Front and Center: SoundGirls.org Founders, Karrie Keyes and Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato

The WiMN’s Front and Center is a weekly column that showcases accomplished women who work in the music and audio industries. We spotlight successful female performers, manufacturers, retailers, educators, managers, publicists, and everyone else in between. Want to be featured? Learn how here.

Front and Center: SoundGirls.org Founders, Karrie Keyes and Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato

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Karrie Keyes

Founded in 2012, SoundGirls.org provides a community for women working in professional audio, and offers encouragement, resources and support for female aspiring sound engineers.

The site was launched by Karrie Keyes and Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato; women with decades of first-hand experience. Keyes has held the position of Pearl Jam’s monitor engineer for a number of years, while Pettinato has provided front of house engineering for a number of popular artists including Goo Goo Dolls and Melissa Etheridge.

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Michelle Sabolchick Pettinato

By shining a spotlight on the females paving the way in today’s live sound field, SoundGirls.org is inspiring and empowering the next generation of women audio engineers.

Learn more about SoundGirls.org.

WiMN: What made you pursue a career in live sound? What is it about this line of work that is appealing to you?

KK: I was fortunate to stumble into it. I loved music and had no idea I could work in the music industry if I was not a musician. Career options in the music industry were not discussed or brought to my attention in high school. Roadies were portrayed as guys who worked for beer and pizza. I started working for Rat Sound in 1986 helping load trucks and load in and out gigs. I learned by doing it. Soon I was able to quit my day job and never looked back.

I was so lucky to work at Rat and be exposed to all sorts of shows and music. Gospel to Punk Rock and everything in between. What is appealing is being around music and working hard for a successful completion of a show. Everyday is different, that is what I miss most since I mainly tour now.

MPS: A love of music and an interest in the technical side of things. I had a very strong desire to be creatively involved in making music. I played piano but I didn’t want to be a performer/musician, so I figured that if I became a recording engineer that would allow me to be part of the creative process without having to be on stage. While I was studying recording engineering, I was introduced to live sound and immediately switched gears. Live sound would feed my creative need while also satisfying my desire to travel.

WiMN: Karrie, how did you hook up with Pearl Jam? What kind of lessons have you learned touring with the group over the years?

KK: I met Pearl Jam in 1991 when they were the support band for Red Hot Chili Peppers on the Blood Sugar Sex Magic tour. I was the monitor engineer for RHCP. I have been with PJ ever since, and continued to work with RHCP until 2000. We have worked together for so long that we have been able to work through stage sound issues. I see bands go thru monitor engineers on a pretty regular basis. It seems such a shame, because if you can stick it out, the problems get resolved and you can move on.

When acts are constantly firing their ME, they are always starting over and never get through the hard stuff. I have learned to be patient, proactive, and to take charge when it is necessary. Lessons I’ve learned from working with Pearl Jam would be how to do business fairly, ethically, and do work you are morally comfortable with. To always give back and be real to yourself.

WiMN: Michelle, You are currently the FOH engineer for the Goo Goo Dolls and Melissa Etheridge, and have previously worked with artists like Gwen Stefani, Ke$ha, Styx and a number of others. How do you adapt to the needs of different artists? What lessons have you learned?

MPS: I approach each job individually; finding out what the artist is looking for, what has worked in the past and what hasn’t. What lessons have I learned? To not take things personally. It’s very easy to get caught up in your ego, but you have to remember you are working for the artist, not the other way around. Ultimately, it’s my job to represent the artist and their vision of THEIR music.

WiMN: How was SoundGirls.org founded and what is the mission of the group?

KK: Michelle and I met in 2012 at AES. We were on a panel hosted by WAM. It was the first time Michelle and I had ever met, although we knew of each other. There were three other women on the panel, and only one I knew personally and had worked with. That was Deanne Franklin. Claudia Englehart and Jeri Palumbo were the other two women on the panel. I felt like after almost 30 years working in the industry that I was finally with my peers.

SoundGirls.Org came from that. Michelle and I wanted to find, network, support and encourage other women in the industry or wanting to enter it. If I had a support group of other women when I was starting out, it would have helped immensely. Through our monthly profiles on women in audio, we are showcasing women role models that will hopefully inspire young women to enter the field.

