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.