(Full Timers is an interview series celebrating small-business audio engineers/producers making a career in audio production.)
Frank Sinatra sang “If I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere” when describing New York City in his iconic song. Frank describes the hustle of New York City perfectly: if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. The city is uncompromising. Many start the grind only to have the city grind back, and chew, and spit them out. And then, there are the survivors, and stories on how they are constantly evolving to overcome the ever changing city.
Meet Ashley Marrero, she’s no stranger to the NYC hustle and the grind. Ashley is a working sound engineer making it in the most competitive city in the US, if not the world. Her career has been on an upwards trajectory since cutting her teeth in the chaotic world of theater productions. Now she is a Full-Timer running live sound at a NYC staple in Tribeca known as City Winery. She sat down with us to share her audio knowledge, and how Little Blondie Microphones fit in her life as a live sound engineer.
An Interview with Ashley Marrero
1). What has been one of the most important hurdles for you to overcome in today’s industry?
There were two. First, which is so cliché, was being a woman. People just kind of look at me and are like, “she is going to be useless with load-ins and outs,” and just assume I have no idea what I’m doing. When I first started, I was mixing for a small Grateful Dead cover band. The lead singer approached me and said, “I’ve never had a female engineer…” By the end of the show, he came up to me and said, “I have never had a sound engineer mix us so freaking amazing! I’m sorry I judged you.”
The second was my age. I was young when I started (in my early 20’s) so once again, people would just assume I’m clueless until they heard the mix or the recording and would be like, “Holy hell that is fantastic.” I would just smile and thank them.
2). You come from a theater background, where no show goes as planned. What lessons can sound engineers apply from a live theater setting?
Be prepared for anything. Don’t just assume because you’ve rehearsed that everything will go to plan. Be ready to move quickly and be adaptable. I spent a good amount of time moving back and forth from the board to a mic pack, or a speaker or microphone becomes unplugged…there is so much tech that takes place during shows that a lot of times I just go into the show saying, “if it can go wrong, it might.” So just be ready.
3). Can you identify some common denominators you’ve noticed transiting from venue to venue, or live band to live band?
I can say the common denominator from venue to venue I’ve noticed is that every venue has its own nuances that you need to find quickly when you first arrive to dial everything in. It’s the same from band to band. The bands are a little easier to find the nuances, you can dial that in during soundcheck also they can express them vocally. The venue is a little more interesting. Asking the in-house sound guy and just pumping a song you know well helps a lot with finding the bass traps or weird frequencies.
4). What are some of the good habits that bands should look for in a live sound engineer?
Someone who is willing to take their time and listen. Don’t get me wrong, speed and accuracy is part of our job, but…I take my time with their monitor mix. Basically, [you want] an Engineer who has that caring attitude and is willing to adjust and cooperate to make the bands’ life super easy and comfortable. That makes it easier for the band or artist to preform and truly come alive.
5). There’s a fallacy that live sound is not the time to get creative. How do you get creative in this fast-paced live sound business, while keeping time constraint issues in focus?
Creativity is super involved with live sound. You start with mic placement and what mics to use; that is the first place where creativity hits. The second is in the mix. Yes, it is fast paced but where you insert delays, EQs, compressors and reverbs are all creative. They can greatly improve or hurt the sound. I love deciding where to insert effects in songs and in in theater productions. The way I explain it is: The show is a blank canvas, the band or actors or artist are the paint, and it is your responsibility to paint that picture.
6). Tell us about the City Winery and City Vineyard in NYC, and how live music plays a roll to their atmosphere?
The two places are such amazing venues in the city. City Winery has been a staple for years. It has a great atmosphere; you always feel the creativity flowing through the walls. The space itself is so intimate and yet a larger venue. City Vineyard is where I spend my winters down on the water front on Pier 26. It is a fun space, even more intimate than City Winery. The vineyard only holds about 120 people, small stage, usually singer-songwriter set ups. It’s a glass room which presents an interesting time in ringing out the house. But with Jersey City skyline to your right and the World Trade Center in front of you, it paints a perfect backdrop to the sounds of music being played there. “Voices in the Hudson” is an annual concert series there that starts in November and goes to about April. City Vineyard becomes home every winter, so if you are in the NYC area come and see a show!
