engineer who moved to New York from Seattle, Washington in 2004. When she’s not touring, she’s most likely wandering the streets, looking a bit more rested, and panhandling for local house gigs.
This interview was originally published by Mike Dias for the Ultimate Ears UE University