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The Sound of Music

Musical MacGyver gears up for Folk Fest

Posted: April 6, 2011 - 5:50pm
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Betsy Sims works at a computer in Studio A where she makes and records music in Juneau.   Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Betsy Sims works at a computer in Studio A where she makes and records music in Juneau.

Betsy Sims sleeps, but not much.

A sound engineer, Sims runs Studio A, a busy downtown recording studio that provides a range of services to local musicians and performers. She also mixes microphones for KTOO television, is the house sound engineer at Perserverance Theatre, teaches Zimbabwe marimbas at the Canvas and is taking care of Annie Geselle’s two young children while she’s in Colorado for a three-month stay.

On top of all that, she’s currently gearing up to run the sound at the Alaska Folk Festival concerts, which begin Monday. Sims will also appear on stage Friday to play a set with her band, but said her off-stage position behind the sound board is a more natural fit.

“One of the reasons why I love this work is I am absolutely a behind-the-scenes kind of person,” Sims said. “I love to create fabulous stuff — I have no need to be in the limelight and not really a lot of desire to be. I like creating it and making a platform for other people to do that.”

When done well, her job goes largely unrecognized.

“If you have sound amplification that isn’t good, then everyone notices. But if it’s always good, they just take it for granted,” she said.

Sims spends much of her time working at Studio A, a spacious three-room artist’s space that helps many different community members and businesses with their sound needs.

Located on the second floor of the Juneau Arts & Culture Center, the studio is full of light and features a raised, soundproof double floor and special insulated walls. It’s come a long way from its windowless basement beginnings.

Studio A was formerly known as Skatebottom Sound and located in the Articorp building on Fourth and Harris downtown. It was started by Albert McDonnell, who ran it until last year. He still owns the studio, but now just visits from his home in Portland, Ore. in the summer.

McDonnell rents part of the space to Mark Lukey, who is very involved in the studio with Sims. Sims and McDonnell have been working together since the early ’90s so it was natural for Sims to step in to run the studio.

“He and I worked together for many, many years,” she said. “Albert and I work incredibly well together — we don’t even have to say a word, we just get in there and create whatever we are going to do, it’s just automatic.”

Paul Gatien and Mark Alton are other sound engineers Sims works with as well.

 

MacGyver of audio

Sims said she initially got into sound out of necessity and was baptized by fire. She’s the guitar player in a four-woman band called Glacial Erratics, consisting of two Yukon women, Kim Barlow and Andrea McColeman, and Juneau’s Martha Scott.

“I toured for several years with my band and someone had to do the sound,” said Sims, adding, “That’s the best way to get miles is to be out there doing it over and over again.”

Sims has also done sound for numerous Perserverance Theatre productions and loves the thrill of doing live audio.

“I love the immediacy of it, and with live sound amplification, you never know what’s going to happen at any given moment.”

Sims has lots of tricks and fixes she’s learned while under the pressure of live shows, becoming something of a MacGyver in the process.

“Sometimes things just don’t work,” she said. “I’ve had all kinds of crazy situations where at the last minute a piece of equipment stops working and it’s incredible because you have to figure something out that second. I always figure out something I never would have thought of before, and then I have a whole new tool in my arsenal. It’s nerve-wracking but that’s the nature of the game.”

Sims also loves running stage and has done so for many different international festivals.

“It’s amazing how fast you can isolate something in that second when you have to. You have to figure out how to run things right then.”

Transitioning to more studio sound recording has been very different from live shows but she enjoys that as well.

“This is a whole new world and very fun, and it translates well if you are already a sound engineer.”

 

Digitizing and more

Studio A isn’t just about live performance sound and bands. They do the sound for all the arts council’s events and even do trades.

“There’s so much more to this recording studio than most people think about,” Sims said.

Remote recording, duplication, television audio, live sound for shows, live web streaming, and digitizing are just a few other services offered. As historical tapes age, digitizing has been a very important aspect of their business.

“Tapes degrade, it’s just a matter of time and how fast they degrade, but we have every tape player in here so we can take anybody’s old tapes and convert them to digital so they have them safely stored,” said Sims, who has digitized for the Folk Festival, Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Tlingit Haida language program, and the legislature, as well as old family tapes.

“Whenever someone is bothering to save something, it’s bound to be interesting,” said Sims, “and sometimes old family tapes — even if I don’t know the people — it’s unbelievable.”

Tapes used to be sent back and forth instead of letters, she said. Sims just digitized a series of old reel-to-reel tapes recorded during a fishing trip.

“Then all of a sudden you would hear elders singing — just incredible stuff,” said Sims, “It’s like reaching into another era.”

 

Creating connections

Though Sims prefers to remain outside of the limelight in her work, she’s far from antisocial. An integral member of the local music scene, she enjoys working cooperatively to reach her goals.

“I like being on a team that’s creating something,” she said.

“It’s all about fostering community.”

• Courtney Nelson can be reached at nelsonfamily@acsalaska.net

 

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