Women in Pro Audio: Rena Kozak Women in Pro Audio: Rena Kozak...
“Whenever I am at FOH during a show and see the audience engrossed in the performance, I feel proud. I love seeing the audience’s reaction to a show I’m a part of.” – Rena Kozak
For this installment of our Women in Pro Audio series, we got the chance to interview the FOH engineer, electronics technician, and musician Rena Kozak, based out of Calgary, Canada.
“Most of my work over the last 20 years has been in live sound and touring, but I recently opened a recording studio in Montreal in the hopes of shifting my business to allow me to spend more time at home and not on the road.”
Rena was always interested in the arts. She played in numerous Calgary bands and studied painting and drawing at the University of Calgary. She was a talented dancer studying ballet and had no intentions of getting into pro audio. She ended up getting into the tech side of the industry by chance. When she was studying dance at the University, she injured her foot. “I wasn’t going to be able to complete the degree I was aiming for because of that injury. But on the same day as insuring myself, I met with a friend who was taking an audio engineering course at a local recording studio, and he suggested I should try it, considering my background in music.”
She certainly had never considered this: “I was one of those people who didn’t think about the sound system at all at a show. As techs, we sometimes talk about making sound systems invisible. Back then, I was definitely among those in the audience who had no idea about the tech supporting the performance. I was mainly interested in the visual arts, dance, and performance as a whole. I had encountered audio tech while working in theater but wasn’t interested. I only thought I cared about technology once I read about the recording program there. Later that year, I enrolled in the course and discovered I LOVED learning about the technical functions of recording and reinforcing music. I realized I was deeply passionate about understanding how things worked and how small parts came together to create a complex system. I then used that to create a performance or presentation. I started working straight out of the program and never looked back.”
Challenges as a Woman
We asked Rena why she thinks there aren’t as many women as men in the pro audio side of the industry: “With live sound and touring, the work is a little gritty,” she replies. “There’s heavy lifting, there’s dirt, and there’s manual labor. On tour, you live on a bus and shower at the venue. It doesn’t exactly align with the way I like to live. I was successful because I also love to get dirty and be physically active at work, which helped me fit in with the boys’ club. But sadly, I needed to fit into the boys’ club, and that’s probably a major deterrent to many women.”
Aside from bathroom differences and preferences in hygienic standards, women ‘s unique challenges extend far beyond biological needs. Rena shares her experiences: “There are certainly unique challenges to being a woman. But I feel like a broken record because I don’t know how often I’ve repeated the same things. Over the past 20 years, it’s the most commonly asked question about my job, and my answers haven’t changed or evolved in 20 years. People see a woman, especially one like me, who doesn’t downplay her femininity and assume she is:
- Not a tech.
- If she is a tech, she’s just starting out and needs coaching.
- She is not good at her job.
These assumptions haven’t changed over the last 20 years. Sure, nowadays, I find it less and less of a problem, but only when working with people who I’ve worked with before or people who work regularly with women. It is still the norm to face assumptions when meeting someone new.”
Rena then shared a recent anecdote highlighting how women are still often underestimated in male-dominated industries today.
“I was FOH for a festival for two weeks. When the rental company showed up to take the line arrays down, they assumed I was with the stagehand crew, didn’t introduce themselves, and went straight to instructing me to get the dollies and start wrapping cable. Meanwhile, I’d been looking forward to chatting with them about their software and how I had enjoyed mixing on the rig. Instead, I did as they asked, not mentioning who I was. Little did they know I had trained most of the other sound techs on the gig, yet still, this happens. I’ve come to expect it. It still impacts me, making me want to shut down and not do the work sometimes. Why would I want to work with people who assume I don’t have the skills? I think the only way to get past it is to be passionate about proving yourself, to want to stand up and say, ‘Hey, check it out; I really do know what I’m doing.’ I used to fight for this, but now, I’m tired. I just want to do my job. It has led me to spend less time on the road and more at the studio. Of course, now I have to prove myself differently, but in this situation, your recorded material and credits speak for themselves. No one will ever hear the incredible-sounding live shows I mixed, but they can listen to my recorded catalog any time, and that’s easier to prove than the live work.”
Changing the Industry
If Rena could change the industry, she’d advocate for a better working environment for everyone involved behind the scenes. “I would also like to be seen as an equal without having to prove it all the time. I like the long days to be less prevalent. In live events, the work can last 12-16 hours daily, from load-in to load-out. I ended up doing a 24-hour day earlier this year. It’s the norm, especially on tour, to be on the clock all day, and you accept it as part of the day rate. I would love to see more acts being conscious of it and offering better scheduling rather than advocating for it constantly. It should go without saying that the crew gets a break every four to six hours and doesn’t exceed a 12-hour shift, but so frequently, it’s assumed we will keep working. And I know I’m part of the problem because I just keep working!”
