Audeze speaks to live sound engineer Claudia Engelhart

August 11, 2022

Audeze speaks to live sound engineer Claudia Engelhart

Claudia Engelhart has been doing live sound for over 40 years, and has been the Sound Engineer/Tour Manager for Bill Frisell since 1990. In her own words: "I consider myself a professional listener, and I approach mixing live music as acoustically and organically as I can.
I have focused most of my career in live sound working mainly on instrumental and acoustic music - it's what I enjoy."

 Claudia Engelhart listens to Audeze LCD-XC headphones

"It’s satisfying to hear the details of my mixes on great sounding headphones.
These LCD-XC headphones really give me a natural feeling, they sound true and organic, how I like to hear naturally."  - Claudia Engelhart
Here's our chat with Claudia:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

I feel fortunate to have worked and toured with so many a great musicians over the past 40 years, they have given me so much!
Every day I feel lucky to be surrounded by such amazing music!
In 2016 (can’t believe it’s already been 6 yrs!) I was asked to mix a festival for ECM Records, they had a featured venue for 2 nights at Winter Jazz Fest in NYC. Here's the lineup and schedule:
Friday January 15th:
6:00    DAVID TORN (solo)
7:00    MARK TURNER QUARTET (w/Avishai Cohen, Joe Martin, Marcus Gilmore)
8:00    CRAIG TABORN (solo)
9:00    AVISHAI COHEN QUARTET (w/Jason Lindner, Nasheet Waits)
11:20  VIJAY IYER TRIO (Stephan Crump, Marcus Gilmore)
12:40  DAVID VIRELLES MBOKO (w/Román Díaz, Eric McPherson, Matt Brewer)
Saturday January 16th:
6:00   MICHAEL FORMANEK ENSEMBLE KOLOSSUS (see personnel below)
7:20   THEO BLECKMANN ELEGY (w/Shai Maestro, Ben Monder, Chris Tordini,  John Hollenbeck)
8:40   CHRIS POTTER QUARTET (w/David Virelles, Joe Martin, Marcus Gilmore)
10:00 TIM BERNE’S SIDESHOW (w/Ralph Alessi, Matt Mitchell, John Hébert, Dan Weiss)
11:20 RALPH ALESSI QUARTET (w/pianist tbd, Drew Gress, Nasheet Waits)

It was an epic lineup, as you can see, and I was the only sound person on hand. I was able to hire one stage manager but that was it!
Needless to say my hands were more than full! The mix position was up 70 stairs from the stage, and at each change-over I had to run down, adjust everything, run back up to the console and go!
Anyway, what happened was that a hired sound company brought in reinforcement for the house PA. It was supposed to all link up happily and off we'd go… Unfortunately that was NOT the case. The house Yamaha CL3 console did not “see” the digital processor to the PA that was brought in, and it caused a mess trying to sync up the 2 systems.
While the sound company guy was trying to trouble-shoot the PA situation I was proceeding with my setup, getting backline and mics in place, and the clock was ticking, so I had to have my stuff together fast.
Long story short - the PA never synced properly with the console, and I had to do some quick improvisation to get it working at all.
The worst part, for me, was that Manfred Eicher - president and record producer of ECM Records - would be there, and I had all of these great musicians to make sound good in this large room… and the PA was not working!
5 mins before showtime I still did not have a working PA, no sound, it was horrible!
I went to the producer of the festival, in tears (I NEVER cry at gigs no matter how bad, but this was way too much) I told her we’d just have to do the show all acoustic - nothing I could do. I felt more than horrible, total failure!
Somehow in the last seconds before showtime, they were able to get half of the PA working. The left side was working relatively normal, the right side was at around 30%. I panned the PA so most signal was going to the right side, to “balance” the PA. It worked, nobody seemed to know anything was wrong.
I got through the night, Manfred Eicher had no idea, in fact he complimented me about the sound…
The following morning there was a review in The NY Times, and the thing that was so incredible was the writer raved about the sound, especially the piano sound. I was floored! It was definitely a show by the skin of my teeth, and I barely managed to get through it.
I think perseverance is so important, and keeping focused on the task at hand, I had to come up with something to get through it...
This is not a highlight of my career, but definitely a show I succeeded in getting a decent sound for in a dire situation.
I’m pretty proud of that.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

As a live sound engineer, I like to think my job is to “translate” what the musicians are playing onstage, what they give me, and not to change what they do, but rather to enhance so the audience can hear and feel what they are doing. I don’t like to change the dynamics, and I prefer when the sound in a room doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a PA - I try to mix as transparently and organically as I can.

Here is a link to a July 2019 Live Sound International cover story (see page 24), where I was featured - it really explains a lot of where I’m coming from, what I’ve been doing and who I’ve worked with over all these years.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

Music was in my house - my father is a jazz musician and metal percussion instrument builder, my mother supported what we liked to do, my sisters and I all played instruments and sang growing up… I played cello for 10 yrs starting at 9yrs old - good ear instrument for sure!, and I quit when I got into doing sound.
There were always musician in our house, if they had gigs in town they would come over, our house was like a hub for jazz musicians. There was a constant flow of incredible people in our house.
I grew up listening more to Brazilian music and jazz, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder etc, but not so much pop music.
Later in life I’ve discovered music I never listened to when it was popular at the time…never too late :)
It was what was happening in our house, what my Dad was into, we were all into.
My parents would take us to hear live music all the time, so I was exposed to the live experience for as long as I can remember.
I’m thankful to have had exposure to so much great music and great musicians growing up.