MPS: When I first started touring, Karrie was the only other woman engineer I had heard of. We had both been in the business since the late 80s, but we never met until 2012 at the AES Conference where, along with 3 other women, we spoke on a panel called Women in Live Sound. For me it was fantastic to meet these other successful women and share our stories of how we got into the business.

Karrie first brought up the idea for the organization in early 2013 and she had some great ideas. I really connected with it because I thought it would be a great way for the few women working in live sound to network and support each other. I also had been looking for a way to reach young women and let them know that they don’t need to settle for “traditional” female careers – that this is an option for them.

WiMN: According to your site, women working in audio make up just five percent
of all audio engineers. Why do you think this number is so low? What can be
down to increase it?

KK: First, it is not presented to young women as a career option. We need to show young women that they can work in professional audio and succeed. Second, it is incredibly hard field to enter and succeed at regardless of gender. Women need to work harder and smarter than their male counterparts to be taken seriously. Third, touring is just plain hard. Fourth, it is hard enough to balance motherhood and a career, let alone trying to balance touring along with that.

MPS: I think it’s complicated. Part of it could be–since young women rarely see other women in this field–they don’t even consider it an option. The other thing is, girls are not encouraged to go into technical fields nor are they rewarded for those choices. Generally they’re met with a lot of skepticism and sometimes opposition. For a young woman to suffer through all of that and go against the norm (whatever that may be), she needs to be strong willed, independent and driven, which are not exactly traits that society is teaching young women are valuable to possess.

Girls need to be encouraged to make their own choices and not let society make them for them. They need to be be exposed to all of the subjects, ideals, and possibilities that are laid out in front of boys and taught that it is ok to speak up, stand up and be seen.

WiMN: What is one piece of advice you’d offer to a young woman who would like to make a living as an audio engineer?

KK: If this is your passion, go for it. Don’t let anyone tell you no or you can’t. You can. Take every opportunity that comes your way, even if you feel you are not ready. Ask questions – people are more than happy to explain things or answer your questions. They would rather answer the question and help you than have you do it wrong. Sometimes working for free can have a huge pay off down the road. We all have to make money, but maybe doing a gig where you learn something or gain valuable experience outweighs the immediate monetary benefit. Being reliable, on time, and a having a positive attitude will go miles.

MPS: Be persistent. You can’t give up because one or two or ten people say no. When I first tried to get into the business, I applied at every major touring sound company I could find. They all said no, over and over again. I sent resumes and called every few months for a good year or two and no one ever said yes. I didn’t give up, I just changed course and took a different route that eventually paid off.

WiMN: Can you share your experience as a woman working in this male-dominated field? Have there been challenges?

KK: You are going to have work harder and smarter than the guys. It’s not fair, but it’s the way it is. You will soon find people that will support you and encourage you. Don’t give up.

MPS: Nothing that couldn’t be overcome. As a woman in a male-dominated field, you feel a constant pressure to have to prove yourself. Whether that pressure is real or imagined is hard to say, and is something I think we all struggle with. However, it just makes you better at your job.

Personally I’ve found that if you work hard, take your job seriously and know your stuff, people take notice. You’ve got to have respect for yourself before others respect you. If you walk into a gig expecting everyone to give you a hard time about being a woman then that is what you will get. If you walk in knowing you have every right to be there and you are perfectly qualified for the job, then you will be treated with respect.

WiMN: What is the #1 rule to abide by while living on the road?

KK: I don’t know if there is one. Respect the rest of the crew, learn people’s breaking points and personal boundaries. Don’t miss bus or call times. Be part of the team.

MPS: No solids in the bus toilet!

WiMN: What’s in store for SoundGirls.org in 2014?

KK: We will continue to feature monthly profiles on women in audio, and add more original and member generated content. We will feature a series on sound 101. We are also working on obtaining nonprofit status and hope to offer scholarships to young women wanting to enter the professional audio field.

We also hope to develop information for high schools to offer to their students about working in live production. As time permits, we hope host more career day programs such as the one we did with Step Up last year (see links below).

SoundGirls.org in the Community: Step Up “Behind the Scenes of the Music Industry” Career Day

SoundGirls.org in the Community: Guest Lecture at Luzerne County Community College

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