Sound Diplomacy & The Art of Noise Management.

Acoustech Director Sophia Livett talks noise monitoring

Back in May, when we spoke to Access The Festival, the name Acoustech dropped into the conversation about suppliers; Access Co-Founder Will Darley was quick to sing the praises of the noise consultants and particularly Director, Sophia Livett, as a huge help in delivering a successful event. We thought we should investigate further, to find out what it takes to blend, knowledge, know-how and diplomacy in the world of noise monitoring.

Sophia’s route to becoming Director of Acoustech started with a schoolteacher suggesting Event Management as a career path, leading to enrolling in 2010 on a three- year Event Management and PR course at the University of Derby. The story begins as student finances come to an end in the final year:

“I was in my final year at university, I had about £250 left of my student finance and one of my friends said ‘I know this guy who’s putting on an event in London and needs a couple of volunteers. It’s probably going to cost us to go down there and get a hotel. Would you be interested?’ I said: “Why not? Let’s give it a go. That is where I first met Will Hodgson, who’s Managing Director of [event production and safety specialists] Symphotech. That’s where my career in events first began. He was approachable and eager to have young people learn from him; it was interesting to put everything I’d learned in action. I really enjoyed that.”

“I started talking to them about how you get into the industry, because it’s not as simple as applying, it’s everyone knows everyone, so I became self-employed. That was a challenge, because no one tells you how to do that. I was on Will’s radar for anything else that came up and started doing admin work for them. Symphotech was still in its infancy, it was about three or four years old, so they found it useful to have me do all the paperwork and admin. From there I helped on site and became interested in the noise monitoring side of things.  With their encouragement I developed my knowledge of noise management, applying my people skills and to make residents and clients happy. The communication aspect of the role suits my personality. I’d never considered it as a choice when I first began my journey…and now I’m Director somehow!”

From volunteer to Director of a newly formed division, Acoustech in a few short years. A sound investment of that final £250 then.

“My dad was not impressed back then – I did get a bit of a [talking to] for that. Every Christmas I’ll remind him-”Do you remember what you said seven years ago, and now here I am running this company?”

It’s easy to put this down to right place at the right time, but you have to put yourself in that place, the talent has to be spotted and nurtured and the person has to be trained. In Livett’s case, that involved an intensive noise monitoring course to add theory to the initial practice, but perhaps didn’t cover the  approaches to different stakeholders. Livett is clear about who she’s working for and who she has to work with.

“The event organisers, the promoters, they hire us, basically we’re there to help protect their license and to take the flack, in a sense, from the Council. I t’s important that event organisers have people like us in place, because it can be too easy to say yes to everything that [councils] propose. Sometimes what they suggest isn’t realistic or they don’t have enough knowledge. I can push back on certain things and suggest more realistic solutions. Sometimes the monitoring equipment that councils have, isn’t of the same calibre as what we provide; to accurately monitor and record noises levels across the event.”

Festivals are seen by some as nothing more than noisy neighbours, albeit temporary:

“People are going to complain at times, you can’t help that. It can also be subjective to music taste. I’m sure a dance/rave festival will attract different complaints to a Tom Jones concert and we have to be ready for that.

“It’s important to respect the people who live close to event sites, and build their confidence that we are there to minimise the impact of sound on them. By being visible and approachable, I can explain how we are working with the festival and the local authorities to maintain reasonable levels.

Back on site, multiple acts means multiple sound engineers.

“I don’t ever claim to be a sound engineer, although I do have some engineers that end up working for me. “Our focus is to work with them to create good audience sound levels, without compromising licensing conditions. We have absolute respect for what they do and sometimes you can have a bit of a fun nerd off. We’re there to help and be their eyes and ears. You’re sometimes referred to as ‘noise police’, which I ban everyone from saying! We’re here to balance the needs of the artists, production, audience, and local authorities, to keep the show running.

“Because we’re live monitoring at front of house, and often at sensitive remote locations, we are aware when sound levels are creeping up. Having established a repour with the engineers, we can then communicate back to them where tweaks are required. Sometimes, that might be just one offensive frequency that needs pulling out.

“I believe we’re all on the same side – and it’s that approach that means we win friends and avoid conflict situations. My role is to make sure licensing conditions aren’t breached, which is achieved through ongoing monitoring and feeding back to engineers to ensure levels don’t creep up.

“Of course, not everyone is a sound engineer and not everyone understands a A-weighted average measured over 15minutes; they hear something abnormal and complain to the Council,.

“Because some [Environmental Health Officers] in councils, are not often trained in sound, it’s difficult for them to have the correct information to communicate effectively with the sound engineer. They are concerned about the residents.

“The way I deliver information to Councils is different to the technical conversations with engineers.

“Councils don’t always do their own monitoring, so we monitor and keep records, which means that we can respond to any complaints after the event and prove that our clients have not broken their licensing conditions.

Monitoring off-site, can raise residents’ suspicions and audience confusion about what this person with a hi-vis and a microphone is actually doing. Sophia continues:

“I enjoy it when I’m monitoring remotely, I hope that someone does come out and talk to me, because that helps build a relationship between the event and the local community.”

We venture to suggest a new job title of ‘Community Appeasement Officer” Livett adds:

“We now have a bit of a challenge to see who can get the most cups of tea brought out to them by locals! I think I’m still the leader on that one.”

“My biggest asset is being able to communicate efficiently and effectively, and understanding the audience that you’re talking to, whether it’s a council, resident or sound engineer, and being approachable – and having fun with it.

Knowledge, flexibility, diplomacy, a consultative and an understanding approach are required to be a successful noise consultant. We’re also interested in ‘what makes a good client’, because festival owners need to know how to get the best out of their contractors:

“That we are being brought in is a great start – it means they already have the knowledge that they need [us]. Talking to us before the event, about site layout, being open and understanding to what compliance entails -and taking our advice.”

Our sector, as any other, is built on investment and opportunity, risk and reward. In the case of Sophia and Symphotech, each has delivered and received both, resulting in growth of an individual career and a successful division. Event Management degrees have their critics, but that teacher simply suggested an industry and it seems that they were right. Just don’t call her the Noise Police.