Women in Pro Audio: Jade Payne Women in Pro Audio: Jade Payne...
“Knowing that you were part of something truly unique over a moment in time, never to be repeated, and you were there to see and hear it—that feeling is one of my favorites. I am a front-of-house engineer, and I’ve been gifted with being part of that experience, helping shape those moments—hopefully in a beautifully memorable way—for thousands of people.” – Jade Payne
When young girls discover they must pick a job when they become adults, they suddenly start thinking of ambitious and world-changing careers such as astronauts or scientists. Or maybe they’re not so ambitious and prefer to be a candy taster because what seven-year-old would turn down that job offer?
But as children, what we imagine doing as adults is often very different from the reality when we finally do grow up—introducing: Jade Payne, Front-of-House engineer, who gets to travel with bands and mix audio for their shows—and get paid to do it!
When Jade was a young kid, she had always imagined operating a ski resort or a veterinary hospital. But when she discovered punk music and learned guitar at 12 years old, those dreams moved into the back regions of her mind.
Flash forward to her teens: “I remember going to one of my first punk shows in D.C. at the Nation club. Leaning up front against the barrier, waiting for the band to go on, I can remember watching the stage tech very briskly dashing back and forth across the stage, with purpose, putting down setlists and moving the floor wedges accordingly, and I thought, wow, that’s pretty cool. You’re a part of this!”
Seeing a person working this way opened Jade’s eyes to new prospects—and ones that, while they might involve snow, didn’t involve having to decide on a catchy name for a ski resort.
“It was the first time I realized that someone like that existed, that there were other people besides the musicians making the whole thing happen. Music was the only thing that mattered for the rest of my teenage years. At 16, I got my first job at Hot Licks, a local guitar shop, where I bought my first analog 4 track. I was unsure about what I wanted to do for a living, but I knew it needed to involve the mysterious journey of sounds making their way from cassette to CD to my headphones. Wanting to understand this process led me to Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in Murfreesboro, TN. The school offered a B.S. in recording production and technology.”
Attending that program helped open Jade’s eyes to a world she hadn’t known.
Giving it Your All
“When I first moved to New York after graduating from MTSU, I had my sights set on working in a proper recording studio. However, I was still combing through Craigslist job listings every day, grasping at anything with the word ‘sound’ or ‘audio’ in it. I was willing to travel to Staten Island, a casual two-and-a-half-hour commute from Manhattan for a once-a-week church gig. Eventually, I landed an internship at a recording/mastering studio in NYC, which opened doors to a full-time project management position at Sterling Sound. Working with some of the world’s greatest mastering engineers was an incredible place to be. I was there for almost four years while simultaneously playing in bands and squeezing in small tours whenever I could get the vacation time. Going on tour solidified how much my heart yearned for the open road. It was the only place I felt sane, the only place I felt alive. I decided to leave Sterling and listen to the voice within me.
”Around that time, I had been playing shows at a local Brooklyn venue and DIY collective called Silent Barn. Eventually, a friend who helped run the venue suggested I run sound for some shows there. I didn’t realize it then, but at this point, my audio career was beginning to steer sharply toward live sound. Things snowballed from there. A pretty popular local band asked me if they could hire me to run sound for them on tour. It had never occurred to me that I could do such a thing. Clueless as to what would ensue or whether I was even capable, I gave them a huge emphatic YES.”
For Jade, learning how to mix live sound was like learning to skateboard. “You’re never going to nail your first rail grind or drop down a half pipe unless you just go for it. The scary thing is there’s no way to know in advance whether you’re going to complete the trick, whether you’re going to bail, or whether you’re going to fail. You also can’t rewind. There’s always a chance for things to go wrong in live sound, things we can’t take back – it’s up to us to decide how we react and respond. You don’t know until you try.”
When it comes to this industry and many others, Jade mentions that self-doubt and imposter syndrome can creep up before you realize it, “We engineers face this throughout every rising crest of our careers. Everyone has their firsts, whether mixing at a festival for the first time or mixing monitors on your first tour. Like, we’re all trying to succeed, and the more you succeed, the more you enter into new situations and more firsts. It’s a wonderful thing, but it can also be nerve-wracking. Try not to be too hard on yourself.”
