Seattle alternative rock band Pearl Jam released its debut album “Ten” in 1991. For 24 of the band’s 25 ensuing years, they’ve had one woman helping them hear themselves onstage during the nearly 1,000 live performances they’ve given. That woman is Karrie Keyes and the job is a critical one that depends on a host of variables that change with each venue. Her official title is sound monitor engineer and she balances audio levels so that each band member is able to hear the instruments they’re playing during a show. She works most closely with lead singer Eddie Vedder — the two can be seen flashing hand signals at each other during concerts.
Keyes is a rarity for two reasons: The field of audio engineering has historically been male-dominated; and seldom does an audio engineer stay with the same band for such a long time. Keyes, who spoke with NPR about her job, said fans recognize her as the “microphone girl” when she’s checking mic audio levels in the moments before a show starts. Indeed, a WITW editor who was at Pearl Jam’s May 1 performance in New York City snapped a photo of her performing that very aspect of her job. “Sometimes it’s easy and everybody wants to hear the same thing,” Keyes said of working with the band’s five main players and its supporting keyboardist. “And sometimes it’s really difficult, because none of them want to hear the same thing.”
Keyes grew up a major fan of punk rock and in the 1980s found herself attending all sorts of concerts. That’s how she got her first job — just by being at a Black Flag show. She met a sound engineer who offered her a job, and she was off. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing early on. “There was sexism, and that’s what you dealt with. It was part of life,” she said. “Thirty years ago, you kinda had to put up with it.” Even though much has changed in society since then, women sound engineers are still the exception rather than the rule. So, Keyes co-launched an organization called Soundgirls that mentors and teaches up-and-coming female sound technicians in the arts of live audio engineering. “Everyone’s had a mentor, a teacher, a guide,” she said.
Eventually Keyes landed a job with Pearl Jam, and after the band blew up into a worldwide sensation in the early 1990s, Keyes found herself out on the road a lot, touring the world with the band. The success was great, but when she gave birth to twin girls, Keyes was faced with some real challenges. As the old Journey song “Faithfully” goes, “The road ain’t no place to start a family.” She said it took her about two years “to actually come to terms with” what she needed to do to be “a better mother” and continue doing the job she loves.
Read and listen to the full story at NPR.