New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Sound Insights From Sascha Von Oertzen at Pioneer Works

Sascha Von Oertzen didn’t fall into sound engineering the way most of us did – DIY, in barewalled bodega basements or in studio apartments with a laptop and a SM58 mic. She found her calling in college in Berlin, before she met Lee Townsend, who introduced her to iconic jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, whose European tours she would eventually manage and mix live. That commitment and focus no doubt explains why Tim Berne saw something special in her and encouraged the Knitting Factory to hire her to mix front of house sound at their old SoHo location, back in the late 90s. It was her first American job, straight out of college.

In an intimate, interactive discussion moderated by Lincoln Center visionary Meera Dugal at Pioneer Works last week, Von Oertzen traced a life in sound which includes some of the world’s most noteworthy recent achievements in the field, including engineering trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s stunningly lavish, highly improvised large ensemble double album Not Two, and designing the sound at National Sawdust, Brooklyn’s best-sounding venue, from the ground up. It was there, she said dryly, that after almost twenty years in the business, she was finally given all the resources she needed to optimize the space sonically. The result is a system with speakers that aren’t fixed along the walls but suspended and telescoping downward from the ceiling, with a subwoofer in the center instead of the usual pair along the sides. “It has its own challenges,” she smiled.

As a teenager, she was a diehard Elvin Jones fan  and studied jazz drums, but found herself out of her league. In Germany in the 1980s, she explained, the audio engineering career track was taught from a classical music perspective – and was not welcoming to women. Still, she persevered – looking back, she said, she was grateful for getting such a rigorous background in both sound and learning firsthand about the stress of performance, even if that meant having to sit at the piano and scramble to play random parts of an orchestral score for a demanding professor. And much as she’s come to embrace the side of digital technology which is enabling to a dedicated engineer, it was clear that part of her misses the faders and dials of the analog technology through which she mastered her craft. 

After touching on the challenges of mixing and tourmanaging for Lila Downs, a time on the road that Von Oertzen obviously enjoyed, many of her fellow engineers in the audience – all of them women – wanted to know what her favorite plugins are. But beyond favoring Protools over Logic, she wouldn’t go there, reminding everyone that she doesn’t even let the students in her NYU audio engineering classes touch plugins until they have a basic working knowledge of how to mix.

Others asked about of challenge of being a woman in a field dominated by men. Her message was clear: excel at what you do, stay on task, deflect uncool dude behavior and ask a lot of questions. Playing dumb to placate guys’ egos gets you nowhere, she asserted: knowledge is empowerment. While there’s a lot of work to be done to make the audio engineering world more hospitable for women – only ten to fifteen percent of her NYU classes are female, she said – we are making strides. One audience member mentioned the Bay Area-based Women’s Audio Mission society of audio engineers; New York could use an organization like that right about now. 

Fun fact: for anybody wondering why Bowery Poetry Club has such an excellent PA system, that venue was the first New York space to hire Von Oertzen for its sound design.

Nina Diaz Brings Her Relentless Angst and Catchy 80s-Influenced Tunesmithing to Wlliamsburg

Nina Diaz is best known as the frontwoman and guitarist of Girl in a Coma. Without knowing her background, you might swear that many of the songs on  her debut solo album The Beat Is Dead – streaming at Spotify – were relics from the 80s. Synthesizers pulse and swirl; the guitars and basslines are as dry as they are precise and catchy. Otherwise, the record sounds like a sleeker take on her main band, a series of angry anthems that would make a great soundtrack for a sequel to or remake of Fatal Attraction. You know – rain-slick streets, Soho lofts that you take the freight elevator up to since the real estate bubble hasn’t started to blow yet, and everybody’s wearing black eyeliner. 

Some of the songs here also recall Nicole Atkins, right down to the the brooding minor keys, slightly throaty vocals and noir tinges. Diaz’s next New York gig is at Rough Trade on August 17 at 9 for ten bucks in advance.

The album opens with Trick Candle, propelled by a dancing octave bass riff and spiraling synth, like Missing Persons without the metal buffoonery. With its darkly irresistible chorus, the album’s title track, more or less, is Queen Beats King.”All he seems to care about is fame… in the silence you create your own violence to turn and kill,” Diaz accuses.

Rebirth begins as syncopated cabaret-punk and then follows a trip-hop slink that eventually straightens out: “I will not love you until you are my enemy,” Diaz says perversely. With its doomed, angst-fueled major/minor changes, January 9th is a dead ringer for Atkins: “I don’t wanna be the bad one, I don;t wanna be the sad one that you find,” Diaz insists, althogh her voice can’t disguise that she knows what’s coming.

Fall in Love keeps that same wounded atmosphere going, awash in starry omnichord synth over a trip-hop groove: “Sometimes I speak too quickly, end up inside another shell…how would you know yourself, if you were never to fall in love…”

With Young Man, Diaz goes back to icy, stainless-countertopped new wave that explodes into Billy Idol bombast. She opens It with a tricky intro that artfully morphs into strutting, defiant ba-BUMP new wave noir cabaret. Then she hits a vengeful, sequencer-fueled motorik punk drive with Screaming Without a Sound. 

Its wryly blippy synth contrasting with big stadium rock guitars, Down continues the 80s vibe, this time going up into the attic for a Siouxsie-esque menace:: “I know all your secrets, I will push you to the ground, and you say, oh, why’d you kick me while I’m down?”, Diaz recounts.

She hits a creepy peak with Dig, its guitar chromatics fueling a lurid tale of abandonment and lust, and follows that with Star, a titanic, blue-flame 6/8 anthem, a counterpart to Atkins’ signature song The Tower.

Stark, starlit guitar builds a moody noir ranchera backdrop behind Diaz’s melancholy vocals in For You, a sad waltz. The album winds up with Mortician Musician, a bitter soul anthem recast as Orbison noir: “I’m not a fool for writing melodies, I’m just a fool for trying to make you see what I see,, ask me what kind of coffin I’d like, it’s the one you picked out for me,” Diaz rails..Dudes, get your skinny tie on; girls, feather your hair and take the subway to Bedford Avenue on the 17th because there was no Uber back when it sounds like this unselfconsciously brilliant album was made.