When Jade senses self-doubt, she pushes herself to remember that there’s a reason she was asked to be there and do the job. She advises that other women should do the same. “I remind myself I’m skilled and talented. And that, you know, I’ve been given this trust. I’ve been trusted with this position. I keep an iron grip on my self-confidence despite what odds are thrown in the way. You’re never going to nail it until you just go for it. And it’s an incredible feeling when you do nail it.”
As far as challenges: “Take a few slow deep breaths and take steps toward clearing your mind,” Jade says. “I do this whenever I feel like I’m struggling on tour, whether with mental health or technical issues. I like to find ways to reconnect with myself, and deep breathing is helpful. Petting dogs is helpful. Going on walks, preferably around nature, is helpful. You know, it’s scientifically proven that being around nature can help you improve your focus and clarity and, therefore, peace of mind. These elements lay the groundwork for an easier path toward overcoming challenges.”
Jade points out the disparity of the industry demographics and says, “Making audio education more accessible for girls and gender-non-conforming young people of all races, classes, and ethnic backgrounds will help bridge that gap. Thankfully, live sound mixing is no longer exclusively reserved for dudes who play in bands and hang out in clubs. Thanks to organizations like WAM and SoundGirls, we’re seeing more diverse youth entering the industry than we’ve ever seen before.
I once taught a circuit bending class for young women at Willie Mae Rock Camp in NYC. I witnessed their spirits roar to life upon deconstructing old toys and reengineering stuffed animals to create the most twisted noise art through guitar amps. As pro audio engineers, we have a responsibility to help ignite the belief and passion in marginalized young folks. They must believe they have a place at the table and that they can do this. Ultimately if we possess the knowledge, we should be sharing it while building upon it.”
As many other women have vocalized before, not seeing other people like them in various industries can be a deterrent, which enforces that wide demographic gap. But when they do see themselves within a particular industry or their surroundings, it’s empowering. That visibility is so critical to the evolution and progression of change and encouraging other women to enter workforces they never imagined they could before.
“Coming into this industry as a queer, black woman is interesting. And difficult. However, having grown up in Southern Maryland as the daughter of an immigrant and raised as a Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’ve understood imposter syndrome and how it feels to ‘not belong’ my whole life. When you’re not the norm, you’re not as trusted. As a FOH engineer, I can be hired by the tour and therefore trusted to be there, but that doesn’t mean the local crew trusts me. Proving this can sometimes be an uphill battle. Racism is still running rampant. It sucks having to worry and wonder if someone’s treating me a certain way because of what they see, not what they know.”
Jade bravely notes, “One of my first audio internships was at a recording studio where the male engineers spent more time and effort trying to date me and less time mentoring me. To not be seen as an equal but as a conquest and have that interfere with my own conquests to learn audio absolutely sucked. As women, we have to advocate for ourselves constantly. There were so many situations I caught myself in where I wondered if success in pro audio meant I had to get used to working with terrible men. The answer is no. Always remember you have a choice and focus on what you really want. There’s no singular pathway toward getting there. Your worth is tremendous, and your time is valuable. You deserve to be respected and paid an honest wage.”
“My favorite shows are when I’ve not only been FOH but was also invited to be IN the show. When I first got into doing FOH, I was still playing in bands, and many of the bands I started mixing were the bands I played shows with. There have been a few tours in the past where the support band would ask me to hop onstage and play the second guitar on a song with them. It was always so fun to scratch that itch, share the stage, and then feel further spoiled getting to do my other favorite thing and mix the headliner. Last year, I mixed the post-punk band Gustaf on their supporting tour for Idles. The fine members of Gustaf insisted I join them onstage every night for their cameo on Idles’ final song so that we could all bash percussion instruments and leap around like maniacal monkeys. It was a great reminder of how I got into all of this in the first place.”
Jade also loves working shows at Greek amphitheaters and outdoor shows in beautiful cities by the sea. “And a festival with excellent catering, where I get to run into audio buddies also on tour, and it’s like, a summer-camp-for-a-day kind of vibe.”
“We could always be kinder to each other. I mean, if everyone came from a place of love, this could be easily achieved. I’ve found it beneficial to be surrounded by people who love what they do. Bringing a positive attitude to the table and showing up with an open mind make for a healthier working environment.”
