WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Under the steel-grey wings of an MQ-1L Predator A, on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum here, visitors took their seats in anticipation of a special July 4 concert by the Airmen of Note, the Air Force's premier jazz ensemble.
While the audience listened to the renditions of classic pop and patriotic tunes, some tapping the rhythm with their feet, Master Sgt. James DeVaughn, an audio engineer and production assistant with the Air Force Band, stood on the sidelines.
During concerts, DeVaughn stands stooped over a sound board with a myriad of knobs, switches and sliders, linked to every microphone and speaker on stage. What may seem overwhelming to the casual observer, allows him to tap into the music, scaling and emphasizing impressive solos, or changes in the melody -- all the while ensuring crisp and clean sound for the audience.
"The primary tools I use in my job are microphones and mixing consoles. But another really important part are my ears," DeVaughn said. "A big skill-set is to be able to analyze things you're hearing and translate them into the types of products that people want to hear." The sound board, in turn, is DeVaughn's instrument, as he shapes the sound for each part of a song with the calm confidence that only comes with years of experience.
"My journey into music, and it really is a journey, has been long and varied," DeVaughn said. "It's taken me a lot of places I might not have expected." When he was little, DeVaughn recalled, a career in music seemed unlikely -- after all, he attended a science and technology high school. While he said he enjoyed technology, he often found himself in the music wing.
"I was always singing in a choir at church or in elementary school all the way through high school, whether it was a men's glee club, show choir or chamber music group," DeVaughn said. "I ate up all the music I could get my hands on and participated as much as I could." Despite his talent, DeVaughn's fate did not seem tied to music and he attended Virginia Tech on an engineering scholarship. Halfway through college, however, DeVaughn drifted to the professional side of music, singing in an a-cappella group at a theme park in Virginia during summers.
"I just got bit super hard by the music bug," DeVaughn recalled. "The more I did it, the more I wanted to perform." After finishing a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, a recommendation from his professor led DeVaughn to study a mix of voice and recording technology. After he graduated with his Bachelor of Arts degree in music, university officials were still not ready to let him go and offered their talented former student a position as a technical director of VT's music department.
Here, DeVaughn learned about the work of military bands and said he was intrigued by the idea of being able to serve while staying in his chosen profession.
"It was a challenge and I didn't make it the first time I auditioned," DeVaughn said. "But I went back and I tried a lot harder to get better and put my head in the books. I was invited back to audition a second time and then won the audition." After Basic Military Training, in 2001, DeVaughn joined the ranks of The U.S. Air Force Band at then Bolling Air Force Base and began rehearsing for some of the Air Force's most prestigious public performances.
For 12 years now, DeVaughn has found his home in a career at the crossroads of art and technology. "There are both technical and artistic aspects to my job," DeVaughn said. "I think one thing that makes me a very capable engineer is that I have a musician's background. That way, I'm able to reference both skill sets at the same time. I can speak with the musicians on their terms, and I'm speaking their language." Last June, his work behind the scenes paid off when DeVaughn was part of a team presented with an Emmy® award from the National Capital/Chesapeake Bay chapter of the National Television Academy of Arts and Sciences. The award lauded him for his work with Maryland Public Television audio engineers during the live broadcast of the 2012 Veteran's Day concert, titled "America's Veterans - A Musical Tribute."
"It was something we'd never done before -- a live to air performance, on television, straight from the studio," DeVaughn recalled. "It was a different set of pressures and almost an adrenaline rush because you could not reedit or say, 'Let's stop and go back.'" Despite the challenge, the judges selected the evening's audio track as one of the winners among 774 entries from the production and television crafts. "The Emmy has been a really unique, positive experience. I'm still kind of overwhelmed, and I feel very humbled by it," DeVaughn said. "It's very rewarding and a real honor to be considered on par with our civilian counterparts in the industry, which speaks to the level of excellence we can achieve while we wear the uniform." When not setting up successful live performances, DeVaughn spends most of his time in the recording studio where, with his fingers on the faders, he follows along with the song, tweaking and reworking section by section of a record. Going live, however, has a special meaning for the audio engineer. "There are some times, being in (the recording studio), that you can lose sight of who your audience is ... and of what it is all for," DeVaughn said. "But then you get to go out and play a live gig and you get to talk to the people that come to the show and you see their reactions.
"With music, we can inspire people, touch people and heal people," he continued. "Music to me is a very powerful way to get in touch with our emotion and our deep feelings. There is a sense in music that it transcends spoken and written language."
It is this global appeal of song, DeVaughn said, that helps the Airmen establish bonds and beyond spoken language with their audience.
"You get see the smiles on kid's faces when they strum on somebody's guitar or the drummers drum and you have that personal connection with someone," DeVaughn said. "There may even be a language gap -- but they still speak the same language of music, humor and laughter." Regardless of his recent success, DeVaughn said there is always room for improvement as he and his fellow musician Airmen continue to strive for the perfect musical mix of telling the Air Force story. "We happen to serve through music, which may not be as glamorous as flying a plane or dropping a bomb," he said. "What we do may be more intangible, but can sometimes be just as powerful, when it can reach out and touch peoples' hearts."