FEATURE: Equalisation: Bringing Female Sound Engineers Into the Mix





PHOTO CREDIT: @adigold1/Unsplash 

Bringing Female Sound Engineers Into the Mix


THERE are areas of the music industry…

 PHOTO CREDIT: @schneidermann/Unsplash

where women are seriously under-represented! I know there is still a problem with festivals and line-ups and, whilst I have covered this extensively, I do still think something needs to be done. It is a bit of a shame that, regardless of talent and potential, women are not being given their shot. There are particular corners of music where the gender disparity is even more severe. Look at studios and, for the most part, there will be men occupying the desks. There are some great female producers working in the industry but they seem to be in the minority. Maybe it comes down to the fact there is this feeling a studio is a boy’s zone or, with music escaping school syllabuses, perhaps we need to ensure we encourage more women to work as producers. I do not maintain, as some do, women do not want to become producers. Certainty, there are many who do but they feel studios are intimidating and, if they enter, many will overlook them. If the rate of men-women as producers is stark, engineering statistics are even more alarming. I was captured by an article that outlined how serious the issue is:

When most people think of a sound engineer, the person that springs to mind is a man: be it in a recording studio or behind the sound desk at a live performance. Even the language used is often gendered: “the sound guy”. Technical roles in music in general – producers and mixers, for example – are almost always perceived as the realm of men.

PHOTO CREDIT: @iamjohnhult/Unsplash

Like most stereotypes, this has a basis in fact – in both North America and the UK, for example, it’s a regularly repeated statistic that less than 5% of audio engineers are women. Unfortunately, this is not a number that has changed with any great significance over the past two decades.

So what is it about music tech that makes the numbers so strikingly disparate between men and women? In part, it might well be a self-fulfilling stereotype.

Firstly, a lack of representation might make it seem an impossible pursuit. Marta Salogni is a professional sound engineer, producer and mixer, whose body of work includes recordings with the likes of The xxFrank Ocean and Björk. Now based in London, it was back in her village in Lombardy, Italy, aged 16, when she became fascinated with the concept of sound engineering. “It made me a little bit scared because I couldn’t cling on to any role model – there was no one to demonstrate that that career was possible, and I felt alone a lot of the time.”

As I said with female producers, I do not think there is a lack of will and desire: why would anyone assume a man should be an engineer?! Roadies do not need to be men and, at a time when women are dominating and shining, I do think we need to look closely at gender roles and opening things up. Like festival bookings, there are those who say the best are booked and it has nothing to do with gender. Festivals are uneven because it is a meritocracy; studios and venues are male-heavy because they are best for those roles – in all cases, this statement is untrue, naïve and flawed.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Marta Salogni/PHOTO CREDIT: Carla Salvatore

Maybe, by having few women in studios, this creates a daunting image for those who want to become an engineer. I do think there is this stereotyped image regarding music and men being at the top; them running studios whilst the women, for the most part, are left to more clerical and less physical roles. I am seeing positive change regarding female producers and, whilst we need to promote them more heavily and highlight important schemes, there is a bigger problem regarding engineers and an imbalance. Returning to the article…and will sheer talent redress the imbalance or do we need to think of other methods?

While representation is important, waiting on meritocracy isn’t enough to redress the balance, Salogni says, alluding to the necessity for positive discrimination. More and more schemes are coming into place to try to make this a reality – Spotify launched the EQL Directory in association with organisation SoundGirls last year, providing a list of women and gender non-conforming audio professionals. It is, as SoundGirls say on their website, “a useful tool when people say ‘they want to hire women but can’t find any.’

I still think, adding to the problem, those in studios are not given the credit they deserve. The artist is seen as the star and we never really give props to the producers and engineers – and other bodies – who make the music come alive. The role of an engineer is crucial!

The engineer deals with every aspect of the recording process. They might be the first in the studio; warming everything up and seeing up instruments for the musicians. They have to know the acoustics of the room and which microphones are best to use. They not only have to know the studio inside out - but they then need to think about the best instruments, mics and equipment to best capture the sound. Sound engineers might also pitch in regarding production notes – as they have an intuition regarding sound – and they also get involved with the mixing. As engineers have a say in terms of volume levels and sound, they are naturally suited to guidance regarding mixing and production. The Guardian’s article recommends a great documentary, The Defiant Ones, which shows how the industry has changed regarding what is required of an engineer. Maybe the old-school engineer used to pitch in and learned as they went along. Often, musicians would graduate to become an engineer and they would learn in stages. Now, as so much digital technology is employed, engineers need to know about specific packages and software. It might all sound daunting but, as there is less a physical and winging approach and a more academic/learning-based approach to engineering, I think women are as suited to the profession as men. Even if a studio role was more physical, that still does not limit women. 

I guess engineering always used to be male-dominated and there was no real call for change. Some might argue that, if it ain’t broke, why change things!? If the music sounds good and it is all fine, do we really need to think about gender? That is fair but I know there are so many women and girls who would not only bring something new to engineering but they would help bringing about change. If we see a studio full of men, what impression does that give!? Are we to say a studio is a man’s realm - and, for female artists, they might find more common ground speaking with a female producer or engineer. I do think, in order to diversify music and make it less gender-imbalanced, encouraging more women into engineering is a good thing. Programmes being established are a good step but I return to school-age teaching and, in a social media age, we have tools to redress that gender disparity. The studio is a magical place and I do think women have a vital role to play. It is bad enough that songwriting – in regards the charts and the writing teams – is still male-dominated and I think the studio should be a less repressive space. Some women I have spoken to say they feel welcomed in studios and they do not feel judged or ignored. That is great to hear but, as the figures show, there is this barrier that means engineering is hugely male-dominated...


