Women in Pro Audio: Arica Rust
“I realized that I wanted to help shape people’s experience when they listen to music. I want them to experience their music the same way I feel when I see my favorite band or artist play or listen to my favorite record.” – Arica Rust
We’re back for another round of the L-Acoustics Women in Pro Audio: A series that showcases the phenomenal women in audio, how they got to where they are, and everything in between. (Well, not everything. Just the fun stuff they want to share.) And in case you missed last month’s interview, you can check out Frieda Lee’s story here.
This month, we had the pleasure of interviewing Arica Rust, Systems Engineer and Owner of Wavelength Engineering LLC.
Getting into pro audio wasn’t exactly a clear-cut decision for Arica. She loved music, the stories they told, and how it connected people. “I don’t think there was a specific event that made me realize this was what I wanted to do. Still, it sort of evolved out of this desire to be a part of helping people experience their favorite music in a similar way to how I feel when I listen to my favorite music. When I was a teenager, I spent my lunch money buying records and going to concerts. I listened to a lot of industrial, metal, electronic music, and—really—I wanted to listen to everything. Every piece of music is like a book with a different story for the listener. There are millions of songs telling millions of stories of all these different lives around the world like an infinitely large library. It strikes me as very profound. I realized at one point that I wanted to help shape people’s experience when they listen to music. I want them to experience their music the same way I feel when I see my favorite band or artist play or listen to my favorite record.”
She decided that the best way to help shape those experiences was to work behind the scenes on the technical side. Growing up in Oakland, California, she took a break after her first year of university in upstate New York to come back to California and work a couple of jobs so she could save enough money to backpack through Europe. “That trip influenced me a lot because when I returned to California from Europe, I started taking classes at City College of San Francisco in their Broadcasting and Electronic Media Arts program. I first enrolled in their program because I wanted to work in the studio. Like many others, I had a dream of mixing that hit record for my favorite band. It was at CCSF that I met Dana Jae, who taught the Live Sound certification program. She got me one of my first ever internships, and after that, I just went straight down the rabbit hole.”
At the same time, Arica worked alongside one of her best friends throwing electronic music events in the San Francisco Bay Area. “We had hired one of my friends who had a sound company called Word of Mouth Sound to do the audio for one of our events, and when it came time to do an internship for my certification, I asked him if I could work for him for free in exchange for college credits. That was technically my first internship. I finished the Live Sound and Sound Recording certificates at CCSF, then transferred to San Francisco State University. The Broadcasting and Electronic Communication Arts program there is well respected in the SF Bay Area music community – thanks to Dr. John Barsotti, who teaches the audio program.”
When Barsotti advised Arica, “If you want to work in live sound in the Bay Area, the best company around to work for is Sound On Stage, owned by Jerry and Ann Pfeffer,” she applied and ended up interning there for three to four months, then was hired.
“I worked there for seven years before I started touring. I got pretty much every job I had until I started touring because I was an intern working for free, then got hired. I went the formal academic route with audio because I had no idea where to begin. I didn’t know where to apply or who to talk to, so I figured I would start building my knowledge from the ground up. When people ask about going to school for audio, I tell them it’s really a matter of what inspires you to want to learn. I had a coworker at Sound On Stage that never graduated high school and had a successful career in the industry touring for 40 years since the 70s, toured around the world many times, and put his kids through college. So, it just depends on what route works best for you.”
Arica feels very lucky to have connected with some incredible mentors that she now considers dear friends. “They have helped inspire me, and they guide my journey as well. I think those people had inspired me for who I wanted to be when I ‘grew up’ more than anything. I’ve received a lot of great advice. My physics professor Kenan Caymaz told me, ‘The quality of your solution is sensitive to your assumptions.’ Every solution you come up with to a problem is inherently based on some assumptions you are making about the situation you are in, and you have to be aware of them at all times. We are constantly juggling compromises and evaluating situations based on the best return on investment in the world of audio.
“Another mentor once told me, ‘We are not landing jet planes; we are just doing sound.’ So, stay calm. No matter how bad the situation is, no matter how you personally may feel, it’s important to keep your wits about you and remember the bigger picture in harrowing situations. If you can keep your head on your shoulders in the worst of situations, people will respect you, and you will get things done a lot more efficiently.”
Her favorite experience while working on the road? “The first time I was at Madison Square Garden as the touring systems engineer. It happened to be with an L-Acoustics rig with K1 and K2 on the mains, K2 for the side hangs, K1 and Kara for the 270, SB28 for the subs, and Kiva II for frontfill. There is something very special about The Garden. After tuning the PA, I walked around with the tablet remotely connected to FOH playing my reference tracks, and I had the biggest grin on my face. I remember the magic of that show because when the engineer’s mix is so good, the transparency of the PA reflects in the engineer’s mix. All the pieces come together, the audience becomes completely entranced, and it really does create that experience; that is the reason that we all sweat and lose hours and hours of sleep over. It gave me goosebumps.”
There are so many specific moments on tours and local gigs where everything in production comes together to create a connection that reaches out to the audience. “We are there to create an experience for people to get away from whatever might be distracting them in their personal life, and to create this moment where the art reaches out and connects people – it brings them together. I cannot wait for us to return to that again,” she passionately expresses.
She also points out the various resources for elevating your knowledge in audio, thanks to the internet. “If you have the motivation, the world is pretty much at your fingertips. There are so many books, white papers, webinars, training courses, podcasts, and more that all have something you can learn. I particularly enjoy reading technical white papers from the Audio Engineering Society e-library because I’m one of those people who wants to understand something down to the most finite levels of detail. You always start with one question, and it just leads to more questions! Most of my favorite audio tips come from my mentor and friend Chris ‘Sully’ Sullivan. He taught me to be skeptical of our own assumptions, and I learned from him what depths of knowledge you can achieve in your own understanding of audio.”
