For Kim Watson, one of life’s great pleasures is designing and hanging sound systems. Although she’s happily taken on virtually every role in live audio over her 20-plus years in the business, the UK-based mix engineer’s preferred gig is as a system designer and tech. “I’ve done everything and still do everything; system tech, monitors, front of house, RF, patching – I can really do any job on a gig,” she explains.
As an example, Watson cites a series of socially distanced shows mounted over a month and a half in her home base of Newcastle. “I think I did every single position over the course of that six weeks. If we couldn’t get a monitor or front of house engineer, I’d jump on monitors or front of house. And I flew the rig,” she adds, laughing. “I just love the job – it’s great. And I can educate myself to do all the other bits if I need to do; networking or whatever’s necessary.”
Those were some of the first “proper” gigs Watson has done during the pandemic, she adds. “But I was lucky because I work for a PA company (Kingdom Services Ltd.) here and did a load of warehouse work – building racks, cleaning, and testing equipment. And we did the first socially distanced events in the world in August and September 2020, just after the first set of lockdowns. Kingdom has a load of d&b and DiGiCo gear, so we went into this huge outdoor venue, put in a KSL system. It was awesome.”
Still, 2020 was the longest she’s gone without working a live show since 1999. “So, when the first lockdown landed, I painted the entire house,” she says, laughing again.
Frankly, very little seems to faze Watson when there’s work to be done, but then again, her approach to everything she takes on is characterized by her willingness to pitch in – however, whenever, and wherever it’s necessary. “To get my hands dirty,” as she puts it, adding, “If you’re not willing to do that, I don’t think you’ll get the chance to do half the things in this industry (that you could).” And, when others see that type of dedication, she continues, “They’re more likely to want to work with you. It makes a huge difference.”
Finding A Direction
Her work in audio is a natural extension of her love of music. “I played flute in a wind ensemble, and bass and guitar in bands as a teen. I don’t play now, but the first week of lockdown the guitar and bass did come out of the loft – as they do – which was nice because it’s been a long time.”
Although Watson always knew she wanted to work in the music industry in some capacity, early on she wasn’t entirely sure in what role. And while her fascination with her parent’s stereo system did point in a certain direction, when she first saw a promising job description during a ‘careers day’ in high school, she was warned off by pretty much everyone. “I’m looking at down the list of jobs and one of them was sound engineer.”
Another, she adds, was music teacher. “So, my parents and teachers were like, ‘You should go into something like that. You should be a music teacher’.”
But she wasn’t having any of it: “Everybody around me said I couldn’t do this. It was like, ‘You can’t’ or ‘You’ll never be in the music industry.’ But whenever anybody says I can’t do something, that’s the driver for me to run with it. And I did.”
She went on to study math, physics, computing, and music technology at South Tyneside College in South Shields, England. “I always leaned more towards the music technology side, but I’m finding the physics comes more into play with systems design. That helps a lot now.”
As does her experience studying music theory, arranging, and performance, particularly when mixing monitors, she notes, “Because I understand the mindset of the band. I can hear the balance of what should be in the mix as far as harmonies and other stuff is concerned, which does go back to being a classical musician and the theory side of things.”
That, in tandem with her “just get it done” approach enables her to build trust with the bands she works with swiftly. “Definitely,” Watson says, recalling a George Michael tribute act she mixed monitors for in 2019, which featured session players from George Michael’s actual recordings. “Working with them was an absolute pleasure and they trusted me, but it was tough – 18 mixes, a couple of wedges, quite a bit of in-ears, and I had the main band and an orchestra on the opposite side of the stage.”
Watson also has a background in recording from her time studying at Newcastle College (in Newcastle upon Tyne) but was more attracted to the challenges and atmosphere of live production. “In college, we did both, but recording wasn’t what I loved. They had a live desk there, though, and the guy who showed us how to use it would always say to me, ‘Kim, can you come up here you do this?’ And I was always like, ‘Yeah.’ So, for me, it was always the live show. It’s instantaneous. You’ve got one chance to get it right. So you do the gig and, good or bad, it’s done, instead of rehashing the same songs over and over again.”
During her second year of college, Watson began interning for local PA companies. “That was when it sunk in that this could be my job,” she says. Given the resistance she’d already faced by those who thought this wasn’t a gig for a woman, however, she realized that if she was going to break into the industry, she’d have to be even more dedicated, more willing to do any part of the job and give it her all on every gig.
Within a year of doing her first shows in December 1999, she founded Polaris Audio, and even then, was wearing multiple hats. “I had a load of equipment and was doing mobile recording on shows, but then I moved more into the live side of things.”
Key Building Blocks
Listening is a critical part of her gig as an engineer, but it’s also integral to learning the job, the craft, and how to work with others – something that helped her get her first gigs. Watson explains that she asked questions constantly, took the answers to heart, and was perfectly willing to get paid in “pizza and information” to further her career.
“You’ve got to ask questions and listen,” she insists, recalling her early gigs with Graham Kay, owner of Dreamhouse Audio. “I walked up to him and said, ‘You should give me a job, please.’ And he did. The first show I did for them was the James Taylor Quartet. I’d never seen a monitor desk before so I got to see how that worked. And at the end of the night, we just sat in the dressing room and Graham and the monitor engineer were tech-talking about crossovers and things like that.
“I didn’t understand a word of it, but I made a mental note and then went away and learned about it,” she continues. “I did four years with Graham and Dreamhouse starting when I was at college. So, I’d finish classes, run over and do load in.” She also relied heavily on prosoundweb.com for information early on, noting, “Just learning from the people on the discussion boards – they taught me a lot.”
