I had the pleasure of sitting down to have a chat with a veteran FOH engineer, live mixer and musician by the name of Zac Ruokari. We discussed everything from mixing tips, how he got to where he is today, gear-talk, and more. Take heed – this information is absolute gold!
Q: For those who don’t know you, tell us a little bit about yourself and your live audio career thus far.
I am currently the Production Manager for the University of Sydney Union, which has me in charge of all elements of production for two of Sydney’s most famous and respected venues; Manning Bar and Hermann’s Bar.
Prior to that, I was Production Manager of the Kings Cross Hotel, and was a freelance Sound Engineer since 2007, working regularly in venues around Sydney including the Golden Sheaf Hotel, Opera Bar, The Annandale Hotel, The Hopetoun Hotel plus many other pubs, nightclubs and RSL’s. I’ve also worked as Head Stage Manager at Subsonic and Playground Weekender music festivals, twice each.
Q: That’s quite the resume! So what have the highlights been so far? Are there any favourite/memorable gigs?
As a Production Manager, I would have to say Astral People’s Outside In Festival 2014. Running 3 stages across the entire Manning House building with over 2000 people, over 30 international and local artists, and managing a team of 25 people, to run the entire event perfectly to the minute (except for the encores of the final headliner act) was definitely a logistical and operational highlight of my career. It could not have been organised or ran better.
In terms of mixing live sound, most people would probably answer this question by trying to pick the biggest name they’ve ever worked with, but to me, honestly, the most memorable and satisfying FOH mixes I’ve pulled have either been for an up and coming band that I didn’t expect a lot from that blew me away musically (see Narla, Goldheist, Levingstone, Chuparosa) or gigs where you have had no soundcheck and manage to pull a fantastic mix after a song. To me, those gigs are the most challenging, and if you manage to pull it off, the most satisfying.
Although, doing FOH for Project Collective Ska when they opened for the Skatellites at The Factory was pretty rad. Seeing the entire room fill before their set, and to see the entire crowd grooving to a band they’ve most likely never heard before was pretty special. It’s also just such fun music to mix.
What inspired you to pursue a career as an audio engineer? Do you have a musical background, or upbringing?
My parents did buy me a Casio keyboard as a youngster, but I actually didn’t like it at the time and preferred to shoplift from Big W and make a general nuisance of myself than practice scales. It wasn’t until I heard Sweetness & Light by Itch-e and Scratch-e in about 1992, when I was 10 years old, that any kind of music really resonated with me.
I only really listened to techno for my entire teenage years, even getting beaten up for not liking Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Although there were some bands like Rage Against The Machine, Fear Factory, Nine Inch Nails that I did love and respect.
It wasn’t until I was asked to play in a band in 2001 that I opened my ears to the entire music spectrum. I had a taste of the big bad music world, recording in studios and shopping the band to major labels.
And how did that go?
Long story short, it didn’t go as planned, so after that band dissolved, I decided to begin saving to put myself through SAE in the dream of becoming a studio engineer at Studios 301. I saved every penny I could for 4 years to get myself to that school.
After realising about half way through the course that SAE it nothing more than a scam setup to fleece money from wide eyed rich kids, and that the dream of working in a studio in Sydney was a mathematical fallacy (150 odd students per year going for about 10 jobs, which are never really offered publically anyway) I made a conscious decision to begin angling myself towards the live environment. I hit up a few live venues around the city, and was lucky enough to catch a break at The Civic Hotel.
Q: How did you land your first live audio gig? Was it a matter of a lucky break? Meeting the right people? Being in the right place and the right time?
Purely by getting off your arse, and getting out there in the scene and talking to people. And that doesn’t relate to only my first ever live audio gig, it has been that way pretty much for EVERY gig I’ve managed to get ever since.
Eventually your skills are known and you are ‘head-hunted’ to work for bands, but that takes many MANY years, and still is never guaranteed! Everything in this game is a combination of being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, and making sure you keep your name there in the front of the mind of the relevant people when they need a skilled engineer, or even just keen one! Nobody does, or should, walk straight into mixing FOH at the Metro, for example.
Q: The nature of the job must require you to wear a few hats at once. You’ve got to be a people-person, as well as tech-savvy. What advice can you give to newer engineers in that respect?
There are so many other facets to being a live sound engineer that, in my opinion, you need to experience, fail at, and then learn from, other than just getting in front of a console and pulling a good mix. Dealing with egos and good old’ ‘customer service’ is a MASSIVE part of the industry, and without being able to deal with anything an arrogant singer, overzealous Tour Manager or even an overbearing parent can throw at you, YOU’RE GONNA HAVE A BAD TIME.
Q: What should a young, budding engineer looking to get into live mixing expect?
If you’re fresh, expect to roll cables and push road cases for a year or so. Expect to get paid nothing for ridiculously hard and unpleasant work, expect to be ripped off by people, and expect to walk away from most gigs never even receiving a thank you for all your effort. It’s not easy. If you don’t LOVE what you do and visualise the goal you hope to achieve, you will be flattened by the industry and the people within it.
Q: You’re also a successful Drum & Bass DJ and have played keys for several bands. Have any of the skills you’ve learnt from these musical mediums transferred across to live mixing, or at least helped in any way, shape or form?
Successful D&B DJ? That’s an oxymoron!!! But seriously, playing in bands and listening to what I believe to be the most technically interesting and best produced electronic music genre around, definitely helps me understand the different elements of a piece of music, the way those elements should sound in a mix (to my ears) and how to develop ‘openness’ and ‘space’ within a tune.
Also remember to pull a sound YOU like. Everyone has a different opinion of how the band on stage should sound (especially previously mentioned over bearing parents) but be true to how you like the elements to sound. Obviously, you have to consult the band themselves, but don’t listen to parents/punters/other sound guys unless you know and trust them.
Heaps of people try to influence you on a gig, because they want to hear their guitarist son or bass player mate over everything else… Just pull your mix.