The Pro Sound Award are fast approaching, and AMI have revealed the ten nominees who are in with a chance of taking home the Rising Star Award. Now, pro-audio may be a very male-dominated industry, but one nominee proves that females do it just as well. We spoke to FOH and monitor sound engineer Zoe Martin to get her story, from playing bass in her teens to teaching at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM) and why mixing live dance bands is the most fun.
How did you start out, and where did you study?
I started playing bass in bands when I was 16, and then went on to study sound. I did a year long Live Sound course at BIMM, a music college in Brighton, which I now teach at in between touring. It was the first year they ran the course and so they were still finding their feet with it, but within the first month I realised that I wanted to really make a go of audio; and so I started shadowing other engineers at a small 120 capacity venue in Brighton called The Freebutt. At the same time I was also working at a tiny 50 capacity acoustic venue for £10 per night, which didn’t even cover my train fare back home, but it was my first paid sound engineering job nevertheless!
The BIMM live practical classes were held at the Concorde 2, which thinking back to it now, was such a great opportunity. The first desk I touched and continued to learn on was a Midas XL200 and I don’t think it gets much better than that, does it?
Where are you based?
I’m based in Brighton, I moved here a few months after finishing the course, which is about nine years ago now. Brighton has a really laid back vibe which I love, and there’s always lots going on music wise; plus it’s still so easy to get to London for rehearsals, flights etc.
What made you want to work in pro-audio?
I think one of the reasons why I initially took the course was that I realised that it’s difficult to make a living from playing in bands, and they often have a limited lifespan, whereas good professional crew members are always in demand. I’m also quite a methodical and logical person, so I think I found the workflow of mixing and patching in analogue equipment quite satisfying!
Who would you say are your biggest influences stylistically?
I went through a pretty big Steve Albini phase, and grew up listening to a lot of Big Black, I loved the rawness in the sounds; maybe because of this, when mixing FOH I tend to mix the drums and bass a little louder. I get a real buzz when I’m totally enveloped in the music. I guess that comes back to when I used to play bass in loud rehearsals.
There are a few engineers I’ve met on my travels who inspire me in terms of their work ethic and knowledge. I’d love to have their brains for the day to learn some new tricks; I wouldn’t like to say who they are though, in case they read this. That could potentially be a bit weird/awkward when I bump into them next!
Do you have any achievements you are particularly proud of? What are the big landmarks of your career?
The earliest landmark for me, was the first show I did at the Concorde 2: It was for the late show during Great Escape festival. They were short of engineers and so my tutor (I was still studying at this point) recommended me to the Tech Manager. Even though I knew what I was doing, I was incredibly nervous; as I desperately wanted to make a good impression! The most recent magic moment was working the Bonobo show at Alexandra Palace last year. I am usually on monitors for them, and the typical show is pretty full on (riding clicks and cues in and out, pushing levels for certain sections for different players throughout the set); the Ally Pally show was even bigger production than normal, with an extended string section. I think there was a total of around 25 musicians, mostly on IEMs. I remember a few days before I was a bit rundown with the flu, which (typically) got worse on the show day. The whole event was being recorded and streamed live. I wonder if anyone saw my bottle of cough mixture sat on top of my IEM rack? It got me through an amazing show.
Years back when I used to work inhouse, every now-and-then a girl from the audience would come over to me after the show and say something like, "Oh wow! I didn’t know girls could do this too!" I guess that’s not so much of an achievement, but it’s still something I am very much proud of today and gives me extra purpose to my work.
Can you tell us about any recent projects? What are you working on currently?
These past few years I’ve mainly been kept busy with Bonobo, Maverick Sabre and Radiophonic Workshop. It’s a real honour to work with the Radiophonic Workshop; not only is it completely different to tour with complete gentlemen in their 70’s, I am also in awe of the work they did at the BBC, and how forward thinking they were for their time.
This Festival season has been a bit different to my usual solid-Summer-out-with-one-band vibe. So over the past few weeks I’ve been depping some shows for a real mix of artists: James Arthur, Chris Norman (of 70’s Smokie) and UB40 (feat. Ali Campbell), which has been great experience.
Can you tell us about some of your favourite gear? What do you find yourself relying on for projects?
I have this little Radio Frequency spectrum analyser called ‘RF Explorer’, which I take on any tour I’m working with radio frequencies. I find it especially useful in countries where they don’t have any restrictions, and it’s a bit of a free-for-all. I use it before doing a scan, so I can see where the potential problems may be (even if the scans come back clean). It probably goes without saying, but I always carry my ACS Pro 17 ear plugs with me, and so would feel really uncomfortable having to mix a show without having them to hand.
If you could work with one artist or group, who would it be and why?
I find mixing live dance bands the most fun by far. One of the first bands I toured with were South Central (in their live glitch band format), and one of the main guys is an electronics genius, who built his own compressors that I would use at their shows. I would love for them to reform as a band!
It’d be cool to work with Björk (I know that must be quite an obvious choice!), or Imogen Heap (have you heard about her musical gloves?), as they both like to push technological boundaries within their music and live shows.
I think when being on tour with a band for weeks on end, it’s far more important for me to work with nice friendly people, rather than acts that I like musically. I remember having a particularly long and stressful set up for a show in Eastern Europe once, and the guitarist from the band just came up to me and was like, "I can see your having a bit of a nightmare, here’s a coffee and some food for you". It’s the little things like that, that make being on tour for months a lot easier to manage!
Where do you want to be in ten years?
In ten years time I’d still love to be touring and teaching. I’m really enjoying the diversity in my work at the moment, and get a real buzz from not only working on shows, but helping students make their step into the industry.
To get involved in our Rising Stars column, whether you are an engineer who is new to the industry and would like to be featured, or an experienced engineer who would like to nominate a particular student/apprentice, please contact Audio Media International staff writer Matt Fellows on firstname.lastname@example.org or +44 (0)20 7354 6001.