From there she began working monitors, doing festival gigs, and working for another smaller company run by Barry Hodgson. “Dreamhouse did 2,000-capacity venues whereas Barry did smaller pub-type venues.” That was a critical part of her education, she adds, and Hodgson became a long-term mentor and friend. “This is where I learned all of my troubleshooting skills. I owe Barry a lot.”
After being taken on as local crew at a venue where large touring productions came through regularly, she began picking up road work with acts like Manfred Mann, Blondie, the Brit Floyd, The Subways, and Emily Sandé, among others, but also, when not touring, freelances for various PA companies and as an audio tech for Newcastle’s o2 Academy.
While she’s held virtually every position on tour over time, much of her work has been as a monitor engineer. But, although she enjoys the interaction with the artists and the relationships she’s formed with those she’s mixed the stage for: “Honestly, monitors was never my focus. From the very beginning, I wanted to be a system tech – that’s what I always wanted to do. Very early on I did Meyer Sound training courses – System Design Principles and Comprehensive System Design with Mauricio ‘Magu’ Ramirez and Bob McCarthy, and they got me hooked. Having the physics background, well, it kind of made sense.”
Consequently, recently she’s been attempting to “flip the script” and take on more system design and tech gigs. “The last few tours I’ve done I’ve pushed more towards doing that side of things.” Even during the pandemic, she’s been able to grow that part of her career – working in system design with Alrose Productions.
Quest For Knowledge
Going forward, that’s the type of work she wants to focus on. “Definitely,” Watson says. “I did L-Acoustics training before Covid and was hired straight away by BCS Audio on the South Coast. So, I was out hanging K1 and K2 systems for big festivals like Boomtown Fair, Victorious in Portsmouth, Camp Bestival, and I’m hoping that next year I’ll be going back to do those because they all got canceled last year.”
The “get your hands dirty and be proactive” attitude applied throughout her career also informs Watson’s focus on familiarizing herself with new and emerging technology and adopting new skills. Her ethic, simply put: “Never stop learning.”
Over time she’s taken part in a variety of courses and gained certification for numerous technologies such as Rational Acoustics Smaart training, d&b audiotechnik training, the previously mentioned L-Acoustics courses, Meyer Sound SIM3 training, among others, as well as ensuring she’s up to speed on every console she can lay hands-on, which means, she points out, “I can pretty much walk into any venue, with any console, and make the gig happen.”
Generally speaking, when it comes to go-to equipment, she’s “gear agnostic” but notes she’s recently been doing a substantial amount of work with DiGiCo desks as well as d&b and L-Acoustics rigs. That said, it’s a mixed bag. “Just the other day, I had an Allen & Heath dLive. Really, you can put me on anything, but Allen & Heath and DiGiCo are kind of my favorites at the moment.” That said, as she stated in a previous article on Soundgirls.org: “My favorite piece of gear is the one that works when you plug it in…”
And when it doesn’t? Well, Watson carries a substantial tool/troubleshooting kit to deal with any unexpected issues. “I’ve got a pink Pelican case that I drag around everywhere with me, which really needs to go on a diet; it’s so heavy now.”
That kit, she adds, holds everything from Sharpies, splitters, and a soldering kit to a cheaper measurement mic she uses specifically for any festival gig where the chance of it getting dropped in the mud might be an issue. “I try to be prepared because a lot of venues have all the PA they need, but don’t have all the little adapters and bits you might need. And that stuff can rescue a gig at times. Just having a couple of network combiners the other day saved a show actually.”
With the UK fairly wide open at the time of our conversation in October, Watson was looking forward to doing shows a little farther afield. “But for now, I’m staying local and doing a lot of venue work up until Christmas. Then, we’ll see what next year holds.”
Hopefully it includes a return to touring and the experiences she’s had over time – on the gig and off the clock – with artists like The Subways. “The Subways organize days off to be in places of interest, so… You know the movie, Where Eagles Dare? The castle in that movie is in a village we stayed in, so we had a hike up to that, which was amazing. We consciously make an effort to go and visit places when we are in different towns. It’s brilliant. I’ve toured most of Europe, South Africa, Australia, and Russia – mostly this side of the globe, but I’d love to get over to the U.S. and Canada. That would be amazing.
“But Russia, that was phenomenal. We took the overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The first time I was there I called up a Russian friend – a PA guy who does audio – and I was like I’m in Moscow and he said, ‘Right. I’m coming.’ And he picked me up and we went all around the city.”
Although she hopes to do more in the way of system design going forward, Watson doesn’t see herself moving towards fixed installs anytime soon. “I like getting my hands dirty on gigs. You’ve got to get it in and get it out and back on the truck and then you’re off to the next city. I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie.”
She adds that it’s a trait that fuels her primary passion outside of audio, snowboarding. “I was a licensed snowboard instructor for a while and I thoroughly enjoy it. We’ve got a couple of the indoor snow domes and a dry ski slope near here, so whenever I’m off I just disappear there for a few hours.”
In the future, she intends to put those teaching skills to work and inspire others – particularly other women – to work in the audio industry. “One of the things I want to do is some form of master classes. We have some amazing college and university courses over here (in audio), but there’s a massive gap between people coming out of a course and getting a foot in the door in the industry.”
While that’s a gap she hopes to help bridge by inspiring others, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to wedge a foot in the door themselves, she concludes: “Try and find somebody to shadow. Just go out and do a few shows that way. I had a young lad come out on a few shows with me and one of the venues took him on straight away. He came out for three shows and now he’s employed. He’s just doing the smaller shows for them, but it’s a foot in the door. So, yes, I’d like to help a lot more people get into the industry that way as well.”