Interview an Artisan - Domenic Ruggeri

The Interview an Artisan project is happy to present Mr. Domenic Ruggeri, owner of H3O Productions LLC offering complete event technology services. The interview was conducted by theatre student Colin Lamusta, facilitated by Professor Rita Roy, and made possible by Bridgewater State University Theatre Department.


(Photo of Domenic Ruggeri, talented theatre artisan and owner of H3O Productions LLC, offering complete event technology services.)





On Sunday, November 29th, 2020, Colin and I learned from Domenic Ruggeri that when given moderate opportunities one can create endless possibilities. Preparedness and professionalism can transform fun youthful talents into profitable skills to support ones future. He supports people with drive try to never limit themselves, always be willing to try something new. Check out the full interview in written form right here.


Colin:

I am here with Domenic Ruggeri, this person is an admired artisan in the world of performance art. Notably, they are the founder and chief technician of H3O Productions, a audio/tech company specializing in design for events both artistic and corporate, and they are giving me the pleasure today to ask a fewquestions as an aspiring member of the entertainment industry, and new entrant into the world of audio and sound design. A few more highlights about Domenic are that they are an alumnus of University of RhodeIsland where they graduated with a degree in Jazz Piano Performance, plus their varied resume includes a diverse amount of freelance audio and general tech work including Event Tech at the University of Rhode island along with other companies like High Output Inc. and ATR Treehouse. Do I have that correct? ...It is an honor to have you here today. Tell us a little bit about your interests growing up, and how, if at all, they translate to what you do now?


Domenic:

My journey in the audio/events industry began in high school, where I was the keyboardist in a band that achieved some minor successes. We had the opportunity to be part of a renewable energy (hydrogen fuel cell) program sponsored by the US Department of Defense via at Ponagansett High School (Foster/Gloucester, RI), where we were flown to several Hydrogen Conferences across the country and performed at their evening entertainment programs. Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction met with us and arranged 4 dates for us to perform on the Lollapalooza tour. Needless to say, this was incredibly exciting for a 16yo to experience and it got me hooked on the concept of a career as a musician. During this period our guitarist was the ‘audio guy’, and I picked up a few tips and tricks over the years but it wasn’t something I gravitated toward.


Soon after, I decided to go to URI pursuing a Jazz Performance degree on piano. The guitarist of my high school band was working at the student-run event tech company and encouraged me to apply. I did so, and no more than 6mo later was thrown into the hot seat by managing that student company. It was from this point (18yo) on that audio/video/lighting became a large part of my life. So in short, my life leading up to adulthood had exposure to the industry in proximity but without being too hands on – I suppose this made the transition from being a musician to technician a bit more fluid, but there was a plethora to learn about event technology ahead.


Colin:

Where did you gain the knowledge and practical skills to start in your field of audio, and production?


Domenic:

In two separate phases between 19-24yo, first being that managing role at URI’s TechPro. I had come in with minimal knowledge but seemed to have more of an aptitude than other student employees. The manager(s) at the time were graduating seniors and saw my potential to take the reins of responsibility. As much as I didn’t want to at the time, it was likely the most pivotal moment in my life – fully transitioning into the industry.


At this job I had an incredibly steep hill to climb during the first semester, having to learn how to; setup/operate/maintain all the company’s audio/video/lighting/staging equipment, hire and manage students, gain leadership skills, schedule the 20 student workers for the 5-10 events we had weekly, learn client relations, manage billing and payroll – all while maintaining some sense of a personal life/playing in bands and balancing my overloaded coursework. The music program at URI was appx. 19-21 credits each semester. So this first half/full year as manager at TechPro was probably the most demanding, but I had all the ambition and resources to make it work, so I did. I remained in that position until graduating, with a few bumps along the road, but in hindsight I was in a bubble. I didn’t have anyone around that was more knowledgeable to learn from. During this time I did freelance for ATR Treehouse and High Output, but my role was limited and wasn’t able to learn much more. After graduating I decided to pursue my degree path, but ultimately those efforts were hindered by personal life situations that lead me out of state to care for my father. Upon returning to RI I knew my options for income in the music industry were limited, so I began freelancing for several local event production companies – but primarily Indigo Design Group / Event Resource Group (ERG). The owner of ERG provided the most benefit to my technical knowledge, as well as business decisions. The next response will go into more detail on this.



