Getting To Know: Elisa Binger

Elisa Binger - Photo Credit: Christopher Bugtong

If you've seen a show at the DC's Black Cat anytime since 2016, there's a good chance that Elisa Binger was involved in making the music in that room sound so good.  

I've seen and worked with many sound engineers, and admittingly don't know the complexities of their craft, but I do know that watching Elisa in that role is like watching a natural. I was lucky to get a behind the stage view during a show I was covering, and seeing Elisa work was like seeing great choreography unfold.  She a whiz at this, deftly moving, acutely listening, taking in a myriad of information at once and calmly making adjustments to make a system work better for an artist. It was honestly mesmerizing to watch. 

I had the chance to catch up with with Elisa about how she got into the sound engineering business, how the pandemic has affected the music industry, and some of her favorite shows and spots in DC. 

Hi Elisa, thank you so much for connecting with me today! 

Tell me about your experience as a sound engineer at Black Cat — and what you were working on before the pandemic hit.

Elisa Binger - Photo Credit: Sean Gotkin

Photo Credit: Sean Gotkin

Thanks for connecting with me!

So I’ve been at the Black Cat for four years now. Especially the last year or two, myself and our Head Engineer Sean Gotkin have been pouring ourselves into the sound system and making the room sound as great as it can. We’ve basically taken the entire system apart and put it back together. We’ve optimized everything we can. I’ve also been working on getting more "Front of House" experience. Up until this point I’ve predominantly a monitor engineer, which is what I’m most passionate about, but I’m actively trying to work on my Front of House skills so I can be more versatile.

Elisa Binger - Photo Credit: Sean Gotkin

Photo Credit: Sean Gotkin

And define for me and the reader what "Front of House" means in terms of the sound engineer. 

Front of House is the job in audio engineering that involves mixing the sound that the audience hears. I'm trying to get more experience in that area, because what I mainly do is monitor engineering which involves making sure the band is hearing everything they need to on stage.

Photo Credit: Caroline Duffy

Thanks! Yes, I have noticed all of the changes happening in that space and even got the behind the scenes tour, it was fascinating! Every show I've seen there has sounded top notch. I'm curious, what was your favorite show to do sound for?

There are two shows that come to mind immediately. The first one is the Khruangbin show, which I think was in 2018. It was the kind of show that reminds me why I love doing what I do. They were such incredibly talented people but they were so humble and sweet. They went out of their way to talk to us after sound check and after the show which a lot of bigger artists don’t bother to do. They are the kind of band that doesn’t clutter their music with overcomplicated effects or too many instruments. They really let their songwriting and their technical skills shine. It’s the kind of music you can get swept away in, and being a part of the show by doing monitors for them really reminded me how much I love my job.

The other show I think of was Daniel Norgren who came with his band last year. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone play with as much soul as he did. He has the kind of voice that really reaches out to you. His music felt so honest and authentic. I felt so bad because there were probably only 100 people who came to hear him play in a venue that fits 800. The room felt empty, but he played with as much soul and passion as if the room was packed to capacity. I have so much respect for someone who can pull that off.

Photo Credit: Caroline Duffy

I was at the Khrunbin show, and yes, it was AMAZING. It's so great to hear that they are as cool as they sound. And I will definitely check out Daniel Norgren based on what you just said. 

And while we are talking about great music, can you tell me three influential artists in your life.

Hmmm, top of mind I would say Quicksand, Hozier, and Amy Winehouse.

Love it. And I'll also need to check out Quicksand, clearly.

So I've always wanted to ask you — what’s it like being a woman in this field that has historically been more male-centric?

Whenever people ask me about this, I give the same answer or example. I always think about a touring engineer walking into a new venue and introducing themselves to the house crew. When a man walks in, as long as he has a little confident air, people will basically assume that he knows what he’s doing until proven otherwise. Now, if a woman walks into the same scenario, people will generally assume that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, until proven otherwise. I’ve been lucky that no one has ever said anything awful to my face, you there are always some guys that will give you a skeptical look when you first tell them that you’re the engineer.

Women in this field — and I imagine any other male-dominated field — don’t have the luxury of an off night or a big mistake. No matter how well you did the night before, you always have to start from scratch the next day with a new band or a new crew. You constantly have to prove your worth. It can get exhausting after a while, but I’ve kind of learned to thrive on the challenge of changing people’s perceptions about me.

I can imagine.  It's already such a complex role and then even before you throw that into the mix. I really appreciate you sharing.  

Can you tell me more about what the process of doing sound for a show is like?

Elisa Binger - Photo Credit: Roxplosion

Photo Credit: Roxplosion

Engineering for a live show is kind of hectic, but I’ve learned to love how fast-paced it is. I usually try to get to the venue at least a half hour early to power up the equipment and set up my work space. It’s kind of a “calm before the storm” feeling where I can re-acclimate myself to the room and get ready for the show.

Once the band arrives its nonstop until doors. At the Black Cat, we have some amazing liaisons who help the band load in and make sure they are taken care of. Having them there is such a huge weight off my shoulders and I know from experience that working in venues where there aren’t any liaisons can be a lot more stressful. We always let the band set up their own gear, then set up our mics and sound boards after. Me and Sean Gotkin kind of have the set-up process down to a science and we work really quickly together after four years as a team.

