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Ethnographic Research of Live Sound Engineers


Whitney Slaten studies music, sound, technology, labor and working class culture among professional sound reinforcement engineers in the New York City metropolitan area. Live sound engineers mediate the musical sounds between musicians and listeners through processes of electronic and acoustic amplification. Many engineers intend to work in ways that are “transparent,” or undetectable, to the audience during live music performances. However, the challenges associated with this profession—constantly changing venues, working for different clients, and occasional equipment malfunctions—greatly problematize engineers’ transparency ideal and force the concept into a dynamic state that concert laborers regulate through complex social and technological negotiation. These engineers technologically facilitate musical intelligibility and artistically create musical sounds, frustrating static representations of these workers as either subordinate manual laborers or autonomous musical artists. Whitney describes these labor experiences through a phenomenology of “signal flow”: a confluence of technological and social encounters between sounds, architectures, electronics, musicians, stage crews, managers, venues, industries, musical genres, and audiences. How do these signal flows socially construct the dignity of a live sound engineer?