Colin:

Do you remember a specific teacher/ professor that had inspired you? What did this teacher do that made them stand out to you?


Domenic:

The owner/technical lead of ERG (Ron) took me under his wing, which is what I needed. He didn’t give me special treatment, he was just a genuinely nice person that wanted to see his business grow, and knew that educating his workers when they needed it was more beneficial than having expectations that everyone knew how to use every system. Without trying to badmouth anyone in particular, I had found my experience freelancing for other/larger companies was frustrating and unfulfilling. There were a few key figures that made job sites stressful and intimidating, where if there was any misstep you were called out. This type of leadership has always been a deterrent for me. I was lucky to find Ron at ERG, he fostered growth through understanding and not ego or anger. Again, event tech is quite broad and there was a lot to learn with corporate a/v alone - we all don’t know everything when starting out and mistakes will be made. He understood how to work with this and get the best out of his workers.


Indigo/ERG had several high profile clients in the corporate world (Hasbro Toy Co., Citizens Bank, MetLife Insurance, etc.), so to be working in such a fast paced/high tech slice of the industry (while having an incredibly smart and understanding superior), I was able to blossom as a technician/engineer. I feel that I learned more in the 18mo at this job than the 4yr while managing TechPro.

Even though Indigo/ERG was most comfortable for me and my growth, it still had its flaws. The scheduling, logistics and worker’s payments were all areas that this company would severely botch. So for a while I walked a tightrope, dealing with late paychecks and poorly orchestrated events, in turn growing in an environment that suited me best. Eventually I felt comfortable and capable enough to ‘do it on my own’, committing to the few clients I had as ‘side jobs’ more and more – showing them I was ready to take on more. This is when I decided to open my business as H3O Productions, LLC in January of 2012 at 24yo.


Colin:

Where did you gain the knowledge, resources to start your own business in this field?


Domenic:

I suppose most of this has been answered already, but to recap; running a student tech company during college provided the groundwork to managing workers, client relations, finances and a limited level of technical knowledge. Then, working at ERG, my technical knowledge developed an order of magnitude and I further learned what not to do when managing a company (the downsides to ERG explained above). All this together gave me the confidence and knowhow to open H3O.


Colin:

What does a typical gig for H3O usually look like?


Domenic:

It typically begins with an email requesting services. I take some time to review the email and often am able to put together a picture of what the event will look like (literally and logistically), but sometimes I’ll need to work with the requester to put together their vision. Often during this process people will have limited knowledge of how things work, so we go back and forth until expectations are clarified and met. I’ll then move on to generating a quote, sending it along and seeking approval to confirm the event. Once confirmed I’ll immediately begin logistics and scheduling. Some events require sub-rentals, where my inventory will not cover everything, so I’ll reach out to preferred rental houses to arrange gear rentals and times. I’ll also begin the process of scheduling appropriate workers for the event. Depending on the scale of the job, I’ll schedule different technicians/engineers, but more often than not my events involve just myself going out and running the event – but again it depends on things like budgets and scale. If two techs are absolutely required, there’s no way around that – but if I can run audio and lighting concurrently, I’ll offer that option to reduce cost and keep clients happy. Only as much as I can handle, of course 😊


To be more granular I’ll go through this process above, but nearing show day; I’ll prep and test the systems being implemented on event in my shop space, a quality control step. Then I’ll load the van up and double check minutia (confirming all is ‘go’ with client, confirming workers timing and logistics, checking in with venue [if needed]). This all will take place at latest the day before.


The most common type of event H3O supports is a PA system with 2-4ch of audio input, typically with an added component such as a projector or lighting system for stage wash or ambiance/decorative lighting. If I were setting up this list of gear for a gig, I’d arrive at least 3hr prior to the venue. I like to estimate setup times by system, where the PA will take ~60-90min, projector ~30min, lighting ~30-60min. Most of the time these estimates are exaggerated, typically leaving a window of wiggle room of about ~60min. Granted this explanation is quite general, but each event is planned out in this manner – where specifics of each system will determine setup (and strike) duration. Back to the event… I like to prioritize systems for order of setup, just in case of an emergency. Say in this hypothetical, audio would be primary, then video projector, then lighting. In reality they are all equally important, but god forbid anything ever goes wrong (which in this case it hasn’t yet), I plan for the worst and make sure the event can still go on, even at a limited functionality.