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

One person who lived with my family for a time was Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, who collaborated with my father who built instruments for him. When I began to work in sound, the first tour I ever went on was with Airto and Flora Purim, who I mixed for many years.

I think this beginning of my career was a sign of what was to come… I was young and pretty fearless, ready to do whatever it took to make a good show happen. And I loved and understood the music.

Marty Garcia, from Future Sonics, was an amazing mentor and supporter of what I do. Among other gigs, he got me the gig with Grover Washington Jr as monitor engineer. Grover was so supportive and such a beautiful person and player… I cannot thank Marty enough for believing in me and giving me the chance to be a part of Grover’s team.

And of course there is Bill Frisell, who I have been working with for more than 30 years now… where would I be without him? There is so much love, respect, trust. We understand each other, and he has believed in me since I first met him. His music takes me on a journey every show we do - it’s profound.

I speak 3 languages, and I know for a fact that has helped me over the years in getting work, as well. English, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese (got some Italian in there too but I don’t consider myself completely fluent in Italian).

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

Confidence is something… I’ve learned over the years to not second-guess my instincts - it’s a big lesson.
It’s been a long road, many engineers like to push their ideas or techniques, and it can be very intimidating. It has taken me a long time to feel confident enough to not let other people influence what I’m trying to do, and to stick to my way of doing things.
I’m always open to suggestion, but I find that I’m actually doing just fine!

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

Microphones! I depend on my microphones I carry with me everywhere, they are the ears to the instruments, and I know how they react and sound. I use Sennheisers: a matched pair of MKH 8050 condensers as my drum overhead mics - they are fantastic! - but have used them on strings or in a piano too, and e609’s on guitar amps, 421’s on bass amp and bass drum, e935’s for vocals.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

Do what you love, work with music you love. It’s important to enjoy what you’re doing and have fun!
I say this all the time but I think it’s true - what goes around comes around - if you have a good attitude, enthusiasm and patience, that will get you far.
Trust your instincts.
And be kind...

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

Headphones are what I carry with me in my work bag along with my mics and my little stereo recorder Tascam DR-100MKII. I tend to use them more as a reference tool during a gig, I don’t necessarily listen a lot with headphones while I’m on the gig, but I do listen back to live recordings I’ve made later...

Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?

There are so many stories… I do more than a hundred plus shows a year, and have been for 40 years now, so when everything stopped in 2020 it was both a bit of a relief to have a break, but also kind of scary not knowing when I’d be mixing sound again. I cannot really practice live sound, not like a musician can practice their instrument at home, so I was really thinking hard about what I might be doing next…
When we did get back out in the world after a year off it was both scary and exciting. Would I remember how to run any number of digital sound desks I encounter every day on the road? Do I remember how to do what I do?
It was actually pretty amazing to get back, and ironic that the first real in-person gig was at a club in Baltimore, Keystone Korner, the same club owner Todd Barkan, who gave me my very first sound gig when I was 19 years old in San Francisco… I had to remember how everything worked, having not seen a console in a year, and it was emotional to hear Bill Frisell, Rudy Royston and Thomas Morgan making music together again.
I think we all felt a bit rusty but also so happy to be together again, and doing what we all love to do.
I guess this is more about me and the band and our feelings - I would hope the audiences were feeling something special like we were, I think they were.
It has been like a constant reunion seeing our friends and other musicians, club owners/concert promoters, production folks, who we’ve know and worked with over years...
I think the appreciation has really lifted up for everyone - we all are so happy and relieved to be back in it.
Everyone I know has had some personal revelation during our “lost year”, having had the time to stop and reflect, re-assess life and what’s most important. It’s been a profound time.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

For me, listening with headphones is a more microscopic way of listening.
I’m used to focusing on sound acoustically, live in the room, more open sound. With headphones, for me, it’s much more focused on individual sound sources. The close-up details are more present, it’s a different way of listening for me, there is less “air” space, the sounds are more immediate in my head, so I find myself analyzing the individual sounds themselves.
When I mix in a concert setting there are so many elements at play - how the acoustics in the room affect the sounds and balance, also the way the band sounds acoustically and then amplified through the PA, their balance among one another…
I don’t look for isolation in a live setting because it is live, so I hear the sounds all together, as one, bleed into mics doesn’t bother me, it is alive and breathing.

For me, using headphones during a show is more for quick reference than close listening. I can check on individual instruments to make sure there are no buzzes or weird EQ or something… but during a show I never listen with headphones.
I’ll do closer listening using headphones later, listening back to the recordings I’ve made.
Sometimes I find the balance isn’t perfect in my live recording, but I know that in the room it was good, it all depends on the situation and acoustics of each venue.
Listening with headphones later is a great way for me to focus on how my mixes are coming out, and what I might need to pay attention to on the next show, try to learn more… I record everything, direct to stereo, no re-mixing, so I get the true sound of the actual show and how I was hearing it.
A lot of my live shows are available on a download series put out by Bill Frisell, and so I have lots to listen back to later... the learning never ends…

It’s satisfying to hear the details of my mixes on great sounding headphones.
These LCD-XC headphones really give me a natural feeling, they sound true and organic, how I like to hear naturally.
I can feel the sounds of the band, and the feeling in the room.
Deep listening like this takes me right back into the concert setting.