Meet The Woman Who's Been Pearl Jam's Sound Engineer For 24 Years After three decades doing live sound, Karrie Keyes is still one of few female engineers in the business. Some Pearl Jam fans know her on sight.

Meet The Woman Who's Been Pearl Jam's Sound Engineer For 24 Years

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Lots of people have jobs where they have to make their bosses look good. But for over two decades, Karrie Keyes has been making sure her bosses sound good. Keyes is a sound engineer. And her bosses happen to be the members of the band Pearl Jam. Caroline Losneck has her story.


PEARL JAM: (Singing) I'd rather be with - I'd rather be with an...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Shouting) Animal.

CAROLINE LOSNECK, BYLINE: Sound technicians say the work is kind of like waiting for something to go wrong but hoping it doesn't. Karrie Keyes stands intently on the side of the stage in front of her soundboard. She seems oblivious to the 37,000 fans packed into Boston's Fenway Park. Keyes occasionally steps out but describes herself as an introvert.

KARRIE KEYES: Half our fans know who I am because they see me come out on stage - the microphone girl because I'm checking the mics.


PEARL JAM: (Singing) I'd rather be with - I'd be rather be...

LOSNECK: Keyes is the live sound monitor engineer for Pearl Jam. She doesn't mix the sound the audience hears. She mixes the sound the individual band members hear through ear buds and speakers while they're playing live.


PEARL JAM: (Singing) Oh, tonight began with anything.

KEYES: Sometimes, it's easy, and everybody wants to hear the same thing. And sometimes, it's really difficult 'cause none of them want to hear the same thing.

LOSNECK: From offstage, Keyes communicates with the band, especially lead singer Eddie Vedder, using mostly hand signals. It's more complicated than a lot of fans realize.

KEYES: Hey, hey, one, two. Kick it. The snare can come up.

LOSNECK: There's a soundcheck hours before every show. The conditions are unpredictable - everything from weather and humidity to crowd size and sweat-drenched microphones. She's designed her monitor system over time around the band's needs. Keyes has been with Pearl Jam for 24 years. As a teenager, she loved punk-rock.

KEYES: I went to a Black Flag show.

LOSNECK: And it changed her life. There, she met the sound engineer who hired her.

KEYES: When I started, it was loading trucks, putting all the equipment back in the truck, then taking it out of the truck.

LOSNECK: She learned to survive on 50 bucks a week, taking any work she could from punk shows to mariachi to gospel festivals.

KEYES: Some shows were less than great. But you're going to go someplace else the next day. So it didn't matter (laughter). That was the selling point. Every day was new. And every day had the potential of being an amazing day.

LOSNECK: Back then, she was one of very few women sound engineers. And it felt like it.

KEYES: There was sexism. And that's what you dealt with. It was part of life. Thirty years ago, you kind of had to put up with it.


PEARL JAM: (Singing) Because it's evolution, baby.

LOSNECK: By the early '90s, when Pearl Jam exploded, she was on the road a lot. Then Keyes had twin daughters. While she was touring, their dad, aunts and sometimes a nanny took care of them.

KEYES: It took me a good - probably until there were three or four to actually come to terms with - you know what? I'm actually a better mother if I'm doing what I love doing so that when I'm here I'm completely here.

GEORGE WEBB: That's some serious bravery - doing this job, touring all the time and having two kids.

LOSNECK: George Webb is Pearl Jam's equipment manager and bass guitar technician.

WEBB: I remember, you know, when she was pregnant - pregnant on tour - or having babies, raising them and trying to tour at the same time. It just wasn't an easy thing.

LOSNECK: It's rare for sound engineers to stay with a band as long as Keyes has with Pearl Jam. And it's still rare for sound engineers to be women. A few years ago, Keyes co-founded Sound Girls, a group that supports and mentors women in professional audio. This summer, they held camps to teach young women live sound.

KEYES: Everyone's had a mentor, a teacher, a guide.

LOSNECK: From the musicians in Pearl Jam onstage to the crew members like Kerry Keyes offstage.

KEYES: The crew and the band has earned being here. And we're going to go out and put on a really good show.


PEARL JAM: (Playing "Rearviewmirror").

LOSNECK: For NPR News, I'm Caroline Losneck.

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