After all is setup and tested, I like to relax during that planned wiggle room – making sure I’m focused for the event. Sometimes things do go awry during setup, but the wiggle room has always saved me. Never had an event waiting on us, thankfully!


During the event I hold a fairly strict standards/practices policy where the attention of the technicians is solely on the stage/performance. No cell phones, no small talk, no distractions – just complete focus on the event and systems you are responsible for. I’ll often have people comment to me on the context of the event, and I pretty much always say the same thing “yeah unfortunately I don’t know, I’m listening to them but not at what they say but how it sounds”. Events don’t typically go all that long, so being in ‘show mode’ for 1-2hr isn’t too taxing and it always produces the best results.


After the event wraps up I prefer for the room to almost completely clear out before striking any equipment, it shows the client respect for their event. Sometimes venue scheduling is tight so you have to get out quickly, but respecting clientele is one of the golden rules for me – or just respect in general. Unless there’s a job the next day, I’ll typically unload it in to a big pile in the shop and take some time the next day to sort it back to its shelving space. Rinse and repeat!


There are some stretches of work that go from dawn to dusk, many days in a row – these are the weeks where I’ll have 10-20 other people working for H3O, covering all the bases. But more often than not its just me and maybe another guy going out for a 6-10hr day.


Colin:

What are your most memorable pieces/projects? Why?


Domenic:

I have been supporting URI’s Freshmen Orientation for the past 7yr, it is the most involved production H3O services and (because its annual) it is deeply engrained in memory. It occurs every Monday and Thursday through June with four rehearsals in late May. Incoming Freshmen are toured through the campus during the day but prior to meeting up with their tour guides there is a morning session in a 1k capacity auditorium where all the student and their families are given an introduction to life at URI. The program begins with a Dean welcoming them, introducing a few other key campus figures accompanied by their own speeches and then on to a 20min musical production. During the musical, the orientation leaders (tour guides/OL’s) recreate segments from several Broadway hits but in the context of ‘in the life of your first day at URI’. There are about 100 audio and lighting cues in the 20min span and I can easily say it’s the most involved work I have to do (much respect for theater technicians!). On top of the theatrical portion, there are another 50 or so audio and video cues throughout the morning program to produce the event.


Leading up to the performance dates, I have to setup and orchestrate the technical aspects of the sessions in those four rehearsals, which include; training the OL’s on mic etiquette, how to mic themselves up backstage, fine tuning audio in/out’s with the group and (the largest task) dialing in and cuing up the dialogue portions of the performance. Once rehearsals are running smoothly its just a matter of myself performing consistently every show day, hitting all the beats and making it seem effortless for the whole team. On top of the morning sessions, each evening (Mon/Thu of June) they bring in entertainment for the students. The past 5yr has been a hypnotist, where he has 2ch wireless mic, iPad playback and about 10 lighting cues. This is the easier/more fun part of the whole month, once that is dialed in I typically sit back and enjoy the show while running cues. There’s one last 10min skit raising awareness of safe sex, substance abuse, general decorum that runs about 10 pages of dialogues and audio cues. Both the morning and evening sessions musical/skit involve 10 wireless headset mics. Its no Broadway level production, but certainly a huge amount of responsibility for one person. I’ve built part of my reputation off of the work completed for this program.


Colin:

When not doing your job, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?


Domenic:

Mostly composing and performing music, but I try to not limit myself in areas of interest – always seeking new hobbies and interests. In the past few years I’ve picked up video editing, video game design, woodworking, brass wire artwork, acrylic pour painting, drone video work and volunteering at animal shelters to name a few. I don’t think I have ADD, but I do run through hobbies kind of quickly. I think I just enjoy experiencing as much as I can in the time on this planet.