Advice to Other Women
Advocating for women in our industry is not only crucial to creating a more inclusive working community; it’s also healthier and more beneficially impactful as a whole. But it’s hard for female newcomers to envision themselves in the industry when they don’t see reflections of themselves already in it. Rena also shares her sentiments on why there are fewer women than men in the industry.
“Since most technicians have been men since the industry’s inception, the culture has remained very masculine, and it can be hard for someone who feels they don’t fit that role to feel satisfaction among their peers in the workplace. I’ve been lucky enough to be comfortable around the audio industry culture, and I’ve been able to fit in. However, when I look back at some of the men I’ve worked with, I can see that I tolerated much of what would be considered inappropriate behavior. I think there are a lot of workplaces that still maintain this kind of culture. However, as a society, we are shifting away from tolerating inappropriate behavior, so it’s shifting in many sectors.”
Rena’s advice? “I think for women trying to get into this industry, choose what you want to do and just do it. Even if someone makes you feel like you shouldn’t be there, do it anyway, do it for yourself, and by approaching it that way, you’ll always do your best, and your best is always good enough, even if it sometimes feels like it’s not. Also:
Problem-solving! Get good at troubleshooting by breaking down the problem into small parts and ruling them out one at a time. Every problem has many solutions, and they are all there waiting to be found. Whenever I hit an obstacle, I remember that the way around it exists, and I have the means to find it, which brings me to my theory that all our work as audio engineers can be boiled down to problem-solving.
Accept your fate – you have signed up for a job that will often be painful, physically and mentally, so when you’re feeling the pain, accept it, work through it, and remember the day will eventually be done!
A sense of humor: this goes a long way to enduring your male peers and even enjoying their company. If you’re not having fun at work, why are you even there? Tell some jokes, laugh at some jokes, and have a good time.”
What She’s Doing Now
Currently, Rena is working on a theatrical cinema experience: Kid Koala’s “The Storyville Mosquito.” Kid Koala is a performer, film composer, theater producer, and visual artist who has contributed to scores for films such as The Great Gatsby, Baby Driver, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Shaun of the Dead, and Looper.
“I have the honor of being the FOH engineer for this production, and I love being able to see this show every time. I’ve seen it hundreds of times and still laugh and cry every time, even at rehearsals. It’s extraordinary.”
Rena describes it as a multi-disciplinary performance piece like a live-action graphic novel film produced in front of a live audience. “The way it works is the stage is set up with a band riser containing a string trio, and Kid Koala (with turntables and multiple instruments) sits behind several set pieces where puppets act out a movie, which is filmed on multiple cameras, then edited and scored live, and projected in real-time to the audience. People in attendance can watch the puppets or the movie on the screen; they can see the camera crew, the video editors, and the musicians and see it all come together as a fully edited film on the big screen. I wish there were a faster way to summarize that show, but it is truly incredible, and everyone should see it when it comes through their city.”
Ai in Pro Audio
We asked Rena about what she sees in the future of pro audio, and she was both hopeful and cautious regarding the use of AI. “I see AI becoming a major influence on our work – which it already is in many ways – and I hope that it doesn’t become so prevalent as to eliminate my creativity from my work entirely. One of the things I love the most is manipulating equipment to achieve the sounds I want, and I think AI is taking some of that work out of it. I remember when we made analog noise canceling by recording room tone onto a track, flipping it out of phase, and then playing it back along with the recorded track to cancel the noise out. Nowadays, you insert iZotope, and it’s a thousand times better than what we tried. While I’m happy that it exists and works so well, I’m also sad that I didn’t have to do anything or know how it worked. I just turned it on, and that doesn’t make me feel a sense of accomplishment. I hope that enough processes remain manual so I can a) still have a job and b) enjoy a sense of accomplishment.”
Why She Does It
Most people in the industry, men and women, have a lot of fun stories and adventures when working with a band, tour, or production. Rena shared a few fun stories with us and why she continues to do what she loves despite sometimes feeling like giving up.
“As a system tech for a venue with an ancient sound system, I once had to go up a ladder with a soldering kit mid-show and repair a jack on a Meyer MSL-4, and the crowd cheered for me when the speaker came back on. It once rained so hard on a festival gig that we desperately snatched all the mics and instruments from the stage. We got out the inflatable pool toys we had on the bus (from a day off at the beach) and floated around in the flooding in front of the stage. I ruined my phone, but it was worth it for how hard we laughed!
Rena continues, “I have a thousand more adventure stories, but the craziest thing that ever happened to me was when our tour van and trailer with ALL the gear was stolen from a hotel parking lot. I am proud of this one, though, because we only canceled one show, and I managed to pull together rental gear and vehicles to complete the tour.”
And the reason she does it all: “Whenever I am at FOH during a show and see the audience engrossed in the performance, I feel proud. I love seeing the audience’s reaction to a show I’m a part of. I also love traveling around the world to pull off shows. That has been my favorite thing for many years. Now that I’m older, I’m finding more joy in quiet days at the studio, being focused on a mix and hearing it all come together.”