Balancing The Mix
Women are all over the music charts. One scan of the Billboard 200 will yield albums from a wide range of female artists spanning genres such as hip-hop, country, rock, and pop.
However, in reading an album's credits, the recording, production, mixing, and mastering of music remains an overwhelmingly male domain. Given the strides women have made in the workplace in recent decades, a number of factors have emerged to counter the historical imbalance of women in music production.
In recent years, universities and trade schools offering music recording programs have seen an influx of female students. The number of female graduates at Berklee College of Music, which offers majors in music production and engineering and music synthesis, totaled 282 in 2010, representing 33 percent of the total class and an increase of 5 percent from 2009. Full Sail University, a leading media arts college in Winter Park, Fla., estimates the number of its female students grew 28 percent between 2007 and 2009.
Terri Winston, executive director of the Women's Audio Mission in San Francisco, an organization providing training for women in recording arts and audio technology, notes the percentage of female students in her music production classes at City College of San Francisco has grown from about 10 percent to more than 50 percent in less than a decade. She attributes the increase to making the effort to engage women and chip away at any trepidation they may bring to class.
"When I bring a new piece of gear to the class, the men are all over it and the women tend to hang back," Winston explains. "I'll say to everyone, 'Get over here and take a look! Snap out of it!' And once that stress is off, they're right up there with the guys. They're here in the first place because they are interested in recording music. We're just removing some of the [cultural] barriers that were there."
Another factor beneficial to women is the feasibility of home recording. With a laptop, a set of speakers, a microphone, and basic recording software such as Pro Tools LE or GarageBand — and some time and effort — any aspiring professional has the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the fundamentals of music production.
But the most basic change may simply be generational. Bridget Guise, a 21-year-old student at SAE Institute of Technology in Nashville, Tenn., says gender isn't the same kind of issue for her millennial cohorts. "Gender is immaterial," she says. Guise does acknowledge that a glass ceiling might appear beyond the assistant engineering job she holds as an intern at a Nashville recording studio. But she also believes the positive effect women can bring to the working environment of music production will help counter any obstacles. "I think it can actually be an advantage now being a woman to get a job at a studio, because you'd bring a unique perspective," she says.
That optimism is shared by Ann Mincieli, the chief engineer for GRAMMY winner Alicia Keys since 1999 who also manages operations for the Oven Studios, the singer's Long Island, N.Y.-based recording studio. "I don't really think of it as being a woman in a man's world — that's an old mentality," says Mincieli, who has also worked with Whitney Houston, Jay-Z and Adam Lambert. "If I had really thought [like] that, I don't think I would have made it this far. I've seen some people, assistant engineers in studios years ago, get overtaken by that thinking. If you're good, if you're on your game, you have a chance like anyone else."
Angela Piva has thrived for years as an engineer, recording hip-hop artists including Ghostface Killah, Heavy D & The Boyz and Naughty By Nature, as well as more mainstream R&B artists such as Mary J. Blige. Once you prove your chops in the studio, Piva also agrees gender barriers can melt away. "The truth is, everyone I worked with was very respectful," she says.
Trina Shoemaker, who is one of only two women to have won the Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical GRAMMY Award (Imogen Heap won the award in 2009), puts it bluntly, "As soon as you say there's an obstacle there because you're a woman, then you put the obstacle there."
As the owner of RadioStar Studios in Weed, Calif., producer/engineer Sylvia Massy was mentored by Producers & Engineers Wing Senior Executive Director Maureen Droney and GRAMMY-winning engineer Leslie Ann Jones. She has worked primarily within the male-driven hard rock genre, including recordings by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, System Of A Down, and Tool.
"The lead singer of Tool [Maynard James Keenan] is frightening on stage but he's actually a stand-up comedian — we would talk about our cats in the studio," says Massy, who has also worked with producer Rick Rubin on several best-selling recordings, including Johnny Cash's GRAMMY-winning Unchained. "I get the feeling that a lot of men are less intimidated by a woman in the control room."
While gender parity in the studio is an ongoing issue, similar to their male counterparts, women with established music production careers are becoming more concerned about there being an industry for them to be part of.
"The key will be diversification," says Piva regarding the challenge of obtaining work as record labels continue to cut recording budgets. "Not doing just records, but looking into music for movies and multimedia production for the Internet. We all have to flow with the times now."
(Dan Daley is a freelance journalist covering the entertainment business industry. He lives in New York and Nashville.)