Jade, also partially joking, says, “I also would love it if, while on tour, there was always, within arm’s reach, a mental health therapist, a massage therapist—or endless dogs to pet and matcha lattes. We could accomplish insurmountable tasks if those four things were always available.”
Then there’s the mention of self-sustainability: “To continue to thrive in a touring gig is hard when dealing with constant travel, lack of sleep, and limited diet/exercise. There’s a dangerously narrow window of time where we get to tend to “ourselves” – the “selves” that exist outside of being an audio engineer. The Roadie Clinic is a fantastic resource that provides mental health support and guidance to touring professionals and their families. We work such crazy hours, and in most cases, not everyone back home will understand what we’re going through. So, it’s cool to see people out there working hard to allow these outlets to be more available to us.”
Dust Yourself Off and Try Again
Jade opens up about when she felt like giving up after her self-esteem took a blow from a major career setback.
”I was once asked to leave a tour, and afterward, I wanted to leave the industry. It happened after spending five days at South by Southwest with a band I had just begun a cross-country tour with. After mixing several soundcheck-less shows a day, on half working gear, most of which was coated in beer and grime, my ears were ringing by the end of the week, and my head was spinning. Most of the shows were laden with technical difficulties and unmanageable feedback – it didn’t help that I was still new and saw none of it coming. By the end of the week, the band didn’t trust me. And the morning we were supposed to depart Austin, I was kindly asked to split. It felt like my worst nightmare coming true—being given a great chance and failing. Fired, I felt like I wasn’t a good enough engineer. I questioned whether I should have been doing the job in the first place. I questioned my ability, and I was absolutely gutted. It was a hard lesson.
“At the end of the day, we can only try our best and try not to take it personally if we are not the right fit for a particular gig. So, I tried to move on. And I told myself that if I ever got another chance to go on tour with a band of similar stature, I would do everything within my power to crush it. I would do whatever it took to be prepared for any situation. That year, I hit the audiobooks a lot more. I dove deeper than ever into every resource I could get my hands on to learn more about live sound precisely; after all, I was still pretty early into it after transitioning from the studio world. I was determined to make myself so invaluable to the next artist who would hire me, so much so that they would beg me to stay instead of ‘pay me to leave.’ And that’s what I did.”
Why She Does It
Jade loves the thrill of the show and the adrenaline rush when she’s in the thick of it. Spending the ten to fourteen-hour days setting up a show is completely worth it when it’s showtime. Above all, this is when she feels the most creative, expressive, and connected to the art. “My favorite part about specifically doing FOH mixing is exactly that: Mixing. I feel like most FOH engineers must agree. I mean, whose favorite part of the day is packing the truck? I could see the logic there since once that’s finished, we’re all done. But yeah, I like mixing the show.”
She also loves getting the opportunity to travel, soak in the culture of a new place, and try new cuisines. “As a touring audio engineer, I’m privileged to travel to different regions of the world. I love wandering and getting lost in a new city. And I love that my work environment changes daily, and I can draw inspiration from various spaces.”
Her proudest show was mixing two nights at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. “It’s such an iconic venue, and everyone knows it’s a special honor for an artist to be invited to perform there. It was a proud moment since NYC has been my home for the last 14 years, where I began my career with less than $200 in my pocket and very little real-world audio experience. There was an extra feeling of having come “full circle” – a sense of real accomplishment. It felt really good. I especially felt it upon seeing the famous gold curtain rise at the top of the show, upon hearing the first notes come out of the PA, and exhaling a breath of relief, knowing that it would all be grand. It was a historical moment that couldn’t have gone any better.”
Jade recounts her history of being a lifelong musician and former performer as another reason why she’s killing it in the live sound industry. “Live music has driven me toward some of my proudest and happiest moments: Reflecting on the anticipation and magic in the air before seeing one of my favorite bands, the feeling of how time stops while being under the spell of the performance, and then the catharsis afterward. Knowing that you were part of something truly unique over a moment in time, never to be repeated, and you were there to see and hear it—that feeling is one of my favorites. I am a front-of-house engineer, and I’ve been gifted with being part of that experience, helping shape those moments—hopefully in a beautifully memorable way—for thousands of people.”