Live shows are becoming ever more reliant on technology — and the skilled engineers who operate it. Laura Escudé explains how she has helped Kanye West, Jay‑Z and Herbie Hancock realise their live performances.
"I'd like to see the perception of what we do as playback engineers and live show designers change, because a lot of people think we are just pressing Play, and there's so much more to it than that," insists Laura Escudé, reflecting on the usual reaction she gets from people when she tells them what she does for a living. "It requires someone who is both creative and technical," continues Laura, "which is a rare skill set. A lot of people doing this work are musicians and artists too, so part of what I have been doing is building awareness of what our job entails."
Over the last 10 years, Laura has toured with some of the biggest names in the business, including Jay‑Z and Kanye West, but these days she prefers to delegate touring duties to the team of skilled technicians she employs through her LA-based business, Electronic Creatives.
"I started Electronic Creatives because I was getting a lot of work and I wanted to try and clone myself!" she laughs. "I do more studio‑based stuff than touring now and send shows out on the road, so I do a lot of pre-production. Before EC, I had company called Evotech Audio, which was more of an education‑based consultancy, but for the last six or seven years I've been training people to go on the road as playback engineers.
"We've got a lot of long-term clients, and if they have a tour, they ask us to find someone who is a good fit. Every artist is different, so personality is a very important part of this job. I feel like I have a knack for making good connections and good fits between people.
"Once the tour is over the artist might start doing one-off gigs, and sometimes they lose their playback engineer to another tour, so we provide playback engineers who are well versed in our systems. Otherwise it can be quite challenging to find someone who knows all the nuances and can jump straight in."
Although Laura has always been involved in making music in some form, she didn't start using technology and electronic equipment until she was already at college, where she was studying to be a classical violinist. "I discovered electronic music through a DJ," she recalls, "became fascinated with it and started playing violin over electronic music at events, raves and clubs. From there I decided to learn how to make this music so I could record myself and do it on my own. At the time I was promoting nights at a club hosted at my school and George Clinton's son's band came in to perform. They had a big studio nearby so I ended up going there and watching what they were doing."
After moving to LA in 2004, Laura found herself getting to know the M-Audio tech support team through the process of trying to get a broken keyboard fixed. From a chance meeting with one of the team at an electronic music event, she was offered the job that kick-started her career.
"I ended up working in M‑Audio tech support for a few years," Laura recalls, "and then did VIP artist relations for them. So the artists would call if they had issues and I would offer technical support over the phone, or go to their shows. At that time Ableton Live had the free Lite version distributed with every piece of M‑Audio gear, so we were getting a lot of calls from people who had no idea how to use it. I didn't have any idea how to use it either, because I was coming from a Pro Tools and Cubase background mostly, where it was a linear style of working, so Ableton looked very confusing to me.
"So I took it upon myself to learn how to use the software. After a while Ableton decided they wanted to do their own distribution, and I asked them if they would hire me. They checked that was OK with M‑Audio and I ended up working for them for a year. I was their first West Coast product specialist and then became the first certified Ableton trainer in 2008."
As an Ableton expert, Laura soon began meeting musicians who wanted to use the innovative software to improve their live shows, and it was a combination of meeting the right people and having the right expertise that eventually led to her going on tour with Kanye West, for whom she was handling aspects of the show design as well as performing music playback duties (see the 'Ableton & Up' box for the whole story).
For some shows, Laura's job title is 'show designer', but for others she acts more as a playback engineer. The extent of each job, and how the duties of each are defined, varies greatly and depends on the size and type of show and whether or not there is a musical director and other technical personnel involved.
"We get different titles depending on the project," confirms Laura. "A music playback engineer is someone who plays back the music at a live show, but it can also include music programming and even editing the music. Sometimes people are just music programmers. For instance, sometimes I will edit and program the show and get it...
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