7). What kind of gear are you running at City Winery and City Vineyard?
At City Winery, we use a Yamaha CL5. At City Vineyard we run a Behringer X Air XR16, which is super versatile and compact. I love compact and versatile sounds, like the Little Blondies!
8). You just did a show with Ariana and the Rose. How did that go?
Ariana’s music is so good. It is “feel good” but with meaning. In the show there are so many parts that need to be brought out or mixed in. There are some cool drum parts that need to be massive and in your face…the bass in night owl needs to be rocking and booming… some song there is a drum fill that needs to be heard… supercool has a great m83 sample… that is synced up with the lights and here is where lighting and sound meet the lights a triggered to sync up so if you don’t hear that it just looks like the lights are flashing out of no where. So that’s what I look forward to. Oh and glitter… there is always glitter….
9). How do you prioritize which gear to use for live sound?
Unlike in recording, where you can take the time to put up multiple mics and different angles, we don’t have that. You want to use what is gonna give you the best sound as possible. You can use angles but you are only using one mic per instrument. So if I have a string section, rather than try to mic every violin, viola and cello, I’m gonna use something small and compact like the Little Blondies because I can get every part of the section.
10). Is there any essential gear you like to have with you at all times, or take from venue to venue?
Little Blondies, my router, my extra SM58, other mics that can be used as backups (you never know the condition of the venues’ mics), random adapters, my own D.I.s, and my Apple iPad Pro.
11). For someone who is looking to make the transition from part-time or hobby live sound to making a career out of it, what should be the first step?
I tried doing it without schooling at first, but the way the industry is going with technology, I truly believe starting with a good education is the first step. And then find yourself an amazing mentor.
12). Where does your nickname “Alpha Wolf” come from?
It comes from how I look at my success and work ethic, and what I believe my spirit animal is. The wolf can run alone at times to accomplish what it must to survive and thrive, but at the same time it is a pack animal. Honestly, I could have never accomplished what I’ve done so far without my own “pack,” made up of friends and family. The wolf is also hungry and will be relentless and strong. That is the very way I am. I don’t stop until I have the very best sound and mix I can achieve.
13). How did you learn about Little Blondie Microphones?
My fellow engineer. We worked at an AV gig together and talked gear. He told me about these mics and I was shocked when he showed me them in person. I was like, “Hell, what can you possibly do with those little guys?” Turns out, they are always in my bag as a great mic to have in my back pocket.
14). What was your first impression using the Little Blondies?
I was like, “Damn, that’s it? These are hella small, what can they really do?” Well, they are serious little spitfires with crazy sound that can fill a room but take up no space. I need these because traveling with a crap-ton of mics sucks, so these will cut down on space.
15). How do you incorporate them into the live sound setting?
This is a good question, because they can do so much. I love using them on drums, especially when space is limited, because I can use them as a single overhead and not worry about the sound quality. They are also freaking amazing in cajons. Put it in the sound hole and do a little EQing to achieve a nice balance and it is solid. I also love using them on guitar amps, especially cabs, because it will pick up the entire cab.
16). Can you tell us about any memorable times using the Little Blondies?
I had a flamenco dancer and I needed to mic the dancing wood that she used. I was able to use the Little Blondies and mic the board without getting in her way and taking up a lot of room. She needed that space to dance. This mic picked up every tap and tic of her heals.
17). Finally, do you have any “blonde moments in audio” to share?
Oh man, so many. There are little things, like “why isn’t this mic working? Oh yeah…duh, phantom power.” I think my most blonde moment was on my first job. I had to change over 5 bands that night. When the first band came into sound check…the lead singer didn’t want to check first. I was ok with that. We go through the entire band, I get to the singer, I’m not getting any signal. I’m troubleshooting at the board and I look at the stage box. Well, maybe if I would have actually plugged in the mic, I would get some signal, lol. I’ve never made that mistake again so I learned my lesson. That’s why I do a quick ‘dummy check’ to make sure my intern or assistant has plugged everything in.