Rachel Ryan has been pursuing a career in pro sound since the age of 16, growing up in LA and later gravitating to New York before settling back in her hometown. After countless internships at night clubs and venues, Ryan made a name for herself in the music scenes of both cities and has since toured with the likes of The Strokes, Honeyblood, Phosphorescent, The Twilight Sad, Phox, Calexico and Iron & Wine, among others, while also gaining a nickname that really stuck: Mr Sound Lady. Here, we chat to Ryan about her experiences being a FOH and monitor engineer and touring manager, how she got her nickname and what challenges she’s faced along her journey in the pro audio industry…
How did you get into the industry?
I started very young, at around 16, interning in night clubs until I was old enough for them to actually hire me. From working in a bunch of different venues I was then asked to start touring.
What is your background?
I was raised in LA but did 10 years in NY and now I am back to living in LA. Most of my audio knowledge came from interning and working in venues but I do also have a Bachelor of Music with a Specialisation in Technology from NYU. And then many years later, and unrelated to touring, I have a Masters in Library and Information Science, Archival Management from UNT.
What made you want to be an audio engineer?
My dad works as a music editor and does post-production for film and TV, so growing up with him it was always something that interested me. However, the live aspect of it was what really made me excited. As most people start out, I liked music and wanted to be apart of it, even if I wasn’t a musician and didn’t want to be in a band.
Why do you call yourself Mr Sound Lady?
Ha, well it was not a nickname I gave myself, it was given to me many many moons ago. Back when I was but a wee engineer working at The Knitting Factory in Manhattan, there was a hip hop group on stage. Partway through their stage banter of “Yo Mr Sound Man, turn me up!” they remembered I was a woman and changed it to “Yo Mr Sound…Lady! Yeah, Mr Sound Lady! Turn me up!”
Everyone I worked with at the time was in the room and started jokingly calling me Mr Sound Lady, and it just sort of stuck. So now and for the last 13 years, it’s never really gone away, so I embraced it. Plus it means you’ll always remember who I am and for the most part gives people a good laugh.
Who are you touring with at the moment?
Currently, I am FOH for Calexico and Iron & Wine for their joint album and last year I spent a lot of time as tour manager and FOH for The Twilight Sad.
Who has been your favourite band to work with?
Oh, that’s not fair! Picking a favourite would be hard. I’ve been very lucky to work with a lot of bands I like as people and enjoy mixing. But, The Twilight Sad and when they were still a band, Phox.
Anyone you want to work with but haven’t yet?
Well, I’m a huge fan of Gregory Alan Isakovs’ music and I would love to be able to work for him. Or you know… Adele.
What tips would you give other engineers who are working on tour? How do you deal with the rock and roll lifestyle?
Boundaries and a good support system of other touring friends who can help you through when touring gets tough. Changing the thought process away from “ the rock and roll” lifestyle to a more healthy and supportive one. Taking time for self-care – for some that may be their morning run, or a quiet coffee before load-in, for others it’s a spa day on a day off or therapy. Therapy for ALL! It’s finding a balance that allows you to keep a healthy work/personal life.
Do you think you have to have a passion for music to be an audio engineer?
Touring is an incredibly hard job, it takes its toll mentally, physically, emotionally, and it’s a life that has to be chosen on purpose. You have to want to be here, otherwise, why would you want to do a job that requires insanely long hours away from home, family friends, significant others and “normal” life. So yes, I do think you have to have a passion for music or being an engineer to want to do this job. Plus, when you’re really passionate about something the rest of it seems a bit easier.
What is your favourite gear to work with?
I like being able to try out different mics and see how they differ and work with different kinds of music/musicians. You don’t like how one sounds? Get another. Find what works best for the needs of your specific artist.
Top advice for aspiring FOH engineers?
Trust your ears. It gets easy to be distracted by the shiny toys that we all love, but at the end of the day what are you actually hearing? Also, please wear earplugs when you aren’t mixing! You can’t trust your ears if you can’t hear anymore…
You do monitors also? How does it differ?
I do yes. It’s a very different set of skills. You have to cater to what someone wants to hear in their specific monitor, either wedges or IEMs, and that may not be what sonically sounds best to you or the most musical but it’s what they need to hear in order to perform. And you have to do it for 3-12 individual people who all want different and very specific things.
Whereas for FOH, it is more interpretive to what you think sounds best overall and what an audience wants to hear.
Must-have skills as an audio engineer?
Patience, oh goodness patience. Also, you need to have technical skills, be able to use the tools of the trade, so to speak – the actual gear that is put in front of you. And did I mention patience?
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
For sure. Like I said, touring is an incredibly hard life. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of wonderful things about touring and this life we have chosen. That being said, it does come with lots of obstacles. The long hours, all the flying, long drives or even ending up on tours where you may not get along with the people you’ve signed up to tour with for months at a time. It can take its toll both on you as a person and the job you are trying to do.
Plus, as an engineer who also is female in a male-dominated industry, there have been times that I’ve dealt with rampant misogyny and people actively not wanting you to be there, who treat you different and make your life harder. But being aware that you have a right to be there and do the job you were hired for as well as having a good support system of both men and women, makes all the difference.
What can we be doing to encourage more women into an audio career?
There are more ways now, I feel, to encourage young women than there were when I got started. For one there is an organisation called SoundGirls which is targeted to help young women have resources and insight into being an audio engineer, as well as provide mentoring and opportunities.
Providing opportunities and safe places for women to explore audio, much the way we try to encourage young women in STEM.
And also things like this, showing that there are in fact women who do audio and touring and letting young women know that is a viable career path.
What do you think prevents women from entering the audio world?
Representation. Women in audio are less that five per cent of the industry right now. Being visible and letting young women know that this is an option – look at all these other women who are out here doing the thing. Letting other women know that this IS something they can not only do, but excel at.