Once sound check is over, the bulk of the chaos is done, but you always have to be on your feet during the shows. I make a point of always being visible to the band during the show so they can signal to me if they need anything. It seems like a small, straightforward thing to do, but you would be amazed how often I hear bands saying that the monitor engineer at the previous night’s show either disappeared, or was on their phone, or just plain didn’t care. As a woman being compared to a bunch of men, I really feel that I don’t have the luxury of looking like I don’t care because I know it’s going to lead to a bunch of other assumptions about my abilities.

Elisa Binger - Photo Credit: Roxplosion

Photo Credit: Roxplosion

I've seen you at work and was amazed at how many details require attention all at once.  How did you get into this industry? 

It was basically a complete accident. I was at the University of Maryland getting my degree in business, not because I really enjoyed it, but more because it was the “practical” thing to do. By chance I met someone at an extracurricular club meeting who piqued my interest about the radio station on campus. I decided to check it out, and as soon as I sat behind the sound board for one of their live shows, something just clicked. I don’t exactly know how to describe it, but working with the music in that way just felt right to me.

After my junior year, I decided to get some work experience under my belt and put out applications to a bunch of different venues. I never heard back from any of them. The funny thing is, the Black Cat wasn’t really on my radar at first. I was just doing a one-off gig at Comet Ping Pong when their booking manager mentioned a rumor that the Black Cat was losing one of their engineers. I got my resume on Dante’s (the owner's) desk the next morning and basically harassed them with phone calls and emails until they hired me. I like to joke that they just hired me so I would leave them alone.

Truth be told, I’m always grateful to the Black Cat because no one else was willing to give me a chance. If they hadn’t been willing to take me on, I think my life would be really different right now.

The funny thing is, when I first got involved in music, I was convinced I only wanted to do recording studio work. Once I started doing live sound more consistently, I completely fell in love with it. I think there’s something about being a part of the moment when an amazing show is happening that no other experience compares to. Now I’m hoping to start touring in the next few years and take my involvement the music to the next level.

And of course, now things are very much on hold for the music industry. Tell me about how the past few months — notably the pandemic and also the Black Lives Matter movement — have affected your career and life.

First, the pandemic has completely paralyzed the music industry. I think that those of us who work behind the scenes are going to be the hardest hit by the end of this. I’ve seen plenty of bands and artists adapt by playing shows online and asking for Venmo donations from people who tune in to the live streams. A lot of them are also selling more merch, so even though they aren’t doing as well as before, they are surviving. Live sound engineers and lighting designers are the ones who are going to struggle. There isn’t really a way for us to offer our services remotely. I’m definitely facing the anxiety of not knowing what comes next, but obviously, I’m keeping in mind that it’s a sacrifice for everyone’s safety.

The Black Lives Matter movement has been so eye opening for me and I'm sure for a lot of people. As a Latina I've seen my fair share of racism in this country, but as someone as white as I am, I've always wondered if it's really my place to say anything about the experiences of the Black community. I've come to realize that not saying anything is the worst thing I could do. I'm making a more conscious effort to be aware of the systemic problems our society is facing and using my voice to support those who have been affected by systemic racism. That can mean supporting Black-owned businesses, listening with an open mind and heart to anyone who needs to talk about their experiences, and supporting changes in our society that would make our country safer for everyone. They seem like little things, but I think it's important for all of us to feel like we can make a positive impact no matter how big or small.

For sure, we need systematic change and safety and care for each other now more than ever. And I know this year in many ways has been hard on so many people. What are you doing to take care of yourself these days?

Photo Credit:  Sean Gotkin

I’m making a really conscious effort to use the spare time I have right now to take care of those little aspects of health and self-care that are so easy to overlook. I’ve been drinking a ton of water to stay hydrated, taking better care of my skin, and working out consistently for the first time since I was probably in high school. I’ve also been taking online classes for some hobbies I’ve never been able to invest time in like photography, cooking, and mixology.

Photo Credit:  Sean Gotkin

That is so good to hear, and I hope things get back to a better place soon. What specific place in the DMV are you most looking forward to visiting once things open up again?

I have a big thing for speakeasy bars. I don’t know why I love them so much, but that’s definitely where I’ll be going first. I think my favorite is The Alex, in Georgetown, but I have a whole list of others I’ve been wanting to try.

And what about restaurants — where is your favorite place to eat in the DMV? 

I love the Jinya Ramen Bar on 14th street. I used to get it delivered to the Black Cat for dinner all the time. Their ramen is so flavorful, but I still feel like it’s relatively healthy. They are doing carryout and delivery during the pandemic.

We could all use some good ramen these days. 

Thank you so much, Elisa, for sharing about your journey and passion with me. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness and candor in our conversation. You definitely inspire every time I see you in action at Black Cat. I hope one day soon we can be back to a new, better, and safe normal where we can see live music again.

I really hope so, too. And thank you so much for taking the time to ask questions and connect, this was fun!

Additional Resources

Additional Resources



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About the author
Nina Goodman

Nina Goodman

Nina Goodman is a music lover, dancer, artist, keyboardist, and an avid ukulele player. You may even see her up on stage performing with local DC bands. Above all, Nina is a fierce supporter of the Washington DC local music scene. Nina's talents are mostly behind the scenes where she maintains and curates our event calendar and conducts interviews with local artists. If there is music playing in the DMV, you can expect to see her attending or at least making sure that our audience knows about it.