The three top skills she feels women should focus on regarding careers in audio are understanding signal flow, computer networking, and basic physics formulas. “If you only memorize three formulas for audio, memorize the formula for wavelength as a function of the speed of sound and frequency, the relationship between the period of a wave and frequency, and Ohm’s law.”
Furthering her advice to women seeking jobs in pro audio: perseverance is critical. “If you change your perspective, every failure is an opportunity to learn. Keep trying and following what you are passionate about because that motivation will get you through tough situations – the passion for what you do and doing what you love.”
Then there are the challenges. Each industry isn’t exempt from its own set of roadblocks, some more often than others. However, Arica feels that the challenges within this field are the ones she creates within herself. “We are our own worst enemy because sometimes, the mountain in my mind is just—in reality—a molehill. One of my favorite literary quotes is from the novel “Dune” by Frank Herbert: ‘Fear is the mind-killer.’ Growth doesn’t come from being comfortable.” A sound truth.
Then there’s the fact that being a woman in a tech industry has its own set of challenges: “I used to find it frustrating that people often underestimate me when they meet me for the first time. I found myself constantly wanting to prove to people that I knew what I was doing. On the one hand, it worked out in some cases, like getting hired from an internship, but on the other hand, it’s mentally exhausting. I guess I started realizing that underneath all my own insecurities, I really just love what I do and cannot imagine doing anything else. It’s what drives me to do my best and constantly keep learning and pushing myself. At that point, I realized the only person I really have anything to prove to is myself.”
If she could change one about the world of pro audio: “That’s a hard choice because I think there are two things. The first is the lack of emphasis on life-work balance. People see the glamour of the music industry and don’t realize that the mystique wears off pretty quickly when they realize that we are all people at the end of the day. It’s a lot of long hours, time away from home, and people end up making a lot of sacrifices in their personal life. I hope that one of the lasting effects of the pandemic is that we, as an industry, realize the importance of taking care of ourselves concerning the longevity of our lives and careers.”
But that’s just one thing on her wish list of changes. As for the second, Arica justly wants to push for more diversity: “I feel that there is a huge issue of diversity in the industry. I said earlier that everyone tends to hire who they know, but the problem is that for our industry to change, employers need to try harder to look for talent because there are very qualified professionals out there to do the job. They just keep looking in the same box.”
Arica is also a part of SoundGirls, a supportive network for women and non-binary people working in the professional audio industry who aim to inspire and empower the next generation of women in audio. Their mission is to create a supportive community for women in audio and music production, providing the tools, knowledge, and support to further their careers. Her involvement stems from her desire for more inclusion and education. When asked how Arica got involved, she told L-Acoustics, “I believe it was because Dana Jae knew Karrie Keyes (Executive Director and Co-Founder of SoundGirls) and had put together the first Bay Area chapter. I started attending meetings with the Bay Area chapter and stayed involved as much as I could while working. I taught my first workshop on system optimization in 2018 to the chapter that combined all my experience working in the field with the technical knowledge I gathered from all the books I read and training I attended into an introductory discussion of the subject. About two years ago, I started writing technical blogs for them as an effort to ‘demystify’ some of the more in-depth topics that people sometimes can be too afraid to ask questions about. It also offered a great opportunity to do my own research on various subjects because there is always more to learn even if you think you have a good grasp of a subject.”
She pushes upon SoundGirls’ significance: “I don’t think I fully understood the importance of what SoundGirls is trying to do until relatively recently. For me, I just want to be seen for the quality of my work. I got tired of answering questions like, ‘What is it like to be a woman in the industry?’ because I naively thought things were better than they are. Then at one point, I was approached by someone at a high level to refer them to female FOH engineers and system engineers that had worked with A-level artists. In this industry, everyone refers to the people they know. That’s when I had a startling realization that I had maybe two people I could recommend because I hadn’t worked on crews with other female audio techs besides me. I knew there were more people out there, I had seen their profiles in SoundGirls and their faces in trade magazines, but I had not worked with them first-hand on the road. That’s when I realized the percentage of female audio techs is still small enough to make situations like this happen. It’s not just limited to female-identifying individuals. I believe in what SoundGirls is trying to achieve by providing representation to anyone who feels underrepresented in the audio community.”
To Arica’s point, this is another reason the L-Acoustics Women in Pro Audio series exists – to create more visibility and encourage other women to get involved in the tech side of audio. When we asked about where she sees herself in the future: “I’m looking forward to continuing my work as a touring systems engineer as our industry slowly rebuilds itself after this devastating event last year. I also hope to continue my research on the live sound applications of artificial intelligence in signal processing that I started working on during the pandemic as I continued my education in physics and advanced mathematics. There is always more to learn. I recently joined the Audio Engineering Society Technical Committee on Acoustics and Sound Reinforcement and look forward to participating more as a community member. I also look forward to building my relationship with L-Acoustics as a consultant and an ambassador for L-Acoustics Creations. My goal is to share my passion for the art in the science of sound because I feel the more people understand how things work on a deeper level, the more they feel empowered to unlock the potential of their creative imagination.”
As for the future of pro audio despite the devastation of the pandemic: “We now have audio, video, and lighting solutions that elevate the audience’s experience to multiple dimensions. During the pandemic, events that streamed in virtual, augmented, or extended reality showed that video and lighting could pull the audience into the artist’s world. With immersive audio, we can create that next level by enhancing the auditory aspect of the experience. I believe the future of live events lies in all aspects of production working together to create a multidimensional, immersive experience that elevates the audience into the artist’s creative vision.”