Music has always been a mainstay though. Up until last year I was constantly playing in bands throughout the region and honing my craft on the piano. I play several instruments and also enjoy composing original music under the name Tic. H3O has been such a demanding part of my life in recent years though, so I’ve had to put all music on the backburner to have enough energy to maintain the company. I’ve gone from 0-1 event/week to 3-6 event/week on average over the past 3yr, and ultimately it’s a lot for one person to balance. One thing I do want to mention about music (in relation to audio skillset) is that working with a DAW has been one of the most helpful tools to develop my abilities and ear as an audio engineer. Digital Audio Workstations (used to produce and mix digitally recorded music) contain real world effects processors that you can fiddle with and gain a more solid understanding of their parameters – while in a forgiving environment at home, rather than in the field or risking damage to any equipment when testing the ‘real-life’ effects processors. I have DAW’s to thank in my finer understandings of EQ, compression, gates, filters and even signal flow. I think signal flow is one of the most important things to fully understand when working in live events. Knowing where a signal starts, what devices it goes through / what those devices do, to where the signal ends, is paramount. Not only for knowing why components do what they do, but for troubleshooting too. Sometimes there are 10-20 steps in the process from microphone to speaker, or laptop video output to projector. Understanding where the signal is moving to/from is so important.


Colin:

How have you been occupying yourself in the live-event drought we are experiencing as a result of the Pandemic and quarantine/lock-down measures?


Domenic:

It’s been an interesting year for sure. The stresses of running H3O brought me to a fairly depressed/stressed state of mind leading into 2020, all the responsibility can be quite taxing. That being said, Covid has presented an opportunity for me to shake that off and essentially reset myself. So I’ve been grateful in that regard, but the financial and personal issues the Pandemic have brought on are a bit of an exchange of stresses. I try to not let thing truly get to me at the core, so things have been relatively ok, but the timing of it all has been a bit rough. I was preparing to hire someone to share the responsibility of running H3O. That may have to wait another year or so now, but have to get back to work at some point first! Haha.


Aside the woes, I’ve done my best to pivot by investing in a CNC wood milling machine and other woodworking tools. Looking to start an alternate revenue stream so that when events pick back up, I can produce items to sell on the side. Its been quite fun actually.


Colin:

What clients/projects are you looking forward to working with in the future?


Domenic:

It’s tough to say because I don’t really have the option to choose clientele, but I did renovate my basement into a great recording studio a few years ago and have had some minor success with that endeavor. For me it’s the ideal role to fill, both music and technology – but finding enough musicians to make a living anywhere near what event tech can pay, is nearly impossible. Id also have to invest quite a bit more into the studio to reach those goals. So for now its still fun to record local bands and myself in the studio space. Aside this the best thing I can hope for is to maintain my niche by serving more events at colleges and maybe even getting in the door at other institutions. As of now I serve both URI and Wheaton College about equally, and they comprise of about 75% of my business.


Colin:

Where would a novice stage tech interested in audio start looking for freelance work?


Domenic:

Depending on your adaptability and drive, there are few different avenues a novice could pursue. Similar to music, there’s a set amount of information regarding audio out there and most fields will cover these aspects in one form or another. It’s up to the student to absorb, research and apply the information received. But to answer your question…


My approach was through larger production houses, offering my time to jump into whatever position they saw fit in order to get my foot in the door. I pushed cases for the first 5-10 jobs and eventually worked into a position where I could run cables and such. With enough commitment and the right company, you can end up mixing and representing the company to their clientele. These jobs are probably the most readily available – ATR Treehouse, PMA Event Technology, Advanced Production and Design, Soundstage Audio, Jack Falvey Associates, Indigo and ERG are all companies I worked for prior to venturing on my own. You may have/want to ‘shop’ around a bit in your locale before settling down at the house that suits you best. Aside live event companies there are also music studios, news broadcast stations, film and video capture companies, freelance field recording and theatrical houses. All of these will apply similar concepts of audio engineering but with different signal flows, it would just come down to preference as to which industry you feel comfortable with.


Colin:

I want to thank Domenic for allowing me to chat and learn more about you and your craft, and for giving us the gift of your time and knowledge. It is always a fantastic opportunity to speak and hear from leaders in their field. I know myself and all viewers wish you continued success and growth in a challenging time for the world of live-entertainment, and deeply appreciate your time today so thank you again.



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