 IN THIS PHOTO: Sound engineer Kim Watson/PHOTO CREDIT: Christopher L. Proctor/The Guardian

There are glimmers of hope coming in but, still, there are root-deep issues – such as sexist remarks and a lack of educational opportunities – that are holding back fast change. In this separate article, we are introduced to some great women in sound. Beth O’Leary was in the mix and, as she states, there are misconceptions regarding a lack of women in studios:

 “Beth O’Leary

Live sound technician and engineer

There’s a lovely, welcoming crew for Minogue. But out of a technical crew of 41, there are three women. And that’s good by touring standards.

I think a lot of people say it’s just that women aren’t interested. And a lot of people say we need to encourage women into Stem subjects, but I think that’s just passing the buck on to the next generation. There’s plenty of women who tried to make it in the industry and just gave up and left. I’ve even questioned why I’m still here at times. Most people are lovely and supportive, and while the whole industry is getting more inclusive, there is still sexism – both personal and systemic”.

Is O’Leary the only sound engineer who is shining and setting an example? Far from it. Consider this article from a couple of years back that spotlighted some tremendous engineers:

Shani Gandhi was born in Singapore and raised in Australia. When she found out about sound engineering as a field, it all clicked. “I can take my hobby and my scientific background and put that together” she told The Tennessean. She graduated from the Performance and Sound Recording Technology from Ithaca College.

IN THIS PHOTO: WondaGurl/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Look into engineering credits of current bluegrass and Americana artists, and you’ll likely find Shandi Gandhi. Those include artists such as Alison Krauss and Parker Millsap, along with several Sarah Jarosz records. She also mixed Kelsea Ballerini’s hit single “Peter Pan.”

Ebony Oshunrinde a.k.a  WondaGurl is a beatmaker and producer from Brampton, Ontario.

A video of Timbaland in the studio inspired nine year old Ebony to teach herself how to produce. After winning Battle of the Beat Makers at 16, she sent a beat to Travis Scott. Next thing she knew, the rapper was calling to let her know her production was going on Jay–Z’s record next record. WonderGurl became one of the youngest women to have production credits on a platinum hip-hop record— Jay-Z’s Magna Carta:Holy Grail”.  

Even after a couple of years, have these striking features and interactions led to significant change? It is hard to say whether there is a new wave being trained right now who will help the statistical bias but I hold hope that things are going to move in the right direction. I do worry about the lack of music courses taught in school and the fact so many young women are only discovering engineering at a college/university level. One needs to impart messages of equality at the school level and make engineering courses more viable; breaking gender stereotypes and encouraging a more mixed studio environment. I want to bring in one final article that shows there are some terrific females working in studios but, perhaps, there are other factors that are keeping women at bay:

 “Today, prominent female producers include Sylvia Massy, Sally Browder, Leslie Ann Jones, and Kara DioGuardi. There’s the rapper Missy Elliott, who has built a well-regarded career as a producer; Linda Perry from 4 Non Blondes, who has worked with artists like Pink and Christina Aguilera; and Tokimonsta, a classically trained pianist who has worked with Kelly Rowland. Still younger rising stars include WondaGurl, a Canadian beatmaker who has been producing since she was 9 years old and who famously worked with Jay-Z when she was 16.

The impressive individual accomplishments of these women, however, don’t change the overall systemic picture—the fact that list after list from music publications ranking top producers often don’t include a single woman. Billboard’s 2016 Power 100 list only has 14 women on it, with none in the top 10. No woman has won the Grammy for Producer of the Year (Non-Classical). In the award’s 43-year history, there have been only six women nominees for that category: Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Paula Cole, Lauryn Hill, Sheryl Crow, and Lauren Christy, who worked with Liz Phair and Hilary Duff.

Difficulties that women face in other jobs are only amplified in a heavily gender-skewed field like audio. Getting pregnant and having children can come with career-defining consequences. The hours are long and unpredictable, which can take a toll on family life, and there’s a constant pressure to stay relevant: In the competitive music world, even a brief hiatus can open the door for someone else to take your job. “There’s no taking time off and saying, ‘Here’s my replacement,’” says the sound engineer Shani Gandhi, who at 29 has already won a Grammy for Best Folk Album as engineer on Sarah Jarosz’s album Undercurrent. “If you don’t work, you’re not making money.” This lack of stability makes it even more financially risky to have a family. Most audio professionals are self-employed, which means health care comes out-of-pocket, and there are no benefits like paid maternity leave.

Some areas of music are accelerating quicker than others regarding gender divides but I do feel women, as we have seen with some case studies, are invaluable and can take music to new levels (no pun intended!). The quicker we encourage more women into engineering roles and smash the assumption the studio is a man’s domain, the richer music will become. It might take a while before the gulf is shrunk but it is important to augment courses and faculties that encourage women into engineering. Also, attitudes that pervade suggesting women in studios are second-class or are not natural engineers…we need to dispel that. We are seeing more and more women become producers and produce sensational work - so I think it is only a matter of time before we see more women becoming engineers. I hope so, anyway. The current statistics (the number of male engineers compared to women) are stark but, with action, altered attitudes and a more open-minded cultural mindset, I think we will see…

 PHOTO CREDIT: @dillby777/Unsplash

SOME genuine improvement.